Wednesday, June 21, 2023

Film History #1 - What is Classical?

Classical cinematic storytelling has been defined as having five important elements, according to What Are the Five Key Elements to Classic Hollywood Storytelling? (

These include characters that are psychologically rich and three-dimensional, a story that focuses on trying to solve a problem or achieve a goal, the use of conflict to drive the story, a cause-and-effect engineering that moves the story forward based on the actions of the characters, and a clear ending or resolution to complete the story.

If we consider films like Workers Leaving the Factory from 1895 by Lumiere, the central point is a filmed image of workers walking out a factory:

A screenshot of a computer

Description automatically generated

While interesting, it really does not fit into the classical definition. It allows the viewer to see what is possible with film just by having people recorded in real time leaving work. For a modern viewer, this seems underwhelming and dull aside from a historical perspective. But when you think that back then there was no way to conjure this kind of image except for seeing oneself in a mirror, it becomes clear how much of a marvel this innovation must have been. It’s not unlike us playing with a new immersive technology like virtual reality today, something creates awe and wonder.

Another short film of note from the early period is A Trip To the Moon from 1902 by Melies - a space travel story mixed with primitive special effects:


A screenshot of a computer

Description automatically generated with medium confidence

While this offers more in the way of a story by focusing on trying to achieve a goal like getting to the moon, and later, featuring some conflict with creatures discovered on the moon, it lacks any real deep psychology with the characters. In fact, there are no speaking parts or even dialogue cards, so what the viewer must do is decipher a lot of actors running around and making big gestures to help tell the story. When you consider the time (1902) and how the film was made, it’s easy to see how people would have been amazed by the overall impact of the film.

We go from documentary-style pieces where people or trains are filmed to something much more magical and extravagant. The painted sets, the two-dimensional flats that move creating a more dynamic scenic landscape, the fanciful costumes, and simple disappearing effects with smoke, all suggest something more professional for the future, something more polished.

Yet, with all of Melies’ technical virtuosity, this would not be considered a classical film by the elements mentioned previously. It contains some of them, but not the crucial ingredient of rich psychology to help create three-dimensional characters. This draws us in as a viewer and makes us want to watch more, I believe.

Still, this early work created possibilities for film to become something more than a fad: It allowed the imagination to grow and stretch and try new things. Simply pointing a camera at a scene of people helps us wonder at movement captured in time and projected for the masses. Then later, the idea of a simple story supported by elaborate special effects shows us what is possible. We’re still early in the process, but now we can see what is possible.

Within a few decades, audiences would witness the growth of film by a few artisans into something much more substantial and professional. It would mark the beginning and industrialization of Hollywood as it imitated and improved Ford’s assembly line process:


In the film Night Nurse (1931), we see the rise of Hollywood into an industry that is able to assemble and distribute fully professional quality films.

Even with the title card that starts the film and lists the people, technicians, and artists involved, it becomes clear that in less than 30 years since a trip to the moon, things have progressed substantially in the film industry.

A screen shot of a computer

Description automatically generated with medium confidence


We are now in a place where a full story with dialogue is about to unfold in the next 72 minutes.

Now, you can argue about the quality of the acting in the film, since it happened decades ago, and many of these performers came from different backgrounds: vaudeville, theater, etc. But if we accept the acting for what it is, you still can enjoy the mechanics of the film and the story it is trying to tell.

Here, all five elements are represented in the story. At the head of it all is Barbara Stanwyck as the young nurse on a mission to save two children in a house filled with dysfunction and danger:

A screenshot of a computer

Description automatically generated


She faces a series of challenges from the head nurse, an addicted doctor, a thug chauffeur, and a male-dominated system that doesn’t seem to take her seriously. This is exasperated by this film being pre-code: where women undressing multiple times in front of each other, attempted rape and physical violence against women seem almost normalized and brutal.

The film is shot in black and white and clips along. Compared to our contemporary acting style, the psychological depths are not as deep, but you can see that Lora Hart (has a tough heart) and cares about saving those kids and getting some justice.

She’s a fierce female lead and refreshing to see considering I was always used to seeing men carry a film. Seeing Clark Gable in a supporting role was a change because my experiences saw him as the typical male lead player. This was different and enjoyable.

A screenshot of a computer

Description automatically generated with medium confidence

Less than ten years later, the film Ninotchka would come and really offer a higher level of sophistication from the previous films already mentioned:


Led by another female lead Greta Garbo, this film was funny throughout, which is saying something because comedy tends to be topical and doesn’t always transfer well years later. Here, we find the proverbial fish out of water story with a Bolshevist Russian diplomat being slowly seduced by European charm and capitalism.

The film feels much more polished than what has come before. The dialogue is more stylish. The settings are more fully realized and detailed. The acting also has a more naturalistic quality to it. This helps to make the movie transcend its time and speak to our own time.

I found the idea of someone with staunch ideals unwilling to change appealing because we live in a time where people many people feel the same way. The comedy comes from watching Ninotchka slowly change and even smile and laugh during the film along with falling in love. This owes something to what was called the “Lubitsch Touch” recalling the director of this film: who had a way of creating a comedy that was subtle but also intelligent in design to get the audience thinking.


A picture containing text, person, screenshot, clothing

Description automatically generated


This might be due to his background in the theater that led him to films where gestures, witty dialogue, and what happens offstage or away from the camera can have a big impact. Writer Billy Wilder talks about it here:

A screenshot of a computer

Description automatically generated



This film checks off all the boxes for a classical film. It also shows Hollywood coming into its own, since by this time, a steady stream of films was being made and distributed each week throughout America leading up to the war.

When I think about classical films today or films that emulate that style from the past, I am reminded of films like Midnight in ParisHugo, and The Artist. This may be too obvious, but they showcase an older style of filmmaking where the camera would take more time on a subject, where there was less cutting, and more time spent being with the characters. These stories also feel a bit older in their approach, allowing the viewer an opportunity to live with the characters. I found that more exciting than films dependent on constant movement and cutting from image to image.

All these films are helmed by experienced directors and excellent actors and check off all the five points that make a classical film. In that regard, they are like classic films but also exceed what has come before because of their artistry and technical proficiency in front and behind the camera.    

Of course, now there is no censorship code, so many films are able to go to dark places, much darker than Night Nurse, which can feel quite tame by today’s standards.

But for my time, watching the older films is like being an archaeologist seeing layers of sentiment unearthed as we back in time, and then seeing how new films build on old ideas and forms.

As the saying goes, you really can’t know the present until you learn about the past.




No comments: