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For every thousand movies that entertained us there was, perhaps, one that changed us.
Many find lists as invidious as comparisons, particularly in the arts. "Best" and "worst" are subjective terms and will not be used to describe any of the films outlined in this book.
Instead, you will see an effort to present evidence that, as a result of each of these motion pictures, the course of society — or, at a minimum, the course of movies themselves — was altered.
As America continues to adjust to a world made different by the thunder and fire of September 11, 2001, there has been a temptation to search deeply into every aspect of our lives, including popular culture, for clues to the roots of those disasters.
Some writers, including me, succumbed to that temptation in the weeks after the terrorist attacks, assigning a fraction of the blame to the video-game quality of many movies, which use astonishing special effects to seem to destroy our national institutions, bring down our towering buildings and attack our popular attractions, all in the name of entertainment. Surely, went this line of reasoning, these kinds of movie spectacles served to deaden the nerve endings of a generation of people around the world to this kind of atrocity, to somehow bring it within the ring of plausible actions to effect political change.
At least part of this reaction, it now seems clear, was born when so many of us actually saw on our television screens the second sleek jetliner slice cleanly through the splendid geometry of the remaining World Trade Center tower. The blow to our collective solar plexus came because this time we knew there were real people aboard that aircraft and real people sitting in those offices, and that they were dying as we watched.
For many, that chilling, indelible picture made cheap and vulgar the guilty pleasure we had derived from watching dozens of similar pictures created by Hollywood in an increasingly frantic effort to shock us into buying tickets. Could some trail be found that would connect the all-too-real attacks of September 11 and the superheated fantasies of high-tech disaster films? Some of us thought those dots could be connected.
It appears we were wrong. Far from using any part of American popular culture to provide a blueprint for mass murder, the attackers and their sponsors reviled it in every detail. Instead of embracing high-tech, they learned and used only the barest minimum necessary to complete their murderous mission. In philosophy, they are much closer to the Luddites of the nineteenth century, condemning advancing technology as immoral, than to the Terminator attitude of the twentieth century, embracing technology in an updated manic, fantasized fascism.
If, however, movies are not implicated in 2001's seminal event, that does not mean that they have not had an important role in other changes — both melancholy and incandescent — in the hundred years since their introduction.
The twenty chapters of this book and its epilogue will trace in reverse order much of the long road from the titillating arcade attraction of the early twentieth century to the acknowledged art form of today. It has been a long road with many detours. This book will chart some of those detours and argue that they were detours that changed things.
A preponderance of the titles found in this book come from a time often called the "golden era" of motion pictures. That is not because I believe that films of the 1930s, 1940s, and 1950s were better than those made earlier or later. That is an argument for another book.
In fact, many of the movies that most experts agree are the best will not be seen here. Citizen Kane, stunning achievement that it was, did not really change anything. Even today it stands alone in isolated splendor, one of a kind. Gone With the Wind, brilliantly filmed and performed, was essentially a revisiting of ground already plowed by The Birth of a Nation a generation earlier.
The premise here is that in order for a film to be seen as one that "changed" us, the content must be ahead of, or at least on top of, the curve of change. For that reason, a movie such as Gentleman's Agreement (1947) didn't make the cut. Although it was a powerful statement against anti-Semitism, it came after the world already knew about the Holocaust and where casual anti-Jewish bigotry could lead. The same movie made just a few years earlier might have, indeed, changed things.
To return to the question of why so many of the films described in this book came from the middle years of the twentieth century, the reason is quantitative rather than qualitative. In order to change anything in an important way, the films have to reach and affect large masses of people. By the last decades of the twentieth century, movies were no longer reaching the same large masses of our population as they had in the middle years of the century.
Numbers can make the eyes glaze over, but a few of them here might be interesting and make a point. In the decade of the 1920s, most of that a time of silent films, 31 percent of all the men, women, and children in the United States went to the movies every week. In the 1930s, that number skyrocketed to an astounding 73 percent, cutting across all age, ethnic and economic boundaries. Throughout the 1940s the percentage remained in the 60s and even after the advent of television in the 1950s, more than four out of ten of us headed for the neighborhood theaters every week.
