It has occurred to me that a love of the Golden Age of Hollywood at times is a completely separate thing from a love of film as a whole. For me, the focus is different, largely because situations existed in the studio system that no longer exist today, at least in Hollywood anyway. From the early 1920's and the rise of the producer as King, until the whole thing fell apart due to television, a new generation of film educated creators and the end of the long term studio contract, movies were made as part of a collective, conveyor belt process. The studios existed to create dreams and contracted artistes were by and large told what to do. This intense management of resources created a lot of great films, some quite bad films, and a lot of solid, well made films.
The great films went on to become cultural touchstones, and the rest...well they were remembered by the people that saw them then just hung around, waiting to be rediscovered. My point being, if you are a proper student of film, you seek out the best examples of the art form worldwide and go forth to write your thesis and scratch your chin. If you are a student of classic movies, you tend to ignore (or at least take for granted - we all know The Wizard of Oz is good) the classics and head straight for the bargain bin (or at least the blue cross sale). Cary Grant? Yeah, Bringing Up Baby is a stone cold classic, but give me Gambling Ship any day.
For me it's not about auteur directors or method trained actors, nor is it about innovative camera technique and epic cinematography (though theses things all help). It's about stars. It's about a window on a forgotten world. It's about the unexpected thrill of something quite out of the ordinary happening in a very ordinary film. The films I want to watch aren't directed by Hitchcock, Ford or Capra. They are directed by the workhorses of the era, the guys made those conveyor belt films and made damn good ones too. They are the almost (but not) forgotten likes of Archie Mayo, Lloyd Bacon, Ray Enright, Alfred E. Green and Roy Del Ruth. They made the movies that recorded what ordinary people in the 30's saw, felt and loved.
My original point for this was to talk about how I got started watching classic movies, how one star beget another and through six degrees of separation I ended up with the dozen or so favorites that I feel define me and my tastes. As I said earlier, to me, classic movie watching is all about the middle ground. However, while this may apply to the middle ground of directors, it doesn't preclude anyone from following the top end of the star spectrum. Because, really it all comes down to the stars.
I'm not going to rant about the difference between the stars of today and of yesteryear because really, that would be a futile waste of space and it's also like comparing apples and oranges. but what brings me back time and time again to the films of the Golden Age is the cast of big stars, small stars, character actors, bit-parters and all the people in between. And while I tend to shy away from the important directors, I have no such problems with the big stars. However, as previously stated, the middle ground of the filmography is where they all really shine. All those early 30's films with the crackle of energy and the zip of stars finding their way, all done in 65 minutes. It is such a shame that the era nowadays is reduced to a "Greatest Hits" package and that people don't wish to see a film or a star in their proper context. Humphrey Bogart's gangster films are great,but the real fun is in watching him climb up the ranks and cast lists in his early pictures, stealing the show until he becomes a fully fledged star.
You can easily watch a bad film, or a least a pretty dull one, but if your favorite star is in it then it doesn't seem so bad. You can anxiously wait for them to reappear on the screen and the time spent just watching them sometimes turns an average film into what is often generously labelled a "curio". Afterwards, in reflection you then piece together where the movie stands in the career of your favourite, maybe it's not their best (everyone made at least a few duds) but it can help in an overall understanding of why you like them. Personally I'd take countless average movies with their various quirks to the tried and tested, and frequently over-viewed "Greatest Hit". And this applies to most major stars. Do we really need to see Casablanca again?
As they say, the devil is in the detail, and I hope to dig up a few dusty corners of film history in the months to come. Next stop should be a certain love 'em or loathe 'em pre code comedy duo...