A Guide to Classic Film Genres and Styles
While critics argue about the characteristics of every film genre, there are some generally accepted categories and styles of classic films. Here’s what to expect from movies made in some of the classic film genres:
Meaning “black movie” in French, Hollywood’s film noir period spanned the early 1940s to the late 1950s. Visually, black and white film noir used stark shadows and moody, dimly lit scenes. The plots combine crime, eroticism, and violence among deeply flawed men and women in morally ambiguous situations. Often drawn from hardboiled crime fiction or depictions of social problems such as gambling or alcoholism, great examples of film noir include Citizen Kane and Sunset Boulevard.
Named for a physics-defying baseball pitch, screwball comedies put likable characters in ridiculous situations, where they behave like screwballs: erratic and unpredictable. They rely on contrast: rich vs. poor, brainy vs. dizzy, powerful vs. powerless, and above all, male vs. female. The early screwball comedies often featured superficial rich people brought down to earth by the more noble and sensible ideas of the common man. The best are marked by smooth sophistication and witty dialogue on top of plain old physical comedy. Check out His Girl Friday, It Happened One Night or Some Like it Hot.
Science Fiction and Fantasy
One of the most varied and enduringly popular genres, sci-fi and fantasy films sometimes hew closely to the underpinnings of scientific reality and are sometimes works of pure imagination. Going back to one of the earliest silent films, A Trip to the Moon, the movies have explored space and time travel, alternate universes and realities, the microscopic world, the terrors of science run amok and the future of humanity on Earth and among the stars. They’ve brought us mad scientists, alien invasions, and monsters from Godzilla to the Stay Puft Marshmallow Man. For a great early film, try The Time Machine or Forbidden Planet.
Epics and Sagas
Ambitious and costly movies, epics peaked in the ’50s and ’60s with films like Cleopatra and Ben Hur. Epics span genres and often tackle sprawling wartime stories, great historical events, or multi-generational family sagas. There are epic westerns, like Once Upon a Time in the West, and epic biographies, such as The Private Life of Henry VIII. Made with enormous casts and city-sized sets before digital effects rendered the need for actual people moot, most of the great epics would be prohibitively expensive today, perhaps even the all-time box office champ, Gone With the Wind.
The term “B-movie” started out as a very straightforward definition. The “B” movie was simply the second half of a double bill at the theater or drive-in. Such films were made on a shoestring budget with little-known stars and were often cheesy teen melodramas, sci-fi, horror, or monster movies. In later years, the term has come to mean any low-budget, schlocky movie made with “B-list” stars—although many of them transcend the genre and are enjoyable well-made films. And some of them are so bad they’re laugh-out-loud funny. Try a good one, The Day the Earth Stood Still or a bad one, The Horror of Party Beach.
At their peak in the ’30s, ’40s, and ’50s, movie musicals became popular when some of the first “talkies” (Hollywood films made with sound) included musical numbers and dance routines. Movie musical styles included Busby Berkeley’s “Gold Digger” revues with scantily clad showgirls, light romances with hoofers like Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers, as well as films of musical comedies and dramas first staged in live theater. And of course, classic Disney animated films are often musicals as well. Take a look at Fred and Ginger in Top Hat, Gene Kelly’s effortless charm in Singin’ in the Rain or the animated Snow White.
A quintessentially American art form, westerns tell the story of the sprawling American frontier, with the iconic characters of the west: cowboys, gunslingers, bandits, ranchers, tycoons, saloon-keepers, floozies, settlers, Indians, and military men. They span every genre. There are silent westerns like The Great Train Robbery, singing cowboys like Gene Autry, musical westerns like Paint Your Wagon, western spoofs like Cat Ballou, and “spaghetti westerns” made in Europe, like Sergio Leone’s The Good, the Bad and the Ugly. Early westerns tended to idealize the settlement of the west, but as the popularity of the genre declined in the ’70s, films took a more jaundiced view of the treatment of the American Indian and the violence of the Old West.
Often called “biopics,” these movies tell the stories of saints and sinners, inventors and idealists, geniuses and generals, presidents and peasants—the real-life figures who shaped world history. Always told with a point of view, biographies often generate controversy and have been known to play fast and loose with the facts. Excellent classic biopics include Yankee Doodle Dandy, the life of George M. Cohan, Lawrence of Arabia and Sergeant York.