Defining genre represents a much more complicated idea than it might seem on the surface. The French definition of genre is simply “kind” or “sort”, while the Latin approximation places it around the neighborhood of “class”. Initially, the formal Greek classical academic conception of genre as applied in a creative sense outlined the three segments, or genres, of literature as prose, poetry, and drama.
The more familiar modern interpretation of genre really begins at the subgenre level. When you think of “genre”, you’re more likely to think “comedy”, “action”, and so on. Still beyond that, within certain realms of academia and the critical community, “genre” takes on yet another connotation. That would be the notion that “genre” films are those forms that invite elements of the fantastic that are separated from conventional drama. Therefore, in some of those formal channels, the use of the phrase “genre film” would indicate science fiction, fantasy or even horror.
Being that Newsarama deals primarily with a field that’s mainstream (and frankly, much of its fringes) dwells in the confines of that last idea of genre, we thought that we’d look at that occasionally more-loved cousin of the comic, the cinema, and try to cast a net around what we considered to be the definitive genre films of the ‘30s, ‘40s, ‘50s, ’60s, and ‘70s.
Why those decades specifically? Well, to be honest, we’ll take a couple of swings at the ‘20s here in part one. And after the ‘70s and the arrival of Jaws and Star Wars, the “genre film” more or less graduated into the dominant summer movie form. Not that there hadn’t been big films of that nature before those years (far from it), but because it can be rightfully said that those films fundamentally altered the tenor of the business from that point forward. The “genre” came, in many ways, to represent the American mainstream, much in the way that comic-based films have supplanted, in many ways, the more traditional action films of summers gone by.
So let’s begin, in our estimation, a look at some of the finest genre films of all time. Let me note now: this list does not pretend to be complete or exhaustive. Feel free to post about the overlooked and the omitted, personal favorites and obscure gems in a friendly fashion.
A Brief Glimpse at The ‘20s: The German Trio and a Phantom
Metropolis (1927): There were other passes at science fiction before (notably the work of Georges Méliès from the late 1800s to 1913), but this is the first real true classic of the genre on film. Fritz Lang’s dystopian vision remains deeply, deeply influential, touching everything from Dark City to All-Star Squadron to Madonna’s video for “Express Yourself”.
The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari (1920): Widely imitated, this silent German expressionist masterpiece shaped the look of many things to come later, from film noir to horror films without number. The story, which might be about a somnambulist hypnotized into committing crimes, features some famous twists and some of the most innovative set designs ever seen.
Nosferatu (1922): This unauthorized silent adaptation of Dracula still resonates. The film established an alternative interpretation of how vampires might look that itself has been used many times (see, for example, the original TV version of ’Salem’s Lot). Perhaps its biggest contribution was the use of sunlight as a cinematic method of killing vampires. If you recall, Dracula appeared out during the day in at least one scene of the novel. Though some technical limitations blunt some of its effectiveness today, the pervasive atmosphere of dread is still well-realized.
Phantom of the Opera (1925): Primarily remembered today for the revelation of Lon Chaney Sr.’s skull-like visage, this one nevertheless helped anchor a tradition of actors undergoing physical transformation and grueling applications for roles.
Granted, in no way are we saying that these are the only great genre films of the ‘20s; they just happen to recur frequently in the conversation. You’ll notice that as we examine the ‘30s, there is a high quotient of films that actually cross genres. While several would be considered as belonging to the “horror” parent directory, so to speak, it’s quite obvious that films like Frankenstein, The Invisible Man, and others exist quite plainly in a realm of speculative fiction. Now, on with the countdown . . .
Great Genre Films of the ’30 (with a serial or two)
Frankenstein (1931): One of the caveats that I give my film students is the notion that most of the actors in these earlier films were stage-trained in a traditional manner. Therefore, nearly all of their acting is over-the-top in a way that works for live theatre but occasionally inspires snickers for savvy young movie audiences. They always get a few laughs out of some of those bits here and in Dracula. Regardless, James Whale’s Frankenstein is an indisputable classic. Much of the use of shadow and lighting echoes those earlier German expressionist films, and Karloff’s make-up and performance are unassailably iconic. The cemetery-opening still works wonderfully, and the windmill-climax launched countless imitators. For the changes wrought on the novel, it’s an effective (surprisingly brief) thriller that provides a foundation for the technically superior Bride.