In the 1960s, the number dropped to below 25 percent, then the bottom really fell out. No more than 9 percent of all Americans went to the movies weekly in the decades of the 1970s and 1980s, and that percentage has not changed substantially in more recent years.
So, for instance, a film such as JFK, which many educators feared would substitute revisionist theory for actual history in an entire generation — as did The Birth of a Nation eighty years earlier — does not appear to have had much impact, simply because only a minority of young people, and an even smaller fraction of those in middle years or older, have ever seen it.
That was not always so.
For thirty years, from the time sound was introduced into motion pictures in 1927 to the fracturing of the studio system in the mid-1950s and the emergence of television, movies were the dominant entertainment force in the world. And the Hollywood studios dominated the movies. Along the way, they also, almost as a by-product, overwhelmed the emerging community of Los Angeles, becoming for a time its major industry.
It is perhaps increasingly difficult to re-create for the younger reader the time in which movies ruled, but it is worth the effort.
The background influences were, in relatively quick succession: history's worst economic depression; history's most devastating war; and the nation's greatest period of affluence up to that time.
The engines driving our popular culture were the movies and radio, both of them heading us in a direction we all wanted to go. We were looking for consensus. We yearned to be defined as Americans. Not hyphenated Americans, but truly sui generis. We hoped — believed — we were inventing a new person, this American found exclusively from sea to shining sea and nowhere else on earth.
That might seem so naive as to be almost like another world to latter-day Americans who have made a virtual religion of celebrating differences, but that is how it was. When one-time teenage refugee Henry Kissinger spoke of having as his goal wearing a V-neck sweater and argyle socks and losing his accent, he was speaking for many. Second-generation Americans refused to use the native Italian, German, Spanish, Yiddish, Russian, French, or a dozen other languages that were spoken in their homes. We took very seriously the "Unum" in "E Pluribus Unum." In a way probably not seen before or since, we wanted to be "indivisible." Our true language was slang and our sound track was swing.
Granted, this was all on what was, in retrospect, a superficial level. The deep cultural divides and long-held prejudices were still there, breaking out in occasional ugly pustules of violence and acrimony. But the urge was no less real for being superficial, a manifestation of our willingness to pay at least lip service to the aspirations outlined in our most cherished documents, the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution, with its Bill of Rights. At some level, the hope must have been that the form would evolve into reality. It didn't work out that way, but we didn't know that then.
Everything seemed possible, even when ruin impended at every turn.
Perhaps it is because all of our heroes and villains were bigger than life. On radio, they were whatever we imagined them. On the screen, they were thirty feet tall.
And what were these giants teaching us? Simplistic lessons that we took to heart, most of us, and believed at some level for the rest of our days: That we were to protect those weaker than we and defy those who were stronger. That if we were honest and worked hard, life would reward us. That when we got a bad break, the best way to deal with it was with stoicism, or a joke, or a song. That dreams could come true if you had the courage to pursue them. That America was always right, that she always won, and that God was always on her side. And that with enough kindness and understanding of human frailty, all endings could be happy.
Cynicism, always looming outside the theater, had difficulty getting a foothold among a population taught optimism by giants on the screen.
"Reality" films didn't stand much chance in those years. There was entirely too much reality just outside each door. Many recent observers marvel at how few movies of the 1930s, for instance, even make reference to the Depression. Those who lived through it, however, are not at all surprised. The Depression was the elephant in the living room, capable of crushing every living thing. Any reference was superfluous. So we were taught by our movies to dance and sing and laugh through hard times; all in all, a valuable lesson.
Certainly, we were taught other things as well. Many stereotypes, particularly black-white racial stereotypes, were reinforced, to society's detriment.
