The American Classic Film style was a popular form of making films in the western world between the 1920’s to 1960’s. Often they could be melodramatic, theatrical even and tended to reflect on societies values of the time which, nearing the end of the era, were becoming outdated and unpopular. Remnants of this style are still present in cinema after, however films are now being made drawing inspiration from a variety of styles.
They were often shot in high key lighting on sound stages. If there were any exterior shoots they would have been shot on the studio back lot. It was unusual for a film to travel far for shooting. The Adventures of Robin Hood (Curtiz, 1938) starring Erroll Flynn and Olivia de Havilland, recreated Saxon England and its wooded land on the Warner Bro.s California lot. It was similar to watching theatre and was shot with smooth camera movements which made it clear that the audience were watching a movie. Rarely, did they experiment with framing, resorting to simple set ups that audiences could follow. Alfred Hitchcock, who became one Hollywood’s greatest assets during the classic era, was an exception to this, having studied in Germany, developing a more obscure, expressionistic approach. This can be seen in films like Spellbound (1945), which he even called upon artist Salvador Dali to create the surreal dream sequence. This was subversive from the usual Hollywood style, and yet the film and narrative itself remain very much American Classic.
Scene Break Down: Gone with the Wind
Screencaps: Gone With the Wind (Fleming, 1939)
The scene plays out simply There are lot’s of tracking shots, dynamic movements that sweep with the characters and follow them and their actions. It is very similar to theatre; however, the camera changes angle when a new mood, tone or change of events take place. Like here when Rhett refuses to kiss Scarlett, she then turns from him bitterly. The camera dances around them. Prior to this scene, there are action-reaction shots but the framing is conventional.
A three act structure, once again similar to the theatre and a format that has worked for hundreds of years, is common in American classic cinema and corresponds with Todorovs Narrative theory. The theory that all stories are technically made up of the same narrative that the equilibrium is in place, then it is unbalanced and eventually restored. It could be considered simple; but even in the 21st century it is a form that is repeatedly successful. The plot almost always unfolds in chronological order and any deviation from linearity tends to be in the form of an obvious flashback or dream. Furthermore, the characters are all there for a reason and every action progresses the story. There are no random appearances or surreal events like the sort that can be found in a David Lynch film. Everything in the story must have a purpose, and characters remain active and busy (Cook, 2007: p.45). Even in their musicals, the characters do not break out into random songs but instead tunes that reflect their feelings during the action or event or in the case of The Sound of Music (Wise, 1965), is actually part of the unfurling of events. To escape German occupied Austria, they must perform as the Von Trapp family at the music festival so as not to cause suspicion.
The narrative style reflects the capitalist society of the time and the messages that they wanted to convey as the characters continually have goals and are constantly doing something. American Classic film begun around the time of the Great Depression, and the American Dream was everyone’s greatest desire. Not only was cinema an escape, it had influence on society’s ideal of the dream. It fed on the government’s own propaganda to get everyone contributing to society whilst also promoting the idea that if you work hard, you can be on top of the world.
Narrative Elements and Values
The common elements, Heroes vs. Villains and good conquering all perhaps particularly reflect on society during this period and post war. Box office numbers began to decline in the fifties, however, during it peak, the working class were the most avid cinema goers as it was fairly cheap entertainment (Abrams, Bell & Urdis, J,2010: p.142) The war years inspired a need for fantasy and escape and a belief in Heroes. This style, perhaps, did so well for the forty odd years it did because it was considered an escape from the harshness of reality. The public were aware that real life was not like it, but to have their favourite stars act out their dreams was enough during the depression and war years. Morals were strong following the codes introduced in the early 30’s, the bad were punished and the good got all they wanted and more in the end. This was what audiences needed. A restoration of the equilibrium. It’s a Wonderful Life (Capra, 1946) is an optimistic attempt to inspire; its message that everybody’s life matters and influences countless others lives from day to day. Sometimes Hollywood even sway from original source material to avoid offending their conservative values and even to lighten the tone as A Street Car Named Desire (Kazan, 1952) did in attempt to ward off the strict censors.
Not all of the films had happy endings. Gone with the Wind (Fleming, 1939) for example, has perhaps one of the most tragic finales in film history. However, many believe Scarlett O’Hara gets her just desserts in the end even though she works incredibly hard for her family following the war. She is still punished for her selfish, not so honourable behaviour throughout the film. Roman Holiday (Wyler, 1953), another classic romance ends with Gregory Pecks reporter, Joe Bradley, and Audrey Hepburn’s, Princess Ann, parting at the end. At the time, maybe duty was considered more important. It is a story that is repeatedly referenced, with 1994’s, Only You (Jewison, 1994) starring Robert Downey Jr. and Marisa Tomei, shaping its plot around it.