Dracula (1931): Though occasionally hampered by very long takes and periods of dead silence that’s more distracting than atmospheric, Dracula stays vital due to the interpretation of Bela Lugosi. Much of the plot has lost its coherence in the changeover (adapted as it is from the play, which is adapted from the novel) as characters are shed, relationships are changed, and some things disappear entirely (seriously, where the hell did Lucy go?). Regardless, the film was a sensation of its time and has proven perennially popular. It cemented the vision of the aristocratic, romantic neck-biter for hundreds of novelists, directors, and rockers to follow.
Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde (1931): Hugely significant for two reasons; one is for the fact that Frederic March won the Best Actor Oscar for his portrayal of the dual role. He remained the only actor to win for a “horror” film until Anthony Hopkins did so for Silence of the Lambs. The second reason is the transformation sequence, a bravura bit of film-making for the time that remained a closely guarded secret for years. Viewers actually saw March transform on camera, a notion that was extremely unsettling to audiences of the time. This film was nearly lost in the ‘40s; when MGM did a remake, they destroyed many of the prints. Ironically, you can now purchase a DVD with both versions of the film. This one is far better, and more influential. Not only did the breakthrough transformation inspire sequences in Werewolf of London and The Wolf Man, the appearance of Hyde would set the standard used in pop culture. It’s fair to say that the look of Hyde in The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen and Van Helsing drew from this representation of the character.
Island of Lost Souls (1932): Lugosi again, and the first of three H.G. Wells appearances on our list. Lost Souls comes to use from the Wells classic The Island of Dr. Moreau. His scientific modification of animal into man would become a genre staple, as would the theme also pervasive in Frankenstein and Jekyll/Hyde that messing with the order of nature is a dangerous business. While Charles Laughton makes quite the impression as the mad doctor, a beastly Lugosi is just as memorable with his role as the “Sayer of the Law”. Island ran afoul of censors for depicting cruelty to animals, which was a code violation.
The Invisible Man (1933): Another Wells story, another fine directing job by James Whale, and another card in the Extraordinary Gentlemen deck. Though marketed at the time as something of a horror film, this is really straight sci-fi with a sinister edge. The titular character receives his powers from a formula he created, and like many formulas created by many screen scientists, it causes unforeseen problems. Champion effects (for the time) are a hallmark of this one, particularly as Claude Rains unwraps his trademark bandages. This is a good time all around, and Rains is particularly effective at making his crazed character into a much more sympathetic figure than he is in the novel.
King Kong (1933): Hail to the King, baby. Every once in a while, a film shows you something that you’ve absolutely never seen before. King Kong was like that for movie-goers of the ‘30s. Special effect genius Willis O’Brien had done dinosaurs onscreen before (in 1925’s The Lost World), but there had ever been any kind of central animated character in a live-action feature. Kong’s presence is vital to the film. More than that, Kong has character. He has a personality. And hey, giant ape vs. dinosaurs! In addition to the sterling stop-motion efforts, there are some incredible optical shots (including early rear-projection work); this was the “FX film” of its time. It also had an all-original score, which was quite the novelty. Though the effects are obviously dated by today’s standards, and certain elements of the plot and setting are uncomfortable by today’s more enlightened social attitudes, King Kong still works on any number of levels.
The Bride of Frankenstein (1935): A superior sequel, Bride takes everything that works about the first film and pushes it further. The acting and characterizations are better, the set designs (the tops of which seem to go on forever) are incredible, and there’s more urgency in the pacing. There are a lot of solid touches at the fringes, including Dr. Pretorius’s tiny creations. As he did for the first film, Jack Pierce again did Karloff’s make-up and created the appearance of the Bride. To my mind, this film also introduces the recurring science fiction/adventure device of having an unprotected lever in plain sight that will destroy your lab/base/headquarters. Imagine the damage that unsuspecting cleaning persons have done to the mad scientist community.
