It’s a common understanding among silent film fans that something beautiful and inherently cinematic was lost when sound took over at the end of the 1920s. Silent film had reached great heights of visual splendor, highly complex ways of conveying story, psychology, and mood by visual means, and innovative ways to use the camera, editing, and actors within the frame.
The coming of sound meant learning how to make cinema all over again. Technological limitations meant that the camera was no longer free to roam about the frame – that would have interfered with the sound recording. Similarly, shooting on location became difficult, because ambient sounds were difficult to avoid, so filming moved back onto studio sets (where they would largely stay for the next twenty to thirty years). Cousins points out things that I’d never really thought of or seen mentioned before in his clip of Bing Crosby singing – a two camera shoot ran live, like live television eventually would, to record the sound unbroken. This meant framing was limited; shots couldn’t be restaged for different angles, nor could lighting be reset for different shots, lending everything a flatness. These were all challenges that filmmakers had to learn to overcome to figure out how to use sound cinematically.
But creatively thrives on challenges, and as Cousins mentioned in his introductory interview with Robert Osborne, filmmakers quickly learned to use sound creatively, using it to help set mood, or even undercut the visual for ironic purposes. As early as 1932, Rouben Mamoulian used the everyday morning sounds of Paris waking up as a kind of symphonic overture to his film Love Me Tonight, and used tricks like substituting yapping dogs in for society ladies chattering. Sonic trickery becomes possible, and sometimes even more effective than the visual trickery of the silent era. It’s interesting that I tend to forget Mamoulian directed Love Me Tonight, because it reminds me so much of the Lubitsch films of the same era (several of which start Love Me Tonight‘s Maurice Chevalier and Jeanette MacDonald), but with Cousins’ praise for Mamoulian’s innovation, I’m excited to rewatch it with Mamoulian in mind.
Cousins goes on to outline six staples of Hollywood genre film that really became established in the 1930s. Truly, this is where Hollywood shines, and these are the films that continue to be most remembered today. Some of them, like westerns, comedies, horror and cartoons, had been around throughout the silent era, but the 1930s saw their form solidified and expanded. Others, like the gangster picture and musicals came into their own in the 1930s. Cousins spends a bit of time showing where the genres had come from and how they developed in later decades, but this is a pretty cursory overview. That’s not all bad, though, because this is a time period and subject that’s pretty well-known among film fans. Most of his examples are obvious.
I did really appreciate his observation that westerns document the creation of the city and lawmaking, while crime films show the decline of the city, with laws forgotten. I hadn’t really thought of that before, but it makes a lot of sense – and westerns and crime films are two of my favorite genres. Now there are a lot of double-feature ideas percolating around in my brain. Interestingly, when he was introducing the crime film genre, his modern-day footage was of a graffiti rendering of the outlaw at the end of The Great Train Robbery – subtly suggesting the connection he’s about to make between westerns and crime films? I don’t know, but it made me smile.
While silent comedy was dominated by men, Cousins rightly points out that comedy in the 1930s highlighted women, and gave them equal or even greater power to men. Screwball comedies are often explicitly about the battle of the sexes, and men rarely have the upper hand, as in the examples Cousins uses, Twentieth Century and Bringing Up Baby (I was surprised he didn’t mention His Girl Friday). This is actually something I’ve been thinking a lot about lately, as I look around at current Hollywood film and wonder where all the women are and where all the good romantic comedy went. Women had more agency and power, and personality and foibles, in screwball comedy than they have in most other genres since. It’s very interesting.
I’m a huge fan of musicals, and an especially big fan of Gold Diggers of 1933, so I was stoked to see how much attention Cousins gave it and the showstopping “Forgotten Man” number. Love it. Cartoons are Cousins’ last signature Hollywood genre, one that Disney is credited with establishing, even though, as Cousins points out, the German feature The Adventures of Prince Achmed preceded Snow White and the Seven Dwarves by ten years. Disney still definitely deserves the credit for making animated features commercially viable, though, and I didn’t realize that they basically use motion capture as a model for Snow White’s movements, making her look more human than previous animation had done.
After finishing his survey of American genre pictures, Cousins moves to Europe to look at some more overtly artistic directors. This episode definitely has some split personality going on, with the first half almost unrelated to the second half except that these things were going on during the same decade. The coming of sound in France brought poetry, realism, and poetic realism as directors like followed the magic of Méliès and the realism of the Lumières and sometimes both. I’ve seen Jean Cocteau’s Blood of a Poet before, but don’t remember much of it – the mirror and hallway scenes Cousins’ showed intrigued me to watch it again, because Cocteau used very similar scenes in Orpheus as well, and Godard used a similar hallway in Alphaville. I’d thought it was a reference to Orpheus, but I see now the reference may be to Cocteau in general. Cousins’ finds it the referent for the weightless hallway fight in Inception, and interesting connection whether Nolan was actually thinking of Cocteau or not. One thing I like about Cousins is he’s not afraid to look for visual similarity beyond intentionality, noting that things that are similar have a kinship whether the echo is intentional or not.
