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Reframed: Films That Shaped Our Culture

Reframed: Films That Shaped Our Culture

Saturdays and Sundays in November | 16 Movies

Do movies merely reflect society or do they have an impact on our attitudes and behavior? Can a single film effect profound change, shifting our viewpoint and forever transforming the culture? Sociologists and historians have been debating the question for decades, and now TCM enters into the discussion with this month-long look at 16 highly significant films that foregrounded issues not usually tackled by popular escapist entertainment. 

Societal transformation often happens incrementally over time, and it may be difficult to see the impact of a single film without a longer, historical perspective. Other films can be immediately powerful enough to be considered revolutionary, a term rarely associated with classical Hollywood cinema. The films in this series fall all along that spectrum. Their approaches to the subjects of race, mental illness, juvenile delinquency, sexuality and more may look a bit dated and inadequate through our contemporary eyes, but there’s no denying the impression they made when they were released. 

I Am a Fugitive from a Chain Gang (1932) | November 5, 8:00 PM

Even as Warner Bros. entertained audiences with gritty urban dramas focused on violent criminals, it shocked the public with this fact-based exposé of brutal, sadistic conditions inflicted on inmates. Paul Muni, the star of one of the era’s most sensational gangster pictures, Scarface (1932), plays a wrongly convicted man forced into hard labor on a Southern chain gang. The outcry among the public and press and in the halls of Congress was immediate, resulting in changes to the penal code requiring more humane treatment. Robert Elliott Burns, the World War I veteran whose memoir was adapted for the screen, eventually had his sentence commuted. In 1991 the film was selected for preservation in the National Film Registry for being “culturally, historically, or aesthetically significant.”

Imitation of Life (1934) | November 5, 10:00 PM

Unlike the evening’s earlier movie, this melodrama based on a best seller did not cause an immediate demand for reform. It was, however, a milestone in representation: of single mothers, of women (one white, one Black) building a business empire together and of African Americans as screen characters who displayed more than mere servitude, menace or humor. This was the first mainstream Hollywood picture of the sound era to feature a central character passing for white, alarming Production Code censors who feared audiences would assume she was the child of mixed race relations. It set the stage for later movies on the same theme, notably Pinky (1949), Showboat (1936, 1951), this story’s remake in 1959 and the recent Passing (2021).

Gentleman's Agreement (1947) | November 6, 8:00 PM

Although most motion picture studio executives were Jewish, the subject of anti-Semitism had not been meaningfully tackled by Hollywood until 1947, which saw the release of two films highlighting discrimination against Jews. RKO’s Crossfire was the first to be released. This film noir was based on a 1945 novel that reflected a range of bigotry within the U.S. military, although its central crime was changed in the screen adaptation from the murder of a homosexual to that of a Jewish man. The picture was a hit but didn’t have quite the impact of Fox’s prestige release later in the year, Gentleman’s Agreement, in which a Gentile reporter (Gregory Peck) goes undercover to expose anti-Jewish hatred. The high profile of the multiple Academy Award winner led to both a greater public awareness of anti-Semitism and a backlash by the House Un-American Activities Committee, which called producer Darryl Zanuck, director Elia Kazan and cast members John Garfield and Anne Revere to testify.

The Best Years of Our Lives (1946) | November 6, 10:15 PM

After a half decade of movies glorifying the American military in support of the war effort, this highly acclaimed hit (one of the highest-grossing films of the 1940s), was an eye opener that brought the challenges faced by returning soldiers to the public consciousness, forever changing perceptions about war and its aftermath. Sincere and sensitively executed, the film addressed such issues as PTSD, alcoholism, disability, unemployment and gender roles. The authenticity of the story was heightened by the casting of a real-life veteran, Harold Russell, who had lost both hands during the war.

