I Worry About Cary Grant [Updated]

…and James Cagney. And Kirk Douglas. And Bette Davis. And Rita Hayworth.

Seeing Kirk Douglas at the Golden Globes revived the concern that every Christmas season intensifies for me, when I realize that it is only Christmas that keeps such giants of entertainment past as Gene Autry, Bing Crosby and Dean Martin from fading into permanent obscurity.  The cultural figures who we remember are mostly the beneficiaries of moral luck, not a fair merit-based calculation. It is a random process, and culture, which is significantly defined by who and what we remember and who and what we forget, should not be shaped by coincidence, chance, and random amnesia.

It should not be, but it is. A classic example outside the realm of entertainment is the strange case of  Col. Joshua Lawrence Chamberlain, the hero of Little Round Top in the Battle of Gettysburg, and by some assessments the savior of the Union itself. When the story of Gettysburg was assembled by the battlefield commission, plaques erected and statues placed. Chamberlain’s desperate stand protecting the Union army’s flanks on Day Two of the battle didn’t make the cut. Despite as remarkable a career as anyone from Maine could have, and more than one shining moment of distinction during the Civil War, he was forgotten for more than a century. Then a brilliant, best-selling historical novel, “The Killer Angels,” recounted his heroics leading the 20th Maine so vividly that Chamberlain memory was re-animated, and began receiving the attention from historians that it deserved from the start.

In popular culture, whether a performer’s unique talents and contributions are remembered after more than a generation is now almost entirely dependent on whether there is a film featuring them that is regularly presented on television. Only a handful of performers who have permanently entered iconic status avoid that standard: I’d include Charlie Chaplin, Marilyn Monroe, Fred Astaire, Judy Garland, Shirley Temple and John Wayne in this category, with a few debatable others. (And even the Little Tramp, MM, Fred, Judy and The Duke aren’t necessarily  safe: once Rudolf Valentino, Laurel and Hardy, Lon Cheney, Greta Garbo, Boris Karloff and James Dean could be safely called icons. I doubt one Millennial in a hundred could identify any of them. Marlene Dietrich has a thumb-hold on her iconic status only because of  Madeline Kahn’s film-long send-up of her in “Blazing Saddles.”)

To an increasing extent, cultural survival  means color films, which in turn eliminates all of the great and unique stars whose best films were black and white. “The Wizard of Oz” guarantees that Judy Garland will continue to be remembered (though her unmatched singing should be the real reason), but the great James Cagney, whose best tough guy films are already rarely seen and who only survives in popular culture because “Yankee Doodle Dandy,” a completely atypical example of his work, is a July 4th staple, is on the bubble. So is Gary Cooper, one of the most honored and successful actors in history, whose only film that is generally known any more is the black and white “High Noon.” Cagney’s and Cooper’s current claim to fame are in black-and -white, and may soon be deemed unwatchable. James Stewart is still known by my son’s generation because of “It’s a Wonderful Life”—so far the Christmas link has trumped the anti-black and white bias– but “Mister Smith Goes To Washington”and “The Philadelphia Story” are unknown to most of them.  This has nothing to do with Stewart’s best work or talent. How often will future generations see “Rear Window”? Not often. Even Humphrey Bogart, a borderline icon, isn’t safe from obscurity. I have been repeatedly shocked at how few Millennials have seen “Casablanca,” much less “Key Largo” or “The Maltese Falcon.” Will “To Kill A Mockingbird” keep Gregory Peck in our cultural consciousness?

I wonder. And I worry.

Charlton Heston was lucky: he starred in two full-color block-busters that are a good bet to be shown 50 years hence, “The Ten Commandments” and “Ben-Hur.”  If “Gone With The Wind” doesn’t get banned by the political correctness mob, and it might, Clark Cable has a chance to be remembered, but that’s his only hold on immortality despite being regarded as the “King of Hollywood” for most of his career. “The Godfather” saved Marlon Brando, but the larger, more typical roles that made young Marlon an icon in  the Fifties and Sixties–“A Streetcar Named Desire” and “The Wild One”–are on TV rarely.

