Watching Old Movies

Wouldn’t it be pleasant to sit down and watch a movie with your kids that wasn’t presold on sequels and Happy Meals? Or take them to an action movie that didn’t either freak them out or weigh down their little bones with premature irony? – Ty Burr, The Best Old Movies for Families

When I talk about Old Movies I don’t mean going back to Toy Story 1, or even aaall the way back to the first Star Wars (though 1977 does seem long, long ago in a galaxy far far away)… I’m talking about Oooooold movies here.

You may not have any interest in old movies, indeed, I realize not everyone has spent a lifetime loving them like I have. But if you are old enough to be a parent, you are certainly aware of how much movies have changed since the flicks you watched as a kid. They’ve changed for the better, in terms of technology. The complex visual and sound effects of modern movies absolutely boggles the mind. (Just compare a Harryhausen Sinbad movie to Avatar!) And they’ve also changed for the worse… can you even imagine a world in which there were no teen slasher horror films?

Whether or not you know much about old movies, when it comes to picking films for family movie nights, there are many good reasons to turn to the oldies…

1. Escape from the Marketing Monster

Movies in and of themselves are only a cog in the merchandising machine that permeates our media lives. Children’s films in particular are accompanied by an avalanche of product. It is actually impossible to go straight to the Menu on a Disney movie DVD without wading through ads for other movies, sly campaigns promoting websites (which sell you crap), and, finally, joyous hymns to the glory of a family vacation to Disney World. The bigger goal of selling you stuff inevitably bleeds into the actual film. As film critic Ty Burr puts it,

“Today kids’ films are built to cater to and flatter their audience into buying the subsidiary products. That’s their job. … And because the movie’s first order of business is to sell, the story can’t afford to challenge children in the slightest degree.” (Burr, p. 6)

As media and pop culture seeps into every crevice of our lives, how can one possibly step outside of this atmosphere of hard sell, even for a moment? Ty Burr points out that the best thing about an old movie is that it’s not selling anything except itself.

2. Safer for Young Viewers

While selecting movies still requires a little parental homework to make sure it’s appropriate for children, most old movies come with an automatic air of wholesomeness. Once the Hays Code kicked in, that is (1933). After that point you’ll find no bad language (by today’s standards), nothing sexually explicit, no nudity, no extreme violence, until the more permissive 1960s and 1970s started to change everything.

That said, there are still a few things to beware of, as unfortunate leftovers of another time: stereotypes and expressions of racism, sexism, homophobia, etc. If your child is old enough, however, a ‘teachable moment’ and further discussion could come out of scenes like these. Just don’t let them slide by thinking your child hasn’t noticed them – they probably have!

3. Not So ‘X-Treme’!

Because of the relatively unsophisticated special effects in older movies, even scary scenes are not all that scary for today’s kids. An example would be the tornado in Wizard of Oz (1939), which is just funny with its simple photographic superimpositions of men in a rowboat, a cow, etc. A tornado in a modern film would have enough state-of-the-art sound fx and visual hoopla to actually blow your doors off. An entirely different viewing experience!

Modern movies are constantly upping the ante of violence, suspense, and terror – even in so-called Family Films. Because the older siblings have grown to expect more and bigger explosions in every film, their younger brothers and sisters are being dragged along in watching this stuff as well.

It’s all about emphasis. Even an old movie that is an ‘action adventure film’, like The Adventures of Robin Hood (1938), is not frightening for youngsters to watch. In movies from this era the fighting is always shown in a wide shot, from farther away, so it’s not so up close and viscerally involving. The climax of this film, in which a whole room of knights and bandits battle it out, is actually exciting without being scary – seeing a whole room of flashing swords and furniture being upset is a far cry from close-ups of blood and dismemberment, which is how a modern movie would depict this scene.

(Another perfect example of what I’m talking about would be a comparison between old war movies and the opening scene of Saving Private Ryan.)

