When I was four years old, I watched That’s Entertainment!, the time-capsule compilation film documenting the golden age of MGM musicals. I was entranced. My delight was so profound, in fact, that my mom noted the reaction in my baby book, alongside more typical milestones like my height and first words.
To me, the movie was pure magic. I felt an immediate connection to what I saw onscreen, despite the fact that most of it had been filmed forty years before I was born. As I grew up into an obsessed teenager, I watched everything I could from this bygone era, from classic musicals like Singin’ in the Rain to film noir, Esther Williams’ swimming extravaganzas, Westerns, melodramas, and screwball comedies. I’ve derived countless hours of enjoyment from these films and made it my personal mission to spread the wonder.
I love the way classic movies look: the smoky glow of black-and-white stock, 1940s Technicolor saturated in pink, chartreuse, and foggy blue, the 1950s musicals buffed to a vibrant, high shine. And I adore the way they sound: the lush scores and big voices with just a hint of metallic microphone, the unfamiliar slang—Dames! Swell! On the level!—and of course the distinctive mid-Atlantic dialect with its soft vowels, sharp Ts, and nonexistent Rs.
But it’s the dialogue—the whip-smart, zippy conversations, the comebacks that crackle—that brings me back again and again. Characters in old films talk all the time, stuffing scenes with clever, beautifully constructed repartee. Romantic leads fall in love through conversation, and if characters begin by insulting each other in glorious ways, you can be certain they’ll be embracing when “The End” appears. When the fast-talking dame—think Rosalind Russell in His Girl Friday (1940)—engages in a battle of words with her male co-star, she usually comes out victorious. In these films, conversation is a level playing field. And since the Production Code forbade swearing—the famous “Frankly, my dear, I don’t give a damn,” line in Gone With the Wind (1939) was barely approved—old movies use more creative ways to express strong emotion.
The Code, as well as stricter social conventions, meant that characters couldn’t say exactly what they meant. They had to hint, suggest, and use hilarious euphemisms, which gives the dialogue an intriguing wryness, subtlety, and complexity. (Think Jane Austen vs. texting.) The language is both the charm and the challenge of these films, but it’s not particularly timeless. When I try to interest friends in movies like Bringing Up Baby (1938), they’re often more baffled than amused. The language flies by too quickly and too strangely. Take, for example, when Katharine Hepburn’s character gets a letter from her brother claiming that her new pet leopard “likes dogs.” She says, offhandedly and with breathless speed, “I don’t know if Mark means that he eats dogs or is fond of them. Mark is so vague at times!” It’s just one of a dozen such jokes in the short scene, so Hepburn, with her airy, mannered accent, doesn’t hit it hard. I’m no longer surprised when I’m the only one laughing.
The wordplay is relentless. “Waiter, will you serve the nuts?” asks Myrna Loy in The Thin Man (1934). “I mean—would you serve the guests the nuts?” Maybe contemporary ears have to learn how to hear this kind of humor to appreciate it. (You wouldn’t bypass Shakespeare because the language and rhythm are unfamiliar.) In this distracted age, it’s interesting to watch characters so engrossed in their conversations, conversations that require the full attention of the viewer, too. It’s magical to fall under the spell of that connection—with the classics now more available than ever, here’s hoping that more of us do.
Howard ’09 majored in English at Duke and earned an M.A. in film at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. She writes a blog, TheBlondeAtTheFilm.com, on classic Hollywood and is currently working on a book about Esther Williams and Joel McCrea. She lives in Durham with her dog, Esther.