The other day I watched a 1946 film called “The Big Sleep” starring Humphrey Bogart and Lauren Bacall. It’s from a period referred to as Classic Hollywood – a period that spanned the 1930s, 40s, and into the 50s. It includes some movies most of us have heard of or even seen, like “Casablanca,” “Gone with the Wind,” and “The Wizard of Oz.”
These movies are fascinating to watch, especially in contrast to today’s very naturalistic films. There are extraordinary levels of stylization in these movies. They weren’t trying to recreate the real world we lived in; they were theatricalized approximations of our world. Principally filmed without color, they immediately announced themselves as outside our normal experience. They shouted from the first black and white frame, ‘this is not your world; this is something special.’
This visual stylization allowed a stylization of the way human emotions and interactions were portrayed. There’s a sharper edge to every action. Every word matters. Every gesture sings.
Classic Hollywood directors often came from the theater, and many were European emigres. The writers included novelists and playwrights ranging from Raymond Chandler to William Faulkner. Novelists and playwrights know something about stylization: the former are using words – the most abstract of symbols – to represent everything from thoughts to our four senses; playwrights demand that we suspend disbelief and pretend that what’s on that stage is real.
There’s a real thrill in seeing worlds so visually and emotionally charged, where no word or gesture is wasted, where every shard of light is purposefully placed for maximum effect. You won’t recognize these worlds as the ones outside your door. That’s why they’re so much fun to visit.
Here are a few recommendations:
- Comedy: The Lady Eve
- Melodrama: Stella Dallas
- Drama: The Big Heat
- Prestige: The Grapes of Wrath
– Leonce Gaiter, Vice President, Content & Strategy