Eras, golden ages, long decades – periodising the movies

I wrote this to avoid writing about Disney’s big hit of 1946

Four characters walk away over a hill  silhouetted against a vivid, pink sunset - animated gif from 1946 Walt Disney film Song of the South

Here’s another post lifted from my cinema history newsletter GROSS. I’m reviewing the top-grossing Hollywood movie from each year since 1913 and, when I got to 1946, I groaned. It’s Walt Disney’s Song of the South, the biggest movie of the year and a nasty piece of work. I was tempted to skip it or write about something else. I didn’t skip it – I wouldn’t do that to you, reader. But this awkward, maddening film and the fact that, here in the mid-forties, we really do seem to have come to the end of some kind of blessed period in Hollywood, got me thinking about Hollywood periodisation. About how we divide up the chronology of the movies. Read my review of Song of the South.

When I started all this I’ll admit I had a shaky sense of the periods, the eras you read about in the film books and reviews. In fact I’d go so far as to say I was suspicious of the whole idea – I mean all these invented periods – generations, long and short centuries, geological eras, obsessively delineated eras of pop – they all seem pretty arbitrary, right?

It’s all a blur

I knew there were all these silent movies (comedies, dramas, adventures, vast racist screeds). And then there were the romances, the screwballs, the Westerns and the gangster movies, swashbucklers, the woman’s pictures, the films noirs and the monster flicks and so on up to the films of the present day.

And of course I knew all of these tens of thousands of movies were arranged on the timeline somehow but the order was hazy to me. Obviously black-and-white was furthest away and then there were those crazy, headache-inducing Cinemascope blow-outs and then the gritty, urban colours of the auteurs and so on. Along the way there were the other traditions – Kurosawa, Varda, Rosselini, Ray – the Russians, the South Koreans, the Iranians, the British, the South Americans, all the rest.

But now, after feeding thirty-odd annual blockbusters into the GROSS time-machine I’ve got, if nothing else, a much improved idea of the sequence. So, let’s break it down:

Still from Abel Gance's 1927 film Napoleon - animated gif
“The history of cinema is written by the winners…”
  1. Prehistory (before 1913). Before there was an economic model or even a practical method of distribution. Many beautiful, strange and funny films. The moon, the train, the Victorian variety shows, the street-scenes, the gags.
  2. Poetic (1913-1929). This is where I came in, the first year covered in my GROSS newsletter: it’s 1913 and the industry has just begun recording the rental income of the movies released. The first really big, national hits. The first stars known by their names. Studios are going up fast along the un-paved roads and on the empty lots of Hollywood. Capital is engaged, accumulating talent, converting theatres, funding increasingly ambitious projects. Directors in this period are artists, chancers, entrepreneurs – and often self-conscious modernists. They’re a heterodox lot: painters, writers, engineers, accountants, aristocrats – weirdos of every kind. And the writers, designers, editors and crew around them are cut from the same cloth. It’s a period of constant experiment – creatively and commercially. As a result this period is the source of some of the most beautiful and complete works of art of the modern era. By the end of the silent era cinema is a highly-evolved medium and a huge business.
  3. Golden (1930-1941). Sound changes everything. There’s no going back – to the painterly, the lyric, the surreal. It all happens in a rush. Within a couple of years everything tightens up. Capital is now fully in control, studios and their oligarchs dominate. The poets are (mostly) left behind in their reverie. There’s also the Hays Code (enforced universally from 1934). So now we’ve got ‘pre-code’ as a category to get retrospectively excited about and the forensic work of locating the effects of the code in everything that came after it can begin. But what we also have is a golden age. A sequence of perfect movies in this new, crisp, naturalistic style – romances, razor-sharp comedies, musicals on a huge scale, hard-edged crime and stories about businessmen and tough working women. Melodrama has hardened into realistic depictions of families in crisis, grief and sacrifice – the great depression is an unavoidable backdrop, acknowledged or unacknowledged.
  4. Oh dear (1941-). What’s happened? The war’s happened, I guess. And soon after that it’s television. Boom. Hollywood’s disciplined, hyper-effective golden decade has come to a grinding halt. It’s hard to avoid the conclusion that the absolutely optimal creative conditions of the long 1930s no longer apply. The licence given to the early creators, the urgency and sheer rotational speed of the production routine, the rush of talent into the business. The giant magnet hidden in the cloakroom at the Brown Derby that pulled in literally thousands of geniuses and near-geniuses and genius-enablers – Gable, Stanwyck, Curtiz, Wells, Hepburn, Hawks, Perelman, Davis, Vidor, Von Stroheim, Crawford, Capra, Korngold (ridiculous to try to list them) – seems to have stopped working, even gone into reverse. Hollywood talent is still present, of course, and we’ll see so many wonderful movies in the coming decades, but we’ll also see ‘Mom and Dad’ and ‘Song of the South’.

