Classic black and white movies are undiminished by time
I love films. I love their ability to open a window on the past or to transport us to a possible future. I love the way they act as a repository of great stories and talent. No matter that some films are approaching their centenary, we can continue to appreciate and enjoy the work of great actors and directors at the height of their powers. We can marvel at the comic timing of Buster Keaton, be transfixed by the beauty and delivery of Marilyn Monroe, be dazzled by James Stewart working equally well in romantic comedies, Hitchcock thrillers or gritty Anthony Mann westerns.
Stars like Cary Grant and Humphrey Bogart continue to inspire a new generation of actors and we can understand why as their films retain a power and charisma that refuses to be diminished.
Some of my favourite films are in glorious black and white. Rather than a barrier to my enjoyment, the fact that they are black and white actually encourages me to engage even more.
The photography works to utilise the suggestive power of black and white. Subtle lighting and long, dark shadows provide instant atmosphere to the Universal horror films of Boris Karloff and Lon Chaney while the swashbuckling pirate adventures of Errol Flynn in Captain Blood and The Sea Hawks were given an historical legitimacy.
The sumptuous black and white photography is one of the reasons the 1933 original version of Mutiny on the Bounty, starring Charles Laughton and Clark Gable, is far superior to the 1962 remake with Trevor Howard and Marlon Brando.
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The historic feel of the black and white original made you sit up and become an active onlooker. In the rather overblown remake, the colour footage reduces part of the film to nothing more than a travelogue.
Black and white films have a historic timelessness but, unfortunately, even the classics, don’t enjoy the visibility they once did. There is a danger that a brilliant film heritage will be lost through neglect.
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This week Steven Spielberg said he gained much of the inspiration for his work by watching classic films and tried to encourage his kids to watch black and white films by bribing them. I am happy to report that my offspring didn’t need bribing and to this day my son has a soft-spot for Buster Keaton’s The General and my daughter loves to lose herself in the classy world of Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers.
My own film education happened by accident. I stumbled across films and voraciously consumed them. I devoured Top 100 film lists, read up on studios, directors and stars and, thanks to the TV schedules of the day, was able to enjoy a comprehensive overview of film.
Today, there are formal film studies degrees and college courses where the history of film-making is laid out in a systematic way. But, if taught to the exam, then today’s students are not going to gather the breadth of knowledge I acquired thanks to the film buying directors of the BBC, ITV and Channel Four.
My film education was as comprehensive as it was accidental. I quickly developed a love for Errol Flynn and John Wayne movies, swiftly followed by Humphrey Bogart. I loved Peter Sellers films, this then broadened out into Ealing Comedies and Boulting Brothers movies. These films introduced me to Terry Thomas and Dennis Price. The early Carry On films have always been a source of delight and the Boulting Brothers satires looking at British institutions: the army (Privates Progress), the church (Heaven’s Above) and industrial relations (I’m All Right Jack) have broad echoes in those early black and white Carry Ons (Carry On Sergeant, Carry On Nurse and Carry On Constable).
The more I watched and read, the more cinematic wonders I uncovered. Suddenly I became aware of Film Noir, British New Wave, American B Pictures and great directors like John Ford and Alfred Hitchcock.
The biggest influence on my self-taught film studies was the BBC2 6pm slot. During the 1970s, this was my film heaven with curated seasons of films designed to educate.
I remember seasons of Ealing films which included classics like The Lavender Hill Mob, Passport to Pimlico, The Ladykillers and The Titfield Thunderbolt along with smaller, less celebrated movies like Hue and Cry with Alastair Sim and the war-time German occupation film Went The Day Well.
This was followed by a season of Johnny Weismuller Tarzan films which stand up remarkably well today. Then came Cold War B pictures like The Day The Earth Stood Still and Invasion of the Body Snatchers, followed by seasons of Laurel and Hardy films during school holidays and Peter Sellers’ British movies before he moved to Hollywood with the success of The Pink Panther.
Then on Saturday night, after Parkinson and Match of the Day, there were seasons of Universal horror movies like Bela Lugosi’s Dracula, Lon Chaney Jnr in The Wolf Man, Boris Karloff’s Frankenstein and Bride of Frankenstein with Elsa Lanchester. This was followed by Hammer’s re-makes of these, which gave them a distinctly British slant.
Those seasons of films, along with Saturday evening showings of classic war films like Sink The Bismarck and The Dambusters and westerns like The Searchers and Winchester ‘73, gave me an unparalleled film education. There were also occasional classic foreign films like a Jacques Tati comedy (Monsieur Hulot’s Holiday or Mon Oncle) or The Bicycle Thief. With the arrival of Channel Four came more up-to-date foreign language films like Au Revoir Les Enfants and Cinema Paradiso.
I can’t help thinking that if I, as a young teenage film fan, was starting out on my cinematic journey today, I would be faced with a much greater challenge than 40 years ago. Back then I could stumble over not only a single film but an entire themed season, always accompanied by an article in Radio Times by Barry Norman or Leslie Halliwell.
The BBC also screened Barry Norman’s Hollywood Greats which were a gold mine of information, classic clips and interviews providing an inight into the biggest names.
Today, everything is freely available. You can download or buy on DVD the most obscure films imaginable but you have to know about them first. It would be nice if the mainstream channels would once again find a home for a properly curated look at the timeless classics so that a new generation could be introduced to the wonderfully colourful world of black and white.