Thursday, November 20, 2008

Ten Things I Love About Old Movies

So, as threatened, the Siren is stealing Jacqueline T. Lynch's post idea. Jacqueline's concept was to look at relatively superficial, but satisfying, elements of classic film. Nothing like mise en scene, cinematography or acting styles, just the things that draw you into an older world.

So here, in rough order, are some things the Siren loves that didn't make it onto Jacqueline's list:

1. Intertitles in sound movies. One of the Siren's very favorite things ever, as she's mentioned before. I haven't seen one of these since Star Wars, and that wasn't strictly an intertitle since it was at the beginning. Do they just assume no one can read? That can't be, since everyone in the audience is texting like mad, a complaint that finds the Siren in complete accord with her friendly archnemesis Dirty Harry. Anyway. I adore intertitles, like the YELLOW JACK! alert in Jezebel and "And so the 'keeks' went out of another marriage" in That Uncertain Feeling and all the intertitles in this movie that you may have seen at some point:

2. Trains, especially trains with sleeping cars.

3. Dressing for dinner. The Siren has thrown many dinner parties here in glamourous little old New York, and not one person has ever shown up wearing something like this

or this

let alone this

or this.

Nope, not even me.

4. I love any scene of a woman getting undressed behind a screen. I doubt that women did this much in real life but in the movies it's a killer. Bonus points if the woman hits the man in the room (there's always a man in the room) with something she's just taken off.

(Yes, she's standing in front of the screen but she's about to go behind it any minute. Googling didn't get me far with this one. Where's C. Parker of Starlet Showcase on this category?)

5. Marcel waves. As a small girl watching her first black-and-white movies, the presence of marcel waves let the Siren know whether the movie was worthwhile. This meant she saw some good movies at an early age, like this one:

6. Nightclubs. Especially in the 1930s movies like Top Hat, where they appear to be roughly the size of an aircraft carrier.

Even non-musicals had fabulous nightclubs, as you can see in the background here in Nightmare Alley.

And even a nightclub that's supposed to be seedy, like The Blue Gardenia, looks stylish.

That brings us to

7. Smoking. People do it everywhere in old movies, with unapologetic gusto. The act of smoking can give rhythm to lines, buying the character some time.

It can tell you much about the way the characters relate.

It is, in short, a social activity.

(The Siren here adds the obligatory note that smoking is a Bad Thing, although why the failure to denounce smoking as soon as it's mentioned causes howls of protest is something the Siren doesn't get. No one freaks if the Siren fails to screech "Heroin kills!" when discussing The Man With the Golden Arm.)

8. Drinks. The way people knock 'em back in old movies fills the Siren with awe. And it's not just the ones you expect...'s even the folks hanging around the fortress of the American home. Watch Walter Huston pour out a simple Scotch in Dodsworth--about a half-tumbler. The Siren gets goggle-eyed every time she sees it. And of course, nobody drank like these two.

9. Full-length musical numbers in non-musicals. The Siren just saw one in Safe in Hell, in which the adorable Nina Mae McKinney sings a lovely version of "Sleepy Time Down South" while serving dinner to the sleaziest guests in the Caribbean. But there are lots of other examples. Even Howard Hawks had one, the "Drum Boogie" Barbara Stanwyck performs before kicking back with some academic types.

(Notice how often Hawks is popping up here? This is the stuff that really makes an auteur, I tell you.)

10. Closeups of notes in beautiful handwriting.

So, the Siren doesn't want to turn this into a meme. For one thing, the misuse of the term meme is irritating some of the purists around here. For another, the Siren has trouble picking people to tag. So this is not a meme, it's an invitation. If you want to contribute, please do so, either in commments, or at your own blog. If it's the latter drop me a line and I'll link back. The one rule is that we're looking for details and atmosphere, not big artistic stuff. And link back to Jacqueline, since she started it.

While we are on the subject, here are some delightful entries in the A-Z meme oopsImean list-by-invitation:

Operator_99 hits it out of the park with an all-1930s list
Jacqueline T. Lynch shows herself a kindred softy and lover of Dorothy McGuire
Goatdogblog goes international
Glenn Kenny gives some class to the joint
Dirty Harry, in a burst of liberality, mixes in some movies he didn't even like
Robert Avrech includes some wonderful silents
Filmbrain flashes film erudition it will be hard to top with An A-Z of Nikkatsu Sleaze and Action.

For a complete list of all 125 or so, check Blog Cabins. If this doesn't make him King of Google I don't know what will. Am I missing any good lists? Tell me. Finally, if you have the Siren on your blogroll, but have yet to spy yourself in the thickets of her sidebar, please say so via email or in comments. The Self-Styled Siren has a liberal blogrolling policy, and if you list her she will almost always list you back.


X. Trapnel said...

10 more things:
1. Ocean liners/shipboard meetings
2. Characters named Vane, Vail, Vance
3. Penthouses
4. Dialogue with "Swell" and "Grand"
5. Drily witty servants
1. Night trains/assignations
2. Characters named Shelby, Thursby, Colby, Grisby
3. Basements
4. Dialogue with "Try and get some sleep" and (heavy intake of breath) "I see"
5. Drily witty piano players

dms said...

lounging pajamas
stylish robes
cocktail shakers
seltzer bottles
the raised eyebrow
hats on ladies and gents
steamer trunks

X. Trapnel said...

Comic tycoons in pinstripe suits
Humorless authority figures in bulky doublebreasted suits

Must add to 40s names: Jacoby, with accent on the first syllable

Anacrone said...

In no particular order:

1. Marie Dressler, superstar
2. Actors with voices
3. The dark shadows that go with black and white
4. Ubiquity of triple threats
5. Older character actors (particularly the ladies) - see #1
6. Literate screenplays
7. Dry wit, period
8. Double entendre
9. Ecstatic amorality without comeuppance ("Jewel Robbery")
10. Gilded-Age wealth and mores on display

Uncle Gustav said...

Men named "Babe" (i.e., Wallace Ford in The Mummy's Hand).

Cigar-suckers who look like Wallace Ford.

Men calling other men "lovey" (i.e., Thomas Mitchell to Edward Everett Horton in Lost Horizon).

