May 18, 2009

How to Watch Old Movies, Part 1

First, you shouldn't expect too much. It's the fundamental problem of recommendation: Expectations. Read this book; watch this film; listen to this song. The instant someone recommends something to you is the instant you start raising your expectations too high. Hey, it happens to me too. So the first rule of watching old movies is: Don't expect too much.

"Then why bother?" you ask. "If I'm not supposed to expect too much, why should I even care, why should I even try if it's probably not going to be all that great?" Valid. But stupid. Any idiot knows that the unexpected gem is the rarest of them all. Confucius say.

In other words, old movies are worth watching precisely because they're nothing special. They're as ordinary as your grandmother. They're as unremarkable as a pleasant day in May. Too many movies today are the big thrill, the shock and awe of cgi and spectacle. I like spectacle, but today's brand is so big and loud and flashy, that it's nice to just relax on the couch with a quiet vision, a simple black and white world. So when you sit down to watch some B-movie from 1945 or a strange, crackling talky from the early 30s, don't think you're sitting down to One of the Greatest Movies Ever Made. It may, in fact, turn out to be the greatest thing you've ever seen, but don't force it, don't expect it. Don't expect anything. Just let the silvery alchemy of an old movie work its own magic; watch it like you would any other television distraction. If you sit down to see a magic show, chances are you'll be looking too hard and see the strings attached. Watch with a distracted eye, and if the magic really is there, you'll fall under its spell, no fear.

But when a movie's backed up by the voices and the years of Importance attached to the thing from everyone you've ever listened to talk about old movies (myself included, 'natch), there's the natural tendency to look askance at the thing once you've finally seen it and sneer, "What's the big deal?" Fight that look. Wrestle that attitude to the ground. Don't be a contrarian (the natural attitude of the 21st century) just to prove that you're an "independent" mind (Contrarian Says: "I don't need those fuddy-duddy old movie types telling me that black and white is where it's at! I don't need to bore myself stiff with some corny 'classic'! Those old movies ain't so hot! In fact, they're crap and I'm so independent and awesome for thinking this that now I will sit here smugly in my own self-importance and you all must bask in my glory" etc. and such).

But, on the other hand, don't get your doe-eyed hopes too high that your life is about to change the second you watch "Citizen Kane." Or: Don't make old movies into medicine, but at the same time, don't expect a grand banquet either. Just let the film strip unspool and take it for what it is: a piece of candy on a Saturday afternoon.

In fact, it's probably best to watch an unsung, unheard of gem the first time out. I mean, if you stumble onto "Casablanca" then YES WATCH IT. But if you happen on Random Movie A from 1937, watch it too. Don't change the channel just 'cause "Gold Diggers of 1937" sounds like the loopiest thing you can imagine.

[A personal story: One of my earliest old movie love affairs was "Rebecca." Did not know it was Hitchcock. Had never heard of it before. Fell under its spell immediately. Saw it on a Saturday afternoon. Was probably 14 or 15. Now, of course, as an adult, I know that "Rebecca" is a bona fide 1940s Hollywood classic, Hitchcock's first American film, Academy Awards, Laurence Olivier, blah de blah blah. After years of cinema study and obsession I've come to learn the importance, the highly regarded reputation of "Rebecca." But at the time? Nope. Nada. Had no idea what it was or where it came from or what it meant to film and cinema history. And thank God for it. I was able to fall mystically in love; in love with Joan Fontaine, in love with Larry, in love with the moors and the mist, in love with Mrs. Danvers in all her deliciously deranged evil glory....
In other words, the moral of the story is this: Maybe it's best to wait for an old movie -- any old movie -- to find you first, to sneak up on you one night or one lazy afternoon and put the hoodoo on you, instead of deliberately going out and seeking some "classic" at random like a homework assignment or something.]

Rule number two: Get used to movie stars. Today, we're attached to the property (Batman, Harry Potter, Terminator) or if we're geeks, we're attached to some fanboy-beloved director (Tarantino, the Coens, Peter Jackson). For comedy, there's a cadre of stars and directors (Will Ferrell and the Judd Apatow family, basically) that we'll go for, but that's about it in the way of star power in the movies today. Yes, there are still movie stars, and yes, they can still "open" a movie based on their star power. But they don't rule the day anymore. Now they're just one part of the whole marketing package and if you're a movie star other than Will Smith, you'd better hope your movie is also a high concept comic book adaptation directed by Michael Bay or else you're sunk.

