There is a moment in the movie Watch on the Rhine where the lead character, Paul Lukas, explains to his baffled American in-laws in the safety of their American home why he became an underground fighter against fascism in Europe in the years leading up to World War II. He states, “I can no longer just look on. My time has come to do more. And I say with the great Luther, I must make my stand. I can do nothing else. God help me, Amen.”
Following his example and from the safety of my own American home I would like to contribute my own manifesto as a guide to living in these turbulent times. This post is going to be an editorial—really something of a rant—and not a review of a classic film, though classic film is at the heart of this piece.
Like Mr. Lukas’ character who found he must address the evils of fascism rather than ignore them, so I come to a point in this blog where I must address the current campaign of Republican presidential nominee Donald Trump.
This is actually the first of a 12-part series about the world of the classic film fan that will continue throughout the year, one post at the beginning of each month. I’ll be discussing blogs and bloggers, books by bloggers, and the interesting evolution of the classic film buff from the 1950s “revival houses” to the 1970s nostalgia boom, to the present day where I think we stand at a crossroads. We may well have reached our peak. There will be fewer of us in future. More on that later.
Long post ahead. I promise, future entries in this series will be shorter and without the irritable tone you will find herein.
Today, we address the juxtaposition of classic films on the turbulent world in which we live today. Are they merely an escape from a louder, cruder world? Or, do they provide us with mental and emotional sustenance to cope with our modern, angry society? Probably both, but that depends on the classic film fan.
Back, regrettably, to Donald Trump.
I confess that for many weeks I have tried assiduously to avoid looking at or listening to Trump whenever he appears on TV either in an interview or as one of the noxious sound bites that are an excuse for reportage in these days of immature and shallow, sensationalist media.
When I see Trump, I cannot help but think of Burt Lancaster’s line in his character as a corrupt judge during the Nazi era in Germany in Judgment at Nuremburg (1961) when he acknowledges and mourns that he had turned his life to “excrement.”
For millions of Americans, my conjecture that Donald Trump is a dumb-ass pig and a rapacious con man is not going to come as news. Indeed, we live in a land and in an era where everything that is uttered is carried instantly across social media, a record forever of our mistakes even more than our triumphs. Nothing remains hidden anymore, and the worst gets more press than the best. Trump knows this. He’s quite canny about surfing the grime, knowing that it gets him the spotlight, what he most craves.
But I do not believe for a moment that he will be elected president.
My concern is that others in the future, perhaps in the next presidential race or the one after that, will observe the template he is laying down and be so impressed by the success he is making at receiving easy publicity that they will try to follow his lead and duplicate his campaign – but by then they will have perfected the art in an America so worn down by nonsense that they might actually win by default.
Precedent is a very important concept in our free society. Judges make rulings largely based on precedent. What has been done before is a bedrock, a foundation to what will come after. I would like to suggest that this is a good time for those of us who are familiar with classic films to take our love of them out of our living rooms, out of our film festivals, out of our treasured collections and go public.
“I am an antifascist,” Lukas announces to his stunned American in-laws. His wife, Bette Davis, tries to educate her mother, Lucille Watson: “The world has changed, Mama, and some of the people are dangerous. It’s time you knew that.”
We know full well today the world, even our own neighborhoods, are dangerous. What we need to realize is that we are empowered to change that. We fight evil predominantly with knowledge—that’s the first line of defense—and fans of classic films know that evil is nothing new and can be faced with courage, and humor, and remarkable resiliency.
I wish we could spread our knowledge and share our appreciation and understanding of classic films not as a clique, not as the term (which I find condescending) of “old movie weirdoes.” I wish we would stop regarding classic film as a hobby that marks us as nerds and start regarding it as an educational tool and social primer to bring substance back to our society.
That sounds idealistic and naïve, but I’m serious.
We are living in an era where we have massive amounts of information at our fingertips, but we have no intelligence or in-depth analysis of it. We have a generation of young people who are so bombarded by media by sound bites, by flashing images that they see on television or the cinemas, that are constantly bleeding from cheap ear buds into their ears wherever they go, wherever they are and it is all shallow and temporary. It is all noise and nothingness.
When a candidate such as the vile Donald Trump plays to the worst impulses of the stupidest and meanest segment of our society, chest thumping and becoming the frontrunner of a respected political party whose great heritage has been completely plowed under, we must face the fact that our society is suffering from everything that could possibly kill it.
