All month long in March, TCM will be taking a look at a number of beloved classic films that have stood the test of time, but when viewed by contemporary standards, certain aspects of these films are troubling and problematic. During TCM’s Reframed: Classics in the Rearview Mirror programming, all five TCM hosts will appear on the network to discuss these issues, their historical and cultural context and how we can keep the legacy of great films alive for future generations.
Also joining in on this conversation are four TCM writers who were open enough to share their thoughts on their love of classic movies and watching troubling images of the past. Special thanks to Theresa Brown, Constance Cherise, Susan King and Kim Luperi for taking part in this conversation. Continue the conversation over on TCM’s Twitter.
What do you say to people who don’t like classics because they’re racist and sexist?
KL: There are positive representations in classic Hollywood that I think would blow some peoples’ minds. I always love introducing people to new titles that challenge expectations.
That said, anyone who broadly slaps a sexist or racist label on a large part of the medium’s history does a disservice to cinema and themselves. That mindset keeps them ignorant not only of some excellent movies and groundbreaking innovation but history itself.
I think people need to remember that movies are a product of their time and they can reflect the society they were made into a variety of degrees - good, bad, politically, culturally, socially. That’s not to excuse racism or sexism; it needs to be recognized and called out as such for us to contend with it today. But it’s important for people who say they don’t like classics for those reasons to understand the historical context. In particular, we need to acknowledge that society has evolved - and what was deemed socially acceptable at times has, too, even if sexism and racism are always wrong - and we are applying a modern lens to these films that come with the benefit of decades worth of activism, growth and education.
SK: I totally agree K.L. For years I have been encouraging people to watch vintage movies who keep proclaiming they don’t like black-and-white films or silent films. For every Birth of a Nation (1915) there are beautiful dramas, wonderful comedies and delicious mysteries and film noirs.
These films that have racist and sexist elements shouldn’t be collectively swept under the rug, because as K.L. stated they shine a light on what society was like – both good and bad.
CC: First off, fellow writers may I say, I think your work is amazing. I'm continually learning from the talent that is here, and I am humbled to be a part of this particular company. Similar to the prior answers, for every racist/sexist film the opposite exists. Personally, classic musicals attracted me due to their visual assault, creativity and their unmistakable triple-threat performances. While we cannot ignore racist stereotypes and sexism, there are films that simply are "fantasies of art." There is also a review of evolution. In 20 years, what we now deem as acceptable behavior/conversation will be thought of as outdated and will also require being put into "historical context." What we collectively said/thought/did 20 years ago, we are currently either re-adjusting or reckoning with now, and that is a truth of life that will never change. We will always evolve.
TB: I would say to them they should consider the times the movie was made in. It was a whole different mindset back then.
Are there movies that you love but are hesitant to recommend to others because of problematic elements in them? If so, which movies?
TB: Yes, there are movies I’m hesitant to recommend. The big one, off the top of my head, would be Gone With the Wind (1939). The whole slavery thing is a bit of a sticky wicket for people, especially Black folks. Me, I love the movie. It is truly a monumental feat of filmmaking for 1939. I’m not saying I’m happy with the depiction of African Americans in that film. I recognize the issues. But when I look at a classic film, I suppose I find I have to compartmentalize things. I tend to gravitate on the humanity of a character I can relate to.
KL: Synthetic Sin (1929), a long thought lost film, was found in the 2010s, and I saw it at Cinecon a few years ago. As a Colleen Moore fan, I thoroughly enjoyed most of it, but it contains a scene of her performing in blackface that doesn’t add anything to the plot. That decision brings the movie down in my memory, which is why I have trouble recommending it.
Also Smarty (1934), starring Warren William and Joan Blondell, is another movie I don’t recommend because it’s basically about spousal abuse played for comedy, and it did not age well for that reason.
