For me, it started with Shirley Temple movies.
In childhood, my local library was tucked away in a school district building, limited to a long stretch of a hallway and two cramped children’s rooms. The library has since become a sprawling, gorgeous building a block away from this old location, but my formative memories as a reader rest within visions of that confined space, its dirt-brown carpet, the holiday season’s glass case display of a wintry village, and the chapter book alcove’s solar system mural.
At the end of the long hallway were the shelves of VHS tapes, when DVDs were still a novelty, when your main hope for a movie selection was that the person who checked it out before you had rewound the tape. In a time when our movies now start within a short series of clicks, I marvel over how foreign rewinding seems to me now. God forbid you check out a dramatic epic that was split between two VHS tapes.
A series of Shirley Temple movies resided on a shelf that was eye level to my young self, who was likely drawn in by the pale pink spines of their cases. Years later, my mother said that one of these films was the first movie I picked from the library on my own, but I couldn’t explain what else motivated the decision. The options were limited, so I just recall countless repeats of the same two or three Temple films. Curly Top. Heidi. Poor Little Rich Girl. You can find the colorized, full versions of the movies on YouTube, but the original tapes’ black-and-white footage oddly captivated me as a child.
Was it the punchy, Mid-Atlantic dialogue? The 1930s fashion that a child could only interpret as otherworldly? The elegance the actors seemed to naturally carry themselves with? Now, I pinpoint the special element as the bare-bones simplicity of Old Hollywood.
There are no explosions.
No artistic camerawork.
You have to pay attention to the words. We wonder when we lost the art of writing letters, but I wager that loss of patience gradually happened alongside movies’ spectacles beginning to overshadow their stories. Even when color was introduced in this era, in The Wizard of Oz and Gone with the Wind, the special sensations only added to the story. I think about my favorite contemporary films, many penned by scribes like Nora Ephron and Richard Curtis, and so much of their appeal lies in the dialogue. Such was the case with most black-and-white movies.
When I was 10, I knew this love for them wasn’t a fluke upon watching It’s a Wonderful Life for the first time on Christmas Eve. Doing so has become a staunch tradition ever since. In between a heavy pasta dinner and late-night mass, we sit to watch our DVD copy, and I shush loud sisters or just keep bumping up the volume in protest of their noise. It’s December 24, and I am taking in my annual viewing of this film as peacefully as possibly.
I have a weakness for stories that travel through time, exploring a family’s celebrations and downfalls as the world shifts around them. It’s a Wonderful Life was an early introduction to that, radiating of a beautiful earnestness today’s art just seems to lack. Give me a smiling, smooth-talking Jimmy Stewart in the moonlight any day. Why are the men of Hollywood’s golden years so irresistible?
I’ll always swoon over Gregory Peck and Cary Grant, but to this day, my heart’s true allegiance remains with Jimmy Stewart. His distinct droll is one of those tones you only hear in these types of films, just emphasizing to the modern viewer that these stories have become time capsules of an extinct world.
I sought to educate myself on this period as I grew older. I watched TCM DVD box sets, poring over forgotten literary adaptations, screen icons’ lesser-known works, and the classics that experts mention reverently. I’ve revisited Casablanca, studied Judy Garland musicals, fell in love with His Girl Friday, and marveled at Fred and Ginger’s dancing feet. The Old Hollywood take on “Uptown Funk” continues to delight me every time.
Not all of these films have aged gracefully. If you look past the glamorous facade of these stars, you’ll inevitably come across the tragedy and controversy this beauty often hid. Young lives suddenly cut short, fiery political agendas, stark reminders of just how segregated Hollywood still was at the time. Like with any time period later generations come to idolize, its darker side is overlooked, perhaps because as people, we desperately need reminders that long ago, at the core of things, life was simpler.
So with the umpteenth superhero movie of the summer hitting theaters and comedies falling back on pratfalls and kicked crotches to entertain, I’ll gladly resort to the quick-witted adventures and clean, idealistic romances presented in black-and-white tones.
I’ll whisk away to a cinematic world that allows for sweeping dances out of nowhere and couples whispering in breathy, silhouetted embraces.
While wearing sweatpants, I’ll delight in characters sporting their Sunday best on the regular (when can fedoras come back without being ironic?).
Because, after all, what else do we watch movies for?