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Friday, July 6, 2012

It don't matter if it's black and white: Guest Hijacker Ed Hall

         I'm a big film fan--especially the classics and films of yesteryear.  I'm very pleased to have a very fine film blogger "Hijack This Blog" on this post.  Ed at Empire's 5 Star 500 has undertaken an epic goal to view all 500 greatest 5 star films as rated by Empire magazine and then review them on his blog.  Fun stuff I think. Now let's hear from Ed.

It don't matter if it's black and white

         Last Christmas, my grandfather was looking over Empire's 5-star films. He got excited when he flicked through to 'G' and found a 1926 film I'd never heard of by the name of The General. I assume that this was probably because it was a film that featured at the beginning of his movie-watching life and had fond memories of how 'it was better in his day'.

        I reviewed this film on Sunday, 17th June this year. I had a note in the review stating that I'd never heard of Buster Keaton, but here's a review of the film that my grandfather was raving about. Within an hour and a half of the review going live, I was immediately lambasted for having never heard of Buster Keaton. The review was positive but the crime was already committed - I admitted to having never heard of one of the great silent actors.

        I would rank The General in the top 5 films I've watched from the 500 out of those I'd never seen before (alongside Casablanca and Citizen Kane, along with the surprise and probably controversial entries of Amelie and The Crucible). Despite being a film about a train going from right-to-left and then left-to-right (the actors famously changed costume after filming a scene and running the other direction), there was more to the story than that. It is about Keaton's daredevil stunts being pulled off with immaculate ease with a loosely connected romantic twist. A scene of him sitting on the runners of a train was immensely dangerous, but only if you understand how difficult it is to start a train without spinning the wheels.

Buster Keaton's famous stunt - simple, dangerous and very funny

         After watching the film, I showed my 14-year-old brother the DVD case and told him that this was a film he needed to watch. Unsurprisingly, he turned up his nose. Not because he doesn't trust my judgement but because I would have done exactly the same. After showing him Keaton-on-the-runners, I then showed him another 4 minute scene I'd found on YouTube. When this was over I was ordered to return to fetch him the DVD box - he wanted to know what happened. Later, he realised that he'd just enjoyed a film that is 71 years old than him.

        Of course, The General isn't the only pre-1940's film that I've enjoyed since starting the challenge. The Cabinet of Caligari (1920) I awarded 4 stars - which was the same for the Russian epic Battleship Potemkin (1925) and Douglas Fairbanks' The Black Pirate (1926). Moving into the 1930's and the majority of films have been given 5 stars and thus agreeing with Empire's reviews, including another silent masterpiece - Charlie Chaplin's City Lights (1931). In fact, the only pre-1940's film I haven't awarded 4 or 5 stars to is Alexander Nevsky (1938) which dubiously holds the honour of Worst Film Played Through The Family DVD Player.

       Obviously I am watching the pick of the crop according to Empire Magazine and there are bound to be a few rotten tomatoes out there, but at the end of the day a film review is just one person's opinion and their view is not necessarily one I might share. How is it then that these golden oldies regularly score so high in my view too? More importantly, why is nobody watching these classics any more?

        Undoubtedly TV companies could pick up cheap deals to broadcast these older films, or potentially show out of copyright films without costing them a penny. Many though, choose not to for fear of losing out in hotly contested ratings battles leaving these films to be picked up by collectors and shown in local cinema clubs. Meanwhile, James Bond plays on a continuous loop picking up the latest film when it becomes available. Could we at least have a chance of seeing the origins of cinema rather than Sean Connery being served his hundredth Vodka Martini this week?

This is where you have to ride if you drink too many Vodka Martinis

        It's all well and good the youngest generation enjoying the latest 3D film to be shown at their local IMAX - in films such as Prometheus and The Avengers the graphics are simply brilliant - but films are more than just about the latest technology. Chaplin, Keaton and co. didn't have IMAX, 3D, colour or even sound and their movies are just as watchable today as they were eighty years ago.

       Over the next month I challenge you to watch at least one pre-1940 film. Here's a link for the out-of-copyright The General available for free on YouTube so if you are running low on imagination, you still have no excuse.

