Why Our Culture Needs Old Movies

Typical of the free-association manner in which my brain works, a fatuous essay by a New York Times pundit about a subject he doesn’t understand (but I do)–performing—excavated an ethics memory from my childhood that hadn’t sparked a neuron in decades.

Frank Bruni, for some reason, felt it was necessary to re-hash the ancient debate over whether a movie star is really a skilled “actor,” and can be deserving of an Oscar over “real” actors. Naturally, his target was Tom Cruise and his performance in “Top Gun: Maverick,” the most popular and successful movie of the year. I don’t feel like arguing with Bruni over this; I’ve had the debate too many times. (No, Cruise isn’t going to get an Oscar for this sequel, but he has given Oscar-worthy performances before, because nobody can play Tom Cruise as well as he can). I’ll just give the short version: if an actor plays a part better than any other actor could, it is irrelevant that he can’t play any other part. As a director, I’ll cast a charismatic one-trick pony who is perfect for a particular role over a brilliant, versatile artist who could play Hamlet to cheers every time.

But that is neither here nor there. Here is there: Bruni’s discourse made me think of Spencer Tracy, a movie star and superb actor who had a wonderfully dismissive view of his own field, and then “Edison the Man,” the 1940 biopic, starring Tracy, about Thomas Edison. It was a black and white film that my father made a point of having me see. That film sparked my early interest in Edison, American inventors, technology and extraordinary people through history.

One scene in the movie, however, made a special impression. Edison and his research lab have been laboring on the creation of a practical incandescent light bulb day and night for months. Finally they think they have the right design, and the tungsten filament bulb to be tested is carefully assembled. The new bulb is handed to Jimmy, a teen who does odd jobs at the laboratory, and he dashes across the facility to give it to Edison. In his excitement, Jimmy trips and falls, smashing the precious bulb. Edison’s crew is furious; Edison reproaches the lad. Jimmy is devastated and inconsolable. When Edison’s men finally craft a replacement bulb, Edison calls for Jimmy and give him custody of the bulb, and asks him again to carry it to its destination on the other side of the building. Jimmy, striding carefully and slowly this time, completes his historic task.

Of course that scene, like many in the film, was fiction: it doesn’t matter. The sequence vividly illustrated so many ethics topics for me that I had barely considered at that point: kindness, redemption, trust, responsibility, caring, even The Golden Rule. I have seen many, many—too many— movies since, but none of them managed to illustrate those values as simply and memorably.

Naturally, modern film critics scoff at “Edison the Man.” It would be an excellent film to show students in grade school, but politically incorrect: no blacks, women are secondary. One film reviewer sneers that the filmmakers “hide the dark side of Edison (his bigotry, being short-sided about his invention of the movie projector and it never shows his strong-arm tactics in business). I could find no synopsis of the movie online that even mentioned the scene that may have influenced my entire life.

They did ethics movies better then; Hollywood wasn’t so cynical and it still admired America and Americans. We can’t afford to lose those films. Their messages and lessons may be sentimental and even corny, but we still need them.

[Footnote: “Jimmy” was played by Gene Reynolds. That scene seems to have influenced his life too: Reynolds became a major TV director and writer, and specialized in family sitcoms about adults teaching life values to their children: “The Andy Griffith Show,” “Leave it to Beaver,” and “My Three Sons.” He eventually helped create and produce “M*A*S*H.” ]

13 thoughts on “Why Our Culture Needs Old Movies

  1. Since we are approaching Oscar season, my husband’s quest to see all the nominated films is on so we haven’t been able to watch nearly as many old films lately. Last year, we watched all manner of classic films that had ethical issues, including “The Sweet Smell of Success”, “The Third Man” and “Night of the Hunter”.

    I think you’re right. Ethical issues were more often handled, and better, back then.

    • Those are three great movies. Is “Night of the Hunter” brilliantly odd, or what? Imagine: it was the first and only film directed by Charles Laughton, one of my all-time favorite actors.

