Hollywood, the world’s entertainment factory, has, for the past one hundred years, been producing films that have been enjoyed by audiences around the world. And in that time, a lot has changed, society, technology, fashions, tastes, and lifestyles, all of which Hollywood has continued to accommodate.
It’s come a long way from its humble beginnings in the days of melodramatic, black and white, silent films with somewhat crude production methods. Hollywood has evolved into something more sophisticated and streamlined. But with so much change in such a fast paced industry, have some genres fallen behind? Or is it the case that these too have simply evolved into something more sophisticated and subtle?
The musical is arguably the most uplifting and escapist genre to come out of the film factory. It’s also the cheesiest, too. But in a world where whole orchestras are hidden amongst the bushes and love at first sight is as common as the flu, it’s a forgivable necessity.
The genre emerged in 1928, after the introduction of sound in cinema, during which vast numbers of musicals were produced almost overnight to capitalise on the new found technology. Audiences flocked to see the films.
The musical was a genre popular during times of trouble. It arrived just in time, as the Depression went on the dominate the early part of the 1930s, during which plots focused on rags to riches stories, with actors such as Ruby Keeler, made famous by 42nd Street, and dancing duo Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers.
The musical’s revival in the mid-forties would later be known as ‘the golden era’, as MGM’s Freed Unit produced them like never before in a new integrated style. Songs began contributing to the plot in a new rom-com formula, usually ending happily ever after.
Musicals became bigger, brighter and more outlandish, aided by stereophonic sound and stunning Technicolor, with hits such as Easter Parade, The Bandwagon and Singing In The Rain.
Sadly, as the end of the fifties approached, the musical began to give way to new genres, as the predictable plots, aging stars and the diminishing of the studio system marked the end of the musical reign over cinema.
The musical attempted numerous comebacks in later years, only in more experimental forms, incorporating elements of other genres popular at the time to appeal to modern audiences. One example is The Rocky Horror Picture Show, released in 1975.
But has the musical genre fallen behind? Has Hollywood left it for dead? Evidence suggests otherwise. If a genre could talk, the musical could be quoted as saying ‘I’ll be back’, as it keeps threatening to splutter back into life (although, in truth, it’s mainly one-off hits that we’re getting).
The success of Mamma Mia back in 2008 awakened audiences appetite for the genre (as Chicago had threatened to do years before), which has since reinvented itself to appeal to a modern audience. We’ve had sexier-style musicals, such as Moulin Rouge, and minor recent hits such as Burlesque (the Con Air of musicals) and Nine. Between them, they’ve shed the muscial’s unfashionable, dated stereotype.
Perhaps the future for the genre, if it is to be fully revived, is the hybrid musical, for example Tim Burton’s Sweeney Todd, which incorporated aspects of German Expressionism and horror, for an interesting twist. And I wouldn’t be surprised if a new Glee style of musical emerged within the next few years, as the US TV show has proven to be a hit with a teenage audience.
Throw in the planned remakes of Annie, South Pacific and A Star Is Born, and Hollywood is trying to breathe fresh life into the genre. It might just be, longer term, that the current trend for dance movies is the immediate future.
In 1940, an entirely new approach to filmmaking hit the cinema screens. Stranger On The Third Floor was dark and moody, with a heavy tone and forbidding atmosphere. Visually, it was like no other film before it, with stark low key lighting, and low camera shots.
It was to mark the birth of a new cutting edge genre called film noir. Film noirs were generally stylish, downbeat, crime dramas, again with roots in German Expressionism. They questioned morality, and toed the line of sexuality and motivation in cinema. They were daring films made on high-end, B-movie budgets, with little known stars and little funding.
This allowed creative freedom, which resulted in the genre’s distinctive style. Among the most notable work was that of cinematographer, John Alton, who was responsible for creating numerous iconic images now representative of the genre, such as those in The Big Combo, released in 1955.
Film noir was popularised in Britain in the 1940s. Largely black and white, the classic noirs featured gangsters, private eyes, victims, and femme fatales. The latter were women that were doomed from the moment the opening credits began.
Films such as Laura (1944), Out Of The Past (1947), The Big Heat (1953) and Sunset Boulevard (1950) proved popular with the masses. Actors such as Humphrey Bogart, Rita Hayworth, and Barbara Stanwyck all rose to fame.
As the genre entered the 1950s, it dropped the private eye role in exchange for more psychologically focused plots and became more exaggerated generally (Kiss Me Deadly).
Sadly, as the end of the 1950s approached, Hollywood’s ever-changing production conditions left noir’s once cutting edge visual style appearing dated and old hat. However, homages to the glory days of the genre continued to drip out of Hollywood in the form of neo-noir. These have been made by directors such as Martin Scorsese and more recently Quentin Tarantino.
But is film noir extinct? Pretty much. It’s sad that a genre so visually stunning, and so deep in terms of human emotion and behavior, has been all but forgotten by modern audiences. Thankfully, as a style, the genre has lived on, and will continue to do so.
