One night when my (now adult) kids were little, we rented It’s a Wonderful Life, the classic Frank Capra movie starring Jimmy Stewart. My daughter — who was probably six at the time — slipped from the couch and eased herself out of the living room before the opening credits were finished.
“I don’t want to watch shadows,” she complained.
I believe this was early evidence of a phenomenon that Neal Gabler, a journalist who writes frequently about film, described a few years ago. “Young people, so-called Millennials, don’t seem to think of movies as art the way so many boomers did. They think of them as fashion, and like fashion, movies have to be new and cool to warrant attention. Living in a world of the here-and-now, obsessed with whatever is current, kids seem no more interested in seeing their parents’ movies than they are in wearing their parents’ clothes,” Gabler wrote in the Los Angeles Times.
Of course, this generalization could spark a hashtag like #notallmillennials. But by-and-large, the twenty- and thirtysomethings I know don’t seem particularly drawn to the black and white movies that were already “old” when we boomers hit our movie-viewing years.
For boomers, many of whom remember black and white TV, the lack of Technicolor or special effects isn’t a barrier. Besides, who doesn’t get nostalgic about the hours spent with parents (or babysitters) watching Million Dollar Movie? (Its signature theme song, from Gone With the Wind, still gives me chills.)
I would also bet that the themes of these old-timey treasures still resonate with us. In fact, you know you’re a boomer if you stop channel surfing when one of these great oldies pops up on the TV screen.
Here’s how to share the goodness of 10 black and white movies with your grown kids:
It’s a Wonderful Life (1946)
Spoiler-lite synopsis: George Bailey, a good man who has given up his dreams of adventure to care for the family and town he loves, thinks he faces financial ruin. Despondent and on the verge of suicide, he declares that the world would have been better if he had never lived. His guardian angel saves his life and then goes about proving to George how important he is to everyone in Bedford Falls.
Themes we love: Bedford Falls represents the fantasy of small-town USA that engaged our national imagination until, perhaps, the last two decades of the 20th century. Psychologists have pointed out that boomers remain optimistic about the possibilities for good in the world, and this movie is proof that good wins out.
Advice to entice: You can be sure that this film will show up on TV during the Thanksgiving/Christmas season. Tell any skeptics that they just have to see the gym-floor-turns-into-pool scene. They’ll stick around.
To Have and Have Not (1944)
Spoiler-lite synopsis: World-weary and cynical fishing boat captain Harry Morgan (Humphrey Bogart) refuses to help the French resistance fighters who need his aid. The love of a good woman (Lauren Bacall), a betrayal and a threat to a friend lead him to (in terms of when this movie was made) do the right thing.
Themes we love: As the blockbuster and Brad Pitt vehicle Fury confirms, beating the Nazis remains a source of satisfaction. The French resistance has always had a particularly romantic allure, so there’s that, too. And, yeah, Bogie and Bacall.
Advice to entice: The “action” in this film really can’t stand up to the realistic battle scenes of more recent films (notably Saving Private Ryan). Instead, let all comers know that they’re going to learn how to whistle. Wink, wink. Lauren Bacall’s performance can seduce anyone into sitting through this flick.
Some Like It Hot (1959)
Spoiler-lite synopsis: Two penniless musicians (played by Tony Curtis and Jack Lemmon), who have accidentally witnessed the St. Valentine’s Day Massacre, hide from the mob by disguising themselves as women and joining an all-female band on its way to Miami. Hijinks, laughter and love ensue.
Themes we love: Mostly it’s the lightning fast repartee that propels this timeless Billy Wilder comedy. Still, it’s great to see the bad guys zapped and a penniless good guy find true love.
Advice to entice: Remark that you have proof that Marilyn Monroe was a comic genius. Her timing is perfect, and it’s so clear that she had talent way beyond her iconic sex goddess persona. Again . . . wait for it . . . the last line is one of the best ever.
On the Waterfront (1954)
Spoiler-lite synopsis: On a mob-controlled waterfront, a young man (Marlon Brando, in a bravura performance) finds the courage to defy the bosses and regain his dignity.
Themes we love: Goodness can be kindled by love, even in a rotten world. You know how the website Upworthy gets all those clicks by focusing on good outcomes? This movie speaks to our best instincts.
Advice to entice: The depth of the plot rivals any contemporary crime drama. True Detective fans might find themselves hooked.