SK: Breakfast at Tiffany’s (1961): Audrey Hepburn is my favorite actress and I love her Oscar-nominated performance as Holly. I adore Orangy as Cat, as well as George Peppard and Buddy Ebsen, who is wonderfully endearing. And of course, “Moon River” makes me cry whenever I hear it. But then I cringe and am practically nauseous every time Mickey Rooney pops up on screen with his disgusting stereotypical performance as Holly’s Japanese landlord Mr. Yunioshi. What was director Blake Edwards thinking casting him in this part? Perhaps because he’s such a caricature no Japanese actor wanted to play him, so he cast Rooney with whom he had worked within the 1950s.
CC: I cannot necessarily state that I am in "love," but, a film that comes to mind would be Anna and the King of Siam (1946). It is an absolutely beautiful visual film. However, Rex Harrison as King Mongkut requires some explanation. Holiday Inn (1942), and the Abraham number...why??? Might I also add, there were many jaw-dropping, racist cartoons.
How did you learn to deal with the negative images of the past?
KL: I often look at it as a learning experience. Negative images can provoke much-needed conversation (internally or with others) and for me, they often prompt my education in an area that I wasn’t well versed in. For instance, blackface is featured in some classic films, and its history is something I never knew much about. That said, seeing its use in movies prompted me to do some research, which led me first to TCM’s short documentary about blackface and Hollywood. I love how TCM strives to provide context and seeks to educate viewers on uncomfortable, contentious subjects so we can appreciate classic films while still acknowledging and understanding the history and the harmful stereotypes some perpetuated.
SK: It’s also been a learning experience for me. Though I started watching movies as a little girl in the late 1950s, thanks to TCM and Warner Archive I realized that a lot of films were taken out of circulation because of racist elements. TCM has not only screened a lot of these films but they have accompanied the movies with conversations exploring the stereotypes in the films.
CC: As a Black woman, negative images of the past continue to be a lesson on how Blacks, as well as other minorities, were seen (and in some cases still are seen) through an accepted mainstream American lens. On one hand, it's true, during the depiction of these films the majority of Black Americans were truly relegated to servant roles, so it stands to reason that depictions of Black America would be within the same vein. What is triggering to me, are demeaning roles, and the constant exaggeration of the slow-minded stereotype, blackface. When you look at the glass ceiling that minority performers faced from those in power, the need for suppression and domination is transparent because art can be a powerful agent of change. I dealt with the negative images of the past by knowing and understanding that the depiction being given to me was someone else's narrative, of who they thought I was, not who I actually am.
TB: I’m not sure HOW I learned to deal with negative images. Again, I think it might go back to me compartmentalizing.
I don’t know if this is right or wrong…but I’ve always found myself identifying with the leads and their struggles. As a human being, I can certainly identify with losing a romantic partner, money troubles, losing a job…no matter the ethnicity.
In what ways have we evolved from the movies of the classic era?
KL: I think we are more socially and culturally conscious now when it comes to stories, diversity and representation on screen and behind the scenes, which is a step forward. That said, while there's been growth, there's still much work to be done.
SK: I think this year’s crop of awards contenders show how things have evolved with Da 5 Bloods, Soul, One Night in Miami, Minari, Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom, The United States Vs. Billie Holiday, Judas and the Black Messiah and MLK/FBI.
But we still have a long way to go. I’d love to see more Native American representation in feature films; more Asian-American and Latino stories.
CC: There are minority artists, writers, producers, directors, actors with the increasing capacity to create through their own authentic voice, thereby affecting the world, and a measurable amount of them are women! Generally speaking, filmmakers (usually male) have held the voice of the minority narrative as well as the female narrative. I agree with both writers above in the thought that it is progress, and I also agree, more stories of diversified races are needed.
TB: One important way we've evolved from the movies made in the classic era by being more inclusive in casting.
Are there any deal-breakers for you when watching a movie, regardless of the era, that make it hard to watch?
KL: Physical violence in romantic relationships that's played as comedy is pretty much a dealbreaker for me. I mentioned above that I don't recommend Smarty (1934) to people, because when I finally watched it recently, it. was. tough. The way their abuse was painted as part of their relationship just didn’t sit well with me.
SK: Extreme racist elements and just as KL states physical violence.