Men with incredibly wide waists and gargantuan butts holding their trousers up with suspenders (i.e., Thomas Gomez).

The Siren said...

Ocean liners! I forgot ocean liners. It's generally accepted that "Let's get outta here" is the most common line in movies but the Siren swears "Try and get some sleep" is actually more frequent. You encounter it to this day. Re: Penthouses -- I also love the incredibly flimsy doors of the so-called elevators leading up. They always look like what they are, flats.

DS, welcome. I once gave a couple a seltzer bottle for their wedding and they swore to me it was their favorite gift and you know what? I believe them.

Anacrone, the treatment of wealth in old movies deserves its own post. It's generally both less acquisitive (you don't see the relentless pile-up of flashy designer goods) and less judgmental than today. Particularly in the 1930s, the rich tend to be amusing, not flamboyantly fucked-up.

Flickhead, you have me thinking of that immortal line in The Glass Key, where William Bendix sneers, during a confrontation with the diminutive Ladd, "Wait a minute, you mean I don't get to smack Baby?"

Vanwall said...

1. Hoagy Carmichael, and his various clones.
2. Speaking of the great Thomas Gomez, any older, large supporting actors.
3.Men or women speaking with cigs in the corners of their mouths.
4. Cigarette smoke as an extra effect in scenes.
5. Calenders, and days passing as pages torn away.
6. Old cars and trams, and sometimes planes. Especially Zeppelins.
7. Kay Francis's dresses, especially her "casual" wear.
8. Men's shoes.
9. Men's hats - straw skimmers, and snap brims especially - most were raw-edged, unlike so many recreations in modern films.
10. Women's hairstyles from early Silent movies - fascinatingly repellent.
11. Short Credits - I'm a creditiot, but it's interesting to see who gets left out.
12: Whit Bissell
13. Bad accents.

The Siren said...

Vanwall, I miss accents, period. You don't get the grand variety of accents, from mid-Atlantic to working-class New Yorker, that used to exist in movies, unless it's a Mafia story of some kind.

Of course, that does remind me that some things fall under "good riddance" and patronizing fake black dialect and lisping Asian accents are way up on THAT list.

X. Trapnel said...

The most frequently uttered line in movies/tv nowadays is: "You ok?"

True seltzer bottles (I have one from Prague 1887)should be of blue or green glass.

How about Hoagy Carmichael and Oscar Levant as duo pianists in a nightclub jointly owned by Dana Andrews and John Garfield?

Hazel said...

Women wearing full make-up in bed

People falling in love after one meeting

Rain showers starting as if someone has switched on a hose

Actresses filmed in close up on their “good” side only

Cinematographers like Gregg Toland, William Daniels and Charles Lang

Child actors like Peggy Ann Garner and Virginia Weidler

Supporting actors like Eric Blore and Edward Everett Horton

Happy endings

Back projection (courtesy of my son)

Stunts done for real in silent films (another one from my son)

Good roles for women

Vanwall said...

Siren you are soooo right - the spoken word nowadays is flatter than Louise Brooks' décolletage, not even approaching her "little pears" level, sadly - I could use a few bumps in the language.

Was watching "Lock, Stock, and Two Smoking Barrels" recently, to say nothing of "Snatch"! - and it struck me how the Brits must guard their accents with their lives, they are so rich with possibilities. We declared war on the King's English along with the English King, and in that aspect, we are poorer for it. Gotta go watch "Fargo", now.

X. Trapnel said...

Unusual second leads who are more attractive, interesting, and sexier than the leading lady: Geraldine Fitzgerald, Nancy Coleman, Cathy O'Donnell (sigh), Mary Anderson.

Chuck Sigars said...

Expanding on Hazel's -- Any process shot where the actor is steering.


Pajamas, period.

Walter Brennan.

Spinning headlines.

Balconies (fire escapes don't count).

Finally, on smoking -- the European thumb-forefinger pinch as opposed to the modern "scissor" (i.e., first and second fingers) smoking. I could watch Peter Lorre smoke all day.

Marilyn said...

I almost went blind when you actually named The Preminger Abomination. Don't DO that!

I saw a version of a Marcel in a copy of Glamour magazine when I was a teen, and tried to figure out the directions they gave. Couldn't. Never got a Marcel. Still want one.

Favorite classic movie "thing": Peggy Cummins, natch.

DavidEhrenstein said...

In The Thin Man series Nick and Nora (the greatest argument for heterosexaulity ever devised)drink like fish but never get drunk.

The Siren said...

However, David, they DO get hangovers, and how. I still want an icepack like the one Myrna ties so fetchingly on her head in the first one.

X. Trapnel said...

tenament rooftops with a view of Manhattan

Vanwall said...

Westerns filmed in the actual old-ish west.

dms said...

To Hazel's "Good roles for women."

Hear! Hear!

Thelma Ritter and cocktail parties

(I'd love to have a cocktail party with Thelma Ritter.)

Vanwall said...

Musical scores composed by someone other than John Williams...or some pop/rock slummer.

J.C. Loophole said...

Feel free to "tag" me anytime Siren.
No that's not a double entendre - say that's something I'd have on my Top Ten list- double entendres.
The Marx Brothers and Thin Man films were lousy with 'em.

Unknown said...

Heroin kills? Really?

Drat, I guess I should stop doing it then.

Great list. I, too, particularly enjoy both trains and nightclubs in older pictures.

X. Trapnel said...

Agreed, Vanwall, but let's not forget that for every Herrmann, Korngold, Rosza, Raksin masterpiece there were twenty clunkers by the dread Tiomkin

mndean said...

The bar in every ritzy Prohibition (and after) apartment. Looks like a mundane piece of furniture until you open it up and all the glassware and bottles appear.

Art Deco anything, but especially clocks and furniture.

Doors with frosted glass windows with the business name hand painted on it.

Comic coroners.

Witty sidekicks.

The Siren said...

Mndean, what's even better than a door with a frosted glass window and a hand-painted name is a shot of a guy painting a new name on the door.

Greg said...

The Self-Styled Siren has a liberal blogrolling policy, and if you list her she will almost always list you back.

And here I thought I was special.

