With Mindy’s school closed since Wednesday for the holiday break, we have found ourselves at home watching a lot of movies that I had never seen before. They divide neatly into two categories – old and new. The old – Holiday, The Man who came to Dinner, Christmas in Connecticut, and The Bachelor and the Bobby-Soxer – were all made before 1950. The new ones – Love Actually, The Wolf of Wall Street, Philomena, and Mud – were all released in the 21st century. Based on relatively close watching, here are some ways that the Anglo-American film industry has (and maybe even we have) evolved (or not) over more than a half-century.
1) The most obvious difference between the old and new pictures is visual. All of the old movies mentioned here are black and white and all of the new ones were shot in color. The use of color allows for dramatic wide-screen shots that would not have the same power in black and white. For example, in Mud from 2013, an early scene shows two boys motor boating into the seemingly boundless Mississippi from a much smaller tributary on the Arkansas side of the river. The widening horizons of water and sky foreshadow the tale of lost innocence to come.
None of the black and white movies use outdoor vistas as powerfully. But, in 1938’s Holiday, director George Cukor expresses wordlessly the extraordinary wealth and emotional vacuity of the family into which Cary Grant, as Johnny Case, intends to marry. As he walks through the main hall of the Seton’s Fifth Avenue mansion, the 6-foot Grant is dwarfed by pillars, statues, and empty space.
2) Another way that we sense old and new movies differently is aurally. While watching 1945’s Christmas in Connecticut, my wife commented that people talk differently now. In that movie, set in New York and Connecticut, there are a wide range of accents and verbal mannerisms. Barbara Stanwyck’s rapid-fire Brooklynese, Dennis Morgan’s brogue (most apparent when he’s singing Irish airs), Sidney Greenstreet’s deliberate speech mannerisms, and S.Z. Sakall’s hammy Hungarian-infused English all seem anachronistic.
Likewise, even (especially) when Cary Grant tones down the cockney as he does in Holiday and 1947’s The Bachelor and the Bobby-Soxer, his voice and accent – neither English nor American – are unique. Katharine Hepburn in the earlier movie infuses great drama in her every line. Employing far fewer histrionics, Myrna Loy in the latter film still speaks precisely, choppily, and nasally. People just don’t talk like that any more if they ever did.
The oldest new film, Love Actually from 2003, is set for the most part in London with an ensemble cast of top British actors. Yet Hugh Grant, Liam Neeson, and Colin Firth, among others, sound more like Americans today than the American actors in the old movies do. Indeed, Laura Linney’s American accent barely distinguishes her voice from Brits Emma Thompson and Keira Knightley.
The English actors in Philomena from 2013 likewise sound modern even if their accents are slightly noticeable. BBC and American news broadcasters have sanded down our voices such that today we sound more like the English than like our grandparents and great grandparents.
Besides their distinctive speech patterns, actors in the old movies speak much more rapidly than those in the new ones. The differences may reflect how much more important dialogue was. Without dramatic color shots, wide-screens, and deep focus, old filmmakers had to rely on witty banter and interesting voices to keep audience’s attention.
3) Actresses had it much better in old Hollywood. In all four old movies, female characters are as integral to the plot as males. In Holiday, Johnny Case must decide whether marriage to Julia Seton is worth sacrificing his dream of a holiday from work during which he can determine what he would really like to do for the rest of his life. Of equal importance, Katharine Hepburn’s Linda Seton learns that her sister Julia’s concerns are wholly different from her own and that Julia is not worthy of Johnny. Susan Potter, portrayed by Jean Dixon, plays a small but important role as the wife of Johnny’s friend Nick.
The central plot line in The Man who came to Dinner is the chaos that ensues when insufferably arrogant radio star and man-about-town Sheridan Whiteside is forced to hole up with a very put-out industrialist and his wife. Although Whiteside, played by stage star Monty Wooley, is the hub of the film, Bette Davis playing the feisty secretary received top billing. Besides Davis, Billie Burke, as the industrialist’s wife; Ann Sheridan, as a predatory Broadway star; and Mary Wickes, as Whiteside’s nurse, all give as good as they get from the remarkably obnoxious Whiteside.
The main character in Christmas in Connecticut is Barbara Stanwyck’s home and garden maven Elizabeth Lane who writes Martha Stewart-like columns about the joys of cooking, gardening, and living on a Connecticut farm. In fact, career gal Stanwyck lives in a Manhattan apartment and orders all her food in.
In The Bachelor and the Bobby-Soxer, as in Holiday, Cary Grant is the man in a romantic triangle. Shirley Temple is 17 year-old bobby-soxer Susan who develops a schoolgirl crush on Grant’s miscreant bachelor Richard Nugent. To punish Nugent for apparently caddish behavior and teach her little sister Susan a lesson, Judge Margaret Turner, played by Loy, “sentences” Nugent to date Susan. Predictably it is Loy who falls for him in the end.
