February 8, 2010
How to Watch Old Movies: The Opening Credits
Yeah, okay, so opening credits in old movies can be kinda boring, just a few title cards, a minute and a half of text and no cinema exactly, just flat, static cards with a bunch of names, like the movie equivalent of the theater playbill, accompanied by the bombastic orchestral score of the movie's theme. Not like today's movies that start right in with the action -- with the movie -- not even worrying about telling us who is in the thing, just get us right to the story, BAM!
Well, I get it. The way movies start nowadays, it's more cinematic. More organic. Not as stilted and artificial as the old title cards in the old movies.
But there's something oddly comforting about the way old movies do their opening credits. It's like the movie is inviting us in, welcoming us, easing us into the experience of the movie. Preparing our brains for the wonders to come, but only hinting at those wonders, only giving a few fleeting glimpses of what we can hope to expect.
This is the title sequence for ZIEGFELD FOLLIES (1945). In this credit sequence, the title cards are pages from a glossy coffee table-like scrap book. We watch as a hand turns each page.
Another fascinating element of old movie credit sequences? Fonts. Old movie credits sequences are a cornucopia of fonts. We don't tend to see a variety of fonts in our everyday life, with professional fonts being restricted to boring stuff like Times New Roman and Arial, so the old movie credit sequence is interesting because it's one of the few places a person gets to see a bunch of cool fonts. And the font chosen often serves a purpose. Big, square blocks for letters means the movie will probably be about tough guys or prison. A delicate, cursive font could mean the movie will be a melodrama or romance. There are playful fonts for comedies and sturdy, straight-forward fonts for serious dramas. The font chosen for the credit sequence often establishes the tone and sets the mood of a movie long before the actual "movie" gets started.
In a way, the opening credit sequence is like a mini movie before the movie; a short film of somewhat abstract qualities, including shapes, shadows, and sounds -- all of which work together to create a kind of "overture" for the film we are about to see. And there's a potential for real creativity in a good credit sequence. Some of the best credits are almost as memorable as the films. Off the top of my head, I love the credits in DOUBLE INDEMNITY and MY MAN GODFREY.
For the experienced old movie buff, the credit sequence also builds excitement for what's to come. Seeing the familiar names of your favorite movie stars, character actors, cinematographers, costume designers, composers, directors, etc. just makes you sit up a little in your seat in anticipation for what's to come. Basically, you know you've moved into Total Old Movie-Obsessed Freak territory when you see Nicholas Musuraca's or Thelma Ritter's name in the credits and you let out a little squee of excitement. It almost becomes a kind of game, where you see if you can spot all the recognizable names in the opening credits. And the more movies you watch, the better you can play the game. The opening credits -- by giving us the names of these artists -- helps us become more attached to the people who made the movies, so that upon seeing their familiar names in the titles we feel like we're seeing the names of old friends.
Even though most new movies have abandoned the opening credits sequence, there is one thing old movies share in common with the movies of today and that is the studio logo at the beginning of the film. But what sets old movies apart is that the studio logo actually means something.
MGM means high production values and lots of stars.
Paramount means sophistication and star power and often great directing (the studio of Wilder, Lubitsch, Sturges, and De Mille). Or it means Bob Hope and Bing Crosby.
Warners means gritty, New York-influenced, probably gangsters or tough cookies, Bogie or Errol Flynn.
RKO means quirky, off-beat, anything goes. Could be a Rogers and Astaire musical or GUNGA DIN. Could be BRINGING UP BABY or KING KONG.
Universal means horror or Deanna Durbin musicals or sorta old fashioned affairs with not too many stars.
Fox means homespun Americana, with the occasional important social drama or film noir. Fox also means Betty Grable, Tyrone Power, and Shirley Temple.
Columbia in the early days meant low budget B movies, that is until Frank Capra elevated the studio from poverty row to prestige.
The logos are also fascinating because they act as symbols for Hollywood's idea of itself. MGM with its roaring lion signifies that it is the "king" of the studios. The lion is a symbol of strength, majesty, power, exotic beauty -- the movies as king of the arts, the movies as the seat of royalty in a democratic America.
Paramount is a high mountain -- the highest peak -- the summit of great movie making, also a thing of great beauty and majesty, looming over the country like Mount Olympus, filled with gods and goddesses of the silver screen. The mountain is ringed by stars which recall not just the great stars under contract to the studio, but the very iconography of America herself, the stars of American greatness, American Exceptionalism.
Warner Brothers is a shield, symbol of violence as well as protection and valor. Is it any wonder that Warner Brothers is the studio of great actioners like Errol Flynn, or WWII heroes like Humphrey Bogart's Rick Blaine? Warner Brothers films created a world of harsh realities, violence, gangsters, tough city streets -- a world that needs a shield to help push back against the injustices of life.
RKO is the newcomer, the whiz kid with the flashy technology -- RKO is the studio of sound. The name -- Radio Keith Orpheum -- says it all. RKO is the merger of entertainment (vaudeville) with the new technology of sound. And its symbol -- the radio tower, towering over the planet, sending out the signal of cinematic sound across the globe -- is the promise of American ingenuity and invention, the forward march of progress.
Columbia was basically elevated to major studio status because of the films of its greatest director, Frank Capra, so it seems almost serendipitous that its studio logo should be a figure reminiscent of Lady Liberty -- a woman clad in Grecian robes, holding a blazing torch above her head. Columbia -- another name for America -- is the studio of America's great champion, the populist and lover of democracy, Frank Capra.
20th Century Fox's logo is less recognizably "American" at first. It lacks the primal symbolism of MGM's lion or Paramount's mountain. But what it lacks in symbolism, it makes up for in grandeur and spectacle. The 20th Century logo looks like a great temple raised up for that most 20th century of religions, cinema. The searchlights waving in the sky, the towering letters of the studio name, the way the edifice looms over everything beneath it like an Art Deco Pantheon. This is cinema as event, movies as new religion. This is America as leader and conqueror. It is the shining city on a hill, but the city we are looking up to is the movie palace/temple of 20th Century Fox studios.
Each studio had a recognizable style. Each studio employed a stable of stars. Each studio has its logo and it's that logo that lets the viewer know what's in store.
While the opening credits and the studio logo aren't much thought of by the audiences of today when they watch a movie in the theater, for the viewer watching an old movie, the opening credits -- from the opening studio logo to the final "Directed by" credit -- convey a wealth of information about and provide plenty of anticipation for the cinematic story that is about to unfold. It's one of the unique pleasures of old movie watching. Don't fast forward through the credits next time you sit to watch an old movie, but take a moment and look and see the pleasures of this lost art form.