Movies’ Golden Age

July 3, 1997 at 12:00 AM EDT


JIMMY STEWART: (“Mr. Smith Goes to Washington” 1939) Get up there with that lady that’s up on top of this capitol dome, that lady that stands for liberty. Take a look at this country through her eyes, if you really want to see something, and you won’t just see scenery. You’ll see the whole parade of what man’s carved out for himself after centuries of fighting.

CHARLES KRAUSE: When Jimmy Stewart died yesterday at age 89, he was hailed by man, including the President, as America’s national treasure. His death and that of actor Robert Mitchum earlier in the week marked, for some, the end of Hollywood’s golden age–a time when some of America’s greatest film stars filled the big screen. Those actors worked for the pioneering film studios and often churned out tremendous numbers of films during their careers, including performances that have lived through time. There was Clark Gable and Vivian Leigh in the epic film “Gone with the Wind.”

CLARK GABLE: (“Gone with the Wind”) Scarlet, look at me. I love you more than I’ve ever loved any woman. And I’ve waited longer for you than I’ve ever waited for any woman.

VIVIAN LEIGH: Let me alone.

CHARLES KRAUSE: John Wayne in the classic western “True Grit.” Humphrey Bogart and Ingrid Bergman in “Casablanca.”

HUMPHREY BOGART: (“Casablanca”) Maybe not today, maybe not tomorrow, but soon and for the rest of your life.

INGRID BERGMAN: What about us?

HUMPRHEY BOGART: We’ll always have Paris.

CHARLES KRAUSE: And Katherine Hepburn and Jimmy Stewart in “The Philadelphia Story.”

KATHERINE HEPBURN: (“The Philadelphia Story”) Upper and lower, my eye. I’ll take the lower, thanks.

JIMMY STEWART: If you can’t get a drawing room.

KATHERINE HEPBURN: What do you mean by that?

JIMMY STEWART: My mistake.

KATHERINE HEPBURN: Decidedly. You’re insulting. Oh, don’t apologize!

JIMMY STEWART: Well, who’s apologizing?

KATHERINE HEPBURN: I never knew such a man.

JIMMY STEWART: You wouldn’t be likely to, dear, not from where you sit.

KATHERINE HEPBURN: Talk about arrogant!

CHARLES KRAUSE: All these and many more helped sculpt the mystique of the Hollywood movie star.

JIMMY STEWART: You’re wonderful.

KATHERINE HEPBURN: Ha, ha, ha, ha, ha, ha.

JIM LEHRER: For some thoughts now on the stars of past and present, Leonard Maltin, film historian and critic for Entertainment Tonight; Peter Bogdanovich is a director of 18 feature films, including “What’s Up Doc,” “The Last Picture Show,” and “Mask.” He’s also an author, most recently of a book of conversations with directors called “Who the Devil Made It.” Christine Choy is chair of the graduate film department at New York University’s Tish School of the Arts. Mr. Bogdanovich, is the movie world that created Jimmy Stewart gone forever?

PETER BOGDANOVICH, Film Director/Author: Oh, yes, completely gone. It was a whole system that found actors who were unusual, not necessarily versatile in the way we think of versatile actors today, but actors who had a personality, who had a certain quality that, as Alan Dwan said, jumped off the screen. That was star quality, and then the writers, the directors, the studio was working toward enhancing the personality, playing variations on that personality. That was–there was a whole system to that, and it was extraordinary and produced the greatest array of star actors in the history of the world.

JIM LEHRER: Mr. Maltin, compare that system with the present system.

LEONARD MALTIN, Film Critic: Well, today actors almost avoid being stars. They want to be thought of as actors. They want to be thought of as someone who can play something different every time at bat. There are only a few exceptions to that rule, and so they don’t want to be put on a pedestal. They don’t want to seem larger than life. They don’t want to treated the way I think we all regarded the people of Jimmy Stewart’s era. And now I think people–there’s another difference too, you know.

