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A Gilda Caged: Thoughts on the Movies We Label “Classic”…

I had the pleasure, a while back, of attending a screening of Gilda being hosted by the Irish Film Institute. The black-and-white forties noir-tinted thriller is somewhat warmly regarded among film historians, and one of those movies you label as a “classic” without any real hesitation. However, as I emerged from the cinema, I found myself wondering how such a film would be received were it released today. I honestly wonder what we would make of these “classics” if they didn’t have the word “classic” to hide behind.

I should begin with the observation that I didn’t hate the film, I just thought it was rather disappointing. Glenn Ford and Rita Hayworth do their best with the material they have, but I think the movie doesn’t necessarily work well as a whole. However, all I could hear was praise from people wandering out of the screening pondering why Hollywood doesn’t make movies like that any more. To be absolutely frank, if Hollywood did, I suspect they’d meet a cold reception from critics and audiences alike.

Let’s look at the film as it’s structured. It’s essentially the story of three individuals. Glenn Ford is Johnny Farrell, the charming rogue. George Macready is Ballin Mundson, a casino owner who keeps a knife in his cane. Rita Hayworth is Gilda, Johnny’s old lover and Ballin’s new wife who proceeds to drive a wedge between the two men, as each tries to decide how the other two fit together. In fairness, the triangle works well – with the movie unafraid to play with the obvious homoerotic subtext to the point where it practically becomes homoerotic supertext. Johnny is so protective of Ballin and his response to Gilda so jealous that it’s hard not pick up on the undertones. However, unfortunately, there’s everything else.

Ballin is apparently involved in some shady business dealings. These are revealed over the course of the film to be related to the Second World War in a manner that isn’t exactly developed in the most coherent manner. Instead, the plot tends to rear its head once or twice an act. Anyway, two Germans try to strong-arm Ballin into returning something he took from the Nazi government. Let’s ignore that any German officials coming to bother him in Buenos Aires would probably do well to keep a low profile, and focus on Ballin’s response. He kills one of them. In a crowded room. With the other nearby. In front of lots of witnesses. So he has to leave the country.

However, Ballin then fakes his own death by rigging a plane crash and parachuting to waiting dingy. Again, we’ll ignore the fact that none of the police officers (let alone his business partner) who saw the plane crash didn’t see the parachute. And we’ll ignore the clunky exposition that Ballin’s going to lay low for a while before he returns – maybe he likes to make polite conversation with minions, I don’t know. However, nobody seems to care that there was no body (or evidence of a body) recovered from the crash. These are plot holes that, to be honest, can be glossed over.

That said, Ballin literally reappears for two minutes at the end to threaten the two lovers on the verge of happiness because… well, we don’t know why he’s back now. Maybe it’s just awkwardly good timing. At least this will provide for a nice emotional confrontation and a chance for the romantic plot to resolve itself with some firm and concrete closure and character development? Instead, Ballin rambles for a little while like a second-rate Bond villain, leaves his cane lying around and then gets stabbed in the back… by the movie’s comic relief.

So, to put it in perspective, Ballin disappears from the movie and comes back to confront his best friend and his wife as they’re about to elope – and he’s killed by the dude who works in his bathrooms. Neither Gilda nor Johnny get a chance to confront him, and there’s no sense that either of them have vanquished his specter looming large over their relationship. He just shows up because he spotted an opening for a last-minute plot hurdle to throw in front of the movie’s happy couple. And then promptly gets killed, so the two can live happily ever after… without anybody really overcoming any of the interpersonal dynamics and hurdles at all. Which completely ignores the movie’s entire characterisation of the dynamic between the three, but we’ll come to that.

If a modern movie were plotted like that, we’d throw out the word “trite.” We’d dismiss the sheer volume of coincidence required to get the characters from one point to another as lazy writing. Truth be told, we’d be entirely right to. But we don’t do that, because this film is a “classic.” Never mind that it’s as awkwardly constructed as, say, Green Lantern and as generic in its understanding of male-female relationships as The Ugly Truth. Hell, any thriller that took the time to include three musical numbers and a pointless ten-minute trip out of the country that ends up exactly back where we were before would – fairly, I think – be dismissed as “self-indulgent.”

The movie even has severe problems with plotting and characterisation. Near the end, we’re informed that the other German has been arrested, and he’s told the police everything. Again, we’ll gloss over the fact that it’s pretty damn convenient that at this point the German is caught (as Johnny is at his lowest ebb) and wonder why the hell the German would talk. I assume he represents the German government in some capacity, in which case his arrest would have sparked an international incident, and he’d just keep his mouth shut and wait. Alternatively, he could be a Nazi – in which case he now has no legal right to the papers in the first place, and his own future problems dwarf any cartel investigation. But that’s not my problem.

A local cop gets all in Johnny’s face about this “cartel” business, an illegal operation Johnny didn’t even start. The man insists he’s “a good cop” and maybe he is. When he arrives, mere seconds after the final confrontation with Ballin (yep, there’s never a cop when you need one), he then covers up a murder. This is a guy who, not ten minutes ago, was getting all morally righteous about a syndicate. What makes the moment even dumber is the fact that he refers to it as “justifiable homicide” before wishing the happy couple on their way. So is he going to cover up or declare it justifiable homicide?

Look, the plucky comedy relief is probably going to get off, but it’s still kinda a big deal and Johnny and Gilda would do well to remain in the country to testify in his defense. I’m not even 100% certain from the cop’s dialogue what he’s going to do, but he implies he’ll cover up this murder. However, in the same quote, he illustrates that there’s no reason to cover it up, because the killing was self-defense. No wonder this police officer is “a good cop” – because he’s probably too dumb to be corrupt one, to be frank. He literally serves as the movie’s fairy godmother, showing up to assure us in the most mundane manner possible that there’s going to be a happy ending. Not because our leads have earned it, or anything like that – because the film’s ending and the audience should leave with a smile.

