Posted by Greg Ferrara on July 4, 2012
Today’s the day my facebook feed gets inundated with pictures of James Cagney because, well, you know why. And who can blame my facebook film friends for turning to Cagney as George M. Cohan as the go-to pic of the day? He’s wonderful in the role and there’s something refreshing about a movie so brazenly and fervently flag-waving as Yankee Doodle Dandy, in part because, unlike other propaganda, it isn’t about how bad some other country is but just about how proud of his country this particular song and dance man is. And when that song and dance man is played by Cagney, it’s all the more enjoyable. And so on this day when we here in the states celebrate our Independence Day (cue emotional salute from over-acting bit player) allow me to wave the flag just a bit for American movies of yore.
I’m of the mindset that once the late fifties/early sixties arrived, the great film making countries of the world essentially evened the keel. In the late fifties and early sixties, films like Breathless, The 400 Blows, Wild Strawberries, La Dolce Vita, and a true host of others in the span of just two years, made it clear American movies had some major competition and a multitude of countries now brought plenty to the table. But from the silent era through the fifties, Hollywood ruled the silver screen. Oh sure, there was plenty of excellent film work outside the states but the proportion was way off. Unlike the sixties onward, in the Golden Age of Hollywood, for every M, Grand Illusion, Blood of a Poet, Earth or L’Age Dor, there were dozens and dozens of Hollywood films revered and celebrated around the world. This isn’t to deny there were great foreign films, just to state that Hollywood, as famously touted by the critics at Cahiers du cinema, was the cinematic behemoth running the show. They ran it and, brother, did they produce some extraordinary films, actors, directors, writers and, yes, producers.
And I had nothing to do with any of it. Nothing.
Yet, somehow, I feel proud. Proud to be a part of a cultural history if only by the accident and location of my birth. Proud to be a part, no matter how indirect, of one of the greatest cultural and artistic births in the modern world, the birth of the cinema. There’s a lot to love about American film in the silent period through the fifties (and afterwards) and so now, on my nation’s birthday, let me list, in no particular order, exactly what I love so much about the Golden Age of Hollywood.
Guys like Jimmy Cagney, mentioned at the start of this post, and Humphrey Bogart and Edward G. Robinson became stars even though they weren’t tall, devilishly handsome and didn’t sound much like anyone else. They made it because they had charisma and talent that could kill a man at five hundred feet.
Guys like Clark Gable and Cary Grant made it too, not just because they were so damned charming and handsome, plenty of guys were, but they had talent too, scads of it.
Bette Davis and Joan Crawford and Barbara Stanwyck worked their butts off for their roles and while the prettiest pinups of their day came and went, they stuck around because long after the pinups became boring, no one could take their eyes off Bette, Joan and Babs.
Of course, it should also be said… pinups. I mean, we had pinups. That’s pretty awesome too and one of them, Betty Grable, even managed to shoot to stardom thanks to the most delightful musical number anyone ever performed with Edward Everett Horton.
Spencer Tracy and Katherine Hepburn in Woman of the Year, at the bar, where she’s drunk. That’s a scene of which we can all be proud.
James Murray in The Crowd. Oh hell, the whole thing, The Crowd.
Eddie “Rochester” Anderson.
Fred and Ginger.
Oscar Micheaux, without major backing or distribution, figured out a way to carve a niche for himself.
The Marx Brothers.
The fact that some kid from Kenosha was given the keys to the kingdom and didn’t disappoint. What are the odds of that ever happening again?!
Buck Rogers, Torchy Blaine, Blondie, The Little Rascals, Superman, The Boyfriends, Boston Blackie and Philo Vance.
And how about Nick and Nora Charles? Their very existence is the best argument ever for repealing Prohibition.
Paul Robeson and that voice. And that presence.
John Wayne. Seriously, John Freakin’ Wayne. And John Ford. And Monument Valley.
The Gish sisters, Janet Gaynor, Gloria Swanson and Clara Bow.
Cecil B. DeMille using The Bible to produce tawdry blockbusters that entertained much more than they preached.
Some guy named David O. Selznick bought a popular book, went through a gazillion drafts of a script before going back to the original treatment, put directors on an assembly line, including himself, filmed a backlot burning to the ground and went to Europe to find the perfect actress to play an American Southern Belle and, by God, it worked!
The same guy previously thought the story of a freakishly large gorilla falling in love with a tiny human lady and climbing up the Empire State Building with her was also a good story to go with, and he was right there, too!
Remember that kid from Kenosha? He used jungle footage from the gorilla movie to film a contemporary Florida party scene in the movie he didn’t mess up and no one even noticed, or cared, that a pterodactyl flew through the scene.
A kid from England and a kid from Vaudeville became the two greatest artists of the silents. Harold Lloyd wasn’t bad either.
Hollywood saw Bela Lugosi and Boris Karloff and said, “Oh yeah, these two are bank!” They didn’t care what country they were from.
Speaking of which, Universal Horror. Simply the best.
Cary Grant had a brazenly obvious Not-American Accent, and no one cared or ever even bothered to explain it, even with a throwaway line about the old country.
“ Help me, Clarence, please. Please! I want to live again! I want to live again. I want to live again. Please, God, let me live again.”
Boy, Jimmy Stewart, right? Jimmy Stewart.
Also, Ray Milland in The Lost Weekend. No one says, “Say, aren’t you from England?” Nobody cared. Suspend your disbelief and shut up.
Norma Shearer reinvented herself for the talkies and succeeded. Greta Garbo did too. So did Joan Crawford.
Claudette Colbert pulled up her skirt, showed some leg and got a ride. And an Oscar.
Judy Garland sang a song about rainbows by a pile of hay on a dusty old farm and the world fell in love with her.
Lena Horne sang a song about the weather and the world never forgot.
And all the other songs! The Cole Porters and the Gershwins. The Duke Ellingtons and the Irving Berlins.
Edwin Porter and D.W. Griffith and Buster Keaton and Cecil B. DeMille and Charlie Chaplin and King Vidor and all the other silent era titans that redefined the language of cinema.
And so many more. Elizabeth Taylor and Natalie Wood, starting small and growing into their careers. Marilyn Monroe and Lana Turner. Fredric March and Gary Cooper. The amazing Gene Kelly. The amazing Mae West. The amazing Cyd Charisse. The amazing Frank Sinatra. The amazing Eleanor Powell. The amazing Nicholas Brothers. Dorothy Dandridge and Grace Kelly. Marlon Brando and James Dean and Montgomery Clift and before all of them, John Garfield. And Elvis Presley. And Rudolph Valentino. And a million other things to be proud of on this day. There are hundreds upon hundreds more but I have to stop somewhere. I’ve left off some big names too, on purpose, hoping you’ll fill them in.
As with anything, there’s plenty to be embarrassed about too but that’s for another time, another post. For now, let’s celebrate America’s birthday by celebrating the great gift of cinema that Hollywood gave us all for so many years. And let’s not forget: Most of the guys who started this whole crazy business that produced the art we all love so much were immigrants, coming to America with a dream and a vision. It’s only fitting that it was here they found their home and the movies was where they found their expression. Happy Birthday, America! Here’s to another 236 and Golden Ages as far as the eye, or projector, can see.
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