Thursday, May 7, 2015

1930's films that look like 1950's films

If you had shown me The Adventures of Robin Hood without telling me anything about it, and I didn't know the approximate ages of the actors or the date of its release, I would have placed the movie sometime in the 1950s.

Nope. It came out in 1938.

It's another reminder of just how rapidly film capabilities progressed in the 1930s. At the start of the decade, there had only been a comparatively small number of films that had even been made with spoken dialogue. By the end of the decade, Hollywood was capable of sweeping, brightly colored epics like this one.

It's not that the year 1938 itself strikes me as too early for a color film, though Robin Hood was the first film Warner Brothers made using this particular color technique (the "three-step Technicolor process"). Only a year later, The Wizard of Oz famously used color in the Oz sequences, and of course Gone With the Wind was also in color, becoming the first color movie to win best picture in 1939.

But the following is telling about how new color was: When I googled "what was the first color movie," I got a bunch of people responding that it was, indeed, The Wizard of Oz. The Adventures of Robin Hood came out a year before that, and it doesn't even feel like it is just taking the tepid first steps into color filmmaking. It appears to be a fully mature epic, so assured in its style and production design that I thought it could have been made 15 years later than it actually was.

Simply put, this film is an absolute delight. I don't know how I can say it any better. It is a rousing crowd-pleaser full of busy action scenes, surprisingly sophisticated stunts, hissable villains and charming heroes. It is constructed in episodic enough fashion for individual moments to stand out as set pieces, but with enough cohesion to contribute to a central narrative thrust. It has an immensely satisfying climax and even effectively uses comedy to make us laugh.

Could this be the earliest ever blueprint for the modern blockbuster?

Without having seen a lot more movies from that era than I've seen, I can't assert that argument with any confidence. However, it feels like a sample of perfection in a type of filmmaking that was pretty new in most respects -- kind of like Pixar coming directly on the scene with its best movie, Toy Story.

Another thing that makes it seems a bit more modern: Its star, Olivia de Havilland, is still alive.

That's right, the actress known in recent years for her bizarre, decades-long feud with her recently deceased sister, Joan Fontaine, will turn 99 in less than two months. (If she makes it that far, of course -- at this age, any two-month period is likely to be the last two months of a person's life, I suppose.) It's just funny to think that the romantic lead in a movie made the year before my dad was born would still be going -- well, strong may not be the right word for it, but you get what I mean. Especially since her co-star, Errol Flynn, has been dead since 1959.

Anyway, very glad to finally check this one off my list. It's not like I had resisted numerous opportunities to watch The Adventures of Robin Hood, but I think part of me expected to see people running around in black and white in front of flimsy sets. I couldn't have imagined the scope and grandeur of this epic.

Now I also know why everyone thinks Flynn was so damn charming and, far and away, the definitive cinematic Robin Hood.


Hannah K said...

I haven't seen this movie in several years, but we have MANY home movies of my now-26-year-old, then-4-year-old brother running around sword fighting us because he was Robin Hood and we were "Guy Gisborne." It was his favorite movie for four or five years, but I didn't truly appreciate it until I finally saw it as an adult. So delightful.

Derek Armstrong said...

Awesome story. I love that this movie appealed to a 4-year-old in 1993. I wish I'd seen it when I was four.

Jandy said...

Nailed it! This is one I always recommend to people trying to get their kids into classic film. Or, like, trying to get other adults into classic film.

Derek Armstrong said...

Thanks Jandy! Indeed, I cherish it. My only complaint was that I started it late one night so I did have to watch it in two sittings. Fortunately, I am quite certain this will not be my only viewing.