…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: