Our cable TV set-up in Maine isn’t quite as . . . robust as our arrangement in Columbus. We don’t have Roku, or Netflix, or a lot of the other on-demand options, and many of the channels offer only pay-per-view movies. If you’re in the mood for TV watching rather than reading your current book, the choices are a bit limited.
Fortunately for us, one of the options is Turner Classic Movies on demand. This summer, we’ve been catching up on some old movies, and it has been a real pleasure.
Our practice is to go to the TCM channel, scan through the menu of movies that are available for viewing, and pick whatever strikes our fancy. We’ve gone on a mini-Spencer Tracy marathon, watching Captains Courageous, Adam’s Rib, and Father of the Bride. We’ve screened High Sierra and Spartacus and The Magnificent Seven and 2001 and a weird western called Three Godfathers about would-be bank robbers who help deliver the baby of a dying woman and then get the baby to safety. And on Sunday night we watched The Thin Man, the classic William Powell-Myrna Loy vehicle that was so popular with audiences that it produced five sequels. And we’ve enjoyed them all.
Our prevailing reaction after our summer of vintage cinema has been: they don’t make them like they used to. Of course, TCM isn’t listing the Ed Wood catalog or the other dogs of the ’30s, ’40s, and ’50s, so comparing the TCM offerings on any given night to what might be available on HBO On Demand isn’t really a fair comparison . . . but TCM regularly offers more movies that we’re interested in seeing. You can’t help but notice some key differences. No superhero movies. No hyperviolent movies, or movies with lots of computer-generated scenes or explosions or extended car chases or lots of overt sex scenes. Instead, the older films tend to feature simple stories and plots that are character-driven, letting the cast carry the load.
The Thin Man is a good example. Although the story arc is about whether a reluctant detective can solve a series of murders, the plot is almost an after-thought: the film is really about the obvious and enjoyable chemistry between Nick and Nora Charles (William Powell and Myrna Loy), their dog Asta, and their cocktail-drinking, high-living, formal dinner party hosting lifestyle and relaxed, bantering, funny, and obviously deeply loving relationship. We don’t really care much about who committed the murders, because we’re fascinated by how many cocktails Nick can imbibe, Nora’s wardrobe, and their delightful repartee.
When human interactions can carry the story, there’s no need for explosions or robots or superheroics to keep the audience entertained. Perhaps modern moviegoers just don’t have the patience or appetite for movies like The Thin Man anymore. It’s too bad. In years to come, though, I expect people will continue to enjoy movies from Hollywood’s golden era. Will they still be watching Transformers remakes, too?