Life Lessons Learned from Hollywood’s Golden Age

“You young devils,” says Satan, the wily old misanthrope, wise in the ways of man, “believe you can damn the human vermin with reasoned arguments. Reason, as you should know, and for your own sake you had better remember, is of the Enemy. When we fight with it, we fight with his own weapons. What we want in that line, as our dear friends the Sophists have shown us,” and here a couple of the youngsters snigger, as one of them waves a kind of spiritual drumstick, once belonging to a fellow named Dewey, in the air “are tangles of argument without reason, and the more abstract they are, and the less dependent upon that stew of mud and muck called Nature, the better. No,” he says, “man is an irrational animal. Are you taking notes, Asmodeus?”

A demon with a fishy fume about him puts down his piece of charcoal, which he had been using to draw a not entirely flattering caricature of his instructor.

“Man is an irrational animal. He acts by the promptings of what he is pleased to call his heart. The heart of man is wicked from his youth, as the Enemy himself has said. But we should not depend upon it without action on our part. The Enemy has also said, and in this case our espionage department has determined that the statement expresses some measure of the truth, that he made man in his image. Man is a sub-creator, as that vile peddler of fabulist goodness Tolkien said. As the Enemy makes man, man makes men, in his art and his imagination. Our task is to turn his heart into a factory of idols. It is not a difficult one. Give us the imagination,” he says, with a curl of the lip, “and we will gladly concede everything else.

Orthodox. Faithful. Free.

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“Let the Enemy have all the reasons, every catechism, every seminary, and a hundred thousand ministers who believe every last jot and tittle of that vile book whose name I will not deign to utter. Let him enjoy a few political victories now and then. So what if the Soviet Union fell? Let China fall, too. Give us the imagination, and we will do our danse macabre on the grave of Christendom, now and evermore.”

At which Asmodeus crushes the charcoal in his claws, and laughs loud and long.

¤ ¤ ¤

I have begun with a story, because that is the way that Dr. Onalee McGraw says I should begin, and it is her work I wish to promote, with enthusiasm and a sense of urgency. Dr. McGraw is the founder of the Educational Guidance Institute, whose task is to bring the word of life to a dead culture by means of classic films.

Do not roll your eyes, dear readers. My work in the classroom is to introduce young people to the West’s heritage of poetry and art, spanning three thousand years. They are starved for beauty. In the best of circumstances, I have a fair chance of being in the vicinity while Shakespeare or Milton changes someone’s life. The circumstances are not always the best. If only my students were honest, raw-boned, ignorant farmhands! They are not. Who in our time is? Where is the young woman who has not breathed in the bad air of feminism all around us? Where is the young man who has not seared his brains with pornography?—and let us not be so stupid as to believe that this would require a habit of long duration. How many killings does a gang member need to witness to be corrupted?

The imagination must be won back. This is Onalee McGraw’s aim, and she fights with the finest of the films made in our own nation, by Hollywood itself, and sometimes even by corrupt men and women. I’ve read her lesson plans, which are available for use by parents and teachers and everyone else who wants to build up a real American culture again. They are splendid.

Dr. McGraw moves without effort from moment to moment through the films which she discusses, always with an eye to asking, again and again, the big questions. In A Raisin in the Sun, she asks more than the obvious questions about the evil of racism. She begs us to see in it a powerful affirmation of the dignity of all men, and not because they are wise and saintly. Walter Lee, the hard-edged and cynical head of the Younger family, is neither. He gambles his family’s insurance money and loses it all, having been taken in by a confidence man—a fellow African American. His sister Beneatha is ready to throw him over, but their mother calls her out on the carpet for it, with a wisdom that is profoundly human and Christian.

“I thought I taught you to love him,” says the old lady. “There’s always something left to love … Child, when do you think is the time to love someone the most? When he’s done good an’ made things easy for everybody? That ain’t the time at all. It’s when he’s at his lowest and he can’t believe in hisself ‘cause the world’s done whipped him so! When you start measuring somebody, measure him right, child, measure him right. You make sure that you done taken into account the hills and the valleys he’s come through to get to wherever he is.”

