In my April essay that somewhat improbably compared classical Greece with what I call "Classical Hollywood," I discussed how movies of Hollywood's Golden Age (the '20s to the '50s) applied classical principles of restraint, understatement, and allusion in their treatment of violence. The imagination and artful craftsmanship found in thousands of these movies is a major reason for their general superiority to contemporary fare. Further, their aesthetic superiority serves as a metaphor for the paramount importance of self-restraint in a civilized society, which is decreasingly appreciated or understood in America today, even by some younger putative conservatives who write on culture.
The same principles apply to the treatment of eros and, again, places Golden Age movies in a different league from today's movies and their explicit, vulgar treatment of sex. Is it not noteworthy that the most renowned sex goddesses of the silver screene.g. Greta Garbo, Marlene Dietrich, Marilyn Monroe, Grace Kelly, Elizabeth Taylornever appeared in a movie unclothed? The old-time movie stars, as I recently wrote about the late Katharine Hepburn, were symbols, ideal types, icons, that we looked up to. Today's stars are democraticthey are everyman or womanor lower. (This brings to mind the famous line of Gloria Swanson, the forgotten silent movie queen, Norma Desmond, who is dreaming of a comeback in "Sunset Boulevard" (1950): "I am big. It's the movies that got small.")
One of the best examples of Classical Hollywood's treatment of eros is in Garbo's "Queen Christina" (1933), in which the Swedish sphinx plays the enlightened 17th-century monarch of her native land. Dressed as a man, she goes out for a ride but finds herself snowed in at a country inn. Here she has to share the one remaining room with the Spanish ambassador (John Gilbert, Garbo's now-faded former lover, whom she chose for the part over the young Laurence Olivier), who is en route to present his credentials at court. As the ambassador undresses, he suddenly recognizes his extraordinary good fortune. He walks over to Christina, standing shyly beside the four-poster bed, and says, "Life is so gloriously improbable." She quietly murmurs in assent. After the fade-out it is morning. Christina is lying on her back by the crackling fire, slowly eating from a large bunch of grapes, the ambassador sitting beside her. She embraces the grapes and holds them to her mouth. Then she rises and strolls around the room, placing her hand on the wall, pausing to turn the spinning wheel, embracing one of the bed posts, and resting her head on the pillow (in a perfectly composed and lit close-upGarbo's always were unique). Asked what she is doing, she tells her lover, softly but passionately, in her ineffable rich voice: "I have been memorizing this room. In the future, in my memory, I shall live a great deal in this room." What makes this scene memorable is how director Rouben Mamoulian choreographs Garbo's movements to a slow but expressive rhythm. The design and thought that went into the scene is precisely what frequently is missing from modern American movies.
"Queen Christina" was condemned by the Legion of Decency, the Catholic group organized at the time to purify the movies of their increasing suggestiveness, but the scene is of course quite restrained by today's standards. Garbo's movies are filled with such scenes. Equally restrained, compared to current practice, is a scene in the silent "Flesh and the Devil" (1926), the movie which made Garbo a huge star. Her lover (Gilbert in his prime, when he was the successor to Rudolph Valentino) has fled the country after killing her older husband, only to find on his return after several years that Garbo's treacherous Felicitas has married his best friend (Lars Hanson). As the three kneel for communion, Garbo turns the chalice to the place where her former lover's lips had just touched and sinfully puts it to her mouth, as the aroused lover looks on. This illustration of silent movie technique also would never have been permitted by the self-censorship Production Code that Hollywood began to enforce in 1934 (prompted in part by protests against "Queen Christina"), but, again, its artfulness makes it noteworthy today.
Marlene Dietrich's appeal relied on the mysterious aura created by her Svengali-like director, Josef von Sternberg. They made six movies together after she arrived in Hollywood in 1930, among the most memorable being "Morocco" (1930), "Blonde Venus" (1932) and "The Scarlet Empress" (1934), in which she plays Catherine the Great. "Blonde Venus" illustrates von Sternberg's baroque, highly stylized direction. La Dietrich is forced to return to the stage when her husband (Herbert Marshall), a chemist, is afflicted with radiation poisoning. Her nightclub act has her starting off in a gorilla suit, which she sensually removes bit by bit (head first) as she slowly sings a songin her trademark throaty, hoarse voicecalled "Hot Voodoo," accompanied by the heavy beat of an African drum. (My words cannot do this scene justice: von Sternberg is beyond words.)
Dietrich's greatest film, also with von Sternberg, is the German, "The Blue Angel" (1930). She plays Lola Lola, the cheap cabaret performer who lures to his doom the proud, elderly but straying Professor Rath (the great actor Emil Jannings, who, alas, later was pro-Nazi, unlike the courageous Miss Dietrich). With everyone's clothes staying in place, von Sternberg has no difficulty conveying the ugly, degrading physical quality of their "relationship." The film's finale is unforgettable. Having been humiliated before the students who once had feared him and then fired, the shamed professor makes his way one night back to his old classroom, now empty. He sits down at the desk that had represented his achievement and standing in life, grabs the corners tightly with his hands and drops his head, sobbing, as von Sternberg's camera pulls back in sorrow and pathos. This is one of countless examples how movies used to dramatize their emotions visually, unlike so many of today's talkathons (e.g., "As Good As It Gets"  and Woody Allen's movies). The poetry in a film comes from what we see, not what we hear.