Regarding extreme racist elements, D.W. Griffith’s Birth of a Nation (1915) is just too horrific to watch. I was sickened when I saw it when I was in grad school at USC 44 years ago and it’s only gotten worse. And then there’s also Wonder Bar (1934), the pre-code Al Jolson movie that features the Busby Berkeley black minstrel number “Goin’ to Heaven on a Mule.” Disgusting.
I also agree with KL about physical violence in comedies and even dramas. I recently revisited Private Lives (1931) with Norma Shearer and Robert Montgomery based on Noel Coward’s hit play. I have fond memories of seeing Maggie Smith in person in the play when I was 20 in the play and less than fond memories of watching Joan Collins destroying Coward’s bon mots.
But watching the movie again, you realized just how physically violent Amanda and Elyot’s relationship is-they are always talking about committing physical violence-”we were like two violent acids bubbling about in a nasty little matrimonial battle”; “certain women should be struck regularly, like gongs”-or constantly screaming and throwing things.
There is nothing funny or romantic about this.
KL: I try to put Birth of a Nation out of my mind, but S.K. did remind me of it again, and movies featuring extreme racism at their core like that are also dealbreakers; I totally agree with her assessment. I understand the technological achievements, but I think in the long run, especially in how it helped revive the KKK, the social harm that film brought about outdoes its cinematic innovations.
CC: Like S.K., Wonder Bar immediately came to mind. Excessive acts of violence, such as in the film Natural Born Killers (1994). I walked out of the theatre while the film was still playing. I expected violence, but the gratuitousness was just too much for me. I also have an issue with physical abuse, towards women and children. This is not to say I would not feel the same way about a man. However, when males are involved, it tends to be a fight, an exchange of physical energy, generally speaking, when we see physical abuse it is perpetuated towards women and children.
TB: I have a couple of moments that pinch my heart when I watch a movie. It doesn’t mean I won’t watch the movie. It just means I roll my eyes…verrrrry hard.
-Blackface…that’s a little rough; especially when the time period OF the movie is the ‘30s or ‘40s film.
-Not giving the Black actors a real name to be called by in the film (Snowflake…Belvedere…Lightnin’). I mean, can’t they have a regular name like Debbie or Bob?
-When the actor can’t do the simplest of tasks, i.e. Butterfly McQueen answering the phone in Mildred Pierce (1945) and not knowing which end to speak into. What up with that?
Are there elements they got right that we still haven’t caught up to?
KL: I don't know if the pre-Code era got sex right (and sensationalism was definitely something studios were going for) but in some ways, I feel that subject was treated as somewhat more accepted and natural back then. Of course, what was shown onscreen in the classic era was nowhere near the extent it is today, but the way the Production Code put a lid on sex (in addition to many other factors) once again made it into more of a taboo topic than it is or should be.
One thing I particularly hate in modern movies is gratuitous violence, and it perplexes and angers me how America weighs violence vs. sex in general through the modern ratings system: films are more likely to get a pass with violence, mostly landing in PG-13 territory and thus making them more socially acceptable, while sex, something natural, is shunned with strictly R ratings. Obviously, there are limits for both, but I think the general thinking there is backwards today.
CC: The elegance, the sophistication, the precision, the dialogue, the intelligence, the wit. The fashion! The layering of craftsmanship. We aren't fans of these films for fleeting reasons, we are fans because of their timeless qualities.
I'm going to sound like a sentimental sap here, ladies get ready. I think they got the institution of family right. Yes, I do lean towards MGM films, so I am coloring my opinion from that perspective. Even if a person hasn't experienced what would have been considered a "traditional family" there is something to be said about witnessing that example. Perhaps not so much of a father and a mother, but to witness a balanced, functioning, loving relationship. What it "looks like" when a father/mother/brother/sister etc. genuinely loves another family member.
I was part of the latch-key generation, and although my parents remained together, many of my friends' parents were divorced. Most won't admit it, but by the reaction to the documentary [Won't You Be My Neighbor?, 2018], the bulk of them went home, sat in front of the TV and watched Mr. Rogers tell them how special they were because their parents certainly were not. We don't know what can "be" unless we see it.