...Black and White "My Old Hollywood Winter"
With my last delicate sip of Darjeeling tea, I whisper “Farewell, darling” to my Old Hollywood winter. Amber muscatel warms like the impending yellow tulip of April. I went deep this winter – searched the obscure, dusty vaults of celluloid to watch “Only Angels Have Wings” (1937) and “What Ever Happened to Baby Jane?” (1962) and “The Best Years of Our Lives” (1946) and others. This writer loves to see written words translated into motion picture. Should I admit this?
Now I had three good movie-watching hours per weeknight, then maybe twenty hours on the weekend. (Do I have a LIFE?!) I wasn’t a total recluse Greta Garbo-ing it up – as the milder El Niño winter for New York City really WAS a clichéd “breath of fresh air.” It inspired me to do cartwheels in my snow-boots on a snow-free lawn. (Just kidding.) Still, I watched a lot of movies.
It’s been Barbara Stanwyck in “Double Indemnity” (1944) with her perfect silky blonde hair (gorgeous on black and white film), her long satin dress, and drum roll – depraved plots. Dude, did Fred MacMurray REALLY think that that bullet wasn’t coming?! Film noir has never been so dangerously appealing. But then there’s “Casablanca” (1942). Bogey’s subtle facial expressions always make me go all teenager and say – “Awww…” And Ingrid Bergman? I truly understood her acting power when watching her in “Cactus Flower” (1969) and “Autumn Sonata” (1978). Those films prompted in me a good old-fashioned “re-watch” of “Casablanca.”
This winter was also about “Wuthering Heights” (1939) which reminded me of old angst-filled poems I used to write back in college. My gloom-tastic verse GLORIFIED the moors – the whistling-windy, hillishly-creepy setting of the film. (I swear that my clunky 1990s black Doc Martens shoes once magically transformed into “sleek ebony witch-boots” which sashayed me past tattoo parlors down in New York City's Greenwich Village. I digress.) Those cold, desolate hills were c-c-craaazy. No wonder Heathcliff and Cathy teetered on the edge of madness their whole lives. Cute coulda-been couple, don’t go outside! At least Heathcliff escaped the moors for a LITTLE while.
Now I have a confession to make. Black and white film has never been my favorite. It’s taken me until now (thirty-something years) to appreciate it. I “got it” this winter. What I once viewed as a bland distraction and omission of life, I now see as an effective and often breathtaking addition to storytelling.
Who could imagine “Double Indemnity” in color? And “What Ever Happened to Baby Jane?” with blue skies? Never. In the latter, I’ll never forget Joan Crawford wrapped up like a burrito on the beach at the end of the film (her character, Blanche, a pitiful dying starlet) as her sadistic sister Bette Davis (her character the infamous Baby Jane) romps around barefoot with white makeup caked on her face. (Could the casting of Old Hollywood rivals have been MORE brilliant?) But it's the use of stark yet shadowy, strong yet fragile black and white that truly knifes this feeling of – “You are in a spider web with these ladies. No color allowed."
Then there was “It Happened One Night” (1934) with Clark Gable and Claudette Colbert, described as cinema’s first “rom-com.” There was also “Bachelor Mother” (1939) with Ginger Rogers and David Niven, another lighthearted film but with a touch of seriousness (cute abandoned baby involved). Old Hollywood toed the decency line, in lucky silver pixie-dust.
I finished off this “uncold” cold season with “Black Narcissus” (1947). It’s a color film of the Old Hollywood era – drenched with exotic reds, oranges, and purples. The always-magical Deborah Kerr is Sister Superior at a convent in the Himalayas of India. As I watched this deeply psychological “part-lullaby” and “part-nightmare” film unfold (a colorful rainbow-in-reverse), I felt grateful for the variety of filmmaking over the last century. I remember that reading Shakespeare and Milton used to bore me – like Sunday laundry bore me. But one day, I suddenly loved them. Spring is on the mountain.