Cousins discusses Jean Vigo in terms of his lack of narrative in L’Atalante and use of poetic slow motion to show an anarchic pillow fight at a boys school, both of which earned him the anger of the French establishment. Jean Renoir, too, would bring a social aspect into his films, using composition to depict equality of class between aristocrats and working class and between captors and prisoners in Grand Illusion, and examining the class structure through a country dinner party in The Rules of the Game. Meanwhile, Marcel Carné brings a sense of poetic realism to Quai des brumes, and later, in the ’40s, the circus-set Childen of Paradise. I’ve seen about half of these films, some of them too long ago for me to remember them well enough to fit them into this conversation, but I don’t really feel that knowledgable about this particular subset of film history. Cousins’ commentary really gives me a good nudge to watch and rewatch these films with a bit more context to go on.
In Episode 5, Cousins will cover the years 1939 to 1952, with the subtitle “The Devastation of War and a New Movie Language.” World War II brought massive changes to the cinema landscape, as each country dealt with the atrocities. In America, post-war films turned cynical, with films exploring the darkness and pessimism of a masculinity threatened at war and at home, or escapist and nostalgic for a simpler time. In Italy, neorealism came to the fore, bringing freshness, vitality, and the naturalism of untrained actors.
TCM will focus mostly on American film, with some great noir films like Double Indemnity, Gun Crazy, and The Big Sleep, the post-war elegy The Best Years of Our Lives, and the silent-era set musical Singin’ in the Rain. They’ll also show 1939’s Stagecoach and Citizen Kane – Cousins will have an excellent excursus on the use of deep focus in Citizen Kane and beyond. Meanwhile, they’ll have two of the most iconic neorealist masterpieces, Rome, Open City and The Bicycle Thief. Finally, a bit of war fantasy with A Matter of Life and Death from British filmmakers Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger, known for a brief but brilliant string of films in the late 1940s. These films are cream of the crop, and every single one of them is worth watching and rewatching.
Where Else to See These Films
Links are getting more scarce this week, with fewer public domain films in the mix. Most if not all of these are available on DVD via Netflix if you have a Netflix DVD plan or via Amazon to buy on disc, and I’ll include the links to rent/purchase them in stream on Amazon and iTunes if available. I’ll continue including YouTube links when I find them, but any free ones from this point on are almost certainly not legitimate.
Love Me Tonight: YouTube (9 parts)
The Public Enemy: Amazon Prime ($2.99 rental), iTunes ($9.99 purchase)
Frankenstein: Amazon Prime ($2.99 rental), YouTube ($2.99 rental), iTunes ($3.99 rental)
Gold Diggers of 1933: Amazon Prime ($2.99 rental), YouTube ($1.99 rental), iTunes ($3.99 rental)
Twentieth Century: iTunes ($2.99 rental), Amazon Prime ($9.99 purchase)
The Adventures of Prince Achmed: YouTube (this version is 65 min; IMDb says it should be 81)
Zero de conduite: HuluPlus, YouTube
Grand Illusion: Amazon Prime ($1.99 rental), iTunes ($2.99 rental)
The Rules of the Game: HuluPlus, Amazon Prime ($2.99 rental), iTunes ($3.99 rental), YouTube
Port of Shadows: not available
Stagecoach: HuluPlus, YouTube, Amazon Prime ($2.99 rental), iTunes ($3.99 rental)
Citizen Kane: Amazon Prime, YouTube ($1.99 rental), iTunes ($3.99 rental)
The Best Years of Our Lives: Amazon Prime ($3.99 rental), iTunes ($3.99 rental)
Rome, Open City: Hulu Plus
Singin’ in the Rain: Amazon Prime ($9.99 purchase), YouTube ($1.99 rental), iTunes ($3.99 rental)
Double Indemnity: Netflix, Amazon Prime ($2.99 rental), YouTube ($2.99 rental), iTunes ($3.99 rental)
The Bicycle Thief: Netflix, Amazon Prime ($2.99 rental), YouTube ($2.99 rental), iTunes ($2.99 rental)
Gun Crazy: not available to stream (Netflix and Amazon have on DVD)
The Big Sleep: Amazon Prime ($2.99 rental), iTunes ($2.99 rental)
A Matter of Life and Death: YouTube (in 14 parts); NOT available on R1 DVD
the recovering academic