Best Era in Film/Movement?

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Best Era in Film/Movement?

Postby wpqx » Fri Aug 03, 2007 2:18 am

I've been thinking about this subject recently. Where do you have your greatest joy in cinema. What country, what time? Recently I debated the issue amongst myself and found that at least at the present I would give a vote for American cinema in that wonderful little time period of 1929-33. Sure there were great films from '28 but '29 was when sound officially became the mandate. In this period of time Hollywood learned to talk, and in many ways the whole industry had to be rethought. A fresh start, the old guard was out, and a new crew was in. In a few short years they would make silent films seem like fossils. The dialog was awkward, musical numbers were narrowly conceived, the camera could barely move, Universal didn't even use music in their films. However by the end of this period everything seemed right again. Unfortunately at this time the freedom and discovery suffered a serious blow when the studios actually decided to enforce the Hays Code.

Now why this period and country? Well I know more about Hollywood film than any other country by far. I am American, so I'm of course going to have some prejudice. But this era isn't just about getting away with making films about prostitutes and killers who actually get away with it, there's a lot more. After all in Abel Gance's Lucrezia Borgia (1935) there was full female nudity, and not the artistic underwater swimming found in Tarzan and His Mate, far more decadent. Foreign films could get away with a hell of a lot more with their language as well, but there was a quality to these American films. Some silent giants saw their stars fall, some left the industry refusing to adapt to the microphone, but others saw their popularity soar. Mary Pickford made her sound debut with the poorly received Coquette, won an Oscar and slowly backed out of the screen, maintaining her professional stake in the industry she helped create. Clara Bow, made a successful transition to sound, but with one too many scandals and a paralyzing fear of the microphone she withdrew for a life of solitude.

John Gilbert one of the silent era's greatest romantic leads (he received top billing over Garbo in their silent films) quickly saw his career come to a screeching halt when people heard this heartthrob had a high pitched voice. The sad truth of the matter was that his voice wasn't that high, but a bad early sound recording had the ability to ruin things like this. In 1933, arguably the finest year in American cinema he was given one more chance opposite Greta Garbo in her finest role, Queen Christina. Garbo was one of those performers who saw her star rise to an unprecedented height. She soon earned the right to pick and choose her roles, and take an unheard of 18 months off, including a full two years before she even made a talking picture. Her MGM co-star in The Grand Hotel also saw a boost in her career at this time. Joan Crawford found that if the new talking pictures wanted singing and dancing she could comply quite easily, and saw her roles gradually expand from the plucky shopgirls she was forced to play for years on end.

There were some casualties of the change over. D. W. Griffith made his last film in 1930, the flop Abraham Lincoln, and found himself penniless when he died a has been of a Victorian era. Erich Von Stroheim who seemed to reach a creative milestone with The Wedding March saw Queen Kelly completely taken from his hands, butchered in part by his temperamental star (Gloria Swanson, another casualty) and his directing career unceremoniously came to a close. Douglas Fairbanks and Lon Chaney both saw their careers cut short by health problems and neither man made it to see 1940. However they became the first generation of a Hollywood legacy as both Fairbanks and Chaney Jr. would have successful careers in acting.

Now for the winners. Hollywood no longer needed faces, they needed voices. Daredevil action stars and comedians now needed to be agile with their dancing. the most logical place was Broadway where a great number of talents came through. Comedy was affected immediately. Buster Keaton signed an ill advised MGM contract where despite a few decent efforts was vastly beneath his independent work. Harold Lloyd stayed busy, and immensely popular, but these physical geniuses were being replaced by witty, fast talking, jokesters. W. C. Fields made hating children funny, Mae West made censors irate, but no one had as much of an impact as the Marx Brothers. These four legends made their greatest films during this period, and no matter how much I might like A Night at the Opera or A Day at the Races, the two films cannot hold up to the free form anarchy they had at Paramount. MGM mandated a romantic subplot, musical interludes, and a much more controlled atmosphere. At Paramount, Harpo was free to tear up residents mail (Coconuts), shovel books into a fire (Horse Feathers), "sing" like Maurice Chevalier (Monkey Business), and make a peanut vender's life a living hell (Duck Soup).

