Back to Black & White

Back to Black & White

Why watch old movies? Why spend an evening with long-dead and (sometimes long-forgotten) movie stars, who can?t even manage to be in colour? What relevance do the movies of the ?30s and ?40s have for us today?

Well, for one thing, the really good ones are a lot less boring than you might think. Lots of people are put off by black and white films, and of course it?s hard to know what you?re getting when you?re not familiar with the stars, the directors, the writers? things which help us decide which film to watch at the cinema today.


But there are some movie stars that ? despite being dead and in black and white ? still manage to exude a certain charm, a certain humour. Leading men Humphrey Bogart, Cary Grant, Jimmy Stewart and Clark Gable are all famous for a reason, and Katherine Hepburn, Marlene Dietrich, Bette Davis and Greta Garbo were not just pretty faces. They, and others, delivered the classic, unforgettable lines and sharp witticisms of the gilded age of movies.

Bette Davis, for example, is unforgettable in All About Eve (1950). She commented, ?Remind me to tell you about when I looked into the heart of an artichoke,? decapitating an otherwise boring story before it was decanted again by her erstwhile beau. Another? Take Cary Grant in Arsenic & Old Lace (1944) who says that insanity does not run in his family, ?it gallops.?

Of course, some of the stars and many of the films are forgotten for a reason, and not worth the price of admission. So, if you?d like to get to know your old movies a little better, sparing yourself the risk of monochromatic boredom, let me recommend a less antiquated (and safer) way in.

The Hudsucker Proxy (1994), an early Coen Brothers movie, is essentially a 1930s movie set in the 50s, made in the 1990s. It combines something of the charm of each decade. It has the sharp, quick-fire dialogue of the classic 1930s ?rom-coms,? including that blistering back and forth between the male and female leads. They of course start off grating on each other?s nerves, then later realise they can?t live without each other. The visual flare of the art deco New York of the 1950s makes only highlights the absurdist cynical postmodern humour of the 1990s.

It?s a mix of classic genres: rags to riches, country bumpkin comes to town, boy meets girl, and the battle of good and evil. Jennifer Jason Leigh perfect as the hardboiled ace newspaper reporter who talks at 120 words per minute, Tim Robbins as the innocent rube with more to him than meets the eye and Paul Newman as the grave, Mephistophelean, scheming, elder statesman. It?s a very funny film, both visually and verbally. My favourite line is Tim Robbins, having just met the film?s imposing heroine offering her a ?cigareet?? in confusion, and is in colour, for those who are put off by diving in straight at the deep end.

It?s also based on two older movies, Frank Capra?s (he of It’s a Wonderful Life fame) Mr. Deeds Goes To Town (1936), from which it gets its soft heart and hardboiled surface (and a good deal of its inspiration). Howard Hawks? His Girl Friday (1940), also adds in the classic of the back and forth dialogue of the high-flying and hard-pressed couple who love each other under it all.

Next time you have an empty evening and a hankering for the movies, rent the The Hudsucker Proxy and if you like it, watch Mr. Deeds Goes To Town next. If you?re still not tired of old movies, then make some time for His Girl Friday. If you enjoy them all, look back with us again soon for more on a life in black & white