To Kill A Mockingbird (1962)
Spoiler-lite synopsis: Scout and Jem, two children living in 1930s Alabama, lose their innocent outlook on the world when their father, an upstanding lawyer, is appointed to defend a black man accused of rape.
Themes we love: Atticus Finch (Gregory Peck) is perhaps one of the greatest heroes in film. There are many lessons to be learned watching his strength of character, moral rectitude and love for his children.
Advice to entice: Considering that every middle or high school student has read this book — quite willingly — for the past 50 years, the only barrier to an enthusiastic “yeah, let’s watch that!” may be that it is “old.” Remind spoilsports how much they loved the novel. Make popcorn. Order pizza. Everyone will be talking about the movie for days. (By the way — this was a Christmas Day release in 1962.)
Spoiler-lite synopsis: American expatriate Rick Blaine (that’s Humphrey Bogart to you) manages to keep his swanky nightclub in the Moroccan capital politics-free until the love-of-his-life shows up. Now married to an important anti-Nazi activist, Ilsa (played by the stunning Ingrid Bergman) fights between her love for Rick and her loyalty to her husband’s cause. Rick eventually decides to go the noble course and choose the allied cause over love.
Themes we love: Once again, what pleasure standing up to those Nazis! The film affirms our faith in human integrity. The love story is kind of intense, too.
Advice to entice: Tell any reluctant viewers that they can point out the clunky bits (like the flashback), but dare them not to be moved by the rousing rendition of the La Marseillaise or chuckle at the film’s closing line. They must remember this film.
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Spoiler-lite synopsis: Marion Crane (Janet Leigh) steals $40,000 to help her destitute boyfriend, Sam. Running (by auto) from the police, she ends up at the deserted Bates Motel, and is famously stabbed to death in the shower by someone we believe to be Mrs. Bates. Marion’s sister and Sam search for Marion. They discover that Mrs. Bates is dead and that her son, Norman, committed the murder-in-the-shower (as well as some others). A psychiatrist ends the film by explaining Norman Bates’ psychological disorder.
Themes we love: Why do people like being terrified? This film is scary. Still.
Advice to entice: “Hey, everyone! Want to see the original slasher movie?” To those who say they don’t like violence, you answer, “Yeah, but this is Hitchcock!”
Sunset Boulevard (1950)
Spoiler-lite synopsis: The first shot shows a man’s body floating face down in a swimming pool. In a flashback, we learn how Joe Gillis (William Holden), an unsuccessful screenwriter, happens on the seemingly deserted mansion of aging film star Norma Desmond (Gloria Swanson). She’s not all there in the head, but Joe becomes her boy toy and pretends to help her with a script for a film about Salome. In a terrible mix-up, Norma thinks she is being called to Mr. DeMille’s office about the script, when it turns out all they wanted was her unusual car. She also finds out the Joe has been seeing a woman, and she shoots him in a jealous rage. When the police arrive, the deluded Norma believes the studio has arrived to shoot her film.
Themes we love: Gawker didn’t invent highlighting the seamy belly of Hollywood. We know Tinsel Town is an illusion, although we still consume celebrity gossip in this film, also from Billy Wilder.
Advice to entice: Anyone annoyed by the Kardashian empire will love this sendup of fame and glory. Tell potential viewers: “This is what we watched before People magazine told us where the stars are now.”
High Noon (1952)
Spoiler-lite synopsis: Will Kane (Gary Cooper) has given up his marshal’s badge after marrying Amy (Grace Kelly), who is a Quaker. But after hearing that bad guy Frank Miller is expected on the noon train, and surmising that the whole Miller gang will descend on the town and wreak havoc, Will becomes marshal again. Thing is, everyone in town is too scared to help him, and Will must face the inevitable shootout alone. Amy chooses her husband’s life (she is a good shot) over her beliefs and helps save him.
Themes we love: Will Kane’s integrity is heroic. We know we would have stood with him, not the cowardly, craven citizens of the town.
Advice to entice: Today’s young people respect individuals who stand up for their beliefs. Will Kane has lasting appeal.
David and Lisa (1962)
Spoiler-lite synopsis: David, who suffers from OCD, meets Lisa, who suffers from a split personality, at a residential treatment center. Apparently, before the latest edition of the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, love could cure severe mental illness.
Themes we love: So the movie makes no sense in reality, but it’s always nice to see how love makes things better.
Advice to entice: This is a hard one, since in many ways the movie is ridiculously dated. However, mental health is something people talk about openly these days, and this movie can be a conversation starter.
Let us know in the comments section which black and white classics you would add to this list.