Classic Movies As Illustrated History

Classic Movies and History

What do classic movies, Frank Capra, Maurice Chevalier, Ginger Rogers and Otto Preminger have in common?

Each is part of an exceptional classic movie that illustrates history as part of their story.

More reading, related pages:

  • You Can’t Take It With You
  • Ginger Rogers, Melting Ice Queen
  • 7 Movies I Love

Love Me Tonight with Maurice Chevalier and Myrna Loy

Let’s start with the oldest. In the 1932 classic Love Me Tonight, Maurice Chevalier is a humble tailor whose working life and romantic adventures show us Paris and the countryside in ways that reflect the class structures and the social divisions of the day.

Early in the movie, Paris wakes up as a sort of music video unfolds in the sounds of urban life. The old Paris of curved back streets and street vendors comes alive. The score by Richard Rogers and Lorenz Hart is as gorgeous as you can imagine.

In one of the most memorable scenes ever produced, Chevalier begins the song Isn’t It Romantic and, then, hands it off to a cab driver, troops on the open road and others as the tune travels beautifully from Paris to a lush country villa.

As a poor man ripped off by an idle man of wealth (Charles Ruggles), Chevalier is forced to abandon his cheerful workaday life to follow Ruggles to the countryside and the mansion of his rich uncle. The historical illustration of the values of working class French and the idle rich are satirical and convincing.

In the country, Chevalier meets and falls in love with Jeanette Macdonald, providing inspiration for more great music against the backdrop of rich versus poor. None of the rich folk, including a delicious, very young Myrna Loy, do any sort of work while Chevalier is forced to use working class gravity to save himself.

A fun, very well acted classic movie with great music that gives us a clear view of Paris at the dawn of modern times.

Tom, Dick and Harry with Ginger Rogers, Burgess Meredith, George Murphy and Phil Silvers (1942)

After her high profile years dancing with Fred Astaire and a year after her Oscar winning role in Kitty Foyle, Ginger Rogers stepped completely out of type to star in Tom, Dick & Harry.

For classic movie buffs, this odd turn by Rogers is probably notable in itself, but in a longer view, the slant of the movie is even more interesting.

As the primary rivals for a bright and sunny Ginger Rogers, playing ten years younger than her age, Burgess Meredith and George Murphy square off. Murphy is a slick car salesman, full of tricks and diversions, and Meredith is nothing less than the model for a kicked back hippie that anyone would recognize from the Sixties.

More of a live and let live dude, Meredith steals scene after scene with his common sense and willingness to go with the flow.

In the end, Burgess Meredith wins Ginger Rogers, and they drive off happily. What makes this so interesting is that George Murphy, in the late Sixties and by then a reactionary California politician, was still griping about the decision to let Meredith win the romantic contest twenty-five years before. Unable to comprehend that his own character in the movie was an insincere sleazeball, Murphy complained that Meredith’s easy going character opened the door to what he considered the corruption of youth in the next generation.

Frank Capra’s You Can’t Take It With Celebrates The Last Gasp of American Populism (1938)

Starting with You Can’t Take It with You, Frank Capra starred Jimmy Stewart in three films about the values of common people and community, especially as they struggled to survive against the tyranny of capitalism run amok.

Just before America was drawn into World War II, an experience that changed the country and its culture forever, the robber barons and capitalist manipulators who emerged powerfully from the Nineteenth Century were being confronted by a populous determined to hold its place and values, as they migrated from small towns and farm economies to the cities.

You Can’t Take It With You is easily the most enjoyable of these films. Jimmy Stewart plays the son of a wealth real estate developer, Edward Arnold. He has fallen in love with Jean Arthur, an employee at his father’s company. Simple enough, except that Stewart is not a ruthless capitalist like his father and Jean Arthur is the granddaughter of an eccentric patriarch, played by Lionel Barrymore, who is far more interested in pursuing his dreams (while encouraging others to do the same) than in accumulating wealth.

Barrymore just happens to own the last piece of property Arnold needs to make a fortune with a new housing development. Class tensions are generated.

A classic movie that could have been tedious and/or strident is neither because of the chaotic delights of Barrymore’s densely populated household. His daughter, Spring Byington, ably assisted by a playful kitten, adds lightness to every scene while a very young Ann Miller never stops dancing. Miller is Jean Arthur’s younger sister. Their father is busy most of the time inventing explosive devices for fun.

In a calamitous scene, the families of both Jean Arthur and Jimmy Stewart are thrown in the drunk tank together and, later, dragged into court. In these scenes, the class distinctions are drawn tight as a resentful community rallies together against the greedy developer. Personality traits, views on life and everyday values are used to show how irreconcilably different the classes are.

World War II suddenly made the United States an international power, and populism was artfully transformed by politicians into a quaint voting block. Many of the tensions remain, but the black and white America of this film turned to shades of gray as the war in Europe overpowered all other distinctions.

Skidoo: Otto Preminger’s Fantasy About Changing Cultures In the 1960s (1968)

In the neglected, eccentric classic Skidoo, Otto Preminger drafted veterans Jackie Gleason, Groucho Marx and Carol Channing to star in wild ride kind of movie about the divisions in American culture that were tearing society to pieces in these revolutionary years.

Using naked hippie girls and a drug-influenced youth culture for contrast, Preminger gives us Groucho Marx (God) as the leader of a corrupt business cartel who lures retired mobster Jackie Gleason out of retirement to act as a hit-man inside a prison. Gleason instead drops acid and becomes a purveyor of love and mind expansion.

Preminger wise uses fantasy as a device for illustrating otherwise inexplicable times. He has, for example, Carol Channing (Gleason’s wife) lead a charge against God’s yacht, disguised as John Paul Jones.

For spice, Preminger throws in Frankie Avalon as a superannuated playboy form the recent past, which is pretty much what he was at the time.

No other film, before or since, has so better captured the zaniness of a time so tumultuous that the mass media spent decades trying to reduce the dynamics to something they can sell to advertisers.

David Stone, Writer