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“Subculture” is a word that springs to mind when I think about my eclectic upbringing. I was the product of the homeschool movement, dropping out of public school after Kindergarten in the mid-nineties. And yet, not only did my house never boast a chalkboard or spinning wheel, my mother was quite fashionable and even changed her hairstyles frequently. I lived in a foreign country for a while, but was never quite inducted into the secret society of Missionary Kids. I went to church a few times a week, but was spared the purity rings, church camps and obsession with alternative music. I lived on a cattle ranch in south Texas, but failed to fall for rhinestones. I took ballroom dancing for years but never sewed period costumes. I kept a garden every summer but we wore shoes and took flu vaccines. I have eight siblings, but none of them were born in our bathtub.
However, one thing my parents were strict about was movies. Though we never boycotted Disney or bashed movies that “glorified the occult” such as Mary Poppins, we weren’t allowed to watch anything deemed “tacky” by mother. Foul language, sexual scenes, gore or excessive violence and, last but not least, back-talking teens, were not permitted. We grew up on The Sword in the Stone, The Aristocats, Winnie the Pooh, Bed Knob and Broomstick and The Love Bug. Ninja Turtles and Rugrats were out. As we got older, however, we began to struggle to find interesting movies which weren’t deemed crass. Thus was born my lifelong love of old movies.
Old Movies are Clean Movies…right?
I began collecting old movies because they didn’t make me nervous. I wasn’t afraid that a new-to-me movie from 1950 would have nudity or bad language. It was a relief, especially as my younger siblings started to watch with me, to not have to worry about covering eyes and ears. However, not all old movies are “clean.” It is funny to me what was considered permissible or not back then, but there were very strict rules. I won’t go into all the details, but actors used to be signed to one studio for their whole career, and those studios were closely monitored for content. Words like “idiot” and “jerk” were considered not okay, but innuendo could run rampant. There was even a rule that bad guys had to get their dues by the end of the movie. Spouses slept in separate beds, and the word “pregnant” had to be scratched from the script of I Love Lucy, but crazed men could chase scantily clad women, unwed sex and illegitimate children could be implied and the burlesque shows of the day were often portrayed in nightclub scenes. We have learned over the years that just because a movie is old doesn’t mean it’s clean and the standards changed with every year.
Old movies represent another era.
Something that can frustrate me when I introduce one of my friends to an old favorite of mine, is the sheer ignorance about that era that causes them to miss the point. You cannot fully enjoy a movie if you have no context for it. Movies from the 30’s will leave you scratching your head if your ear isn’t tuned for their quick, witty dialogue recorded on ancient equipment. Classic musicals will bore you if you aren’t expecting long dance sequences (the movies were made around the music, not vice-versa.) The references in the 1940’s flicks will soar over your head if you don’t consider the war that was on. The lighthearted, almost obscenely silly films from the 50’s will repulse you if you don’t put yourself in the shoes of a country, finally at rest after a depression and draft. Much changes in dress, morality and style when you hit the 60’s, but I beg to differ if you think their clothes are any weirder than some of the stuff we wear today. Many people see the 60’s as a downturn for our country, but the edgy topics addressed in these movies did us a world of good. For the first time ever, women are being represented as whole human beings regardless of marital status, African Americans are landing leading roles and breaking stereotypes and everyone is flashing the peace sign. There is certainly something to learn from every era!
Race According to Old Movies
Something you have to consider when watching films from another era, is the huge changes in worldview our country has experienced. Many of the movies I love were made during World War II, but the implications can be hard to swallow. Japanese and German people are often portrayed in a cartoonish, insulting light. Just YouTube some Looney Toons from that era for a perfect example. Most Americans were happy to laugh along with these movies, seeing them as obvious enemies. I hope that no one would find these scenes funny today, but that doesn’t mean I don’t enjoy any movies from that era. They can be good conversation starters for the kids in your life, too.
Since four out of six of my younger siblings are black, I am extra aware of the portrayal of black people in old movies we watch together. Unfortunately, there are almost no black stars from the 30’s, 40’s or 50’s for them to admire. Black actors typically played slaves, porters, “mamies,” entertainers or some other type of comedic side character. Offensive stereotypes gallop across the screen in excess. On top of that, movies in which black characters seem to believe they are being treated well by the white characters can make me cringe in 2016. Much has changed–which is wonderful–and much is yet to change, but the roles of non-white characters in old movies has to be accepted as part of a culture, no matter how debase, from another era. Though I don’t like to make a lesson out of every movie, and sometimes letting something go over heads is just peachy, I don’t hesitate to make comments about what we’re watching. Comments like, “Wow, that’s horrible. Can you imagine living in a time like that?” affirm that what we are seeing is something, or should be something, left in the past.
