How I Learnt to Love Classic Cinema: A Guide to the Golden Age of Hollywood

Ah, the Golden Age of Hollywood: an era that film buffs adore, and the majority of young people are baffled by.

Until recently, I had no desire to ever see a film that came out before 1972. I predicted bad acting, outdated humour and poor special effects. I thought classical cinema would be the “first pancake” in the history of film: rough around the edges and painful for a 21st century viewer to swallow. 

It was only in the midst of lockdown, when I was stuck at home and looking for something new to try, that I thought I’d give these strange old movies a go. Now, eight months later, I can safely say that watching these films was one of the greatest decisions I made. 

Here’s a list to get you started:

  • Casablanca (1942) [drama] 

Best quote: ‘Where were you last night?’ ‘That’s so long ago, I don’t remember.’ 

A World War Two drama packed with chiaroscuro lighting. Every line is a stonker and every character is complex. Humphrey Bogart is often considered to be the greatest actor of all time. Wondering why? Watch Casablanca to find out.

  • The Philadelphia Story (1940) [comedy] 

Best quote: ‘The time to make up your mind about people is never.’  

A story about a rich heiress and her interrupted wedding plans. It’s actually very funny. Jimmy Stewart and Katharine Hepburn glitter in scenes to be watched over and over. It’s the perfect blend of romance and comedy, farce and humanity. Be warned: the ending is ridiculous and the class politics are very dodgy. 

  • Notorious (1946) [thriller] 

Best quote: ‘Why won’t you let me be happy?’ ‘Nobody’s stopping you.’   

This film fulfils every idea you’ve ever had about what a 1940s film should be: complex characters oozing class, cinematography where every frame tells a story, smoking and drinking have never looked better. It’s sophisticated, it’s stunning – did Alfred Hitchcock invent tension?

  • His Girl Friday (1940) [comedy] 

‘He’s got a lot of charm.’ ‘Well, he comes by it naturally. His grandfather was a snake.’ 

A fantastic film. It’s all about the dialogue. So fast-paced and so sharp, you’ll need subtitles to follow it. Packed with sarcasm, this film is getting my approval because it embodies how great female characters were in this period. Unflinching, as funny as any man and often the smartest person in the room – we don’t often get these characters in films today. 

  • Sunset Boulevard (1950) [drama/noir] 

Best quote: ‘Audiences don’t know someone sits down and writes a picture. They think the actors make it up as they go along.’

 A terrifying black satire about the Hollywood machine that still feels disturbingly relevant today. It is a horror movie and our star talks like Beckett’s Mouth. I keep opening doors expecting Norma Desmond to be standing there, lit white by a spotlight, her eyes wide and terrifying. She’s looking at you, she’s looking at you through that gilded mirror.

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About Author

Liz Lane

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6 COMMENTS ON THIS POST To “How I Learnt to Love Classic Cinema: A Guide to the Golden Age of Hollywood”

  1. I LearnED to LOVE Classic Cinema,…and eventually Classic Film Actors, at a Very Young age!! Thankfully, My Grandmother Loved them, and so she took me to A LOT of Classic Movies that were still shown (late ‘60s-mid-‘70s), at a local movie theater!! We Especially Loved MGM, Musicals, “An American in Paris,” “Singin’ in the Rain,” My Fave,….“The Wizard of Oz,” seeing as we hadn’t Yet seen “Dorothy,” “Scarecrow”, “Tin Man,”. We saw My Grandmother’s Fave, “The Sound of Music,”( ‘65), when I was about 6 or 7!!
    “Lion,”….”The Wiz O’ Oz,”….and All the Rest,”…
    “TCM,” (“Turner Classic Movies”), with Film Expert/Critic/Writer for “The Hollywood Reporter”, and Good Friend to Many Classic Stars, the Incomparable Robert Osborne, as Wonderful Host, didn’t start airing Classics till 1994, but before that, there was TBS- (Turner Broadcasting System), and TNT (“Turner Network Tele.”),…At that time, Also part of the Ted Turner Companies, showed classics!!
    Before true Cable TV came out, some local stations, (Boston Area), aired Classic Movies, and on Sunday AMs, “Abbot & Costello,” movies!!

  2. Glad you’re figuring this out now. Here’s a few others with good female characters, Rebecca, Laura, All About Eve. And with male characters, The Maltese Falcon, Destry Rides Again, Stagecoach. Comedies, Bringing up Baby, The Thin Man, oh hell there’s just so many good movies out there, read about 1939, the best film year ever.

  3. If you’re now getting into these movies then you’re in for a huge treat. I’m particularly fond on the films from the 30’s and 40’s when the Hollywood studio system ruled the world. I literally grew up on these films as they were a staple of local TV stations growing up. Hollywood has been dead since the late 90’s in my opinion and could never equal the output and star-power of this era. Movies were made for adults with adult dialogue unlike today’s fascination with Marvel super hero films.

June 2022
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