Friday, February 14, 2014

The Best of Old Hollywood on Film

Photo by Richard Lund
The Golden Age of Hollywood has always fascinated both young and old. Hollywood itself holds a strange fascination within society as the lives of the rich and famous create an uncanny interest in young and old.

However, it is the Hollywood that was from the 1920's through to the mid-1950's that creates the greatest intrigue. Just why is that? Well, the main reason for this is simply because many of us were not around during these years and even fewer were in Hollywood then. The movie business first came to the southern California neighbourhood of Hollywood in the early 1910's and within a few short years the town became known as the place to be if you worked or wanted to work in film. When people think about old Hollywood, the word that firstly comes to mind more often than not is glamorous. We often think of the beautiful and classy stars of the golden era and of the days when Hollywood Boulevard was all lit up in lights and the epicentre of all that was glamorous.

The Hollywood of today is a far cry from the Hollywood of the golden age, both in culture and in attitude. Many would argue that the Hollywood of old is superior to the Hollywood of today, but that period was also not without it's problems. Although 60 years have passed since those days, interest in the golden age hasn't been quite as fleeting. Many of the stars from then are still household names now and thousands flock to Hollywood Boulevard each year to see sights such as the Chinese Theatre and the Hollywood Roosevelt Hotel just to get a flicker of the feeling of what it would have been like to live in those times.

For those of us who long to be part of Hollywood's golden era but will never be able to witness, the next best thing to seeing it with our own eyes is seeing it recreated on film. Hollywood still maintains a love affair with itself from that time and there are countless films that have been made over the years that are set in old Hollywood. The best of these films represent old Hollywood with the utmost accuracy in regards to the culture, locations, historical figures and events. Again, there are many, many films made about both true and fictional events that took place during the early years of Hollywood, but there are nine films we have chosen that we believe do this better than others and gives us a real glimpse into what the early years were like.

In determining the following films, Movie Critical is honoured to have Lisa Malouf aboard to help us out. Lisa is a film reviewer for both The Limerick Review and Graffiti With Punctuation and an expert in everything old Hollywood. The trivia supplied for each of the following films comes courtesy of her and her love for the golden age of Hollywood.

Year: 1997
Director: Curtis Hanson
Cast: Kevin Spacey, Russell Crowe, Guy Pearce, Kim Basinger, James Cromwell, David Strathairn

Based on James Ellroy's novel of the same name, L.A. Confidential isn't your typical film about Hollywood's golden age, but must be featured on this list as it completely captures Los Angeles in the 1950's and also of the less romantic side of Hollywood experienced by those who miss out on seeing their name in lights. This film about corruption in the LAPD is a fictional tale, but is mixed with real Hollywood figures such as Mickey Cohen and features the relationship between his right hand man, Johnny Stompanato and Lana Turner (who both feature in the funniest scene of the film).

What this film shows which many films about old Hollywood don't is the unglamorous side of Hollywood. While we so often think about the bright lights of Hollywood and stars dressed to the nines for their movie premieres, we forget that even in the 1950's there were hundreds if not thousands who came searching for fame and fortune and didn't find it here. There was also the dirty and sleazy side of Hollywood as seen here in L.A. Confidential by the call girl ring where women are made to look like movie stars for their clients (eg. Kim Basinger's Lynn Bracken is their Veronica Lake). There were also those looking for stardom and come into contact with the wrong people who are the cause for their untimely deaths. The film completely captures the atmosphere of 1950's Hollywood seen by those in the film and reminds us that like today, with Hollywood doesn't always come the glitz and glamour.

Trivia-  Three of L.A. Confidential’s stars got their starts in Aussie soap operas:
* Russell Crowe (co-lead) was in Neighbours in the late 80s. This film was one of his first high profile U.S. roles. He went on to receive Best Actor Oscar nominations in three consecutive years, including a win for Gladiator in 2001.
* Guy Pearce (co-lead) started out in Neighbours and Home and Away. This  was his first big U.S. film. He went on to many high profile films, such as Memento, and has won an Emmy and been nominated for a Golden Globe.
 * Simon Baker (minor role) started out in E Street and Home and Away, and made his big screen debut in this film. He went on to star The Mentalist, which regularly pulls over 15 million viewers per week, and to receive two Golden Globe nominations.

