IMDb lets you just call up a list of what movies came out in any given year. It’s informative on several levels. For one, wow, there’s a lot of movies that come out in any given year. Yeah, it includes shorts and all sorts of movies that only played in two theatres and someone’s back yard. Still, you’re looking at literally thousands of movies. And the thing that you will universally discover about those thousands of movies, no matter what year you’re looking at, is that a lot of them will suck. However, any time you bring this up in a conversation about how modern movies suck, someone will tell you that this somehow doesn’t count and that you’re somehow wrong.
Take it from me—you’re not. I won’t try to tell you that the state of Hollywood hasn’t changed at all; there have been some really quite interesting changes over the years. On the other hand, by and large, these things have stayed the same. There have always been big-budget movies that took attention away from smaller, more interesting films. There have always been big-budget franchises and remakes and adaptations. And people have, when given the chance, always as a group been more interested in big-budget fare and dumb comedies than it what we now think of as arthouse films.
I have to admit, my go-to example when it comes to franchises is “the Mexican Spitfire,” a character named Carmelita Lindsay played by Lupe Velez in eight movies from 1939 to 1943. I can’t tell you how much the movies made, but they did well enough so that there actually were eight of them in a very short time. Alas, I haven’t seen any of them, so I can’t tell you if they’re any good or not. The name suggests that they are not in that early-talkies racist kind of way.
But okay, you want something I’ve seen some of? Try Andy Hardy. Eighteen movies from 1937 to 1946, plus an attempt at a revival in 1958. In the one I’ve seen, they go out West and save a ranch from evil developers. It’s not good, and it made Mickey Rooney the top box office draw in 1939 and 1940.
You want expensive blockbusters? The Elizabeth Taylor Cleopatra has only just fallen out of the list of the most expensive movies ever made, not adjusted for inflation; it held the record for fifteen years and stayed high on the list until quite recently. Adjusted for inflation, it’s still number eighteen. I grant you the turnover at the top of the list is speeding up, but honestly, it’s worth noting that actors get more and more expensive. Okay, so Mickey Rooney made the equivalent of about $36,000 a week for The Courtship of Andy Hardy in 1942, but he also made three features in 1942, so they couldn’t have spent all that long filming any one of them.
Franchises at the Oscars? For one thing, that doesn’t happen now as often as people seem to think. But you know, After the Thin Man was nominated for Best Screenplay in 1936. This year, franchises were limited to technical categories—and didn’t win any Oscars in any category, given that Big Hero 6, while a Marvel property, is not officially part of the Marvel Cinematic Universe. (After the Thin Man lost to a biopic about Louis Pasteur, for what it’s worth, and the original lost all four of its nominations to It Happened One Night.) The only franchise to have done well at the Oscars at all, as far as I can tell, is Lord of the Rings. The Hobbit didn’t win any.
In 1939, there were ten nominees for Best Picture; one does not appear to have been based on a preexisting work. Neither Wuthering Heights nor The Wizard of Oz were even the first film adaptation of the source material. This happens. This happens a lot. And we don’t talk about it.
Why not? I think because the average person these days hasn’t ever heard of Francis, the Talking Mule. (Seven movies from 1950 to 1956.) They want a movie from 1950, and they’re likely thinking Sunset Boulevard or All About Eve. Or Cinderella. (The first movie adaptation of “Cinderella” is from 1898, and there have been over a hundred since.) They don’t remember Silver Raiders, with Whip Wilson. Because who has heard of Whip Wilson, who made twenty-six movies from 1946 to 1955, mostly playing Whip Wilson.
Okay, I’ve been told, but it’s not like these things dominated the film market. Actually, though, they totally did. For one thing, the studios basically controlled what theatres would play until 1949; they owned many of the theatres, and they often controlled ones they didn’t own. If you lived in a town with an MGM theatre, you watched MGM pictures. The two they chose to show, the A-picture and the B-picture. If you were lucky, you’d live in a town with more than one theatre, owned by more than one studio. We go to the movies less often, but the number of screens we have access to has skyrocketed. We also have choices of streaming and Netflix and cable and illegal downloading—we can watch pretty much whatever the hell we want to, and our grandparents and parents couldn’t.
I’m not sure we can imagine it anymore, any more than a friend’s daughter could, when she was seven, imagine a world without iPods. She literally accused her mother of lying to her, presumably to make her childhood sound more deprived.
In fifty years, will our grandchildren remember Paul Blart: Mall Cop 2? We can only hope not. I’m hoping to forget its existence as soon as possible. We, the sort of people who read and write about film, don’t remember most of the movies that came out in our grandparents’ day, even most of the major box office successes. Have you gone prowling through the Academy’s database of nominees, only to be astonished by how many films in major categories you’ve never heard of? I have. There are winners I only know because they beat films I care about.
It strikes me as foolish to attempt to predict what films from this year will be remembered and discussed in fifty years. Probably the Pixars, because good kids’ movies tend to hold on. Beyond that, well, we’ll see. Or our grandchildren will. What I will predict is that, in fifty years, if my grandchild tries to convince someone that the state of franchises, blockbusters, and adaptations is, in many ways, the same as it ever was, that person will argue and still be wrong.