Echoes of the glory days remain, inspiring and influencing movies so diverse in genres, such as Blade Runner, Memento, Insomnia, The Dark Knight, The Pledge, and more recently, Shutter Island.
Film noir as a style is now no longer limited to just crime drama, as its tentacles have spread elsewhere. Black Swan, for instance. The themes of that film include the psychological aspect, the light and dark contrast, and the questionable nature of who is the villain of piece. That’s a solid tip of the hat to a genre that had seemingly long since died.
Whether or not film noir was ever a genre or was simply a heavily used style has long since been debated by film critics. Even if the films themselves have moved on, though, we’ve been left with the stylistic ramifications. And that’s no bad thing.
During the early days of film, there was a lot of experimentation. Film was a brand new technology, with no set rule book at the time.
In 1920, a radical new visual style arrived in Germany, and we’ve touched on it a couple of times already. This new style was like nothing seen before, with highly stylised, wildly non-realistic geometric sets. Instead of using lighting, designers painted sets to represent light and dark areas, shadows and even props.
Expressionism focused on the dark fringes of human existence, using the set to create deeper meanings, and symbolising the genre’s themes of madness, insanity and betrayal.
Classic examples of the period include The Cabinet Of Dr Cagliari, The Golem, and the infamous Nosferatu.
Sadly, the genre only lasted a matter of years. By the early 1930s, the genre and its creators all headed into different directions. Its creators, with their newfound fame, headed to Hollywood, where their creative talents flourished. Many went on to have successful careers, such as cinematographer, Karl Freund, for instance, who was responsible for the 1931 adaptation of Dracula.
The genre and visual style itself was integrated into mainstream film. Universal Studios led the way, with its expressionist-style horror films, such as The Phantom Of The Opera. It also produced a whole new genre, the aforementioned film noir.
Although the genre never experienced a revival, later on some directors adopted an expressionist style in their films, most notably Alfred Hitchcock. The style is evident in every one of Hitchcock’s films. Even the infamous Psycho shower scene is inspired, as the shot of Bates’ shadow upon the shower curtain is reminiscent of the iconic Nosferatu scene, where the vampire’s shadow hangs over its victims.
In more recent years, director Tim Burton has flown the flag for expressionism, establishing what would become his signature style back in 1992 with Edward Scissorhands. The contrast between the candy-coloured town and Edward’s domain, coupled with the character of Edward himself, who could easily be compared to Dr Cagliari’s servant, all combine with the townspeople’s attitude towards ‘the freak’. And they’re lifted straight from the genre.
Burton’s Batman and Batman Returns also have strong expressionist links, as the menacing, angular Gotham City looms overhead, very much in the same way as the 1927 film Metropolis.
More recently, hits such as Sweeney Todd, and in particular, Alice In Wonderland, feature many aspects of the genre, from the contrast of light and dark (the white and red queen’s palaces) and the heavy use of symbolism. Black Swan, too, is certainly worthy of a mention, as the themes of madness, insanity, betrayal, and especially the ending of the film, are all reminiscent of a genre whose style, again, is still a strong presence in film today.
Perhaps expressionism was ahead of its time in the 1920s. Or perhaps, as with one or two others on this list, it’s ceased to become a distinct genre, and seeped into the language of film instead.
In the 1940s, war movies were dominating the silver screen. Beginning in 1915 with Birth Of A Nation, the genre has often been manipulated and used as propaganda during times of conflict.
The early days of the genre produced a variety of different style of war films, such as a comedy by Charlie Chaplin (Shoulder Arms, 1918), and, in the opposite direction, The Big Parade and What Price Glory? These latter two both looked at the futility of war, emphasising the horror of warfare.
During World War II, the genre experienced a boom in popularity. The films were largely propaganda, made to raise the spirits of civilians, with the movies often containing messages of vigilance and the importance of avoiding careless talk.
Mostly fictional stories, they were often made in a documentary style, for instance, In Which We Serve. Even after World War II ended, it was still used as a backdrop for high action and adventure films, occasionally interrupted by the release of real-life based films such as Dunkirk.
In the 1950s, as the physical scars of war began to heal, Hollywood turned to the psychological side of the conflict, producing films focusing on returning veterans and the emotional and physiological effects of combat. Produced in black and white, they portrayed the little known horrors of war, while a new subgenre called the POWs, prisoner of war films, portrayed both the horror of war while still retaining the patriotic spirit.
The new POWs proved popular in Britain, with hits such as The Great Escape and The Wooden Horse. It wasn’t until the Vietnam War that the genre moved back into mainstream cinema again, with a number of realistic anti-war films produced, after which MIAs (missing in action) were occasionally released throughout the 1980s, including Rambo: First Blood Part II in 1985.
Then the genre remained relatively peaceful until 1998, when Saving Private Ryan (and The Thin Red Line) sparked a new interest. Pearl Harbor followed a few years later. Since then, war has repeatedly been used as a backdrop for dramas and real-life events, including Atonement and Inglourious Basterds.
