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Jan 23, 2008

Why Movies Made Prior to 1963 Don't Ring My Bell

A short while ago, I wrote a post about the 11 worst films on the IMDb Top 250. In it, I admitted to having seen a scant 45% of the movies that made up the list at the time. Part of the reason that percentage was so low, I explained, was that "I'm an ageist when it comes to film. For a number of reasons that don't need to be re-hashed right now, I'm not all that interested in seeing films made prior to 1963 or so."

Little did I know, a firestorm was about to ignite. Shortly after the publication of the post, it was picked up by my guardian angel at the Internet Movie Database, and the post was the launchpad for a daily poll of theirs. As such, those few, mostly innocuous words became incendiary, earning me the ire of every "classic" movie lover from Anchorage to Annapolis, or at least it seemed that way. The comments I received on that particular opinion ranged from "You're truly objectionable" to "You're a complete idiot," though there were the few people who understood or agreed with the sentiment.

Though the time for my rebuttal has long since passed, I did promise to make one, complete with the poor title you see above. Before I get started, a disclaimer: The year 1963 is by no means an absolute, nor was it derived particularly scientifically. It's a somewhat pinpointed time based on what I've seen. Think of it the same way that some sports refer to certain time frames as their "modern eras." With that said, here are some reasons why movies made prior to...you get the picture.

I'm Stupid
Now, I don't mean that literally (though many might argue to the contrary) - what I truly mean is that ignorance, above all and of a great many things, is the chief thing that prevents me from enjoying older films. For example, Citizen Kane is heralded as one of, if not the most innovative film of all time, and was voted (at one time) as the greatest film ever by AFI. (There's a laundry list of innovations at Kane's Wiki page). Similarly, I know that Hitchcock is credited with having pioneered a slew of film techniques as well. Both of these are good things; unfortunately, if one wasn't there to experience these innovations firsthand, they tend to lose their meaning. What good is an innovation to someone that doesn't know it's one? A more modern example of this is The Matrix - for the contemporary film lover, the film's celebrated use of "bullet time" was an awe-inducing event. But what about today's children who were born after 1999, and by the time they have seen the film will have seen such a technique (or, more likely, one that surpasses it) done a hundred times? The Matrix might not seem like such a groundbreaking film to them.

Now, there is a solution to this, but it's not a very realistic or pragmatic one: I need to watch every film (or at least, most of them) from the beginning of time, thereby granting myself the opportunity to watch the innovations chronologically, and to be able to grant the deserved respect to those warranted. This seems unlikely. As it stands, I can go back and watch Kane or Vertigo or Rear Window (all of which I have) and be underwhelmed, left thinking that I've seen all this before. It's not fair to the filmmakers, but it's a fact nonetheless.

Ignorance also rears its ugly head when it comes to "current events," for lack of a better term. Suppose, for example, that a modern satire included digs at such people as Condoleezza Rice, Britney Spears or even Michael Jackson. These are all household names to you and I, but will they be to the 31 year olds of 2066? Now, I realize that there probably aren't many films from the past that would have this specific phenomenon occurring, but it's not limited to people - the "lost reference" could be a person, place or cultural happening (say, texting or iPhones). Put enough of these things together and you have a viewer that's missing out on a lot.

Bill Shatner looks subtle by comparison
An easier and more recognizable element that I take issue with is the writing/acting styles of yesteryear - Gloria Swanson may be lauded for giving one of the best performances of all time as Norma Desmond, but it's hard to watch that performance and not see and egregious amount of overacting. Another Sunset Boulevard example (fresh in my mind as I just watched it a few days ago) comes when Joe Gillis is revealing the truth about his situation to Betty Schaefer. After hearing the details of his deceit, Betty breathlessly says "Joe, I can't look at you any more." At this point, she not only turns her body away from Joe, but raises her forearm to her eyes to physically shield them from gazing upon him. It's truly a painfully awkward scene.

I realize these two examples from one film are limited; that said, I defy anyone to tell me that the acting styles of the 50s resemble those of today in any shape or form. Early cinema was quite blunt and theatrical, and (shocker) I'm not much a fan of plays, either.