I know that the forties are so far away that they may as well be the Dark Ages, but it’s also hard to take the key relationship presented in the film especially seriously. I do like the first half of the film, which focuses on all three, but once Ballin leaves the picture, things get skewed. The idea that a man would marry a widow only to lock her away where no other man may have her, out of misplaced loyalty to a friend he considers dead, is a very gothic premise. One could see a pitch-perfect horror based around the idea. And, to be frank, the film points out that both leads are “terribly” in love with one another – their relationship isn’t meant to functional. She insists on bringing men home to tease the object of her affection, and he locks her away from the world. The movie, in fairness, points out the obvious: this is not a healthy relationship.

However, in the last moments of the film, they both seemingly come to realise that they love one another. I’m not sure how or why it happened, other than we’d had an hour-and-a-half of plot and it was time to wrap up. There’s even a bit where a tertiary character tells the lead that they’ve made a terrible mistake about the love they’ve rejected – that ridiculously trite “third act romantic misunderstanding” that we love to slate in modern romantic comedies. Anyway, both are seemingly magically transformed into decent people, even though we never see that transformation in action. We might have had a chance if the couple had confronted the resurrected Ballin, but he’s dead before anything can really happen. Instead, the same police officer gives the relationship his blessing, allowing them to carry on their way while he deals with the body of a mysterious thought-dead-but-now-actually-dead cartel leader. We have no indication that either or both are willing to take the steps to make the relationship work, and have no idea what has changed about them since the last time they tried it, but the movie expects us to clap our hands and call it a happy ending.

If a movie tried something like that today, it would be dismissed as a poorly-plotted heap of junk, full of holes and awkward characterisation – relying on contrived circumstance to propel a mess of a plot towards an arbitrary finish line. However, because the film is over sixty years old, it seems to get “a pass.” I’ll be honest, that bugs me – the fact that critics and scholars will point to films like this as “classics” based solely on their age and the talent involved. The fact that these flaws, that would be critical flaws in any modern film, get glossed over because it’s old.

I honestly don’t see the point of that. I think it’s unfair to old films that genuinely are “classics”, like Nosferatu or The Cabinet of Doctor Caligari. I also think it’s unfair to modern films, which are roundly and regularly dismissed for having the kind of flaws that major Hollywood productions always had. It creates and reinforces this notion that the quality has rapidly declined or that the artform is lost. I don’t think that it is. I think that a lot of the structural weaknesses of modern films can be found in many of these classics, we just blind ourselves to them.

I don’t say this to demolish these old beloved films, but to observe how nostalgia taints our perception of cinema. Movie writers and reviewers seem caught in this perpetual fantasy that the past was some magical realm where the streets were lined with gold, and that somewhere Hollywood got “lost” in the way that it puts together movies. I don’t really believe that. Movie studios have always used gimmicks. In the past it was movie stars reteaming on a series of bland attempts to recapture the spirit of their earlier collaborations, and now it’s sequels to beloved movies. In days gone by, Hollywood plundered novels and plays for source material; now they use comics and television and other movies. It’s no better or worse than it ever was.

However, before this seems too cynical, I do feel a little bit of optimism. For if the flaws in modern movies can be seen to descend from those iconic films of yesteryear, then so too can the grace and glory and power reach from there to the modern day. If Gilda can be as flawed as the next bland Hollywood blockbuster, then surely the next great film could be as good as Citizen Kane? I don’t believe the present is better or worse than the past, but I do believe it has the potential to be both. If only we stopped raising the past up on a pedestal and lowering the present in our esteem.

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86 Responses

  1. One classic that always bothered me was The Maltese Falcon. Half the dialogue seems to be basically explaining what happened off screen. As far as the acting and production, I guess it’s great, but I never understood the appeal of that particular film.

    • Reading back over the article, I get the sense that it reads as rather more grouchy than I intended it. It’s a grand little film, but not one I’d rewatch – at least not without a good reason and certainly not “just because it’s on” (which is probably one of my guidelines to identifying a classic – if it can hold your attention for half-an-hour after seeing it umpteen times while your stumbling through TV stations, it’s probably a classic of some description).

      But yep, there’s a whole host of things like that. Again, I find a lot of classics do atmosphere very well and that’s to their credit, but a lot of mdoern films that do atmosphere very well tend to get slated for their weaknesses. It seems strange that there is a weird sort of double-standard.

      • I think older films have a particular aesthetic that just simply appeals to certain film-goers and allows them to overlook any “flaws” that might be there. I do think it’s a mistake to put movies on pedestals as flawless works, since every film ever made has contributed to the development of the medium. But I also think it’s important to respect the unique stylistic contributions that era gave us.

  2. 1. It is not Nosforatu, but Nosferatu.
    2. It is not The Cabinet of Doctor Calgari, but The Cabinet of Doctor Caligari.

    Errors such as these (on top of it, using bold letters) take a lot of credibility out of any writer.

    • Those two typos have been corrected.

      What’s the issue with bold, do you mind?

      • I think Rupak Ghosh is suggesting that film titles–like titles of novels and long poems–should be rendered in italics. Nitpicking I suppose.

      • Yep, I thought about that, but I think my informal “style guide” has kinda stuck over time.

  3. I agree that many older works get a free pass, But by today’s standards many also get the job done. It almost seems for today’s movies to be “meaningful” they have to be boring to the average viewer. Whereass the older B&W’s from the 30-50′s are able to balance the seriousness with the comedic to move the story along with out asking you to completly suspend disbelief or fill in the plot holes. I toss out “classics” like Arsenic & Old Lace, African Queen and The Bishops Wife. To this day anytime I catch one of these on, I can’t help but watch it. Most of today’s “Hits” are the extreme of any genre. They ARE good in what they are trying to deliver, and if that’s what you’re going for, that’s what you get. Don’t knock a Transformers, Green Lantern or Bridesmaids. They are up front about what they are offering and they deliver on that offer. The worst thing you can do is go into a movie expecting something. View the movie as it’s offered, then form an opinion.

    • I’m a big fan of the “zero expectations” school of movie watching, and embracing each movie for what it is.

  4. Making them bold just made the errors stand out even more.

    • Cool. I just use bold for other movies (the first time they’re referenced) and italics for books, etc.