Great list. Between you, Jacqueline and the great lists from your astonishing commenters I have nothing to add except wonderful opening credits. Think My Man Godfrey where the names are displayed along the sides of a wonderful miniature set complete with miniature neon signs. No CGI or bare bones white on black times new Roman. Credits that were a small movie in and of themselves.

And while we're at it, miniatures themselves. God, I miss special effects that really were special.

And Player's Cigarette Movie Star cards.

Sorry, that was a shameless plug for myself.

Jason Bellamy said...

Terrific list! And some great additions in the comments. I've got to add:

- Actors/actresses you wouldn't want to see naked. (I'm not against nudity or anything. But today it's hard to find a working actor who isn't one of People's "Most Beautiful.")

- Lack of product placement.

- Extras who turn to statues when the lead characters have the spotlight.

- Women old enough to best post-sexy but young enough to not look like the Crypt Keeper.

Operator_99 said...

Great lists. Here is my 10, but would include so many from the other lists.

1. Showgirls' dressing rooms and all the frenetic energy expended between numbers

2. Guns or hands or knives just visible through the curtain

3. Big headlights on a car speeding around the corner-country or city

4. Stockings being rolled down or up

5. Phone booths - the whispered threat or the bullet

6. Over the shoulder to the deco vanity mirror shots of the female lead

7. Cast of characters list to see who, if anyone at the bottom ever made it to the top. Almost never.

8. Back rooms with 5 guys lounging around in suits and playing cards while waiting for "The Boss"

9. Fog - in black and white there is nothing more ominous

10. 67 minutes to tell the whole story

mndean said...

The lack of product placement is a good one - when you see an item in an old movie, it usually belongs where it is and isn't highlighted and practically pointed at by the director. Take a look at the Ideal Cash Grocery, H. Bissonette Prop. There's all sorts of items, but they belong there. Same in Field's The Pharmacist. No product placement other than what a store ought to have in it.

mndean said...

7. Cast of characters list to see who, if anyone at the bottom ever made it to the top. Almost never.

That reminds me of one of my favorite series movies - The Case of the Curious Bride. Sandwiched among the stalwart character actors like Thomas Jackson, Olin Howland, and Henry Kolker is the name Errol Flynn.

Hazel said...

"67 minutes to tell the whole story"

Oh, yes.

A few more:

insane headgear

furs (like cigarettes these require the Bad Thing disclaimer)

twin beds for married couples


cigarette holders


newspaper editors with sleeve garters and a visor

Uncle Gustav said...

"A good cast is worth repeating" and then -- BOOM -- The End.

No twenty minute end credit roll.

The Siren said...

Chuck Sigars, must say you are right about the cigarette-holding. Am I right that the thumb-forefinger thing was almost always male? There was real nuance to the ways that cigarettes were smoked. Compare it to Mad Men where the actors seem to always be drawing attention to the smoking somehow, like "Look! Authentic!"

DS, Thelma Ritter, period. And I agree with Jason Bellamy, you used to get a much wider range of looks in movies. Now it's all StarsILF. Or rather, StarsTheProducersLF.

Jonathan, don't pout, you ARE special and the link is terrific, thanks for it.

Operator_99, I think we ALL miss economy of storytelling. I look at running times of current films and just sigh. As for your #7, that is one of my favorite activities.

Lisa said...

1. Wit, in its variegated forms.
2. A true "come hither" look.
3. Couples who, while familiar, were not too lazy to try to be interesting (in the best comedies.)
4. Elevators with attendants, or those great wrought iron closures.
5. Times pre-automation -- pre-dishwasher, pre-velcro. Things took effort, and one imagines with effort at rote tasks comes some liberation to think about things.
6. Sophistication sans utter blase.
7. Propriety, which made its breach quite a breathtaking thing.
8. guest cards and a silver tray
9. Anything on a silver tray
10. A non-Asian film with tea ceremonies.

The Siren said...

Lisa, welcome. The elevator in the Paris apartment building of Mr. C's parents used to be one of those awesome wrought-iron affairs you describe, where you could see the floors passing by and the people in the elevator through this network of metal lace. Then the city changed its regulations and now there's this hideous automated thing, although thank goodness it's still glass. The march of the ugly continues apace, even in Paris

Yojimboen said...

Not to set a trend of subversion, I'll leave the imagery and ambience for the more visually-oriented in da house, while I, as a writer, humbly submit some words that are worth a thousand pictures.

But first, a nod (or two) in gratitude to the masters we salute here (more than we know):

Van Nest Polglase - who decorated and/or designed 363 movies.
(A piker of course, compared to) Cedric Gibbons - with 1134 career credits.

Hommage paid.

The List

10) "You may not regret this now, but you will, soon... Tomorrow, and for the rest of your life!"

9) “Kiss me, you fool!”

8) "But my Johnny was always such a good boy!”

7) “Do me a favor, take off those glasses?”

6) “The lights are going out all over Europe… We may not see them lit again for a long, long time…”

5) “Why you…!”

4) “D’you suppose they’re dancing anywhere on this ship?"

3) "Oh, where is he? Has he...?”
“Yes... He’s gone…”
“Did he say he was coming back?”
“He didn’t say…”

2) “Sarge… I’m cold…”

(And the winner, though technically not a cliche, is included as - IMHO - simply the greatest line of movie dialogue ever written):

1) "Stand still, Godfrey, it'll all be over in a minute!"

mndean said...

Just because Polglase got the screen credit didn't mean he did the work. The "associate" (i.e. people like Carroll Clark) often did the real work. I don't know the situation of Cedric Gibbons, but never, ever forget that filmmaking is a group effort. Some just get more screen credit than others.

Jacqueline T. Lynch said...

I am so deeply impressed with both your own list, and with the suggestions of your commenters. I wish we could all be at the same dinner party to throw these ideas around. I humbly volunteer to dress in formal evening attire whether or not it is required.

I forgot about ocean liners, too. I also love the favorite bits of dialogue. There's another whole post right there.

One more thing I could add on the list of ten is: when somebody gets beat up, or physically threatened, we always see the action as a shadow on the wall.

Great post. I like the handwriting closeups, too.

Karen said...