Some newcomers to classic film, perhaps even some long-time lovers of classic film, will watch an old movie from, philosophically, a safe distance. We see the movie soundstage Nazis and we think (as we scarf our snacks) how awful they were, how wonderful it is that Humphrey Bogart saved the day. Or we watch films about the Depression and instead of thinking in depth and feeling in depth about the horrors of poverty and 25 percent unemployment, we only chuckle at the prices on the window: 5 cents for a hamburger, we guffaw.
Gary Cooper in Meet John Doe (1941) pegged the filthy American-style fascists seeking political control represented by Edward Arnold: “Your type’s as old as history. If you can’t lay your dirty fingers on a decent idea and twist it and squeeze it and stuff it into your own pocket, you slap it down. Like dogs, if you can’t eat something, you bury it!”
The films were so innocent and unrealistic then, some condescendingly think. Yet they knew so much more than we do and they expressed it so simply.
Serious classic film lovers know that old movies are fun, from the raucous comedies to melodramas to war movies to the 1950s sci-fi movies—they’re all a lot of fun. But we also know that they are an education. They show us a window into a world that is gone, and we take lessons from it. And sometimes we take comfort from it. There are those of us who, out of work and looking for a job will find comfort watching some of those old Depression movies, how they coped: Jean Arthur smashing her piggy bank and the fur coat that landed on her head; Jane Darwell and Henry Fonda on Route 66 in the Grapes of Wrath; even the lessons learned from William Powell, a wealthy man’s son who pretends to be a butler because he is been taken for a “forgotten man” by the ditzy Carole Lombard.
I have spoken with people in their thirties – who should be old enough to know better – who found The Grapes of Wrath to be a lousy movie because it is so “unrealistic”. A moronic assessment, to be sure, but at least they’d seen it. Most younger people will never see a classic film because they will never stumble onto one by flicking channels. Unless they have TCM, or a “retro” station on their cable service, they may never see a classic film. According to statistics, that is becoming less and less likely.
A recent report, found here, about cable TV “cord cutters” includes this interesting set of statistics:
… younger-skewing crowd known as "cord-nevers" — represents about 9% of American adults. They have never subscribed to TV channels offered by a cable, satellite or telecommunications provider. The Pew study found that young adults, those ages 18 to 29, are the least likely to pay for cable or satellite TV.
Much of modern day film entertains through sensory stimulation – heart-pounding special effects and fast action. We feel what it is like for the superhero to fly. We are taken on an amusement park ride.
But the commonplace folks of everyday life are not represented. They are less interesting to filmmakers, perhaps. Would we see The Best Years of Our Lives (1946), Margie (1946), or the Maisie series made today? Too tame. Too slow. The characters are too ordinary.
The main thing that classic films give us, because of the way the scripts were written and because the way they were filmed, is a feeling of empathy and ability to feel for others. Despite our distance from the Golden Age of film, we can still understand and feel for the characters. So many decades later, we watch these characters and identify with them. We don’t need to go through it ourselves—indeed, we cannot.
Unfortunately, I fear that today’s audiences, especially among younger people, are lacking in empathy and also in imagination. Films today, because of technological advances, do not need to rely on our imaginations. They are meant not to make us empathize with characters, but to put us in a situation where through computer-generated graphics we are the ones having the virtual experience. Quiet, thought-provoking films have taken a back seat to blockbusters that dispense thrills.
It is as if filmmakers today think that people could not possibly understand the characters’ fears and motivations unless we are the ones taken on the thrill ride, we are the ones being scared and horrified, we are the ones being titillated, we are the ones who are forced to experience what the characters suffer. It becomes always, nauseatingly, about us and not about others. The perspective of our film experiences today, as with social media, has become disgustingly narcissistic.
I would love for classic films to be taught at the high school level. I believe that such a course should be taught by instructors who understand and appreciate classic films, who are able to interpret them to young people—for they will need to be interpreted. We cannot simply plug a kid down in front of an old movie and say, “Watch this,” and expect them to get lessons from it or even enjoy it. Just because we like the character actors and noir and the musicals and the old pie in the face doesn’t mean they will be at all charmed. Just exposing this art form to a generation that has less and less a chance of ever seeing it will be a positive step.
