It goes without saying that people watch pictures from the Classic Hollywood era for sheer enjoyment. l have discussed at length in posts the nostalgia factor and will continue to do so as l am a romantic at heart.
I have been fortunate to attend the 2011 TCM CLASSIC FILM FESTIVAL, and while waiting for a screening to begin, an interesting event took place. We were in the theatre when a young university age fellow approached a group of people in front on us. He announced to them that he was going to film school to as a director. He was then asked who “his” directors were, to which he listed off Mike Curtiz, William Wellman, Billy Wilder, and David Lean. He then proceeded to list films and actors that he knew, and even moments in some films of the aforementioned directors. This little moment of eavesdropping got me thinking regarding the role of classic Hollywood in shaping future filmmakers.
First is the creation of the story. Film is telling a story with pictures – from title cards and live sound in the silent cinema to full dialogue. Dialogue structure can be learned from the films of Ben Hecht, who gave us THE FRONT PAGE (1932) or the Epstein Brothers’ cobbled together screenplay for CASABLANCA (1942)
Stories in the golden days of Hollywood often came from the theatre or the best seller list. Sometimes not even the bestsellers, but the popular novel as with GONE WITH THE WIND (1939), which was purchased before it was released.The legitimate stage of Broadway was the prime source for musicals, dramas and actors. Many writers were brought out to hone their craft. One was William Saroyan who gave us the slightly off beat Mickey Rooney war movie THE HUMAN COMEDY (1943). Some were successful –some, like F. Scott Fitzgerald were not, and went back to novels or the bottle. Who could not learn about story from John Huston’s THE ASPHALT JUNGLE (1950)?
Women played a strong role as you had brilliant writers like Frances Marion, June Mathies and Anna Loos. The classic cinema is a veritable writer’s class of ways and ideas. Ideas taken from magazine articles, and current headlines all made for immediacy for the film industry then. Film story telling has not changed in its basic vocabulary since these days. The key to it was the delivery system: what has been called the double edged sword of the studio system which brings us to the director.
Shot composition and pacings can be gleaned from the likes of Michael Curtiz, William Wellman, W.S. Van Dyke, Ernst Lubisch, and Victor Fleming. Even second unit directors like Lloyd Bacon and serial king Forde Beebe. Frank Capra, John Huston, and John Ford were standouts as they often had complete control of scripts or were heavily involved in the writing process, particularly Capra and Huston. Looking at screenplays versus film scripts plus the finished film print can lead to facinating learning.
The studio system style of production was arguably an assembly line. Brilliant male and female editors created house style that does not exist today. Set decorators such as Cedric Gibbons and sound person Douglas Shearer who did the sound and sets for all MGM films.
Second unit directors, writers, technicians, composers, and actors learned their craft in less prestigious films. No studio could afford this system today.
Classic Hollywood – no matter what genre, time period, or technical skill – is a treasure trove of knowledge for today’s film maker or someone interested in seeing how it was done and why. I have spoken with film people and non-film people who wonder why someone would want to see a film in black and white, or a silent film with dead people.
You can learn from them each time you watch. You don’t have to study every shot.
This is by no means a total list of all the opportunities to learn from this style of picture. It is an often neglected area in film appreciation. To put it quite simply, the films from this time period are wonderfully done.
I am very happy to say that I have been lucky to be granted Media Credentials for the 2014 TCM CLASSIC FILM FESTIVAL in April so our next posts will be coming from that. It promises to be a very interesting time. I learned that this dream is possible.