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Friday, 14 June 2013

Black And White Movies

I never was much of a movie goer. It was always a now and then thing for me. When movie rental places opened up in the late 1970s I would sometimes get confused about the titles and bring home something I had already seen before. This isn’t to say that I never went to a movie theatre, I did, maybe just not as much as some who always wanted to see the latest thing on the big screen.
I think the first full length movie I ever saw was on TV around 1954 or 1955. It was Babes In Toyland with comedians Laurel and Hardy. Television was desperate back then for stuff they could fill the hours with and often their choices were wrestling or old movies. In fact they were so desperate that they sometimes showed silent movies with musical backgrounds.
I remember seeing a number of Harold Lloyd silent movies on the tube back then. About a month ago Turner Classics showcased some of Lloyd’s movies and he certainly could give Charlie Chaplin a run for his money as far as slapstick goes. He did some amazing stunts and managed to accomplish them without the use of a few digits on one of his hands.
In 1956 my grandfather took me to see Mike Todd’s Around The World In 80 Days at a theatre in downtown Montreal. It might have been at The Capital, The Princess, The Palace, or at The Loews. That same year I saw the movie Trapeze with Burt Lancaster and Tony Curtis at a drive-in in Plattsburg, New York. I know I saw a few other movies in theatres during the 50s but the only other one I can recall right now is Some Like It Hot with Marilyn Munroe, Jack Lemon, and Tony Curtis. I saw it in London, England.
When I was about 8 or 9 there was a summer movie series on CBC (Canadian Broadcasting Corp.) that was sponsored by Kraft Foods. At the beginning of the show the camera would pan in on a slowly turning camera guy on a boom. The camera guy and the boom looked like they were made of wood. I got to see some of the classics that summer including Key Largo, Pickwick Papers, The Petrified Forest, Goodbye Mr. Chips, Great Expectations, and The Tuttles Of Tahiti.
I watched these movies with my mother. Sometimes the lead windows in our living room would be wide open due to the summer heat. My mother seemed to know who all the charactor actors were. My guess is she saw a lot of movies at the nearby Monkland Theatre when my father was overseas during WW2. I think she had a bit of a crush on Tyrone Power.
When I was about 10 some distant relative died and we inherited an extra TV. For a while that TV sat in the room I shared with my brother who was a sound sleeper. Back then the CBC showed old movies at about 11:30 p.m. I laughed my ass off watching Terry Thomas in Blue Murder At St. Trinians. One night my father walked into my bedroom in the middle of The Fuller Brush Man with Red Skelton and the TV was removed the next day.
I kind of fell in love with old black and white movies. I was hooked. Often the story lines were quite predictable but that wasn’t the point. In some ways I was watching history,…. the old cars, the way people lived, the mannerisms, the corny jokes, the clothes people wore, the lingo of the times. On top of all that I was watching actors and actresses in their prime.