Paramount not only had the Marx Brothers, Fields, and West but at this time they also had Ernst Lubitsch and the great team of Von Sternberg and Dietrich, all of which seemed at their peak. They could get away with a great deal pushing the envelope with sex and subtext. Lubitsch, along with Rouben Mamoulian (another Broadway import) took the musical out of the stage and into a mystical kingdom far far away. Mamoulian immediately came and was unintimidated by the monster of sound. He orchestrated his films for wall to wall music and action, including the famously conceived opening of Love Me Tonight. His camera never ceased to wander, and every trick in the book was utilized for his debut Applause. Mamoulian along with Universal Studios also helped to make a happy home and golden age for the American horror film. Mamoulian only made Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde but that was arguably the most critically respected film (at the time) from the genre. Universal however started the ball rolling, and in this time period produced Frankenstein, Dracula, The Mummy, The Old Dark House, The Invisible Man, Island of Lost Souls, and The Black Cat among others.

Yet Universal studios greatest triumph of this era and in my opinion quite possibly the greatest film ever made was Lewis Milestone's Oscar winning All Quiet on the Western Front, a film that benefited rather than suffered by having no orchestral score. The film opened the doors wide for expression in the sound era. The camera could move, sounds could be layered on of each other, action could be staged on several planes, and films at this time could be violent. Of course the violence in Milestone's film wouldn't compare sensationally to the trio of gangster films released in this era. Say what you will about gangster films, and even how great later gems like Angels With Dirty Faces, High Sierra, and White Heat might be, but its really hard to top the trilogy of Little Caesar, The Public Enemy, and of course Scarface. These films lived by the production code rule that the killer be punished, but no one cared how they died, it was how they lived. Who can forget the childish glee Paul Muni's Tony has when he first discovers the Tommy Gun? Or James Cagney shoving that grapefruit in Mae Clarke's face (unfortunately the underrated Clarke would be remembered better for this than any of her lead acting work)? These films were the one's that got the ball rolling, and speaking of balls, none of the future gangster films even remotely came close to capturing the fire of these originals.

How about the musical though? This was the first truly original genre to come in the sound era. After all despite Ernst Lubitsch filming silent versions of operettas, the whole idea of song and dance within film was impossible without sound. 1929 brought about the first all talking all singing all dancing crap usually in the form of a revue. This worked for Chuck Reisner's Hollywood Revue, and Harry Beaumont's Broadway Melody, but it wouldn't be long before these films would seem ridiculous. The fairy tale musicals of Lubitsch and Mamoulian showed that something can be done, but it wasn't until Busby Berkley choreographed 42nd Street that the show musical gave us something beyond what we would see on a stage. 42nd Street might be viewed by many as a historically significant film, but few people forget that its actually a pretty damn good picture. Along with Footlight Parade, Golddiggers of 1933, and Dames Berkley set a new standard in musical staging, one that probably never would be equaled. To Berkley people were props, and pretty girls seemed to grow on trees. Even Berkley couldn't top this in his future work and his films as a director pale in comparison to these original four.

You may be able to offer a better response, but I just love this era of film. That small window when Hollywood learned to speak before it was told what it could say. An industry in crisis that quickly made itself stronger than ever, one that couldn't be beaten by sound or a world wide depression.

Re: Best Era in Film/Movement?

