Curator Dwight Blocker Bowers on Hollywood and history, part II

Editor’s note: Beginning February 4, the museum, in partnership with Warner Bros. Studios, will bring quintessential American movies to the public with four classic film festivals. (Admission is free and seating is first come, first served.) Dwight Blocker Bowers, director of Warner Bros. Festivals of classic Hollywood films and curator of Entertainment Collections, sat down with Sarah Emerson of the Office of Public Affairs and shared his thoughts about definitive films, Hollywood icons, and the significance of the cinema in American history. This is the second part of his interview.

Dwight Blocker Bowers
Dwight Blocker Bowers

Has the way we view movie stars changed from the time of Humphrey Bogart, in the 1940s and 50s, to today? Has there always been a somewhat salacious desire among the public to follow the lives of famous actors, or is that a seemingly recent development?

The public has always had a fascination with who they are looking at on the screen. Delving into the private lives of celebrities is largely the work of movie magazines and publicity agents. It’s much more salacious now in terms of what they reveal; what the movie stars themselves reveal. Movie stars in Bogart’s era would not reveal the same type of personal information. Now, stars’ lives are open books. They reveal more information and our interest is fed by that information. The information that was released in the 1940s was considerably different. We know far too much about the people we think we admire on the screen. The mystery is taken away and I think it diminishes them a bit. We don’t have the same reverence for bonafide stars as we did then. Being large on the big screen also made them seem large to us as big figures; as role models.

How were production studios, like Warner Bros. Studio, involved in the careers of actors and actresses?

To me, the virtue of Hollywood in the 1930s through the 1950s was that each actor that was under contract to a studio had a force behind them that developed how they looked—both on and off the screen—how they behaved, and how they spoke. Many profited from that partnership; those who rebelled against the system lost the opportunity of having a persona to purvey to an audience. What makes these films indelible is the certain personas on screen, and studios ensured that their actors had an identity. For example, when you see a Bette Davis film, no matter what character she’s playing, you see Bette Davis. I’m a great champion of the studio system; I really do think it is the reason why we have so many classic films coming from that era.

Black and white films exist as their own movie genre and, in an age of rapid technological advancement, continue to captivate the audience decades after their advent on the Silver Screen. What is it about the black and white movie that stands apart from other motion picture processes?

The texture of black and white films is unlike anything we see in many color films, or even black and white television, because of the lighting and accentuation of detail. I think audiences really appreciate the look and aesthetics of a black and white film. One of the interesting things we’ve learned through looking at movie costumes in our collections is that the costume designer on set was responsible for a lot of the lighting effects that appeared on screen. For example, a designer might have variegated the color or fabric of the lining on a dress to emphasize the study of lights and darks. We found this to be the case with a Ginger Rogers dress from the film, Follow the Fleet.

Throughout film history, what piece of cinema technology or innovation has been the most influential, in your opinion?

The innovation of sound has played a very large role in cinema history. On one hand, it limited the accessibility of these new films because, unlike silent film where you could simply change the title cards to another language, they were no longer available to just anyone. They no longer spoke to just anyone. On the other hand, sound was able to function as an integral part of film. Not just by listening to the characters speak or by hearing a sound effect, but by revolutionizing the industry and the way that audiences participated in the act of movie-watching.

Part I: Curator Dwight Blocker Bowers on Hollywood and history

Sarah Emerson is a fellow in the Office of Public Affairs.