"We are such stuff as dreams are made on." Shakespeare, The Tempest

Monday, April 7, 2014

So Ends an Era: Classic Hollywood Cinema (1930-1950)

With the deaths of Shirley Temple on February 10, 2014, and of Mickey Rooney (Joe Yule) two months later, the world lost its two last major (on-screen) living connections to the classic Hollywood cinema of the 1930s and 1940s. The similarly-clustered deaths of Ed McManon, Farah Fawcett, and Michael Jackson during the summer of 2009 may have given people the impression that the celebrity world of the 1970s had become history in the new century.  

"Mickey Rooney" as "Andrew Hardy," flanked by his on-screen parents. Together, these three characters give us a glimpse of family life in a bygone era. Even in the 1940s, Andy Hardy's father may have been viewed as representing still another era, further back and on its way out. (Image Source: Wikipedia)

Lest we lament too much the loss of these worlds, as per the dictum of historians that history is a world lost to us, we can find solace in the actors’ immortality (and perhaps immorality) on screen. However, in the fullness of time, by which is not meant eternity (i.e., the absence of time as a factor or element), even films as illustrious or cinematically significant as Citizen Kane, Gone with the Wind, His Girl Friday, The Wizard of Oz, Philadelphia Story, Dracula, and even Mickey Rooney’s Andrew Hardy series of films will find themselves representing a decreasing percentage of films of note—assuming cinema or some continued evolution thereof goes on. As great as some ancient plays like Antigone are, the vast majority of Westerners today have never heard of the work (not to mention having seen it). Even more recent plays, such Shakespeare’s, are not exactly block-busters at movie theatres.

To be sure, cinema (and “the lower house,” television) has eclipsed plays as a form of story-telling. However, another technological innovation may displace our privileged mode sometime in the future. Virtual reality, for example, may completely transform not only how we watch movies, but also film-making itself (e.g., reversing the tendency of shorter shots and scenes so not to disorient the immersed viewer). Although the old “black and whites” can be colored and even restored, adapting them so the viewer is in a scene would hardly be possible without materially altering the original.

Aside from the decreasing proportion phenomenon relegating classic Hollywood gems, who’s to say how much play they will get even two hundred years from 2014, not to mention in 2500 years.  Even our artifacts that we reckon will “live on” forever (even if global warming has rid the planet of any humans to view the classics) will very likely come to their own “clustered deaths.” We humans have much difficulty coming to terms with the finiteness of our own world and ourselves within a mere slice of history. As Joe Yule remarked as Mickey Rooney in 2001, “Mickey Rooney is not great. Mickey Rooney was fortunate to have been an infinitesimal part of motion pictures and show business.”[1] En effet, motion pictures can be viewed as an infinitesimal phenomenon from the standpoint of the totality of history.

[1]Donna Freydkin, “Mickey Rooney Dead at 93” USA Today, April 7, 2014.