4. History Lessons

Besides following the plot, watching a film made fifty or sixty years ago is fascinating in the details of everyday life: the cars, the hairstyles, the technology. And the jobs that people did that you don’t even hear about anymore, like switchboard operators manually connecting every call, or icemen making deliveries with horse and buggy. Describing life long ago to your kids is nowhere near as interesting as being able to see it. Again, Ty Burr puts it extremely well:

“With any luck, my daughters will be able to go through life lacking that fear of old movies – and, much more to the point, old culture – that keeps so many children and their parents locked in an eternal, ahistorical Now. The only way to comprehend Now, of course, is to understand Then. More than almost any other art form, movies show the way back.” (p. 12)

5. Pace

I’m always looking further into this topic, but I do worry about the breakneck speed of scenes in films and television now. Usually blamed on MTV, the length of shots has been shrinking for years, and the camera has been freed to shake, jiggle, and zoom around its subjects at the drop of a hat. Eye candy for us, but I simply cannot believe it doesn’t have a deleterious effect on young attention spans.

In the days before Steadicam, cameras were generally locked down on tripods, or gently wheeled along dolly tracks. Scenes were played out in long takes. Actors had to actually memorize long speeches and deliver them flawlessly because the director wanted it all in one shot! And shots were generally wider, allowing us to choose what to look at, the star or the wallpaper or the car in the background… Now we are strapped into the director’s roller-coaster seat, carried along its vertiginous track with no time to take in our surroundings.

6. Attitude

One thing that wearies me about current movies and television is the prevailing air of cynicism, sarcasm, and general smart-assedness. Ever since Disney cast a little cricket in Pinocchio (1940), discovering in the process the comedic benefits of a smart-alecky sidekick, every children’s film out there has been plagued with a similar character. The pet monkey, the villain’s pet bird, the stray dog, the genie, the dragon, etc etc etc ad nauseum.

Must every entertainment be drenched in world-weariness, negativity and hilarious pessimism? Not to mention the wall-to-wall insults?

In most old movies there is such a refreshing lack of cynicism that they are perfect for the youngest viewers, though older children may roll their eyes whenever someone exclaims “Golly!”

7. The World of Adults

Ty Burr (and I realize I am invoking his name a lot in this commentary, but his book is excellent) makes a good point that, due to the pressures of marketing departments, movies made for children are always about children and no one else.

“Parents are [depicted as] either yammering, well-intentioned fools or thin-lipped martinets who come around in the last act. And other grown-ups? They barely exist except as two-dimensional objects of fear, ridicule, or blank incomprehension. … Why such paltry options? Why are kids’ movies and TV shows uninterested in adults who are interesting? Because they need to flatter the children who are watching the ads and buying the tie-in toys and, really, paying the bills. Simple as that. The upshot is that your kids get a super-empowering media reality that revolves around them the way the ancients used to think the universe spun around the Earth.” (Burr, p. 31)

I can vouch for this, from my experiences in children’s television. Shows made for children are required to have only children as the main characters. Adults are to be benevolently absent. Children must be the engines of the plot (the buzzword is proactive) which means that grownups cannot really offer much help and can never provide or suggest the solution to any of the child’s problems.

Which is fine for a certain kind of story, but when the entire entertainment menu consists of variations on this one formula… well, we’re certainly short-changing our children and their views of what it is to be an adult in this world.

“Toddlers are preoccupied with trying to figure out the mysterious rules by which Large People live, and many old movies answer that need in a manner not overly loud or frightening but, rather, magical and pleasurably confusing.” (Burr, p. 18)


Well, what I thought would be a quick and easy commentary has expanded into a longer rant, but that’s the way of it. Every time I focus on one topic more questions come to mind and more books get added to my reading list…

I will reluctantly stop here, but I do resolve to review more old movies, as I see I have but a paltry offering on the site thus far. (Just go to the sidebar and click on Categories: Old Movies at any point and you’ll see everything I’ve written on.)

It takes a little extra effort to find these films, as they are often relegated to some dusty corner of your local video store, but the internet is making old movies more accessible to more people all the time. Don’t forget about public libraries either – I’ve found some gems in our local system.


Two good resources:

Burr, Ty. The Best Old Movies for Families. Anchor Books, Random House, New York, 2007.
Nichols, Peter M. The New York Times Essential Library : Children’s Movies: a critic’s guide to the best films available on video and DVD. Times Books, New York, 2003.


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All writings posted here are © Kim Thompson, unless otherwise indicated. For all artwork on this site, copyright is retained by the artist.
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