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REMEMBER THIS: Old movies offer more than nostalgia about our history (13 photos)

History Hound Richard MacLeod highlights how the classic movies provide valuable insight into the issues, beliefs, desires and realities of the time the film was made

Why do we so love watching old movies? I draw equally upon my own experience as a lover of film and as someone who loves history and all the different ways we can re-capture our past. Movies often reflect what life used to be like, prompting memories and emotions to reappear, nurturing something deep inside us.

A recent article that caught my eye revealed that movie services have found viewers frequently request they stock a vast library of old movies. It really does not seem to matter the demographics of their customer base; people love their old movies. We will look a little closer at this phenomenon and see if we can ascertain why there is such an attraction to the classics. I have a theory that it is tied to our need for a bridge to our past, a bridge that transports us to the places and feelings from our past, our safe place.

A movie from the past will often prompt a very basic, emotional response deep within me. I am taken back to the time and place when I first viewed the movie. I remember the people with whom I first saw the movie and how I was feeling about myself and about those around me at that moment in time.

I look at the clothes, hairstyles and the way the characters speak, and I am transported back in time to my heyday, to my world and my people. Adding to the excitement of watching classic movies is the thought that I am watching films that were popular in my parents' or grandparents'  time and trying to glean information about their times, their loves, and their concerns as portrayed on the screen.

There are, of course, many who refuse to watch classic movies because they were made before their birth, or even worse, are in black and white. They are seen as outdated, uninteresting and boring. I make the argument that there are so many reasons to watch classic movies, not the least of which is the fact that they remain timeless in an age of fast-paced change. They also are a reminder of the past and life at the time.

For many people, old movies are a beautiful reminder of a time when things were simpler. These movies don’t rely as much on technology to wow and shock the viewer, the story lines are clear and straighter forward, their plots simpler. They can also provide us a window into the concerns and fears of that generation in a way that can strike us deeply.

Often old movies offer a refreshing contrast with today’s movies. Today movies are more about pre-marketing, driven by profits, while old movies seem to have been more about the art and telling a story. Each older movie seems to a unique way of telling the story. Due to the absence of advanced technology, older movies could be scary without being graphic, showing that true fear does not have anything to do with blood and gore.

For me, one of the vital components of the older movies has to do with its historical perspective. A movie like It’s a Wonderful Life is about the 1940s, was made in the 1940s, by people living in the 1940s. One can identify elements within plots that would have been influenced by current events, and sometimes, these movies included news snippets from the time. Older movies from my perspective are mini time capsules of the past, containing historical information, especially information about how people lived

The viewing of old movies may assist us to learn from our past mistakes, contrasting the mores and values of the period with today’s reality. Obvious racism or sexism, if present in the movie plot, sparks a sense in the individual of discomfort, as it should, and hopefully we will learn a huge lesson from that. These older stories also serve as reminders of our mistakes from the past, making us more socially aware in the present and in the future.

There is also the aspect of nostalgia to consider. There are essentially two different levels to nostalgia: the historical, or our nostalgia ‘for the past’ generally, and the autobiographical, or nostalgia for a specific, individual past. The amount of history involved in many of these movies offers us a distinctive sense of nostalgia of the past. The great news is that they can also be watched and rewatched by every generation as they offer a different degree of weight, value, and emotion with each age group.

Growing up, my family watched The Sound of Music and now whenever I watch it, I am reminded of the traditions surrounding ‘our family time’. This represents for me a warm, individual sense of nostalgia.

Due to the lack of technology, all these movies relied heavily on the actors and the script. A movie with awful actors led to an awful movie. The good movies of the past tended to display great actors and acting. One movie, Rear Window featuring Jimmy Stewart portraying a man who has both legs broken, and we believe that Stewart actually had broken both his legs.

As someone who is enthralled with our history, the scripts of these old movies provide me with valuable insight into the issues, beliefs, desires, and realities of the period. The old movie scripts themselves are works of art with a large range of topics and styles, at once spectacular, honest, and gritty. Each dialogue seems noteworthy, opening a window to the viewer of what it was like to live back then. One example of such a film is Arsenic and the Old Lace that featured Cary Grant. That upper-class lifestyle that is portrayed is like a fantasy to me but was enjoyed by many around me as a child.

I must admit, there is most certainly a fair bit of personal preference involved in my choice of older movies. I think, for the most part, we could call today's movie age “The Generation of the Sequel,” with every movie turning into a sequel or a series, diminishing the sense of originality. Old movies rarely have sequels, and when they did it seemed that they were carefully plotted out. Stand-alone if you will.

I don’t know if it is just me, but I have found that old movies are, by their very nature, classier. They tended to portray numerous classic fashion icons who provided the fashion inspiration for generations. Women wore hats, gloves, high heels and glamorous clothes and the men wear suits, no matter what character they are playing and a hat. Audrey Hepburn was a classic example, the first to wear the “LBD,” or Little Black Dress, the long cigarette holder and pointed sunglasses, setting a fashion trend that was to last for decades.

They say that imitation is the highest form of flattery. Some of the greatest movies of our day have taken their ideas from the classic movies of the past. Certain genres were established during this classic period; the first of their genre, these classic movies did something that previous movies had yet to try. They say that the film It Happened One Night was the first “rom-com” ever produced.

My younger colleagues will argue that they are dated by speech, dress, and general style. I would point out that many old movies remain timeless because of these characteristics. I find that many current movies are created to wow and shock, while classic, older movies offer an emotional depth and value in script, plot, acting and the actors’ persona. Classic movies are a prime example of timeless and seemingly effortless beauty, and something well worth saving.

Truth is, those movies that portray life as it is today and render a high degree of artistic merit will, some day, become the classic movies for our children and grandchildren. The more they portray the political, emotional, historical reality of their time, the better chance they will have to be called ‘classic’.

For the historian or those engrossed in our history, films serve as such a wonderful window into the past, how we were back then and what we cared about.

What are some of the movies that take you back, that bring out all your memories and emotions from the past? Why not share some of them in the comments section below. I bet you will discover that those same movies that touched you will speak to many others in a similar way.

Sources: The Glory of Old Films, Memories, and the Existential Therapy of Nostalgia by Derek Thompson; The Reason You Love Watching Old Movies by Lindsay Holmes; Why I Love Old Movies by Ryan Bascue; Standard Question from Oral History Interviews Conducted by Richard MacLeod


Newmarket resident Richard MacLeod — the History Hound — has been a local historian for more than 40 years. He writes a weekly feature about our town's history in partnership with Newmarket Today, conducts heritage lectures and walking tours of local interest, and leads local oral history interviews