  5. This is so true, I have been thinking this for years now. I love classic films, but I think they are often way overrated just because of the fact that they are old. Older movies are being overrated, and modern movies are being underrated in my opinion. I think some of the greatest movies ever made have come out in the last decade

    • Thanks Aidan. I was actually thinking recently of a list of “movies I’d show my young relatives” in the distant future, and there’s quite a few to choose from in the recent past. I think I’d probably have more nineties movies than naughties movies, but perhaps that betrays my own bias towards the movies I grew up with. But damned if I don’t expect there to be a whole load of titles on that list that probably haven’t even been dreamt of yet.

  6. Interesting piece though if modern movies have the same flaws as old ones (and many do, plus new ones not allowed back then like the gratuitous, graphic sexual encounter that grinds proceedings to a halt for some time) surely that’s an indictment of modern movies? (question: WHY does so much rubbish still get made? It’s not like they’re having to grind out product like they did in the studio era: a lot of movies spend YEARS in development and production and still stink).
    I do think “classic” is bandied about too much and not every old movie is a classic (nor do all classics stand up, though there’s the argument about styles and conventions – how much should we enter into the film’s world and era?) I also think you may be a bit sweeping: a movie like Gilda has interesting points and flaws (as you noted) but I wouldn’t say it’s regarded a classic on the level of other movies of its time (eg Sunset Blvd.) Not every old movie is a classic (far from it) but there are such things as flawed masterpieces and movies with interesting elements (then and now). The weird gay subtext thing helps keep Gilda alive (and unusual).
    As for “zero expectations” – it’s a noble thought but can you honestly say you can always approach a movie with no preconceptions about what you’ve heard or read about it, your opinion of the writer/director/star etc? Granted there are pleasant surprises and it’s best to be fair but would you really approach, say, Police Academy 3 with a completely open mind if you’d seen the first 2 (and if you liked the PA movies, fair enough: but I don’t see ANYONE calling any but the first halfway decent).
    best wishes
    Ron

    • Thanks Ron, for putting a lot of care in a very rational and considered response.

      You make a valid point about the “zero expectations” approach – and I’ll concede it’s an ideal rather an attainable goal. As much as we may try, we can’t leave our baggage at the door, and sometimes it helps to inform our viewing with information we’ve garnered elsewhere (or films we’ve seen before). So, while it’s impossible, and I am not arrogant enough to pretend I can come anywhere close to accomplishing it, I do find something logical and romantic in the idea that each and every movie deserves a chance to be judged on its own merits. I do try, even if it’s impossible to acheive sometimes – not only because, as you observe, it’s near impossible to discuss individual films in a franchise or series (possibly even genre) without using a point of comparison.

      • Wow, that was a quick response – thanks! Sorry for the verbosity but I don’t know many people who are interested in films as much as I am and it’s enjoyable to discuss them. Lots of interesting points on this board (and so civil!) I do agree in principle with your no preconceptions stance, it’s just hard, as you acknowledge, to implement it. It’s a bit like how classical music fans argue for blind listening to a recording so the reviewer doesn’t bump it up (or down) for extraneous reasons like where it’s from, who the artists are etc. t suspect tics won’t do it because they’re worried they’ll be embarrassed (and they probably should be).
        But of course you can’t “blind watch” a film as easily.
        ron

      • Don’t apologise Ron! I always like a nice discussion. And I’m sorry if I seemed a bit defensive, I was just a little worried people were reading the article as more cynical than I intended. Although, I’m impressed with how civil this discussion is – it’s a nice exchange of ideas. I’ve seen conversations elsewhere on the web descend into personal insults at record speed.

  7. Movies back then were trying to take people out of themselves, realism wasn’t the point. While you make some salient points, you can’t argue with the casting – let’s face it neither of the leads would even get cast as the comic relief today, though they were fine actors and did a good job here. Glenn Ford isn’t waxed or buff, neither does he resemble an anorexic teen. Rita Hayworth isn’t a size zero or a preteen – but who today has their panache?

    • I think that’s a fair point, Jayne, especially about Hayworth. You won’t find me defending Hollywood’s rather disturbing fixation on the “perfect” female form, but I do think men do have it slightly easier than women in Hollywood, and I could easily see a male lead who isn’t exactly physical perfection. Russell Crowe would arguably be perhaps the most obvious example at the moment, although I think Tom Hanks qualifies.

      That said, I do think that there are actors out there who do have that sort of chemistry today. In particular, I think George Clooney has that same sort of effortless Golden Age Hollywood devil-may-care chemistry with virtually any actor you care to put him on screen with (and his “style”, I’d suggest, is decidedly old-fashioned).

      • Re modern stars – the point has often been made that the “new” Hollywood made stars out of people like Al Pacino and Dustin Hoffman who would have been, at best, bit players or character actors in the old days. Not all the old Hollywood stars were what is commonly thought of as beautiful or handsome, though (Spencer Tracy, Marie Dressler, even Humphrey Bogart come to mind) – but certainly most “ethnic” actors had little hope of stardom for a long time.

      • That’s a fair point, thanks Ron. But, then again, you might argue that the “new” Hollywood of Pacino and Hoffman is now an “old” Hollywood, with the actors reduced to relatively bland parts in disappointing films.

  8. To (politely) argue one of your points: Just because an older film has talent doesn’t necessarily mean it’s going to be labeled a classic. Ford and Hayworth were both in two other films: The Loves of Carmena and The Money Trap. Neither of those have gone down as classics, and as a film buff, I can honestly tell you,they shouldn’t. If you want a great cast in a film that’s considered a bomb, look at The Conqueror or The Great Sinner. Merely because a film has a great cast, that doesn’t make it a classic..

    • Thanks.

      I do agree with your point to a certain extent, and you cite two very strong examples, but I think that a lot get made of Gilda because it’s (generally) agreed to be Hayworth’s finest moment. While she is fantastic in it, I’m not convinced of the quality of the film as a whole, and I just find it interesting that it’s sort of glossed over. Nowadays you’d get a review saying “[insert current star] is fantastic in a title role, but the movie itself can’t live up to that standard…”, while Gilda gets more of a “Rita Hayworth’s finest film, a classic!” write-up.

  9. I totally agree, and this has bothered me for some time. “Gilda” has good elements, which are the ones fondly remembered (mostly the sultriness of the Put the Blame on Mame scenes), but the plot is incoherent.

