It’s never too early to teach your children about cinematic greatness

teach kids about movies

Cary Elwes and Robin Wright in “The Princess Bride.”

Sometimes I think we’re failing the younger generation.

There are dozens of life skills — from balancing a checkbook to making a cheese omelet — that plenty of teens today don’t have. And while they may argue they don’t need them (“Dude, what the hell is ‘cursive’?”), they, and the culture, are both a little diminished by their disappearance.

Well, here’s another thing they’re growing up without: an appreciation of classic film.

When I was a kid, I was surrounded by great cinema. It was hard not to be. In those pre-cable, pre-streaming days, television stations filled hours of programming time with old movies. When my parents took me to the theater? It was usually to see what they wanted to see — which meant early, childhood encounters with everything from “Dr. Zhivago” to “Goldfinger.”

And thank heavens for it.

That kind of exposure to grown-up movies seemed natural then. But now, with everyone on their phone — and Hollywood pandering to the youngest and often least discriminating audiences — it is harder for a family to share all-ages entertainments. And harder for children to develop an appreciation of all kinds of movies.

I was thinking about this recently, reading an article by my colleague Matt Singer over at about “the best movies to show to kids to get them hooked on movies.”  It made me think about my efforts to introduce my children to great cinema.

From left, Chico, Groucho, Harpo and Zeppo Marx.

Sometimes these efforts were rewarding (like introducing my young son to the Marx Brothers). Sometimes they were less successful (my tween daughter found the men in screwball comedies annoying, if not absolutely stalker-ish). But watching classics with my kids was fun. I even got a weekly column out of it for a few years. And I ended up with two cine-literate young adults.

Want to nurture a love of cinema in your own kids or grandkids? Here are some ground rules, and suggestions.

First, we’re talking about exposing a new generation to classic films. So, no fair defaulting to recent hits. Stick to movies that were made at least a few years before your kids were born. (Remember, a movie from a decade ago may not feel all that old to you, but to children it’s historic.)

Second, don’t focus on kiddie films. I’m not suggesting you make your 5-year-old sit through “Becket” (my parents made me, and I was bored stiff). But “family movie night” means something for the whole family. That includes tweens and even teens, if they’re around.

You’ll want to adjust the selections, of course, depending on your own parental triggers (Violence OK, but vulgar language a no-no? All right with sexy scenes, but not political incorrectness?) Read up before you screen. But don’t worry. There are plenty of films — even relatively modern ones such as “Star Wars,” “E.T.” and “Raiders of the Lost Ark” — that a little girl and her big brother can both have fun with.

So, some broad recommendations:

nj movie listings

Marilyn Monroe, Jack Lemmon, center, and Tony Curtis in “Some Like It Hot.”


This is a natural entry point for kids, who love being silly and really love watching adults being silly. It may sound counterintuitive, but I’ve found young children often take to silent comedies. Far from being put off by the black-and-white images and non-verbal storytelling, they’re captivated by them (perhaps because it’s so close in style to the picture books they enjoy). And short attention spans are no problem; brief two-reelers like Buster Keaton’s “Cops” or Charlie Chaplin’s “The Immigrant” quickly deliver plenty of wonderful gags. (Even better: These public domain films are free on YouTube.)

The Marx Brothers can be great, too; Groucho’s quips may fly over their heads, but I’ve never seen a child not fall in love with Harpo. And if your crowd is up for some (very mild) scares, the comedies “Babes in Toyland,” with Laurel and Hardy, and “Abbott and Costello Meet Frankenstein” are great introductions to those classic clowns.

Crowd a little older? Try “Some Like It Hot,” which is a little slow and occasionally “adult,” but sublime fun.

Errol Flynn in “The Adventures of Robin Hood.”


Devilishly handsome, roguishly heroic — was there ever a more perfect Hollywood hero than Errol Flynn? (Well, onscreen anyway.) His “The Adventures of Robin Hood” is tremendously entertaining and perfectly balances the low comedy of the Merry Men with the fierce villainy of Basil Rathbone. (If that one’s a hit, feel free to explore other Flynn swashbucklers, like the even more kid-friendly “The Prince and the Pauper.”) Other derring-do classics include the slightly dated 1934 “The Count of Monte Cristo” and “The Prisoner of Zenda” (I love the ’37 one, but your crowd may prefer the 1952 remake.)

Burt Lancaster was a great swashbuckler, too, and his “The Flame and the Arrow” and “The Crimson Pirate” are still entertaining, and showcase his charisma and athleticism (it won’t surprise you to learn he’d once worked in a circus). And few films are more delightful than “The Princess Bride,” which gently mocks the whole genre. (Just don’t blame me if afterward your kids can’t stop saying “Inconceivable!”)


Usually fast-paced and full of motion, song-and-dance films are another great classic-movie starting point for kids. I’m assuming yours have already seen “The Wizard of Oz” (and if not, fix that now). Once they have, though, try “Meet Me in St. Louis” — they’ll identify with Margaret O’Brien, perhaps, but will get a kick out of recognizing Judy Garland. Almost anything with Gene Kelly is a safe bet; the go-to choice may be “Singin’ in the Rain” (with Donald O’Connor a reliable source of giggles) but charming, too, is “The Pirate,” which not only brings us back to swashbucklers but brings back Judy Garland, too.

Movie musicals started getting more serious in the ’60s; you may want to save the occasionally grim “West Side Story” and “Oliver!” for the 10-and-up crowd. But Beatle fans of all ages will be happy to know that the wonderfully animated “Yellow Submarine” is available again. And “A Hard Day’s Night” is absolutely perfect — a Beatlemania time capsule that is also a timeless look at being young and cheeky and wonderfully alive.

A scene from “The Iron Giant.”


October is the Halloween season, so I can’t sign off without some not-too-scary suggestions for budding horror fans. “The Bride of Frankenstein” may be the best of all the classic Universal films, and it’s certainly the best for kids (who quickly realize it’s not “the Monster” who’s the real monster). And the trustworthy imprimatur the name “Gene Kelly” gives to musicals, “Ray Harryhausen” gives to stop-motion thrillers; “Jason and the Argonauts” may be the F/X genius’ most magical, but check out Harryhausen’s rampaging dino in “The Beast from 20,000 Fathoms” or angry alien in “20 Million Miles to Earth.”

There is less danger but even more depth to “The Day the Earth Stood Still” (the 1951 original, that is) and “Forbidden Planet”; both not only have cool robots, but something to say about anger, ego and peace. And although your children have already seen “Star Wars” (right?) they may have missed 1999’s “The Iron Giant,” a genuinely touching cartoon with its own themes of stubborn nonconformity and heroic self-sacrifice.

These, of course, are just starting points. See what films your young audiences respond to and you’ll know what to put on next. They’re into Kelly? Try “An American in Paris” or “On the Town.” They got through several monster movies without flinching? Try the marvelously unnerving original “Invasion of the Body Snatchers,” or Vincent Price camping it up deliciously in “The House on Haunted Hill.” Soon, you’ll find you won’t even need the guardrails of genre and can move straight onto all sorts of movies — courtroom dramas like “12 Angry Men,” gothics like “Jane Eyre,” thrillers like “Rear Window,” romances like “Casablanca.” It can be the beginning of a beautiful friendship.

But adults have to make the introductions.


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