      Don't make my mistake of forgetting where the latest films came from. Spread the love for the origins of cinema.

       Visit Ed at  He's got a ton of movie reviews on his site.  Compare his opinion to your own or find some good viewing that you haven't seen yet.

       Do you watch the old classic films even if they are in black and white?   If you are one of those who avoid watching black and white films, why don't you like them?   Are there any favorite old (or new) black and white films you'd like to mention and perhaps recommend?

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  1. Great post Lee, I do like the old films whether black and white or coloured. We get many showings on TV of pre 1940 films many are excellent.


  2. I do know who Keaton and many of the silent movie actors were. Not a big fan of the silent black and whites, but Cabinet of Caligari and Nosferatu are both masterpieces.

  3. The only pre-1940s movie I saw recently was Metropolis, which was quite tedious to watch due to its length and pacing. That said, I've found myself toying with the idea of revisiting some of the classics, especially after seeing recent movies like The Artist and Hugo pay homage to the films of that bygone era. At least now I have some good recommendations. Thanks, Ed. And you too Mr. Lee, for hosting this. :)

  4. Great post Ed. I haven't really watched many older films but it's cool to hear that there's a lot of beauty in them, this post has sorely tempted me to check them out at some point, I love movies and reviewers so your stuff seems interesting to me to say the very least.

  5. Thanks for the comments guys - and thanks once again Lee for letting me hijack.

    Yvonne - In the UK we don't get many showing of older films unless you subscribe to those film channels. It's disappointing, I find.

    Alex - Cabinet of Caligari is one of the films I've already reviewed (here). I loved it because it opened my eyes to how unoriginal Shutter Island's ending was.

    Michael - Metropolis is on the list, so I hope it's not tedious! Thanks for reminding me though; I need to watch The Artist.

    Yeamie - Thanks. I have a page on my blog which sorts my reviews by year. Feel free to check it out if you would like some ideas.

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  7. I'll have to take a look at that list, although I'm sure I've already seen a good number of them. I continue to watch old, good movies when I can make the time for it.

    Mostly, people don't watch those movies because they don't give them a chance. It takes making a decision ahead of watching that you're going to do that, so, if a person is flipping through the TV channels and sees something in black&white, especially if it's silent, they immediately dismiss it.
    It's too bad.

  8. A month or two ago, my thirteen year old grandson wanted to watch something with gladiators. Although I know he watches lots of blood and gore, I didn't care to watch any of the modern gladiator movies/tv series with him, so I Netflixed the 1960 movie Spartacus starring Kirk Douglas. No gore, no sex, no nudity, no profanity, no special effects. Okay, it was in color. He loved it. Since then I've been introducing him to older B&W classics. WWII movies. Hitchcock thrillers. Great old comedies like Some Like It Hot. (He was definitely impressed with Marilyn Monroe.) A new generation discovering the old classics. I'm loving it.

  9. I didn't have the chance to see too many black and white movies, but I did see and loved "Battleship Potemkin", "The Black Pirate" and "Alexander Nevski" and I also loved a number of Greta Garbo films.
    Never seen "Casablanca" though :)

  10. Well...didn't The Artist win the Oscar this year?

    I like some of these old classic films, but I don't have much spare time to watch them.

    Happy Weekend!

  11. ED ~
    Great guest post! I love, Love, LOVE so many of the old movies, and overall, I do prefer them to this modern rubbish that keeps getting "remade".

    Ed, do you mind me asking you your age? You mentioned a 14-year-old brother, but you don't write like anyone even remotely close to being a teenager. Your writing is excellent.

    I will have to start "Following" your blog, because I imagine we could have some fine conversations about the movies "In Glorious Black And White" (as some of the VHS boxes used to advertise).

    For now, I will recommend one to everyone:

    'ON BORROWED TIME' (1939) Starring Lionel Barrymore, Cedric Hardwicke, Bobs Watson, and Henry Travers (Barrymore played "Potter" in 'It's A Wonderful Life', and Travers played "Clarence, the wingless angel" in the same classic).