    I’ve always wondered why critics hail movies like His Girl Friday (which I just couldn’t get into), but when a film like “Leap Year” comes out they massacre it. No, better example is Spielberg’s “Always”. It’s a remake of an old movie. It has a very 1940s feel to it, but has a modern setting. So everyone pans it as a mess and a disappointment, when it’s actually a nice little movie for what it is. Not his best work, but not a total failure. There are problems with it, but it always surprises me that when someone tries to make something with a classic or timeless feel, critics and audiences complain it’s not contemporary enough.

  10. CONGRATS on making IMDb, Darren. Great post and I so agree with you. I’ve seen several ‘great’ classics that have been embraced by critics and audience alike that left me scratching my head.

    “If Gilda can be as flawed as the next bland Hollywood blockbuster, then surely the next great film could be as good as Citizen Kane?” Spot on! Yes, I do believe we’ve got some great stuff that came out in the last 2-3 decades so I don’t think the “best of cinema” is behind us.

  11. I find it odd that both of the “genuine” classics you list are German silent horrors. Personally, I found both underwhelming but was glad to watch for my cultural education.

    My dad and I noticed some of the bad plot elements of “Gilda.” This explained why we’d never heard of the movie until we saw “The Shawshank Redemption.” The rest of the time, we appreciated the film for how it made us feel.

    As it happens, IMDb presently gives the same high rating to “Gilda” as to “The Lady from Shanghai,” where Hayworth may be less sexy but the writing is better. At least I think it is. I don’t remember much before the climax.

    • The reason I picked those two was partially because I wanted to avoid obvious-to-the-point-of-cliché classics like Citizen Kane (which I cite later on) or Casablanca, but also want to throw out two suggestions that not too many people would disagree with.

  12. One of the biggest problems you people have is that you lap up to the actors/movie stars at the expense of everything else. This is my major problem with American cinema- like its wall street counterpart it is all about flaunting and business at the expense of logic and realism.

    French cinema is auteur driven meaning the director is the be all end all of everything. Is there a wonder that the greatest films to be revered world over are french?

    One big problem with 50s movies were that they were all movie star driven-much like today. The movie star opens a movie and that is it. Public are stupid. Unarguably the greatest era for American cinema were the 60s and the 70s. Far ahead of the 90s(second best), 80s, 50s and this torrid generation. Why?
    Because the director became the God. The writer became important. Chinatown is a Roman Polanski movie and not a Jack Nicholson one.

    Alfred Hitchcock succinctly put it when he quipped “actors are my pawns, nothing more.” It does not take talent to be an actor as it takes to be a film-maker Don’t get me wrong- I like actors, I appreciate their craft but anyone can play Al Pacino’s role in the Godfather if PT Anderson directs it- Robert Pattinson even, and Shia le Beouf may be a better Travis Bickle than De Niro in the hands of Duncan Jones.

    • I’m not sure I’d agree. I think that a whole bunch of directors foster genuinely creative partnerships. The director brings out the best in the actor and vice-versa. I’m thinking Scorsese/DeNiro (and, to a lesser extent, DiCaprio), or Stone/Sheen (as against any of Stone’s other leading actors, while Sheen was not necessarily perfect, I think they both worked best with each other, if that makes sense), and even – to cite a far less obvious example – Penn/Nicholson (which drew two of Nicholson’s best performances of the nineties).

      I see it more as a symbiotic relationship than Hitchcock’s “a player and his pawns.”

    • Auteurism is problematic at best – no director does or can do everything on a film – it is a collaborative art. And no director can work without a script (and most of them don’t write).
      Hitchcock’s later films mostly had poor scripts and were nowhere near the quality of his best, And if the script is bad the film can’t be more than interesting (Gilda again, perhaps?).
      Polanski is an interesting example – he did not write Chinatown (Robert Towne did) but he changed the ending. And for every Chinatown in his work there’s a less good film.
      As for “the greatest films to be revered world over are French” – huge overstatement. There are plenty of German, and Italian and Japanese and.- yes – American films up there too, And more. You’re not French by any chance?
      As for casting – we know most actors are not first choices but miscasting is still possible.The examples you give are intriguing but Coppola also co-wrote Godfather (closer to the auteur you trumpet) and both he and Scorsese can get good performances from actors – you are, perhaps unconsciously, attacking your own claims for auteurism when you cite other more recent directors who could (maybe) get “better” performances from more recent actors.
      And no director can do everything well – Sidney Lumet was great with dramas but comedy and musicals eluded him. Anderson and Jones might be the same with the films you cite and Coppola and Scorsese did fine jobs on Godfather and Taxi Driver.

      .

      • Well stated Ron … even Cannes does not bow to French films so easily.

        While I certainly agree that most of the public (the world over) bows to the stars (whether it is Hollywood or Bollywood), I think people who really look deeper know to look beyond the actors to what liles beneath. I would agree that it is much more difficult to make a good film with a poor director than it is to make a good film with poor actors. Writing and edting can cover up a bevy of acting problems.

        The closest, IMO, we have to a director who can do practically everything (and he too was not a writer, so he was at their mercy to some extent) was Kubrick (notably, not French). Kubrick didn’t do many films, and I certainly wouldn’t say every one was a masterpiece, but few directors have the consistency of excellence spread over more genres.

  13. Interesting article, I’ve had similar thoughts about another classic film myself. The one “classic” movie that has always bugged me is the original SABRINA (1954). Now I do think it’s a nice movie, but I always felt people gave it it’s classic status based largely on it’s star power both in front of (Bogart, Hepburn, and Holden) and behind the camera (Billy Wilder). Bogart I felt was badly miscast and he never seemed comfortable in the role of a rich man. Furthermore I never believed he was falling for Hepburn’s Sabrina, his demeanor towards her doesn’t seem to change at all during the course of the film. This of course leads to an ending where star power wins over plot. Like I said I never bought that Bogart’s Linus was falling for Sabrina. So the ending where he runs off to Paris with her seems more like it happens because he’s Bogart and she’s Hepburn. Star power demands a happy ending, so the movie gets one.

