Why do we prefer old movies?

Lubna Abdel Aziz, Friday 13 Sep 2019

After a long day’s work, we settle down on our favourite couch and reach for the TV remote control.
Navigating through the channels we come across Britain’s dilemma, to Brexit or not to Brexit; our hearts go out to the youth of Hong Kong; the fate of Kashmir is still uncertain; the fires of the Amazon are still raging; Trump keeps up his tweeting. Enough stress.

What about a movie? Violence and bloodshed are not appealing, speeding cars and crashes are nerve-wrecking, horrifying aliens from outer space are scary, vampires and monsters are creepy. How do we unwind and relax?

Our best bet is the oldies/goldies. Yes. An old black-and-white movie is the answer. We put down our remote control, take a deep breath in anticipation of some fun time with some old familiar faces.
Why is it that we regularly hear people say “we love black-and-white movies”?

Critics and researchers have studied the subject for years and have come up with some theories. All agree that some of the best movies ever made were in black-and-white. Agreed, but there must be more.
Old movies are like a time capsule. They give us an idea of what life was like and gently take us on a trip to older times, to yesteryear.

That could not be all. Weary of CGI imaging and technology’s special effects, we seek the simplicity of a story well told.
Like children who love to hear the same story before they go to bed, we too love to hear a familiar story that lulls us to sleep.

That is the key: the story. Stories that delve into the nature of the human spirit usually involve timeless themes. They capture the hearts and minds of the audiences in a powerfully interwoven style that leaves a profound mark on our psyche.

Think of Casablanca. You have seen it again and again and do not mind watching it again. Why is that? Critics compare it to “comfort food”. If you are down, tired, or ill, this is what you need. You know every sound, every tune, every move and it feels good. It is timeless.

Many of the classics are just good stories, and black-and-white does not hamper the story.
Classics retain vitality and beauty colour cannot provide, because in the former the focus is on the story.
Black-and-white movies speak directly to the heart. That is not often the organ modern filmmakers hope to stimulate. They try to blow you away with special effects, the more violence, blood and gore, the better.
Cinema is the art of the 20th century. In its pioneering days there was more human effort, a range of emotions and themes. They gave you a sense of escape from reality.

For a movie to survive it must be worthy, innovative and special. Time acts like a sieve that filters out the bad, dumps it into the bin of “forgettable”, and after at least 20 years, the remaining few emerge as classics.
That is not to say that great films are not made in colour. We live in a world of colour but black-and-white movies allow you to concentrate on the storyline, the emotions, and the actors, without the distraction of colour, tricks or crazy effects.

Black-and-white films excelled in almost every genre. Can you imagine a film noir in colour like The Maltese Falcon, Double Indemnity or Psycho?

Comedy fared best in black-and-white movies. Pure and innocent, we still laugh heartily at Laurel and Hardy, Abbott and Costello and the great Charlie Chaplin and Buster Keaton.
The American Film Institute, at century’s end, published “100 Years-100 Laughs”. More than half the laughs were in black-and-white movies.

How about musicals? Were there any musicals before the 1950s or 1960s. Indeed, there was Nelson Eddy and Jeannette MacDonald, and the incomparable duet, Fred Astaire and Ginger Rodgers. Colour would have only distracted us from being dazzled by their fluid moves, their bubbling charm, their polish and grace, “an island of elegance and passion”.

Bela Lugosi personified horror, the Westerns provided excitement, Hitchcock was as chilling in colour as well as in black-and-white.

Perhaps vistas and panoramas lost their lustre without colour. Quite the contrary. Photography and the use of light were highly dramatic. “Who needed colour when haunting landscapes of Wuthering Heights appeared on the screen as if photographed in Emily Bronte’s 19th century,” said Greg Toland, the greatest photographer of his time.

The acting was superior as no editing came to the rescue of Charles Laughton as Henry VIII or Paul Muni’s Louis Pasteur.

Even Christmas movies of today cannot hold a candle to It’s a Wonderful Life, (which you must watch) or A Christmas Carol, and Miracle on 34th Street. Today we have Scrooged and Elf. We would be grossly remiss if we did not mention Twelve Angry Men about a jury of 12 men and the film takes place in a room, another must-see oldie but goldie.

Every female star was a goddess, if not of beauty then of talent and charm. Every male lead was oozing with masculinity and sex appeal. Dreamlike, elegant, stylish and mysterious were the attributes of those old movies.
We can’t help but recall the words of Gloria Swanson in another great classic Sunset Boulevard: “I am big. It’s the pictures that got small.”

“The mystery of 50 shades of black and an infinite number of white adds a whole additional dimension to reality.”
Roger Ebert (1942 -2013)

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