People want to be seen as ironic. They don’t want to be seen as heroic. It’s strange. Even in the animated “Hercules,” the new Disney “Hercules” movie, they kind of make fun of the hero “Hercules” while they’re building them up at the same time. It’s funny. It’s sort of subversive, but funny, and it works, but it’s a 90′s movie. You wouldn’t have had that decades ago. They wouldn’t have been afraid to have an out and out hero. Today that’s not in fashion, and Jimmy Stewart’s kind of heroism isn’t in fashion in the 90′s, just look at the actors, and you’ll see.

JIM LEHRER: Ms. Choy, why is heroism no longer in fashion in the movies?

CHRISTINE CHOY, New York University: Well, because the heroism, you have to take a position, whether it is wrong or right, and it defends particular class, for instance, blue collar class, and this is more issues around, so it–commanding the audience to think, to intelligize, and to absorb, to identify the particular characters was today, I think it’s not popular is because I think after the 80′s the American audiences are pretty much passive, and they want to be told from the screen rather than an interacted world that the character presented on the screen.

And I believe, you know, the person–Jimmy Stewart–who had a very, very clear position that he stood for, and was no longer popular. We were on the fast action. We want caricatures, rather than characters. We want fantasies, rather than dreams. And so it’s no longer popular.

JIM LEHRER: But, Mr. Bogdanovich, maybe no longer popular in terms of making new movies but the old movies are extremely popular, are they not? They’re showing them in theaters all over the country. Of course, they’re on television as well.

PETER BOGDANOVICH: Yes, but I think there’s a resistance on the younger generation to the older films. I don’t even like to say old films. I just like to say classic films because, you know, we don’t say old plays by Shakespeare or old novels by Faulkner. I think there’s a lack of film culture among the younger generation, and I think it’s unfortunate. I think it also shows in the films. A lot of the younger films look as though they’re inventing the wheel every time out when, in fact, the wheel has been invented long ago.

JIM LEHRER: Explain what you mean when you say film culture. For those of us who are not–who are lay people, we look at a movie made today versus say some of the- “Mr. Smith Goes to Washington.” Explain the difference in culture there from a film standpoint.

PETER BOGDANOVICH: What we really mean, Jim, is just that I feel that the younger film makers don’t have a sense of the old films. Here I am, using the expression.

JIM LEHRER: Okay. Caught you. (laughing)

PETER BOGDANOVICH: But I mean classic films, they don’t–they haven’t seen enough of the older films, films made in the 20′s, 30′s, 40′s, 50′s. You know, the real foundation of the art was in the silent era, which was where the image was everything. And most of the directors who directed in the 30′s, 40′s, and 50′s had started in the silent era, and so that idea of the image being the main thing continued well into the talking era. That seems to have been lost as the younger generation has taken over, the younger generations have taken over.

JIM LEHRER: Mr. Maltin.

LEONARD MALTIN: Can I just say something.

JIM LEHRER: Sure, you bet.

LEONARD MALTIN: You know, I think what’s interesting is that, yes, a lot of younger people–I couldn’t agree more with people–they’re not film literate, you might say–and yet, I think they still respond to the values of those old films when they turn up in new movies. The problem is that Hollywood doesn’t believe it. I think the movers and shakers out here somehow think that it’s old-fashioned, or it’s not trendy to espouse certain values. And yet, when they do, people respond.

A few years ago the two most popular films in America were the “Lion King” from Disney and “Forrest Gump,” which were in many ways very old-fashioned movies, certainly built on very solid, old-fashioned foundations of storytelling and character building. And when that happens, it’s always considered a fluke. Why is it a fluke? It’s not a fluke at all. It’s that Hollywood sells the public short or underestimates the emotional power of their own ability to tell a decent, old-fashioned story and have people respond in the 90′s, which they will.

JIM LEHRER: So, in other words, if a studio or if a movie maker decided to create a new Jimmy Stewart, they could do it?

