Sunday, December 05, 2010

The Past and the Future in Several Vintage American Films

I watched two old movies this weekend, one of which was a true classic, and the other not so much.

First, I went to a showing of The Wizard of Oz at a vintage local theater. The "big screen" makes a big difference. It was the first time in quite a while that I've been out to the movies, and I half-expected to look up and see the beams of light from the projector piercing the darkness above our heads, and even to hear the faint humm of the projector itself. I guess I'm the type of guy who misses that sort of thing.

The other old movie I watched this weekend (at home on dvd) was The Egg and I (1947), one of those utterly silly movies that is nevertheless interesting as a marker of its period.

Movies in the 30s and 40s often displayed a naive World-of-Tomorrow confidence about the future with alls its marvelous gadgetry and convenience. But at the same time there is often a somewhat contradictory longing for the idealized American past and/or the simple life. In the 1930s, the nostalgic longing for the past was a more likely theme, with movies often revealing a simmering discontent with the trend-lines into the future. On the other hand, in the post-war 40s the balance shifted toward the idealization of the future. Optimism about technology and economies of scale carry the day. Wizard, made in the tenth year of the depression and in the same year as the Nazi invasion of Poland, is really all about that longing for a simpler past, while (to take a seasonal example) It's a Wonderful Life (1946) in the end seems to imagine that in suburbia (the preeminent post-war idyll) these two contradictory longings will be perfectly reconciled. Family will be preserved, there will be harmony in diversity, the personal will win out over the impersonal.

In The Egg and I a city couple attempts to find happiness in country living (on a chicken farm), very much along the lines of the 60s TV show Green Acres. The farmhouse is a broken-down shack, with no indoor plumbing and a seriously leaky roof. The movie is very silly and full of more or less egregious stereotypes, of course. Produced in the optimistic post-war era (like It's a Wonderful Life), the longing for the pre-convenient simple life is here treated as noble yet unrealistic, and in the end (after some bizarre plot-twisting) the couple winds up with a chicken farm, yes, but also a beautiful modern home with all the desired conveniences. There, a happy ending!

Well, it wasn't the way of Hollywood in those days (the post-war 40s) to harbor reservations about modernity, which is one of the reasons, it seems to me, that the films of that decade are shallower than those of the 30s. In Wizard (1939) those reservations form a strong undercurrent. See also Make Way for Tomorrow (1937) and You Can't Take It with You (1938) for two films of the 30s in which those reservations are clearly on display.


Erin Hope said...

i just saw 'it's a wonderful life' for the first time last night.

Bob said...

Wow, first time! I've seen it maybe 20 times. To tell you the truth, I finally got tired of it, and haven't watched it in a few years. If you liked it, I've got a better one for you to try: You Can't Take it with You. Also Jimmy Stewart, but eight years earlier. I think it's one of the best movies ever made, says everything Wonderful Life says, but better.

Erin Hope said...

yeah, I don't know how I made it 25 years without seeing it when I'd always heard of it, just never actually seen it.
I'll check the other one out. thanks!