Been There, Done That
It's a well known "fact" that there are no original stories to tell in Hollywood anymore - all that's left are sequels, remakes and rehashes of the same old thing. While this may or may not be true (I'll say it isn't, but it's not far from being true), the fact remains that if you've watched a large number of films of the past 20-30 years, there's a pretty good chanced that you've seen movies that ripped off their predecessors (a recent revelation like this for me was when I finally saw Annie Hall for the first time and realized just how much When Harry Met Sally... "borrowed" from it). Should I (or anyone else) punish the classics because someone liberally stole their ideas (or techniques)? Absolutely not - but once you've seen a story told to you (most likely with better equipment, more money and better effects, if applicable), it's difficult to then go back and watch an "inferior" product and think it better, regardless of the fact that it came first. This premise does not attribute a greater quality in the general public to newer movies, and certainly does not assume that newer must equal better (see: The Manchurian Candidate), but would you rather have a flat screen LCD or the big box you grew up with that had no remote?


As with any argument like this, I'm sure many out there could cite examples of movies that don't fall into any of these traps; if that's the case - great. Please let me know what they are. I try to enter into any movie going experience with an open mind, and attempt to give even more of a benefit of the doubt to classic films, given the respect they're granted by so many. It's just that I often walk away disappointed. In the end, I feel better avoiding them altogether; my image of them can't be tainted, and I don't have to debate the merits (or lack thereof) of something I haven't seen. What can I say? I'm "truly objectionable."


22 people have chosen wisely: on "Why Movies Made Prior to 1963 Don't Ring My Bell"

Jess said...

Fletch, that was the first post of yours I read, and I admit I was appalled that you'd only seen 45%. So I counted for myself and I'm only a little above at 51%, but I've seen many of the older films. I miss most of the 1970s in what i haven't seen. And my first recommendation of an original (even in today's terms) movie from 1940 is "The Philadelphia Story". The acting is phenomenal, and even you can pick up on the fact that women were not viewed in the same way in 1940 as they are today. That's the only "current event" you'd need to understand to watch the movie. Enjoy.

Marilyn said...

Fletch - I think what makes someone take to older films is 1) a childhood filled with them and 2) an interest in history. I have both.

I'm a big silent-film fan probably because I used to watch a program on public television when I was a child that showed silent films. As a kid, I didn't have to worry about understanding words I didn't know, and many of those films have understandable plots and comedy. Now that I'm older, I have found a whole, new world of sophisticated silents that interest my adult tastes. I also like the look into the past at how people lived in the early part of the 20th century.

Two, my mother, born in 1926, watched many older films on TV. In fact, that's all you could see. I have a book called TV Movies that lists films TCM doesn't even show. When you see the star quality of someone like James Cagney or Lana Turner, it makes you curious to see them in more things.

Focusing on technical progress is the least of my concerns. I know that films from the early 30s have sound problems. I try not to let it get in the way, but sometimes I have to laugh. Looking at the light swords in Star Wars now (and I thought they were so cool when I saw them during the film's first run) make me laugh, but I have to admire filmmakers for trying to make progress and doing the most cutting-edge things they can.

As to no new stories, well, that's an age-old problem. Hollywood plays it safe and likes to try to repeat its success rather than risking a money-losing venture. But there are many stories in our multicultural world (or in the U.S. for that matter) that haven't been told. That's why I like seeing independent and foreign films. They take me where I haven't been before.

So do movies before 1963.

Nayana Anthony said...

Wow. I'm humbled. I considered myself a real movie buff, and I've only seen 34%.

Fletch, I totally get your arguments. I haven't really had the same trouble appreciating the "oldies", but I don't think you are "objectionable" for your (well thought-out) point of view.

Marilyn said...

I've seen 75.6%, but I'm not sure what that means. Some of them, like Forrest Gump, I wish I hadn't. Others, I'm very glad I didn't.

NFL Adam said...

Of all the remakes and rehashing, the only remake that beats the original is Ocean's 11. But then, the sheer star-power of the original Ocean's 11 makes it a classic lark.

Still, I can't argue with the premise you are advocating. They made crappy movies and bombs in the 1950s, too. The point is that you should just enjoy the film makers of this generation that use all of the technology of this era to make films better.

Foy said...

"there's a pretty good chanced that you've seen movies that ripped off their predecessors"

A great example of this would be the relationship between Star Wars and Eragon, which, if you have not read the book with it's complete plotline, is basically the Star Wars plot with Lord of the Rings type creatures.

I am a film student, and my mission in life is to create films that are original, but that have great scope. I hate the fact that it seems as though almost every movie that is "original" is, well, boring. The exception being the Matrix

Nick said...

foy: You should check out my explanation of the 'Monomyth' in the comments of Fletch's Eragon review way back. Eragon didn't rip off Star Wars and LOTRs, it just took from the same exact pool.

