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Classic Movies in the Classroom or “The Black-and-Whiteboard Jungle”

by larrydachslager on November 3rd, 2015

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With each passing year, more and more attention is being given to the restoration and archiving of one of our most treasured and valuable resources – movies. The reasons for this are obvious. Every inch of motion picture film is a “time machine” that preserves a living, breathing moment in history, allowing us to see just how we’ve changed and how we’ve remained the same as a society for well over a century. Therefore, each bit of film – particularly those from cinema’s infancy – is a precious educational commodity. It can further be argued that every (narrative) film ever made is produced with the tastes of its then-contemporary audience in mind, resulting in movies that allow us a window not only into how society dressed, spoke, etc. in any given year, but what that year’s moviegoers found scary, funny, meaningful, and entertaining.

As a staunch believer in Film Preservation and Archiving, it is my fervent hope that I can someday play an active role in that professional community. In the meantime, a large amount of my time and energy during my former career as a middle/high school teacher was spent introducing kids to old movies. Part of my reason for doing this was to share my keen enthusiasm for movies with them (I’ve been obsessed with old movies since age eight), but I also had a loftier goal in mind. Inspiring kids to gain an avid appreciation for old movies is an essential part of the Film Preservation movement. What is the point of saving and archiving films if future generations will be apathetic towards them? As we ensure the future of film history, we must also ensure that there is always an audience who sees the presence of old movies as a vital part of their lives.

Thankfully, Houston’s Emery Weiner School, where I did most of my teaching, afforded me the opportunity to create and develop a long-running Film Appreciation course, primarily geared toward eighth graders.  As the class evolved, the students (hopefully) learned a thing or two about cinema and I learned more than I ever thought possible about the fascinating and complicated relationship between young people and old movies.

I had three main goals in creating the course:

  1. To try to help the students overcome their prejudices against old movies – particularly those in black and white. It is important to remember that for kids, an “old movie” is any film made before they were born. They tend to think of film in the same sense as we do newspapers. “Once it’s outdated, it’s useless.”
  1. To encourage them to be more than “stars and story” movie watchers. In other words, to see that there is much more to a film than just what it’s about and who plays the leading roles. This is especially important when considering today’s kids’ ever-shortening attention spans. Older movies are typically slower-paced than current ones. Therefore, it is important that kids be able to appreciate a movie holistically, giving them more to look at. Naturally, this also helps them when watching current films.
  1. To demonstrate that there is inherent educational and entertainment value in watching old movies… even those that aren’t necessarily “classics.”

Realizing that the selection of the first movie to show could make or break the entire remainder of the course, I spent several semesters agonizing over which movie to start with. I eventually settled on what I found to be the perfect first-day-of-Film-Appreciation-class movie and it never failed to set the scene and engage the students. Rather than a known “classic,” I began the course with Tarzan’s New York Adventure (1942).  What makes this film a perfect primer for future open-minded movie watchers is that it contains both the best (compact, compelling storytelling and well-staged action sequences) and the worst (blatant racism) that old movies have to offer. Typically, I never paused movies while showing them, but I always made this Tarzan film the exception, stopping often to point out the subtle and overt lessons such films can teach us today.  Nearly everything in Tarzan’s New York Adventure, positive and negative, provides teachable moments about what both studio system filmmaking and mainstream American society were like in 1942. For example, the students found it odd that the windows in a fancy New York hotel room would be wide open, prompting the explanation that in 1942, even fancy hotels weren’t air conditioned. And, of course, today’s kids always find scenes of people smoking indoors or on airplanes rather jarring.

The key ingredient that makes Tarzan’s New York Adventure a hit with eighth graders is that its central character is not Tarzan, but “Boy.” I quickly discovered that, not surprisingly, young people tend to like movies about young people. This greatly informed many of my screening choices throughout the course.

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Though the movies I showed changed from semester to semester, the course’s overall structure altered very little over the years. On Monday, I would show introductory clips centering on the week’s topic and then show one or two relevant films for the remainder of the week.

The first half of the semester focused on gaining an awareness and appreciation for the off-screen artists. Each week, we zoomed in on a different cinematic element including the directing, the screenwriting, the cinematography, the editing, the music, the production and costume design, etc. The semester’s second half dealt with a different genre each week. Focusing on cinematography allowed me my best opportunity to display the virtues of black and white. The legendary opening sequence to David Lean’s Great Expectations (1946), photographed by Guy Green is extremely effective (and startling) in demonstrating what black and white can accomplish in terms of setting a stark and somber mood that color just can’t manage to convey.

I knew from the beginning that the course would require a certain amount of presentational experimentation on my part, including considerable trial and error. Over the years, films that I was confident would be big hits were duds and those I wasn’t completely sure about were resounding and sometimes surprising successes, inspiring the kids to further explore other films with the same actors and/or directors and even purchase the DVD for future viewing.

If I learned anything from the whole experience, it is that all old movies and even clips must be properly prefaced before showing them to middle schoolers if the kids are to watch them with open minds and take anything from them.  Rather than just turning off the lights and starting the movie, it is essential that the film be placed in its proper context and that the class be alerted to what to watch for. Eventually, I became a regular “P. T. Barnum” when it came to getting students excited to watch black-and-white, silent, or even subtitled foreign films.  Building anticipation is key.

