Debunking The Myth of Simplistic Old Movies

It's a Wonderful Life, on the bridge still
Jimmy Stewart as George Bailey in It’s a Wonderful Life

It was C. S. Lewis who first coined the phrase “chronological snobbery.” This is the belief that the ideas, writing, and art of the past are outdated or irrelevant to “the now.” Chronological snobbery takes many forms. Sadly, it can even be found in the evangelical church, particularly when it comes to old-fashioned forms of worship.

Another form it takes in popular culture is the snide dismissal of old-fashioned cinema. My generation views old movies as stuffy and phony, full of goody-two-shoes and sappy happy endings. As far as they’re concerned, old movies are for old people. Old, politically incorrect, white people, to throw in a few more modifiers.

I submit this as yet further evidence that my generation has no clue what it’s talking about when it talks about movies, art, or culture.

To be fair, there are film buffs among us. It’s just that we are emphatically in the minority. Even among those with an interest in film-making, you’d be surprised how many have never been exposed to some of the classic treasures of American cinema. When young people who are more interested in the art of movies than most give me a blank stare at the mention of titles like On the Waterfront,  I despair.

But at least those young people express interest and take me seriously when I tell them they really ought to watch more old movies. In the wider culture, millennials will spend their spare time binge-watching Game of Thrones or Dexter before they spend it seeking out relics of the past. These are kids whose idea of “old Disney” is The Lion King or Beauty and the Beast. Do we really expect them to keep their eyes open through a 60-year-old black-and-white flick? Journalist Neal Gabler examined this phenomenon in his article “Perspective: Millennials seem to have little use for old movies,” and he is not alone in his observations. Now, admittedly, he tells one anecdote about undergraduates sleeping through Citizen Kane, one of those Great Movies that I confess I have never seen myself and might be bored by as well. I am not claiming that every classic film is equally engaging or watchable, or that you are a knuckle-dragging Philistine if you nod off in the third hour of Cecil B. De Mille’s Ten CommandmentsHowever, the idea that old movies in general are simplistic or irrelevant is a myth that needs to be debunked.

Millennials complain that old heroes weren’t complex enough. But look at George Bailey in It’s a Wonderful Life (1946). Here we have a decent man, a man who’s spent his life helping others, yet he succumbs to anger, despair and suicidal thoughts. This is no cardboard cut-out, this is a very human, ordinary person trying to do the right thing, struggling through life like the rest of us. Now if by “complex heroes,” millennials mean heroes who are virtually indistinguishable from bad-guys, perhaps George Bailey doesn’t fit the bill, but then again, perhaps those aren’t the sort of “complex heroes” we should be looking for.

Another frequent complaint is that up to the late 1960s, the censorship of the Hayes Code white-washed everything, preventing movies from delving into dark, gritty material. People who make this complaint seem to forget that the entire genre of film noir (literally, “black film”) had its beginnings in the 1940s. Mind you, this should not be taken as a general recommendation of film noir, a genre which I personally can only tolerate in small, selective quantities. And to be sure, there were directors who consciously pushed the envelope, like Elia Kazan in Streetcar Named Desire, and I am not saying I approve of all those choices either. My point is simply that plenty of old movies met the standards of the day for what could be shown on film while still delivering good stories that were far from white-washed or simplistic. Moreover, many of them garnered both critical and popular acclaim. We don’t even have to look any further than the Best Pictures of the 1940s. Consider The Lost Weekend, a gritty, tragic exploration of alcoholism which swept the Oscars and became a box office hit. Dated in execution it may be, but simplistic and white-washed it certainly is not. That was the Best Picture of 1945. The Best Picture of 1946 was The Best Years of Our Lives, another honestly told story that follows three WWII veterans who are trying to put their lives back together after the war.

Finally, the nail in the coffin for millennials seems to be that old movies just aren’t relevant anymore. They talk about people, places and events that mean nothing to a 21st century viewer. What they fail to recognize is that good art transcends its immediate setting to reveal something true about human nature. On the Waterfront (1954) is about longshoremen, union corruption and the mob in 1950s New York, but it is not merely about these things. It’s also about conscience. It’s also about the cost of telling the truth. It’s also about loneliness and pain and the bond of brotherhood, real or imagined. High Noon (1952) is about an Old West shootout, but the picture of a man who must gather his courage to face evil utterly alone is as vivid now as the day it was made.

I could go on, of course. In fact, I could go on for so long that I’d need to split it all up into a series and give each movie its own post. In fact, maybe that’s not such a bad idea. Maybe if you drop by around this time next week, I’ll have the first installment of this hypothetical new series available for your reading pleasure. Who knows? There’s only one way to find out…

 

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