The Snake Pit (1948) | November 12, 8:00 PM

The year after causing a stir with Gentleman’s Agreement, Fox released what it billed as “the most heart stirring of all its dramatic thunderbolts,” based on an autobiographical novel by a woman who was diagnosed as schizophrenic and confined to a mental hospital. Awareness of the dismal conditions of mental institutions in the U.S. had been building for years, but this film proved to be a tipping point. With a major star, Olivia de Havilland, in the lead, The Snake Pit brought about reform legislation in dozens of states, and Fox’s VP for advertising, Charles Schlaifer became a highly effective spokesperson for greater awareness and funding for the treatment and care of the mentally ill.

Blackboard Jungle (1955) | November 12, 10:00 PM

The 1950s saw the emergence of the modern teenager as a force in American society – rebellious, disaffected and mad for the new sound of rock and roll – and the beginning of films marketed to teen audiences. This sensational story about teachers in an ethnically diverse inner-city high school started out as a social drama about race, juvenile delinquency and failures in the educational system, but it’s best known today for having ignited the rock and roll revolution through the popularity of its theme song, “Rock Around the Clock” by Bill Haley and His Comets. Young audiences in cities throughout the world danced in the aisles at screenings and occasionally erupted into riots and violence, shocking a public previously used to the benign depictions of teens as “gee whiz” Andy Hardy types.

Flower Drum Song (1961) | November 13, 8:00 PM

Long subjected to the stereotype of the “inscrutable Oriental,” mysterious and untrustworthy, Asian-Americans began to see themselves reflected with at least a smattering of honesty in this big budget musical based on a Rodgers and Hammerstein Broadway hit. The majority Asian cast in the film adaptation was a breakthrough, breaking the old Hollywood practice of “yellowface”(casting European and American actors as Chinese, Japanese and other “exotics”). Despite some remaining stereotypes, the film addressed issues of assimilation and immigration wrapped in tuneful entertainment that earned it box office success and five Academy Award nominations.  It also spawned a popular tune, “I Enjoy Being a Girl,” although lead actor Nancy Kwan’s vocals were dubbed by a non-Asian singer.

Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner (1967) | November 13, 10:30 PM

In the year of this picture’s release, the U.S. Supreme Court struck down laws banning inter-racial marriage on the books in 16 states. The tide was already turning, but Stanley Kramer’s film harnessed an all-star cast to make a heartfelt, if simplistic, plea for equality that reached a wide audience and earned critical acclaim. It was criticized by equal rights advocates for stacking the deck in favor of an internationally esteemed African American doctor (played by Sidney Poitier, no less) marrying, with much respect and deference, into a wealthy white liberal family (Katharine Hepburn and Spencer Tracy, in his final role), but it added a very positive note into the national conversation about race.

The Boys in the Band (1970) | November 19, 8:00 PM

Classic Hollywood often winked at homosexuality, particularly in the 1930s, when “milquetoast” or “sissy” characters played by the likes of Franklin Pangborn and others were the butt of humor and derision. It wasn’t until this film came out, however, that openly gay men were depicted on screen as fully fleshed out, unapologetic (to a degree) and deeply connected to each other in their outsider status and inside humor. Mart Crowley caused a stir with his Off-Broadway play in 1968. When this film version, directed by William Friedkin (The French Connection, 1971; The Exorcist, 1973), hit the big screen, the gay rights movement had been greatly advanced following the 1969 Stonewall Rebellion, opening the door for the mainstream public to see gay life on screen. Although still heavy on clichés, lingering stereotypes and an abiding air of sadness and self-loathing, the film was a breakthrough in representation, called by Time magazine a “humane, moving picture” that helped the public begin to understand “the situation of the homosexual.”

The China Syndrome (1979) | November 19, 10:15 PM

In spite of protests and warnings by environmentalists and activists, nuclear power as a “clean” energy source was mostly regarded favorably by the 1970s. When this film came out in March 1979, it was a critically and financially successful star-studded thriller about an accident at a nuclear power plant. It might have been dismissed as speculative fiction or anti-nuke propaganda had it not been for the real disaster at Three Mile Island just a couple weeks after its premier. Call it a case of chilling prescience, life imitating art imitating life or simply horrific but fortuitous public relations, but the timing of the two events opened the public’s eyes to the inherent danger and did much to shift opinion – at least for a time – against nuclear power.