Postby R6dw6C » Fri Aug 03, 2007 11:57 pm

Personally, I adore the couple of years between 1965 and 1975 most. This is very subjective of course because I know that these years were not nearly as important for the evolution of cinema as the era of silent cinema and the 30ies / 40ies for example, but in this few years, something was going on that never ever happened before or after and is really hard to describe (especially if your english is limited...). No matter which kind of film, which genre, which country or director - almost everybody everywhere did very unusual, energetic movies at this time. A very special energy. Maybe not important movies, but movies that could've been only made at this time the way they were made. No matter if you look at the "big" films of the time ("2001", "James Bond", "Torn Curtain", "Solaris", "Zabriskie Point", "The dirty dozen", "Point Blank"), the cheaper, trashier or slightly controversial flicks ("Petulia", "The bed sitting room", "Barbarella", "Danger: Diabolik", "Night of the living dead", "My lover, my son", "Deep end", "I am curious: yellow"), the well reputated arthouse cinema (Antonioni, Iosseliani, Tarkowskij, Zulawski, Bergman, Skolimowski, Vera Chytilov, Fassbinder, Roland Klick, Leone, Klaus Lemke, Dario Argento a. m. o.) or the usual genre cinem - everywhere everything seemed to be unleashed without limits or tight rules. Almost 50 percent of my favourite movies belong to this 10 years. Some years ago, I thought it was only my fascination for the history of this years but nowadays I realize that I can't really explain it. Just by chance, I permantly discover something new, incredibly exciting from these years, movies of a kind I didn't even think to be in existence.

Thin explanation, but I can't tell much more.

Re: Best Era in Film/Movement?

Postby wpqx » Sat Aug 04, 2007 12:13 am

I see your point, this was the era of the new waves, and many countries began making film, others developed a remarkable voice, and it helps that at this time (at least part of it) the Soviet Union drastically lightened up on their censorship of films made in Eastern Europe. In the late 60's you had "New Waves" from Japan, Czechoslovakia, Hungary, Sweden, Italy, and of course America's "Easy Riders and Raging Bulls". Many critics and historians who grew up in this time period are leaning towards this (which is certainly understandable) so you're not alone. I can come up with as many valid points to your argument as my own.

However what we fail to see from this period is how clueless Hollywood really was. Lots of credit goes to brilliant executives like Robert Evans at Paramount for green lighting projects like Rosemary's Baby, Chinatown, and of course the Godfather films, but for every Godfather was a Swarm, Funny Lady, and Shaft's Big Score. This doesn't mean that 30's cinema is without blemish, but never in film did so many overbudgeted pieces of junk come out, even though the present Hollywood is certainly challenging that. I'm more familiar with this period of film on a general level, having seen more films from this period than the one I mentioned, however much more was going on at this point, so I think percentage wise I'm far from covering all bases.

Re: Best Era in Film/Movement?

Postby A » Fri Sep 14, 2007 5:38 pm

First of all, could it be that the original title of the thread was meant to be Best Era/Movement in Film (History)?

Anyways... some time ago I probably would have answered like R6dw6C, and I still think that the majority of the most interesting films I've seen have been made during the 60s and early 70s. But thinking about it now, I'm not so sure that quantity and diversity really get my vote. Otherwise i would also have to consider wpqx's choice, though I would never limit it to the United States. 1929 - 1933 was an incredibly innovative and interesting period for films all over the world. I love early sound and camera experiments (Films like The Front Page, Little Ceasar, A nous la libert, M, Frankenstein, Dezerter, Entuziazm, Kameradschaft come to my mind), and I want to see more.

But if I listen to my gut feelings, there are three time periods I currently find most interersting.

On top of my list would probably be the period roughly between 1909 and 1914/1917 (depending on whether films could be produced during WWI in some countries). The evolution of the medium was undergoing many shifts, and the co-existence of short and epic films (ranging from ten minutes to four hours) and the incredibly diverse stylistics of many companies, not to speak of the individual national preferences was very interesting. I think that there was probably never a time when films were speaking with as many diverse and interesting voices as in those times before the war. The amount of films produced is also incredible, and the fact that directors or actors were either the focus of a film or not important at all (nevertheless this was a real period for an auteur theory imho) is particularly interesting. It also seems like mostly national films were most succesfull in each country and there wasn't a clear stylistic or a mainstream to follow. So many thing changed in a period of 5 years that it seems incredible. Unfortunately not many films from this very important era survive today.

