It’s the idealism.It’s the idealism (sometimes dismissed as
propaganda, sometimes spurned as naiveté) that is most powerful about classic
films and cannot be duplicated today.
We are in a more cynical age, where we
mistrust idealism.We also resent even
the merest suggestion that a film might be preaching to us.We don’t mind being preached to by
hypocritical politicians, by hypocritical television advertisers who think they
are telling us what we want to know or confirming our worse fears to induce us
to buy their products, and by actual preachers whose personal wealth puts them
in the camel-through-the-eye-of-a-needle category.
But if a movie tries to make us rally
around a simple concept of decency, honor, and patriotism – by suggesting that
we are all decent, honorable, and patriotic – the modern audience that does not
like classic films hoots in derision (or worse).
“One might suspect their morality,” says
the haughty Nazi officer of the compromised crowd of partygoers at the German
embassy in Watch on the Rhine (1943).
I love that movie, loved it since I was
a teenager, and marveled at its message of idealism in action.“So the time has come,” Paul Lukas, the
professional antifascist says, “This time it is of the utmost importance.”
interesting that today much of the former open vehemence of prejudice has
shifted from the now socially unacceptable derision against race or religion to
the more socially acceptable ridicule of political affiliation.
“Conservative” and “liberal” are used today like dirty words, accusing labels,
where the opposing political party, or politician, or even individual voter, is
vilified with a degree of condescension, arrogance, and meanness that would
appall most of us were it applied against a person’s race or religion. It is no longer enough to simply disagree. We must condemn.
How naïve those words sound today, like those old
movies that espoused idealism.Our level
of political and social discourse has sunk far lower; open bigotry is accepted
by society and unquestioned in the media.I could not imagine then that the fascists who reviled, taunted, and
condemned Barak Obama for his paternal African American heritage would continue
to do so for his entire two-term presidency, unchallenged by a media that reveled in any controversy fired by lies.I certainly did not imagine that an evil, idiotic piece of filth like
Donald Trump would ever become his party’s nominee for the highest political
office in this country and the leader of the (formerly known as) free world.
This is the 11th part of our year-long
monthly series on the state of the classic film fan.In my first post in January, I specifically
referred to Donald Trump, in affirming our American idealism as such that he
could not possibly be elected president.From that post in January:
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.
So we find ourselves, we classic film fans, at a
crossroads.Are our old movies a model,
or an escape? In my youth, they were a
model; for I had nothing to escape from that I was aware.Now, in middle age, I don’t know. My earlier confidence that Trump was not a
threat to the vigor of our democracy was clearly foolish.I did not imagine that so large a number of
people in this country could be so devoid of intelligence or integrity to
support him; nor a media so lazy, greedy and corrupt that it failed its duties
as the Fourth Estate; nor a Republican party so eager to roll over and play
Frank Capra’s Prelude
to War, the first in his World War II Why
We Fight series would, understandably, be labeled as propaganda today, but
it was a powerful teaching tool that easily instructed a populace about to face
the greatest evil of modern times on why it would have to risk death doing so.The film quoted politicians, scripture, the
words of Confucius, and from the Koran, and talked about Americans as a diverse
society free and strong because of its diversity. It just assumed its audience agreed.Such “propaganda” dragged conservative
isolationists to the table, and to the fascists among us – certain Jew-haters
and industrialists – it made them shut up.
Their brand of wickedness was no longer
How did it get to be fashionable again, and make idealism
I love the old movies that lead off with a paragraph
scrolling before the first scene.We don’t
have that anymore; nobody likes wordiness, or the feeling that they are being
preached to.Watch on the Rhine begins with these words:
the first week of April 1940 there were few men in the world who could have
believed that in less than three months, Denmark, Norway, Belgium, Holland and
France would fall to the German invaders.
there were some men, ordinary men, not prophets, who knew this mighty tragedy
was on the way.They had fought it from
the beginning and they understood it.
are most deeply in their debt…
Such unabashed idealism, so unashamedly taking sides
against fascism, without reserve.Of
course, the movie, unlike the play on which it was based, was produced during
wartime, so it took little courage to point out our enemies for what they were,
though Warner Bros. had a better track record on that that the other studios.
Another movie, Meet
John Doe (1941), which we covered here, was even more courageous for
picking out a fascist villain that was purely American: a businessman who
wanted to take political control for personal gain.Sound familiar?James Gleason, in a wonderful scene of
slightly drunken disgust, implores the very naïve Gary Cooper to open those
beautiful eyes of his and see what is painfully apparent:
mixed up with a skunk.A no-good
I get mad for a lot of
other guys besides myself.I get mad for
a guy named Washington, and a guy named Jefferson, and Lincoln.Lighthouses, John, lighthouses in a foggy
The fascist businessman is…
“…trying to worm his
way into the White House, so he could put the screws in, so he could turn out
the lights in those lighthouses…”
Leave it to Frank Capra to have the guts to risk calling the
common folk a bunch of saps, and then raising them to herculean majesty when
they see their error, and put the brakes on evil.The little guys convince Gary Cooper to carry
Barbara Stanwyck off the snowy rooftop and back to safety and a new fight, as
James Gleason, cynical and yet idealistic, and thoroughly righteous member of
the Fourth Estate taunts the businessman fascist,
“There ya are Norton, the people.Try and lick that!”And the movie ends with ringing of church
bells and the triumphant swell of Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony.
No, that sort of thing wouldn’t happen today in a
movie.We’re too smug.
I wonder what the demographic is among political
affiliations among classic film fans?From what I have observed on blogs and social media, old movie buffs are
a wonderfully diverse group, where both liberal and conservative voters are
equally drawn to classic films and can unite in our appreciation of their
artistry and value to our culture.
“But I do not believe
for a moment that he will be elected president.”
That was my comment in January.I did not think that by November I would be
so ashamed of my country for laughing at a vulgar joke, for allowing a faction
of stupid bigots to forsake common sense and common decency in order to vent
In my complaint that modern critics found Gentleman’s Agreement too preachy:
Casablanca is also
dated and preachy, but its bad guys were the Nazis, so we don’t mind speeches
against them.In Gentleman’s
Agreement, we are the bad guys, or we
could be if we’re not careful. That’s
Now I wonder if there isn’t a very large segment of our
population—Trump supporters—that would, if they were shown Casablanca for the first time, cheer for the Nazis?
We’ll see on Tuesday.As Paul Lukas, the professional antifascist, says in Watch on the Rhine when he fears the
greedy George Coulouris will sell him to the Nazis for a price,
“We will wait, and we will see.”
If the outcome is bleak, will classic films continue to
inspire courage and decency, or just serve as an escape from a society
decomposing? I suppose I am waiting naively, idealistically, for the happy ending, the ringing of bells, and the soaring strain of Beethoven's Ninth in the background. But it will never come again.