Characteristics of Hollywood Classical Films


The Apartment epitomizes classical Hollywood cinema of the 1960s, which has evolved and given way to contemporary movies of the 1980s, such as Jerry Maguire and Sugar. Since 1917, the Hollywood film industry had followed a classical approach in line with American life, traditions, principles, and standards. Bordwell observed that films had a mystique appeal of beauty, craft and art, but in the early 1960s, but cinema started facing many challenges of low theatre attendance, economic downturn and financial problems at a time when music entertainment was thriving. The problems forced Hollywood to adopt an innovative and more contemporary approach to running the industry (13). Harsh economic realities lasted until 1969, after which a boom period followed, especially after 1980. It can be said that the same Hollywood traditions that made their classic movies great also held the industry down, until contemporary changes revived and boosted it. 

Plot, Theme and Storyline

In classical films of the 1960s, the storyline was long dialogues in narrative form. Language was brilliant, witty, and logical. The narrative followed the motions of images when telling the story and the audience did much listening. In contemporary film, the slow-paced classical movies with realistic plot became fast-paced, special effects movies. By comparison, The Apartment, a Hollywood classical film had an easy flowing story about work, neighborliness, and love, while Jerry Maguire, a contemporary Hollywood movie, had an open dialogue form, which did not follow strict language patterns, and therefore required as much watching as it required listening. Classical and traditional themes included, business, religion, love, murder, and power, and they were sometimes based on historical issues. By contrast, contemporary themes dwell on current issues like sports, money, war, politics, fashion, violence, and technology. 

The classical film had a simple plot, with a straight forward flow, and a rather predictable ending. The movie set was simple and meant to fit in a low budget unlike contemporary film. In The Apartment there are basically three locations comprising of the houses, the office and the lift lobby. The apartment units are frugally furnished and devoid of fixtures and appliances, and they avoid showing details of other Mr. Backer’s neighbor’s dwellings. The office is a large, open hall, with overly simplified set. The lift lobby has no trappings at all apart from the lifts. By contrast, the contemporary film is a large budget affair on set. For example, in Jerry Maguire the set has diverse locations, each with elaborate background and details, and the company SMI’s office is lavishly furnished. Similarly, the set in Sugar shows elaborately arranged locker rooms and sports fields. 

Most classical plots gravitated around love, religion and murder. Due to limited funds, most plots used few locations and props. In The Apartment, the plot is about relationships of neighbors in a city apartment, and the scene alternates between the apartment and the office. According to Bordwell, films targeted the older audiences who appreciated a good spoken story line, where jokes and punch lines were adult in nature (8). The theatre hall was the meeting place for city dwellers, especially lovers, which essentially excluded the youths and children by virtual of content. Contemporary film, by contrast, cut across all generations, even though they may gravitate towards a certain age group. They are age-friendly and therefore have to be rated in order to specifically exclude younger persons where the plot includes adult-specific content. For example, Jerry Maguire, which typifies contemporary movie, appeals to both adults and youth, and tells several stories at the same time, but it contains scenes that are inappropriate to youths and children because of sexual innuendos and rough language.


According to Bordwell, Hollywood classical films told a story around a simple plot, which formed the bulk of the storyline, and were rich in vocabulary, expressions, poetry, romance and styles. The narratives were about American life and issues, and used English language as the medium of expression. The language was polished, civil, and well accented, and this was appealing to the American audiences (5). The accent and grammar used in American films was more British than American. Actresses tended to speak in squeaky voices that emphasized their femininity, while men spoke in baritones that exuded authority. This approach emphasized stereotyping.  Modern films, such as Sugar, incorporate foreign languages, accents, locations and actors, which are appealing to both Americans and international audiences. In The Apartment, Backer and Boyle’s brother-in-law argue and fight in a very composed manner, compared to a contemporary movie like Jerry Maguire in which Jerry throws a baseball bat and insults his coach. 


In the classical movies, characters addressed each other politely as “Sir”, “Miss”, “Mrs.”, and so forth. Ladies were given the right of way when entering a car, lift or house.  Such manners are not often observed in contemporary films. Dialogue dominated screen action, unlike in contemporary film where there is both action and dialogue, which flow fast. In the opening lines of The Apartment, the narrator gives lengthy statistics. Noticeably the actors face the camera most of the time, as if they are conscious of being filmed. Dialogue, even in an argument, is orderly with no interjections. Smoking was trendy in classical films, and the upper class characters in the movies smoked cigars while the commoners smoked cigarettes. Actresses had cropped hair, pony tail or hair pins to allow audiences to observe their facial expressions during dialogues. 

