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  • Writer's pictureCarrie Specht

Reframed: TCM Presents Classic Films In The Rearview Mirror

Thursdays in March, Turner Classic Movies (TCM) will present a special series of films that have aged in a way that, for good or bad, present themes, perspectives and situations with a whole new light. All of these films are considered legendary classics, but when watched today, they have a different cultural context. We often see problems now that weren't considered so when they were made, whether it’s about race, gender, or LGBT issues. TCM’s five hosts (Ben Mankiewicz, Dave Karger, Alicia Malone, Eddie Muller and Jacqueline Stewart) will take turns doing roundtable introductions of each of the films where they will discuss the 20th century productions with a 21st century lens.

Many of the beloved classics shown on TCM have, for the most part, stood the test of time. That's what makes them "classics" worth seeing again and again, as well as worth sharing with new audiences. Nevertheless, when viewed by contemporary standards, certain aspects of any film can be troubling, problematic or even disturbing, such as The Birth of a Nation to name an obvious example. This month's dive into that very topic explores the history, considers the cultural, and examines the context in which films were made, with a follow up discuss how such movies can be viewed with a perspective that retains its legacy. This can be challenging for even the most ardent fan, but if anyone's going to attempt to do so, then I think the hosts of TCM are likely the ones to manage the task.

One of the most important films in the history of cinema The Jazz Singer (1927) offers a particular visual element that is highly questionable today (and that's putting it mildly). It's a landmark film that heralded the sound era with snippets of 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.” It is a laudable story of a new generation escaping the confines of that of their parents to pursue genres of "acceptable" entertainment. However, just as he did in real life, Jolson performs some numbers in blackface, which was a common practice for some entertainers of the day, but is now widely recognized as racist. Can we accept this film as being from a different era, appreciate it for what it is, while acknowledging its faults and offenses?

David O. Selznick’s Gone with the Wind (1939) is spectacular film version of Margaret Mitchell’s sprawling novel of the Old South in the Civil War era. The much lauded film won a then record number of Oscars and has retained its status as a box-office champion over the decades. It is the highest grossing film of all time when adjusted for inflation. However, controversy has surrounded the film since its premier due to its pleasant view of slavery in addition to stereotypes surrounding the portrayal of Black characters in particular. Again, we face egregious insults to the Black community as a whole. So, how can we continue to exult its qualities without taking into account casual depiction of bigotry?

Both Dragon Seed (1944) and Breakfast at Tiffany’s (1961) present Asian characters played by white actors in what is known as "yellow face" makeup. The first includes one of the greats of the silver screen, Katharine Hepburn as a steadfast villager fighting against invaders, and the second as a grotesque caricature used for exaggerated comic effect by the otherwise incredibly talented, Mickey Rooney. How can we reconcile the racism with the adoration of the revered actors? Is it just too easy for white society to gloss over these hurtful depictions? Do we turn a blind eye when the offense is made by a beloved actor, and isn't it about time we hold them accountable?

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. We have a perception that times have changed to the point that this representation does not reflect the times in which we live today, but have they? The treatment of a rumor started by a child seeking revenge is all too easily accepted by the adults, unless you consider their outright repulsion of the idea. It is an unintentionally damning reflection of a time gone by, and if only for that reason alone, it is a film that needs to be recognized as one that propagated a cultural stigma.

There are far more aspects to this examination than set out here, and will be discussed by far more learned minds than my own. It is certainly a fascinating subject that should be discussed and posed to the fans who often overlook the shortcomings of a beloved favorite classic film.

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).


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