Lily Garland, nee Mildred Plotka (Carole Lombard) is thrilled that Broadway impresario Oscar Jaffe (John Barrymore) has placed a star on her dressing-room drawer following an opening-night triumph in the 1934 screwball comedy "Twentieth Century." Chances are even people who hadn't yet been born when it came out know it, and love it. But those chances seemingly substantially increase if one has already had his or her 40th birthday.
This doesn't refer to the people who regularly read this site; here, I'm preaching to the converted. However, many people under age 40 probably don't have classic Hollywood in their blood, even though the classic movie-loving generation before them also missed the studio era (which, for the sake of this argument, ended about 1960 or so). What's the difference? A couple of things -- mass distribution of movies on opening weekends, unlike the old days of road show exhibition and films being advertised by word of mouth instead of a blitz of commercials -- but the medium that carries most of those commercials had the biggest impact.
Television played a major role in building the cinematic literacy of the baby-boom generation, and an entry published nearly a year ago at the website Sound on Sight (http://www.soundonsight.org) explains it in detail. Written by Bill Mesce and entitled "The 'Grey Ones' Fade To Black," it examines why thirtysomethings on down as a whole don't seem to be interested in classic Hollywood; in fact, for many of them, the very idea of a black-and-white image is a turn-off (though some of the older ones in that group didn't seem to mind when B&W was used in music videos -- remember music videos?).
Mesce knows of what he speaks, since the genesis for this entry came after most students in his film class had next to no reaction for well-known Hollywood perennials such as "His Girl Friday," "Double Indemnity," the 1959 "Ben-Hur" and "Dr. Strangelove." And, he added, "Not to mention they didn’t know who Bogart was, or Stanwyck, Lancaster, Grant, Fonda, Bergman…" (We presume he means Henry and Ingrid, respectively, for the last two -- though for all we know, Jane and Peter Fonda might be included, too.)
Anyway, in the initial years of television, relatively few films were shown, aside from cheapies, British castoffs and movies in the public domain. Hollywood studios were reluctant to feed this new, young rival which had already devoured much of the industry's box-office revenue.
Things changed in 1955, when RKO, tottering under Howard Hughes' erratic leadership and nearing its end as a studio, decided to cash in, selling rights to 740 of its films (including the likes of "Citizen Kane" and "King Kong") to a distribution company for several million dollars. Other studios, noting the bonanza RKO had received and realizing their libraries were stuck in vaults doing next to nothing, followed suit.
What did this mean? New York's seven VHF stations during the late 1950s (one would become noncommercial in 1961) were suddenly bursting with old movies. Mesce quotes TV reviewer Stephen Whitty: “In the NY area…you had Channel 2 running MGM pictures, Channel 5 had Warners and old Universal titles, Channel 9 had RKO and a lot of British imports, Channel 13 ran foreign imports and silents, and Channels 4, 7, and 11 divvied up the rest.”
The menu wasn't quite as full upstate in Syracuse, where I grew up, but channels 3 and 8 ran lots of films when network programming wasn't on. (In 1962, channel 8 moved to 5 to accommodate a third station, channel 9, which also showed many movies.) Channel 3 showed films most late Sunday afternoons, especially in the wintertime; among their fare was "It's A Wonderful Life" and "The Boy With Green Hair." I don't remember seeing the two films below, however, from a Syracuse Post-Standard ad on Aug. 28, 1960. (Then again, I had just turned five and was awaiting kindergarten in a few weeks.)
The point of this all was that young people, exposed to classic film, became fans of the stuff -- one of the few things they had in common with their parents as the '60s began to swing harder, men's hair grew longer and women's skirts grew shorter.
Those films shown on local stations invariably were black-and-white and from the early '50s at the latest. The networks took the next step, acquiring the rights for newer fare, beginning in 1961 with NBC's "Saturday Night At The Movies." Rights to such films increased, but the ratings proved worth it for all three networks (remember, this was pre-Fox), even if the movies weren't always presented with the best of care. (In a famous incident, a network's telecast of "The Notorious Landlady" ran two of its three parts out of order.) By 1968, a film was on a prime-time network every night of the week. And remember, this was well before you could tape network programming and watch it later -- if you wanted to watch it, you had to be in front of your set. In short, it was an event.
The result, according to Mesce? "Those years parked in front of the TV as kids laid the bedrock for what would become the country’s first -– and perhaps last -– cinematically literate generation. As we grew older and went off to college, some of us actually studied movies, some studied how to make movies."
So what happened? Why, in this era of hundreds of TV channels, have classic movies become a niche player? Well, these cable channels don't exist to serve general audiences, just as general-interest magazines such as Life have died. According to Whitty, “TV has given up on classic movies. Yes, TCM runs them around the clock, but it’s the only station (we won’t count AMC, which mostly gave up…). And if you don’t like TCM’s theme of the day –- Alice Faye, say, or Westerns -– well, you’re out of luck. Every other station runs films from the last five years or so, which is fine, but hardly representative of the art.”
(To be technical about it, at this time last year, TCM probably wouldn't have used Alice Faye as a theme, since most of her films were made at 20th Century-Fox and generally inaccessible to the channel. But I digress.)
Mesce notes, "To cut through the clutter and capture eyeballs, cable channels have moved, over the last 30 years, from the kind of generic programming which marked the early years of the business (old movies and TV shows) to more channel-defining original programming. Those channels that still have a strategic use for movies tend to air -– and re-air and re-re-air -– those titles they know are instantly recognizable to the mass audience. And what that doesn’t include are the old classics, the black-and-whites –- what my kids, when they were younger, called 'the gray ones.'" So TBS' "Mr. Deeds" will be the one starring Adam Sandler and Winona Ryder, while corporate sibling TCM will "go to town" with the Gary Cooper-Jean Arthur "Deeds."
To be sure, the element of time works against appreciation of classic Hollywood. Seven decades have passed since Lombard's last movie, "To Be Or Not To Be," was released; five decades before that film came out, there were no movies.
What can be done to rectify this? Hard to think of a solution. TCM has certainly opened the eyes of many young people to our cinematic heritage; recent films such as "The Artist," "Hugo" and "My Week With Marilyn" have provided a gateway to movie history. But none of them, despite their critical acclaim and array of awards, made much of a dent at the box office against the latest CGI comic-book adaptation. It's enough to make you want to find a shoulder to cry on.
The essay can be found at http://www.soundonsight.org/the-%E2%80%9Cgray-ones%E2%80%9D-fade-to-black.