Oh, dear, I'm coming late to this party!

I'll add the two that I added in Jacqueline's comments: 1) she mentioned candlestick phones, and I added candlestick phones on that collapsing metal accordion thing, usually seen on newspaper editors' desks, and 2) couturiers who have models walk dresses through rooms of women sitting and drinking tea.

I would add here that the sight of "Gowns by Adrian" or "Gowns by Orry-Kelly" in the opening credits always causes me intense pleasure.

On smoking: I love love love the social cues embedded in smoking in old films. The simple question, "Cigarette?" often carries enormous weight depending on its context--a truce between rivals, a gesture of hospitality, condescension from the arrogant, mercy from a much is carried in the offer and its body language. I loathe the habit--never had to quit since I never took it up--but there was often an elegance to it that was long gone by the time I was old enough even to try it.

What else? Stylized NYC skylines, emphasizing their deco elements.

Large, large older women unabashedly wearing backless, spaghetti-strap evening gowns, their grandmother-arm flaps proudly jiggling. Generally the ropes of jewels around their necks precluded any possible criticism.

Opening shots of films that feature either a speeding train or a cruising ocean liner.

Servants' quarters.

Weekend parties.

Oh, and everything the Siren listed--especially Marcel waves.

X. Trapnel said...

To add to to Yojimboen's list, two lines that should only be uttered by the suicidal:

"When we go back I'm gonna get my wife a pair of red shoes"

"I'll stay and guard the camp"

mndean said...

Oh, yes. I love the dowager - they either had witty lines or were the butt of jokes depending on the film they were in.

Dancing - used to be everyone would go dancing. Now nobody dances except in a musical.

The Rush Blog said...

I really enjoyed your list. However, I can point out at least two or three things you might still seen in a few movies today:

3. Dressing for dinner

For this, your best bet is a James Bond movie. Honestly. There comes a time when 007 and the leading lady has to make an appearance dressed to the nines.

7. Smoking

I suggest you become a regular viewer of AMC's series "MAD MEN". Season 1 is available on DVD. Or you can do repeat viewings of the 2001 film, "GOSFORD PARK".

8. Drinks

Again, I recommend "MAD MEN".

X. Trapnel said...

1. Opening credits that feature the leads in evening clothes walking four abreast toward the camera (an interesting experiment would be to choose actors least likely to do this, say Emil Jannings, Flora Robson, Max Schreck, and Hope Emerson)
2. The line "Where do you think YOU'RE going?" (typically uttered by burly waiter/bartender arms akimbo thinking Laurel and Hardy are trying to get out without paying).
3. Its latterday equivalent: "Hey mister, yer outta line" (think Ernest Borgnine grinning at the prospect of beating someone up--or in the subversive spirit, Edward Everett Horton).

Anonymous said...

This was the first entry I've read on your blog and I'm hooked! I can't add too much to what's already been mentioned but I'll put a nod in for:

1. long, leisurely paced scenes where the camera is held steady and not whizzing around the characters

2. linear storylines that are intriquing without being confusing

3. telephones that have to be cranked or, in later films, elaborate phones answered with a lilting "Hellooooo?"

4. THE CARS ... the wonderful, glorious cars of the 30s and 40s!

5. Fade aways when the sex begins

The Siren said...

Barbara, many thanks for the kind words and I like your list. :)

Rush, your James Bond point is well taken (probably part of why I still love Bond!) but Mad Men and Gosford are period pieces. I'm talking about the drinking and smoking and dressing being part of then-contemporary movies. I also have to say that few of the Mad Men actors seem very comfortable with the smoking in particular. There's often a self-consciousness to it. Of course I only saw a few episodes of the first season so perhaps they've eased up now.

Karen and MNDean, I have already sung a song of Margaret Dumont but let's raise a glass to Alison Skipworth and the very great Marie Dressler.

Yojimboen, don't forget William Cameron Menzies! My test for true Gone with the Wind fandom is whether the person knows what the movie owes to Menzies.

The Siren said...

Jacqueline, I am very grateful because this post and the thread it's spawned are entertaining me no end.

StinkyLulu said...

My alphabetical list is finally up here...

X. Trapnel said...

Last one, I promise.

Romantic nocturnal conversations/walks on bridges or along rivers; pause to lean over railing or stone enbankment (see especially Intermezzo (Stockholm) and From This Day Forward (Bronx)

Lisa said...

Thank you, Campaspe -- wonderful site (found it via Graphic Firing table!)

One final thought: Newsrooms! Old, glorious newsrooms with the chatter of ticker tape and Remington typewriters, copy boys, triplicate, smudged type, onion skin, the urgency, the cleverness, the late edition, printing presses in the bowels of the building. . .

You see, my parents were in the newsroom in the early 60's, and that was an entirely different space than today's antiseptic and silent computer-driven newsroom. Newspapermen can still be among the funnest people around, but their office world is more insular now.

Though he writes online, my dad still uses his manual Remington.

mndean said...

The typewriters weren't always Remingtons, though they were more prevalent than Royals, but those were the two brands most seen. The weirdest thing in old '30s films is the cash registers are mostly Ohmers with few Nationals.

My favorite cars were the last of the touring cars (four-door convertibles) from the late '30s.

I don't know why, but I always paid attention to props in old films, and I figured that the companies would give a deal to the prop department of the studios so their brand of equipment was used. The most pointed use of a mechanical prop I remember was in the film Christmas in July, where Dick Powell was in an office full of typewriters and Comptometers. Harry Hayden even mentions the Comptometer in his questioning of Powell.

Karen said...

Oh, I'll definitely second Lisa on the newsroom! Journalists in old movies: what working class heroes they were, eh? Sharp-witted, savvy, sarcastic....what happened to that??

mndean said...

Oh, they even showed Linotype machines in a few films, too.

Vanwall said...

"Ordinary" rooms with unearthly tall ceilings, mostly suggestive, at that - this was a function of set design to a degree, but the effect was expansive and expensive-looking. Things didn't seem so cramped.

Cars without headrests - speaking from experience, it's hard to drive a modern car without bending my Borsalino - loved those big old open Touring cars with convertible tops a mile long - to say nothing of making neat head shots easy and quick.

