Watching the Turner Classic Movies’ presentation of 1951’s blockbuster hit “A Place in the Sun,” with three other pre-war WW II-vintage friends, my own deconstructions of how the film had not aged all that well over the intervening fifty-eight years, raised some hackles with one of my fellow viewers. She had loved the movie in 1951, and did not appreciate hearing the ironic delight as we pointed out the now campy, corny and embarrassing aspects of the production.
Great art supposedly can transcend time, but a popular movie like “A Place in the Sun,” it picked up six Academy Awards, like almost all commercial art, ends up trapped within its context, within its moment. That’s not to say it’s not a good movie, maybe it’s a great movie, but whatever it is, it’s embedded irrevocably within the conventions, assumptions and the craft of movie-making as they existed in a time and a place. It is difficult to watch “A Place in the Sun” without being reminded constantly that it was made in Hollywood in 1951.
Think of the carpet-chewing performance by Raymond Burr as the prosecuting D.A., or of the sound track that telegraphs every emotional transition, and there’s the pre-feminist, pre-pill “American Tragedy” underlying the screenplay goes back to a 1906 novel. Best of all, try and look into the gorgeous gauzy face of a pre-Nicky Hilton Elizabeth Taylor without thinking of what’s yet to come in her life, or gaze upon the terminal handsomeness of a Montgomery Clift, and forget that he’s as yet still in the closet. It’s impossible to deny knowing all that’s been learned since 1951 and watch a movie like this in innocence. That doesn’t mean it can’t be enjoyed, but In its presentation, the picture is so heavily laden with its own time and place that it almost necessarily distracts current viewers in a way a well-made contemporary movie can’t; but certainly will, given enough time.
Watching old movies, and I do love to watch them, I am forced by the distance between then and now, to watch on multiple levels, something I don’t or can’t do with contemporary films because the distances are as yet too close. Old movies, movies removed from the zeitgeist of their making, no matter how good, nearly always become artifacts whose incidental details can overwhelm a later viewer from what the creators of the piece were trying to do. I am told that occasionally a movie becomes timeless. I wish I could think of even one, but I keep coming up empty.