LEONARD MALTIN: Sure. Why not?

JIM LEHRER: Do you agree, Ms. Choy, that could happen today?

CHRISTINE CHOY: Absolutely, with the technology, digital knowledge right now anything is possible, including Forrest Gump. You frame Forrest Gump as this decent individual but traced back through the history, he’s meeting with the Martin Luther King, meeting with John F. Kennedy, marching the civil rights movement, et cetera, et cetera, and of course, it was very well presented, with a humorous–on the other hand, you have to look at how history is going to be remembered and recorded.

By placing him in that kind of context, rather than serious history, reflecting the reality, put in sort of a satirical, you know, situation, anything is possible, for today, you know, with the digital information, digital–that special effects that we are seeing from the “True Lies,” or the “Batman,” you know, one hand, yes, technology–we must–we have to upkeep the technology, but on the other hand, what does that mean to human relationships from now on, and more and more not only the presentation and end product on the larger screen has been manipulated–a real position in a historical context but also a great deal in terms of the process of making firms.

In the past, you have a director who goes on the set, working with an actor, with a camera person, assistant camera, and lighting, and everybody, you know, having a break in the talk and exchanging ideas, and today, especially in the post production, have altered a great deal with the digital technology. The director comes in, no longer sitting with an editor; he will get video tape and may be watching it, you know, right next to his swimming pool, bungalow, and an editor selects the cut, selected the cut, and then the assistant editor normally works from 8 PM to 8 AM digitizing the images. So assistant and editor again have, you know, separate relationships.

JIM LEHRER: So, Mr. Bogdanovich, would you agree that it’s the lack of the personal–the movies are no longer personal creations anymore, they’re committee, they’re made by machines, whether–like in the old days, sorry, the classic days, directors and stars made these movies and writers?

PETER BOGDANOVICH: Well, I think–I think what Leonard said, first of all, about actors is true. Starting with Brando, who was a very versatile actor, but was–happened to also be–had a star personality, but most of the actors today don’t want to be stars; they want to be versatile. So you have a problem. The audience is the loser for that. It’s no coincidence that many television series run for a long time with the same–basically the same show every week–that shows that the audience likes to have the same person every week. John Wayne wasn’t always the same, but he was John Wayne with variations from picture to picture, as was Jimmy, as was Cary Grant, because they had very strong personalities of their own, which then writers and directors would play on.

The same thing with directors. You know, Frank Capra made a certain kind of movie, Alfred Hitchcock, obviously, made a certain kind of movie. Today directors want to be versatile as well, or they haven’t got a personality particularly. You know, I once bemoaned the state of the movies some years ago to Orson Welles, and he said, well, what do you want; he said, you know, the Renaissance only lasted 60 years. So maybe we’re just in a period of decline, and we’ve got to face it.

JIM LEHRER: A period of decline and we must face it, Mr. Maltin?

LEONARD MALTIN: Well, I guess it’s true. I mean, if you’ve seen the movies that have come out the past month or two, you’d think we are at the end of civilization as we know it. Every now and then, though, something sneaks through and you say, okay, all is not lost, every now and then. “Sling Blade,” a film like that comes along and you say, well, if a film like that can still get made and seen by people from coast to coast, not just in two theaters in New York and LA, all right, there’s still hope.

Of course, there’s still talented and creative people with good ideas, good stories to tell, and yes, there are people who are willing to go out and see them, but I think there are an awful lot of people who sell the public short, who think that if they spend more money on the special effects or if they cram it full of this or that, that that’s going to make the difference. Well, the last month of movie going has shown that that’s not true, and these films, which have come along- “Speed 2″ and “Conair,” they’re so quickly digested and forgotten.

JIM LEHRER: All right.

LEONARD MALTIN: Yes, a lot of people go to see them, and they put a lot of money in that box office that first weekend, but can you remember anything about it a month later, two months later, or three months later?

JIM LEHRER: All right. We’ll leave it there. Thank you all three very much.