I am a hardcore movie fan. I love old movies, new movies, good movies, and bad movies. All genres except horror (I’m a scaredy cat.) Though paradoxically I do love a juicy true crime. I am also a Hollywood fan, the old Hollywood of the studio system, big glamorous stars and big intriguing stories for the big screen. No matter what kind of stories you write: novels, screenplays, comics, and even non-fiction, I encourage you to be inspired by old movies. These films built our cultural story sense and understanding of genre. Knowing a bit of old Hollywood history helps your story foundation.
Past is Present: Old Hollywood Relevance
In one of my favorite stories, a starlet was making the audition rounds. Everyone (agents, casting directors, and directors) kept telling her she looked like a young Natalie Wood . Not only did she not know who Natalie Wood was, she didn’t bother to watch any of her movies. Yikes! Did you know that Robert Redford named the Sundance Film Festival after one of his favorite roles, in Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid (1969)? Or that Adam Sandler’s Just Go With It (2011) was a remake of the much funnier Cactus Flower (1969) for which Goldie Hawn won an Academy Award?
Once Upon a Time in Hollywood
I have 1969 Hollywood history on the brain because I finally watched Quentin Tarantino’s latest film Once Upon a Time in Hollywood (2019), which is set in 1969 and follows an actor whose career is fading (Leonardo DiCaprio) and his best friend and stunt double (Brad Pitt). And Leo just happens to be living next to Sharon Tate , an actress who is most famous for being murdered by four members of the Charles Manson Family in 1969. Despite touching on a terrible event, the movie is a love letter to 1960s Hollywood when TV had come into its own and the movies were going through big growing pains as the studio system finally died and hippie counterculture became mainstream.
Just like in 1969, the entertainment industry is going through another transition. Movie attendance continues to dwindle and the studios are making fewer and fewer movies that they’re releasing theatrically. Streamers are fighting to see which ones will survive and less and less people are watching broadcast television.
The only constant in life is change. It’s a cliché because it’s true. As creative people, it is easy to hunker down and try to hold on to the systems of the past that have worked for us. But part of creativity is innovation, and as storytellers we should always be ready to adapt and pivot. Because the one thing that never changes is people’s hunger for a well told, entertaining story.
Don’t worry. Story is not going away. Just like books didn’t replace campfire stories, movies didn’t replace live theater. And TV didn’t kill the movies. Remember when we thought radio plays were dead? Podcasting is just radio on demand. The more things change, the more they stay the same. In fact, the streaming wars have made audiences even hungrier for good stories and good content. Now people regularly binge stories hours at a time.
Old Hollywood: Watch, Listen, & Learn
If you would like to watch more old movies, the American Film Institute has a bunch of “greatest” lists in every genre.
A good place to start is Singing in the Rain , which is about the panic in Hollywood when talking movies started and how stars and studios adapted. As modern creators, it is fun and inspiring to see people freaking out about new storytelling technology. Singing in the Rain is also considered one of the best musicals ever made.
You Must Remember This is a wonderful podcast dedicated to exploring the secret and/or forgotten histories of Hollywood’s first century. The podcast is written and narrated by film critic/historian Karina Longworth. I’m hooked on this Hollywood history podcast! I stumbled on it when I was looking up some information about the Manson murders after watching Once Upon a Time in Hollywood. I binged in two days the 12 part season Charles Manson’s Hollywood. Karina is a wonderful writer and speaker, really bringing the stories to life. Other seasons cover things like Famous Dead Blondes and the history of MGM. I can’t wait to listen to the rest of the backlist.
Another Movie About Writing
Last weekend I watched See How the Run which came out earlier this year. All I knew about it was it was a period British murder mystery set around a stage play. I was pleased to find out it is a fictional murder mystery set around the real Agatha Christie play The Mousetrap. Even though it takes place in 1953 London, it is feels like a movie about old Hollywood because we see all the drama around turning a hit play into a movie, including the writer fighting with the director about the script. Even more fun, the murder mystery is full of Agatha Christie tropes that connect to the play. Fun fact: The Mousetrap has been playing in the West End of London without interruption (with the exception of the lockdowns) since 1953.
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