Before I head into the Best Picture winners of the 1940s, I’d like to stop for a moment and think about the 1930s winners as a group.
The trend that jumps out at me is one of integrating innovations. With the introduction and standardization of sound in film in the late 20s and early 30s, other changes had to be made. Obviously all of us who have seen either SINGIN’ IN THE RAIN or THE ARTIST are aware that there was no guarantee that the stars of the silent era would be able to transition to the talkies. Like Jean Hagen’s Lina Lamont in SINGIN’ IN THE RAIN, some silent stars discovered their voices and speaking styles were unsuited to the tastes of the day, and some previous unknowns suddenly became stars, like the characters of Debbie Reynolds and Berenice Bejo.
Talkies created other problems than the actual requirements of the sound tracks. For one thing, it required a different type of acting. While silent films are broad to the point of melodrama – every emotion is larger-than-life, much as it is in a stage production. Without the benefit of inflection and a stream of dialogue to communicate emotions and the train of thought for a character, the physicality of the acting has to be glaringly obvious. As sound enters the mainstream, the industry has to work to adjust its styles. Performances become more subtle and nuanced – more natural. And that goes for the relationship between actor and camera, as well. In WINGS and BROADWAY MELODY it was clear which actors were experienced in silent films and which were more flexible, if only because those who were silent stars exuded a clear, consant awareness of the camera. Over the course of the 1930s Best Pictures, the acting subtly changes, from the still-evident, though hesitant, consciousness of ALL QUIET ON THE WESTERN FRONT to the far more modern acting style of GONE WITH THE WIND. I think it’s for the best. With the silent style, it’s far more difficult to forget that one is watching a film. The less aware, more natural style of GONE WITH THE WIND and YOU CAN’T TAKE IT WITH YOU draws the audience in. It becomes an immersive experience, much like the sensation of falling into an engrossing book. I finished watching GONE WITH THE WIND two days ago, and yet I’m still getting flashes of scenes and snippets of music inside my head.
I think the introduction of sound and the other changes it required forced the film industry into a mindset that expects frequent innovation and adaptation. I haven’t seen many pre-sound movies, I admit, but the fact that it takes a full decade to gain complete confidence in the use of sound technology tells me that it created a massive upheaval in the industry. Furthermore, it can be compared to the introduction of color. While many films, especially musicals like BROADWAY MELODY, had primitive color sequences (though most have since been lost, unfortunately), GONE WITH THE WIND shows no hesitation in the use of color. And its use of color is brilliantly well-done. The burning of Atlanta is of course one of the most famous scenes, and I sincerely doubt whether the sequence would have been anywhere near as powerful in black and white. But there are other aspects in which color is powerful – the colors given to each character’s wardrobe tell the audience something about them. Rhett’s colors tend to be plain, almost stark – greys and whites and blacks. Scarlett, on the other hand, is all about the dramatic in her jewel-bright reds, greens, and blues. It helps the audience understand why she hates going into mourning black so much. Melanie and Ashley wear muted, quiet colors.
Obviously the 40s returns to black and white for at least some of the time, but the expectation of change is likely to remain. And with a decade of adjustment under their belts, I suspect the confidence of the American film industry will remain high in the 1940s, hopefully allowing films to innovate and challenge.
Next Up: Rebecca (Best Picture, 1940) and How Green Was My Valley (Best Picture, 1941)