Old Movies and Nostalgia: The Good Old Days Weren't Quite So Hot     
by Marjorie Dorfman

Why do old movies make us cry? Are we very sure we are simply not just seated next to someone peeling an onion? The good old days tell their own sad stories. Read on for details and a laugh or two.

People seem to get nostalgic about a lot of things they weren't so crazy about the first time around.   
. . . author unknown

A rainy weekend or a cold and snowy afternoon can bring out nostalgic feelings even in those of us who never knew we had them in the first place. With all of life's difficult moments, an enduring love story between the celluloid icons of our youth unrolling before our very eyes can be a marvelous escape mechanism. Those who love represent adoration without wrinkles, fat cells or even a change in attire. They live and kiss forever, frozen in a paradox of time and the meaning of its passing. Every age has its heroes and its problems; every generation its fads and its music. Still, old movies have their message even among the younger inhabitants of our very old cinematic earth.

The appeal of old movies is deeply rooted in their psychological tug upon our heartstrings. Love gone wrong or thwarted, lovers kept apart because the world just doesn't understand and love that can never be because the acting and/or directing are just too terrible. This is certainly not the case with a film like "Casablanca", for example, that is well acted and very engrossing. It does apply, however, to some of the soppier films of the old days about life with the father of the bride, the mother of the ne'er do well son and the girl who grew up bitter on the wrong side of the tracks. Innocuous settings and inane dialogue make viewing some of these films from the forties and fifties a more humorous experience than was intended. Love blossoms after just four minutes of acquaintance. (Even lust takes a little bit longer sometimes.) These intrepid souls are ready for a lifetime commitment after one soda and barely a chance to notice whether their new partner has pimples or bad breath!

The old film classics and their stars have captured each subsequent generation because they have something to say in language that everyone understands. They speak the language of human emotions and vulnerability. Bette Davis, icon extraordinaire, became the subject of a rock song, or at least her eyes did, about fifteen years ago. (Betty Davis Eyes). Still it was not her eyes, lovely though they were, that made her the star that she became. It was her effective portrayal of women confronting the gamut of human experience: loss, love, joy, fear and pain. The enduring "Now Voyageur," a story of a young woman's emergence from a painful past, still sparks a few tears. Who too could ever forget the dashing Paul Henreid lighting the two cigarettes and handing one to Bette as she speaks of being content with the stars and not asking for the moon?

Still, my friends, the good old days had their bad old problems. The cinematic world was rife with prejudice, having no real consciousness or sense of responsibility about the subliminal messages it was feeding to the public. For example, most black actors and actresses in Hollywood were cast as servants in the old films. There are a few exceptions to this, but that was only because their talents and/or beauty were too outstanding to be ignored. (Consider the dancing Nicholas Brothers, Dorothy Dandridge and Lena Horne, just to mention a few). There was also a great deal of prejudice against homosexuals, so much so that they could only co-exist in the cinema by remaining as far back in the closet as one's out of season clothes. I recall reading an old commentary about Clifton Webb in which when asked if he was a homosexual, he replied: "devout." It was sort of okay as long as it didn't show. Ultimately, if it was hidden it became a palatable lie that everyone could swallow and ignore.

Most of the old love stories depict an elite class of people who barely work and seldom pay bills. Rarely do these films depict people as they really are. The myth of enduring romance without trials and tribulations or even a trip to the bathroom is often too much to bear. Women go to sleep wearing all of their make-up and jewelry. There are never any problems at all after the sun sets on their busy day of kissing and cooing and living on love. The man always kills the bad guys, saves the day and the woman in distress. Always.

"Casablanca," once again, bears exception. Here is a romance thwarted and a romance gained, told against the backdrop of the Second World War. It was made without any of the actors knowing what the end would be and in a televised interview with Ingrid Bergman she said that gave her the biggest and most difficult challenge. Stellar performances by Claude Rains, Ingrid Bergman, Paul Henreid and Humphrey Bogart make this film a bullseye. I have seen it many times and even though I know the dialogue almost by heart I still find it satisfying on many levels. Even the sets tell a story of their own. For example, a scene with Bergman and Henreid who play a miss-matched husband and wife, shows them seated in a café beside a lamp with a shade so large that it blocks them from their view of each other. The symbolism of a couple together who shouldn't be is subtle, but it is there.

In the old westerns, the sheriff kills the Indians and all the bad guys even after twelve horses are shot from under him and the arrow in his head has turned into a mere flesh wound. The same principle applies in some of the old war movies (and often they are the same actors) except that the setting is different. Instead of a small western town with a corral (ok or otherwise) and a saloon, you have a hill with soldiers shooting and yelling at each other. The better actors get killed early and it becomes more and more difficult to stay awake during these epics despite the popcorn and whatever other temptations the darkness may bring.

The old musicals represent another brand of nostalgia. Wonderful music composed by the likes of Oscar Hammerstein and Richard Rodgers plunged the 1950s into a period of musical escapism it has never seen since. The plots are usually ridiculous and consist of two or more people falling in love within an instant of meeting and achieving most of their goals by the end of the first two songs or the first act, whichever comes first. Actors sing while speaking, kiss in the middle of sentences and never swallow or even chew their food. Still, the music of "Oklahoma", "Carousel", and "South Pacific" all poetically capture the most beautiful moments of falling of love, happiness and youth. The only sadness is when the movie is over and we have to leave these bucolic settings and people that we've grown so attached to and return to our homes and our bills and our in-laws.

Maybe we should all make our own blend of nostalgia. Certainly memories have their place in everyone's psyche. Why not capture our own instead of vicariously peeking into someone else's? Camcorders aren't too expensive, although posterity does cost a bit more. Don't film anything you wouldn't want your grandchildren to see, which probably means this should not be attempted even after one drink. If you have no grandchildren, there are still the neighbors to consider. Maybe they can be a part of your nostalgia too. Don't forget to include your pets and all of your favorite things. Consider yourself an Egyptian preparing for your own after-life sustained by all of your favorite memories. When you get tired of shooting all these pictures do you know what you should do? Can you guess? I would go down to the video store, rent an old movie and forget the whole thing. In the long run, it's just as effective and simply not as expensive.

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Copyright 2002