Classic Cinema: The Pre-War Trinity


HOLLYWOOD is arguably entering a second golden age thanks to the advent of CGI technology.

Whereas the dawn of sound in the 1920s, and then colour film in the 1930s, heralded the first golden age, so too new tech is turning the movie industry on its head. Titanic (1997), or arguably Jurassic Park (1993) were probably among the first movies to use the digital CGI technique with aplomb.

Such wizardry wasn’t available in the 1930s, but, again, audiences not knowing any better were probably just as thrilled with what they saw.

Those who remember seeing Bjorn Borg and thinking he was the greatest tennis players ever, might now think the likes of Rafa Nadal and co. could wipe him off the court.

But in terms of sheer spectacle, each generation throws up its own geniuses; a bit like a wave on the ocean, each age only sees its own ‘breaker’; but there’s always a big ocean of wannabees right behind. 

The immediate pre-war years produced a clutch of the finest films cinema had seen and in spectacular colour: namely The Wizard of Oz (1939), The Adventures of Robin Hood (1938), AND Gone With the Wind (1939), which all made use of the glories of the new colour process - and how.

The top grossing film of 1938 in America was Alexander’s Ragtime Band with Tyrone Power, Don Ameche and Alice Faye, but the memory of such pales compared to the classic trinity which focussed on the sheer lustre of the technicolour process.

Sherwood Forest’s greenwood (albeit a back lot in California not Nottingham) never looked more idyllic, with blue skies and green sward; Kansas/Oz never looked more lustrous – who can forget the scene when Dorothy pulls back the door of her previously black-and-white bedroom to the glorious technicolour vista of Oz; and Gone with the Wind had those wonderful big skies and sunsets above Georgia.   

All three are perhaps significant as they placed immense emphasis on both the use of colour – richly so – and music. Robin Hood has its romping style, Oz has its classic tunes, and Gone With the Wind has its infamous score.

The Adventures of Robin Hood came fourth in the list in 1938 (with a cheery Flynn and the radiant Olivia DeHavilland) and is just as memorable for the performances of Claude Rains and Basil Rathbone, who sneer marvellously throughout.

Apart from being a thoroughly enjoyable romp, with superb orchestration, the script has a certain quaint charm. Perhaps the screenplay writers were trying to evoke ‘merrie’ England in their dialogue, but Rains’ and Rathbone’s rhetoric is something else.

“Such impudence must support a hearty appetite,” sneers Rains when confronting Flynn for the first time, watching him gnaw a leg of the Royal deer he has just brought to Nottingham Castle, draped across his shoulders.

On spotting Friar Tuck, Flynn remarks to a chortling Little John: ‘There’s a lusty infant” before being knocked into the water for his cheek. Flynn can only respond in a trade mark way – engaging in a triple staccato laugh: “HA……HA-HA…….HA-HA-HA-HA…” to which all the ‘Merrie Men’, hidden behind a bush watching the spectacle, guffaw with equal mirth  - before being tossed another leg of meat.

Perhaps it’s a stylistic thing, but Flynn’s cut glass English accent – he was Tasmanian born – never seems more pronounced.

Leading Marion through the Greenwood, guiding her into a shady glade, he shows her the objects of Prince John’s brutality.

“Once these people were all happy and contented. Just simple villagers who never harmed a soul. And now – tortured, eyes put out, tongues slit, ears hacked off’ (slightly reminiscent of the ‘Brave Sir Robin’ scene in ‘Monty Python and the Holy Grail’). 

To which Flynn adds: ’I’m sorry to have to show you that…’ in a Miles-Cholmondley-Warner style accent. Marion looks away into the breeze, recognising that there might be more than the issue of the classless society at stake.

Perhaps it’s the sheer gusto of Robin Hood that makes it my favourite.  Rathbone and Flynn had only just starred in the classic 1938 film The Dawn Patrol, with a sparkling Flynn-Niven combo (ripe for a remake), and Rathbone himself had scored a huge hit in 1938 with The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes, 20th-C Fox’s big screen take on the Baker Street stories. But these latter films were in black and white.

1939 – the year before Hitler and WWII - which an old contact of mine once called euphemistically ‘the late unpleasantness’  - would see a raft of classic films.

Mr Smith Goes To Washington, Dodge City (again with Flynn and DeHavilland), Goodbye Mr Chips, The Wizard of Oz, The Hunchback of Notre Dame, Ninotchka, and Destry Rides Again would all feature in the top 20 at the US box office.

But Gone With the Wind would eclipse them all – as for many, it still does today, certainly in terms of revenue.

On a budget of around $4m it would go on to make over $390m making it – still – the highest grossing film of all time, adjusted for inflation, topping Star Wars, Harry Potter and all the rest.

The war years would produce their Casablancas, Citizen Kanes and other classics, but for sheer richness of production, 1938-9 mined arguably the most lucrative  - and colourful - film seam in the long history of Hollywood.