The American Classic style particularly thrived during the peak of the Hollywood Studio System, when top companies such as Warner Bros, MGM and Universal would run film production like a factory. Stars were contracted to particular studios and loaned out to other companies at high price, or when the actor or actress had not behaved ‘correctly’. For example, Clark Gable was signed with MGM, but following a broken contract with them as punishment he was loaned to Columbia where he worked with Frank Capra, acting opposite Claudette Colbert to make the 1935 romantic Comedy It Happened One Night (Bilbow & Gau, 1995: p.139). To the two stars surprise, it was a success and actually paved the way for the Romantic Comedy genre.
Directors initially had no creative control, producers had the last say and films were being made at rapid pace. Many did not approach filmmaking as Alfred Hitchcock, Orson Welles or Frank Capra did who left their mark and developed new methods in storytelling such as Welles deep-focus shot in Citizen Kane (Welles, 1941) and Hitchcock’s Trombone shot initially used in Vertigo (Hitchcock, 1958). These are the most notable auteurs of the American Classic era along with Billy Wilder, who directed and wrote Some Like it Hot (1959), Howard Hawks, who made Rio Bravo (1959) and Bringing up Baby (1938) and John Ford, the iconic director of Westerns, the maker Stagecoach (1939) and The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance (1962) and who often worked with the actor John Wayne.
Emotive musical scores were popularly used during this time that fed the emotions into a scene and up until the past few years, has been common in larger productions. The musicals like West Side story (Wise, 1961) and The Wizard of Oz (Fleming, 1939), the Epics like Gone with the Wind and Ben Hur (Wyler, 1959) and Westerns like The Magnificent Seven (Sturges, 1960) were full of iconic music and sweeping scores. On some occasions, the music has become more notable than the film; the constant referencing to classic cinema across media has ingrained the films into pop culture.
The end of the American Classic
In later years, they became more self-aware and were playful with the classic tropes or vicious with their criticisms of the Hollywood system. In later years, they would tackle bigger issues, such as racism in To Kill a Mockingbird (Mulligan, 1962), In the Heat of the Night (Jewison, 1967) and Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner (Kramer, 1967), the latter two starring one of Hollywood’s first Black leading men, Sidney Poitier. Also, ideologies began to change and some films reflected this and took advantage of the lax of the code that for years had permitted filmmakers from exploring certain subjects. Mike Nichols 1966 adaptation of Edward Albees play, Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? shocked viewers with its coarse language and frank sexual references; never had a such things been seen on the big screen.
By the 1960’s, box office figures were dropping dramatically and attitudes were changing. Protests against the Vietnam War, against the government and for civil rights were happening across the US. Realism and rebellion were what people looked for in cinema. As society became more pessimistic and the typical social constructs were stripped back, the old Hollywood messages were fast becoming irrelevant to younger generations. Foreign cinema, such as French New-Wave, were simply more relatable to the youths and the introduction of colour televisions to households changed the entertainment in the western world. It became harder to stick to the American classic style, and by the mid-60’s more foreign films were being released in America more than American productions, including British cinema such as A Hard Day’s Night (Lester, 1964) and Alfie (Gilbert, 1966). The American Classic has paved the way for film; it still influences key directors in this century whilst also being lovingly recycled for modern audiences.
ABRAMS, N. BELL, I. & URDIS, J. (2010) Studying Film. Second Edition. London: Bloomsbury Academic
BILBOW, T. & GAU, J. (1995) Lights, Camera, Action: A Century of Cinema. First Edition. London: Little, Brown and company
COOK, P. (ed.) (2007) The Cinema Book. Third Edition. London: BFI. Palgrave Macmillan
Gone with the Wind. (1939) Film. Directed by Victor Fleming. [DVD]. US: Warner Bros
The Adventures of Robin Hood. (1938) Film. Directed by Michael Curtiz. [DVD]. US: Warner Bros.
The Sound of Music. (1965) Film. Directed by Robert Wise. [DVD]. US: Twentieth Century Fox
A Streetcar Named Desire. (1952). Film. Directed by Elia Kazan. [DVD]. US: Warner Bros.
Roman Holiday. (1953). Film. Directed by William Wyler. [DVD]. US: Paramount
It Happened One Night. (1935). Film. Directed by Frank Capra. [DVD]. US: Columbia
The Quiet Man (1952). Film. Directed by John Ford. [DVD]. US: Paramount
To Kill a Mockingbird. (1962). Film. Directed by Robert Mulligan. [DVD]. US: Universal Pictures.
(Originally Composed 13/12/16 for a project on Film styles)