    These things became even more apparent to me when I saw the remake of SABRINA in 1995. I felt it addressed all the problems I had with the original, making me believe that Ford’s Linus was in fact falling for Ormond’s Sabrina. Of course when the film came out it was attacked for pretty much no other reason than it was a remake of a film starring those classic stars. It was like some unpardonable sin to do so. Never mind that it actually was more about the characters than the people who played them. So yeah I agree with you that some movies that time has conferred this “classic” status on are just as cliched or plot holed as movies made today.

    • It’s interesting you mention that studios are instantly condemned for remakes of “classic” films, which is strange – one would imagine they’d be among the closest to the old-school films, making a conscious effort to emulate the style of the original. Of course, it’s damned if you do and damned if you don’t. Change too much and you’ll be accused of tampering with a classic; change too little and you’ll be accused of attempting to make a soulless carbon copy of a classic.

      Being honest, if you have to do a remake, I generally favour a bold new direction – if I want to watch the original, I have the DVD for that; and updating a classic for the modern day does have a great deal of potential if done right. The problem is that it’s rarely done right.

    • I’ve never seen the original Sabrina other than the clips on YouTube but I adore the remake! Glad someone pointed out that it’s actually better than the ‘classic’ version and yes I agree that Linus falling for Sabrina was believable as well as her transfer of affection from David to Linus. People always say ‘Ormond is no Hepburn’ and even though I adore Hepburn in general, I think it’s absurd to automatically consider someone else will be worse than her. I think Ormond was lovely as Sabrina.

      • Yes she was lovely as Sabrina. Sadly being in the remake kinda killed her career. She got so much negative press for “daring to step into the shoes of Audrey” that pretty much after 1995 she was washed up in Hollywood. The other major film she had that year was FIRST KNIGHT and it didn’t do very well either (though I personally loved it). I wish she’d gotten a better deal, she certainly was a better actress than many of the women who followed her.

    • I agree Sabrina (the original) was far from the best work of any of ther many talents involved (and Bogart looked a bit too old for his part) but I think the original worked better than the remake if only because the world it depicted seemed rather old-fashioned, more suited to a “period piece” (some of its content seems archaic, a young woman being treated like a pawn between 2 rich brothers?!) – , that, and I think Hepburn and Bogart were stars in a way their later counterparts were not (and despite Bogart’s often-reported unhappiness on the set, I think he was better than Ford: I think Bogart had more depth and range as an actor),

  14. okay, let me list films that are made recently, that ARE NOT CLASSICS, like THE DARK KNIGHT and INCEPTION.

    • Each’s own. I’ll wait and give Inception the benefit of time – because it’s a bit hasty to christen a film a “classic” less than a year after release. Besides, I’m one of those contrarian ole fellas who’ll argue that The Prestige is Nolan’s best film.

  15. This is a really well thought out piece, and I applaud you for it. There are works that are classics because “they are old”, but I wouldn’t think many people would use that as a definition. I suppose the worst case (that I think you described here) is a film that had widespread popularity, but was flawed. Films like that are considered classic for a generation, maybe 2-3 at the most. These are the films I suspect that studios try and remake the most figuring “they struck gold before, it will strike gold again” …. forgetting, as you have mentioned, that whatever flaws existed in the first film get translated to the second … and with a more educated and discerning audience today, those flaws might not be as easy to overlook (or, as it just as likely, the new filmmakers add their own flaws in trying to put their own mark on the film.

    There are films that are classic because “they are good, or we suspect they will remain good, or have been considered good for a while” (I suppose we have the term “instant classic” for a new film that we presuppose will stand the test of time. There are also seminal works that might not be “classics” but mark important steps in the history of film. “Young Sherlock Holmes” is a seminal film, but I doubt many would consider it a classic.

    I think too many times people confuse the thinking between all of these, so I see your issue when people walk out of this old, popular, but flawed film and say it is a classic, when more educated eyes see the flaws and wonder what everyone else is getting excited for.

    Ironically, “Gilda” likely would have been forgotten in a few generations, but now that it is a part of a real classic, “The Shawshank Redemption”, it may yet have some life to it.

    • Yep, I think you’ve hit it on the head. I don’t my kids to have the same classics that I do. I want them to have their own classics, and I don’t want them to be hedged in by those films. I want them to be bold and daring, with a healthy respect – rather than veneration – for the past.

      • Just the other day, I was at Chicago’s Museum of Science and Industry, and saw examples of “primitive” technology that was vastly inferior to what we have today. My friend’s son asked why we waste time keeping this tuff around, and I told him that it is important to see where we have been, so that you can understand how we arrived where we are, and help plan where we are going.

        This doesn’t quite parallel art, but its close. Some of those older classics have lost a bit of their sheen to modern audiences, and some people have correctly pointed out that part of that is because what they were doing then was original, and today it is has been borrowed a hundred times over … it isn’t as new to us.

        I think it is important for kids today to grow up embracing the new classics of their era …. while maintaining the ability to look back at the pioneers (of engineering or film), and appreciate that they were there first. It is important to understand how art and technology evolve over time, if for nothing else to see how they were products of their society, and to see how they affected their society.

  16. My only thought is that you are not alone. The world is, unfortunately, filled with people just like you, who think that because they are unable to understand or appreciate a classic film, then of course that film must be lacking. Gilda is a classic mostly because of its history, not because it cleaned up nice for those of us lucky enough to be living in today’s era of gleaming pc cinema… We are all spoiled by the brilliance of today’s films… transformers, zookeeper, thor, and all the other masterpieces that will be spoken of in hallowed, hushed voices 70 years from now.

    • Thanks Tama. It might be more legitimate to measure the film against good films produced in the last few years, rather than bolstering your own opinion with sarcasm. Everything from Inglourious Basterds (hardly too PC) to Moon to even Super 8 might measure up well against it, I’d suggest, although I suspect nostalgia would favour the older film.