The Rush Blog said...

" I also have to say that few of the Mad Men actors seem very comfortable with the smoking in particular."

I do know that the lead actor, Jon Hamm, is an ex-smoker.

Lisa said...


Where did the rough-cut, straight talking newsman go? A thought: journalism is now gentrified post Woodward and Bernstein? My dad, who wrote for newspapers, rejected the title "journalist"; he was just a writer.

So, Studs Terkel-types have become quaint set pieces, because it is not cool anymore to ruin your health smoking and drinking late at night and consorting with shady characters. Now it is much less risque: we do it inch by inch with our junk food. Also, few are the Barbara Ehrenreich's who write about the "Nickle and Dimed" among us. Perhaps our social consciousness is less as we became more affluent.

Someone once said, the only people up at 3 a.m. are prostitutes and journalists. Maybe only the cub reporter checking the police blotter, now.

mndean said...

I'm not sure that journalists today are anything like the newspaper writers of old. The news writers of today do whatever they can to suck up to the powerful (even in small cities), as it's an easier ride to a comfortable living than to have actual talent. Not that it was unknown to happen in the old days - Hearst and Scripps-Howard writers were (during the lifetime of their bosses) notorious for having the views of their boss. They were generally less talented than their competitors.

Yojimboen said...

10 more, in no particular order:


“Follow that cab!”

Franklin Pangborn in anything.

Eve Arden in anything.

Junior executives parking their convertibles right outside their downtown office buildings, hopping out and being saluted inside by a uniformed doorman.
(Come to think of it, the fact that nobody ever had to look for a parking space.)

Real champagne glasses (the shallow ones, the kind I once heard my mother tell my oldest sister were the perfect measuring device for the perfectly proportioned female breast).

Shots that start on a bronze plaque (“The Larrabee Building”; “The Ball Bank & Trust Building” etc.), then tilt up to show the mile-high skyscraper.

Bakelite floors.

Three parallel chrome stripes on anything

Anne Harding’s face

Peter Nellhaus said...

As you might have noticed from my coffee breaks, I've been watching more vintage Warner Brothers movies. I'll take almost any of their productions at random made between Little Caesar through White Heate, but especially love the early Thirties and the Warner stock company of supporting players like Ned Sparks and Guy Kibbee.

mndean said...

You must see pre-Warner Ned Sparks. He's just as funny, but he also plays the saxophone, something I never saw him do in any Warner picture. I believe one was The Fall Guy (where he deliberately plays badly) and Street Girl where he plays the sax and viola.

other character actors:

George Barbier

Warren Hymer

I can even take Jack Oakie if he's not being too obnoxious.

Exiled in NJ said...

While we are on newspapers, the use of them rolling off the press to provide needed exposition. Or a shot of a news item, "Michel Marnet departs for Europe" to push the story.

Look at the pack of 'journalists' sitting around, waiting for Earl Williams to be hung. What a crew, and in that same film, Helen Mack's moll-type character....they are all gone now. And we can actually witness the death of the old reporting style Joel McCrea goes overseas to help Robert Benchley's Stebbins, who seemed to spend most of his time in the pub.

btw, did anyone see The Strange Woman last week on TCM? Great Hedy Lamarr film, but what was priceless was George Sanders walking about in a lumberjack shirt with that flawless diction coming from his lips.

And with Sanders, Gene Lockhart, Porter Hall, Mary Wickes and so many others popping up, how can anyone resist those films.

Karen said...

Sadly, I missed The Strange Woman! I ordinarily never fail to record a George Sanders film, but the past couple of weeks have been so hectic that my usual TCM DVR scouting has been remiss.

That being said, I did see this morning a not-particularly-good film called Obliging Young Lady which began with BOTH a previously-acknowledged Siren Thing We Love, the opening credits that include actor and character names along with a brief soundless clip of the actor in question, AND an opening shot of a speeding train.

It really could almost only go downhill from there.

Rich said...

10) Rain-slicked streets
9) "Oh, a wise-guy, eh?"
8) Robert Ryan
7) Comedy stars who work their juggling routines into movies for no good reason.
6) "mugs" "dames"
5) Elaborate montage sequences by Slavko Vorkapich
4) Hat check girls, cigarette girls
3) "And it may surprise you that the murderer is"
2) Film noir dream sequences
1) Skelton Knaggs (esp in "Ghost Ship")

X. Trapnel said...

Just want to second Rich's choice of Robert Ryan, like no actor before or since and utterly irreplacable. "Redemption" is a common enough theme, but nobody has ever shown it with greater emotional and moral truth than Ryan in On Dangerous Ground. If we were to do lists of what we DON'T like about old movies it would have to start with the misuse of such enormous talents.

mndean said...

BTW, I'm glad you got a look at Safe in Hell. It's certainly interesting.

Steve Paradis said...

Ann Harding:
If the highest form of acting to make the lines you deliver sound like you just thought to say them, Harding is the greatest actress of the 30's. As well, she spent a lot of time in adaptations of "well-made" plays where everyone else (Robert Montgomery excepted)sound like they're at the end of a year-long run.
Even in utter tosh like "Double Harness" she can talk about how hard it is to be a thinking woman and take the scene into an aside about her life and career--which faded after the Code came in and turned women into ladies.
And will I ever get to see the 1930 "Holiday" with her and Mary Astor as the Seton sisters?

Yojimboen said...

Second the notion. Sadly, the 1930 "Holiday" is hard to find - I am trying. The delicious "When Ladies Meet" is available, happily.

One of my favorite pieces of film trivia is the rather odd fact that in the 1930 version of "Holiday" and Cukor's 1938 remake with Katherine Hepburn, Edward Everett Horton played the same role, Nick Potter, in both.

They must have liked him

Gareth said...

I can't believe I'm not too late to the party with this one:

Hotel detectives

Any movie with such a character immediately gets an extra star on general principle.

Gene S said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Gene S said...