Some of my favorite old movies which touch on race:
The Imitation of Life (1934 and 1959)
Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner (1967)
To Kill a Mockingbird (1962)
Gender According to Old Movies
This could be a whole article itself…or book, or series of books. But in short, it’s easy for a modern woman to get her feathers ruffled by the portrayal of women on the silver screen of days gone by. I won’t speak for men, but I’m sure their stereotypical roles feel constrictive in their own ways. For women, we must deal with an awful lot of age-old assumptions. Men can run around and do as they please, but if a woman is out past her curfew, her reputation could be permanently marred. Women are often portrayed as gullible, manipulative, dumb, volatile, helpless, subdued and oh-so-fragile. In very early films, we seem to faint at any change in schedule. After that, we are constantly changing ourselves to win a husband. Then we find working girls passed up for being masculine, grown girls mourned for being passed up and middle-aged women confined to their rocking chairs and deemed non-vital. Many of these movies teach that domesticity is second only to sex appeal. Cue dance number.
However, many old movies moved us forward in our thinking, even if only by an inch. There are lots of good movies about women from decades past and I’ll share some of my favorite titles. The important thing is to identify the societal expectations and move on. You can still enjoy a movie, even if it doesn’t pass the Bechdel test. Remember, many things we balk at now were considered quite revolutionary back then. For example, it caused quite a stir that Mary Tyler Moore wore capris in The Dick Van Dyke Show. She argued that real women don’t wear poofy dresses and pearls to do their housework! So what if she does all the housework in the entire show? It is a step, and that’s how we get places.
I’ve written before about why I waited to show my little sister Gigi and My Fair Lady.
Some of my favorite movies about women and gender equality are:
Adam’s Rib (1949)
Woman of the Year (1942)
Inn of the Sixth Happiness (1958)
Drugs and Alcohol According to Old Movies
This is a perfect example of being tolerant of differences, era by era. My adolescent sisters are often horrified when they see one of their beautiful icons smoking a nasty-wasty cigarette. You have to realize, though, that virtually everyone in America in the 50’s and 60’s smoked or lived with someone who did. It was considered both posh and normal. In 1965, 50% of men and 33% of women smoked regularly. Cigarettes were even part of military rations until 1975! Pipes were considered cozy and respectable, cigars represented wealth or celebrations (such as when your wife has a baby while you sit in the smoky waiting room!) and the ever-elegant Audrey Hepburn iconified the long cigarette holder in her role in Breakfast at Tiffany’s.
Alcohol was also prevalent in the oldies. Even kids’ movies featured alcohol use and abuse. Drunkenness was often portrayed as comedic. Men always needed a drink after a big shock, women planned cocktail parties galore, many a camera peered inside pubs and bars and unshaven men stumbled around with bottles in their hands. Though none of this has ever tempted me to create my own bad habits, it’s not a bad place to put in a good word in front of kids. As funny as it is when a drunk man in an old movie gets behind the wheel, driving while intoxicated is no laughing matter. In general, we don’t let the smoke and booze deter us from enjoying an otherwise great movie.
Why I Still Adore Old Movies
Though I make my own decisions about what I watch these days, and some of those movies even have back-talking teenagers in them, my love for old movies has never faded. I absolutely love watching the fashion evolve. The hats of the 40’s, the party dresses, smocks and pumps of the 50’s and playful palate of the 60’s all draw me in. Oh, and the shiny cars.
I love the voices and accents, the color of the film, the orchestra scores and the show tunes. I love the drama, the wit, the dancing and the set design. I love Frank Capra’s heartwarming plot lines, Alfred Hitchcock’s heart-stopping plot twists and the talented actors and actresses who could handle both. I love that I can explore tough topics through old films without being berated with f-bombs and steamy bedroom scenes. Old movies represent a different era, but I love that. I love seeing the world, for a couple of hours at a time, through the eyes of another generation. The good, the bad and the backward, I’ll take it all. Now if only we could make more old movies…