Explicit sexual expression was considered inappropriate while lovemaking was just a peck on the cheek or else just implied through body language. In the closing scene of The Apartment, Boyd and Backer sit a respectable distance apart as they express their affection for each other. By contrast, contemporary film depicts wanton sex and lovemaking, for example Jerry Maguire opens with a raw sex scene, while in Sugar, Miguel and his host’s daughter kiss deeply and casually. Bordwell noted that Hollywood classical movies stereotyped women as habitual gossipers, playing secondary roles in the movies, and those who were outspoken were considered “bad”. Men were depicted as macho and romantic with deep, commanding voices. The classical actor was civilized, but the modern actor is rough, rude, violent, profane, sexy, and makes rude jokes. 

Companies and Producers

The aged Hollywood producers believed in the classical plot, which only appealed to the adult and ageing audiences. This limited the market for movies. In the early 1970s, a new crop of young and creative minds took over and created vibrant movies that appealed to the youthful audience. Classic themes were dispensed with and replaced by contemporary themes. In Bordwell’s observation, studios started to churn out many films with wide ranging genres that served different tastes (7). Throughout its classical history, the industry was dominated by the same film studios, such as, Disney, Paramount, Warner Brothers, 20th Century Fox, MGM, Universal, Columbia, and United Artists. The studios also owned theatres until the 1949 court order that required them to divest from theatres. Even then, film companies used the same modus operandi. In the late 1960s, new companies like Transamerica Corp, Sony, and Gulf Western acquired some of the struggling studios and turned them into more commercial entities. 


The classical films were make on low budget and simple settings that were little better than theatre plays, as seen in The Apartment, which contrasts with contemporary blockbuster movies that cost large sums to make. In the classical films, the acts were equally frugal with simple props and costumes. In one scene of The Apartment, Dorothy Boyd is dressed in Mr. Backer’s checked robe from one evening to the next. The Jerry Maguire movie is about rival managers fighting over contracts for contracts, and Jerry’s marriage to Dorothy is strained by money. I n Sugar, poverty and dreams of big cars, houses, and a good life drive Miguel to the U.S. to play baseball.


In traditional cinema locomotion and body language were well timed, deliberate, and controlled, which inspired actors to have signature moves and persona, for example “James Bond” and his leg twist, and Bronson and his slow pace. Voice was tilted towards the camera and microphone. In Bordwell‘s observation, actors were first and foremost talented in acting and language and casting for roles was not considered as important. Most acting was by men, who played the main role, while actresses were fewer and often played a secondary role and as femme fatale (21-23). Looking at The Apartment, the dialogue is slow and deliberate, compared to Sugar where at the dialogue is fast and furious. There were few stunts since acts were supposed to look natural, so sidekicks and doubles were rare. Contemporary movies on their part adopt fast-paced movement, stunts and quick wit. Stunt routines are executed by special performers called sidekicks. 


Bordwell states that classical film making was dominated by a few studios who also owned theatres. Even after the court ordered studios to separate from the lucrative theatre business in 1949, studios made money from road shows and television, but with dropping sales in road shows in the late sixties. The studios made unsuccessful road shows like Cleopatra in 1963 and Mutiny on the Bounty in 1965, and the acclaimed movie The Sound of Music in 1965. Road shows lost favor with “balcony viewers” because they were repetitive for months on end. In mid-1960s, studios started to fail financially, and had to be bailed out by new companies like Transamerica Corp. Gulf Western (2). The studios lost an estimated $500 million between 1969 and 1972, and government had to intervene and waive tax on asset disposal.

Film companies formed franchises with recording studios, television companies, theatres, and home movies distributors. In the dying days of classical films, a new concept of big-budget or blockbuster, complex movies proved successful.  Further, Bordwell noted that “package unit” system was introduced to make simple plot in-house genres of movies such as soaps, dramas, horror, children, comics, comedies, and action movies for the home video and television markets (5). The movies were acted by younger, lesser known and sometimes amateurish actors, but some who eventually made a name on the major films. Studios bought out libraries and created upper-niche outlets, which became contemporary outfits.  An actor or producer could also acquire a script, seek finance from the studio, create a film, and use the same studio for distribution in a “package unit”.


