Old Movies

I love old movies of all kinds, but there’s a special soft spot in my heart for old, old movies. Movies from the beginnings of moviemaking, movies from so long ago, that the world was a different place. And not the kind of different place you get in the 50s or 60s, those times weren't different enough (hey, I was born in 1962). No, the kind of different that makes a tiny corner of your brain feel like an anthropologist watching a different culture. In my undergraduate days, I once took a film course which covered the period from the start of moviemaking to 1930. Four hours of classes a week, two spent talking about old movies, two spent watching them. It was heaven.

One of the things I like about old movies is the pre-Method acting techniques. Watching the actors gives you a sense of what stage acting looked like in those days. And then there’re the gestures and looks clearly left over from the silent movies. Just as the angles and light were more dramatic when filming in black and white, so was the acting. It was not merely dramatic, it was Dramatic! The intrepid hero wouldn't embrace his girl, he would grab her by the upper arms and crush her to him, while she swooned. It was all so intense. No semblance of reality (I assume), it was Bigger - a world to disappear into, a world to make you forget your troubles. That’s why I go to the opera. It’s the same Bigness.

I once saw an interview with Cate Blanchett where she talked about studying to play Katherine Hepburn in The Aviator. She mentioned how she had to learn to not only move differently, but speak differently, because in those days, language was different (how I miss that crisp, snappy dialogue). After this weekend's activities - and no, I'm not talking about the birthday celebrations - I started wondering how much of the difference in spoken language in old movies and in our modern world was due to acting technique and how much was a reflection of the language of the time.

I had an old movie extravaganza this weekend. First I watched Alfred Hitchcock's 'The 39 Steps' (1935), then 'Holiday' (1938) – one of my favourites, finally released on DVD as part of the Cary Grant boxed set - and 'The Mummy' with Boris Karloff (1932). These people all talk very fast, very clipped, enunciating very clearly and with a completely different cadence then we are used to now. One thing in particular made me curious. In these movies, people often pronounce the word actress almost as 'ectress', the word bachelor as ‘bechelor’, etc. And it got me wondering whether that was a technique thing or whether that was how ‘a’ was pronounced in those days. Anybody know?

What’s your favourite old movie?

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