May 1, 2015

Carol Smallwood: Essay "Old Black and White Films"

Carol Smallwood's most recent books include Water, Earth, Air, Fire, and Picket Fences (Lamar University Press, 2014); Divining the Prime Meridian (WordTech Communications, 2015); and Writing After Retirement (Rowman & Littlefield, 2014). Carol has founded, supports humane societies.

Old Black and White Films

 It is a privilege to have the leisure and access to black and white films including some even before the “talkies” and see such actresses as ethereal Lilian Gish to an early Lauren Bacall. Last night it was Dark City that introduced Charlton Heston before his technicolor spectaculars like Ben Hur and Jack Webb before he turned Sergeant Joe Friday in Dragnet; Henry Morgan was in the movie also before becoming Col. Sherman T. Potter in M.A.S.H.  I  also viewed a young Raymond Burr in 1948 Pitfall before he became known in television’s Perry Mason and Ironside.
    Some old films have fortunately been placed in The Moving Picture Archive such as Impact produced in 1949 but a large percentage have crumbled away. The quality of scripts varies widely as those out today; one can tell a few seconds if it is to one’s taste. The roles for women has been an eye opener: women as platinum blondes of mobsters, proper nuns in habits, grandmothers enforcing etiquette, mothers in aprons and low shoes, the school marms, the old maids resembling those in the Old Maid card game, the abused wives hiding bruises from shame.  
    In film noir (black film), in the 1940-1950’s Hollywood thrillers and detective films used stylistic sharp shadows to show isolation and violent death. Some like The Big Combo, has been digitally remastered. Anti-heroes and scheming women were popular those. Many film noirs have night settings: car lights, train smoke, flicker of fireplaces, candles, ever present cigarette smoke, smog, fog, lights reflected in the rain, shifting shadows. There are so many shades of gray between black and white: one notices texture, design, mood, lines, more than in color films.
    These old films (except film noir) provide reassurance: simpler times seemingly more predictable, a slower pace without our current technology. One enjoys a sense of omniscience seeing kids on tree swings in picket yards with milk bottles on the porch. Women wore gloves, little girls pigtails. Good triumphed over bad; Aristotle in his Poetics (the earliest work that survived on dramatic theory) believed audiences do not like villains profiting from misery. The Production Code Administration required all films released on or after July 1, 1934 to obtain a certificate of approval before release and for more than thirty years after, most motion pictures produced in the United States and released by major studios followed the code. I’ve seen these certificates with film credits. I’ve also seen those by the British Board of Censors: for example before the film credits of Angels One Five certifying that it “has been passed for general exhibition.” Swear words were not spoken and the current variety of deprecation wasn’t around yet; kisses were timed.
     Old films allow the viewer to approximate the year the film was produced by the make of cars, clothes, furniture, the way people walk and talk, the music, makeup, hair styles, and so many other details that define the times we take for granted in our own. Change is a subtle thing and those living with the Seven Wonders of the Ancient World most likely never saw them slowly changing. Seeing names of stars of one’s youth provides continuity and confirmation when you recognize faces. And yet these times often swept much under the rug like past eras: patriarchal respectability was highly valued and domestic violence was handled like the proverbial ostrich head in the sand.
     Black and white films have an immediacy, a direct emotional involvement with the viewer. The lack of color, the camera’s juxtapositions demand our concentration. One is presented with complexities in composition in a way that impacts quite like no other medium—but in the end we all see as individuals through our own backgrounds.

~Carol Smallwood

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