Weekend Film Fun: Why Did They Bother to Explain That?

I once watched the 1941 version of The Maltese Falcon in San Francisco, and the audience started laughing when these words appeared on the screen
Surely superfluous they must have thought: who wouldn’t recognize San Francisco with all that stock footage of the city’s essentials? But San Francisco was a much smaller, less culturally significant city back then and many American movie goers would not even have heard of it much less been able to recognize it by sight.

I enjoy these “unnecessary explanations” in old films as historical curios. Another of my favorites is in the 1948 criminal investigation classic Call Northside 777. A suspect takes a lie detector test and a scientist explains what the machine does at what to modern audiences seems like inordinate length (after all, even in films like Deceiver that revolve entirely around a lie detector, there is no such lengthy exposition). The scientist is Leonarde Keeler, the co-inventor of the lie detector, a machine that audiences would not have heard of in 1948 and probably wouldn’t have taken as a credible plot point without all the sciency lecturing.

Similarly, another great police procedural of the same period, He Walked by Night, includes a detailed explanation of what a police composite sketch artist does because of course audiences at the time wouldn’t have already watched a million episodes of Law and Order on television.

Another notable example are “nature documentary moments” that appear in many films prior to the era of widespread television ownership, for example 1950’s King Solomon’s Mines. The characters in such films have plot-irrelevant conversations of the form:

Stay back, it’s a snake!!!
Hero or Heroine: “What on earth is that?”

Grizzled Guide Who Knows the Local Terrain: “That is a leopard”

Hero or Heroine: Wow!

Pretty boring if you’ve seen a Jacques Cousteau special or virtually any hour of what plays on the Nature channel all day long. But audiences back then couldn’t watch television nature documentaries and few of them had access to exotic zoos or international travel either, so as dull as these bits of cinema are to us today, they amazed viewers at the time.

Do you have your own examples of anachronistic explanations in old movies? I would love to hear them in the comments if so.

Author: Keith Humphreys

Keith Humphreys is the Esther Ting Memorial Professor of Psychiatry at Stanford University and an Honorary Professor of Psychiatry at Kings College London. His research, teaching and writing have focused on addictive disorders, self-help organizations (e.g., breast cancer support groups, Alcoholics Anonymous), evaluation research methods, and public policy related to health care, mental illness, veterans, drugs, crime and correctional systems. Professor Humphreys' over 300 scholarly articles, monographs and books have been cited over thirteen thousand times by scientific colleagues. He is a regular contributor to Washington Post and has also written for the New York Times, Wall Street Journal, Washington Monthly, San Francisco Chronicle, The Guardian (UK), The Telegraph (UK), Times Higher Education (UK), Crossbow (UK) and other media outlets.

10 thoughts on “Weekend Film Fun: Why Did They Bother to Explain That?”

  1. Who ever knows what movie audiences will know, but I suspect you’re wrong about San Francisco. I think it’s arguable that it was a _more_ culturally important city in 1941, and much earlier than that, than now. Nor was it a “much smaller” city than now: in relative terms, which are the terms that matter, it was bigger. It ranked in the top ten US cities in population from 1870 through 1900, then took a hit from the 1906 earthquake (which was a sensation in the national press) and sat at #11 or #12 for most of the 20th century, not falling below twelfth till 1970. Moviegoers in their thirties or older in 1941 would have had any sense they had of the “big American cities” formed in school and in pop culture before Los Angeles passed San Francisco as the largest western city in the 1920 census; if in their forties they would probably remember the earthquake. In 1941 the Golden Gate Bridge was only four years old and was famously the longest suspension bridge in the world; its construction had been widely covered in newsreels (which were a real thing then) and splashed over photospreads in magazines and newspapers throughout the late ‘30s; kids learned about it in school. The most famous baseball player in America was Joe DiMaggio, who was widely known to come from San Francisco. In 1937 the movie _San Francisco_, starring Spencer Tracy, Clark Gable, and Jeannette MacDonald, was nominated for six Oscars including Best Picture and Best Actor. In 1939 San Francisco had hosted a world’s fair, the Golden Gate International Exposition, to celebrate the building of the GG Bridge as well as the Bay Bridge. World’s fairs were newsreel fodder too then, and the movie _Charlie Chan at Treasure Island_ (1939) was set there, which may have meant more for popular culture than the Gable-Tracy movie did. Going back a long way, Mark Twain had written about San Francisco in _Roughing It_, Jack London more recently in numerous novels and stories, and of course Hammett in all his detective fiction of the 1920s and into the 1930s, not just _The Maltese Falcon_: thus Nick and Nora Charles in the _Thin Man_ movie series are based in San Francisco (where she’s a Nob Hill heiress) and go back and forth between there and New York. In 1941 newspapers across the country were full of fears that the Japanese would attack San Francisco or Los Angeles. It seems very unlikely to me that many moviegoers in 1941 had “never heard” of San Francisco. But movie executives have never been inclined to assume that their audiences know anything at all.

  2. I recently saw a rerun of Law and Order where someone explained to Detective Briscoe, who had never used a computer, what the worldwideweb was, what a chatroom was, and so on. It was excruciating and also hilarious. The set up was to explain how a crime victim considered himself be a very close friend of the perpetrator, and did have a fair amount of personal information, without knowing her real name, phone number, city of residence, etc.

    There was a similar episode of Seinfeld. It probably happened in most long-running series in the 1990’s.

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