Classic Movie Absurdities
Watching a movie frequently requires one to suspend disbelief to fully enjoy the experience. The film-maker essentially asks his audience to accept: the premise that deep space (and/or time) travel is possible or even commonplace, a protagonist with supernatural powers, or that certain real events in the past occurred differently than their historical record indicates. Viewing classic movies compels one to accept still other realities, some which were a sign of their times and others which are just as absurd today as they were when the films were released.
When a person discovers TCM, the first reality they're asked to accept is a black-and-white world, in both a literal and a figurative sense. Most of the movies produced during the studio era were absent Technicolor technology until filming a movie with or without it became the director's artistic choice in the 1960's. Billy Wilder's The Apartment (1960) was the last black & white movie to win the Academy's top honor until Steven Spielberg's Schindler's List (1993) won the Best Picture Oscar. The last B&W Cinematography Oscar was awarded to Haswell Wexler (his first) for Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf? (1966); this category was split into two awards in 1939 when Gregg Toland won his only Oscar for B&W work on Wuthering Heights (1939) and the Color statuette was shared between Ernest Haller (the only time he took home the gold) and Ray Rennahan (his first of two Oscars) for Gone With the Wind (1939). In 1957, only one cinematography Oscar was awarded, to Jack Hildyard (his only nomination) for The Bridge on the River Kwai (1957); all the nominees were color productions.
Some of the real differences between today's world and the classic movie years are technology related and obvious - advances in the primary form of transportation from walking to horseback (and horse-drawn carriages with buggy whips), from the early backfiring hobbyist automobiles to suburban assault vehicles and the evolution of air travel, healthcare advancements (e.g. from bleeding a patient to knowledge of germs and hospital room surgeries, etc.) - while others are more subtle or were culturally dictated: men used to wear hats, everybody smoked cigarettes, a woman's place was in the home and/or her employment opportunities were limited to menial service positions, some of which required her to remain celibate, unless she participated in some variant of the oldest profession, and options for minorities were even more restricted because racism was prevalent. Hence, many older films are labeled curios because they contain dated stereotypes, portray societies with different legal, social, moral, or ethical standards (of right and wrong), and otherwise don't speak to modern audiences.
While studios love to find existing properties they own which can be updated for today's moviegoers, some terrific classics would be difficult to remake because certain plot devices no longer work. For example, the John Klempner novel that director Joseph L. Mankiewicz adapted into an Oscar winning screenplay as A Letter to Three Wives (1949), beating Robert Rossen's All the King's Men (1949) and Carl Foreman's Champion (1949) among others, depends upon the fact that these titled women (Jeanne Crain, Linda Darnell, and Ann Sothern) have read this shocking letter just as they've embarked on a ferry headed for a daylong annual picnic on an island. This device which allows each of the women to ponder (via flashback) the events that could have led their husband to run off with another woman (voiced by an uncredited Celeste Holm) is outdated in this age of the (lamentable) ubiquitous cellular telephone.
Suspending disbelief has always been required to enjoy a musical since normal (?) people don't usually break into song (e.g. to express their emotions, or thoughts). One can easily find critiques from those who can't, persons with an inability to appreciate the highly creative way in which Robert Wise-Jerome Robbins expressed street gang violence through song and dance in their Oscar winner West Side Story (1961). But other film genres necessitate this same skill. Many movies which involve a romance rely upon the concept of "love at first sight" and contain unbelievably short time periods between two persons' initial meeting and their engagement or wedding. A lot of films which involve violence would have us believe that killing someone with a single blow is easy, that a single stab with a knife will kill a person instantaneously, that a novice can shoot a gun to fatally wound an attacker, or that dying is a quick even silent occurrence. Whereas a present day moviegoer has become accustomed to graphic realism in such scenes, a classic movie viewer must intentionally overlook a certain amount of absurdity (and obviously fake sets!).
Indeed, suspension of disbelief is essential to really enjoy classic films, and I haven't even touched on production code enforced absurdities like married couples having to sleep in twin beds with one partner having to keep at least one foot on the floor at all times during lovemaking, nor have I explored the loss of innocence and naivete, character traits which seem unrealistic when witnessed in old movies.
© 2007 Turner Classic Movies - this article originally appeared on TCM's official blog