Anthony Esolen

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Why you should watch old movies, and eschew the smut of the new

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In my last essay for LifeSiteNews, I declared the following: “We cannot allow the television, or the movie screen, or, God forbid, the leaking sewer of popular novels to form our imaginations.” Nor do I retract it. My point there was to assert that the prime fashioner of our metaphysical and moral imagination – the faculty whereby we recognize the beauty of what is, and the goodness of what ought to be done – should be our faith. When we enter a church, when we open the Scriptures, when we pray on our knees, when we sing true hymns, we should be compassed round with a great cloud of beauty. We should be born in wonder.

But we don't linger in church all day long. We have to work, study, play, keep house, cook meals, love our spouses, raise our children, and enjoy the company of our friends. In times past, we might show up with our neighbors at the local playhouse, to watch a comedy routine, or a magic act, or a local repertory company staging Aida, or a traveling troupe of actors performing The Merry Wives of Windsor; and in a real sense it was a popular culture. It came from the people, it affirmed their loves and pieties, it consoled them in their grief, and it led them to dwell upon this confusing life of ours. At its greatest it gave them a solemn glance into the mystery of the world. At the least it gave them innocent amusement.

Let us turn our children's attention to films from the past, teaching them how to watch them and appreciate them – and giving them, as a bonus, a distaste for the current fare of bombast, leftist cliché, profanity, pretty boy actors, slatternly actresses, computer generated images, and smut.

We can't recreate that world. It requires more than any one of us can muster to revive a truly popular culture. But we can enter that world at a second remove. Consider the difference between films made during the first two or three generations of cinema, and films made now. I'll concede that in the great disintegration of the west, Hollywood will have played its part. But along with its thrust towards dissolution and amorality, there was also, especially in films made before that collapse of Hollywood's self-restraint which resulted in the sleaze-blessing rating system, a countermovement, affirming the goodness of common people and the ordinary institutions of a human life. 

Those films were made by men who remembered what it was to work in the fields or in the mines or on the girders. They were made by women who remembered what it was to till a garden, to patch a dress, to put up fruit and vegetables, and to make life sweet in poverty more materially severe than what the poorest among us now have experienced or perhaps can imagine. They were made by Jews who could chant prayers in Hebrew, and by Catholics who made the sign of the cross whenever they passed by a church, and by Protestants who had the sentences of the King James Bible ringing in their memory. I'm not saying that the actors and writers and directors were pious. Many of them were, and many were not. But they at least remembered these pieties. And their films are therefore often pious without intending to be so.

The best movies affirming the sanctity of every human life were made before people took it into their heads to approve the snuffing out of inconvenient children. They are powerful witnesses to that sanctity precisely because they took it for granted, just as when we go outdoors we take for granted the fresh air and sunshine. The best movies affirming the beauty of manhood and womanhood, and their being for one another, to enhance and complete one another, were made before people fell under the new censorship, that which allows obscenities left and right, but bans the thought that men build the house and women make the home. They did more than take the differences for granted. They, like people in every healthy culture, reveled in them, found them fascinating, frustrating, comical, attractive, and sweet.

In other words, we don't have to wait until people who love what is normal raise tens of millions of dollars to produce a film. We wish them the best, but while they're fighting on that front, we can turn our children's attention to films from the past, teaching them how to watch them and appreciate them – and giving them, as a bonus, a distaste for the current fare of bombast, leftist cliché, profanity, pretty boy actors, slatternly actresses, computer generated images, and smut.

And to do this we don't have to go again and again to such classics as Casablanca and The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance and On the Waterfront, although we should certainly go there, too. Take for example a movie that few people will have heard of: Make Way for Tomorrow, by the Catholic director Leo McCarey.

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McCarey is best remembered for Going My Way and The Bells of Saint Mary's, the two movies in which he directed Bing Crosby as the problem solving priest, Father O'Malley. But his other movies deserve to be remembered also. For the most part they feature ordinary people in ordinary situations, confronted with difficult moral decisions, requiring self-denial, tact, and quiet heroism.

The situation for the main characters in Make Way for Tomorrow is simple enough. We have an elderly couple, married for fifty years. They are played by Victor Moore and Beulah Bondi. Miss Bondi made a long career out of playing mothers (Mr. Smith Goes to Washington, It's a Wonderful Life), motherly figures (the head of the adoption agency in Penny Serenade, another movie that says more against divorce than twenty books of theology can), and grandmothers and great aunts (the old pistol Martha Corinne in The Waltons, when she was nearly ninety). Here she plays a mother to five grown children who are tired of her.

Mr. and Mrs. Cooper have lost their home to a bank foreclosure, to the surprise and displeasure of their children. Mrs. Cooper then moves in with her son George (played by Thomas Mitchell, Mr. O'Hara in Gone With the Wind), and Mr. Cooper moves in with his daughter Cora, hundreds of miles away. The children are not monsters, but they are not patterns of filial piety. The old man and the old lady are in the way. Nothing sensational from either side; sin is rarely sensational. For example, one evening the younger people are throwing a party, and are playing hearts. Mrs. Cooper starts to reminisce about playing hearts in the old days, and tossing the queen of spades to an opponent. She looks over a shoulder here and there, saying, “Well, that's a fine hand,” and “You've got her!” That is the sort of thing she does, and her husband too. Nosy comments about how to raise the grandchildren or how to cook this or that; telling stories they have told a hundred times; physical needs that have to be met.

So the children conspire to do the “best” for Mom and Pop. Old Mr. Cooper has a heart condition, and when his health worsens, Mrs. Cooper has to take care of him, so now the two are under one roof. That makes the situation unbearable for the children. They seize upon a diagnosis by the doctor. Mr. Cooper must go to California, to a dry climate. That's where one of the daughters lives. She's willing to take her father in, but not her mother. She can't handle both. And it must be admitted: they are not easy to handle. 

Then comes the day when they must part. The children have arranged a dinner for them at home, but Mr. and Mrs. Cooper decide to go into town to visit old places they had known, and while they are doing that, it dawns on them that they might as well not see the children before Mr. Cooper's train leaves. They go to the hotel where they spent their honeymoon; it is now a luxury hotel, with a vast lobby, a piano player, and many people milling about. When they mention to the girl behind the counter and to the concierge that fifty years ago they came to this place, they are treated with a gentle and heartfelt courtesy that seems, to my eyes, to come from another world.

I won't give away the ending, except to say that McCarey's understatement never worked to better effect. Miss Bondi's countenance at the train station says all that needs to be said.      

When we acquire a taste for steak, mudpies won't satisfy. If young people learn to appreciate good art, they will have little patience for the ugly and foolish: A Night to Remember will blow Titanic out of the water. What they might not hear coming from the pulpit, they might see and hear and feel when coming from the screen. We should welcome our allies wherever we find them.

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Anthony Esolen

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Anthony currently serves as professor of English at Providence College, and is perhaps best known for his widely acclaimed translation of Dante’s Divine Comedy. He has also authored several original works, including The Politically Incorrect Guide to Western Civilization and the satirically titled Ten Ways to Destroy the Imagination of Your Child. He regularly writes for publications including The Catholic Thing and Crisis Magazine.

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