Reviewing classic films has always presented a challenge. How do you discuss a film’s timelessness, when its place in time is so important? How can you discuss elements or tropes that are now clichéd, when they were often stunningly original at the time? Raising all these questions and more is Margaret Pomeranz’s Hollywood Retro Film Festival, screening now at Cinema Nova. Showing an incredible selection of films from the Golden Age of Hollywood, the Retro Film Festival provides us with a fascinating insight into a growing industry and a handy yardstick to examine the films of today.
First on the bill is On the Waterfront, the 1954 Elia Kazan crime noir film that delves into the seedy underworld of the docks and the mob’s infiltration of waterfront unions. In the film, Terry Malloy (Marlon Brando) develops from mob patsy into the David to mobster Johnny Friendly’s Goliath, eventually being forced to decide between what is easy and what is right. It’s a story we’ve seen countless times on the silver screen, and it’s this film that we have to thank for that. The characters in On the Waterfront are ones that we’ve seen many times since – Terry is a former boxer-turned-mob lackey who begins to question his loyalties when he meets Edie Doyle (Eva Marie Saint) the sister of one of the mob’s victims. There’s his brother, the mob accountant, who’s trying to get Terry to toe the mob line, and the priest who is fighting on the side of good to bring the mob down and restore justice to the unions.
It’s unfair to blame the original for its copies, but it does reduce the enjoyment of the film when you know how the whole 108 minutes is going to play out after seeing the first ten. That said, the acting is impeccable – Brando picked up an Academy Award for his performance, and Eva Marie Saint earned one for her portrayal of Edie Doyle, the woman who teaches Terry to fight for what is right. Unfortunately the film has not aged as well as some of the others on the Retro Film Festival’s bill, but it still serves as an interesting milestone in the journey of American cinema.
On the other hand, Joseph L. Maniewicz’s All About Eve (1950), is still a masterpiece of satire and social commentary. Unlike On the Waterfront‘s two-dimensional, clichéd Edie Doyle, the women in All About Eve are complicated, interesting and different from each other, and each actress plays her part to perfection. Centred around a group of friends in the New York theatre scene, the film deftly exposes the backstabbing, power plays and social climbing that play out behind the scenes, joyfully illuminating the theatre scene’s backstage dramas.
Bette Davis does a hilarious and heart-wrenching job of portraying an actress struggling with ageing in an industry that prizes youth; Anne Baxter portrays her younger, overly invested fan (the titular Eve) with depth and nuance; and Celeste Holm and Thelma Ritter help to drive the plot forward with grace and skill. In All About Eve it is the male characters that are secondary, there to drive the plot occasionally but mostly providing backdrop to the struggles of the women. George Sanders’ Addison DeWitt is the one exception; the final act of the film is driven by his actions (often in very uncomfortable ways), and Sanders picked up a Best Supporting Actor Oscar for his efforts.
All About Eve is the only film to ever receive four female Academy Award nominations for acting, and it scooped up six other Oscars in other categories including Best Director and Best Screenplay.
The film is also a beautiful snapshot of its time: the story covers the move from theatre to Hollywood, discussing with candidness and accuracy the changing landscape of storytelling in post-war America. In doing so the film artfully negotiates the boundaries between stage and screen – it is a movie about theatre, staged like a play but shot on film, starring some of Hollywood’s big names playing theatre personalities talking about how toxic Hollywood is. Each of the characters is unique and interesting, and it was refreshing to see a film of any era discuss the challenges women face in the way that All About Eve does.
Both All About Eve and On the Waterfront provide a beautiful snapshot into 1950s filmmaking and storytelling, and are wonderful inclusions in the Hollywood Retro Film Festival. They serve as handy benchmarks to track the evolution of ideas, writing, and cinematic techniques over the last 60 years of Hollywood filmmaking and are well worth a watch – or a re-watch.
The Hollywood Retro Film Festival is running at Cinema Nova until the 7th of December. On the Waterfront screens 3rd, 5th, and 7th of December while All About Eve screens on the 4th of December. A full list of the films and screenings can be found at cinemanova.com.au/event-v4948.php