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Why Classic Cinema Still Matters

Even after nearly one hundred years, the Golden Age of Hollywood and the classic cinema it produced remain relevant today. William Powell as Nick Charles, Skippy as Asta, and Myrna Loy as Nora Charles in “The Thin Man” (1934).

The Times May Have Changed, But Humanity Has Not

The art of cinema has existed for over 100 years, bringing all manner of stories and experiences to the silver screen. Early viewers marveled at the magic of moving pictures, paying to see simple films of people kissing or a train pulling into the station. The addition of sound introduced new techniques and a new wave of actors. Through all of the technological progress the industry has seen, one principle has remained constant — movie-making is all about storytelling. No matter how fantastical the setting or outrageous the concept, each film has some grounding in its historical context, making even early cinema interesting and relevant to this day. Many of the themes of classic movies are issues society still grapples with today, and some of the humor manages to cross temporal boundaries and still make audiences laugh decades later.

Classic Genres and History

During the “Golden Age” of film, from about the 1930s to the 1960s, films were generally categorized into clearly defined genres. Films like screwball comedies dominated the screens in the 30s and early 40s, allowing audiences a brief escape from the stressors of the Great Depression. Known best for its snappy dialogue, constant quips, and outrageous storylines, screwball comedy is one of the few genres that often put men and women on equal playing fields. Most of the films within the genre featured a romantic element in the plot; dynamics between the genders allowed for strong, intelligent, and funny female characters to match wits with equally charismatic male characters. Witty repartee and happy endings keep the movies light and fast-paced. Ridiculous chaos and implausible antics may stretch the imagination, but it’s excusable for how enjoyable it is to watch a screwball comedy. Because of their typical focus on romantic endeavors, a lot can be learned from their representation of gender and their conversation about marriage. The remarriage plot, a common romance trope, sees a couple split apart and learn more about themselves before they return to the relationship older and wiser. Romantic philosophies like those let today’s viewers glimpse at ideals of the past. Recommendations: The Thin Man (1934), It Happened One Night (1934), and The Philadelphia Story (1940).

After World War II and the subsequent gender anxiety around men returning from war and women being pushed back into the household, the prominent film genres became darker and grimmer. Film noir, particularly popular from the late 1930s until about the mid-1950s, exposed the dark underbelly of the American Dream as people realized how impossible it was to obtain. Men became hypermasculinized, emphasizing strength, physicality, toughness, and stoicism. Pushing back against the “feminization” of men due to the emphasis on business and desk jobs over hard labor jobs, the growth of suburban living and men being confined to the domestic “female” sphere, and the constant struggle of being the primary breadwinner of the family. Feeling like their place in society was slipping away, men compensated by validating past views of ideal masculinity, which is echoed in the hardboiled detective and the themes of film noir. Women were reduced to either demure domestics or heightened into a fatal threat, the latter of which was typically wiped out by the end of the film. Such films are an interesting depiction of gender ideals and family expectations. Crime, drama, and even hints of romance make the films a tense and exciting viewing experience. Recommendations: Laura (1944), The Hitch-Hiker (1953), and Crime of Passion (1957).

Social Problems As Seen Through Cinema

The social problem film hit its wave of popularity during World War II and continued into the 1960s. As the name might suggest, these films were focused on commenting specifically on the struggles faced during the time period. Directors like Ida Lupino (the only female director of the time) found avenues to discuss ordinarily taboo topics like rape, bigamy, race, debilitating illness, and poverty, among many others.

More than any other genre, these films typically hold the most resonance for modern audiences — many of the topics explored persist to this day. Examining how these films discuss such heavy topics can give today’s society a roadmap of where we’ve been and where we continue to struggle. By looking into the past, we may be able to improve our future. Recommendations: The Grapes of Wrath (1940), Outrage (1950), and Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner (1967). 

These three genres were some of the most popular of the Golden Age, though they are by no means an extensive list. Films can often be easily categorized, though it is important to remember that genre boundaries are a construct and are easily blurred. Social problem films tended to blend with the melodramatic, as did noir, and the Western and noir featured many of the same messages and character tropes. 

So Why Should We Care?

Films are always bound to the time period they are created. No matter what the themes or genre, every movie makes some sort of commentary or reference to its historical context, which in turn reflects on society. The values, ideals, and dreams of a society invariably leak into its media. Artists cannot help but draw on their own experiences to create. By looking at what movies discuss and how they portray certain dynamics, themes, and scenarios, a sense of what society valued at the time can be found.

The progression of cinema, for example, tracks the standard gender expectations as they shift due to social circumstances. The waves of feminism exposed new ways for women to live and explore their place in the world, allowing them more freedom. A film’s depiction of its female characters can easily betray the creators’ feelings on the subject – femmes fatales, French for “fatal women,” posed a threat to male characters, threatening their masculinity. Other female characters were treated as more nuanced, exploring the duality of societal expectations that women had to navigate. Women were no longer just the head of the household. They could vote, get jobs, and match wits with any man. She could decide to raise a family or not. The shifts in tone around female characters thus reflected the views of society and the views of the creators of the film itself, one of many examples of how film can be read to reveal ideas prominent in society.

Going Forward

By examining these older films and observing how they treated various subjects that society today still grapples with, audiences can find ways to improve our future. Viewers can see where society has been and can learn from its mistakes in handling sensitive issues. Rather than repeating history, we can learn from it. Films have the uncanny ability both to distance us from a topic and allow us to see it from an objective distance and foster a level of understanding and sympathy for characters who must endure these struggles. 

Aside from the educational aspect of analyzing film, exploring classic cinema can often yield fun surprises. Certain kinds of humor translate well even to the present. Screwball comedies and their witty dialogue and often slapstick-adjacent blocking are still funny (The Thin Man is the best example – Nick and Nora are a charming married couple that are genuinely in love and have fun teasing each other while also having each others’ backs). There is something to be said for the genius of classic scriptwriting, directing, and acting. Not every classic film is a masterpiece, but giving them a chance and keeping an open mind (“meeting the film where it’s at,” as a film professor often encourages her students) can lead to the discovery of a new favorite. So don’t be put off by the black-and-white aesthetic — try a classic movie and keep an open mind to what it may show you.  It may just surprise you.

The Thin Man (1934) Official Rotten Tomatoes Classic Trailer

Source: Dead Talk Live

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Cailen Fienemann is a current student at Le Moyne College pursuing her BA in English and Communications with a film studies minor and a creative writing concentration.  Though uncertain about her career end-goals, any job that allows her to write is a cherished one indeed.

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Elke Simmons' writing portfolio includes contributions to The Laredo Morning Times, Walt Disney World Eyes and Ears, Extinction Rebellion (XR) News/Blog, and Dead Talk News.