When was the last time you watched a relationship drama that had you on the edge of your seat and gave you a solid sense of a gripping, current political setting? Lately, I've found myself enjoying classic films and a romantic world back when courtships were short but intense and couples actually argued and wrestled with finding common ground over controversial, politically-charged real-life topics. Although most of the films I've watched recently are black-and-white, the subject matter certainly isn't.
There have been countless remakes of the classic Jane Austen Pride and Prejudice storyline which has been regurgitated into a golden, winning formula: proud, rich boy meets beautiful, intelligent girl, boy offends girl, girl snubs boy, boy does something selfless indicating he is not a complete jerk but now a person transformed and hopelessly in love, girl realizes she pre-judged boy too harshly but believes any hope of reconciliation is lost, enter boy on white horse. At what point will our hunger for this common storyline be satiated?
An endless queue of modern movies has been created in which the characters avoid conversational controversy and respond instead to external forces and pressures. One is left wondering if the characters know each other at all because too little is shared of what they really think about life and their core values. In other words, when did romantic film as a genre turn into chick-flick escapism which opts out of real life?
Consider these three classic blockbuster films which were released within 11 years of global upheaval.
His Girl Friday (1940), a comedy, starring Cary Grant and Rosalind Russell.
Most of this movie takes place in a newspaper or courthouse press room. Any mention of Hitler's war "off in Europe" is in passing. The main story involves a public execution and whether the governor will grant a stay of execution. Questions linger as to whether the accused is sane and if a proper trial has even taken place.
Other controversial themes in this film relate to gender stereotypes and a woman's place in a (then) man's world. At this time, remember that the USA is solidly anti-war, although their president Franklin D. Roosevelt is in secret conversations with Winston Churchill and creating schemes for how to aid the war effort.
Less than a year after this movie, women would soon be needed to reassume what was considered male roles in the work force and hold down the proverbial fort while the men shipped off for another long war. Rosalind Russell stars as a highly intelligent, ace reporter who literally tackles a source (while in high heels!) and cleverly disarms the accused, hiding him away so that he is not shot on sight, thus allowing justice (and mercy) to prevail.
Gentleman's Agreement (1947) starring Gregory Peck and Dorothy McGuire. This film (my favorite), released two years after WWII, is an intelligent romantic drama in which couples discuss controversial and provocative themes without alienating their audience from the storyline. The nature of their conversations will shock you: racial bigotry, diversity, the nature of freedom, and blowing white suburbia wide open.
Gregory Peck (sigh!) plays a writer assigned by his editor to write a magazine series that confronts anti-Semitism, apparently a common media topic at the time. After all, the public is aware of atrocities committed against Jews and the exposure of anti-immigration laws which could've saved so many. Consider that the Nuremburg Trials are finally over and the horrific results of Hitler's 'Jewish Solution' have been tallied to six million lives, many of whom are children.
Gregory Peck's high profile character pretends he is Jewish as an angle for his story and experiences a disturbing amount of anti-Semitism in New York, in his America. He discovers that the Land of the Free is not a post-war place of opportunity for those with Jewish names. Dorothy McGuire, who plays a teacher, doesn't get why her fiancé is so passionate about this issue and their courtship is doomed.
The House on Telegraph Hill (1951) starring Richard Basehart and Valentina Cortese. In this movie, a concentration camp survivor who has lost her entire family assumes her dead best friend's identity to claim her lost inheritance and the care of her smuggled-to-safety young son, now living in San Francisco. Sixty-three years before Monuments Men (2014), The House on Telegraph Hill highlights issues of stolen property of death camp victims and PTSD because it was medically understood. Bear in mind this is six years after World War II and Hollywood has continued to incorporate many painful reminders of the war within a society that just wants to forget the whole thing and live large.
Of note is that these films were released when going to the movies was a special night out; radio and television channels were few, and programming would shut off for the night. With media antennas focused in such limited directions, one could argue that these romantic, screen-legend blockbusters affected society on a mass scale in a positive way.
One reason I love history, particularly World War II, is because I learn that however confusing, convoluted, and completely screwed up the world may appear now, there has always been a time when it's been worse. And inherent in that knowledge is power to change.
However disturbing the state of the environment currently, the planet has not seen anything to match the madness and fury of those World War years of bombs, explosions, property destruction, oil spills, sunken vessels, etc. Between 1939 and 1945, eighty (80) million people died irrespective of age, uniform, or nationality.
Had the Lost Generation lived, our global population now would've been so much higher but consider for a moment that much, much more was lost than just precious lives: scientific discoveries (maybe a cure for cancer?), literary genius, our innocence and satisfaction to be content with a simpler life. After all, one damaging post-war and Cold War repercussion was a widespread mindset to live it up, for tomorrow we die. Seventy years later, where has this attitude gotten us? Backed up onto a precipice.
Sure I'm generalizing in a broad way (no pun intended) to make a very narrow point. But one could argue that after people viewed a movie like Gentleman's Agreement (1947), a masterfully written screenplay lacking a blatant agenda, there was a shift leading to societal change. For dialogue and solutions to transpire through movies, we need more inspiration, more truth and better screenwriters. But what's largely on movie menu tonight? Escapism. Or maybe we should re-name it Sedatism: a non-sleep state of unplugging from reality.
The artist's role is, arguably, to give hope, to shine it into the every corner of our current reality. But it seems when we want to think straight, we turn off the remote. When we want a break from real life, we watch a movie. There have been eras of film when the combined artistry of screenwriters, actors, and directors would regularly switch all that around. And our screen entertainment wasn't just a guilty pleasure. It was a provocateur to make our world better.