The lavish Golden Age musicals, especially those from producer Arthur Freed's peerless unit at MGM, offered a field day for art directors, costume designers, hairdressers, cinematographers and choreographers to create unforgettable images of eros. Indeed, no movies celebrated such brilliant teamwork as much as the great musicals. This entire article could be devoted to the dancing of Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers in their nine 1930s musicals made at RKO (e.g., "Top Hat"  and "Swing Time" ). But let me give, among many examples, Astaire with another partner in Freed's "The Band Wagon" (1953), directed by that great connoisseur of movie beauty, Vincente Minnelli. In the culminating 20-minute ballet spoof of Mickey Spillane, Astaire's private eye (named Rod Riley) confronts the gorgeous, sultry moll in a garish café, played by the leggiest beauty in the movies, Cyd Charisse. ("Beautiful Dynamite," Astaire liked to call her. "She came at me in sections, his hard bitten narrator tells us in the film, "more curves than a scenic railway.") Here she is facing him, sitting on a stool with her back to the bar, covered in a dark coat. This she suggestively removes, revealing a tight, gleaming red, sequined sleeveless dress, her long arms covered almost entirely by elegant black gloves, the weapons with which she proceeds to conquer him. "She was bad," Astaire's narrator sighs, as they walk off, arm-in-arm. "She was dangerous. I wouldn't trust her any farther than I could throw her. But...she was my kind of woman."
Director Howard Hawks's approach was more verbal but just as effective. He created the aggressive temptress that made 19-year-old Lauren Bacall a star in her film debut opposite Humphrey Bogart in "To Have and Have Not" (1944). This features the famous scene (screenplay credited to Jules Furthman and William Faulkner!) when Bacall rises from Bogie's lap after kissing him and walks slowly to the door: "You know you don't have to act with me, Steve. You don't have to say anything and you don't have to do anything. Not a thing. Oh, maybe just whistle. [She opens the door.] You know how to whistle, don't you Steve? You just put your lips together and blow."
In "The Big Sleep" (1946, screenplay credited to Faulkner, Furthman, and Leigh Brackett), Hawks directed a short, memorable scene where Bogart's Philip Marlowe is engaged in some detective work in a bookshop. As he starts to leave, the pretty salesgirl (Dorothy Malone) observes (truthfully), "It's raining pretty hard." To which he replies, "It just happens I have a bottle of pretty good rye in my pocket. I'd a lot rather get wet in here." On this cue she proceeds coyly to lower the shade on the glass door, remove her eyeglasses and the barette from her hair, and take out two cups. Fade out, after which we see Bogart leaving the shop (the rain having stopped!). Hawks had a "thing" for aggressive womenhis wife was known as "Slim." He created another in the form of young Angie Dickinson's saloon singer, Feathers, whose leggings are just too much for John Wayne's Sheriff John T. Chance in "Rio Bravo" (1959).
Unlike most contemporary directors, Mamoulian, von Sternberg, Minnelli, Hawks and their colleagues had to sit down and use their imaginations in order to reach their golden prize: the imagination of their audience. Their genius, particularly working under the Production Code rules after 1934, demonstrates Wordsworth's wisdom in his poem, The Sonnet: "['t]was pastime to be bound /Within the Sonnet's scanty plot of ground; /Pleased if some souls... /Who have felt the weight of too much liberty, /Should find brief solace there, as I have found."
From today's perspective, it also is noteworthy how the brilliant romantic comedies of the late '30s and early '40sthe "screwball" comedieswere born and flourished under the code. These gemswhich often play as fresh today as when they premiered 60 or more years agorely on the lovers' separation and various comic twists until they are united as one.
Let us close with an illustration from one of the first and best of the genre, "It Happened One Night" (1934), directed by the great Frank Capra. Claudette Colbert is heiress Ellen Andrews who fled her society wedding to the "Pill of the Century," rich twit King Westley, and Clark Gable is the out-of-work reporter, Peter Warne, who is on to her and has appointed himself her guardian on the long bus journey from Florida to New York. Short of money, they have to take one cabin every night in one of the new, modest roadside motels. Propriety is assured by "The Walls of Jericho," a blanket Gable hangs over a rope dividing their beds. Well, in the midst of their escapades they find themselvessurprise!falling in love. (This was the part which added humor to Gable's image of the big "galoot," making him "King of the Movies" until his death in 1960.)
On their last night before arriving in New York, they find themselves, each in bed, talking over the "wall" about their hopes and dreams of finding the "right one." Peter's ruminations about his Pacific island where he'd love to take Miss Right becomes too much for Ellen, who makes her way around to Peter's side. Tearfully, she falls to her knees beside his pillow, begging him, "Take me with you, Peter. Take me to your island." Looking down on her in this tense situation, he gravely advises, "You'd better go back to your bed." "I can't let you out of my life now," she entreats him, crying with her head on his chest. Uncomfortable, he again asks her to go back to her bed. This she takes as a rejection, especially when she wakes in the morning to find him gone. Back at the altar again with the Pill, she learns just why he had left her, that he loves her, and that he is waiting just outside the estate to drive her off to wedded bliss. Thrilled, she dashes off, once again, jilting poor King Westley. In the final scene, we're back at a motel, the elderly owners outside their cabin, wondering why they requested a rope and blanket, and a toy trumpet. Then we hear the trumpet sound, see the blanket fall to the floor, and out go the lights. The Walls of Jericho have fallen!
The Production Code didn't stop Elia Kazan from conveying the smouldering sexual tension between Marlon Brando and Vivien Leigh and Kim Hunter in "A Streetcar Named Desire" (1951), or Alfred Hitchcock from doing so a bit more elegantly with Cary Grant and Ingrid Bergman in "Notorious" (1946), or with Grant and Grace Kelly in "To Catch A Thief" (1955), or with Kelly and James Stewart in "Rear Window" (1954), or with Grant and Eva Marie Saint in "North by Northwest" (1959).
The examples are endless, and so is the genius of the Golden Age movies.