So, has the war genre got a future in Hollywood? As a consistent presence in cinema, more than likely not. At least, not unless there’s a high profile war to tell stories about.
Despite a few upcoming releases, such as Comrade, which is due for release next year and stars Rupert Grint, it’s doubtful the genre will make a huge comeback (although do expect war to provide a backdrop, such as in the recent Captain America).
That’s not to say that war movies won’t still be made. Just that their days as a mainstream Hollywood genre appear to have moved on.
The western sparks off memories of John Wayne, Clint Eastwood and even Back To The Future Part III. But actually, the western’s journey started way back in 1903, with the release of the Great Train Robbery, directed by Edwin S Porter.
But after the arrival of sound, the musicals took over, and it wasn’t until 1939 that the western returned with vengeance. It then hit the big time, with John Ford’s Stage Coach, starring John Wayne. This era would become known as the golden age of the western.
During this time, westerns developed from bad B-movies into complex, tension-filled high quality dramas such as Red River, The Searchers, and My Darling Clementine. The golden age of the western was epitomised by two directors, John Ford and Howard Hawks, both of whom used John Wayne as the hero. Their classic westerns were characterised by the importance of landscape, emphasised by colour, and their black and white outlook as to rights and wrongs.
By the 1960s, a new style of western began to take over, the spaghetti western. Established in Italy, these westerns had more action and violence than traditional genre pieces produced by Hollywood. The protagonists became more selfish, motivated more by money and revenge, as opposed to honour. The films made actors such as Clint Eastwood and James Coburn household names.
The spaghetti westerns had simple production values and were often made on a small budgets, the most iconic of all being The Good, The Bad & The Ugly.
However, by the 1980s, westerns had all but fallen out of favour with audiences. They were considered unfashionable and predictable. There were occasional pockets of revival, generally thanks to the passion for the genre of Kevin Costner (Dances With Wolves, the brilliant Open Range) and Clint Eastwood (Unforgiven). But the glory days were gone.
Since then, the genre has evolved. Like the musical, the western has had to become more than a sole genre, incorporating elements of different types of film to appeal to modern audiences
The recent film Rango, for instance, is, on one hand, a traditional western. The protagonist has to gain the respect and honour of the town and prove his worth. Yet, on the other, it’s adopted a new animated style to appeal to a younger audience. The injection of comedy is also a nice touch, and steered the film away from the serious tone of the classic westerns, while utilising the necessary motifs and characters to produce a brilliantly up-to-date modern take on the genre.
The polar opposite of Rango is the recent new take on True Grit, a film that follows the conventions of a contemporary western, which tend to focus less on the backdrop, and more so on displaced characters with outdated brands of justice and rebellious anti-heroes. It can also be compared to a drama, as Mattie, the protagonist, goes on a journey, upon which she grows up and discovers more about life.
There’s an argument that you’ll find western themes in The Guard, the Irish comedy-drama starring Brendon Gleeson. And blockbuster mash-up Cowboys & Aliens shows that there’s still some enthusiasm for the genre.
As a mainstream genre, though, the western is long gone. And that leaves, instead, the feeling that, when one does come along, it’s more of a novelty.
The mockumentary is by far one of the most niche genres in film, one rarely seen in cinema. The genre is a parody of documentaries, and despite the term being coined in the mid-1960, mockumentaries actually began life as a Panorama episode, back in 1957.
It wasn’t until the 1960s that the genre reached the silver screen, starting with David Holzman’s Diary released in 1967. After that, we had the likes of Woody Allen’s Take the Money And Run, and The Rutles, a parody of the 1964 Beatles film, A Hard Day’s Night, which followed the ‘PreFab Four’.
The genre enjoyed much attention in the 1980s, with Christopher Guest very much at the heart of it. He starred in Rob Reiner’s exquisite This Is Spinal Tap, before going on to direct the massively underrated Waiting For Guffman, along with Best In Show and A Mighty Wind. All of these were critical successes, although not box office hits.
It wasn’t just Christopher Guest at work in the genre, though. In 1983, Woody Allen returned to the genre with Zelig, a satire about a ‘human chameleon’, played by Allen himself, who rises to fame for his ability to transform himself into anyone near him. (It’s a film that’s effectively a forerunner to Forrest Gump.) The film was critically acclaimed, and won a few awards, too.
During the 1990s, the genre largely disappeared from mainstream cinema, until the release of Borat in 2006 (although the sort of follow-up, Bruno, didn’t enjoy anywhere near the same level of success). On television, though, the genre was enjoying, perhaps, a more natural home, with the likes of The Office, Marion And Jeff and Summer Heights High.
Sadly, though, it looks as though the mockumentary has fallen by the wayside in terms of Hollywood. Instead, the genre’s future appears to be in television, and recent hits such as Come Fly With Me and Angry Boys seem to prove that the mockumentary is better off where it started. The style and subject matter of the genre is much more suited to television, and never really fitted in with modern Hollywood, where smaller films struggle to flourish.
That said, Hollywood’s loss is television’s gain…