Watching old movies is one thing, understanding them is another. Movies themselves are time capsules, a preserved piece of history. More than just fashions, hairstyles, and language are represented; we see what life and society were like at a given moment—for better or for worse. The course of history develops us as people, and through cinema we can revisit the past.
When I was about fourteen, I saw Casablanca for the first time. My mom rented it one night when we had the house to ourselves. I was excited to see such a classic. Alas, it did not hold my attention. I could not understand what the fuss was about. I was quite confused. Why were the Nazis in Morocco? Why did the French police captain played by Claude Rains help them?
Obviously, I had not yet learned about European history and the Second World War. Although I received a good high school education, history class is really just an overview. As it turned out, I had the opportunity to study in Paris where I enrolled in French history classes. I don’t know if the reader has ever studied history in the place where it was made. Saying it is interesting is an understatement; an eye-opener is the more accurate term. In Paris, I learned all about the Vichy government and collaborationism. Oddly enough, an infamous collaborationist was tried and convicted during my stay.
The combination of being a history enthusiast and Francophile had kept me busy reading books and watching documentaries over the years. A few years ago, I decided to give Casablanca a second shot. I felt like a delinquent cinephile for not appreciating it. I love it! Now that I understand it, now that I know the history behind it. I am older and little bit wiser.
Please don’t think course work is required for comprehension of old movie themes and events. More often than not, movies teach us. They are indeed reflections of ourselves. In recent years I have learned these past images are not always different from the present ones. Problems we deem modern creations have actually been around for quite some time. Watch practically any movie from the 1920s and pre-Hayes Code 1930s to discover a gritty reality.
One example is Heroes for Sale from 1933 starring Richard Barthelmess and Loretta Young. He plays a war veteran who develops a drug addiction due to injuries sustained in battle. Even though he kicks the habit, he can’t seem to find employment. He finally gets his break and soon develops a machine to aid factory workers, promising it’s not meant to replace them. However, a corporate takeover and a new regime think otherwise. The factory workers riot, accusing him of betrayal. He relinquishes his patent out of guilt and donates the money to charity. The Depression has come; these workers will not find other jobs. He himself is once again traveling around the country on foot or by train looking for work. This is one of many films centering on World War I and its effects on a generation of men.
Industrialization, drug addiction, poverty, and gangsters are other prevalent themes, to name just a scant few. They are outlined in such classics as Three on a Match (1932 starring Joan Blondell and Bette Davis), Public Enemy (1931 starring James Cagney), Scarface (1932 starring Paul Muni), and Charlie Chaplin’s The Kid (1921).
These realities were not completely swept under the rug with the advent of censorship, simply whitewashed. Even historical dramas lost their zing (that’s another story) while comedies were reinvented.
I feel I have learned more history through classic films than any book or documentary. Facts and figures are informative, who did what and when; but to truly see people in another time, to witness their daily lives, and to hear their voices enriches my own present, our own present.