Adam said...

A good read, and I agree with you... except for anything involving Eragon. That piece of crap was written by a 15-year-old so don't tell me he was pulling from anything other than the influence of star wars and LOTR.

WampaOne said...

Fletch, great argument. I never thought about it, but the fact I haven´t watched many old movies might be because of what you are describing. Of course, no one has enough time to watch everything that is interesting out there, current and past.

One thing I plan to do (I plan to do a lot of geek things), is to listen to all the music I own from older to newest, so to appreciate everything in a new light. I have something like 5000 titles, and songs are mostly 4 minutes in average, so that´s doable. Watching all the movies I like is doable too. I don´t like that many and the ones I like I enjoy seeing time and time again. But someone sitting and planning to watch everything so he can find out by himself what the innovations are, what changed through time, I don´t think its possible for a reagular dude/dudette. Maybe we have to stick with critics/historians/whatever/common sense say and whatch what is conventionally outstanding from past times.

I see a time when someone would get permission from Luca$ to come up with a new version of Star Wars, without ewoks, Jar Jar Binks and other stuff...MTFBWY

* (asterisk) said...

I haven't counted up how many I've seen, but I did the AFI list a few months ago; it was around 60%, but I felt aggrieved that that list was so US-biased (as you'd expect). I think with a truly global list (IMDb's?) I'd do better.

I watch quite a lot of old movies, and only recently saw Sunset Blvd for the first time. I thought it was great. You mentioned at my review that you hadn't seen it then. I guess you went and rented it then!

Citizen Kane is one of my favourite films, but not because of its innovation. Regardless of whether it was the first or last to innovate, it is filled with simply beautiful shots, and the story itself is wonderful. Not to mention how insanely good Welles is as Kane. So it's not all about whether something's been done (before or since); it's about whether a film still has that special something. Some old films do; some new films do.

Open your eyes to the past, my friend. You'll find some hidden gems if you allow yourself.

Fletch said...

Good - much to comment back to:

@ Jess - I'm not terribly concerned about my %age viewed of the top 250, but I thought it was worth disclosing, and I find stats interesting. Even if the oldies don't ring my bell, I do plan to see more and get that number up. I will add The Philly Story to my list of ones to watch in time.

@ Marilyn - I do have an interest in the history of it, it's just a matter (as Wampa stated as well) of time and priority. There are a number of films I'd like to see, but my heart is with modern ones first.

And your point about what you grew up with is true as well. My parents were born around 1940, so they don't/didn't watch all that many early (30s/40s) movies, either - at least, not when I came around (though they do encourage me to watch the classics, of course).

@ a few of you - I'm not sure how good of an example Eragon is of this trend, because I can't see any young person thinking it superior to anything. But I get the point. Star Wars probably doesn't do nearly as much for the kids of today as it did for those around my generation.

* - Don't get me wrong, I didn't think Citizen Kane was bad - I just thought it was "pretty good," when I knew it meant so much more to so many others. Having the ending built up over the years didn't help, either - it was pretty anti-climactic for me. And yes, your review helped. There was a lot I enjoyed about Sunset - but there was a lot I didn't as well.

---

By no means have I given up on watching the classics. There are many on my to-do list...

Marilyn said...

You know what? I like Citizen Kane, but it's not one of my favorites. (And I'll never forgive it for what it did to the great Marion Davies' reputation!) In fact, Welles' movies (except The Magnificent Ambersons) leave me a bit cold.

I like I prefer modern, non-Hollywood films, too, because they don't have all the stereotyping, racism, and Production Code nonsense a lot of the early films do.

edog said...

Good post, Fletch. I'm not a fan of the oldies at all, and you articulated thoughts that I might have had brewing in my head, but would be unable to organize with that level of coherence.

Daniel G. said...

Great post. Regarding the IMDB list, first of all - you had to have given up on that at least 8-10 years ago, somewhere around the time American Beauty momentarily cracked the top 10. The genre lists are a bit better, but the whole thing has still been hijacked by fanboys.

Anyway, as to the reasons. I think "I'm Stupid" is where it starts and ends for me. Everything is relative to its time - take a look at animated movies, from Cinderella to Toy Story to Beowulf 3D. You're absolutely right that future generations will look back in bewilderment at the movies we celebrate, just as we do now.

DCMovieGirl said...

