Many of the beloved classics that we enjoy on TCM have stood the test of time in several ways, nevertheless when viewed by contemporary standards, certain aspects of these films can be troubling and problematic. This month, we are looking at a collection of such movies and we’ll explore their history, consider their cultural context and discuss how these movies can be reframed so that future generations will keep their legacy alive.
Discussing the films and the way they are perceived in changing times are all five TCM hosts: Ben Mankiewicz, Dave Karger, Alicia Malone, Eddie Muller and Jacqueline Stewart. The movies in our lineup range from the 1920s through the 1960s. Here are a few notable examples.
The Jazz Singer (1927) is a landmark film that heralded the sound era with its dialogue, songs and synchronized music. The legendary Al Jolson stars as a young man who defies the traditions of his Jewish family to become a “jazz singer.” Just as he did in real life, Jolson performs some numbers in blackface – a common practice for some entertainers of the day but is now widely recognized as racist.
Gone with the Wind (1939) is David O. Selznick’s spectacular film version of Margaret Mitchell’s sprawling novel of the Old South in the Civil War era. The movie won a record number of Oscars and has retained its status as a box-office champion over the decades. However, controversy has surrounded the film since its inception due to its pleasant view of slavery in addition to stereotypes surrounding the portrayal of Black characters in particular.
Dragon Seed (1944) is MGM’s screen treatment of the 1942 Pearl S. Buck novel about Chinese peasants during the Japanese invasion of China in 1937. The Asian characters are played by white actors in “yellowface” makeup, including Katharine Hepburn as a young Chinese villager who stands up to the invaders.
The Searchers (1956), a classic Western directed by John Ford, stars John Wayne as a Confederate veteran who devotes his life to rescuing a young niece (Natalie Wood) who has been kidnapped by Comanches. The Wayne character is overtly racist, and many argue that the label also applies to the film itself, as the characterization of Indigenous people is both stereotypical and underdeveloped.
Breakfast at Tiffany’s (1961), Blake Edwards’ film version of the Truman Capote novella, features a captivating star performance by Audrey Hepburn as heroine Holly Golightly. But many feel the film is marred by Mickey Rooney’s supporting role as a Japanese neighbor who is played for exaggerated comic effect, with exaggerated makeup and offensive dialect.
The Children’s Hour (1961), directed by William Wyler and adapted from a 1934 play by Lillian Hellman, concerns the destructive effect of gossip. In this case it is an accusation of lesbianism made by a young girl about teachers played by Audrey Hepburn and Shirley MacLaine. Even in the early ‘60s the subject of homosexuality was rarely addressed openly in films and was often, as it is here, portrayed as a source of guilt and shame.
Also screening: Swing Time (1936), Stagecoach (1939), Gunga Din (1939), The Four Feathers (1939), Woman of the Year (1942), Sinbad, the Sailor (1947), Rope (1948), Seven Brides for Seven Brothers (1954), Tarzan, the Ape Man (1959), Psycho (1960), My Fair Lady (1964), and Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner (1967).
By Roger Fristoe
For further reading, click here to read a conversation among four TCM writers who share their love of classic movies and watching troubling images of the past.