Thursday, April 29, 2010

They Don't Make Them Like They Used To: Why Old Movies Are Better

Unlike other classic film fans, I am not wholly adverse to more recent films. There are movies made in the past few years that number among my favourites, and I do go to the cinema on a somewhat regular basis to watch recently made movies. That having been said, I cannot escape believing that on the whole movies were better fifty or more years ago than they are now.

Now I have given thought to the idea that this could simply be an illusion created by the passage of time. After all, it stands to reason that the best movies--those that would become classics--would continue to be shown over the years, while inferior movies would be shown much less. Citizen Kane is still shown several times a year both on television and in theatres. By contrast, The Conqueror is not shown nearly as much. I also cannot deny that I have seen my share of bad movies made from years and years ago. Jimmy Stewart once called Pot o' Gold the worst film he ever made. He was right.

Still, even given the fact that good movies will tend to be shown much more over the years than bad movies, perhaps creating the illusion that every movie from years ago has some quality, I cannot deny feeling that on average movies declined a good deal in quality in the past forty years. This can be shown by contrasting the films that topped the box office over the years, as well as the various blockbusters released over the years. The top ten grossing films of 1944 included such classics as Going My Way, Meet Me in St. Louis, Double Indemnity, and the Forties version of Gaslight. By contrast, the top ten grossing films of 1988 included such movies as Twins, Crocodile Dundee, and Cocktail (which I am convinced is one of the worst movies of all time). As to blockbusters, the top grossing film of the Thirties (indeed, of all time when adjusted for inflation) was Gone With the Wind, a well crafted epic still regarded as a classic. The top grossing film of the Nineties was Titanic, an epic which relied on its special effects and lavish production to make up for a weak storyline.

If I had to pinpoint the time when movies began to seriously decline in quality, I would say that it was probably the Seventies. The Seventies saw a boom in disaster movies, where big name stars and special effects were more important than good filmmaking or  the storyline. Worse yet, films such as Airport, The Poseidon Adventure, The Towering Inferno, and Earthquake all did relatively well at the box office. This would lead to such empty, special effects epics as Independence Day, The Day After Tomorrow, and 2012. While the disaster films would lead to a decline in quality of blockbusters from yesteryear, comedies would also start to decline in the Seventies. While the Seventies would produce some truly funny comedies (Young Frankenstein, Animal House, What's Up, Doc?), it also produced some truly bad comedies (Smokey and the Bandit, Every Which Way But Loose, 1941).

Indeed, even more so than in the arena of blockbusters, it is in the genre of comedy that movies have suffered the most the past forty years. Such classic comedies of the Thirties and Forties as My Man Godfrey, Bringing Up Baby, and To Be or Not To Be relied on witty dialogue and some truly funny situations for their humour, which always grew out of the characters. Today the average comedy often relies on low, obvious, and often scatological humour. There's not a bit of witty dialogue to be heard. Among the subgenres of comedy which have suffered the most must be the romantic comedy. There was a time when romantic comedies were made to be enjoyed by both sexes. Men and women alike could appreciate such movies as It Happened One Night and Bringing Up Baby. Sadly, today it seems as if romantic comedies are made exclusively for women. This would not be so bad, but it seems as if filmmakers must think the average woman is none too bright and none too discerning with regards to film, as the average romantic comedy of today features cardboard characters and often hackneyed situations.

Even children's movies seem inferior in quality these days. The period from the Thirties into the Sixties produced such classic children's films as The Wizard of Oz, The Thief of Baghdad, The 5,000 Fingers of Dr. T, and The Parent Trap. And I cannot deny that there have been some good children's films released in the past forty years (Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory, Babe), but today it seems as if the average studio's idea of a good children's movie is to combine talking animals created by CGI with very low brow humour. The Wizard of Oz and Babe have been replaced by Alvin and the Chipmunks and G-Force.