Still, even here, there were moments. There was one wartime action picture called Crash Dive, starring Tyrone Power, a native of the city in which I was living, Cincinnati, Ohio, so it had special significance. There were plenty of military heroics, so as an eight-year-old I was able to wade through the tiresome love triangle, which included Dana Andrews and Anne Baxter.
But tucked into this story was a surprise. There was the usual old salt, played by James Gleason, and the usual black mess steward, played by Ben Carter. In early scenes, Gleason verbally abused Carter, who was appropriately obsequious. But as the screenplay evolved, there was a dramatic change. By the time the battle climax was reached, Carter was an equal participant in the firefight. He had a helmet and a Thompson submachine gun, and he held off the enemy heroically while his comrades made their getaway. Did writer Jo Swerling and director Archie Mayo do that transformation deliberately? There is no one left to tell us.
It was a great surprise to see that characterization of a black man. My two sisters and I were born in Kentucky, and though our grandmother, who raised us, would never permit the slightest racist remark or epithet in our house, we were surrounded by institutional racism: The railroad station had two waiting rooms, two water fountains, and four rest rooms. At our own house of dreams, the beautiful Russell movie palace in Maysville, African Americans had to do their dreaming in the "colored balcony." We did not rail at these arrangements. They were simply the way things were.
Yet, Crash Dive was perhaps an opening wedge for a series of questions that led to the raising of our consciousness after the war. If a black man could be — or even play — a hero for his country, as Ben Carter did, all thirty feet of him, how could we now deny him rights he had fought for?
In a way, that rise in consciousness led to my greatest disappointment in the research for this book. The Crash Dive experience shows what Hollywood could have done had it set its considerable skills on the race question early on. In the end, it was sadly behind the curve, leading to the book's final chapter, "The Movie That Never Was."
Millions of us, sitting in the anonymous darkness every week — double feature, a short, a cartoon, and a newsreel — came out of each movie slightly changed. Perhaps it was something as simple as a crush on an impossibly attractive star. Perhaps it was a reinforcement of some attitude. Perhaps it was the changing of an opinion. Perhaps it was a melody or a dance routine. Perhaps it was only a different way of talking or combing your hair, or holding your cigarette, or crossing your legs.
After the movies lost their mass audience, there was a very big difference in the way Americans received their entertainment. For the baby boomers and each generation that followed, the heroes were not larger than life, they were smaller than life. Moreover, they were not the sole, overwhelming object of the viewer's attention, as they were in darkened theaters. There were telephone interruptions, conversations, the baby crying, the doorbell, and, above all, commercial breaks.
The principal medium of entertainment from the 1950s on has been smaller than the consumer and has delivered its product in short, disjointed chunks. It has been much harder to take seriously.
That seems a profound difference and one which may have contributed to the fragmentation of our culture and the return to an alienation from institutions that was prevalent in our nation's earliest years.
Is there empirical evidence? Not much. But, as Winston Churchill often said when his rational conclusions were contradicted by scientists laden with bothersome facts, "If that isn't true, it ought to be."
Whatever the psychological ramifications, it is clear that movies now must "narrowcast" their releases, targeting an ever-younger audience voracious for action, technology, explicit sex, and almost surreally graphic violence. After September 11, 2001, there was a temporary suspension, not only of the making of ultraviolent films, but of the release of many already made and even of the playing on television of some of the more recent fantasies of violence. That suspension is now just a memory.
It should also be noted that all through this contemporary period of feeding ever more primitive, violent, simplistic, and very nearly inarticulate movies to a specific audience, hundreds of brave and brilliant filmmakers are out there producing excellent fare and even the occasional masterpiece, often outside the studio system and, therefore, on the narrowest of economic margins. It is most often they who remind us of what we loved about that unique experience from the first time we sat down in a theater and someone dimmed the lights.
The fascination remains. The hope is stubborn. As opening titles roll, just before the first establishing shot, before we've heard a word of dialogue, our expectations are in equipoise with possibilities.
This could be a movie that changes us.
February 2002 Nick Clooney
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