1) Milk trucks gliding through the silent city streets in the wee small hours of the morning.
2) Exteriors of Manhattan in the 1930s and 40s.
3) Swanky Art-Deco hotel lobbies.
4)Newspaper offices where irascible editors bang their desks and demand to know "where the euphemism" Haggerty (ace reporter) is. Fade to Haggerty getting soused at the local speakeasy or maybe preparing for a wedding that you know will never come off.
5) Central Park (even if it's only a backlot set).
6)Drugstore soda fountains where Bud and Lou screw up everyone's order.
7)Shots of radio newsmen reading the news.
8)Men (mostly) who say "Won't you sit down?" when ladies (mostly) come into the room.
9)Police dispatchers: "Calling all cars...Calling all cars."
10) Elevator operators in semi-military uniforms.
NOTE: The above applies mainly to American movies. I'd have to come up with a whole different list for British films.

X. Trapnel said...

"Won't you sit down?" has been replaced in contemporary film/tv by "S'down."

Another annoying and ubiquitous phrase: "This is not about [noun]; this is about [different noun]!"

mndean said...

That's as may be, but I still can't forgive her performances in Prestige and The Conquerors. I don't mind Double Harness and The Animal Kingdom, and she's pretty much the only thing I like in When Ladies Meet (which strikes me as one of the more contrived movies I've seen), but I'm still far from convinced of her greatness.

Scaramouche said...


Three-strip Technicolor.

The Warner Bros. shield and fanfare, which almost always segued into the opening music of the movie.

Cameras moving smoothly while attached to tripods or otherwise solidly mounted, instead of constantly bouncing and jiggling.

Shot lengths exceeding 1.2 seconds in pictures of less than 2 hours.

Men in hats.

Pencil moustaches (e.g., Franklin Pangborn, Vincent Price, William Powell).

Complete disregard for political correctness.

Cheesy but endearing model airplanes and ships instead of crappy CGI airplanes and ships.

Rear projections (Farciot Edouart!).

Absence of nudity, profanity, and graphic gore (I'm not a prude, I just find these things boring and pointless in today's movies).

Introducing each character during the movie's opening with a short clip out of the film and the actor's name, with only music playing in the background (rare after the early 1930s). Sometimes also done at the end of the movie.

Referring to movies as 'pictures'.

Fast-talking mugs and dames (e.g., James Cagney, Pat O'Brien, Rosalind Russell).

Calling women 'sister'.

Diana Cournoyer said...

Great stuff mentioned by Siren and the commenters!

OK, this may sound weird, but one of the old-timey things that I am most fascinated with are those pointy sleeve-cover things that run from a woman's wrist to approx. her elbow. I assume these were for protecting her dress-sleeve from the typewriter ink, fountain pen ink, and other messy stuff in the office. Seriously, those things fascinate and captivate me! I'm always excited when I see them in a movie!

I also love old-time divorces: going to Reno, and "correspondents".

Oh, and ice boxes. Honest-to-goodness boxes with the huge chunks of ice in 'em.

scribbler50 said...

What a wonderful idea, Siren, and what an astute and knowledgeable readership you have. I only have two here... hope they haven't been mentioned in the long amazing list that has preceded me.
1) The train leaving the station at night with one lover on it leaving the other soon to be engulfed by engine steam.
2) The cigar chomping soldier hunkered down in the foxhole under incoming fire saying words something like this to the Almighty... "Look, God, I ain't too good at this praying stuff but... well... see... if you could kinda see fit to get me outa' this mess... well, see... there's this kid back home, his name's Johnny and he's never been to a Dodger game and... well, see, I kinda promised him that......" etc.

Yojimboen said...

Last two (though they fall more into the Love to Hate category):

Those scenes where members of the ballet/concert/first night audience turn and nod eagerly to each other as in: "Wow, he/she/they can dance/sing/act after all!"

The scene in the car where the driver maintains dangerously-long eye-contact with his/her passenger while talking and you want to shout at the screen: "Hey, idiot! Watch the goddam road!"

X. Trapnel said...


Check out the scene in City for Conquest where Arthur Kennedy plays a jazzed-up version of his symphony for jaded penthouse partygoers ("Hey, the kid can really swing it!). I love CfC to bits, but this is really excruciating.

An excellent subject for a post/essay would be the movies' love-hate attitude toward classical music.

Yojimboen said...

X.Trapnel - Ah, yes CfC.

Very familiar with the scene, a teeth-gnasher high on my personal Richter scale.

I didn't mean to suggest it, but you're right, an opposite post to the current one: "Things/Scenes/Actors (besides Erich von S) we Love to Hate about the Movies" might be fun.

I submit however we may need a white grape to cleanse our mental palates between the two, and no doubt our gracious hostess is hard at work concocting it as we speak.

Karen said...

Something I'd like to add to my list:

men in evening dress and collapsible top hats, worn un-ironically.

The Siren said...

I should have stuff to add here, as I usually do, but I'm just sitting back and enjoying all the contributions.

I'm also still irked that I forgot ocean liners, especially since modern crossings of the Atlantic, in cramped coach sections of fetid jets, are a particular form of hell.

Deborah said...

May I also add two more things:

Dining cars on trains, with tablecloths and real dishes, and attendants bringing the food. (I especially appreciate this one because the Albany-NYC Amtrak train - which is the line I take - doesn't even have snacks to purchase anymore on the train.)

Telephone exchanges, with the operators working like mad to connect the calls.

mndean said...

One of the things I liked about The World of Henry Orient was that Val, the teenage girl who played the piano knew that Henry wasn't all that as a pianist, "He needs to practice". The audiences were a lot less forgiving. Sort of an antidote to City for Conquest.

mndean said...

Forgotten places - the newsstand with papers from around the country and magazines, the Automat and the cafeteria (surprisingly, some of the best spaghetti I ever got was in a cafeteria when I was a child). Now it's all either overpriced restaurants or fast food joints, neither of which are particularly satisfying. One hits your stomach wrong when you eat, the other hits your stomach wrong when you get the bill.

Karen said...

And may I add a warm welcome to Deborah, who is my big sister! She's the one who first introduced me to the Siren, so I'm glad she's gone from being a long-time lurker to first-time poster....

Dan Leo said...

Dean Martin taking time out to sing a song with Ricky Nelson in the middle of Rio Bravo.

Brian said...