Nor is this about turning out a new crop of classic film lovers. Students learn algebra and science as disciplines to master, tools for survival in a technological world, and possibly enriching their lives. Familiarity with previous eras of pop culture should be just another aspect of a well-rounded education. Social studies, history, geography—using classic films as a classroom teaching tool is about helping them to connect with the past through an examination of pop culture through its most effective form.
Most younger people will need help, explanations for what is happening, just like reading footnotes at the bottom of the page of a play by Shakespeare. For kids who smirk at the sight of a wall phone in their grandma’s kitchen, or who have never seen a typewriter, then the meaning of 1930s slang, or the significance of the terror of an approaching telegram delivery boy is going to go right over their heads.
They may even need to learn empathy—or tolerance at least, for characters whose motivations and emotions are expressed differently, for people who look and dress and speak differently from them, and for a world that no longer exists. There were different rules of behavior once. In a world where there are few now, that alone will be baffling. Some things they see in that old movie world will be offensive. I doubt more offensive than Donald Trump, so they should be able to bear up.
At the very least, they will need to learn patience with a slower pace of entertainment.
So much talking went on—usually in full grammatical sentences.
I recall that in 1980, Alistair Cooke, host of Masterpiece Theatre, in his introduction of a five-part series on Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice starring David Rintoul and Elizabeth Garvie, ruminated that most younger readers found Jane Austen remote and unappealing, largely, he felt, because the world of her quiet families coping with Regency period mores was long dead.
It was a good series, very well done. However, the 1995 version with Colin Firth and Jennifer Ehle set fire to the small screen and helped to generate an enormous resurgence of all things Jane Austen. Suddenly, out of the proverbial hedgerows, came millions of new fans, the re-release of her novels, more movie and television adaptations, fan fiction and costume balls. Jane Austen has become an industry.
Because her remote world was brought to life again. Viewers empathized, understood, “got it.”
It should be a lot easier for us to touch the world of the 1930s because of the films that decade produced—an advantage the Regency period did not have. Even if that world is viewed in black and white.
I like to think such a renewed appreciation for classic films among the general public and a younger demographic is possible. But whether or not that occurs, at the very least, newcomers to classic films will learn that history is an endless repetitive cycle of challenges. We need not fear them. We are up to the test.
Going back to Donald Trump. Among his many odious suggestions, is to ban Muslims from entering the country, to confine the ones here already in prisons. He throws these stink bombs like a bratty junior high student trying to get attention.
When I was young—I think I was in high school, I read an English translation of Hitler’s Mein Kampf. I read it because I had read a great deal of World War II history by that time, indeed, my parents were a product of that generation so I grew up being more exposed to it probably a lot more than kids do now, and I wanted to see for myself what this so-called evil mastermind had written. I sat down with the book with some trepidation, preparing myself emotionally for what I thought would be an unpleasant and perhaps even horrific experience, kind of like the way you steel yourself to watch a scary scene in a horror movie. You want to see it, but you don’t want to see, so you kind of have to nerve yourself.
What I read shocked me, but not because it was scary—but because it was so mind numbingly stupid. This was the enormous lesson I learned, that opened my eyes. Hitler was a jerk and a moron. Like a loudmouth at a bar. He was no mastermind.
The book was very poorly written. It rambled and it was full of self-congratulatory chest thumping, like the sound bite of a modern day politician who regurgitates empty slogans that are not answers. I thought to myself, if Hitler was this stupid that he could not even convince someone my age (high school or so), then how could he possibly get so many followers to do such terrible things?
But the films made by his propaganda machine, including Triumph of the Will (1935), show us the theatricality of his mass seduction. One can see how a Pied Piper can lead the simple minded, the evil masterminds, the greedy parasites, and the angry common man together in a “Mephisto Waltz.” It has happened so many times through history.
There are so many stupid, gullible people out there. Oh, yeah. We know who they are, they show up in our Facebook and Twitter feeds. Unfortunately, they don’t know who and what they are.
They are usually not well read (which I think is even more important than formal higher education), they have no moral compass and the best way, as the Nazis proved, to achieve power is to tell people that they are victims and that they need to take revenge. Hate is a high to them. Most of them don’t even realize they’re being used by the ones at the top—whether it’s German citizens in the 1930s, or the zealous owners of automatic weapons in 2016 United States being whipped up by the NRA—that traitorous sect of fascists, with congressmen in their pockets, a danger to our liberty and freedom.
