They Were Never Lovelier

Claudette Colbert and Clark Gable in "It Happened One Night"


George Clooney said something I liked to Matt Damon when they were discussing the new, but deliberately atavistic, war movie Clooney has written and directed, "The Monuments Men." It went something like, “People aren’t as cynical as their movies.” I don’t see many war movies, but the best of them portray war as a bloody horror; and yet the number of wars around the world seems to multiply with gay abandon. Could it be, possibly, that the folks back home (safely back home) who vociferously support conflict after conflict think war is really a bit more like “Kelly’s Heroes” than “Apocalypse Now”? Of course it could. If they believed the latter had any truth to it they would never vote for another hawk president or prime minister again.

As we get older and we have less time to fool ourselves about our vanishing life, and less desire to posture for others, we find we no longer like the films we were once so enthusiastic about, or even the films we know we’re supposed to like. My favourite movie so far this year isn’t “12 Years a Slave,” as much as that has been lauded by everybody around the world; it’s “Philomena,” in which Steve Coogan’s jaded journalist helps Judi Dench’s cheated mum trace a child sold for adoption by the Catholic church in Ireland 50 years before. It would be hard to argue against the huge importance of “12 Years a Slave,” and the potential good it could do in terms of correcting false notions about black history, but for some reason I thought it was arch and emotionally disconnected. “Philomena,” though, made me cry buckets.

I also find, more and more, that I like the old Hollywood films of the 30s and 40s (but especially the 30s). The romantic comedies of the time, which I love the most, are nearly always made according to the same formula; but it is such a rich one each time you see it the experience is new: handsome male leads like Cary Grant and beautiful, but always intelligent, females like Katherine Hepburn and Claudette Colbert; clothes by the top designers; humour that sometimes borders on anarchy—people chasing in and out of rooms talking at 90 miles an hour, frequently over one another, and using the richest of language, with puns and Hollywood in-jokes that stray onto postmodern turf before the idea had even been identified (like when Cary Grant orders a character played by Ralph Bellamy in "His Girl Friday" to be dealt with to stop him interfering with the course of true love and says, “You know who I mean, he looks like that actor Ralph Bellamy.”)

The culmination of almost every story made according to this formula is marriage between the male and female but that doesn’t matter; back then marriage was the signifier of romantic union, so all that marriage really needs to say to us as modern viewers, if we object to the institution itself, is love found, love achieved, love consummated—and however sophisticated we think we are, we all need love. Women in movies from the 30s—the better movies anyway—invariably marry on their own terms too. You don’t imagine Katherine Hepburn heading out through the door in the last scene of a film and then taking up a life of meek domestic servitude.

The best, most ambitious, romantic comedy from the 30s is probably “It Happened One Night,” in which Claudette Colbert’s heiress (there is always money) goes on the run to escape marriage to a man she doesn’t love and meets, on a journey across America, Clark Gable’s journalist, who’s looking for a scoop; obviously, Clark falls in love with her. That movie is shot with an exceptionally poetic eye by master director Frank Capra. It also does something that the feeble, diluted modern imitations of the rom-com style never do, which is offer a stark sudden glimpse of real life in the midst of the wonderful dream it weaves. On a bus ride through the night which has always looked to me like a visual rendering of the concept of Beatness, the travellers are singing together when someone collapses from hunger. This is, after all, the Depression. When we go back to the love story, the importance of love as a rescuer and ennobler of the spirit is somehow enhanced.

And that’s why I like the movies of that period, I think. Not because, as people often assume, they offer an innocent refuge from the world as it really is. Hollywood doesn’t show you the world as it really is these days; with a few notable exceptions mainstream American cinema (and I distinguish that emphatically from the indies) hasn’t said anything worth a shit for decades. I love old Hollywood movies because they have more of a habit of talking honestly to us, albeit in formulaic ways, about things that matter; and those formulae, fundamental to which are a style and panache we don't have anymore, embody something else that is vitally important to the survival of civilisation—the existence of dreams. When I dream, not being twenty years old anymore, I don’t dream about being a muscle-bound soldier mowing down Taliban in a Call of Duty game. My favourite is the one where I am a handsome singer in a night club and everybody thinks I’m terribly funny and charming. Now that is something Cary Grant could have made a good movie about.

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