  17. Older movies are not overrated. They are simply judged by different standards sometimes. For instance, some people can’t watch a movie, especially an old one, without criticizing whether or not certain plot points are believable. I know somebody who didn’t like the 1938 film “Holiday” with Katharine Hepburn, merely because (at least to them) it gave the impression that wealthy people spend all day wearing tuxedos and gowns, and that everywhere you look you constantly come across a wealthy person. Audiences seventy years ago wouldn’t have cared at all about that, or even bothered to think about it. Then there’ the person who criticized Hitchcock’s “Foreign correspondent” because the inside of the airplane in the climactic crash scene wasn’t built the way it would have been in real life.

    I overlook all these flaws, and I love ld films, often more than new ones. The only exceptions I would make would be in some recent adaptations of Shakespeare. The 1999 “Midsummer Night’s Dream” , with Kevin Kline,is, on the whole, better than the 1935 one, and Branagh’s “Hamlet” and “As You Like It” are better than the versions Olivier starred in. I would still, however, choose Olivier as Othello (although he wears blackface makeup) over Laurence Fishburne’s, which had no passion whatsoever.

    • Awesome. I am actually delighted to find another person who would dare to suggest Branagh’s four-hour masterpiece is slightly better than Olivier’s. Everyone else I’ve come across has labelled it “self-indulgent” and all those sorts of words 9which i suppose it is, but it’s also great).

  18. Gilda was never considered a “great ” movie. It got mixed reviews when it came out. It became a classic for Rita Hayworth’s scene singing Put the Blame on Mame. A scene that appears in every anthology and clip show about great movie stars.
    I would compare it to Michele Pfeifer in The Fabulous Baker Boys, which is a better movie in my opinion than Gilda, but which also has an overpowering star making scene with Michele on a piano singing.
    Will Baker Boys become a classic in 40 years..? you never know..Posterity makes its own judgements.
    The author is correct. Many old movies have passed into Classic status because they star a beloved star or have one or two very memorable scenes,These movies get more of a pass because they are old, rather than they are genuinely great. And I am thinking of Garbo ‘s Camille, The Thin Man,Mr. Deeds Goes To Town, among many other mainstream Hollywood entertainment. They are all worth seeing- but not genuinely great movies.The main difference between then and now, is we had more genuine movie stars then. But then again, would we have vehicles for Garbo,, William Powell, Gary Cooper, Cary Grant, if they were alive and young today?

    • That star vehicle is an interesting question. I think Hollywood has, in recent years, traded star vehicles for high concepts – counting on brands even more than movie stars to get people in. This is the kind of thing that typically gets people going about how crap Hollywood is today, but I mean, we tend to forget the bunch of mediocre “road to” movies that were strung together to make a quick buck on star power, favouring the handful of truly great ones amongst them.

      And I’m not sure The Fabulous Baker Boys is a fair comparison, but then that’s because Pfeifer probably isn’t an apt comparison for Hayworth, as you point out. However, I think you hit on something when discussing the Put the Blame on Mame clip, I think that we tend to forget the rest of the movie attached to it, so we recall the film itself with the same affection we have for that one sequence, which sort of crystalises the consensus on the movie, in a manner that isn’t – at least to me – fair.

      • I think a LOT of movies are remembered for a famous scene or line – witness the success of compilations like That’s Entertainment! (which saves us having to sit through a lot of blah musicals for one good number) and the popularity of the repetitive montages on the Oscars where the same moments (‘Made it ma! Top o’ the world! Toto, I’ve a feeling we’re not in Kansas any more etc’) keep getting trotted out.
        A movie like The Wizard of Oz is undoubtedly a classic but it’s easy to pick flaws: poor continuity (eg Dorothy’s hair length), sloppy editing (you can easily see where more of the Wicked Witch’s lines would have been and the “insect” reference makes no sense – when I was young I thought she said “incident”, referring to the Tin Man’s levitation, then I read about “The Jitterbug”), unresolved major story point (what will happen to Toto at the end? I think I always rationalised this to myself with the idea that it was Professor Marvel who came not Miss Gulch and that she died in the storm – remember Zeke’s line on dealing with Miss Gulch about “Walk right up to her and spit in her eye” – and how does the Witch die? Dorothy throws water in her face!)
        I concede all these flaws and more but the film is still a classic (and my personal favourite). In her book on the film Aljean Harmetz wrote that it’s in the tangled subtext beyond or beneath art that the film endures – she may be on to something there!

      • Good point again, Ron. Perhaps I should have had more courage of my convictions and ripped into something more accepted and embraced like The Wizard of Oz, but I thought it better to take a film that was perhaps a bit less iconic, as a kind of example of “well-liked old film trumps well-liked new films every time”, when I was attempting to demonstrate the same flaws exist in both.

      • I agree re concepts and franchises becoming bigger than most stars now, to the point of weirdness (adaptations of Disney rides?! board games?! remakes of slasher movies that mostly weren’t much good to begin with?! )

  19. Sorry for the typos. “ld (in the second paragraph) should have been “old”,

  20. I took a film course in college, one of the reasons why some plots are complicated and out there is because of the Hollywood production code, they couldn’t say certain things like we can say nowadays so movies used complicated plots to get around that.

  21. Andre Bazin said “If Hollywood might be likened to the court of Versailles then “Gilda” is its “Phaedra.” I’m with Bazin. You take this film entirely too literaly and demand it conform to realist standards it has no interest in. “Gilda” is a kind spectacularized hallucination of American male panic at the end of World War II over The Grils They Left Behid. Were they as faithful as Alice Faye singing “No Love No Nothing” in “The Gang’s All Here”, or were they more like “Gilda” — runnign after every man in sight and when questioned about it answering with innuendo-laden one-liners? Among other things “Gilda” was a majro influence on “Last Year at marienbad” which duplicates shot for shot the scene where Hayworth lays across her bed as Macready questions her about Ford. Truth to tell, she should question HIM about Ford as the script cearly indicated that Ford is Macready’s kept boytoy from the start — where he picks him up in an alley. What do you need? Flash Cards?

    • Yep, I love the subtext… which isn’t really subtext. However, it all gets dropped about forty-odd minutes in and the think sorta collapses. Being honest, the interesting relationship in the story didn’t feature Gilda, it featured Ford and MacReady. Once you removed the dynamic between those two, I was out of the movie.

