Thursday, November 24, 2016

Happy Thanksgiving

To our American readers:  Happy Thanksgiving.

Nyuk, nyuk, nyuk.  (As they say in Plymouth, Mass.)

Thursday, November 17, 2016

Meet & Greet & Book Signing

I will be signing books and visiting with readers and shoppers at Blue Umbrella Books in Westfield on Saturday, December 3rd from 2 p.m. to 6 p.m.

Blue Umbrella Books, located at 2 Main Street, Westfield, Mass., right on the common, carries all my books, which will be available for sale and signing. Please stop by and chat if you have the time.

Or start your holiday shopping.

Thursday, November 3, 2016

Naive Idealism -- Part 11 of the State of the Classic Film Fan

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.”

So it is.  We finally vote this coming Tuesday.  This nation has not been in such crisis in decades, or in such danger since 9/11.  Some weeks ago, we discussed several movies in a series about fascism as represented in classic films: The Mortal Storm (1940),  Address Unknown (1944),  Storm Warning (1951),  Keeper of the Flame (1942), and Seven Days in May (1964).

Eight years ago, I wrote another pre-election day post, a two-part series on Gentleman’s Agreement (1949), part 1 here and part 2 here.  In this passage from that series, I remarked on the surprising nastiness of the 2008 campaign year:

How 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:

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.

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 dead. 

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 fashionable. 

How did it get to be fashionable again, and make idealism passé?

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:

In 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.

But 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.

We 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:

You’re mixed up with a skunk.  A no-good dangerous skunk…

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 world…”

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 their vileness.

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 the difference.

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.

Past posts in this series here:

Part 1 of the year-long series on the current state of the classic film buff is here: A Classic Film Manifesto. 

Part 2 is here: Cliff Aliperti’s new book on Helen Twelvetrees.

Part 3 is here: An interview with Kay Noske of Movie Star Makeover.

Part 4 is here: Evolution of the Classic Film Fan.

Part 5 is here: Gathering of the Clan at Classic Film Festivals.

The audio book for Ann Blyth: Actress. Singer. Star. is now for sale on, and on Amazon and iTunes.

Also in paperback and eBook from Amazon.

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