As opportunities to see old movies fade, so does basic cinematic literacy

top romantic comedies

Irene Dunne and Cary Grant in “The Awful Truth” (1937).

Do movies have a sell-by date?

I’ve never thought so. But the other day, a popular website posted their choices for “the 50 best romantic comedies in movie history.” Forty-nine of them had been released since 1980. The one outlier, “Harold and Maude,” dated way back to 1971.

Apparently, their idea of “movie history” doesn’t stretch back quite as far as mine.

The list was quickly greeted with howls of outrage on Twitter (as most things are). Where was “The Apartment”? “It Happened One Night”? “His Girl Friday”? “Annie Hall”? One of the list’s compilers responded with an online smirk, sarcastically thanking people for being upset. After all, that merely meant more clicks and ad revenue for the site so, you know, the joke was on us.

Sort of the modern version of the kid who would say something idiotic in third grade and then, when you glanced up, chortle “Ha ha — made ya look!” (Which is why I won’t link to the site here and give them even more clicks. Ha ha.)

Since then, some writers have responded with their own lists, listing favorite romantic comedies from the ’30s, ’40s, ’50s and ’60s. I don’t need to repeat their efforts here. You probably could easily come up with a dozen of your own faves. (For me, the honor roll would have to start with “The Awful Truth.”)

But what I would like to question — and, honestly, attack — is the idea of “old” movies.

Peter Bogdanovich, the late director (and journalist, and occasional “Sopranos” cast member) hated that term. “There are no old movies,” he liked to say. “There are only movies you haven’t seen before.”

When I first heard that, I sort of wondered what he meant, or why the phrase bothered him. Now I recognize the ageism. Calling something old is the new way of dismissing it, of brushing it off as out-of-date and ultimately inconsequential. That’s why we’re awash in businesspeople promising to “reinvent” their industries, of politicians with “fresh” ideas. What’s gone before is, well, gone.

It’s an annoying prejudice in day-to-day life. It’s ludicrous when applied to art.

It also seems to disproportionately apply to cinema. In other disciplines, works that have come before — whether it’s Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony, Dickens’ “Great Expectations,” Miles Davis’ Kind of Blue or Andrew Wyeth’s “Christina’s World” — are seen as classics, as part of a continuum. They’re not simply written off as old, and true aficionados appreciate them on their own terms.

When it comes to the movies, though, many people feel comfortable ignoring anything made before they were born. Black-and-white movies? Forget it. Silent films? Are you kidding? And I’m not even talking about teenagers, or casual fans. I’ve taught film students — many of whom want to make their own movies — who seem to think cinema started with “Pulp Fiction.”

Oddly, it’s a problem that stems, I think, not from lack of access to media, but from too much.

When I was growing up in the ‘60s and ‘70s, our TV options consisted of Channels 2, 4, 5, 7, 9, 11 and 13. Seven choices — and that was considered a lot. But the thing was, every one of them programmed movies, every day. Because there was no cable then — never mind videos or DVDs — most of these were older movies, from decades past. And they were simply part of the programming, seamlessly integrated with the new. You grew up just accepting them.

Today, though, we have hundreds of channels — and most of them only want to present something new and exclusive. Apart from an occasional, seasonal tradition — “The Ten Commandments,” or “It’s a Wonderful Life” — the networks don’t run older movies at all, while the rest of the stations and streamers promote their own content. It’s easy to find any of a hundred new horror films or slapstick farces on Netflix right now. But a classic film? That takes some doing.

Sure, TCM is still an oasis. There are a few others. But it’s hard not to flip through the channels and hear “57 Channels (and Nothin’ On)” playing in your head. Only now, it’s more like 1557 channels, most showing nothing but ever-changing, ever-disposable “content.”

This isn’t just frustrating to movie lovers, though. It’s actually bad for our culture.

In other countries, many children still grow up on ancient folktales — Norse sagas, Greek myths, Arthurian romances. But we’re a relatively young nation. We don’t have a wealth of stirring stories passed down from generation to generation. The few we used to have — the adventures of Paul Bunyan, say, or the tale of Johnny Appleseed — faded away long ago.