Paul Lukas in Watch on the Rhine has another sentiment that he expresses when he tells about escaping the Nazis after an act of sabotage. He says, “I do not tell you this story to prove that we are remarkable, but to prove that they are not.”
Hitler was not a superman; he was a dumb-ass jerk who appealed to a lot of dumb-ass jerks because he was like them. To be sure, he had many evil masterminds on his staff; Goebbels for instance, and people who knew how to write better than he did, how to enforce, and how to manipulate the public through propaganda. The same tactics are used today, through websites and social media. His gang’s only refuge when they were faced with their inevitable loss was suicide.
Like the suicide bombers and gunmen of today. They are just as ineffectual in the long term. They will never win, but they will try to do as much damage as they possibly can for their own warped sense of temporary glory and revenge.
That is the common denominator between fanatics of all stripes, foreign and domestic: they are stupid, they are frustrated by their impotence, and warped by their resentment.
Trump, conversely, has no beliefs to incur fanaticism of any kind; he is a user of others. He hopes to springboard himself off the oafs he pretends to defend but for whom he has undisguised contempt, all those morons who have nurtured and churned up such evil in their hearts that they want to justify that evil by backing a man who they think will legitimize it. If someone like Trump gets to be president, then all the sick feelings they are feeling, all the evil things they’re saying and doing will, to them, be justified.
Frank Capra produced his Why We Fight series during World War II to educate men entering military service to give them a background, the foundation of why they were fighting. He talked about ideals being “lighthouses in a foggy world”, from men like Washington and Garibaldi, and there were quotations from the Bible and from Confucius and from the Koran about how men should live in peace.
We are told repeatedly in school and in the media that if we do not learn from the past, then we are doomed to repeat it. That has become a hollow platitude. We can’t learn from the past if we don’t actively study it. Youngsters cannot be expected to learn from a past they cannot remember.
Classic films show us as the best educational tool possible that we’ve been here before. Populist campaigns of Trump’s type are nothing new. Hard times are nothing new. War is nothing new. Bigotry is nothing new. Fanaticism and fascism are nothing new. And for those who are disinclined to read history, a classic film is a wonderful way and a simple way to teach people first about history, second about empathy—something we are sorely missing today, and third, perhaps the most important ingredient, idealism.
Undoubtedly as a backwash of the political upheaval of the 1960s and 1970s the changes in our society, the assassinations, the corruption, we have become an extremely cynical nation. We did not start out that way. We could not have separated from the British in a terrible war if we were not idealistic. We could not have founded this nation on the beliefs expressed in the Constitution and the Bill of Rights if we were not an idealistic nation. We could not have fought a horrific Civil War if we were not an idealistic nation, and we could not have gotten through the horrors of the Depression or World War II if we were not idealistic. Idealism is what made us great. Idealism is what made this country the most amazing democratic experiment the world has ever known, and the hope and the salvation of millions.
We have lost our idealism. It’s fashionable to be cynical and sarcastic. Our sarcasm is everywhere, it’s choking us. Snark has replaced wit. Check any sitcom you want on TV, it’s usually three or four people sitting on a couch making digs at each other for 22 minutes. Check the music videos, check the rap and rock music, check the foulmouthed comics—everything is a stab, there is no idealism left in us. And that is what is killing us. That is what makes someone like Trump come out of the woodwork like a cockroach and get more media attention than a fool like him deserves. In our new warped sense of values, he represents ratings. Idealism is no longer palatable to the American public. It is mistrusted. It is cornball.
My suggestion to teach classic film in the high schools is will be considered a lightweight solution to a big problem. Maybe even a joke, but I’m not kidding. Provided we have knowledgeable teachers able to interpret the history of the eras the films were made to them, I think this is a good start to teaching younger people the most important lesson they may ever learn: your world is not the world.
I’ve been very impressed reading the blogs of many classic film bloggers and they seem to display a passion and a knowledge of the social background of these films and a desire to learn more. So many bloggers do such great research on the backgrounds of their films because they know that the era is just as important as the flickering image. Many of them are young. I would hate for their intelligence and empathy and imagination to be dismissed as a hobby, labeled as a clique of supposed nerds, self-branding as “old movie weirdoes.”