Children of a Lesser God (1986) | November 20, 8:00 PM

Marlee Matlin won Best Actress for her portrayal in this film of a deaf woman of strength, independence and complexity – a breakthrough in representation of an often neglected and misunderstood segment of the population. There is a direct, if too distant, line between this picture and the critical success of the multiple award-winning CODA (2021), which also starred Matlin. In the years between there have been some advances made not only in the representation of the community’s challenges and triumphs but also in opportunities for deaf actors. The film also raised awareness of American Sign Language as a complete, highly developed and natural means of communication with the same linguistic properties as any spoken language.

Philadelphia (1993) | November 20, 10:15 PM

This was not the first feature film to tackle the personal and cultural devastation of the AIDS crisis that emerged in the 1980s. The television film An Early Frost (1985) and the independent movie Longtime Companion (1989), to name just two, led the way to greater understanding and awareness. But the major studio backing for Philadelphia, with its acclaimed performances by Tom Hanks and Denzel Washington as a sympathetic gay man and his initially reluctant attorney, and a hit title tune by Bruce Springsteen, made greater strides into the mainstream, helping to boost the changes in public opinion and official policy brought about by the tireless activism of the preceding years.

An Inconvenient Truth (2006) | November 26, 8:00 PM

The words “documentary” and “blockbuster” are rarely connected, particularly when the film is about as deadly serious a subject as climate change. But this film documenting Al Gore’s long campaign to spread awareness of the global crisis pulled in the highest gross of any movie the weekend it opened (in only four theaters) and became a huge international hit. More important, though, polling in the U.S. showed it had a direct impact on public opinion, leading to increased funding for climate initiatives and helping to further legislation aimed at mitigating the effects of global warming.

Boys Don’t Cry (1999) | November 26, 10:15 PM

Positive depictions of the lives of transgender people were virtually unheard of until this film brought the deeply hidden subject into the national consciousness. Based on the true story of Brandon Teena, a trans man raped and murdered in Nebraska in 1993, Boys Don’t Cry was an independent production propelled into the mainstream by major studio distribution and Hilary Swank’s Oscar-winning performance as Teena. Sadly, trans men and women continue to face discrimination, violence and death in alarming numbers, but the success of the film eventually led to the emergence of more honest and positive portrayals in cinema and on television as we moved further into the second decade of the 21st century, and transgender actors now have more casting opportunities.

Super Size Me (2004) | November 27, 8:00 PM

Independent filmmaker Morgan Spurlock turned the camera on himself as he spent 30 days eating nothing but food from McDonald’s. This film documents the profoundly negative effects the diet had on his physical and psychological health. Although Spurlock’s veracity and methodology have been called into question, there’s no denying the impact his documentary had. Six weeks after its release, McDonald’s discontinued its supersize options, although the fast food chain pushed back with a website that responded to and criticized aspects of the film. Nevertheless, the movie inspired greater discussions and awareness of healthier eating, and in the years since, fast food restaurants began to offer more nutritious menu options and reduced portions. 

Brokeback Mountain (2005) | November 27, 10:00 PM

Ang Lee’s adaptation of Annie Proulx’s 1997 short story was in no way a “message film” or political lecture. It was just another movie romance about forbidden love, like so many before it, but because the star-crossed lovers were two cowboys, its social and cultural impact was significant. Featuring well-known stars with major fan bases (Heath Ledger and Jake Gyllenhaal) as the gay couple, the picture got widespread distribution not just in art houses and specialty markets but in the American Heartland, where theaters reportedly added screenings due to high demand. It received high critical praise and multiple awards and nominations, frequently appearing on or at the top of the year’s lists of ten best pictures. Thanks to this success, major studios began looking more favorably upon, even actively seeking out, gay-themed films. And the conservative backlash and ridicule that accompanied its release was a sure sign of the picture’s cultural impact.