Thursday, October 19, 2006

Cinematic clichés 2

Like nostalgia, the movie business is not what it was.
In the old days there was always an A and a B movie, so I watched a lot of B movies. You knew where you were with the characters because they were always the same. Casting did not exist as a profession because not only were the characters the same; they were always played by the same actors.
I miss those old cliché characters. Wise old nice guy/priest: Edmund Gwenn or Spencer Tracy; bad guy turned good: Cagney; pugnacious little punk: Leo Gorcey (who made over fifty films as a Dead End Kid or a Bowery Boy); freckle-faced young rascal: Alfalfa Switzer. (I always wondered what alfalfa was – turns out it’s the type of grass Europeans call lucerne.) Wily old fox: Charles Laughton; irascible old man with heart of gold: Monty Woolley, Raymond Massey; ruthless career woman: Joan Crawford, Bette Davis.
Not many Hollywood stars came from Liverpool, but Gentle Middle-aged Moms were always played by Dame May Whitty, (who won two Oscars as GMMs).
Drunks came in two classes – rich and poor. I can’t remember the name of the poor one, but the Society drunk was always Robert Benchley or George Sanders.
My favourite was the tragi-comic Sancho Panza who faithfully served a dozen or more cowboy Quixotes - like Gene Autry, Roy Rogers or John Wayne - and specialised in dispensing home-spun philosophy and dying in the last reel from a bullet that had been intended for the white-hatted, clean-cut hero in whose arms he died. He was always played by Gabby Hayes.
Sancho Panzas went out with Tonto and political correctness, but most of the other roles are still there: for Bowery Boys read West Side Story, for loquacious drunk read Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf or Look Back in Anger, and for flawed heroes and heroines there’s always Streetcar.
Maybe the writing’s better today, but the characters are so complex you don’t know where you are. With Laurel & Hardy, Abbot & Costello, Martin and Lewis, you knew who was the straight man and who the clown, and they told you when you had to laugh. But what do you do with two guys sitting on a bench for two hours waiting for someone who doesn’t show up? Or a sketch about a dead parrot?


Ed R said...

Was there a cinematic cliches I?
I like my characters simple, too. I just saw '3:10 to Yuma', with Glenn Ford and Van Heflin, and it's about as complicated as I want a movie to be.
Some movies can be cliched and still be fun. Check out 'A Knight's Tale', sometime.

ted said...

Don't know either of them, but will check them out.
There was - but it wasn't called that - on August 17. (Coming soon to a PC near you - #3.)

Ed R said...

Ah. THey are remaking '3:10 to Yuma' with Russel Crowe and CChristian Bale in the two male leads. Filming begins next week. Ought to be a good one!