Like most Americans, I’ve been worried about the state of things these days. While I’m not in danger of losing my house or my job as so many thousands are, I’ve felt the pinch. My disposable income has suddenly become less so, as there are far fewer dollars left for going out to dinner, stopping by for an afternoon coffee or picking up a trashy novel on impulse. No, there are people in far worse shape than I, but there’s a general pall hanging over all of us and the notion that me and mine might soon end up on the slippery slope of financial ruin is growing. The fact that my wife and I haven’t been out on a date for over three months has less to do with our constant sense of fatigue than the fact that money for a babysitter, dinner and popcorn has gone in the gas tank or on the supper table.
This malaise was hanging rather heavy on me one day recently as not being able to take our car in for its scheduled maintenance and running the risk of costly repairs down the road put me in a nasty funk. With no financial windfalls in sight, I found myself folding the laundry with a bit more snap and placing the clean clothes on our bed with more force than usual. However, an unexpected messenger from a distant time managed to cheer me up in a way I had forgotten could be so effective.
As a film buff and critic, Turner Classic Movies is always on whenever I have control of the cable box. Whether I’m catching up with an old favorite or need some comforting background noise, Ted Turner’s greatest contribution to society (CNN? Please.) is my constant companion and, at times, my salvation. This particular day, it proved to be just that, as the Fred Astaire/Ginger Rogers musical Swing Time happened to be on and before I knew it, the folding of the laundry was forgotten and I was completely immersed in this cinematic confection while being assured that all I had to do was “pick myself up, brush myself off and start all over again” whenever things get bleak.
The films of Astaire and Rogers were some of the many made during the Great Depression that helped ease the nation’s woes. A double feature along with a short film, a cartoon, a newsreel and previews of coming attractions helped Americans forget their troubles for at least a few hours. While their societal impact is incalculable, there’s no question that they made those hard times a little bit easier to bear. Errol Flynn saved the day in Sherwood Forest, Cary Grant looked for golden temples in India, Bette Davis suffered nobly, Boris Karloff shuffled about as a misunderstood monstrosity and viewers ate it all up as quickly as Hollywood could produce them. Grateful for the momentary relief these films offered, audiences filed out of the great old movie palaces with a smile on their face, a bounce in their step and the thought that maybe things weren’t so bad after all.
TCM is on now more than ever in our home and I find myself heading to the Classics section at the local video store before I give the New Releases wall a passing glance. While watching these films again has rekindled my love for Hollywood’s Golden Age, the fact that my two stepsons and my own boy have started to watch them with me is a wonderful, unexpected bonus. Great laughs have been elicited by the brothers Marx, while the hi-jinks generated by Grant, Katherine Hepburn, a wild leopard and a precocious dog in Bringing Up Baby proved to be a particular favorite. My four year-old son refers to this classic as “the one where the dinosaur skeleton falls and makes a big mess.”
Will Hollywood begin to produce similar fare as a panacea for the masses of the 21st century? I have my doubts. We’re far too cynical and “sophisticated” for comedies buoyed by razor sharp wit and rapidly delivered dialogue or musicals in which you can actually see the dancers dance without having their efforts obscured by spastic editing. No, the new brand of cinematic escapism consists of superhero epics, comedies that push the boundaries of decency and little else.
I’m not naïve enough to think that one- or a 170-year-old movies can solve the financial woes of our nation or ease the stress that so many suffer from due to the crisis that will surely get worse before it can get any better. But they can offer something that’s in short supply these days: Hope. The medium may have changed but the message these films contain hasn’t, and, ironically, they’ve become more timely, and valuable, than ever.