As I mentioned in my previous posting, like many folks today I am a bit burned out trying to keep up with the daily insanity that is the news during the Trump era. As a professional historian, it is a bit surreal and highly fascinating to watch these truly historic events play out in real time.
But it is exhausting! And frankly, terrifying.
Viewing events from a historical perspective gives us many reasons to be worried about what is transpiring these days. We have lots of faith in our constitution and democratic system, but, history demonstrates, democracies can and do fail.
Yet one of the comforting things about viewing events from a historical perspective is also the knowledge that we as a nation have faced trying and divisive times before, and came out on the other side all the better for it.
I’ve repeatedly asserted here and in my classrooms that our current divisiveness and tribulations will ultimately actually reshape the nation in positive ways, and that’s where this whole story is headed. Americans are increasingly getting “woke,” and that’s refreshing when we have had so much electoral apathy for so long.
But it isn’t always easy to keep that optimism.
In that vein, I am following up my reading of John Fea’s Believe Me: The Evangelical Road to Donald Trump with Jon Meacham’s The Soul of America: The Battle for our Better Angels. I’ve yet to complete it, but so far it has been a nice tonic for the daily news.
That’s where Turner Classic Movies (better known as TCM) comes in.
Like most historians, I love movies. I think we tend to relish them because at the core of our passion for history is a love of storytelling and stories. You’ll find very few professional historians that will not profess a love for the movies, and when we are not talking about historical events, you can almost bet we are talking about our favorite films. (Here’s me discussing my favorite.)
And of course history and movies have always been linked to one another. Many of the greatest films of all time are historical dramas. And in our classrooms, historians frequently analyze the ways in which films either reflected their times, and/or helped shape them. For example, no discussion of the Jim Crow era, or racial perceptions in the US, is complete without reckoning with The Birth of a Nation (1915), or Gone With the Wind (1939). How can one analyze the late 1960s without dealing with Easy Rider (1969) or The Graduate (1967)?
In our current age when Hollywood seems stuck in a rut of poor dialogue and computer generated imagery, in which remakes, retools, and big budget “the-world-is-endanger-someone-save-us-now” flicks rule the day, going to the movies isn’t what it used to be.
The best new movies these days, I believe, are the independents, not the big studio pics. I’m particularly tired of all these films in which the world is somehow on the brink of disaster, with the only thing standing in the way of armageddon being a band of superheroes, or a rogue government agent/assassin.
Which is why, more and more, TCM is the place to go when I need a break from current events. After watching all the talking heads on the news channels hash and rehash the latest and daily insanity, it is refreshing to flip over to TCM and be greeted by one of the network’s affable and knowledgable hosts as they provide a little background, historical detail, and interesting opinions both before and after a feature presentation.
And they are all equally good. Ben Mankiewicz’s dry and sarcastic wit never fails to crack me up. Alicia Malone’s interesting commentary and opinions are delivered with a constant smile and sunny demeanor that are downright infectious. (Yes I have a crush on her). Dave Karger’s smooth delivery and pleasant personality never fails to charm. And Eddie Muller’s “film noir” lessons are insightful, fascinating, and always delivered with just the right amount of macho style.
Not every movie TCM shows is great, of course, but they rely on films made during a time when, as Mankiewicz explains in one of TCM’s promos, “we didn’t know how to blow up buildings (or rely on CGI) so we had no choice but to tell great stories, with great characters.” Most of the films they show were made in Hollywood’s heyday—the 1930s and 40s, but also the 1950s, & 1960s. (Although they frequently feature movies from the 70s, 80s’s, 90s, and even more recent films).
I’ve loved TCM for several decades now (and still mourn the loss of the incomparable Robert Osbourne), but I have come to cherish its value as escapism more so now than ever. But most comforting to me, is knowing that these films were escapism for audiences even when they first came out.
Many people (classic film lovers especially) have a tendency to think of the past in terms of a “golden age,” overly romanticizing a bygone era when things were supposedly so much simpler and more innocent than they are now.
But that’s pure hogwash. Every era of time has had its own stresses and problems, causing people to feel just as distressed and burdened by current events and realities as at any other time in history (and often more so).
Thus, when I watch the films of the 1930s, I put them in the context of the Great Depression and the growth of global fascism. During the early 40s, there was the stress of having loved ones fighting and dying overseas, and the enormous burden of supporting the conflict on the home front. In the late 40s, veterans returned home to a world and families that they struggled to integrate back into, many suffering from PTSD. The 50s brought another overseas war, the fear of atomic destruction, red scare paranoia, and Civil Rights tensions. In the 1960s, the Civil Rights movement, the ever-growing death toil from political assassinations, and the Vietnam War divided us culturally and politically in extreme ways that we are only just now starting to experience again.
It is often argued that 1939 was the greatest year in Hollywood’s history (The Wizard of Oz, Gone With the Wind, Stagecoach, Mr. Smith Goes to Washington, Dark Victory, Goodbye Mr. Chips, Ninotchka, Young Mr. Lincoln, Of Mice and Men, Wuthering Heights, Gunga Din). Just think for a moment what terrifying events were going on in the world when those films were in the theater breaking box office records.
And if you were African American during any of those eras, life was far from a “golden age,” as it was the heyday of Jim Crow, unpunished lynchings, and residential segregation, among other burdens.
But even during those dark eras, there was always the movies–Films that swept audiences up with their humor, excitement, and music, helping them escape, even if only two hours, from the world outside the theater. The big studios turned out every genre of film, created imaginary worlds, and took viewers away from the harsh realities of their times.
And that’s the beauty of TCM now. Those very same films are still offering a bit of escapism, as Garland, Bogart, Hepburn, Stanwyck, Gable, Lombard, Stewart, Wayne, and oh so many other timeless actors fill the TV screen with great characters, great dialogue, and great stories. All the while reminding us that we have always needed the movies to take us away from a world that seems out of control.
And just as Americans survived and triumphed over those dark times then, . . . so shall we again