THE GOLDEN AGE
Grand Illusion (1937)
Make Way for Tomorrow (1937)
Lost Horizon (1937)
Way Out West (1937)
The Adventures of Robin Hood (1938)
Angels with Dirty Faces (1938)
Destry Rides Again (1939)
Of Mice and Men (1939)
Only Angels Have Wings (1939)
The Rules of the Game (1939)
Mr. Smith Goes to Washington (1939)
Gone With The Wind (1939)
The Wizard of Oz (1939)
The Grapes of Wrath (1940)
The Great Dictator (1940)
The Philadelphia Story (1940)
Citizen Kane (1941)
The Devil and Daniel Webster (1941)
How Green Was My Valley (1941)
The Lady Eve (1941)
The Wolf Man (1941)
In loose terms, “The Golden Age” could refer to the period between 1927 and 1965. The Jazz Singer signaled Hollywood’s rise to dominance, and The Sound of Music was the last successful gasp of Old Hollywood.
But more specifically, the Golden Age is more like 1939-1941. I mean, look at just a few of the films made in those years: Gone With the Wind, Mr. Smith Goes to Washington, Stagecoach, The Wizard of Oz, Wuthering Heights, Of Mice and Men, Destry Rides Again, Ninotchka, Rebecca, Fantasia, The Grapes of Wrath, His Girl Friday, Pinocchio, The Great Dictator, The Philadelphia Story, High Sierra, How Green Was My Valley, The Maltese Falcon, the Lady Eve, and Citizen Kane.
Seriously, it was insane. It’s the film equivalent of the 1992 Dream Team. Compare that lineup to a year like 2003, when Chicago could not only get nominated for best picture but go on to win. Back in the Golden Age, you had guys like Frank Capra, Alfred Hitchcock, Howard Hawks, Charlie Chaplin, Preston Sturges, Walt Disney, Orson Welles and John Ford cranking out a film almost every year. On the downside, there was only one female director to be found in Hollywood. But Dorothy Azner’s Dance, Girl, Dance (1940) was inducted into the National Film Registry for its brave depiction of sexism in the entertainment industry.
Each of these directors could have an article devoted to them (or a book, or Multiple Books). But for our purposes, we’ll focus on two.
When asked by an interviewer in 1967 which directors he most admired, Orson Welles (director of Citizen Kane) answered that he liked "the old masters. By which I mean John Ford, John Ford, and John Ford. With Ford at his best, you feel that the movie has lived and breathed in the real world." Later he said, "John Ford was my teacher. My own style has nothing to do with his, but Stagecoach was my movie textbook. I watched it over forty times." (McBride)
Who is this John Ford? Even though he made over 50 films, and won 4 Academy Awards, not many people tend to see his films these days. Well, kids, thats a shame, and it's time to put a stop to this nonsense.
John Ford was known mostly as a director of westerns. Some of his masterpieces include Stagecoach, My Darlin' Clementine, The Searchers, and The Man who Shot Liberty Valance. But he also did quite a few "prestige" pictures, based on famous literature or historical happenings, such as How Green Was My Valley, They Were Expendable, and The Grapes of Wrath. Some of these might seem a little old fashioned now (largely due to the choice of music, which was a problem for the majority of films in the pre-60's), but at the time he was comparable to someone like Clint Eastwood or Martin Scorsese. In the 1940's and 50's, if you wanted to see a sweet action film with morally complex characters and beautifully-crafted imagery, you looked forward to next John Ford release.
Download: John Ford Handout
Even if you haven’t seen Citizen Kane, I'm sure all of you have heard of its monolithic reputation as one of the best movies ever. Why is that? Why so highly regarded, so reverently spoken of, so ubiquitously mentioned in lists of top ten whatevers?
I know when I first saw this film, I thought, "What's the big deal about that? It was kinda boring. Not like The Shining. Now that's a great movie." But actually, when you think about it, there are more than a few similarities between The Shining and Citizen Kane. Both have a huge emphasis on setting and tone. Both show the process of a man destroying himself and everything that's important to him. Both show someone getting killed by an axe in the chest. Or Kane would have, if it weren’t for that pesky Hays Code.
But, here’s what Kane does have going for it:
Orson Welles himself was a force to be reckoned with. He was born in 1915 and orphaned by the age of 15. He experimented with theatre and radio during high school and after graduation had a scholarship waiting for him at Harvard. But he gave Harvard the finger and went traveling in Europe instead. Upon his return to the States, he got into theatre professionally--acting, directing, and writing. By 1937, he had founded the Mercury Theatre Group. They were insanely prolific on both the stage and the radio waves, but it was their live broadcast of The War of the Worlds in 1938 that made them world famous. After that stunt, Welles was approached by RKO studios and given carte blanche to direct a film. He and Herman J. Mankiewicz wrote Citizen Kane, based on the life of multi-millionaire newspaper-man William Randolph Hearst. Needless to say, Hearst wasn’t super happy about this. His newspapers boycotted the film, and tried to buy up all copies of the film so he could burn them. Rich guys are such big babies, right? Thankfully RKO stuck to their guns, and we still have this amazing film to enjoy and learn from.
I try not to think about the fact that Welles was only 25 when he made Citizen Kane. You shouldn't either. Thoughts like that don't get you anywhere.