    I can't imagine that anyone could dislike 'On Borrowed Time'.

    Thanks for the interesting blog bit, Ed.

    ~ D-FensDogg
    'Loyal American Underground'

  12. Films are about more than just technology...true

  13. Andrew - I absolutely agree. When changing the channel if there is a programme in black and white it is immediately far less appealing.

    LD - I agree that gore, sex, nudity, profanity and special effects are not the be all and end all of films. But, equally all of those items can enhance a film if used in the correct manner.

    DEZMOND - I've only seen one Garbo film, Camille. Another pre-1940's film that I gave 5 stars. I swear I only noticed this trend once I'd started writing this post!

    Carol - Yes, The Artist did. I have to say though going back to Andrew's point, if you were flicking through the channels and happened to notice it, I doubt it would stay on for very long.

    Stephen - Thank you for the praise. I'm 22, so yes, out of my teens now! I'll have to check out On Borrowed Time, and I look forward to your input on film.

    Nigel - Yessir.

  14. I want to step in here and thank my guest today. Ed, this is a great topic that is dear to me. I may even come back to visit this one day.

    Thanks to those who commented so far. I think if more film fans would take the time to watch the B & W classics they'd start to appreciate the true art of black and white film making. Starting with some of the more contemporary works like The Artist can get you adapted to watching this medium so you are more comfortable with the older stuff.

    By the way The Artist was #71 in the top grossing films last year and probably only achieved that stature because of the Oscar consideration. If not for that I don't think the film would have done very well at all. It opened to about $200,000 on it's first week and probably only that because it had already attained a good critical buzz.

    Generally I think film goers shun black and white due to the preconception that it is old fashioned and not appealing to look at. I say go back and look at the use of shadow and light, filming angles, and visual composition. There is much to be appreciated in black and white movies.


  15. I would say that I do really enjoy pre-1940 films, and yet I rarely make the effort. If I stumble upon one I'll sit and watch, but I don't seek them out. You have me thinking that's a shame. Good reminder, so thank you! Debra

  16. Sounds like a good source of info. when it comes to American Classics I am such a blank face. I did not know that there was a movie called Dead on Arrival about a guy who wanted to find out who poisoned him, before the poison killed him.

  17. I like the old black and white movies. I've even watched silent film but it takes some getting used to. We have become spoiled by not needing the movie broken up to add dialogue in text.

  18. Great post! I've never heard of Buster Keaton until Jackie Chan mentioned him as an inspiration. Need to catch your clip. It's a shame, I saw a black and white recently, From Here to Eternity, and it was terrific. Guess entertainment companies want the sure bet. The current generation might just turn their nose up thinking, "I don't want to watch grandpa's movies!"

  19. my 17 year old daughter loves the old classics--i must admit i am not much of an over-all fan--but might just give it a new try :)

  20. I love black and white movies... They have a different feel to them, like I've stepped into another world.

  21. I've only seen a handful of B&W movies, but I've really enjoyed them. I love the Ors,on Welles movies I've seen, and I think that the more 'simplistic' style of the times make the storytelling more provocative.

  22. I don't watch classic films because I don't know how. The use of shadow means nothing to me. You can draw a parallel with people who don't GET poetry or art or a classic novel. If you don't understand how they work, or what is innovative (as if you'd care), then you won't enjoy it. My point is not to argue against watching B&W but to say appreciation won't come by osmosis.

  23. Love older and classic movies Lee. I remember the days before color tv when I was a lass, so maybe that's why black and white movies seem so much more natural to me and quite enjoyable. Not a lot of fluff and much more substance.

    My parents had a love for them so maybe that's where my liking for them was born.

    It's funny Lee and slightly off topic, just this week we were watching a relatively current movie The Kings Speech and my granddaughter walked in and said to me "Grandma why are all those people watching the radio?

    I think that's a pretty interesting observation for an 11 year old. Entertainment radio/news and movies meant something completely different back then to the masses then it does now.

    Great post.

  24. What a great subject! I love The General very, very much. It's one of my all-time favorites. Another black and white movie that I adore is Charlie Chaplin's The Great Dictator.


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