In the late 60s old movies and old movie stars became camp. You could buy a poster of Bogie, The Marx Brothers, W.C. Fields, Fred Astaire and many others whose heyday had been 25 or 30 years earlier. In cities across Canada and the US some second rate theatres began showing the classics often catering to the college crowd.
Yes all old black and white movies weren’t classics. You needed a lot of stamina to watch a George Arliss movie. Arliss was an ugly looking old man who almost always seemed to be overacting. He was the same in every movie he made. An hour and a half of listening to Arliss’s pompous English accent while portraying Voltaire or Cardinal Richelieu could drain you.
George Arliss as Disraeli
My tastes in movies are kind of simple. I like a good story. I like slice of life kind of things about average people. I like clever humour and good dialogue. I don’t want to be rushed. I want to be able to absorb. I want to come away from a movie knowing I have seen something that makes me think or at least know that I didn’t waste my time. Unlike many others I have little interest in science fiction, action movies, or fantasies. I lost interest in cartoons a long time ago.
So…this is supposed to be a short story which means I can only cover so much ground. Books have been written about singular movies. About all I can offer up here is some observations and recommendations of some of the thousands of movies I have seen over the years.  I will only be talking about black and white movies.
My Picks For Best 100 Black And White Movies Of All Time
#1 Citizen Kane, #2 The Best Years Of Our Lives, #3 Casablanca, #4 The Grapes Of Wrath, #5 Sweet Smell Of Success, #6 Sunset Boulevard, #7 Strangers On A Train, #8 Goodbye Mr. Chips, #9 All Quite On The Western Front, #10 The Petrified Forest, #11 Mildred Pierce, #12 Dark Victory, #13 Great Expectations, #14 It Happened One Night, #15 Mr. Smith Goes To Washington, #16 King’s Row, #17 Lost Weekend, #18 Double Indemnity, #19 The Treasure Of The Sierra Madre, #20 It’s A Wonderful Life, #21 Key Largo, #22 Sullivan’s Travels, #23 I Was A Fugitive From A Chain Gang, #24 The Asphalt Jungle, #25 The Postman Always Rings Twice, #26 His Girl Friday, #27 My Man Godfrey, #28 Touch Of Evil, #29 The Third Man, #30 The Oxbow Incident, #31 Mutiny On The Bounty, #32 Notorious, #33 The Maltese Falcon, #34 High Noon, #35 Going My Way, #36 Lifeboat, #37 The Killers, #38 Mrs. Miniver, #39 Out Of The Past, #40 Arsenic And Old Lace, #41 Hobson’s Choice, #42 Pickwick Papers, #43 Cape Fear, #44 12 Angry Men, #45 49th Parallel, #46 Murder My Sweet, #47 To Have And Have Not, #48 42nd Street, #49 Pickup On South Street, #50 All About Eve. #51 Inherit The Wind, #52 On The Waterfront, #53 To Kill A Mockingbird, #54 Top Hat, #55 The Big Sleep, #56 39 Steps #57 Stalag 17, #58 From Here To Eternity, #59 In Cold Blood, #60 Anatomy Of A Murder, #61 The Bad And The Beautiful, #62 Gunga Din, #63 The Philadelphia Story, #64 The Naked City, #65 Gold Diggers Of 1933, #66 All The King’s Men, #67 The More The Merrier, #68 Shadow Of Doubt,  #69 The Talk Of The Town, #70 Detour, #71 The Shop Around The Corner, #72 Now, Voyager, #73 The Magnificent Ambersons, #74 Treasure Island, #75 The Pride Of The Yankees, #76 A Letter To Three Wives, #77 Murder, My Sweet, #78 Lady In The Lake, #79 Sahara, #80 The Devil And Miss Jones, #81 Call Northside 777, #82 The Man Who Came To Dinner, #83 Till The End Of Time, #84 A Night To Remember, #85 Night And The City, #86 Kiss Me Deadly, #87 Sorry, Wrong Number, #88 Marty, #89 In Cold Blood, #90 Robin Hood, #91 Raging Bull, #92 Night Of The Hunter, #93 The Hustler, #94 Requiem For A Heavyweight, #95 The Last Picture Show, #96 Some Like It Hot, #97  The Tuttles Of Tahiti, #98 The Man Who Came To Dinner, #99 Lost Horizon, #100 Mr. Deeds Goes To Town.
The Sweet Smell Of Success
 Memorable Black & White Movie Moments
The Best Years Of Our Lives….when the officer played by Frederick March returns home unannounced from the war and his teenaged kids answer the doorbell to their apartment. He puts his finger to his lips to keep the kids quiet. There is moment of silence. His wife who is played by Myrna Loy is in the kitchen. She asks who is at the door. Suddenly she realizes that her husband is home after being away for years.

The Best Years Of Our Lives
The Big Broadcast of 1938….Bob Hope and his wife who is played by Shirley Ross are close to divorcing. They are sitting at a bar on an ocean liner. They sing the song Thanks For The Memories.