Year: 1950
Director: Billy Wilder
Cast: William Holden, Gloria Swanson, Erich von Stroheim, Nancy Olson

Sunset Blvd. is considered by many to be among the best films ever made. Considering it was made during the time period which we are looking at and is about Hollywood in that time, the locations are authentic and although the story is fictional, the themes were extremely relevant to many in Hollywood. Sunset Blvd. is about a screenwriter, Joe Gillis (William Holden) who by chance comes across the house of silent film star, Norma Desmond (unforgettably portrayed by Gloria Swanson) and is swept into her world of madness before he has enough time to realise what is happening.

The switch from silent film to sound was a major development in Hollywood in the late 1920's and early 1930's and affected many who made their career in the silent era. Sound marked the end to many silent film stars who couldn't make the switch for various reasons. It was a change which many couldn't come to grips with and who couldn't get used to not being able to have the life they once had. This is a theme we will see again over again in these featured films as it marked such a historical turning point in film and in turn, the culture in Hollywood. Norma Desmond is a scary character, but she is the perfect example of a silent film star who was huge and cannot come to grips with the way Hollywood had changed and as a result, goes quite mad. As she says in one of the classic lines in film, "I am big, it's the pictures that got small"

Visually, the film gives you a perfect view of what Hollywood was like in 1950, particularly on Sunset Blvd. This film is the one to watch if you are interested in seeing the architecture in Southern California of the times.

Trivia-The character of the First Assistant Director in Sunset Blvd makes the comment that Norma Desmond 'Must be a million years old'. Norma is in fact meant to be fifty, which was the real age of actor Gloria Swanson. Though there's no denying that both in Old Hollywood and now there's an unfair disparity between what's considered 'old' for female and for male actors - and there's still a huge way to go in terms of changing attitudes and closing this gap - it's still hard to imaging that in 1950, fifty was considered seriously 'ancient', when we think about some of today's female actors (eg Laura Linney and Helen Hunt who are both 50, and Juliette Binoche and Sandra Bullock, who turn 50 shortly) and many of the roles they play.

Year: 1952
Director: Vincente Minnelli
Cast: Kirk Douglas, Lana Turner, Walter Pidgeon, Dick Powell, Gloria Grahame

Like Sunset Blvd., The Bad and the Beautiful is a film that is filmed in Hollywood about Hollywood in the time which it was made. Unlike L.A. Confidential, this film perfects the glamorous side of Hollywood in the 1950's. It is materialistically glamorous, yet does also show the ugly side of fame and fortune. Portrayed by Kirk Douglas, Jonathan Shields is a ruthless film producer who does whatever he has to do to be successful and that includes using whoever he can to his advantage. A film director (Barry Sullivan), writer (Dick Powell) and actress (Lana Turner) are all among the unlucky and tell their side of the story in which Shields in the main character in all.

The Bad and the Beautiful is a snapshot of the film industry and it's players in the 1950's. There is a great deal to be learnt about inside the business in old Hollywood from this film, but a lot of it is still relevant today meaning that there are still people like Shields who use who they have to do to get ahead in the world. Yet, visually it is all old Hollywood. You get to see the set of an old Hollywood film, the amazing parties you associate the times with and of course, the fashion and some very classy automobiles.

Trivia- The Bad and the Beautiful holds the record for the most Oscar wins for a film not nominated for Best Picture. Its five wins were for Supporting Actress (Gloria Grahame),  Story and Screenplay, Art Direction (Black and White*), Cinematography (B+W) and Costume Design (B+W). Kirk Douglas (Michael's dad) was also nominated for Best Actor, but lost out to Gary Cooper for High Noon.
[* There was a time in the Academy's history (from 1940 to 1967), when separate awards were given out for colour and black and white films in some categories].

Year: 2011
Director: Michel Hazanavicius
Cast: Jean Dujardin, Berenice Bejo, John Goodman, James Cromwell, Penelope Ann Miller

The Artist is an extraordinary film. Set in the late 1920's and made in 2011, it is made using the techniques of the silent films such as black and white film and although it is not completely silent, uses very little sound. George Valentin (played by Jean Dujardin) is the biggest star of the silent screen and lives a comfortable life of luxury. When sound is introduced, he believes it is just a fad and sets out to prove that the silent can still be just as successful as sound. However, Valentin must somehow realise before it is too late that the silent era is over and that sound is here to stay.

