I've learned four things from watching old movies over the years:
- Up through the 1940s, filmstock was black and white and grainy. Combine that with nearly all the important characters being white men in lookalike haircuts and dark suits, and it's no wonder those movies were so difficult to follow.
- The cameras back then had a hard time capturing images when the light wasn't bright. Photographers did their best, but they often couldn't get more than about half the frame to print. The other half was nothing but darkness. So that was another reason it was often hard to follow the story.
- Before the '60s, most Americans had old-fashioned morals. They were offended by sex scenes and other behavior that was considered immoral at the time. It took a decade or so for the new morals of the young people to trickle up to the Hollywood movie producers, so that's why you still see things like twin beds for married couples in Hollywood movies up through the late '60s.
- The bar for acting skill was very low at the time. That's why, in the rare case that a movie had a love scene, it usually looked very awkward with the characters in unrealistic positions. It was also why actors would often wait for silence during a conversation and then say their lines in isolation, even if they were supposed to be having an argument or interrupting each other.
Put together, these four things all make for a strange fictional world in classic Hollywood movies--a world full of dingy greyscale people who can't hold a normal conversation and are so uptight about sex that they don't even go to bed with their own spouses.
Recently, I’ve had the opportunity to study this strange fiction a little bit. I've taken three classes: American Cinema, Film Noir and Screenwriting, I've read three books on the subject, and I'm currently reading two more.
And what I've learned so far is that none of the things in that list above is true.
- I was surprised to learn in my American cinema class that people
actually chose that hard-to-make-out greyscale film stock even though color film had already been invented. Color film became readily available in the '40s, but most directors didn't prefer it. They felt that black and white film did a better job of drawing the viewer in to the world of the story. I don't get this. I'm drawn in much better to a world where I can see what's going on, and to a world that feels like it could actually exist. Color helps a lot with both of those.
- I had another surprise in my film noir class: Those underexposed scenes where half the picture is lost in darkness were shot that way on purpose. They actually had the technology to capture the whole image in a lot more clarity; they just didn't do it. Those deep shadows, I learned in class, were supposed to make the movies feel mysterious and suspenseful. (Hmm . . . I'm trying to watch a movie, but all I can see is random parts of images flashing by on the screen. A bunch of nearly-identical men seem to be engaged in some sort of activity, but because half the picture is gone, I can't tell what it is. I'm not feeling mysterious or suspenseful. I'm just feeling restless and a bit frustrated. I'm thinking that maybe I would enjoy this movie if I could just manage to see it.)
- Those unrealistic love-scene positions didn't come from bad acting. And all that stiffness about sex didn't come from the general culture at the time. It was the Hays Code. Before the Hays Code went into effect around 1934, movies were actually quite risque at times, and certainly they tended to be much more realistic in the way they portrayed people and their relationships. But under the Hays Code, there were rules to follow. No more than three seconds on a kiss. Twin beds for married couples. During a love scene, one actor had to keep at least one foot on the floor. None of this was the actors' fault. And in fact, the restrictive rules of the Hays Code tended to push actors, directors and writers to up their game. It must have taken a lot of talent and work to make so many movies from that era as good as they are. For example, I'm somewhat in awe of the contortions that the producers, writers, director, cast and crew had to go through to get Double Indemnity past the Hays Code censors.
- And the robotic conversations with the actors waiting their turns to spit out their lines? That wasn't bad acting, either. It was mandatory under the studio system. Director Sidney Lumet explains about the studio system in chapter nine of his book, Making Movies:
In the '30s and '40s, . . . [the] studio system was totally compartmentalized. . . . Sometimes, the director would go onto a movie only a week before shooting began. The art department had done the sets and picked the locations, if their were any. The casting department had drawn the cast from the pool of actors under contract to the studio. The camera department had assigned the cameraman, the costume department assigned the designer, etc. . . . When I think about it, it's quite amazing that so many good pictures were made. Out of this system, certain rules, not only of editing but of shooting the picture, were established by the editing department. For example, every scene had to be 'covered.' This meant it was mandatory for [each] scene to be shot [eight times, each with a specific camera angle stipulated by the studio]. . . . In addition to destroying any originality in the shooting of a picture, this system also put actors through hell . . . One of the rules that developed was "No overlaps." This meant, for example, that in a scene where two people were yelling at each other, one actor wouldn't speak, or "overlap," while the other actor was still speaking. In fact, on closeups, the actors had to leave a tiny pause between each other's lines so that the editor could cut the sound track. Of course, this made it very difficult to get life into a scene that required a fast tempo.
I guess the adage is right. The truth about Hollywood really is stranger than its fiction.