May 19, 2005

by Joe Sobran

     One of the ways I like to study American history is 
by watching old Hollywood movies, especially those made 
(usually in black and white) around and before 1946, the 
year I was born. I don't mean historical movies as such; 
Hollywood has always courted absurdity when it has 
consciously tried to show historical persons and events 
as they actually were, as in its sentimental portrayals 
of "great" presidents. I like them best when they show us 
history by accident.

     Old movies show us old manners, the standards of 
behavior that used to hold American society together. The 
rules were mostly implicit, enforced less by law than by 
civil affections. We became conscious of those rules 
mostly when they'd lost their authority. Before that we 
took them so much for granted that we hardly knew they 
were there.

     Oddly enough, it's when the movies aren't trying to 
tell us anything that they often tell us most. They give 
us accurate reflections of the way people really thought 
they should behave when they weren't even thinking about 
their manners. They show us what Americans of another 
time could safely assume -- a country enviably at peace 
with itself, even in wartime.

     I was amused a few years ago when I watched an old 
film in which Humphrey Bogart has an auto accident and 
wakes up in the hospital. He is lying in bed smoking a 
cigarette. Imagine a time when Americans could light up 
in hospitals! It was called freedom.

     In the old version of MIRACLE ON 34TH STREET 
(released in 1947), the real miracle seems to be 34th 
Street itself. The street is marvelously clean; bums and 
garbage are nowhere in sight. All the New Yorkers are 
well dressed and polite to each other. Good breeding is 
taken for granted. And, as in all old movies, you don't 
hear any foul language.

     In the old Hollywood musicals, you also hear 
something you don't hear much anymore: namely, music. 
People with fine voices sing melodies with witty lyrics. 
They sing about romance and keep their clothes on. Their 
great aspiration is to get married -- permanently. And 
preferably to someone of the opposite sex.

     In the old movies, people pray and go to church. 
Sometimes miracles happen to them; often their prayers 
are answered. Spirituality is a natural part of their 
lives. In fact, entire movies could be made about 
religious subjects without protest from the 
Anti-Defamation League. Many movies were pitched to 
Catholics who had come in huge numbers from Europe and 
Ireland and sought acceptance as Americans.

     GENTLEMAN'S AGREEMENT was thought daringly liberal 
in its day (also 1947) for depicting social 
discrimination against Jews, but now it seems very 
conservative. A casual shot of Grand Central Station 
shows women wearing dresses, hats, gloves, and high 
heels. A scene in an office building shows the latest 
high-tech gadget: an intercom.

     You can easily get the false impression from old 
films that living was cheaper in those days, because the 
prices of things were nominally much lower. A dollar in 
1946, even with postwar inflation, could buy more than 
you can get for $10 now. So what these movies actually 
tell us is how much the government and the banking system 
have debased the currency since then -- a vital aspect of 
history we rarely pay attention to. I recently watched a 
film in which Cary Grant, trying to impress a woman, 
tells her he makes a hundred dollars a week. (We know 
he's exaggerating.)

     In the old movies people are always patriotically 
loyal to the government, but they can also assume that 
the government will generally leave them alone. They also 
feel that the government belongs to them and will respond 
to what the people really want. This is of a piece with 
the general absence of cynicism in the old Hollywood, 
though Frank Capra's films, for all their optimism, hint 
that government has its dangers if it falls into the 
hands of the wrong people.

     What the old Hollywood really celebrated was 
normality. Its vision of the normal was imperfect, often 
corny, but what a relief it affords from today's 
corrosive obsession with the abnormal and the alienated. 
The movies of that era furnish a sort of historical 
record of the American spirit.


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