Once again, The Artist is another film about the switch from silent to sound in Hollywood and provides a wonderful slice of Hollywood history. It captures this moment in time with such beauty and romanticism and is extremely nostalgic of the time period. Yet, as beautiful as it is, it doesn't neglect the heartbreak that sound bought to so many silent film actors and workers. It gives a clear distinction of the change in the way film was perceived by the public as it changed and suddenly became something so modern for its time. The locations used and the fashion are also a wonderful representation of what life was like in Hollywood at this point in time.

Trivia-There's an exquisite scene in The Artist where Poppy Miller (Bejo) wraps herself in Valentin's coat. She slips her arm into his sleeve, and brings the coat 'to life', so that it appears they are in an embrace. This beautiful little scene is a nod to the silent film Seventh Heaven (1927), when Diane (Janet Gaynor) wraps herself up in Chico (Charles Farrell)'s coat. She's seated in a chair that the coat is hanging on, and lovingly wraps the 'arms' around her and nuzzles into the fabric. Diane and Poppy even slide their arms into the same sleeve (right), though Diane uses her left arm, and Poppy her right.

Year: 2004
Director: Martin Scorsese
Cast: Leonardo DiCaprio, Cate Blanchett, Kate Beckinsale, Alec Baldwin, Alan Alda

Martin Scorsese's Howard Hughes biopic, The Aviator helps with our knowledge about old Hollywood in many ways. Of course the life of Hughes is intriguing to begin with, but Hughes' presence in Hollywood from the 1920's till the 1940's is not the only thing we learn and grasp about that age from the film. Hughes (Leonardo DiCaprio) made his presence known in Hollywood not only for his direction, but for his ability to catch some of Hollywood's most beautiful and successful women. His aviation ventures also made him a household name as well as his well known phobias and obsessions.

Scorsese perfectly captures the 1920's/30's in Hollywood and picks the perfect place to showcase this, The Cocoanut Grove at the Ambassador Hotel. The Cocoanut Grove was one of the most popular places for the rich and famous to be seen and the atmosphere of this club is perfectly captured here as you feel the energy of the club in each of the scenes it is featured in. In The Aviator, the silent era comes to a close while Hughes is directing Hell's Angels and the extravagant film maker copes with this by putting his silent film back into production after it has finished in order to make it a sound film. The film also shows how Hughes dealt with censors for The Outlaw, when he was questioned about how revealing Jane Russell's clothing was. This is also an important part of learning about how the restrictions that were placed on films during this era and how directors such as Hughes got around them.

Yet, it is the characters in The Aviator that give us a glimpse into the world of Hollywood's golden age. As well as DiCaprio's amazing performance as Hughes, the film also features Cate Blanchett in her Oscar winning role as Katharine Hepburn, Kate Beckinsale as Ava Gardner, Jude Law as Errol Flynn and Gwen Stefani as Jean Harlow. Reminiscing about old Hollywood always involves dreams of the true stars like these mentioned and all of the actors give incredibly realistic performances of each of these iconic stars.

Trivia- The Aviator was director Martin Scorsese's second of five collaborations with Leonardo DiCaprio, after Gangs of New York two years earlier. They would go on to work together again on The Departed in 2006, Shutter Island four years later, and most recently The Wolf of Wall Street in 2013. An impressive number of collaborations, but well behind Scorsese' nine with Robert De Niro.

Year: 1937
Director: William A. Wellman
Cast: Janet Gaynor, Frederic March, Adolphe Menjou, Andy Devine, Lionel Standler

Since its first production in 1937, A Star Is Born has been remade twice and is on the verge of being remade again with Beyonc√© as the lead. The thing about A Star Is Born is that its concept has been relevant since Hollywood's beginnings and will continue to be relevant for it's whole existence. Esther Blodgett (Janet Gaynor) is a small town girl with dreams of being a movie star. She packs her bags and moves to Hollywood where nothing seems to go as planned for her, including the fame and fortune she had so much wanted.

