EDITOR’S NOTE: In Ty Burr’s new book, The Best Old Movies for Families: A Guide to Watching Together, the frequent EW contributor and Boston Globe film critic explains how to introduce classic films like Bringing Up Baby and North by Northwest to younger viewers without having them gunning for the remote. Insightful, knowing, and just plain funny, Burr breaks his titles down according to age group, creating the best movie guide we know for future cineastes.
By the age of 3, a 21st-century American child has logged somewhere in the neighborhood of 1,500 hours of TV viewing, much of which consists of Tinky-Winky, Elmo, Blue the dog, Shrek the Ogre, Ariel the Mermaid, Spongebob the Squarepants, and other simple, brightly colored objects.
Children watch these shows and movies because that’s what our culture says they should be watching. You’ll find them in the family section at Blockbuster and on TV during times when the networks know kids will be at home. The subtext — one that fits tidily into an era of concerned, fidgety parenting — is that these are the products that are ”safe.” And that therefore nothing else is.
Worse than hogwash, actually: culturally stunting. Within this infantilized DMZ of movies and television shows, we limit our children’s options while delivering them into the slipstream of the modern media marketplace. By the time they’re five, kids have an inherent understanding of the concept of branding: they know they can follow their favorite characters from screen to DVD to CD to action toy to Happy Meal and on to the next sequel, whereupon the cycle starts again.
And that, in a nutshell, is one of the most excellent things about an old movie: It’s not selling anything except itself. This is a radical notion to a kid. Freaks some of them out, actually. My daughter’s still wondering where she can buy a Bette Davis action figure. (I’m afraid to break the news to her that she can actually grow up to be one.)
That’s not the only reason to stage a jailbreak from the kiddie-video hegemony, though. Toddlers are preoccupied with trying to figure out the mysterious rules by which Large People live, and many old movies answer that need in a manner not overly loud or frightening but, rather, magical and pleasurably confusing. They’re writ in bold, iconic strokes that open a window into an adult world where basic problems are posed and solved with resort to song-and-dance or action. Or even straight-up drama: If 12 Angry Men doesn’t teach children the value of sticking up for what you believe it, don’t expect Shark Tale to do so.
Five Old Movies To Show Your Tweener (Ages 9-12)
How do you bring a child into the baroque world of old movies? In a nutshell, killer stories. Plots that have such a well-baited hook that kids can’t help biting; films that play children like little trouts until they’re wheezing, exhausted, and happy on the living room floor. Cute animals help but not over the long haul; the irresistible stunts of Asta the terrier in The Awful Truth (1937) kept my daughters laughing until the divorce-farce plotting kicked in late in the game. (General note: comedies about divorce are just not funny to children.)
What makes a great plot? They’ll know one when they see one, but, basically, a story that places easily grasped characters in situations that start simply and then throw curveballs. Some Like It Hot: Two guys dress like women and turn out to be pretty good at it. The Ghost and Mrs. Muir: Woman moves into haunted house, falls in love with the ghost. The Producers: Two idiots try to stage a flop and still manage to fail. Rear Window: Man peeks across the way and sees a murder — maybe.
That brings up Hitchcock, incidentally. You can start with him now, at least with the easier films. North by Northwest is discussed below, and from its outrageous-but-not-scary set-piece scenes to good old Cary Grant to the cameo by the director, it’s the most emblematic Hitchcock movie and the best jumping-off point. It’s worth pointing out that Hitch will probably be the first star director your kids know, and his films are an education in and of themselves. Just put off Psycho for now.
At this age more than ever, family movie time is the way to go. A child between nine and twelve is probably so self-conscious about what he or she shouldn’t be caught dead enjoying that bringing on an old movie during a playdate may result in derision, bed-wetting, costly therapy. All right, derision. At any rate, tweeners — my tweener anyway, and how’s that for a sample size? — like the security of snuggling down with the home dog pack for a film, and that’s when you can try something different. Then listen to what they think.