In Key Largo, Dr. McGraw points to what might otherwise seem a small thing in a human life—a man gives a drink to a woman who is thirsty—to show how in those small moments, as small as the turn of the head of the dying thief, a dead soul may come to life again. Frank McCloud (Humphrey Bogart) is, as she says, “a disillusioned veteran who comes to realize he cannot disengage himself from the universal human struggle of good and evil.” He is in a hotel, run by a man bound to a wheelchair (Lionel Barrymore), that has been seized by the gang of a psychopath, Rocco (Edward G. Robinson). A good woman, who loves him (and is played by Bogart’s wife, Lauren Bacall), begs him to do something, but McCloud shrugs and says, “One Rocco more or less isn’t worth dying for.”

It is not murder that moves McCloud to act. It is when Rocco treats his mistress (Claire Trevor, who won an Oscar for her performance), whom he now despises, with one petty act of cruelty too many. McCloud gives the girl a drink. “In his willingness to risk his life for her,” says Dr. McGraw, “he is regaining the moral courage that sustained him in the war.” When a hurricane strikes the Keys and Rocco is terrified by a storm that he cannot boss around, McCloud sees that the man is really a coward and makes the decision that punishes the wicked and saves his own soul.

McGraw knows the field. There’s a very nice picture of her and the late Robert Osborne, on the set at Turner Classic Movies, chatting about the film she was invited to present, Twelve Angry Men. But do not think that she is merely an aesthete. Far from it. The particular films in the study guides I have reviewed all deal with building a true social conscience, and she has shown them not only in classrooms but in churches and in juvenile prisons. How are we to hope for good men if boys are taught that their sex is toxic? Let them see Shane or The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance, and learn that manhood may sometimes require you to give up your dearest love in order to do what is right, come what may. How are we to hope for good women if girls are taught that their sex can do nothing wrong—unless it is by behaving in a womanly fashion, in a way that is attractive to a good man? Let them look at the courtship dance of the sexes in It Happened One Night or The Shop Around the Corner.

What happens to a whole town when its people refuse to acknowledge the evil they have done, and come to live a lie? See Bad Day at Black Rock. What can happen if a man, for the love of a good woman, finally comes to see that truth and goodness are more important than comfort, and even more important than his old bonds of loyalty? See Marlon Brando walk his own via dolorosa in the final scene of On the Waterfront.

Are we but looking back with a misty nostalgia upon the films we loved because they were the first we ever saw? No, not a bit of it. I recall some from growing up with movies, because the networks showed the best of them during prime time, year after year, such as The Bridge Over the River Kwai, Ben-Hur, and The Wizard of Oz. Then there were the independent channels out of New York and Philadelphia, and the “late show” or the morning movie on the local channels. I remember seeing The Quiet Man, Judgment at Nuremberg, High Noon, Marty, The Birdman of Alcatraz, How Green Was My Valley, North by Northwest, and many more. In recent years I have come to realize that Hollywood’s golden age was in fact just that—a period of about thirty years when cultural and social conditions were aligned just right for the making of great and good films by the score.

One factor I had not reckoned on was the much-maligned Code. McGraw shows how the Catholic Church took the lead in making Hollywood accept a wise and salutary self-censorship, lest the socially conscious lawmakers under Franklin Roosevelt, and the armies of ordinary Americans who supported them in this regard, took matters into their own hands and cut Hollywood off at the knees by protesting in front of theaters and thus putting the makers of pernicious films to shame. People understood, as McGraw points out again and again, citing Adams and Madison and Burke and others, that we cannot be free without public virtue, and we will not have public virtue without private virtue.

It is easy to pick at the small details of the censor’s work, but the principles were noble and true, and in the main they were upheld with consistency and an intelligent regard for the art and the artist’s aims. “The sympathy of the audience,” reads the Code’s final and summative principle, “should never be thrown to the side of crime, wrongdoing, evil or sin.” At a stroke, almost every film now produced falls short of this standard, if only for smiling at what is coarse, lewd, and licentious.

I wish I had known of Onalee McGraw’s work years ago, when I led a men’s group for seven or eight years at Providence College. I will profit by it now, though, as I show classic films to our students at Thomas More College—three a semester, including one of her favorites this fall, On the Waterfront. We should not turn away the allies that the providence of God has given to us. This is especially so when the ordinary Catholic has had almost no experience of great art, or even of the good, solid, healthy meat and potatoes that is genuine folk art. When he goes to Mass, things are even worse. But that will be the subject of another article.

Look up the Educational Guidance Institute. You’ll be grateful for it, as I am.


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