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Hoses of the Holy in the Parallel Universe

January 04, 2006

Have old films been ruined for us?

I was just talking to James and Loui about this, but it was a throwaway comment on Pootergeek about The Big Sleep the other day that set me thinking,

I recorded a couple of oldies recently. Bringing Up Baby just about held its own, marred as it is by now with such poor sound (there must be a restored version, surely?), and I haven't watched The Big Sleep yet, but The Philadelphia Story made me think. Most of the IMDb user comments on the film are gushingly positive, so it's clear that a lot of people still watch old films with unalloyed pleasure, but the tenor of the positive comments does make me wonder if people don't protest just a little too much.

Only one comment, from fowler-1 stood out for me as being an honest, un-tinted assessment of the film as it comes across today. One uncomfortable aspect of the movie is the character assassination meted out to Tracy Lord, as played by Katherine Hepburn:

The real irony here is, though THE PHILADELPHIA STORY did renew Hepburn's Hollywood career, it reinforced the audience's distrustful perceptions of her, so that generations of moviegoers have come to think of Tracy Lord and Katherine Hepburn as one and the same."

It's hard to leave aside 65 years of sexual politics and listen to the speeches of Cary Grant and then John Halliday as they blame Hepburn for everything without feeling a little bit uncomfortable. But apart from that, I think our modern sensibilities have been ambushed by years of Method acting, and New Hollywood story telling, so that films like this can seem quaint, stagy, and wooden.
I always hate films that are obviously filmed plays (step forward, Closer), and - given the technology of the time - the feeble attempt to open up The Philadelphia Story is so obviously clunky (the sound is so clearly different, for a start) that it makes me squirm. The dialogue seems stilted and is delivered in that classic declarative way that the likes of Steve McQueen and DeNiro have rendered obsolete (I deliberately don't mention Brando, because he was shite).
Cary Grant, even then, doesn't seem exactly comfortable in his role, and comes across as someone turning up for a pay cheque, and Hepburn herself surely wouldn't get work today, on this evidence.

Of the three major stars, only James Stewart comes across well, I think. I don't know why that is: maybe because even "acting drunk" with clichéed hiccoughs, he is likeable, and I think there are subtleties to his performance which just aren't there for the others.

You expect certain things from black and white movies from the 30s and 40s, and it's obviously unfair to judge them from the standards of today, but sometimes you just can't help "seeing the joins" in the brittle style of such films. I still enjoyed it, but I probably wouldn't seek it out again.


  • I think a lot of modern films are spoiled by the special effects in them.

    You can be sure that the very things that make people go "woo" today will look as dated as a box of Mr Kipling mince pies in your local corner shop in July.

    We've talked about this sort of thing in regard to flash and web sites.

    It's a mistake to judge a film on the basis of the special effects employed because we're just too close to them to be discerning.

    Give a film 30 years and then consider its validity.

    By Blogger SimonHolyHoses, at 9:30 am  

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