Two films featured in my book, Lessons in the Dark, will be coming soon to TCM. Tonight at 10:15PM (Eastern) the superb Great Depression era musical Gold Diggers on 1933. The film stars Joan Blondell, Ginger Rogers, Ruby Keeler and Dick Powell along with an excellent supporting cast that includes Aline McMahon, Ned Sparks, Guy Kibbee and Billy Barty.
On Friday (Feb. 10th) at 8PM (Eastern) don’t miss John Ford’s masterful production of John Steinbeck’s classic novel, The Grapes of Wrath. Henry Fonda stars as Tom Joad. The cast includes Academy Award winner Jane Darwell and John Carradine. Look for a very young Darryl Hickman (Dobie Gillis) in a small role.
You can read more about both of these films plus others in Lessons in the Dark. Below I have reprinted the Introduction to the book.
Introduction – Lessons in the Dark
Why these films, why this book and why this collection you ask? It’s simple enough to answer. A few years ago I did a series of articles for Halo-17, a now defunct Australian music and arts website. One of the editors discovered my blog, I assume liked it, and asked if I would be interested in writing a column about classic films. The only caveat was that I had to make the films I wrote about connect to what was happening in today’s world. I needed to show readers how these old black and white films were still relevant. Illustrate how history repeats itself and there are lessons to be learned even from a film that is seventy years old.
Well, the requirement set forth by the folks at Halo-17 turned out to be simpler than I thought. As I began to look at films from this perspective I realized many films whether twenty, thirty, forty, fifty years old or more remain relevant. They had something to say about us today as well as years ago. Life and art repeat themselves. As the poet, novelist and philosopher, George Santayana said, “Those who cannot remember the past, are condemned to repeat it.” Classic films help us remember the past, both the good and the bad. Sometimes they even predict the future as it did in Elia Kazan’s A Face in the Crowd (1957) and Sidney Lumet’s Network (1976), both which forecast the reality TV and political circus we are forced to endure today. A film like Black Legion (1937) teaches us about hating someone who’s different, how people get sucked into hatred or blaming immigrants for taking jobs from “real Americans.” Leni Riefenstahl’s Triumph of Will (1935) presented Adolph Hitler as Germany’s savior, a leader who would bring glory back to Germany by once again making it a great power! This Nazi rhetoric, the fear mongering, is awfully familiar to what we hear today from plastic gods with simplistic solutions promising to make America great again as they feed on the hate.
This collection of essays is divided into various sections focusing on specific themes. Each contains essays on films. Though “old” they speak about or reflect on the times we are living in today. Every one of these films remains pertinent to our current lives. Not all are great cinematically, yet there are lessons or messages to be learned. Some films are more direct in their ideas, others are more understated. There are even a few films that put forth a message or point of view for most of the film and then reverse course in the final moments. Why? Censorship sometimes exposes its ugly head or maybe the filmmakers or the studios got cold feet. Whatever the reason, it’s all part of what makes these films fascinating and worth watching and discussing.
Part One looks at films from or about the Great Depression of the 1930’s. As we continue to come out of our recent Great Recession that has been hanging over us since 2008, one can read into many of these films the similarities, the hard times and uncertainty we have all recently endured. In Part Two there are films exploring the absurdities of war and its effects on the men and women on the front line and back at home. Part Three contains a couple of films that reveal the influences of the news media on our lives. Part Four takes a look at social injustice. In Part Five we look at films about discrimination. In Part Six we see how the pre-code era gave us a look at tough, strong, independent and progressive women. Finally, in Part Seven, a section that is a catch all. It contains a variety of topics that we still deal with and affect our lives today.
“Old” films are not just nostalgic. They entertain, or at least attempt to, however, they are also avenues for learning and a passageway to take a look at ourselves as we were then and are now. Movies hold up a mirror to both our past, our lives today and our future. We can see how far we have come; the mistakes that we made, the choices we made, both the good and the bad. Hopefully we are able to learn, realize the bad and not repeat them.
The majority of these essays first appeared on my blog, Twenty Four Frames. I began the blog almost eight years ago, like many others, as a place to share my love of movies. The blog has evolved over time as I believe I have myself. During a lifetime of watching movies I have discovered new roads to travel and lessons learned. I hope you, the reader, will too.