I should pick up the periodisation when I get a bit further into the sequence – I mean there are many more phases of the project to come – including the long 1970s, which began with Bonnie and Clyde in 1967 and ended, roughly, with Scarface in 1983. To be honest, I’m a bit worried that I might have to vary the approach a bit here, especially as we enter the 1950s, a period Quentin Tarantino wants us to believe is the absolute low-point of Hollywood cinema.

  • Read my review of Song of the South.
  • Obviously I asked ChatGPT what brought an end to the Hollywood golden age and I got this predictably bland statement. It does mention anti-trust, though, which is something that hadn’t occured to me: “The end of the Hollywood Golden Age was influenced by various factors, including economic changes, the rise of television, shifts in audience tastes, and the decline of the studio system due to antitrust rulings.”
  • The GROSS archive now runs to forty-odd newsletters, including a few diversions from the chronology you might like – Dune and Ripley, for instance. All the reviews are also on my Letterboxd.

A cheesy romance, a seaside class-war, a vehicle for the biggest female star of the time

The actual top film of 1914 was an epic 23-part serial called The Million Dollar Mystery, which it turns out is lost (how do you lose 46 reels of smash hit movie history, I find myself wondering?). So, I watched the second-highest-grossing film of that year instead.

Black and white photo of actor Mary Pickford, sad and barefoot, sitting on the floor of her shanty home in the 1914 film Tess of the Storm Country

You’ll definitely like Tess of the Storm Country, but only because of absolutely magnetic Mary Pickford – in feisty waif mode, right at the centre of it – owning the whole thing really. She’s surrounded in this cheesy melodrama by many big slabs of men, implausible blocks of motion picture timber – all tragically rendered exactly identical (apart from their hats) by Pickford’s brilliance.

Three male characters from 1914 film Tess of the Storm Country, including, at right, the film's villain, a miserable capitalist called Deacon Elias Graves, who is joyfully reading the text of a law he's just had passed that will make life harder for the landless squatters on his beach-front land

They are either utterly unconvincing landless fishermen or slightly-more-convincing heartless landowners. The miserable, small-town capitalists involved live in the big house above the beach and resent the presence of the squatters below. The film was shot in Santa Monica and Del Mar, so this could literally be the house that Robert De Niro seemed so unattached to in Heat.

Robert De Niro, in silhouette, looks out of over the ocean from his modernist apartment in Michael Mann's film Heat

Of course, this big house is really a classic bourgeois pile, with a columned entrance and a carriage drive, indicating prosperity and respectability (surely demolished and replaced a dozen times since). It menacingly overlooks the strand where the fisherfolk’s makeshift camp cowers.

Two hefty gamekeepers holding a gun menace a fisherman they've detained on a rocky beach

Doing the actual menacing, down there in the lower, realm close to the sea, are various thugs in heavy suits – they are gamekeepers – circulating authentically, armed and dangerous, on the beach and in the squatters’ camp. In the exalted upper section of the narrative swooning ladies in hats and some callow students are also present. The intermixing of these two realms becomes a plot point.