But what will preserve the memory of Cary Grant? In one end of the last century poll, Grant was chosen the #1 Hollywood star of all time, but none of his best films, or really any of them, are frequently seen on TV.  He is fading into oblivion, as are Spencer Tracy, Randolph Scott, John Garfield, Henry Fonda, Bob Hope, Kirk Douglas and Lawrence Olivier. The same is true of actresses Bette Davis, Katherine Hepburn, Audrey Hepburn, Rita Hayworth, Greer Garson, Irene Dunn, and Ava Gardner.

One would think YouTube would be the savior of our culture, but you have to know what to look for to know what you missed. This rich, varied, marvelous tapestry of talents and performances is fading away, leaving our culture poorer and our public cheated of perspective and wonder.  I don’t have any idea what to do about it.

Let me leave you with an  example of the kinds of unique performers whose talents have been effectively lost to our culture forever. Here (I know I’ve posted this before) is a major tragedy of cultural amnesia, the unmatched and unmatchable Nicholas Bothers:

77 thoughts on “I Worry About Cary Grant [Updated]

  1. I am collecting many of the old black-and-whites on DVD and, when I can find them, Blu-Ray, for my grandchildren. I have over a thousand movies and my son is promising to copy them to hard drives and distribute them to the kids. He won’t, of course, unless pressed to do so by the grand kids. It’s the thought that counts.

  2. Only reason for this comment is that I neglected to check the Notify Me box. Did I mention I am 72? My grand daughter calls it ‘Old Timers’ disease.

  3. Jack, Thanks for this post, you’ve inspired me to rewatch Captains Courageous on Amazon. Holy Cow, it’s been probably 35 years since I’ve seen this movie and it still holds up. Two thumbs up!

  4. The internet was supposed to make us all smarter because, it was assumed, people WANTED to be educated and culturally enriched. They just didn’t have easy enough access to all of the world’s great knowledge and art.

    What a reality check it has been.

  5. My grandparents watched old movies staring Mae West and others such as Ma and Pa Kettle, Little Abner, Fred Astaire, Frances the Talking Mule, etc. Since I lived with them and there was only one tv in the house, I watched them too. I’m so glad I did because they sure don’t make them like they use to.

  6. I have to agree, in general with Steve Langton. What exactly are we asking for here? Facial recognition of the actor and an ability to recollect every great movie ever produced? What’s the goal of Cultural Memory? It cannot be the rote memorization of EVERY SINGLE great artist, producer and creator of art & culture. 1, we’d never have time to get around to memorizing ALL of it, 2, we’d never have time to get around to viewing all of it, 3, we’d never have any time to get around producing new examples of it, 4, we’d never have any time to get around doing anything else that life calls us to do.

    The great conversation, as it is called, which is the ongoing “dialogue” between artists of the present with their contemporaries as well as with their predecessors. Artists take the concepts that are explored in the past, the debates had between opposing concepts in the past, and rework them in the present, either shedding light on new angles or re-engaging the old arguments, or bolstering new arguments. This long process of cultural production has produced MILLIONS of individual works and, without a doubt, TENS of thousands of artists. Of those countless producers & performers, we can assume there are many many thousands of individual works that could be called “culturally iconic” or “unique” or “ground breaking” and thousands of artists.

    Feeling less well read that I ought to, I compiled a list of what several thinkers considered to be the “Western Canon”: a list of essential books that captured the literary and written philosophy component of this “Great Conversation”, with the goal of plodding through them over my lifetime.

    930 books. Just the books.

    The authors, as I read their names, certainly had recognizable names and I could probably guess relatively accurately the eras they wrote in. Could I reasonably hold a discussion or even mention some prominent idea found in them? Maybe 10% of that list. With any level of deeper understanding? Less than that.

    But what I could do, without those books, is hold a relatively well thought out conversation about the ideas that most of those books were also exploring. Why? Because that is what cultural memory does for us, without being able to hold an in depth idea about a particular work of art, we can still be able to hold in depth ideas about the particular notion that a work of art was exploring. Because cultural memory goes a great way towards preserving, through the Great Conversation, all those ideas and philosophies and beauties and art, without me having to memorize in rote detail the specifics of each work.

