by Truman Kjos
(Spoiler warning follows for The Searchers, Sunset Boulevard, and Strangers on a Train)
Because of Hollywood’s influence on America, to understand our current cultural context it is important to understand Hollywood’s Golden Age. Despite the significance of the topic, most people have a faulty view of this time. Classic Hollywood is often seen as an era that either moralized or simply refused to tackle mature issues thanks to the limitations the Production Code imposed on content. However, this picture is inaccurate. Because most movies from this era were made by adults for other adults, difficult subjects were constantly examined. This was done through story rather than heavy handed preaching. If someone wished to deal with a taboo subject, it was dealt with in discreet and creative ways. This creative tension helped produce the legendary thirty year Golden Age of Hollywood. Westerns, film noir, and the works of Alfred Hitchcock are just a few of the highlights from this era that exemplify this implicit and creative material.
Western movies are a genre that is particularly maligned for being moralistic or childish, but in reality they deal with complex issues, both political and personal. The very concept of a foreign people attempting to ‘civilize’ the last remaining ‘uncivilized’ land is one fraught with complex moral and cultural questions. What happens when the civilizers aren’t civil, or when the uncivilized Indians are noble? One of the films that explores these questions best is John Ford’s The Searchers (1956), which features one of John Wayne’s finest performances as Ethan Edwards, an ex-Confederate soldier. One day, he returns home to find that his brother’s family has been killed by Comanche Indians. The only exception is his niece Debbie (Natalie Wood), who has been kidnapped. For years, he searches for Debbie with her adopted brother Martin (Jeffrey Hunter). But when they find Debbie, she has become a wife of a chief and tells them she wishes to remain behind. An enraged Ethan attempts to kill Debbie, but is prevented by Martin. At the end of the film, Ethan gets another chance to kill his niece, but instead he lifts her into his arms and says, “Let’s go home, Debbie.” There are several motivations at play in Ethan’s conflicting actions. It’s become increasingly clear over the course of the film that Ethan has a deep hatred for the Indian race. His racism is enough motivation to kill her. In addition, though, the viewer is also aware that Ethan had a deep love for his brother’s wife Martha, who died in the Comanche attack. Debbie is the closest thing to Martha that Ethan has left. He has spent years chasing after Debbie only to find that she has embraced the culture that killed her mother. Thus, during the climax of the film, he can’t stand to let Debbie live, but by the end his familial love wins out. Some critics also theorize that Debbie is actually the product of a years-old affair between Ethan and Martha, which adds yet another layer to consider. Ethan’s love for his sister-in-law couldn’t be explicitly shown on screen. Instead, it is demonstrated in the way Ethan interacts around Martha, allowing the viewer to connect the dots. The examination of race relations in the Old West and the sublimated passion of Ethan for his sister-in-law makes The Searchers anything but a ‘simple’ western.
While westerns are a misunderstood genre, film noir is straight up ignored by those who claim classic Hollywood neglected mature themes. For two decades, countless films were produced that delved into the morally gray side of life and human nature. Characters ranged from amoral to immoral and happy endings were not guaranteed. The moral darkness of the characters and plot was emphasized by dark and grimy lighting. Billy Wilder was one of the masters of film noir, combining it with his trademark dark humor. One of his greatest films is Sunset Boulevard (1950), a look at the underbelly of Hollywood. It opens with Joe Gillis (William Holden) face down dead in a pool, having just been shot. The rest of the film is a flashback to the events leading up to his death. Joe Gillis was a down on his luck script writer who went to a seemingly abandoned mansion while attempting to avoid repo men trying to take his car. However, the mansion turns out to be inhabited by Norma Desmond, a deluded former silent star who convinces Joe to stay at the mansion and help her with her comeback script. He plans on a temporary stay to earn some cash, but Norma continually extends his time at the mansion. She also takes Joe everywhere in LA. One day, while out clothes shopping with Norma, Joe is coaxed by a salesman to buy the most expensive coat in the store: “As long as the lady is paying for it, why not take the Vicuna?” Joe realizes at this moment that the salesman sees him as a gigolo for the increasingly unstable Norma, since there’s no other reason a woman would be spending thousands of dollars on a man twenty-five years her junior. It never has to be stated that Joe is close to a male prostitute; the line about a Vicuna coat, combined with Norma’s erratic behavior, is enough and is more memorable than stating it outright. Norma’s behavior takes a turn for the worse when, following Joe leaving her, she attempts suicide. But Wilder did not use a gory scene to demonstrate her depression; instead, only her bandaged wrists are seen. Sunset Boulevard didn’t need violence or explicit sex to explore suicide, insanity, and an industry that left its old stars to the wolves. Instead, this was accomplished through mood, lighting, and witty dialogue to create a morbidly funny masterpiece.
Finally, consider the career of the Master of Suspense, Alfred Hitchcock, who directed dozens of very adult thrillers that still haven’t aged. Sex, violence, and paranoia are infused throughout his films, but, until later in his career, he showed nothing explicit on screen. While he has some very violent and very good late career films like Frenzy (1972), his earlier career was assisted by the restraint he was forced to impose on his creative impulses. Consider Notorious (1946). He wanted to do a scene where his stars, Cary Grant and Ingrid Bergman, were continuously kissing each other for three minutes. But the Production Code dictated that kisses could last no more than three seconds. So instead, Hitchcock had them hold a phone, kiss for three seconds, release and talk for a bit, kiss again, talk, and so on, for three minutes. Kissing for three minutes straight, let alone a lurid sex scene, would not have had the same effect. Because of the limitations placed on Hitchcock, he ended up creating one of the most famous kisses in cinematic history.
Also consider Hitchcock’s Strangers on a Train (1951), a film revolving around marital tensions and murder. The plot is about Bruno Antony (Robert Walker), an eccentric man who makes this offer to Guy Haines (Farley Granger), a star tennis player he bumps into on a train: if Bruno kills Haines’ wife who is refusing a divorce, Guy will then kill Bruno’s hated father. There won’t be any previous motive, so neither will ever be discovered. Guy doesn’t agree to this, but Bruno kills his wife anyway and spends the rest of the movie trying to force Guy to kill his father. Perhaps showing the entire murder of the wife would have been permitted under the Production Code. However, to be safe, Hitchcock filmed the first part of it from a slightly obscured angle. This was followed by a shot of a pair of glasses murkily reflecting the murder. The film also heavily implies that Bruno is homosexual. Bruno is close with his mother, and Robert Walker portrays him with certain mannerisms and loud clothing choices which would have been seen at the time as typical of a homesexual man. “The meeting on the train,” says film critic Roger Ebert, “plays more like a pickup than a chance encounter.” As Ebert notes, there is an underlying sexual tension between both Guy and Bruno, but nothing is ever overtly stated. The viewer is left to ponder for himself what precisely is going on between Guy and Bruno, or to picture the face of Guy’s wife once Bruno killed her, which makes for a more fulfilling viewing experience than everything being displayed outright. Strangers on a Train demonstrates the mastery of Hitchcock and of classic Hollywood filmmaking.
In short, the Golden Age of Hollywood was not just a time of simplistic sitcoms and films made for children and a family audience. It was a time when filmmakers explored several of the same themes they do today, but were instead forced to do it creatively through subtext and tone, which helped make them more interesting. This era produced not just the handful of films referenced in this article, but hundreds of classic films, some known universally, others waiting to be discovered by a wider audience.
Truman Kjos is a junior studying applied mathematics.