Blank Screen

12.01.13

Whatever Happened to Great Holiday Films?

Back in the dark days of the Great Depression, Hollywood pumped out brilliant, inspiring, high-spirited films. Now they give us calamity and combat, slavery and drudgery— on land, sea and even in outer space. Liesl Schillinger calls for the return of big-screen romance and wit to enliven the season.

In the midst of the holidays—a time for turkey, pumpkin pie, latkes, mulled cider, and tree-trimming, and long, post-feast afternoons with multiple generations of your family—you will find yourself riffling desperately through movie listings of newspapers, hunting for a heartwarming, mood-lifting film you can all escape to for a few hours, en masse, before the next meal. What will you see, on this and ensuing festive weekends? What has Hollywood unwrapped for us this season? Let’s see, one movie about a man who dies on a boat (probably), another about a man who almost dies on a boat. One about astronauts stranded in outer space, one about slavery. One about teens battling to the death, and several about bereft middle-aged people struggling to keep it together.  Oh, and one about Nazis and books. Will the fun never cease?

It’s odd to think that, five years into the Great Recession, Hollywood has not leapt to fulfill the public hunger for celluloid (OK, digital) cheer. Back in the 1930s—the last time prosperity yawed off a corner and landed in the ditch—the movies rushed to the rescue of the demoralized citizenry with a spate of feel-good movies that filled studio coffers while raising the spirits of ticket buyers. Screenwriters, directors and producers lifted apple-sellers out of their doldrums with a tempting array of escapist treats: high-stepping dance pictures with Fred and Ginger; glamorous, bantering “Thin Man” mysteries; intricately staged musicals by Busby Berkeley; and rousing Frank Capra dramas—with Carole Lombard, Jean Arthur, Greta Garbo and Shirley Temple thrown in to kick the charm factor into the stratosphere.

The Great Depression was the longest sustained episode of bleakness this country has endured in modern memory—lasting longer than the Civil War or either of the World Wars—but you wouldn’t know it from the movies of the era. In 1933, the Depression’s rock bottom, almost a quarter of the American work force was unemployed and fierce windstorms howled across the already ravaged plains of the Dust Bowl. But on celluloid, 1933 sparkles as one of the liveliest, merriest years on record: it’s the year when King Kong scaled the Empire State Building; when Groucho Marx (as Rufus. T Firefly) and his brothers clowned around in “Duck Soup;” when Mae West leeringly invited Cary Grant to come up and see her in She Done Him Wrong; and when Ginger Rogers, clad in a bustier of glittering coins, warbled “We’re in the Money!” in Gold Diggers of 1933, declaring, “Gone are my blues and gone are my tears; I’ve got good news to shout in your ears!”

Who cared that her good news was completely wrong, and that it would take World War II to get the U.S. economy back in the black? Ginger Rogers’s—and Hollywood’s- optimism was bankable at the box office, and the cinematic jackpot kept raining down for a decade. In 1934, five years into the Great Depression, holidaying families who sauntered to the cinema could exult over  It Happened One Night, or the screwball comedy Twentieth Century; in 1935 Hitchcock gave them The Thirty-Nine Steps, Fred Astaire gave them Top Hat, and Groucho bestowed A Night at the Opera upon them. The following year Charlie Chaplin cheered them with Modern Times, and Carole Lombard and William Powell beguiled them with the redemptive Depression romance My Man Godfrey, while in Capra’s Mr. Deeds Goes to Town, a small-town tuba player came into a fortune—which he used to rescue the fortunes of the deserving poor. A bite of this cinematic Benzedrine cost under two bits a ticket.

In this enduring Great Recession, the public appetite for the spectacle of singing, dancing, love, showmanship, and human excellence is as hearty, hopeful and indestructible as ever.

Fast forward to now. For $12 a ticket or more (and $6 for a coke or popcorn), refugees from the Newpression who enter a multiplex looking for distraction from reality find….more reality. Excellent, serious films like Twelve Years a Slave, Gravity, Dallas Buyers Club, and Captain Phillips engage the mind but not the funny bone. Where have all the comedies, and carefree romances gone? A few weeks ago, I took this question to Facebook, and polled my friends. “Why is there not ONE single romantic comedy or drama anyone under 30 would want to see?” I asked “Why are the only decent movies lately about tense, harrowing misfortune and injustice? Doesn’t Hollywood think people want their spirits lifted? Or… do contemporary audiences prefer nightmare to fantasy?”

