I have a date with Alexander Nevsky this coming week–if all goes well, with both the film and a symphonic performance of Prokfiev’s score. This has gotten the wheels in my head spinning about two of my favorite subjects: my inexplicable fascination with Soviet-era art (which I will spare you any further discussion of in this post), and the overwhelming number of amazing films produced in the 1930s. Almost any movie you decide to download from the second half of that decade will not disappoint. Here is the list of Best Picture nominees from the 1940 Oscars, honoring films released in 1939:
Winner: Gone With the Wind
Goodbye, Mr. Chips
Mr. Smith Goes to Washington
Of Mice and Men
The Wizard of Oz
That was all just in one year. They followed on the heels of earlier ‘30s films like Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs, A Star Is Born, and Mutiny on the Bounty. If you don’t mind extending the Golden Age into the early 1940s, you can throw in Citizen Kane, The Philadelphia Story, The Maltese Falcon, and many more. No other era of cinema comes close to producing the same number of classics per films released–but why? What made these films so great, and how did Hollywood manage to make so many of them at the same time?
We here at Dappled Things take the business of culture-building seriously, but thus far, the only model I have seen proposed for the modern development of Catholic art and literature to follow is the mid-twentieth century flourishing of writers like Flannery O’Connor, Walker Percy, et. al. A good place to start, certainly, but it need not be an end. The Golden Age of Hollywood inundated the collective American consciousness with stories–works of art–that continue to shape our national imagination three-quarters of a century after they were made. Isn’t that what our current renaissance seeks to do? The fact that these films did not usually feature religious elements is no reason we cannot learn from them.
There are plenty of differences between literature and film, but at their core, they are both ways of telling stories, and stories shape our culture in ways that are deeper and more profound than today’s “cultural arena” of politics. Did the financial crises of the ‘30s, the government’s many social programs, the battle over the Supreme Court, leave a lasting impact on American society? Absolutely. But let me ask: which of these iconic lines from the ‘30s is indelibly embedded in your mind?
Let’s Get Another Deck
There’s no place like home
So, to return to the question at hand: how did Hollywood create its Golden Age, and what can we learn from it? Here are some of the answers:
1. They did not try to reinvent the wheel.
Notice how many of those amazing movies are literary adaptations. The silent film era had already begun adapting classic novels and plays, but the advent of sound allowed the words of the originals to take on new life. Because sound film was a new medium, the entire canon of world literature was its oyster. To see Wuthering Heights on a screen was to experience the story in a whole new way. Filmmakers also incorporated existing traditions from theater, music, dance, and visual arts. To this day, the most widely-credited film score composer in the world is Richard Wagner, who died before the invention of the motion picture camera. Filmmakers understood that the elements of good storytelling never change, and they could cast a wider net if they stood on the shoulders of giants.
2. They helped people escape from reality.
No one wanted to spend his paltry paycheck from his WPA job to go see a film about miserable people standing in bread lines. Escape is a word that has been much maligned among “serious” artists, who often eschew it as the stuff of mere entertainment. But people crave it–so why not put it to good use? The actors were beautiful and romance abounded. And then, once the audience had left the gray Depression to arrive on the deck of a pirate ship or in the office of some gumshoe private-eye…
3. They tugged the audience’s heartstrings.
Mr. Smith Goes to Washington allowed every “little guy” in America to go take a swing at Washington fat cats. Dark Victory and Love Affair both involve couples rent apart by illness or injury. Golden Age movies gave us genuinely sympathetic characters, and also celebrated the fact that those characters were flawed humans. Scarlett O’Hara and Rhett Butler are very far from being saints, but no one can help rooting for their sheer determination.
4. Innovation was the norm.
Coupled with an adherence to the time-honored rules of storytelling came an anything-goes race to experiment. What happens when you add singing to the plot of a novel? Can I make a fairy tale into a cartoon and then let the heroine sing English words over a Tchaikovsky ballet? Without computers to make the special effects, the art of filmmaking itself required constant creativity. How do you put a tornado on screen? Or film a burning plantation? At the same time that filmmakers remained true to many artistic traditions, they were also fearless in their desire to surprise because…
5. They wanted everyone to buy a ticket.
The wonderful thing about the film market of the 1930s was that it was not fractured into the thousands of sub-markets we are accustomed to thinking about in 2015. Theaters typically only had one screen, and many towns only had one theater. If you wanted a return on your investment, you’d better make your film appeal to people in many different walks of life, often including children. Did this marginalize the stories of minority members of the population? Absolutely. That was the down side. The up side was that the stories had to appeal to what is most basically human in all of us, or else be financial failures. Our modern marketing “wisdom” likes to target every imaginable niche, selling us ways to further divide ourselves from the rest of humanity, but the fact is that the stories we cherish as a culture are the ones that speak to the greatest possible number people. No story will speak to everyone, but it is never wrong to try.
It is important to note that later Hollywood classics deviated widely from this this Golden Age formula. The Godfather has no sympathetic characters; the battle scenes in Braveheart are anything but an escape; The English Patient certainly did not have universal appeal–I could go on ad nauseam. It is impossible to peg down criteria that apply to all classics, especially since few people agree about which movies (books, plays, etc.) qualify for the title. My goal is not to define what makes a classic, nor to limit the scope of what ought to be included in our present cultural revival. Rather, I hope that by discussing the trends that made the movies of the Golden Age golden, the Catholic literary world can find a way to emulate its success. We might tell ourselves that the culture and the market have changed since the 1930s, but a 2014 nationwide poll still named Gone With the Wind as the most popular movie in America seventy-five years after its release. And in second place… Star Wars, which fits all of the above criteria for a Golden Age movie, even if it was not made during the Golden Age.