Lessons from Gregory

I miss movies. I long for the day when I can be back in a theater, the real world eclipsed for 120 minutes. I’ll be so excited I’ll even buy the greasy, over-priced popcorn.

For as long as we’ve been together, “date night” for my husband and me has consisted of dinner and a movie. Years ago our 14 year old babysitter asked what we were going to do as we headed out the door. When we told her, she said she thought we were “in a rut.” Ha! Now that she’s over 40 with 2 kids herself, I need to ask her if that’s still her assessment.

Whatever. It’s a happy rut… or at least it was until Covid shut down theaters. Some people have speculated that theaters may never come back. To compensate for the moratorium on the neighborhood cineplex, during this quarantine I’ve taken to recording old movies off Turner Classic Movies. I admire the lighting of the old movies, especially if they are black and white. I enjoy the plots and the carefully constructed dialogue. Perhaps I just enjoy traveling back to the 1940s and 50s which seems to me like a simpler, happier time (well, except for polio and Hitler).

Although there are certain “throw away” movies (I don’t see why unrequited lust drove Natalie Wood to years in an institution in Splendor in the Grass), I’ve been surprised at the universality of themes—at the ways in which plots from long ago remind me of today. The more I try to escape reality, the more the films speak to me. In Till the End of Time, three marines returning home from WWII are trying to find their way back into civilian life. I’m reminded of today’s veterans who struggle with PTSD, who have to figure out what the future holds. I think about today’s college graduates who wonder about tomorrow. In Not as a Stranger, Robert Mitchum marries Olivia de Havilland for her money so he can pay for medical school; over the course of the movie he realizes his love for her is not just fiscally driven; how many of us have had to embrace our vulnerability, accept the fact we need someone else. In The Best of Everything, Hope Lange gets her first job in a New York publishing company. Her apartment life with two colleagues reminds me of the excitement of that first position, when everything seemed possible. Her suits are reminiscent of the days when we still wore nylons to work. And the editor who is constantly making passes, well that reminds me of the 1980s and 90s, when I would strategically choose my seat at the conference table away from the man who liked to place his hand on neighboring thighs. Long before #Metoo was a thing, we females had to cope with sexism.

Today’s flick was Room for One More, and I found myself wishing my mother was watching with me. When she stayed with us, my husband and I would find old movies for us to watch together. Viewing them through Mom’s eyes, I appreciated the diction in the dialogue, the tightly woven plots, that are often missing in today’s movies. Mom would have loved today’s film, as it depicted a family of three children willing to take in two troubled orphans. It spoke of the goodness of people and the boundless love possible in the family unit (and 90 minutes with Cary Grant is always a treat).

Over the past months, one film in particular has stuck with me: Gentleman’s Agreement. If you haven’t seen it, it’s a film for our time. Gregory Peck plays a journalist tasked with writing an expose on anti-Semitism; to research the topic, he pretends to be Jewish himself. What he faces is a level of prejudice that causes problems in his relationship with the lovely Dorothy McGuire. Although she supports his project, she constantly asks, “What can one person do?” I found myself wondering how many of us say that today. When confronting social injustice, immorality, poverty, inequities in the workplace, racism and hatred, is it enough to condemn those in our hearts? After all, what can one person do?

A particularly interesting character in the film is the protagonist’s mother who watches her son’s project unfold with keen interest. One of her monologues was particularly telling—especially given she was speaking from the 1950s:

“I suddenly want to live to be very old….I want to be around to see what happens. The world is stirring in very strange ways. Maybe this is the century for it. Maybe that’s why it’s so troubled. Other centuries had their driving forces. What will ours have been when men look back? Wouldn’t it be wonderful… if it turned out to be everybody’s century… when people all over the world – free people – found a way to live together? I’d like to be around to see some of that…”

As I lose myself in the movies of yesteryear, I find myself wondering if my parents saw them as young people. There is an old theater in our city, the Belle Meade Theater, now vacant, that was the grand dame of cinemas. I like to think of my dad biking down to it with a dime in his pocket for a Saturday morning double feature. I remember seeing Star Wars there myself decades ago.

Perhaps the old films speak to us because when the trappings of color and special effects are stripped away, you realize that the more things change, the more they stay the same, for the challenges of the human condition are ever with us.

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