A Star Is Born is almost a cautionary tale for those young hopefuls who make the journey to Hollywood seeking their moment in the sun. In 1937, this was perhaps the first many people heard of what Hollywood was really like for young hopefuls. It wasn't the place where dreams always come true as they had been led to believe, but a place where everyone is competing for the same thing and the dreams of many are diminished. Then if you achieve a career in the pictures, it isn't all as wonderful as you may believe it would have been. The film is also just a glimpse into the process many young women went through as part of the studio system. Esther Blodgett is turned into Vicki Lester and has stylists tend to her to decide what she should look like. Even her marriage to Norman Maine is in the hands of the studio. While these days celebrities have their managers and publicists to help them out, back in the days of old Hollywood all the moves that stars made were controlled by the studios.

Trivia- In a scene in A Star is Born, Gaynor's Esther Blodgett can be seen looking at the hand and footprints in the cement pavement outside the Chinese Theatre. In real life, Gaynor herself was one of the first stars to leave her imprints. The first star impressions were dated April 1927. Gaynor was the fifteenth star, in May 1929, some eight years before A Star is Born. As of early 2014, nearly 300 stars have left their impressions.

Year: 1992
Director: Richard Attenborough
Cast: Robert Downey Jr., Anthony Hopkins, Geraldine Chaplin, Paul Rhys, Milla Jovovich

It is impossible to talk about old Hollywood and not mention the great Charlie Chaplin, so Richard Attenborough's biopic, Chaplin must feature in this group of films. The film, featuring Robert Downey Jr as Chaplin himself, is largely based on Chaplin's autobiography and David Robinson's book, "Chaplin His Life and Art". It chronicles Chaplin's life from his beginnings where he was born into poverty in London with a mentally disturbed mother (played by Chaplin's real life daughter, Geraldine Chaplin). With his creation of The Tramp, he became one of the most recognised names in the world and the biggest name in showbiz. His private life was constantly thrown into the spotlight, particularly the details of his four marriages.

Chaplin's story is the ultimate rags to riches story that so many hope to achieve, but it is obvious from the film and it's accuracy that Chaplin was born with talent and came to Hollywood exactly the right time. It is impossible to be a film student and study that period without Chaplin's name coming up and this film is first and foremost a great education on the man. Unlike many others, he was able to be a huge star in the silent films and although reluctant to switch to sound, he was still able to bring out two highly successful mostly silent films before making the switch to sound successfully. A few more names which come up when talking about old Hollywood royalty are Mary Pickford and Douglas Fairbanks, and as Chaplin was in business with the two and best friends with Fairbanks, these two also feature greatly in the film.

Trivia- Robert Downey Jr.'s performance in Chaplin is magnificent, and there are are so many key scenes that could be singled out for attention. There are, however, three Charlies roles in the film, and all three are strong: in addition to Downey Jr.'s adult Charlie, there's Thomas Bradford's playing the great man as a young teen, and Hugh Downer portraying him at age five. Special mention should be made of Downer, who is absolutely delightful in a scene very early in the film: where he sings and dances  on stage, turning around an angry crowd. The cherubic young kid with the fluffy hair is full of charisma and stage presence, giving an preview into the skills his adult incarnation would employ to bring laughter to millions

Year: 2006
Director: Allen Coutler
Cast: Adrien Brody, Ben Affleck, Diane Lane, Bob Hoskins

Whether we admit it or not, everyone loves hearing about a Hollywood scandal. Old Hollywood scandals are even more intriguing than the scandals of today as they are seeped in mystery from a time long ago. Hollywoodland is one film that has taken an old Hollywood mystery to the big screen in a way that perfectly captures the time period and maintains suspense the whole time. The centrepiece of the film is the death of Superman, George Reeves (played by Ben Affleck) which was ruled a suicide, but many suspected murder. Louis Simo (Adrien Brody) starts to look into the case further than the police dared to and finds himself in a dangerous and vulnerable position as a result.

Visually, Hollywoodland shows only one or two of the glamorous old Hollywood parties which are great to see, but this film is another that also shows the Hollywood away from the glamor. The scenes set in the apartments which Simo is living in and working from are extremely reminiscent of 1950's Los Angeles scene. While much of the way that this film is presented is by speculation, there is an interesting piece of old Hollywood history here in the form of MGM's Fixers. The Fixers, Eddie Mannix (Bob Hoskins) and Howard Strickling (Joe Spano) where the men who were in charge of what found it's way to the press and what didn't. If something they didn't like happened to one of their stars, they found a way to fix it. Did The Fixers have something to do with George Reeve's death? Who knows, but it is interesting to learn about them.