    • You pretty much said what I wanted to say about Gilda, and that these kids are going to end up with each other because they have too much history for them to be apart, despite of the war that separated them.

      Also, it’s funny how Gilda is considered ‘sexy’ when Hayworth’s performance is either angry or drunk. The curse of beauty, I suppose. I even think that she instead plays on her sex appeal in The Lady of Shanghai.

      Also, I liked this more than Kane.

  22. Dude…..what’s not “trite” and “uncharacteristic” about the leads getting back together at the very end of “Pretty In Pink”…? And yet that is considered a classic by some.

    But “Pretty In Pink” wasn’t written – or originally filmed – with that nonsense. Molly Ringwald’s character knew she was too good for the guy and told him to pound sand. But the dreaded test audience wanted a “happy ending”…

    Do you think they didn’t have test audiences in the 1940′s? A test audience made Universal cut Karloff throwing the little girl into the lake from the 1931 “Frankenstein”.

    All these years and Hollywood won’t learn.

  23. It’s a little thing, but as Argentina was a haven for Nazis after the war, the (I believe former) German official may not be as utterly screwed as you might think.

    I doubt he was a current German official as Gilda is from 1946 and therefore at a time when Germany was occupied by the Allies. I can’t see the Americans, Brits, or even Soviets sending (or allowing) anyone to go to Argentina on official business relating to their (potentially war crime) Nazi activities.

    • I was aware of the urban myth that South America was a safe haven for Nazis, but I always figured that it was relatively low-key. I was actually reading about one of those communities that had effectively been set up as a haven, and that the govenment had basically been locked out. I didn’t really suspect local government would conspire with them, just turn a blind eye. Either way, any arrested Nazi would probably do well to keep their mouth shut, and I don’t think any would dare make any official complaint about their illegal actions.

  24. My thing with “classics” is that I always try to look at them in the context of the time they were made. Kind of how you were saying in your article that if it was made today Gilda would be panned–but it wasn’t. I had a discussion recently with a friend of mine about Citizen Kane. In her opinion, it’s totally an overrated film that shouldn’t be called one of the greats of a classic. My thing is, for the time it was made and way it was made, it’s a classic of that time. Looking at it today it may not seem like such a groundbreaking film when comparing it to what has come now, but the thing is that most of what we see today comes out of that fact that we have these classics to go back to.
    Sadly, I haven’t had to pleasure of seeing Gilda in my life, but even if I do agree with all your thoughts on the film, which I probably would, at the end of it I would think to myself, “Now how would I have reacted it I was actually watching this in 1946?”
    Just my thoughts. Great article.

    • Thanks Sabba. I do hope you get to see it, and I hope you enjoy it. I really worry the article comes across as more cynical than I intended.

  25. Films are like photographs. They’re snapshots of the time in which they were made. If you would look at a photo from the 1940′s and say that it is disappointing because the clothes on the subject are out of style, then you would certainly also be the type to be disappointed by a film that is 60+ years removed from the world as you know it.

    That’s why they call them classics. You don’t need to love them, but they’re still classics. Perhaps you could write the re-make. I hear Hollywood loves those.

    • Hollywood always loved those. After all, those complaining about modern Holywood’s seemingly endless adaptations forget that many of the earliest movies were adaptations of pulp fiction.

  26. I think sometimes older movie that you haven’t seen sometimes seem cliched if you watch it now because what was (sort of, I mean they used some of these cliches back in plays and silents) new then, now has been done 50 more years or more. As an example, I just watched Monty Python’s Holy Grail a few years ago. While funny, a lot of the jokes and ideas didn’t seem that “fresh.” I realized that so many sources, including friends, co-workers, etc. had quoted that movie that the original source didn’t seem so new. As far as Gilda, it’s definitely not the plot that holds that one together as a classic. It’s Rita and Glenn and the stable of supporting actors, and that it’s “of an era”. Her hair and costumes alone are worth seeing.

    • Yep, I had the same experience with Seinfeld. It’s so heavily influenced everything that followed that its lost a lot of its bite.

  27. This article is very well put and addresses a lot of things I (silently) have felt about people’s glowing way of seeing “classics” and often older films in general. Hey, I love older films, I grew up on them, and many of my favorites are no earlier then the 1940s. That being said, I’m also fully aware that there has NEVER been a time when Hollywood was perfect and could do no wrong. At times, I might even say the cheese-factor and the cheap ways of getting people to the cinema was much more basic and badly masked in the past days. But we are talking about the term “classic” and what that means and what really, we are talking about. I think what I find silly about that is that they are put above reproach, and there are quiet a few so-called classics that I do not feel earned that title. I guess it’s a bit of a Meme thing. Enough people say it, and then there’s no questioning it after awhile. Add to that the general snobbery that goes along with film historians and critics, and no one can question it. Just be honest and admit, just becasue it was made a long time ago doesn’t make it good. It just makes it old. My two cents.

    • I like that line about how “made a long time ago doesn’t make it good” – I’d agree, and add that being good makes it good. No matter when it was made.

      • Nor does being old make it bad – there are plenty of philistines for whom black and white, for example, is a reason to turn up their noses. One thing with old movies is that time has often sorted the wheat from the chaff. And films thought well of at the time have often been relegated to the not-so-good pile (does anyone now think The Greatest Show on Earth is up there with its contemporaries High Noon and Singin’ in the Rain?)

      • Fair point, and you’re right, of course. I think somebody above made the point that if 90% of everything is crap, we only remember the good 10%.