Classic films give us depth, a sense of context. They give us an anchor to our heritage. We learn from our parents and we learn from our grandparents and we don’t have to stop learning from them after they’re dead. Their generations still speak to us and we can learn from them, all their faults, all their problems, everything they did wrong and everything they did right. We need to see where they messed up, and where they nailed it. We’re lucky to have the entire twentieth century covered, at our fingertips. If there’s one thing that classic movies teach us is that as a society, we’ve been here before.
How can we lose our way when we’ve been here before?
Lionel Barrymore remarks in You Can’t Take it With You (1938): “Lincoln said, 'With malice toward none, with charity to all.' Nowadays they say, 'Think the way I do or I'll bomb the daylights outta you.”
We’ve been here before. We can handle this. In times of trouble, that’s a great comfort.
Let’s use that wealth of knowledge, that wealth of understanding and empathy that classic films give us to enrich our lives. Here are the voices of our parents and our grandparents and our great-grandparents. Listen. We don’t need to lose our grip on our senses, on our nerves, or on our democracy, not if we remember who we are, and where we’ve been. Where we are going will depend a good deal on that.
As Gary Cooper says in Meet John Doe, urging his radio listeners that to become idealistic is the best way to ward off fascism—“Let’s not wait until the game is called on account of darkness.”
I am not an old movie weirdo. I like classic movies in much the same way I enjoy classical music. There are only a couple public radio stations in my area that play classical music. It is represented on public television only occasionally. Just because modern American society doesn’t make it easy for me to have access to this music, doesn’t mean that Bach is irrelevant.
And nor does liking it make me a “weirdo”. Some schools, either on the junior high or high school level, either in the form of band class or a visiting chamber music quartet will attempt to introduce students to classical music, even if only for a single class in a single semester. Some schools do much more. Is that weird?
No. It’s considered culture. Then it should not be weird to show them The Crowd (1928), or Fury (1936), or The Oxbow Incident (1943).
Trump? This too shall pass. We know that phrase. But pass unto what if we allow his type of candidate to become the norm?
Next month in part 2 of this series: come back for a review of film blogger Cliff Aliperti’s new book on Helen Twelvetrees: Helen Twelvetrees, Perfect Ingenue: Rediscovering a 1930s Movie Star and Her 32 Films and how today’s classic film bloggers, with all the resources available to them, are equal to the best film historians and critics.
Next week—back to the movies.
"Jacqueline T. Lynch creates a poignant and thoroughly-researched mosaic of memories of a fine, upstanding human being who also happens to be a legendary entertainer." - Deborah Thomas, Java's Journey
"One of the great strengths of Ann Blyth: Actress. Singer. Star. is that Lynch not only gives an excellent overview of Blyth's career -- she offers detailed analyses of each of Blyth's roles -- but she puts them in the context of the larger issues of the day."- Amanda Garrett, Old Hollywood Films
"Jacqueline's book will hopefully cause many more people to take a look at this multitalented woman whose career encompassed just about every possible aspect of 20th Century entertainment." - Laura Grieve, Laura's Miscellaneous Musings
"Jacqueline T. Lynch’s Ann Blyth: Actress. Singer. Star. is an extremely well researched undertaking that is a must for all Blyth fans." - Annette Bochenek, Hometowns to Hollywood
Ann Blyth: Actress. Singer. Star.
by Jacqueline T. Lynch
The first book on the career of actress Ann Blyth. Multitalented and remarkably versatile, Blyth began on radio as a child, appeared on Broadway at the age of twelve in Lillian Hellman's Watch on the Rhine, and enjoyed a long and diverse career in films, theatre, television, and concerts. A sensitive dramatic actress, the youngest at the time to be nominated for her role in Mildred Pierce (1945), she also displayed a gift for comedy, and was especially endeared to fans for her expressive and exquisite lyric soprano, which was showcased in many film and stage musicals. Still a popular guest at film festivals, lovely Ms. Blyth remains a treasure of the Hollywood's golden age.
The eBook and paperback are available from Amazon and CreateSpace, which is the printer. You can also order it from my Etsy shop. It is also available at the Broadside Bookshop, 247 Main Street, Northampton, Massachusetts.
If you wish a signed copy, then email me at JacquelineTLynch@gmail.com and I'll get back to you with the details.
My new syndicated column SILVER SCREEN, GOLDEN YEARS, on classic film is up at Go60 or check with your local paper.