Many of the films I showed were contemporary, requiring a permission slip for the kids to watch those with PG-13 ratings.  Quite a few of the slips I got back included notes from their parents saying how they wished they could attend the class. Eventually, I decided it would be fun to offer the same course to the parents in the evenings.  The large weekly turnout was certainly gratifying, but also fascinating, comparing the parents’ reactions to the movies to that of their kids.

Here are the films I showed in class that consistently received the most positive feedback from eighth-graders:

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The Blackboard Jungle (1955) – Each time I showed this film, the same thing happened. At first, the kids laughed at the 50s slang and the not-too-threatening “hoodlums.” Then, thanks to the earnest performances by Glenn Ford and Sidney Poitier (whom most kids agreed steals the film), they get pulled in and become fully invested. The first time I introduced this movie, an amazing thing happened after I showed it to a morning class. That afternoon, a group of kids from that class showed up at my afternoon class. They had asked the coach if they could leave P.E. to watch The Blackboard Jungle again!  

And Then There Were None (1945)  – This Agatha Christie comedy/mystery got me in trouble with the other teachers a few times. If I failed to time it right, the class bell would ring before the murderer’s identity was revealed and the kids would refuse to leave until they saw the outcome, causing me to have to e-mail my colleagues with apologies for group tardies.

The Search (1948) – Montgomery Clift’s performance in his film debut has a very contemporary feel which greatly appealed to the kids. Clift, the compelling story, Fred Zinnemann’s honest direction, and the realism of the on-location setting won them over every time. Many told me it was their favorite of all the films we watched.  I was taken by surprise when I showed this one to the parents. Unlike the kids, who typically applauded at the end, the adults were all openly sobbing.  I considered both responses a success.

Les Diabolique (1955)  – Are you as surprised as I was?  At the end of each semester of Film Appreciation, I would show a movie that challenged the students and, depending on their reaction, tested the success of the overall course. This was one of those movies. I had no idea what to expect response-wise, but the classes who watched this black-and-white, subtitled, French thriller absolutely loved it.

Wild Boys of the Road (1933) – I showed this pre-code film about Depression-era runaway teens to demonstrate what we can learn about history from the movies of a certain time period. The kids were pleasantly surprised at how edgy and unrelentingly tough this movie is. The post-screening discussion was exciting, indicating that the kids genuinely took home a powerful lesson on just how good they have it these days.  What impressed me most is that the kids complained about the contrived “happy ending,” pointing out correctly that it didn’t ring true with the rest of the film. At the evening showing, the same movie left the adults cold. This was one case in which the kids “got it” and their parents didn’t.

Laurel and Hardy/Our Gang (The Little Rascals) – Horror and comedy are the two genres that, most often, don’t hold up with the passage of time. Quite often, what was considered scary or funny then doesn’t quite come off to modern eyes and ears.  However, each time I screen Laurel and Hardy’s short film “Brats!” with its brilliant dual-role performances as the stars play both themselves and their offspring and “The Our Gang Follies of 1938,” an endearingly compact mini-musical, the kids always ask for more.

Bringing Up Baby (1938) – This one was only a partial success. I showed it a few times and, more than any other movie, it consistently polarized the class. Half the kids were delighted by its random mayhem, screwball dialogue, and cute animals, while the other half found Katherine Hepburn’s character annoying and Cary Grant’s plight aggravating. Spirited debates about the movie’s quality followed each screening. I always enjoyed sharing the fact that the dissenters’ viewpoint was the one widely held by critics and audiences in 1938 before Bringing Up Baby eventually won its share of fans.

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I must admit, in the end, my Film Appreciation course did not make old movie converts out of every student, but at least they were exposed to films, actors, and directors they otherwise would never have seen. On the other hand, I’m proud to say that a great many of the kids became sincere fans of what they saw and heard and, on their own volition, continued to explore the work of the artists they liked the most. These many years later, I still hear from them on occasion, informing me that they’re taking a college Hitchcock class or attended a silent film festival. About a month ago, one of my former students remembered when I screened The Night of the Hunter (1955) and recommended it to his film teacher. (She hadn’t already seen it????) After watching it, the teacher added it to her class syllabus.

Naturally, I am not the only one encouraging young people to watch old movies. This most worthy cause has always been an essential part of Turner Classic Movies’s agenda, most recently through their excellent Summer Movie Camp series. I’m also glad to say that, over the years, I encountered a sizable handful of kids who came into my class already well versed in old movies thanks to the efforts of their film-savvy parents and grandparents who recognize the importance of passing the magic on to the next generation.

What was the biggest perk in teaching the course? Call me sentimental, but every semester I was guaranteed several moments when I was witness to groups of 21st century teenagers laughing, gasping, or being moved to tears by films made decades earlier – films these same kids initially thought of as remote and irrelevant. Those moments never failed to make me happily emotional, confident in the knowledge that, along with film history, an appreciative future audience is also being preserved. It’s well worth the effort!

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