Here I must stress that I do think there are a few genres where movies do compare favourably to those of yesteryear. While animated movies would decline precipitously in quality in the late Sixties into the early Eighties, the genre would make up comeback in the Nineties. This I attribute to Pixar, who had always maintained a high degree of quality on their films. In doing so they placed the bar higher for other animated filmmakers, who had to make good films of their own simply to keep up with Pixar. I also believe the superhero movie of today is superior to those made in the past. I suspect much of this has to do with the fact that in the past forty years comic books have become more respectable, thus insuring that superhero movies would no longer be quickie productions made simply for kids. I also think much of this has to do with the directors at the helm of such movies--Sam Raimi, Guillermo del Toro, and Christopher Nolan, directors who either grew up reading comic books, are visionary enough to see the cinematic possibilities of the medium, or both.

As to what caused this decline in film, that is difficult to say. Some might point to the weakening of the MPAA Production Code from the late Forties into the Sixties and the establishment of the ratings system, which would permit much more graphic content than the old Production Code had allowed. I suppose an argument could be made that the ratings system allowed for movies to rely more on sex and violence than strong writing and characters. Indeed, such atrocities as the American Pie movies, which rely upon sex for their source of humour, would have been impossible even in the Sixties. That having been said, I tend to doubt that the ratings system was to a large degree responsible for the decline in film. While the ratings system would allow for the existence of films like Porky's and American Pie, it must be pointed out that the disaster films of the Seventies and what's passes for romantic comedies now could have been made before the ratings system was implemented, even if some language and situations might have to have been edited out.

Instead, I have to wonder that the decline of American movies is not associated with the decline of the studio system. For those of you unfamiliar with the studio system, it was the dominant means by which the major studios operated from the Thirties into the Fifties, with directors, writers, and actors under exclusive contracts and ownership (or at the very least some power over) movie distribution and even exhibition at theatres. Under the studio system, studio executives wielded a good deal of power over the films made at their studios, including the directors, actors, and writers who worked on those films. To a degree the studio system did impede creativity among filmmakers. The conflict between David O. Selznick and Alfred Hitchcock over the films that director made for that producer is legendary. And I rather suspect that here have been a number of classic films since the Sixties which could not have simply been made under the studio system, such as 1966's Blowup. Even if its content could have been edited to fit the production code of the Forties, I rather suspect studio bosses would have thought the film not commercial enough. While the studio system did impede  creativity among actors, writers, and directors, it may have also had a beneficial effect on film.

Quite simply, the studio system may have acted as a means of quality control in filmmaking. After all, it cannot be coincidence that many, perhaps most, of the greatest films in American history were made under the studio system. While it seems that the studio bosses may have exerted a bit too much control over their creative personnel, they also often knew quality when they saw it. Although the two would often come to heads, it was David O. Selznick who brought Alfred Hitchcock to the United States, resulting in some of his best work. Samuel Goldwyn relied on such writers as Ben Hecht, Lillian Hellman, Sidney Howard, and Dorothy Parker. Over the years his movies earned a number of Oscars. It seems possible that the studio system may have acted as a means of insuring that movies were quality productions. In fact, it seems likely that the major difference between the studio bosses who operated under the studio system and the studio bosses of today could well be that the former were concerned with making quality movies, while the latter apparently care more about making money.

Regardless of why it seems to me that movies have declined in quality, it does seem as if they have. I often find that I would much rather watch an older film from the Forties than many films made more recently, regardless of how they performed at the box office. I have yet to watch Alvin and the Chipmunks and I doubt I ever will. Sadly, it seems to me that it is true that "They don't make them like they used to."


Tom said...

I really enjoyed reading your essay, and especially your thoughts on modern animated films. I think it's great that 2-D, claymation and stop-motion animated films are still being made, which I've found to be even more entertaining than those of the Pixar variety. And speaking of disaster films, "Airport '77" featured Jimmy Stewart, and personally, I think that was the worst film he ever appeared in.

Tommy Salami said...

I tend to think that most of the really bad and bland movies of old have been forgotten, just as many of Shakespeare's contemporaries have bee lost to history. But I agree that the studio system had some benefits, and clever dialogue wasn't relegated to art films back in the day.