THE MOVIES aren't "the movies" anymore. It isn't that there aren't wonderful filmmakers around, but even if there were many, many more, the aggregate today still wouldn't add up to "the movies." That experience belongs to the studio days, and to the classical Hollywood cinema, as it's now called. Though we can still have the experience to some degree -- especially in the movie revival houses of our big cities -- "the movies" themselves are gone.

Probably the most widely successful of the old styles -- the mode that seemed to inspire the highest flights and the deepest energies, not only of individual filmmakers, but of Hollywood and the spirit of Hollywood itself -- was the romantic or "screwball" comedy.

Screwball comedy was associated less with scattiness or derangement than with a paradoxical kind of liberation, with romantic exaltation of a very down-to-earth kind. There was almost nothing in the screwball mode that wasn't familiar from long usage in theater, vaudeville, popular fiction, or earlier films. But watching William Powell and Myrna Loy or Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers, audiences in the mid-thirties forgot they had seen any of it before. Suddenly, in 1934, in "The Thin Man," "It Happened One Night" and "The Gay Divorcee," familiar, borrowed elements came together in combinations so new and fresh, so electric, and so intrisincally movielike that familiarity became revalation.

"The movies" of that era had a special relation to American culture -- even to American democracy. It wasn't just that they drew more people than any other leisure pursuit in America did, but that they drew all kinds of people, all classes and types, ages and backgrounds, from the most to the least "educated." Everyone went to the movies, and mostly they went to the same movies. Only the most marginal sorts of film were aimed at special audiencesin contrast to today, when almost every movie is targeted at a "market" -- Porky's III is for teens, "Blue Velvet" for urban sophisticates and "Smokey and the Bandit" for the redneck audience.

The studio film -- each studio film -- was for everybody. The "woman's film" had to be endurable to men, the male action film to women, and so on. Of course the movies -- it went without saying -- were for grown-ups. So that the occasonal children's film, from the "The Wizard of Oz" to Disney cartoon features, had to appeal to parents too. It followed as well that "adult" films should never be "harmful" to children. There was one audience then, and it was all of us.

Probably enough has been said by now about the obvious baleful effects of all this -- the eight-year-old mentality of the movie audience, the reduction of everything to the lowest common denominators and taste, and so on. But the fact still remains that intelligent and serious and grown-up films got made in this system -- many more than are made today, in fact. By that standard, the old repressive system seems to have worked beautifully, even if it's still a little mysterious to us how that could have happened.

As a result of this system, the movies themselves had a special feeling -- even a special bias. They were public events -- and they celebrated public life.

First of all, we went out to see them. If we lived in a city, the chances are that we saw them in almost unspeakably splendid surroundings. We were certainly never meant to be alone with them, but together in front of them with strangers.When the movies themselves praised -- as they so often did -- the freedom and impersonality of the city, that was something the audience experience seemed to verify. Especially if the movie itself was wonderful.

Not that it usually was. Mostly it wasn't. Nobody you ever heard of claimed that the movies were "good." On the contrary, everyone knew they were "silly," unreal, always the same, and so on. But everyone still went. Because it was never just a matter of going to this or that good or bad movie. You didn't pick a movie the way you chose a book or a record, for instance. When you went to a movie you were doing something else -- entering a public continuum, a community of common experiences and shared consciousness. You might complain about the experience; you usually did, in fact. But you were still part of that community -- connected through your dissidence, even. Movies could be seductive, but they could also be a place to hone your resistances at.

There were always, of course, people who didn't go at all -- often people who were too high-brow for them, or people who had no interest in in any kind of imaginative product, high or low (men stayed away more than women). But not going was like refusing a connection to the public world -- like refusing to live in America, in a way.

For those who went -- for everyone who went -- the question before going or deciding to go was always (and sensibly) the same: "Who's in it?"

We all understood the point of this -- whether we put in into words or not; the movies were about their stars. That's why they could be wonderful even when they weren't good.