There was new interest by young and innovative producers in the “European theme”. As noted by Bordwell, highly successful European movies were produced, for example the Italian theme The Godfather and The Exorcist, the French theme The French Connection, and the English theme The Mean Street and Five Easy Steps (5). They also incorporated the themes into American films, such as Star Wars, The Sting and Saturday Night Fever. The 70s decade was one of the most successful periods in film industry, raking in between $200 million and $990 million in dollar-equivalent value of 2005 (Bordwell 3, 52). Star Wars, which earned $307 million in its initial release, was dubbed a block-buster. A new strategy was muted which involved timing a release to coincide with festive seasons, using the current fad music such as disco in the 80s, simultaneous releases in all theatres, and maximizing on advance ticket sales. Merchandizing was introduced in the early 1980’s, where branded shirts or other items, medallions, tokens and collector items relating to the theme of the film, were sold in food and supermarket outlets, alongside the tickets. In this error, special effects were emphasized, for example in the movie Jaws which were smaller fish exploded to appear as giant fish. The script writers were encouraged to flow with current fads and issues, so they reflected societal popular culture. Unlike earlier movies, the block-busters did not fade away after initial rush, but instead they took longer to lose appeal and continued earning royalties from the merchandize. 


The success of the 1980s resulted in film companies adopting a mentality of acquisitions, while other entertainment industry players focused more in content generation for the film industry. Musicians and athletes produced for film, for example Thriller and Break Dance were successful musical productions. Bordwell  noted that the mainstream movies also became “merchandize” for publishers, television, theme parks, and so forth, for example Batman the film, owned by Times Warner, was transformed into an animation TV series by DC Comic owned by Times Warner, and was still merchandized as a comic strips, figurines, and even soundtracks for future Batman movies (4). Because of the multifaceted approach to film marketing, theatre attendance grew to 1.5 billion annually, even as home and rental movies, television series, and overseas sales rose. Half of the industry’s revenue came from overseas sales, especially of home videos. In order to improve theatre experience, the old halls were redesigned to have ambience, comfort, big screens, snack services, and superior surround sound systems. Large halls were split into smaller multiplex theatres, which allowed distribution of audiences and fewer theatre staff. 


Classical film was recorded on rolls of plastic film that used overhead projectors and video cassette players to display on a smooth white wall of a darkened room. As contemporary film took over a new technology called digit format also took over. The technology enabled sound and pictures that did not fade with time, and could be displayed in a variety of ways. The digital film was stored on a compact disk or flash disk. This boosted sales greatly, for example, while theatres made $9.5 billion in sales, digital format sold $21 billion. In Bordwell’s observation, a major problem with DVD format was movie piracy or bootlegging, because DVDs were easy to duplicate (4) and to make quality copies. The mass availability of movies created a new American culture of “must watch a movie daily” and keeping up with season series. It was now possible to distribute movies through high-speed internet or in digital formats like cell phone, flash disk, and DVD. The mega pictures diluted the classical movie approach. The modern movie targeted more of the younger viewers who were easily addicted to watching series. The story telling is being edged out by action. The end of classical movies was marked by musical films as Saturday Night Fever and Flash Dance that did not have classical narrative (Bordwell 33).


Since the beginning of movie making in America, certain traditions have been upheld. The movies adhered to principles that guided any new movie being created, but in the 1980’s a new thinking and approach changed from classical to contemporary movies. The movie has become a large industry ran by big companies, and new technologies and innovations have changed the method of production and display. New ideas of plot and style have emerged to replace classic ideas.

Works Cited

The Apartment. Dir. Billy Wilder. Perf. Jack Lemmon, Shirley MacLaine. 1960. United Artists, 1960. Film.

Bordwell, David. The Way Hollywood Tells It: Story and Style in Modern Movies. Berkeley: U of California P, 2006. Print.

Jerry Maguire. Prod. Cameron Crowe. Perf. Tom Cruise, Cuba Gooding Jr., Renee Zellweger. 1996. Tristar Pictures, 1996. Film.

Sugar. Dir. Anna Boden, and Ryan Fleck. Perf. Miguel Santos, Jorge Ramilez. 2008. Sony Pictures Classics, 2008. Film.

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