Another candidate would be 1918 till 1928. From what I've seen this is the period from which I enjoy most films. That doesn't mean that I like most films I've seen from the time or that I've seen many great ones. It has probably more to do with the fact that I love the stylistics of silent cinema, and it seems that in this period silent films were "ultimately" defined as how they are largely seen from today's perspective. Films entered the modern age, and movements were blossoming all over the world as (American) cinema was deciding an aesthetic assumption of how a proper film had to be made. I think there were never as many movements and trends in such a short period of time (expressionism, impressionism, surrealism, poetism, naturalism, the soviet film theories, etc.) while there was seemingly less and less experimentation in mainstream productions, which finally materialized as we know it today. I enjoy the conventions of those times as much as the innovative work. Unfortunately the whole medium was rethought with the breakthrough of sound in 28. I would have wished for at least 5 or 10 more years of silent cinema.

The third contender for most interesting era in film are in my opinion the 1980s. Yes, you are really reading this from me - the much loathed consumerist, superficial, vacuous 80s that brought us Reagan, Thatcher, Yuppies and the Porn industry as we know it today, the time when Pop Music seemingly made some last hopeless breaths before degenerating into the mindless trash of the 90s. It seems like "globalization" and its negative effects we witness today really got a boost back then, but -
If I look at the films made during the 80s today I find much innocence even in the dumbest of commercial products in a way that is totally lacking in today's mass production of mindless junk. And if I roam through the forgotten or unknown artisitc waters of those times I uncover as many great films and filmmakers as in any other area. The only problem seems to be that only few people seemed to care about those, and I completely cannot understand why all the excellent films weren't hailed as enthusiastically as many products of the various new waves during the 60s. It seems that the people (and critics) actually tried to purposefully dumb down their lives because of the socio-political changes during the 70s. If I think of films like Ken McMullen's Zina (1985), Straub and Huillet's Klassenverhaltnisse (Class Relations / 1983) or mamoru Oshii's Tenshi no tamago (Angel's Egg / 1985) they are as interesting experimental and daring as narrative films can be. And we also have Chris Marker's Sans Soleil (Sunless / 1982), Andrzej Zulawski's Possession (1981), Jaqcues Doillon's La Pirate (The Pirate / 1984) or La vie de famille (Family Life / 1985), Frank Beyer's Der Aufenthalt (The Turning Point / 1983), Jerzy Skolimowski's Moonlighting (1982), Sogo Ishii's Bakuretsu toshi (Burst City / 1982), Olivier Assayas' L'enfant de l'hiver (Winters Child / 1989), Mohsen Makhmalbaf's Arousi-ye Khouban (Marriage of the Blessed / 1989) or Bicycleran (The Cyclist / 1987), Abbas Kiarostami's Khane-ye doust kodjast? (Where is my friends house? / 1987), Margarethe von Trotta's Rosa Luxemburg (1986), Isao Takahata's Hatoru no haka (Grave of the Fireflies / 1988 ) , Hayao Miyazaki's Majo no takkybin (Kiki's Delivery Service / 1989) or Tonari no Totoro (My Neighbor Totoro / 1988 ) , Patrice Leconte's Monsieur Hire (M. Hire / 1989), Leos Carax's Mauvais sang (Bad Blood / 1986), Jean Jacques Beineix's Diva (1981) or La lune dans le caniveau (The Moon in the Gutter / 1983), Tian Zhuangzhuang's Dao ma zei (The Horse Thief / 1986), Chia-Liang Liu's Wu lang ba gua gun (Eight Diagram Pole Fighter / 1983), Samuel Fuller's The Big Red One (1980), Maurice Pialat's Loulou (1980) and the three incredible feature films by Emir Kusturica and Peter Greenaway. And how about Jim Jarmusch or David Lynch?