The African Queen (1951)
Directed by: John Huston
Starring: Katharine Hepburn and Humphrey Bogart
Plot: East Africa at the start of World War I. Rose Sayer (Hepburn) is the proper Christian sister of a jungle missionary who dies after the Germans torch his church. She hitches a ride downriver in ”The African Queen,” a foul-smelling mail boat captained by the fouler-smelling Charlie Allnut (Bogart). Their intense dislike of each other turns to admiration and eventually love when she hatches a demented plan to blow up a German warship patrolling Lake Victoria.
Why It’s Here: John Huston’s delightful adventure starts with a pair of characters who are classic kidvid two-dimensional targets: the prim biddy and the creepy slob; the librarian and the janitor. Then it slowly deepens them, in each other’s eyes and ours, until they seem like the only two people on earth — a weathered Adam and Eve, floating down a river of possibilities (with leeches). It gives ordinary, unpretty adults — the kind our kids are trained not to see — their own fairy tale.
The Day the Earth Stood Still (1951)
Directed by: Robert Wise
Starring: Michael Rennie, Patricia Neal, Sam Jaffe, Billy Gray
The plot: A UFO lands on the Washington Mall, and two figures emerge: a silver-clad humanoid and a giant faceless robot. The humanoid, Klaatu (Rennie) goes into hiding in the city, posing as an eloquent visitor at a boardinghouse. He befriends a single mom (Neal) and her young son (Gray) while trying to get through to an Important Scientist (Jaffe) and deliver his message: Stop making war, earthlings, or we’ll stop you.
Why It’s Here: Genuine science fiction tells a good story and screws with your head. It makes you reexamine preconceptions about yourself, society, our place in the universe. It forces you to ask some of the bigger questions out there, all under the guise of a good story. Presuming you want your children asking questions (and, sorry, they’ll do it anyway), The Day The Earth Stood Still is an ideal first sci-fi movie.
North by Northwest (1959)
Directed by: Alfred Hitchcock
Starring: Cary Grant, Eva Marie Saint, James Mason
The plot: Roger Thornhill (Grant) is a successful New York advertising executive who has never really grown up. He gets mistaken for another man — a spy named George Kaplan — which eventually leads him to becoming a better Roger Thornhill, but only after almost being machine-gunned by a crop-dusting plane in a cornfield, tangling with a master spy (Mason) and a shady lady (Saint), and dangling off Mt. Rushmore.
Why It’s Here: A child who sees more than one Hitchcock film understands early that movies can reflect the distinct personality of their maker, the way books have authors and CDs musicians.
Ohayo/Good Morning (1959)
Directed by: Yasujiro Ozu
Starring: Koji Shitaru, Masahiko Shimazu
The Plot: A gently comic snapshot of life in a Tokyo suburb in the late 1950s, focusing on a handful of houses and the people who live in them. A major story line follows the efforts of two young brothers to get their parents to buy them a TV set, up to and including giving them the silent treatment.
Why It’s Here: When are your children ready for a foreign-language film? When you’re ready to read this one to them. [And] not just because Ozu has made a movie with and about children. It’s because he gets their world, especially as it exists in relation to, and in spite of, the grown-up world of their parents.
Some Like It Hot (1959)
Directed By: Billy Wilder
Starring: Jack Lemmon, Tony Curtis, Marilyn Monroe
The Plot: The roaring ’20s. Two Chicago jazz musicians (Lemmon and Curtis) run afoul of local gangsters, witness the St. Valentine’s Day Massacre, and have to grab the first out-of-town job available — with an all-girl orchestra. On go the flapper dresses, wigs, and chokers. When one of the heroes falls in love with the band’s star attraction (Monroe), he poses as a rich twit to woo her, borrowed yacht and all. Then the other guy gets engaged — to a man. Then the gangsters show up again.
Why It’s Here: It’s elemental calculus: (Men) + (Women’s Clothing) = Funny. I have no idea why this is so, but it goes back a ways. There’s a lot to love in this, the comedy many observers feel was the funniest single movie to come out of Hollywood.
From THE BEST OLD MOVIES FOR FAMILIES: A GUIDE TO WATCHING TOGETHER by Ty Burr. Copyright (c) 2007 by Ty Burr. Published by Anchor Books, a division of Random House, Inc.