    930 books, considered essential to grasp the great conversation of *just* Western Culture. How many paintings & painters? How many concertos and composers? How many sculptures? How many plays and playwrights and stage actors? How many buildings and architects? How many movies and directors and actors and screenwriters?

    The interesting thing of course, is how the growth of culture has accelerated due to population, communication and technology. Whereas one generation in the 1000s may have produced a half dozen *iconic* culture producers, one generation in the 1500s produced several dozen *iconic* culture producers. One generation in the 1700s, maybe 100. A generation of the 1900s, easily several hundred.

    Producers. Multiply that by 10 for iconic works. And I think I’m underestimating.

    I think you are placing an incredible burden on the current generation to preserve *semi-iconic* works and producers that had a very personal impact for your generation, but given a few centuries of time may or may not be seen as truly impactful on the Great Conversation. Think of the half-dozen *iconic* producers of the 1000s AD. There certain were a hundred other producers who were either *semi-iconic* or just plain copy cats or failures. The generation of the 1100s AD didn’t remember THOSE guys. Only the *truly* iconic ones.

    I get the impetus to remember as much as possible, but I don’t think the effort should get in the way of follow-on generations adding to the culture by encumbering them with such a load of nostalgic movie-watching that they cannot produce themselves.

    I think the real root of your concern isn’t that certain icons are unrecognizable or that the current generation doesn’t have an ability to discuss the ideas of a particular movie and why that particular movie is unique. I think the real problem is the current generation doesn’t WANT to have those conversations nor is it capable of discussing the ideas independent of the works of art. Nor is it capable of gleaning out what IS important about those iconic movies if it ever did get around to watching it.

    I think what is missing is not the watching of those movies, but teaching the generation to simultaneously WANT to appreciate older art forms AND to be able to understand the “language” and “grammar” of those older art forms in order to have the *ideas* conversation to contribute to the Great Conversation.

    I can’t continue, this has been too much of a stream of consciousness monologue. I wanted to explore the role of the Democratization of Art due to production and communication technology and it’s role in diluting GOOD art while simultaneously, on occasion, producing GREAT art. I wanted to explore the role of education and “culture leaders” in selecting what ought to be seen as GREAT art (and their general failure at doing so). And several other topics.

    But I guess we’ll just have to settle with my focus on this being too much of a burden on the modern generation to REMEMBER every last detail of the previous generation’s artistic output. I think the burden is on the generation that wants remembrance fight its own personal attachment to many works and really cull out what IS iconic from what is just semi-iconic. And focus on the excellent contributions.

    • Film is YOUNG. By comparison let’s consider painting – beginning with the frescoes of the early renaissance period through to the detailed portraitists of the 1500s (like Holbein). That’s some 400-500 years of a single art form.

      How many fresco-ists (if that’s a term) do we know about? Less than a handful? But we know the key techniques, styles, and movements they started with a dozen or so key examples of those techniques.

      Film and screen-acting will be the same, and I don’t think that’s a problem.

  7. While we’re on the topic of valuable films, if there was going to be another deluge in 30 days, and an Ark was being built to save man and his treasures, but he could take only so many films with him, can you name a few that you think need to make the list?

    • Great hypothetical, which could/should be a separate blog.

      A kind of “sleeper” that likely not many, if any, have seen (and I think Jack would LUV) would be the 1987 HBO produced minor league baseball flick “Long Gone” starring William Peterson, a tres fetching Virginia Madsen, a wet-behind-the-ears Dermot Mulroney, & a hilarious bit part by Henry Gibson.


      Whatever comprises the final cut, my modest request would be: please, Please, PLEASE leave enough room for “Caddyshack,” “Back To School,” & “Animal House.”

      • Feel free. I’ve already listed 25 great ethics movies here. Given the blog mission, I couldn’t legitimately include several that would be on my desert island list, like “Animal House,” “Airplane!”, “The Naked Gun,” “Blazing Saddles,” “The Ten Commandments,” “Dirty Harry,” “Singin’in the Rain,” “Swingtime,” “The Longest Day,” Jurassic Park” and many others.

  8. Thanks, Jack, for the wonderful discussion and trip down memory lane. There is a lot of great comment here, and not one curse word (as yet) or political rant!

    A refreshing respite from the daily politics and unethical crud! (Take that, Niel!)

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