I appreciate what you've written here, but I just have to disagree with your satisfaction with accepting the generalizations of something you haven't seen much of.

It's like what I said to a friend who dissed and generalized anime because of the few wide-eyed, big-boobed, ones he's seen.

I can't really explain or convince him to see The Grave of the Fireflies or Princess Mononoke because he's happy in ignorance and that's okay.

In the realm of entertainment it's not something that can be judged as a bad thing. However, in my experience at least, I do think people who tend to judge one thing they know little about, also tend to translate that to other aspects of their lives.

Sadly, the self-righteous snob in me usually thinks lesser of folks who judge things negatively, when they've experienced little of it.

And usually, I'm right.

As for my recommendations:

Metropolis is a must for any sci-fi head.

Captains' Courageous was my second big tear-jerker (ET was my first).

I don't know if you're into musicals but Cabin in the Sky was a classic in my household and a good example of another merit of old movies; the triple threat element that most actors had back then, but not so much now.

These people could dance, sing, and do amazing physical comedy too, themselves, with no stand-ins.

Compare what the Nicholas Brothers do here to the Matrix. Very few actors these days, (Jackie Chan and Mandy Patinkin come to mind) can do or are given the opportunity to really showcase this as they were in older films.

Fletch said...

@ edog - gracias!

@ DC Girl - you act as though a) I'm basing these opinions off of second-hand knowledge and b) that I'm closed-minded, both of which aren't true. I'm sharing my experience from things that I have seen to date and I've stated, on multiple occasions, that I actively desire to experience more. I'd love to prove myself wrong. Please spare me the read-between-the-lines judging that you're doing to me as well. It's safe to assume that you're judging me based off one thing that you know very little about as well.

Yes, Metropolis is one that should be on my list to see. And no, I'm no fan of musicals, past or present.

* (asterisk) said...

Fletch: Yeah, knowing what Rosebud is doesn't help, sure, but for me a good film still works on other levels than just knowing the ending. Why else do we rewatch our favorites. Some peeps like stuff; others don't. C'est la vie.

Thing is, sure proximity is important. But the ratio of bad movies to good ones is shifting heavily towards more bad movies (by which I mean dumbed-down stories and gorwing reliance of SFX/CGI). Film-makers are catering to the stupid people with a two-second attention span. Sad but true.

To DCMovieGirl: What a fantastic link. Insane shit, man!

David said...

The part about watching a new movie now that is a remake of an older movie rings very true for me. It seems like most of the time when I see a remake I like it better because the actors or special effects are better. I think a good example is Vanilla Sky. I watched it first knowing that it was a remake, but when I rented the original Open Your Eyes I was comparing it to Vanilla Sky rather than the other way around. I found that I like the newer flashier version better even if the original was well... more original. Great post man!

Pat said...

I'm late to the party, but let me just tell you I really enjoyed this post. (I went to check the list, and I think it's a pretty screwy lineup. I've seen 55% of those movies, but I'm not sure that means anything.)

I think you make some valid points. Many movies are very much "of their time," and don't necessarily translate well to younger audiences. And, as Marilyn noted, sometimes a love of old movies comes from a childhood spent watching them. I watched a lot of old movies with my dad when I was growing up, so I have a sentimental/emotional attachment to them.

".. if one wasn't there to experience these innovations firsthand, they tend to lose their meaning." How true! I tried watching Ingmar Bergman's "Persona" for the first time recently and couldn't take it seriously; I'd seen it parodied or referenced so many times already, that it seemed more like a joke to me.

Fletch said...

@ Dave - thanks! The same thing could be said re: books and their film adaptations. I'd be hard-pressed to think of a scenario where the one I experienced first wasn't my favorite of the two.

@ Pat - I haven't seen "Persona," but I'm guessing what you're referring to could also be said for 2001. I think it's a great, great movie, but by the time I had seen it, the opening music had been parodied so many times, it was hard to take seriously...

DCMovieGirl said...

"It's safe to assume that you're judging me based off one thing that you know very little about as well."


It is difficult to read tone online. If, I thought you were closeminded, I would have stated as much.

It was more a confession of my own shortcomings on that front, than yours. I thought I was clear, but apparently not.


"In the realm of entertainment it's not something that can be judged as a bad thing. However, in my experience at least, I do think people who tend to judge one thing they know little about, also tend to translate that to other aspects of their lives."

Fletch said...

Thanks for clearing that up. Yes, tone is a toughie on the internets.