Trivia- In Hollywoodland Ben Affleck plays a the man who plays Superman, and in an interesting twist, he's slated to play Batman*, opposite Henry Cavill's Superman, in Zack Snyder's upcoming Untitled Superman-Batman Project. In the film, the two superheroes will apparently face off. So Affleck's character will in fact be fighting against a character he played a decade earlier (based on the latter film's projected 2016 release date).
[* Affleck's casting announcement caused a Twitterstorm when it was announced in 2013, with many fans unhappy with the casting choice].

Year: 1952
Director: Stanley Donen, Gene Kelly
Cast: Gene Kelly, Donald O'Connor, Debbie Reynolds

Even though the historical movement from silent to sound in motion pictures has appeared more than once on this list of films, when talking about the best films about old Hollywood there is no way you can forget about Singin' In The Rain. Gene Kelly stars as silent film star, Don Lockwood who has made a successful career as part of an on screen couple with Lina Lamont (Jean Hagen). When the studio wants to make the transition to sound, Don is able to make the move fairly smoothly, while those around him struggle, particularly Lina.

Considered by many to be the best backstage musical of all time, the film offers a refreshing look at the silent to sound movement in 1927 Hollywood. Unlike the other films here which see the dark side of this move, Singin' In The Rain is presented in hilarious fashion. It shows why so many had problems with talkies as you had the actors like Lina who's voice did not suit film at all, and then the film makers also had problems with marrying up sound and image. The film supplies a completely enjoyable and hilarious way of seeing this period in old Hollywood, which is a change from many of the other films about old Hollywood films which rely on drama more than comedy.

Trivia-There's much debate as to how the rain in the film's titular scene was created. Some film historians claim that Donen* and Kelly had the crew add milk to the stage rain, so that it would appear to show up better on camera. Others claim that this is an urban myth, and that the rain was actually backlit and Kelly and the others in the scene were front lit. Whatever the truth, the rain looked terrific, and the whole scene is just magical.
[* How exciting to hear that Donen (who turns 90 in April 2014) apparently has a new project in the wings that he's looking to direct (co-written with Elaine May, with Mike Nichols slated as producer), over 65 years after his co-directorial debut (On the Town, also co-directed with Kelly, three years prior to Singin' in the Rain').

Year: 1994
Director: Tim Burton
Cast: Johnny Depp, Sarah Jessica Parker, Martin Landau, Bill Murray, Patricia Arquette

Now for a film which is completely different to the other films featured here. Biopics have a habit of focusing on the greats and while Ed Wood may not focus on one of the great film directors, it focuses on the man many classify as the best worst director of all time. Set in the 1950's, Ed Wood (Johnny Depp) made some of the worst movies of all time, but have remained B grade classics. The film has a look at Wood's Hollywood career and his strange, but intriguing friendships with those around him including Bela Lugosi (Martin Landau).

Made mostly in black and white, while Ed Wood almost feels like a fairy tale at times, it captures the essence of old Hollywood in a big way but from a different perspective. It is quirky and shows the strange side of Hollywood, but is a delightful look at the time. The locations used throughout the film are also authentic to 1950's Hollywood. The scene in Boardners, which is a Hollywood bar still in operation today, was shot on location and still feels like it is stuck in old Hollywood.

Trivia- Vincent D'Onofrio, who plays Orson Welles in Ed Wood, would play the Citizen Kane actor/director/et al again eleven years later in the short (30 minute) film Five minutes, Mr. Welles, which he also co-wrote and directed. Viewers got to hear D'Onofrio's real voice in the latter film, but he was dubbed in the former.

Also, Ed Wood was the 2nd of (to date) 8 Tim Burton / Johnny Depp collaborations.
1990 Edward Scissorhands
1994 Ed Wood
1999 Sleepy Hollow
2005 Charlie & Chocolate Factory
2005 Corpse Bride
2007 Sweeney Todd
2010 Alice in Wonderland
2012 Dark Shadows 


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