My friends instantly, abundantly, responded, some agreeing with the premise, others either objecting or not fully absorbing it. “Have you seen 12 Years a Slave” yet?” asked one man (who conceded that it did not fall into the comedy category). Another championed Sofia Coppola’s Bling Ring, which she called “super neo-Depression,” adding that, “though it’s supposed to be a sobering view,” it “probably just makes you want to steal jewels.” One recommended Before Midnight, the third installment of the Richard Linklater series about an American man and a French woman who fall in love. This movie (which I saw last spring and loved) is a nuanced, painful two-hour long eavesdropping session on a couple whose marriage has soured into a toxic stew of simmering, bickering resentment.  Several others raved about the summer movie Enough Said, a misclassified “comedy” in which two insecure, middle-aged divorced people try to whip up enough enthusiasm to settle for each other.

Determined to see something that might conceivably verge on madcap, I went to see Woody Allen’s Blue Jasmine, in which a privileged woman (the lovely Cate Blanchett)—an insensitive narcissist who’d married a Bernie Madoff-type scoundrel—gets her comeuppance. Staggering out a couple hours later, I mulled one of Blanchett’s lines in the film: “Anxiety, nightmares and a nervous breakdown? There’s only so many traumas a person can withstand before they take to the streets and start screaming.” I saw her point.  This is not to say that this— and the broad, array of earnest, noble Oscar-bait pictures now making grim procession across theater screens—are not good movies, it’s just to say, well… in the words of one of my younger brothers: “How much do they want me to be bumming, man?” About the only movie that might make anyone crack a smile this December does not come from Hollywood, it’s a time-traveling British romcom by the people who brought you Love, Actually, called About Time. In the words of one Facebook commenter, it is “no Philadelphia Story, but perhaps it will do in a pinch?”

So, why is it, then that are there so few movies lately that are not jaded, tawdry, humorlessly moralistic, or amorally violent? Has the world changed so utterly since the 1990s, when My Best Friend’s Wedding, American Pie, Titanic, and The English Patient rocked the box office? Is pure entertainment “out”, and are romance and comedy now strictly for cretins? Going on the assumption that movie studios will sell anything that can sell; and guessing that, given current economic pressures, they’ve exhaustively focus-grouped any movie that does get made, perhaps contemporary test audiences have proved to be hostile or indifferent to love and mirth. Or, perhaps big producers are only making movies that appeal to the biggest demographic in their surveys, anxiously protecting their bottom line by shunning pictures that please sizable non-core minorities.  Then again, it may be that the movie-going public is more cynical in the 2010s than it was in the 1930s, preferring apocapics and melancholy studies of tormented relationships to the comedies and romances our ancestors favored. Maybe people no longer believe in happy endings, and find greater comfort in witnessing the big-screen trials of characters whose lives are even more stressful than their own.

My suspicion, though, is that the nature of the movies getting green-lighted at this cultural moment has less to do with the tastes of the public than with the cynicism of the most influential moviemakers, who are sticking it to the common man by catering only to the tastes of the largest block of ticket buyers: no escape for you, John and Jane Doe. By such calculations, it’s safe to bankroll movies for little kids with dancing penguins, Quidditch-playing wizards and princesses in foofy gown; and it is safe to bankroll movies for adults and teenage boys about misery, menace, and snark. Anything in between is too risky and potentially uncool—something only foreigners and penniless indie filmmakers would be quixotic enough to attempt.

Maybe so. And yet…at last count, tens of millions of Americans tune in weekly to the small screen to drink in the fantasy of reality shows like The Voice, So You Think You Can Dance, The Bachelor, and America’s Got Talent. Tens of millions of others watch their sports heroes wrangle on court, field, rink and racetrack. Broadway is more vital and zestful lately than it’s been in years, with new musicals like Matilda, Kinky Boots, and A Gentleman’s Guide to Love and Murder bringing patrons to their feet with gratified, exuberant applause. Patrons, that is, who can afford to go to a Broadway show. All of these signs hint that, in this enduring Great Recession, the public appetite for the spectacle of singing, dancing, love, showmanship, and human excellence is as hearty, hopeful and indestructible as ever. It just, recently, has stopped being scripted on the silver screen. Life is still big: it’s the pictures that got small. And if Hollywood would make them big once more, happy days just might be here again…in time for next year’s holidays, at least.