My Old Movie Manifesto, or It Happened One Night (at My Uncle's House While I Was Watching Old Gangster Movies)

Now that I have written more than 50 posts, this seems like a good time to stop and explain why I love movies -- especially older movies, and particularly those from the 1929-35 era. And since this is a blog where one picture (or one movie scene) speaks more than a thousand words, here's my lede:

This is what is known as "adding
visual interest," and it is also
James Cagney.
That is a scene from the 1931 film "Blonde Crazy," with James Cagney and Joan Blondell, and it contains everything I love about old movies, particularly the ones made before the 1934 production code. It's racy, it's funny, it's cynical and it's just one scene out of one movie in a year when studios cranked them out at a furious pace, at practically dozens a week. Even though there were nominal limits in place, pre-code movies reflected depression life in a particularly vivid way. They contained rough edges, adult desires and plot shadings that were later sanded down, cleaned up and bleached out by the Hollywood studio system.

Carole Lombard, holla.
The early 1930s was a time of larger-than-life movie heroes and anti-heroes like Cagney, Spencer Tracy, Edward G. Robinson, Paul Muni, Dick Powell, Robert Montgomery and Clark Gable. It was also a time of movie beauties both ethereal and down to earth, from Greta Garbo to Carole Lombard, from Marlene Dietrich to Joan Blondell.

And we cannot forget the character actors and the comics -- Aline MacMahon, Frank McHugh, Frank Morgan, the Marx Brothers, Wheeler and Woolsey, Boris Karloff and Laurel and Hardy, to name a few.

Maybe they weren't more magnetic than today's stars, but they sure as heck were more visible -- movies were the television of the early 1930s, and folks went to the show, as it was often called, at least once a week, so films were cranked out like Model Ts. (It helped that the studios owned the theatres.) And for at least the first half of the decade, these movies were edgier, sassier and more topical than they would be by the end. I personally think that, even though we came close, there are two major reasons why the United States didn't become a fascist state during the Great Depression -- Hollywood movies and Franklin D. Roosevelt. (I sound like Jack Warner, who was a big FDR booster.)

Anyway, watching these movies to me is like re-reading a favorite book, or, um, re-watching a favorite movie. I marvel all over again at the raw storytelling power of "I Am a Fugitive From a Chain Gang," or the wit of the Marx Brothers. I love watching and listening to James Cagney, with his rat-a-tat style of speaking and his exuberant-yet-contained physical presence, and Barbara Stanwyck's pugnacious performances. And to me "It Happened One Night" is one of the best pure romantic comedies ever -- and, judging by the romantic comedies we see today, contemporary Hollywood agrees, because they keep remaking it. It's also fascinating to me to watch as the industry emerges from the silent era and starts learning how to make talking movies. And it's interesting to see tropes in the making that are commonly accepted assumptions in today's films.

I also love older movies because they are free of the hype or the fashion of the moment. The years have either added or subtracted from their reputation. The older I get, the more I believe in perspective, and I think that in many cases it takes years or even decades to see a movie for what it really is -- and as I grow older, I see these movies through a different lens.   

I'm not a believer that older automatically equals better, but when I watch older movies I'm more likely to forgive clumsy performances or technical snafus and marvel over the ones that still resonate and entertain, sometimes even despite those limitations. Some might argue that it's because these older movies echo my older, clumsier self. Maybe. But I also felt that way when I was 12, and first started developing an appreciation for old movies by seeing Warner Bros. gangster movies on TV at my uncle's house. (My mom wouldn't even let us watch "Dragnet.")

In this blog, my intent is to watch and share old movies, so that if you don't have the time or inclination to watch them yourself, you can catch a condensed (and biased) review here. For 15 years I made a living as a movie critic for a daily newspaper, but I rarely got to write about the old movies that I particularly love. Now I can. And I'm glad to have you along for the ride.


  1. This is a fine, interesting article. I enjoyed reading it, and I look forward to reading more of your articles in the future.

    I can tell how much you love old movies and classic actors. I really like James Cagney, too. He was grand, and so were movies from the 1930s, my favorite decade.

    By the way, I would like to invite you to join my blogathon, "The Great Breening Blogathon:" It is celebrating the life and work of Joseph Breen, the enforcer of the Motion Picture Production Code between 1934 and 1954. As we honor his birthday, which is on October 14, we will be discussing and analyzing the Code era, breening films from other eras, and writing about our own ideas for classic movies. One doesn't have to agree with the Code and Mr. Breen to enjoy that! I hope you will do me the honor of joining. We could really use your talent! I know you would be great at breening a pre-Code film, even though you probably don't agree with the Code. It could be interesting to participate anyway.

    Yours Hopefully,

    Tiffany Brannan

  2. Hi David,
    I recently stumbled onto your website and it's really terrific.
    Well done and truly fascinating.
    Bill Diehl

  3. hi David, I think I found a pic of the home on smart woman 1931 Mary Astor in Long Island from the address of the unopened letters
    I can send it to you if you like
    Wendie B.