And yet the great stars -- the Garbos and Bogarts -- like the most virtuous people, have rarely been the most popular ones. Not, anyway, in their own time. And women stars have always inspired more ambivalence of response, even from women audiences than men.

On English critic David Pirie's list of the top ten "all time" stars, for example, the only woman is Doris Day (number 8). Men stars are more popular probably because in some way the reassure us about the patriachal values that the movies, like the rest of society, always finally endorse. And by that standard the women -- the best of them anyway like Irene Dunne and Carole Lombard -- have always been a bit subversive: more challenging than reassuring. They were wonderful, of course, they made us a little nervous. And there was even something unpleasant about them to the sort of audience that preferred Bing Crosby, or even Doris Day.

Whatever it was, there was something special about the thirties star, as almost everyone now agrees. It seems clear now at least that that was a special time, a moment in our history when we understood something about human nature -- and we understood it collectively -- both about how to look at it and how to show it, how to feel the special excitement of it. It was the mystery at the heart of all our experience -- and the movie star, alone among our daily experiences, it seemed, permitted us to look at it directly.

If the stars of the time seem unique now -- almost, at times, like members of a vanished species -- it's not so much, I think, that they are, that someone like a Lombard or an Arthur couldn't recur -- but that if she did, we wouldn't know how to see her. The movies taught us ways of looking that make all the difference.

Those glamour stills, for example. The point was never to reveal their subjects, as the movies did, but to do just the opposite: to associate them instead with an ideal, to move them toward abstraction.

That seemed appropriate. There was something impersonal in the personality of the thirties star: something in the inevitable narcissism that essentially contradicted it. That's why a down-to-earth sort of star like Lombard, famous for being without "airs," could pose for endless studies which were entirely composed of such "airs," and yet no one felt this to be anomalous in any way.

The stars touched sublimity -- that was almost a requirement of the job -- but they took its measure, too. That was finally what made them so thrilling.They all had this extraordinary shrewdness in some form, of perception and affect, a certain irony and standing-apart quality. (Compare the woundedness and winsomeness that soon began to take its place -- and continues to do so, even in grotesque ways: any current image of Sylvester Stallone with his shirt off, for example.) What they showed on the screen, what we learned to see, was a kind of impersonal relation to themselves. That seemed very wonderful -- especially in action.

The stars, like the movies themselves, were both real and unreal. They balanced the two polarites. They didn't make us -- most of us, anyway -- want to go to Hollywood. They didn't seriously propose that we could be them -- or even that we could exercise our way into looking like them.We didn't really want to: that was personal and a distraction from what we really cared about. Though they did connect with our personal lives, they did so obliquely.

Most extraordinarily of all in a way, the stars were about common life or its possibilities. They stood for equality -- but an equality without illusions. It wasn't their job to flatter us and to tell us we were wonderful. But they made us feel wonderful, and they gave us hope.

Because of what they were -- their different forms of toughness, commonness, openness, in their glamour, in their final mystery and inviolability -- the stars testified to the possibilities of American community, to the freedom of the city. It was no accident that so many of their movies had them escaping from small towns.

They belonged to the city -- and especially the women did. There were thirties stars who were small-town boys -- Cooper. Fonda, Stewart -- but (apart from a holdover from the silent days like Janet Gaynor) there were almost no small-town girls. It was the women especially who challenged the complacency of American life, who suggested that we might grow up and live together with the kind of candor and risk and honesty that seemed specially, even dangerously American. Each time we saw them again, and found them as interesting as ever, they confirmed that promise.

But probably the most astonishing thing is that all this keeps happening -- that they somehow go on confirming it even now -- when we see their movies.

James Harvey, a playwright and critic, teaches English at the State University of New York at Stony Brook. He is the author of "Romantic Comedy in Hollywood, from Lubitsch to Sturges," from which this article is adapted.