The Great Train Robbery’s famous final shot

Tess of the Storm Country was directed by Edwin S Porter, a veteran who’d made his name with the extraordinary The Great Train Robbery. Pickford, who by this time was already essentially co-directing the films she was in, was unhappy with his old-fashioned ways. The Great Train Robbery was the absolute state of the art when it came out. But that was over ten years earlier and the haphazard, static, flat scene-making we see here was already very out-of-date.

The story is flat too, based on a best-selling news-stand romance by Grace Miller White. Pickford apparently disliked the crudity of this standard-issue morality tale – featuring the staples of the era’s melodramas: dignity in poverty, illegitimacy and extra-marital sex, love between classes, murder and a wrongly-convicted man. Hypocricy in authority also makes an appearance. She recognised a hit when she saw one, though, and signed on without further objection.

TV mobster Tony Soprano smokes a cigar in his swimming pool. He looks menacingly at the camera
Conflicted plutocrat

In movies of this period the wealthy could still be depicted as unproblematically wicked. These are not the ‘complicated’ villains of later eras, nor the conflicted plutocrats or tormented mobsters of post-depression or neoliberal America. These are simply capitalist thieves, exploiters of the vulnerable. In this film (as in others of the period) our principle villain, the head of the wealthy family at the top of cliffs, literally whips Pickford’s character Tessibel.

Tessibel Skinner (Mary Pickford) collapses, whipped by wicked businessman Elias Graves (William Walters). A distressed woman enters from the rear to try to stop him

It’s wooden but sometimes it’s actually clumsy too. There’s an arresting scene where Pickford sics a (very old and gentle-looking) dog on one of her gentleman harassers. She sends the dog off out of the left-side of the frame and, bewilderingly, it arrives, barely slathering, at its victim’s location also out of the left-side of the frame. Pickford then sets off by the same filmically impossible route, arriving in time to steal her pursuer’s gun and depart, with the dog, out of the right-side of the frame.

Inter-title from 1914 film Tess of the Storm Country reads, in dialect: "I know we ain't married, Ben, but yer ain't never kissed our baby since he cum."

The film was a massive hit, yielding many times its $10,000 budget. Pickford told a biographer it was “the beginning of my career.” She’d been making films for five or six years, including 75 for D.W. Griffith, so this is meaningful. It was one of the first movies to be made in the emerging Hollywood creative complex and the beaches are all Californian. The community described, though, is somewhere on the New England coast or perhaps even in the old country – the hokey dialect in the intertitles is something between West Country English and Newfoundland Irish. Or something.

The second-best book about twentieth century music

'Thus, from the birth of radio circa 1922 to its death by TV and reruns in the mid-1940s, there was almost enough work for all the talent in a ballooning country, and all bets were off concerning the incidence of genius.' Quote from 'The House that George Built' by Wilfrid Sheed

Everybody knows the best book about Twentieth Century music is Alex Ross’s The Rest is Noise but there’s another brilliant book set in the same period – Wilfrid Sheed’s The House That George Built, a history of the golden age of American popular music. It’s about the generations of American songwriters, starting at the turn of the twentieth century in what Sheed calls ‘the piano era’, who essentially invented what we now know as popular music.

It’s sub-titled ‘with a little help from Irving, Cole and a crew of about fifty’ and it’s told through the abbreviated life stories of the dozens of lyricists and composers who grafted on Broadway, on Tin Pan Alley and in Hollywood to make us all song addicts. It’s warm and entertaining and full of mad insights into the psychology and economics and aesthetics of pop music.

It’s also a catalogue of amazing songs – from Basin Street Blues to Body and Soul to Baby it’s Cold Outside to April in Paris. I’ve created a Spotify playlist for each section. The artists are a bit variable – performers from the other end of the Twentieth Century aren’t as well-represented as they ought to be on Spotify – and there are a few gaps but it’s an amazing mosaic of song. Let me know if you’ve found better versions.