When I was a kid in grade school I was able to go to Saturday movie matinees; and that was in the 1940’s. Living in a small city on the Canadian prairie during the Second World War there was nothing else available to me to see what the rest of the world was like. Those memories of matinee films stayed with me and I am sure influenced my work as a photographer some years later.
Being almost all black and white films the lighting of the subjects on-screen was a crucial part of the visual experience. And just by chance I recently became interested in films made before my time and found dozens from the 1930’s are available from NetFlix on DVD, a very affordable media for home entertainment. Even though the ’30’s was still early in motion picture history, the techniques and image quality is often as fine as you will see in contemporary films.
In the last couple of weeks I have seen about a dozen films from the 1930’s featuring stars that are still well known for what they accomplished on-screen. Some of the most outstanding include films with Marlene Dietrich directed by Josef von Sternberg beginning in the early 30’s and in 1934 with The Scarlet Empress a story of a young Prussian princess who was married to Peter III of Russia and soon learned the intricacies of Tsarist rule and took advantage to become Catherine II Empress of Russia. The large cast, ornate costuming and sets that replicate the Kremlin were an immense challenge to photograph and each scene is a lesson in masterful lighting as good as anything made today, and is easy to appreciate in black and white without the distraction of color. Plus now in America where women have yet to achieve full equality the story of Catherine II reminds us there have been great women everywhere throughout history.
The distinct style of Marlene Dietrich is unique to film history but there was a great variety of stars and films made also in France and America of course that are in NetFlix list of DVD’s. The American rage of Parisian entertainment, Josephine Baker best known for her dancing in nightclub revues was also a star of films like Zouzou directed by Marc Allegret which featured her superb acting abilities as well as a role as singer, and of course gorgeously exotic for those days. Films with Josephine Baker go back to 1927, although Zouzou was made in 1934.
We are more likely to think of Cecil B DeMille in terms of big American films about history, but in 1935 The Last Days of Pompeii with Preston Foster and a large cast of Hollywood actors and actresses told the story of the period before and at the time of the eruption of Vesuvius. It is another black and white spectacle on screen with masterful lighting of a demanding and extravagant set and equally varied scenes in the picture. One of the great advantages of these old films now on DVD, you can easily stop the film at any frame and capture a still, so you can study the lighting more acutely. With some setups that still can be saved and you will be surprised how well it will reproduce as a B&W print.
Could a photographer ask for anything more at the low cost of renting a NetFlix classic movie that’s full of lighting lessons that apply just as well as any current instruction for lighting even with digital photography?