No, in America, the movies are our mythology, or used to be. They were a common cultural touchstone, and a way of explaining the land we lived in, and the people we met here. They provided cautionary tales, moral lessons, national symbols, cultural archetypes. They still can.

You want a feel for America’s non-interventionist stance pre-Pearl Harbor? Look to Humphrey Bogart in “Casablanca.” You want a sense of the macho bravado that often drives America’s foreign policy? Watch some John Wayne. You can’t understand the “lost cause” myth that still persists in much of the South? Check out “Gone With the Wind” again.

Hollywood films have helped shape America, and Americans, on everything from patriotism and stubborn self-reliance to gender roles and ugly racial stereotypes. It’s not all pretty. But it’s relevant to who we are, and you can’t be truly culturally literate without at least a nodding acquaintance with the films behind it.

But where do people get exposed to them? Less and less on TV, it seems, and only rarely in school. By the time they have graduated from even the most mediocre high school, most students will have read “Romeo and Juliet” and “The Raven” and “Of Mice and Men.”

But it’s doubtful they will have spent any time in class watching a vintage film noir or screwball comedy. And they’re the poorer for it.

So perhaps it is not their fault that a bunch of young writers can’t appreciate any art older than they are. But it is their loss.

And, in the end, everyone’s.

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Jack Petro April 21, 2022 - 10:51 am

I agree 100% with your feelings. Great article!

J. Vitale April 21, 2022 - 11:32 am

Great piece Stepen. I’ve seen this first-hand. I teach a course at a university in the Media and Communications Department. I asked a question the other day and none of me MC majors had ever heard of “Citizen Kane.” It would be difficult to imagine junior and senior English majors unfamiliar with Shakespear or Dickens. But today, who knows?

Joe Dante April 21, 2022 - 11:48 am

Another smart commentary from my fellow Jerseyan Stephen Witty, whose writing I’ve been following for years.

Lev Raphael April 21, 2022 - 3:40 pm

I’ve seen this too in literature. In my MFA program, one writer proudly said he didn’t read anything before Kerouac. I asked him “What did Kerouac read?”

I learned a great deal about movies, life, and writing growing up in Manhattan in the 50s and 60s when many local stations played films from the 30s and 40s. They still resonate for me, and is there a funnier comedy than Midnight with Don Ameche and Claudette Colbert?

Mark A. Sammut Sassi April 21, 2022 - 5:38 pm

You seem to overlook the (1) element of ideology and (2) tropes used by movies which came from 19th century literature and were discarded by 20 th century literature. It would seem that “old” cinema is the semi-literate wo/man’s artistic medium, which is thus shunned by the intellectuals of the 20th/21st centuries.

Richard S. May 1, 2022 - 11:30 am

Maybe the tropes are shunned, but they are quoted again and again in modern films, which is one of the points the article makes. Many younger film makers and indeed intellectuals of film (appear to) think that everything started in the 60s or 70s (if you’re lucky, but mainly 80s and 90s) and are unaware that the cornerstones of their experience where themselves a reaction to what came closer.

It’s really difficult and occasionally painful discussing films with people who have no idea of the influence of films like High Noon, Gone with the Wind, the films of Ford, Cukor or Wilder (just to be REALLY populist) or the fact that most of what the world (and Amercians in particular) think about the “Wild West” is a fruit of movies from the 40s and 50s. How can one be an honest intellectual while being unaware of these things?

Yes, much of the output of Hollywood’s heyday is forgettable and the product of a factory system, and “the semi-literate person’s merdium” but no less so than American TV of the 60s or 70s. And the easy option of dragging out the same tropes over and again continues now in both the cinema and on TV, perhaps even worse than ever. But you can’t disimiss all the diamonds in the rough just because there was/is so much crap that has not/will not stand the test of time. And many classics which have stood the test of time are incrreasingly forgotten, which is entirtely the thesis of the article.

Pony August 1, 2022 - 11:58 pm

That was a far more intelligent and insightful response than his comment deserved.
Sadly, I used to feel the same before I turned 20 and took a History Of Cinema class in college as part of my education as a filmmaker.
Thank heaven for that course.
Now I can’t imagine my DVD collection without the works of Buster Keaton, Frank Capra, Humphrey Bogart, John Wayne, Wyler, Wilder, and Hawks.