In the new movies, women take a back seat to men. The ensemble cast of Love Actually certainly includes many women but their roles are secondary ones. Except for Emma Thompson’s distraught stay-at-home wife, most of the women work for the older men with whom they are in love.
All the main characters in The Wolf of Wall Street are men. The few women in the film mark, by their attractiveness, the relative status of the various men engaged in financial chicanery. Philomena does better than the other new movies by its heroine. She is wise and considerate but the film makers can’t help but make fun of her working-class ingenuousness compared to the Oxford-educated journalist Martin Sixsmith.
Finally, Mud has little good to say about the few females in the film who themselves have little to say. Even big star Reese Witherspoon, playing Mud’s trampy love goddess Juniper, has very few lines. The two women and one high school girl, featured in Mud, are there to make the guys miserable.
Ellis’s mom’s unexplained unhappiness with her life and disappointment with her husband cause her to threaten to take Ellis away from the river he knows and loves. Juniper’s recurrent romps with abusive men lead Mud to kill her rich lover and then to flee with the police and the lover’s trigger-happy family hot on his heels. Finally, Ellis excites his high school crush Mae Pearl when he punches out an older boy who’s being caddish but later on she cruelly rebuffs Ellis after he takes another swing at another older boy with whom she is making time.
There are more women in the old films. Their roles are bigger and they tend to be more independent and higher status. No women in the new movies are as successful as either 1) popular columnist Elizabeth Lane in Christmas in Connecticut, who is praised for having doubled her magazine’s circulation, or 2) Judge Turner in The Bachelor and the Bobby Soxer. Moreover, neither Lane nor Turner wants to be rescued from the work-a-day world. The movies end with each finding a mate who is proud of his fiance’s success.
This is in direct contrast to a couple of the “happy” endings in Love Actually. For example, the Prime Minister played by Hugh Grant successfully tracks down his former personal assistant after he had fired her because he couldn’t handle the sexual tension at work. Likewise, after Colin Firth’s author sweeps his former housekeeper off her feet it seems extremely unlikely that she will return to domestic work.
4) Even this brief survey implies strongly that the number and quality of roles available to women in Hollywood has declined since the 30s and 40s. How have things changed for people of color?
The three old movies made in the 40s feature at least one black actor with a speaking role but only Lillian Randolph, who plays Bessie the housekeeper, in the The Bachelor and the Bobby Soxer is credited. In Christmas in Connecticut, I counted two blacks with speaking roles. A smiling African-American delivery woman brings Elizabeth Lane a mink coat which she apparently bought for herself with the generous salary she earns as a popular magazine columnist. Later, Hungarian restaurateur Felix asks bartender Sam what catastrophe means. Sam provides the Greek derivation and then several synonyms which are equally beyond Felix’s limited English. When Felix asks questioningly “good?”, Sam responds “bad”.
The only black in The Man who came to Dinner is a hotel doorman who summons a cab for Sheridan Whiteside and says thank you when tipped. I did not see any African-Americans in Holiday and there are no Latinos and no Asians in any of the four old movies.
Seventy years later, the film industry does not appear to be much more welcoming to people of color. There are several secondary black characters in Love Actually but none are particularly memorable. The movie even hints that Keira Knightley’s black husband may be cuckolded by his white “best friend”.
Love Actually includes a scene that cries out for an African-American woman but does not feature one. After the not particularly prepossessing white Colin Frissell flies to Milwaukee, he incredibly finds three beautiful and available blondes who invite him to share their one bed. Given that Colin’s best friend, whom he left at Heathrow is black, symmetry called for at least one nubile black roommate.
The Wolf of Wall Street, to the best of my recollection, has no black characters and certainly no memorable ones. One of the scoundrels working for Leonardo DiCaprio’s crooked financier Jordan Belfort is an Asian high school buddy. Philomena features a relatively prominent African-Irish novice and an Indian server at a hotel and that’s it.
Mud, set in contemporary Arkansas, didn’t have to stretch to feature African-Americans. Even if we assume that Mud was written for McConnaughey, every other part could have been played by a black actor. There was also room for Asian and Latino actors in various roles including the motel clerk and bartender given that so many small hotels and motels across the country are operated by Indians. Yet the only non-white in the movie is a rude black man who is on screen for at most five seconds.
Based on a very limited survey, it does not appear that contemporary film makers have much to be proud of. Yes, today’s cinematographers are employing color to good effect but not necessarily any more creatively than those of yesteryear used black and white film. If anything, movies have grown less interesting to listen to and the women’s rights and civil rights movements apparently left the movie industry far behind.