Flash Gordon (1936; serial and film edit) Flash, ah-ahhhhhhhhh! Well, not quite yet. Olympic swimmer Buster Crabbe seals some screen immortality with his portrayal of the hero, who first appeared in the legendary Alex Raymond comic strip. There’s a lot of irony inherent in the history; Flash was created as a response to the successful Buck Rogers strip, but Flash made it to the screen first. When Buck did get his own serial, Buster Crabbe played that character (and Tarzan!) as well (a situation tantamount to having the same actor play Superman, Batman, and Captain America, I would think). Some pop culture theorists liken elements of the plot to The Odyssey or Sigfried, but one of the true defining characteristics of the strip and the serial is the incorporation of wildly different locations and alien races (including the Lion, Shark, and Hawkmen). And of course, there’s Charles Middleton as Ming the Merciless. The thirteen part serial was later edited into a film for theatrical presentation; it was also followed by two sequel serials starring Crabbe, Flash Gordon’s Trip to Mars (1938) and Flash Gordon Conquers the Universe (1940).
Things to Come (1936): A lot of people mistakenly pigeon-hole H.G. Wells to an earlier time period in their minds, but the fact is that Wells actually wrote the script to this film based on his own novel (The Shape of Things to Come). The things that are so interesting about that work and the film are the fairly prophetic speculations on world war, weapons of mass destruction, resistance to technology, fear of global government, and other pertinent issues. On the light pop culture side, the government of the “new world” begins in Basra, Iraq; while there’s some dark irony in that, given the world climate, Lost fans will recognize the use of Basra as a reference to that show’s own seekers of utopia. As a technical entity, Things is primarily remembered for its set design, though it’s certainly interesting to see the formidable mind of Wells at work on the screen via his own script.
Snow White and the Seven Dwarves (1938): Okay, so maybe it doesn’t have traditional rock-out-loud “geek appeal”, but it’s an inarguable classic. It was Disney’s first full-length film, and it was the first full-length color animated film (with optical sound!). It was also briefly the biggest grossing film in U.S. history (eclipsed in ’39 by Gone with the Wind). You all know the story, and you all know that dwarves, witches, and intelligent animal companions pretty much qualifies as “fantasy” in addition to “fairy tale”. One of the great things about the film is the frank depiction of some of the darker elements of the plot, notably the Queen’s orders to the huntsman and the Queen’s transformation. Honestly, how many nightmares did that inspire? Regardless, remember: Beautiful animation, some great music (particularly “Heigh-Ho”, which contributed to my favorite scene in Gremlins), and the authority of being truly groundbreaking all make this a must. (Note: Some sources indicate that this is a 1937 picture because the premiere was in late December of ’37; actual release did not occur until February of ’38).
The Wizard of Oz: (1939): Certainly the most entertaining allegory about the gold standard ever filmed, The Wizard of Oz is part of a proud lineage of fantastic films that people expected to fail. Not only was it marginally profitable and frequently nominated for awards, it became an institution (and very profitable) as its reputation grew over the years. A staggeringly influential film, Oz references or homages can be discerned in the works of such diverse talents as Stephen King, John Woo, and David Lynch. At heart, a simple quest motif embedded with moral “believe in yourself” lessons, the film distinguished itself immediately with its clean break between the sepia “real world” and the Technicolor fantasy land. (Note: You’re not crazy; what you saw on TV as a kid was black and white; at the film’s restoration for its 50-year anniversary, the sepia seen in theatres was reapplied. Beginning in 1990, the sepia version began to run on TV as well). Other enormously appealing things about Oz: its collection of companions, Margaret Hamilton’s brilliance as the Witch, and flying freaking monkeys.
Buck Rogers (1939 serial): Buster Crabbe again as part of his pop culture troika. This also led to one of the greatest pop references of all-time. In the ‘80s Buck Rogers TV series (in the episode “Planet of the Slave Girls Part 2”), an aging pilot saved Buck (Gil Gerard) during a space battle. That pilot? Buster Crabbe! His character’s name? Brigadier Gordon. Flippin’ awesome; all that, plus Twiki piloting and Jack Palance villainy! See it here: http://www.fancast.com/tv/Buck-Rogers-in-the-25th-Century/88776/681143399/Planet-of-the-Slave-Girls-Part-2/videos (at 41:15 and 43:29).
The Phantom Empire (1935 serial) Singing cowboy Gene Autry versus denizens of an underground civilization in this Western/musical/sci-fi hybrid. The name is the obvious inspiration for Episode I, but don’t hold that against it.
Undersea Kingdom (1936 serial): Though it was mocked on MST3K in the day, this one is still a lot of fun. It’s Buck Rogers with added water.
There you have it, our opening look at genre films. Feel free to continue the discussions below; next time, the ‘40s!