The Big Broadcast Of 1938
The Oxbow Incident….Henry Fonda and Harry Morgan (MASH) are cowboys standing at a saloon bar in some small western town probably around 1880. 2 men have just been hung who were suspected of cattle rustling and murder. Fonda had tried to intervene on their behalf. It is discovered that the man who was supposedly murdered is alive. Fonda starts to read the letter one of the lynched men had written his wife before he died. The brim of Harry Morgan’s hat  blocks the view of Fonda’s eyes while Fonda reads the letter.
The Oxbow Incident
Gold Diggers Of 1933….A Great Depression movie made to cheer people up in hard times. Ginger Rogers sings We’re In The Money in English and Pig Latin.
Citizen Kane…. Heavyset Orson Welles dances with chorus girls.
The Third Man….Post 2nd World War Vienna, Austria. Orson Welles, Joseph Cotton, Trevor Howard. The haunting Harry Lime Theme is played throughout the movie.
The Grapes Of  Wrath….John Steinbeck’s fine story about the downtrodden in the Great Depression.  Henry Fonda plays Tom Joad.  At the end of the movie and in spite of experiencing much suffering in his own life and his family’s life Tom gives a speech about not giving up. “Wherever there’s a cop beating up a guy…I’ll be there!”
Strangers On A Train….Farley Granger plays an amateur tennis player who meets Robert Walker on a train. Granger wants to divorce his unfaithful wife and Walker wants to murder his wealthy father. Walker tries to convince Granger that they should murder for each other. One of Hitchcock’s best movies.

Strangers On A Train
The Bolero. In this 1934 film before the Hays Code, Carole Lombard and George Raft dance together and at one point his hands are on her breasts.
The Asphalt Jungle…. Film Noir at its best. Nobody did it better than Sterling Hayden. Sam Jaffe is on the run but stops at a roadside café while his taxi driver who is going to drive him Cleveland waits. Jaffe gives some teenagers a roll of nickels so they can play the jukebox and he can watch them dance. He is arrested as he leaves.
The Asphalt Jungle
Casablanca…..”Here’s looking at you kid!” Say no more. The classic movie with the classic lines, made at a time when the world was getting a lot scarier. Bogart never looked better. He was in his prime.  George Raft had turned down the part of Rick. Everything fell into place with this movie.

 Great Character Actors And Actresses
Lionel Barrymore. Key Largo and It’s a Wonderful Life.

Eve Arden. Mildred Pierce.
Eve Arden

Jack Carson
Jack Carson. Mildred Pierce.

Cecil Kellaway
Cecil Kellaway. The Postman Always Rings Twice.
John Qualen.

The Grapes Of Wrath and Casablanca.
John Qualen
Barry Fitzgerald. Going My Way.
Sydney Greenstreet. The Maltese Falcon and Casablanca.
Sydney Greenstreet
Peter Lorre. The Maltese Falcon and Casablanca.
Peter Lorre
Elisha Cook. The Maltese Falcon.
Elisha Cook
Hoagy Carmichael. The Best Years Of Our Lives.
Monty Wooley. The Man Who Came To Dinner.
Eugene Pallette. My Man Godfrey.
Eugene Pallette
Spring Byington. The Devil And Miss Jones.
Spring Byington
S.Z. Sakall. Casablanca
S.Z. Sakall
Mary Wickes. Now, Voyager.
Charles Coburn. The More The Merrier.
Charles Coburn
Edward Everett Horton. Top Hat and Lost Horizon.
James Gleason. Here Comes Mr. Jordan.

Some Thoughts On Black & White Movie Stars

Humphrey Bogart. I think he singularly has the best body of work in the history of movies. He kind of stunk out the joint a bit when he started and he wasn’t that great just before he died (he looked worn out in Sabrina) but in between he made a number of exceptional movies that I don’t think will ever be matched. The Petrified Forest, Key Largo, Casablanca, The Treasure Of The Sierra Madre, African Queen, To Have And Have Not, The Caine Mutiny, The Maltese Falcon (“The stuff that dreams are made of.”), Dark Passage, and The Big Sleep. All actors and actresses have their prime and Bogey was in his in Casablanca.

Spencer Tracy. Very likely the best movie actor ever. He could do it all and make it look so easy, from screwball comedies to The Old Man And The Sea. Bogie couldn’t do that.