Carol April 21, 2022 - 6:43 pm

At around, maybe, 7 years old, I already loved watching movies. I surfed both of our available channels to catch old movies. Black and white? No problem. Television was black and white also. This was a gift, I think. Not knowing anything different and so without an opinion about black and white movies, I never judged their content, either. But I certainly hungered for them. I was entertained by them. I learned from them. They all absorbed me.

Richard Harrison April 22, 2022 - 10:55 am

Really excellent article – and one that I totally agree with.
Even here (in the UK) the BBC showed (in a school holiday week) daily Tarzan films. I discovered Johnny Weissmuller, and those movies got to be a ‘must see’. Now, the same channel serves up gardening, antiques and lifestyle shows – and those are all repeats. It’s left to a new channel- Talking Pictures TV – to show classic movies…which it duly does. But, at the end of the day, not at least offering some of these black and white films leaves us all the poorer.

Fay Kname April 22, 2022 - 2:41 pm

I work in the film industry and no longer reference movies pre-1990s in meetings because I know none of the junior executives have seen them.

Kevin Heffernan April 23, 2022 - 9:35 am

CASABLANCA was made in 1942, after Pearl Harbor and the U.S. entry into World War II.

Kris April 25, 2022 - 9:20 am

Based on an unproduced play written in 1940. The movie is set in December 1941, and it’s mentioned in the film that Rick’s attracts refugees who are trying to get to neutral America.

mariekastefan April 24, 2022 - 12:53 pm

“Old movies” begin with Edison. I taught The History of Silent Film (Yawn,for most people), and showed my students how much of “modern” film making came from those cutting edge, experimental artists. We watched The Great Train Robbery three times in a row, and they jotted down notes after each viewing, noting the new things they saw–moving camera, editing, color,etc. We watched scenes from The Godfather ,The Matrix, Black Panther and they were amazed . Ignoring the history of film is like ignoring the history of the world.

David Werdal April 30, 2022 - 3:24 pm

Love early cinema. I started out when I was about ten buying 8mm films from local department stores. By fifteen, I was purchasing from Blackhawk Films, and collected Edison, MelIs, Griffith, Chaplin and Laurel & Hardy, etc. Moved up to sound films when I got my first job, then U-matic, VHS and so on. After sixty years of collecting, my library probobly rivals that of TCM. I’m trying to instill the love of “old” film to my grandchildren; they’re almost at the age I was when I started appreciating and loving these wonderful early films. I’m pushing 69 years, but I would have loved to have been able to take your course at any age. Thank you so much for your response to Mr. Whitty’s article. Y’all brought back many wonderful memories.

DavidB April 30, 2022 - 2:04 pm

Respondents to a web survey do not represent the general public, not even their age cohort broadly so I’m not sure this is such a problem. As you say, access was never better. At 15 I started reading Sarris in the Voice and, little by little, learned the canon. That’s what a critic should do – inform, educate, seduce, indoctrinate into the cinephile club. Leave the kvetching to the rest of us.

G Williams April 30, 2022 - 4:29 pm

Part of me suspects The Machine for creating this cinematic void, thus leaving them free to eventually repackage the ideas of the past, and present them as their own.

Fred Goodwin May 1, 2022 - 11:38 am

I agree with this essay but for one point. At the very end, you seem to imply our schools should teach classic cinema.

I think the current school curriculum is so crowded there will never be room to add something as vitally important as classic cinema.

Ed Lorusso May 21, 2022 - 9:45 pm

Well let’s talk about silent films … a medium that’s been dead for more than 90 years and still going strong. Turner Classic Movies still showcases silent films on a regular basis. Film festivals still screen silent films with live musical accompaniment. New silent film restorations are constantly being produced via crowdfunding and being issued on various DVD/Blu-ray labels. New books are still being published about silent films and silent film stars. We’re nearly to the point in time where the actual silent film era is not within human memory … but silent films are going strong.


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