  28. I don’t seem able to reply to a reply so will leave another here (btw I meant “critics” not “tics” obviously in the above).
    Pacino and Hoffman et al are indeed part of the old New Hollywood now – by reason of age. One thing that has struck me in recent years is the rise of the man-boy – stars like Matt Damon, Leonardio DiCaprio and so on seem eternally boyish (though many are fine actors). Admittedly they often started younger than people like Tracy, Bogart, Mitchum,and Wayne all of whom seemed “older” even earlier in their careers (drinking problems might have played a part in some cases). Who are the “mature” replacements for people like Pacino? Clooney was mentioned by one person and he became a film star relatively late.
    I agree with you re civility of the discussion – good to see.
    I think by NOT taking on an icon like Oz you probably spared yourself a lot of outraged bleating – Gilda isn’t going to excite the same passion (do YOU like Oz by the way?) but it is worthy of discussion. Time has a way of sorting things out – there are the iconic movies (Oz, Kane, Gone with the Wind, Casablanca), classics, half-forgotten gems slowly being rediscovered (ever see Make Way for Tomorrow – do! It’s out on Criterion), interesting but flawed films, solid entertainments etc. Some movies are important for historical reasons more than intrinsic value (Lights of New York is often described as the first all-talkie but I’ve never seen it called a classic). And taste plays a part – some people hate musicals or horror films on general principle.
    Ah – there’s a discussion – if a horror movie isn’t really scary to us any more can it still be a classic?
    ron

    • I don’t know, I’d argue that horrors that are relatively tame and don’t frighten us can probably hold up quite well. You could, I suppose, be sneaky and re-brand it a “thriller” or some such.

      I do love Oz, although I can see the flaws it. I’d argue that it holds up a lot better than Gilda if only because it redefine movie fantasy, at least in popular consciousness. Even today, with – as you note – the sometimes disappointing effects work that my older eye is more attuned to, Oz comes to my mind when I think of fantasy worlds (more vividly than Middle Earth or any other fantasy realm).

      • In what way do you think the tamer horrors hold up? i don’t think you could simply brand Frankenstein a thriller! I like a lot of them but for the bloodthirsty they may disappoint
        Oz also has a lot of emotional resonances for many people that something like Gilda doesn’t. Those of us who remember the pre-VCR era recall for example how thrilling it was to see it on its annual Tv screening.

      • Maybe it was a bit cheeky to try to redefine them. :)

        The genere horror, though, does imply that they scare us, which I don’t think too many older horrors do (though I find psycholical horrors hold up much better than those that try to make us jump – Silence of the Lambs is still scarier than almost any modern gorn-fest).

        I think the classic Universal horrors hold up perhaps because they’re good films, either from a technical point of view (those German horrors still, I think, look lovely), or that emotional connection you allude to. After all, as fond as I am of Shelley’s book, I think that those Frankenstein films were the first time that the audience really cared for, or engaged with, the monster as a creature deserving pity as much as scorn. While the book touches on it, the monster seems infinitely more… monstrous in Shelley’s story. More of an abomination than a victim.

  29. So many of the above comments are very helpful in discussing the whole idea of what constitutes a classic film. Yes, in many ways Gilda is just not a very well done film. And surely if you were to remake it today it would be laughed off the screen (that’s assuming anyone would even give it the green light). But again, why would anyone want to make Gilda again. The film is a star vehicle for Hayworth. Is there a Hayworth out there today (or a Gardner, Scott, Tierney, etc. for that matter). Films have always been formulaic and the artistic element has oftentimes been only a happenstance. In the studio system days, movies were more star centered. Today they seem to be becoming more genre centered (romcom, sciti,horror,comic book heroes, etc.). But the truth is films are part and parcel of the movie business and have been almost from the beginning. They exist mainly to entertain and on that score, Gilda (and many other films from that era) entertained then and can still entertain some today. I grew up watching films at the theater and on a little black and white tv. Those classic films still entertain me. A lot of modern films also entertain me. In general I bring a low level of expectation to the film appreciation experience. After all, films are made by people not the gods. We are all human, only human.

    • That’s a nice philosophy. I have something similar. My default position is pretty much wanting to love a film, as much as my cynical disposition may lead others to doubt it.

  30. How do I unsubscribe? I thought I was only going to get emails re my posts as followups (I will still visit).
    thanks
    ron

    • I can’t seem to unsubscribe you from the article, I’m afraid. I could unsubscribe you from the blog, but I don’t think you subscribed to it.

  31. Seems to be OK now, thanks. Was just getting flooded!
    r

  32. Yes, Gilda is a “classic” and is still considered a superior film (impressive numbers on IMDB & Rotten Tomatoes) but unlike Casablanca & Citzen Kane, its never been considered one of the “best of the best movies.” Its not even on either of AFI’s two top 100 lists.
    Your criticism of the film does seem cynical and I think is a little off base.

    Btw, if Gilda was made today there’s a pretty good chance that one of the three leads would be either a Vampire, an Alien, or a Super Hero. How would that film compare to what you call that “magical realm” of yesteryear where streets were paved with gold?

    • Or, you know, all three would still be criminals, like Hollywood has been incredibly fond of since the dawn of time. I reckon there are more movie mobsters in the history of cinema than vampires, aliens or superheroes put together.

      The point is that Hollywood has always had its crutches to lean on, and one can see the flaws in these old films as easy as the new ones. So I don’t think, to be fair, my criticism of this older film is any more cynical than your implicit criticism of the newer ones.

      • I don’t mean to quibble too much with you Darren, but…does Ballin Mundson really qualify as a “mobster” in this film?
        And my bringing up of Vampires, Aliens & Superheroes was, I think, less a criticism then just an observation of the current reality in Hollywood. It seems that almost every blockbuster over the last 3 or 4 years contained one of those three themes. That is, if you can call Harry Potter a superhero.

        Btw, I can’t help but wonder how long this current obsession with Vampires, Aliens, & Superheroes will continue. Do you have an opinion on this? A guesstimate? These themes are still quite popular and show no sign of letting up, although the relative failure of Cowboys and Aliens might signify some fatigue of the the broad Sci-fi genre. Or, maybe not…

  33. To follow up a point made, when can a film safely be considered a classic ie when has enough time passed? One reason movies up to say the 1970s are still considered classics are that enough time has gone by to assess them from some distance. But time makes its changes – neither Scarface nor Blade Runner was all that well reviewed back in the 80s but both are now highly regarded (if i hear the “Say hello to my little friend” line in another movie this year I will be most annoyed!)

  34. Kubrick did do some writing (he is credited on several films) though how much is open to question. Directors I think often like to grab as much credit as they can and adoring fans let them. The recent fuss over Robert Redford’s balated claim he and Alan Pakula rewrote the script for All the President’s Men (which won William Goldman an Oscar) is an example.

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