Spencer Tracy
Bette Davis. Nobody could play a bitch like she could. A bit over the top at times.
Bette Davis
Clark Gable.  Always a man’s man, he could do comedy pretty well too. You pretty well knew what you were going to get with Gable and nobody seemed to mind. He was still playing the stud right up until the end in The Misfits.
Clark Gable
Joan Crawford. I never found her appealing. For some reason she looked to me like someone with bad hygiene. She did knock it out of the park in Mildred Pierce. She didn’t look great as she got older.
Joel McCrea. Although he finished his career making mostly westerns he had a nice care free presence when he was younger and was in some great screwball comedies including The More The Merrier.
Joel McCrea
James Cagney. I liked his energy but I found him to be too much of the in your face type and he always seemed to be punching someone.
Ginger Rogers. She could do it all, comedy, serious acting, singing and dancing. She did everything that Fred Astaire did except she did it backwards in heels.
Katherine Hepburn. A good actress but her screechy voice could sound like scraping your fingers on a blackboard. Was great in The African Queen.
Myrna Loy. The perfect wife, she had great chemistry with William Powell.
Errol Flynn. You pretty well knew that he didn’t really give a shit about much and was having fun until his time was done. He had a nice lilt in his voice. You knew he liked the ladies. He had a wild off screen image.
Charles Laughton. He had the fat leading actor category sewn up, was in some great films.
Gary Cooper. Pretty predictable in most movies as the strong silent type but could do light comedy if he had to.
Dick Powell. Looked like a nerd when he was younger but came into his own later in his life in Film Noir movies.
Edward G. Robinson. Great at playing gangsters as he did in Key Largo.
Mickey Rooney. An amazing talent. I’m still trying to figure out how a guy that short could marry Ava Gardner.
Norma Shearer. She might have been the first actress that brought both class and glamour to the movies. She was one fine looking woman.
Jean Harlow. Always looked like a waitress in some 1930s greasy spoon to me. Never thought she was much to look at. She hardly ever wore a bra. Died young.
Zachary Scott. Nobody could play a cad better than him.

Zachary Scott
Marlene Dietrich. Not my idea of a beauty.
John Wayne. Could be good or terrible. The Conqueror. Really?
Cary Grant. Nobody could touch him when it came to light comedy.

Cary Grant
Fred Astaire. Average looking man with unaverage grace.

Fred Astaire & Ginger Rogers
May West. How anyone ever found her sexy is beyond me.
Jean Arthur. Loved her!
Jean Arthur
Jimmy Stewart. Yesterday’s Tom Hanks. Who didn’t like Jimmy Stewart?
Joseph Cotton. Great voice.
Henry Fonda. Made some great message movies including The Oxbow Incident, The Grapes Of Wrath, and 12 Angry Men.
William Powell. Could charm the pants off of women even with a weak chin.
Barbara Stanwyck. Could play hardboiled, breezy, or vulnerable.

Barbara Stanwyck
Frederick March. Great actor with versatility.
Wallace Beery. Great at playing stumble bums. Supposedly took part in the beating death of Ted Healy in real life.
Greta Garbo. I never got the mystery about her. It must have been a 30s thing.
Irene Dunne. Mostly boring.
George Brent. Soap opera kind of movie guy. Supposedly slept with more actresses than almost any other movie star.
Leslie Howard. Made some great movies like The Petrified Forest. Died when the passenger plane he was in was shot down in WW2.
Rosalind Russell. Was in His Girl Friday, one of the best written dialogues ever in the movies.


Times have certainly changed since the older black and white talkies of the 30s and 40s. Back then rich people were shown living the high life oblivious to the hardships being suffered by their fellow citizens. Being drunk was always supposed to be funny. Married couples always had separate beds. Making love was basically just kissing. Black people were mostly portrayed as simpletons.
It was what it was.
Now or then, if you want to escape for an hour and twenty minutes, black and white movies can suck you right in. Sure we now know that Frank Capra movies were often wishful thinking but what the hell. The lion roars, bolts of electricity shoot out from the RKO logo, a woman in a robe holds a torch in her hand, all signalling the beginning of the movie. Watching one of those movies today is like a walk through 20th century history when times were a lot simpler.
Stick the popcorn in the microwave. Fluff up that pillow on the comfy couch. Dim the lights. Roll film.
And remember…if your dog is in the your living room with you this might be right up his alley because he or she is of course…..colour blind.
There is nothing like a good old black & white.

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