Great post. This sort of thing isn't often discussed in film circles, but I think it's one of the most important aspects of the experience of watching old movies. I can't count how many times I've watched scenes in old nightclubs and thought, "what happened to these?" Watching old movies is the closest we've got to time travel.

In case no one has yet mentioned it, I will add: almost all stars dropping their "r"s in imitation of a classy British accent.

Vanwall said...

Actually, the silly scenes of the starlet, or star, singing a usually forgettable song in the smoky nightclub, usually in some dissolute city in the orient or South America, are both excruciating and funny for me to watch - "Gilda" being an exception to the excruciating rule, and also Anne Jeffreys' little satirical number "Money is the Root of all Evil" in Teddy Tetzlaff's "Riffraff".

I like to see the huge amount of luggage people traveled with - I have a great leather hat case for my Lock & Co. fur felt top hat that has extra side storage for a couple of Karen's collapsible toppers, and it has a bunch of stickers from the steam liners it traveled upon. It got around. The huge steamer trunks that opened into wardrobes, usually for comical effect were always a nice touch.

People in the deck chairs on the promenade deck of a liner, suddenly recognizing an aquaintance who's usually trying to travel incoggnito.

The size of the average kitchen in their houses back then was HUGE in the movies - and most houses had separate dining rooms, it seemed.

Motorcycle cops seemed to run in pairs - speeded-up chases were the norm - and when they caught up with the main characters, they were usually verbally abused by the inebriated, or confused by the comical, and sooner or later the cop lets em off with a warning. Unless they were pregnant or faking it - then they got a high-speed escort. I don't know about you, but I never talked my way out of a ticket with a bike cop - they like to hand 'em out.

X. Trapnel said...

mndean's comment on Henry Orient makes me think of the stagehand holding his nose at the pinched warblings of Susan Kane Alexander; some say he's just reacting to "classical" music, but I like to think he's supposed to be a knowledgable opera lover (the cultivated proletarian was a noble article of 1930s faith; it turns up in a lot of films, esp. Warner Bros.)

Karen said...

Oh! Oh! I've got another one. The pronunciation "Los ANG-eleez." With a hard G. Angle-eez. I first noticed Jack Carson saying it, and then started noticing it all over the place. You don't really hear it after the '40s; the soft G takes over.

Another thing I noticed with one actor and then started noticing on others--dancing where the male partner holds his elbow stiffly straight out, and holds his partner's hand from beneath. Robert Montgomery ALWAYS dances like this. A couple of others do, too, but I can't come up with names at the moment. It's so odd! And then it disappears.

And speaking of things that disappear: when DID trains jettison sleeping compartments? What a brilliant idea! Don't you think Amtrak would have a renaissance if they offered sleeping compartments? I was on an overnight train in Thailand a few years back, and the porter made up our seats into upper and lower berths--with curtains and everything!--but there were no sleeping compartments.

mndean said...

Oh, sleeping cars lasted through the '70s and early Amtrak. I haven't kept up, but you could buy a room in some long distance trains for a long time. The Pullman car is dead AFAIK, though.

A few railroads didn't want to join Amtrak but did like the Santa Fe (their El Capitan and Super Chief trains still made money but the rest didn't), because it was an all-or-nothing proposition. Some didn't join until later and couldn't abandon lines wholesale like they did in the '60s. Amtrak ran the trains for a few years as they had been run, but then dropped many low-density lines and longer trips because they lost a lot of money on them, and many railroads went out of business/merged.

Fun fact: About 1/2-2/3 of the California Zephyr equipment still exists and some of it is still being used today (the rest of it is in museums). The cars were built entirely out of stainless steel so they never rust and can still be refurbished to be used.

Exiled in NJ said...

Brian hits it on the head: old movies give us the chance to time travel. Siren, you could almost do a piece on the Plaza Hotel in film history, from North by Northwest (or even earlier) thru Redford & Fonda honeymooning there and on to Tony Soprano using it as his favorite place away from home.

I love my copy of The Horse's Mouth because I can witness what London looked like in the late 50s, but my biggest puzzle is Zinneman's Day of the Jackal...filmed in Paris in 72 or 73, both years when I visted the city for ten day stays. How did he manage to eliminate autos made after 1963, when the film is set?

Gareth said...

Another beloved stereotype: the salt-of-the-earth, up-by-your bootstraps priest. 1938 was a good year for that one, with Father Flanagan in Boys Town and Father Connolly in Angels With Dirty Faces (Pat O'Brien did pretty well with more-or-less the same character in a bunch of movies!).

It's a little hard to imagine that character making a comeback these days.

mndean said...

I recorded Illicit some time ago, but never got around to watching it until last night. It's strange in how much of a dud (and a heel) James Rennie turns into after he and Stanwyck get married - it's like every bad thing she predicted in the film came true. And she still wanted him back - what the hell for? I was rooting for Ricardo Cortez even as I had a sinking feeling she'd go running back to Rennie just to be ignored again. She'd have even been better off with Charles Butterworth.

I also watched Washington Merry-Go-Round, which was surprising in that a lot of what went on in it is recognizable to us today (jingoistic flag-waving faux patriotism vs. the real service-to-the country kind, using troops for business interests, pork barrel politics), etc. Alan Dinehart who always seemed to play a swine who loved the sound of his own voice is the villain, and Lee Tracy is the naive fool who thinks he can clean everything up in two years. It's a remarkably leftist movie for old Hollywood (which rarely happened, even in the Roosevelt era). It does go over the top with the suicides and murder, but at least it's not a rosy picture of Washington as most films about it are.

Yojimboen said...

Exiled - Thanks for reminding of that facet of Horse's Mouth. London had a particular magic at that time.

Re Jackal and Zinnemann and "How did he manage to eliminate autos made after 1963, when the film is set?"

Thing is, he didn't. The movie is full of late-60's and early-70s Citroens. He got away with it by cleverly using the fact that the design/silhouette of the Citroen Pallas - the most-used vehicle in the movie - changed very little between 1963 and 1972.

For what it's worth, I'm pretty sure Edward Fox's Alfa Spider was 1964 or later.

There's another great topic for the future: cars in movies.

(Note to Siren: But only after we do the films of Delphine Seyrig?)

mndean said...

