Thursday, November 17, 2016

Classic Movies for Courage

It's easy to think that art doesn't matter in the face of fear and oppression, but sometimes art can change the world, whether for better or for worse. Charles Dickens secured the future of Christmas with A Christmas Carol, while Leni Riefenstahl shored up Hitler's regime. Uncle Tom's Cabin helped to galvanize the North before the Civil War, and The Birth of a Nation (1915) helped to resurrect the KKK. Art can move the needle toward darkness or light. Mostly, though, I like to think that art works as a force for good in the world, especially over the long haul. In the last week I have seen Anne Frank's face and quotations from her diary all over social media, while Leonard Cohen's "Hallelujah" is likely to stay stuck in my head for months to come. The power of art to console and inspire is more important than ever, and that means that films matter more than ever, too. We have to keep watching them and talking about what they mean, just as writers need to keep writing and painters need to keep painting and poets need to keep giving voice to the voiceless. We have to be consumers and supporters of art, and we have to be thoughtful critics of it, too, because what art says matters. Just watch The Monuments Men (2014) or Woman in Gold (2015) if you need a reminder of art's importance in times of global upheaval.

I'm thinking a lot about World War II right now (can't imagine why) and the great films that helped people in America and abroad through a dark time in global history. There were filmmakers who dared to challenge or even laugh at power when they knew the risk they ran. There were directors, writers, and actors who brought hope and resolution to the Allied cause, with stories about the soldiers in the field and the families left at home. There were even morale boosters, shot in Technicolor and filled with song, to give anxious people a respite from their fears. Sometimes people needed a shot of courage, and sometimes they needed an escape. Sometimes they needed to be reminded of what they were fighting to preserve.

If you need some classic films for courage right now, here are half a dozen I'd like to suggest. Feel free to add some of your own favorites in the comments section below.

1) THE GREAT DICTATOR (1940) - I can think of no more powerful cinematic statement against hatred and war than Chaplin's daring comedy, which laughs at Hitler even as the outcome of the war is far from decided. Comedy is often an early target of authoritarian governments because power hates to be laughed at and mocked. Chaplin's final speech is a defining moment in film history and well worth hearing now:

"I don't want to rule or conquer anyone. I should like to help everyone if possible; Jew, Gentile, black man, white. We all want to help one another. Human beings are like that. We want to live by each other's happiness, not by each other's misery. We don't want to hate and despise one another. In this world there is room for everyone, and the good earth is rich and can provide for everyone. The way of life can be free and beautiful, but we have lost the way."

2 ) TO BE OR NOT TO BE (1942) - I never tire of this Jack Benny and Carole Lombard comedy, which also dares to mock Hitler in the midst of the war. Director Ernst Lubitsch provides a brilliant mix of laughs and pathos, and you'll remember plenty of Benny's gags, but the rendition of Shylock's soliloquy will stick with you for the rest of your life. Lombard gave her life for the war effort, dying in a plane crash on a war bonds tour before the release of the film, but her performance here survived to inspire millions.

3) CASABLANCA (1942) - Sure, you've seen Humphrey Bogart make sad eyes at Ingrid Bergman a dozen times, but dig this Best Picture winner out of your DVD pile and watch it again. Some people become heroes by degrees, even if they thought they didn't care. There's even hope for Claude Rains' inscrutable Louis. 

4) MRS. MINIVER (1942) - This Best Picture winner focuses on a family in England during the Blitz, proving that daily life has to go on even during the worst of times. Audiences responded to it immediately; it won six Oscars in all and was nominated for another half dozen. Today we can watch it as an example of courage under fire, even for those who aren't holding a gun. Sure, it makes people weep, but sometimes tears can be cathartic, and it's good to cry for other people's suffering. Empathy is a powerful force for good.

5) THE GANG'S ALL HERE (1943) - Need a break from your anxiety, just for a little while? Servicemen and audiences at home loved Fox's morale boosting musicals, often starring adorable Alice Faye and the one and only Carmen Miranda. This one has everything, including Benny Goodman and his orchestra, but if you need more spiritual sunshine there's THAT NIGHT IN RIO (1941) and WEEKEND IN HAVANA (1941).

6) FOUR JILLS IN A JEEP (1944) - I'm not a fan of war movies in general, since they tend to be all boy affairs, but I like this patriotic depiction of USO entertainers doing their bit to keep up morale. Kaye Francis, Martha Raye, Carole Landis, and Mitzi Mayfair head to the front with Jimmy Dorsey and other stars. If this one makes you feel better go for seconds with HOLLYWOOD CANTEEN (1944).

Bonus: If you're up to handling the thorniest questions of social justice, prejudice, and bitter division, try Alfred Hitchcock's LIFEBOAT (1944). It might not make you feel better, but it will definitely give you a lot to consider. The ensemble cast is terrific, but Tallulah Bankhead gives the best performance of her film career.

Be well, friends, and keep courage alive wherever you find it.