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 Movies as History 

May 19, 2005 
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 Today's column is "Movies as History" -- Read Joe's columns the day he writes them.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.

[Breaker quote for Movies as History: What old Hollywood can teach us]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.

Joseph Sobran

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