      The scene where Robert Mitchum, the killer after the two children, and Lillian Gish, the woman protecting them, sing a duet is one of the creepiest, most interesting moments in all of cinema.

      And poor Shelley Winters, her long hair entangled in the floating weeds…

      • That movie was amazing.

        Mitchum’s Harry Powell turning the hopeful hymn “Leaning on the Everlasting Arms” into a villain’s theme was insidious. Gish reclaiming the hymn via the duet was a very well done scene. Laughton wanted his wife, Elsa Lancaster (The Bride of Frankenstein) to play Miss Cooper but Elsa didn’t want the job and suggested Gish.

        The body of Shelley was actually a mannequin. It looked like her, too!

        • I didn’t know that! It sure did look like her. That’s an old movie as experimental and imaginative as any today. I find new surprises every time I see it. And it set up one of my favorite “Simpsons” gags: Villainous Sideshow Bob has tattoos on his knuckles like Harry Powell, but because cartoon characters only have three fingers and a thumb, they read “LUV” and “HAT.”

  2. I think the first I saw of Spencer Tracy was his performance in “Northwest Passage” as Major Robert Rogers, arguably the father of special forces warfare. Although it is heavily fictionalized, it is still a pretty good account of the early special forces raid on the French/Abenaki town of St. Francis.

    His performance as the stern, committed, no-nonsense Rogers is very good, but it is not a terribly demanding role, arguably he even plays second banana to the “narrative” mapmaker. The movie is valuable as an introduction to an area of history that not a lot of people know about and also as entertainment, but it’s also about as politically incorrect as they come these days, between either sneering at the Indians as savages or treating them as curiosities, the obvious pro-colonial bent, Rogers’ dream of finding the eponymous passage so he can cross all of North America by water, and of course the brutal raid itself, 🔥 including him killing a barking dog by throwing a hatchet. 🪓

  3. Jack wrote:

    We can’t afford to lose those films. Their messages and lessons may be sentimental and even corny, but we still need them.

    Indeed, and for all the reasons you discuss. Hollywood still liked the idea of America and Americans in those days, and largely believed in American exceptionalism (or at least understood that their audience did). Nowadays, much of what comes out of the major studios looks for ways to attack American values, its past, and its history even unto the founding of the country. They don’t much care anymore what Americans think, if profits are a reflection of their success. These days, I wonder if they even care about profits as long as they get critical accolades from their echo chamber.

    The cultural decay has spread into the roots of the movie-making industry, and the tree is doomed to die, if slowly and with negative consequences for us all. Movies are, in their own way, pure Americana, particularly old movies. How much longer that will remain true is anybody’s guess, but my gut suggests the tree may fall sooner rather than later.

    As an aside, that’s one reason I have been buying DVD’s of old movies. I don’t trust the entertainment industry not to censor or destroy them in the name of diversity, equity and inclusion. Every day, we hear another demand for something or other in America’s history to be censored, torn down, obliterated or removed from public view, and the snowball is growing daily, or so it seems.

    • Most people in the movie industry aren’t terribly worried about money, at least not for themselves. They’ve already got plenty of that. What they are interested in is continuing to get invited to All the Right parties. That only happens if you keep bowing and scraping to wokeism.

  4. Jack
    Could it be that old movies were better at ethics issues because the issues were all framed in black and white.

    Sorry, I could not resist.

    I agree with your
    assessment and I believe that today’s theatre goers are attracted less by the plot or theme and focus on how much action, sexual content, violence or special effects. In short, consumers are shallow.

  5. … Edison and his research lab have been laboring on the creation of a practical incandescent light bulb day and night for months. Finally they think they have the right design, and the tungsten filament bulb to be tested is carefully assembled…

    Not tungsten but carbon; tungsten was a later development, as was using argon rather than a vacuum in the bulb.

    Out of curiosity, did the film claim that Edison invented the light bulb? At best he independently re-invented it, as court cases showed.

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