I'm not even talking about the (late) works by established masters like Fellini, Kurosawa, Scorsese, Svankmajer, Angelopoulos, Resnais, Rivette, Varda, Godard, Fassbinder, Wenders, Herzog, Kubrick, Tarkovsky, Bresson, and who else and I still haven't mentioned any of the Hollywood gems (Heaven's Gate, Eyewitness, Pennies from Heaven, Blade Runner, Conan the Barbarian, Victor/Victoria, Scarface, The Hunger, The Terminator, Back to the Future, Ferris Buellers Day Off, The Princess Bride, The Accidental Tourist, The Unbearable Lightness of Being, Batman, to name but a few).

I know I've still forgotten too many (Claire Denis, Catherine Breillat, Zhang Yimou, Luc Besson spring to mind) although I've only seen very little from the vast amount of films that were made in the 80s. If somebody is complaining about the poor state of (World) cinema during those times, I simply have to say: look again! If this is poor, give me poor every day

Re: Best Era in Film/Movement?

Postby arsaib4 » Sat Sep 15, 2007 12:03 am

Very informative post, A. You did an admirable job sticking up for the 80s, a decade which has much to offer but doesn't seem to find many takers.

Re: Best Era in Film/Movement?

Postby A » Sun Sep 16, 2007 9:04 pm

Big Thanks. It is really underappreciated. I loathed it myself when i was younger...
Got some help from Olaf Moeller inspiration wise, btw

Re: Best Era in Film/Movement?

Postby wpqx » Mon Sep 17, 2007 3:37 am

I can see your argument, but the one thing I put down about silent film is that the pictures themselves didn't seem "complete". Leaving out sound is a vital part of a film, and I know a great many foley artists who would weep at your comments. I have never been a huge fan of films made pre-Birth of a Nation. I enjoy watching them from an evolutionary perspective, but it is simply groundwork for what came later, and I still find the films too constricted and many are painfully slow. The twenties are a fascinating period and as the month of July would prove for me, I happen to have a hard on for silent films largely from this period.

My knowledge of 80's world cinema is abysmal so my opinion on that is going to be limited. I have frequently found though that my favorite films from the decade are often films that get little serious recognition outside of limited "cult" audiences. However as people are starting to appreciate more and more films from this era the tide may be changing.

My original goal in limiting my choice was to be specific. Saying 1920's world cinema is broad, but saying silent Soviet films from the montage school would fit the original idea behind my choice. However you could just look at my first post as an attempt to glorify all that Hollywood achieved in those early sound years.

Re: Best Era in Film/Movement?

Postby A » Mon Sep 17, 2007 5:23 am

Ah, now I get it. I guess I was really to encompassing then. But I don't think I really have a movement I enjoy most at the moment. I usually tend to like movements and countermovements at a given time, so time periods are what counts in my book. Soviet films from the montage school are very high in my book, and i tend to enjoy the numerous writings as well. Thanks for the reminder

I also thought that pre- WWI cinema was very limited, but I've changed my opinion completely and have made a 180 turn since I've seen more, and especially read more about this era. Now it seems like the most under-explored time in film history to me, and an era that has to be reconsidered completely (something that's luckily already happening for the last twenty years). And as you know, I'm a sucker for slow films and static deep focus camerawork

Re: Best Era in Film/Movement?

Postby wpqx » Tue Sep 18, 2007 7:18 pm

I suppose but many of these films are almost too static. I can appreciate the somewhat amateurish quality of them as evolutionary material, but its hard to get into some of them. You are right though that the era is not often discussed but that is changing. You'd fit right in at the University of Chicago.

Re: Best Era in Film/Movement?

Postby A » Tue Sep 18, 2007 10:37 pm

Glad to hear it. Maybe you could recommend me


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