Old movies? Stars. Are. Everything. Occasionally you'll catch a good noir with a bunch of b-movie nobodies (who, if the world were fairer, would've been somebodies with long, illustrious careers and mantles full of Oscars); but for the most part, it's movie stars or bust. Of course, in those old days, there were simply more movie stars than there are today. The reasons for this are many and maybe some day I'll get into the whys and hows, but for this introductory lesson today, let's just make the statement and move on: In order to watch old movies, you've got to get familiar with the stars. Old time movie stars are the gateway drug into the whole shebang we call Old Movies.

Think you know those old time stars? Don't get cocky, kids, I ain't talking about Humphrey Bogart and Bette Davis. Yes, they count (boy do they count!), but they're just the tip of the proverbial iceberg. In order to watch old movies, I mean, to really watch them, you've got to get ready for names like Priscilla Lane and Joel McCrea and Jack Carson and Claude Rains and Eve Arden. It's funny for me to even type these names like they're some obscure randoms, because they (and dozens more like them) are as much movie stars for me as Katherine Hepburn and Cary Grant are. Obviously they're not the top-tier immortal movie stars that kids today know even if they don't know how they know; but they were stars back in their own day, and you simply can't watch old movies with any sense of satisfaction until you start recognizing their names and faces.

It's like being a coin collector or something, watching an old movie and soaking up the performances of those long ago stars. Just watched "Arsenic and Old Lace"? Add another Priscilla Lane notch to your belt! Caught "The Hard Way" late last night? That'll get you another Ida Lupino, Jack Carson, Dennis Morgan, and Joan Leslie mark. That's what's so great about the myriad stars populating the old movie universe: There are so many to choose from, it's probable that you won't have the exact same tastes as anyone else you know. Think about that. You've got your pick of dozens upon dozens of movie stars to fall in love with, to idolize, to make you happy and help chase the blues away (or bring the blues on and make everything hurt so good -- your choice). I can love Ann Miller; you can love Burgess Meredith. I can side with Bob Hope; you can stand by Jack Benny. I can go for Judy Garland; you can go for Deanna Durbin.

Unlike today's Hollywood, where the people with any sort of taste at all end up liking the same five or six stars (in no particular order: Christian Bale, Russell Crowe, Kate Winslet, Robert Downey Jr, Angelina Jolie, Will Smith). That's it, the end of the line. Not so for the old movies. In old movies, there are almost too many to choose from. And it can be daunting. I get that. So many stars to familiarize yourself with, so little time. But it's the only way you're going to be able to watch old movies: find the stars who stir you and follow them like an eight-year-old follows his favorite ball players. The sooner you fall in love with the old movie stars, the sooner you fall in love with old movies.

I will write more on this movie star thing, since it's so utterly important to this whole operation called Old Movies, but for now, let these first couple of introductory rules simmer and boil in your brain pan while you wait for an unsung classic to pass by your tv-gazing vision. Let me know if any work their hoodoo on you...


  1. I forgot to comment on this before, but I just wanted to say that this was a really interesting post. You know I'm not a big old movie watcher, but I do feel like, if I were to approach old movies in the way you say I should, I might be able to enjoy them more. Really good points!

  2. Hmm, well, I'll be writing more entries on "How to watch old movies" in the near future, so stay tuned, I guess.

    Also, I think the movie star thing is huge. To really come to love old movies, you've got to fall in love with some old movie stars. I mean, think about your love for someone like Heath Ledger: you'll watch a movie just because he's in it. It's the same for old movie stars too. I've watched many a mediocre movie because Bette Davis was in it. But it's Bette who keeps me coming back.

    Luckily, there are a billion old movie stars to choose from, so I think there's the possibility that anyone can find someone to love. Unfortunately, the ones I like might not be the ones you'll like, so when I offer a film recommendation to you it might not work because you're not really digging the star who is in it.