The running board - one of the best places for car-chase action in a '20s-'30s film. Gunmen shooting each other while riding on the running board, falling off when hit. Guys trying to escape the police set themselves on the running board to jump off at a turn and hide in the weeds. Too bad they were pretty much eliminated on 1940s cars.

Vanwall said...

Fox's Alfa Romeo Giulietta Spider Veloce (God, I love that name!) -that model wasn't made after 1962. Lovely little thing, tho.

The Siren said...

A thousand welcomes to Deborah. Any sister of Karen's etc. And dining cars are indeed fabulous. As are sleeping cars. And the Ale and Quail Club.

X. Trapnel said...

Alors, Yojimboen! Que pensez-vous d'Emanuelle Riva?

Yojimboen said...

Ah, M’sieur X.T ! Restez assuré que sur le sujet de Mlle Riva, nous sommes d’accord! Je l’admire énormément; surtout pour Hiroshima, Léon Morin, Thérèse Desqueyroux et cetera, mais… Mais…

Je n’ai adoré que deux Françaises dans ma vie; tous les deux extrêmement belles, élégantes et sages: la première, c’était Mlle Delphine Seyrig; la deuxieme, j’ai epousé.

X. Trapnel said...

Tiens! Ah, mais vous etes un homme hereux certainement.

Mlle. Seyrig, Danielle Darrieux, Nathalie Baye, all bring out my inner Antoine Doinel.

randini said...

Re "Let's get outta here". I used to think as well that that was the movies' most frequently uttered line, or at least that it was in Republic serials, where everything, including script writing, had to be done at breakneck pace. But it's not so. At least not in them. I once spent a long snowbound weekend screening every aailable one in search of that line, and, bu God, it didn't occur once! Maybe I dozed of.

Re: old cars and nightclubs. I have long gotten a thrill watching somebody pilot a huge seven-passenger limousine at breakneck speed (the only way they go) through narrow backlot street sets and while carrying on a conversation. The way Frank McHugh does with a huge 1942 Buick in "All Through the Night" (a movie that contains many of our favorite things. It's even got the requisite nightclub proprietered by loudmouth Barton MacLane, around whom it's a wonder that canary Kaaren Verne can even be heard snging the latest Parisian hit song.).

Laura said...

Karen, I've been curious about Robert Montgomery's dance style as well -- wondering if it was something uniquely his or if other actors do it too. (I haven't seen any others yet, but I'll be watching!)

Just last night I watched a fun little B movie called TEAR GAS SQUAD with Dennis Morgan (his smile goes on my list of favorite things...) and John Payne. When the dispatcher barked "Calling all cars!" I thought of this thread. :)

Best wishes,

The Siren said...

X.T. and Yojimboen, each time a girlfriend is pregnant with a girl I lobby hard for the name Delphine apres Mme Seyrig, but so far have struck out...

Yojimboen said...

Chère Madame, sit these lovely ladies down, force them to watch Muriel; Baisers Volés and Jackal - in that order. That should do it.

CaptainBananas said...

My own, and forgive me for not having waded through all the other posts:

*Women named Myrtle, Gladys, Gloria, Muriel

*Starting a sentence with "Say!")

*The word "sore" meaning "pissed off"


*A plane circling a globe---pre-1935 Universal logo


mndean said...

I watched Stolen Kisses (yes, that was the title in the US back in the VHS days) in a dubbed version (the only one available for years), where the voices were so far from familiar that it was a supremely alienating experience. It was one of the few videos I ever tossed in the trash for offending me. I didn't even want to sell it, the dubbing was just so off.

X. Trapnel said...

mndean: Do get the dvd of Baisers Voles 1. To see a great film 2. To hear Delphine Seyrig's out of breath (Truffaut had her run up and down the stairs several times to get the right sound. The art of the director, FT, once said, is to get beautiful women to do beautiful things) proposal to Antoine. Sheer verbal music, likewise DS as narrator in Debussy's Chansons de Bilitis (a recording that might be still available).

Keep at it, Siren, a world of Delphines.

Not quite verbal music, But Jack Carson's "I'm gettin' kind of sore, Mildred" in the opening scene of M. Pierce is the most memorabe deployment of "sore."

mndean said...

I've seen a subtitled copy of Baisers volés, and in a sense I was lucky because I saw the short Antoine Doinel film in Love at 20 which helped contextualize some of what went on in Baisers volés. The dubber who did Claude Jade's voice had an especially irritating tinkly little voice, and I'm sure some of the actors could speak English, but they were ALL dubbed AFAICT after I saw the subtitled one.

I have one line that I wish I heard in an old film, but as yet never did, "Drop the dry goods, sister".

Anonymous said...

Fantastic post!!

Wendymoon said...

Great list, hope I'm not too late with my own:

Tonio Kruger said...

Yes, this is a great post, Campaspe.

I must confess that I was inspired by Jacqueline and your examples to write a similar post on my own site. Granted, parts of it were a bit more tongue-in-check than Campaspe's, but it's not meant to be interpreted as disagreement in any way, shape or form.

I was going to post a list here too but too many of my favorite items have been already mentioned.

I will admit that I find it a little embarrassing for modern-day Hollywood that most recent movies make me want to start bringing a book to read whenever I go to the movie theatre while most old movies I've seen recently seem deliberately calculated to make me spend shameless amounts of filthy lucre at the local DVD store.

I don't kid myself that every old movie is all that great--I've seen my share of clunkers--but there is something to be said for seeing a film made in an era in which movie studios relied more on repeat business than on DVD sales.

Last_of_the_Dames said...

i've extremely late to this party. looks like it's over.. but it's how i found this blog. so that's the good news!

didn't see any comments on the lady about to go behind the screen. i was thinking it looked like angie dickinson - Rio Bravo?

a couple of items to add:

the guy giving the low wolf whistle at the doll as she either: walks in, walks by or walks out.

at first the leading lady hates the love interest - very importantly at first sight - and then comes around to loving him.

the large hat as a prop for making women look beautiful, mysterious, etc.

era where the men wore slacks that seem to reside just above their waist.

certain era where men wore extremely short ties.

thanks for this fabulous blog!

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