In the Golden Age, film was still fresh and new. The founders of the artform, great filmmakers like D.W. Griffith, Charles Chaplin and Cecil B. DeMille were scrambling to keep up with the times. In their time, several innovations took place.
Film changed from silent pictures to talkies after the great landmark, The Jazz Singer came out. Obviously, it wasn’t the first talkie film. There had been several trial and error pictures made with sound before The Jazz Singer. Several shorts featured the talkie technique long before. But, it wasn’t until 1921’s Dream Street by D.W. Griffith himself when an entire sequence of singing was featured on screen. Also, you can find some on-screen sounds in Warner Bros. Don Juan in 1926. But, nothing launched the changes as well as that 1927 Jazz Singer classic.
During the talkie craze, Hollywood was also practicing with a little-known process called, “Technicolor.” For many years, the only way to see movies was in black and white. It was cheaper. In some cases, it also produced a much sharper image than some of the later color films. But, Hollywood was always looking for the next best investment.
Technicolor was first introduced to the public in the form of Walt Disney cartoons. From 1932’s short, Silly Symphony cartoon, Flowers and Trees to 1937’s feature length classic, Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs, Walt Disney pictures prospered greatly from this wonderful three-strip process of creating color. The filmmaker behind King Kong in 1933, Merian C. Cooper said that when he saw some of Disney’s Silly Symphonies, he stated that he never wanted to shoot in black and white again.
Finally, after Hollywood saw the incredible popularity of Snow White and the use of color on film, the big industry mogules also had to adapt and make some changes to their pictures. Like the 3D craze we have today, Hollywood embarked on several major productions that would either make or break the use of color. One would be an adaptation to a very popular novel called, Gone With The Wind. It ended up costing a record-setting 6 million dollars. That would be a 600-million-dollar budget today if you adjusted for inflation. Then, at the same time, MGM was also trying to create the adaptation of another popular story. You might have heard of it. The film was called, The Wizard of Oz.
Now, we look back on these films and some things may be dated. But, sound is universal. Color is universal. It’s very possible that 3D can be universal as well. Most people see in 3D and in color. Most people can hear the sounds that make movies today great. However, some things about these feature film classics are not universal. Some things are very grounded in the era in which these movies were made.
Film has changed a great deal since the late 1930s and early 1940s. Over the years, many new filmmakers have tried and failed to capture the magic of the Golden Age. But, that’s because those techniques were widely available and popular in the Golden Age. During the craze of big, widescreen films, the huge epics of the mid 1950s through the 1960s, the Hollywood movie-making machine tried many times to grab audiences with those old tactics. They wanted desperately to create another Gone With The Wind phenomenon. The epic fiasco that was Cleopatra in 1963 marked the beginning of the end of these films.
Studios were going through many changes during this era. They lost their own chains of movie theaters across the country. Actors were now free to pick and choose what they wanted to do and where they wanted to work. It was a revolution for Hollywood.
On the sidelines, many filmmakers were experimenting with new techniques in the process of telling stories. Great films were not being made strictly by Hollywood anymore. Even foreign filmmakers dappled in some truly amazing storytelling techniques. Uses of the camera was experimented with. Instead of filming everything from afar, watching actors from across a sound stage, more new talent was using the camera in different, more personal and more stylistic ways. Lighting was used in many different ways, creating a different feel for each film.
Watch some wonderful experimentation in some foreign classics as Akira Kurosawa’s Seven Samarai, Federico Fellini’s 8 1/2, Ingmar Bergman’s Wild Strawberries or my personal favorite, The Seventh Seal.
But, most of these great film-making innovations had already been introduced to the film-going world. You might say that all of these innovations were inspired by one truly ground-breaking feature film called, Citizen Kane.
Time has changed the overall quality of Kane quite a bit. No, the effects, the set decor, the look of the photography may not look modern in some ways. But, the story itself is so perfectly complimented by all of those technical achievements that we end up looking at Kane as a perfect example of what I like to call, “Film theater.”
There’s a big difference between “FilmED theater” and “Film theater.”
With “filmed theater,” it just seems like a camera crew followed actors on stage as they’re acting out Shakespeare on Broadway. It’s cut and dry. The actors, the dialogue and the story have to carry most of it. And, Orson Welles was certainly no slouche as far as stage acting and directing was concerned. But, that dapper 25 year old punk also proved just how wonderful film could perform, respecting both medias as different forms or art.
To me, the best examples of “filmed theater” are Gone With The Wind, The Godfather, The Wizard of Oz and possibly, Casablanca. I’m still not sure if Casablanca could be called, “Film theater.” The stories, characters and dialogue completely outclass the techniques and the craft put into the film itself.
Now, “film theater” is actually a very different animal. The camera becomes a character. The screen is filled with everything we need to know about the story and the characters.
Stanley Kubrick was a master of this craft. He put paintings in all of the right places. He would light his sets perfectly. Characters were positioned just so to elicit certain emotional responses from the audience. He would later go on to say some profound things about the artform.
“A film is – or should be – more like music than like fiction. It should be a progression of moods and feelings. The theme, what’s behind the emotion, the meaning, all that comes later.” – Stanley Kubrick
“The screen is a magic medium. It has such power that it can retain interest as it conveys emotions and moods that no other art form can hope to tackle.” – Stanley Kubrick
Here are a couple of my favorite quotes from good ol’ Alfred Hitchcock.
“I don’t understand why we have to experiment with film. I think everything should be done on paper. A musician has to do it, a composer. He puts a lot of dots down and beautiful music comes out. And I think that students should be taught to visualize. That’s the one thing missing in all this. The one thing that the student has got to do is to learn that there is a rectangle up there – a white rectangle in a theatre – and it has to be filled.” – Alfred Hitchcock (Directing the Film, 1976)
“Dialogue should simply be a sound among other sounds, just something that comes out of the mouths of people whose eyes tell the story in visual terms.” – Alfred Hitchcock
Hitchcock perfectly demonstrated all of his film theater knowledge with Vertigo and Psycho. Again, the lighting, the compositions, the editing, etc were all well above par for the times. They all helped to reveal something deeper and more profound about silenced characters than if Psycho or Vertigo were done on stage. I mean, here’s an example.
If you study the scene where Marion Crane is sliced and diced by the mysterious person in the dress, you’ll see that Hitch cut away at all the perfect times to give audiences the impression of cuts happening. We don’t see the knife going into her body like some run-of-the-mill slasher film. We are given that impression though. And it was a pretty powerful impression at that.
At the young age of 25, Welles knew that film should not be treated like “filmed theater,” when in fact, like Kubrick stated, it’s a precious artform all by itself.
“I want to give the audience a hint of a scene. No more than that. Give them too much and they won’t contribute anything themselves. Give them just a suggestion and you get them working with you. That’s what gives the theater meaning: when it becomes a social act.” – Orson Welles
Some more great examples of film theater are Dr. Strangelove: Or How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb, A Clockwork Orange and Titanic (1997)