A couple of years ago, I taught a high school film history class to a group of particularly bright juniors and seniors. Some of them were a little skeptical at first (“Are you gonna make us watch black and white movies, Miss?”), but I made an initial plea with them to “give it a chance,” and, as luck would have it, they all did.
For the most part.
They loved Chaplin in The Kid, as well as Buster Keaton in Cops, Singin’ in the Rain, which I screened to illustrate the transition from silents to talkies, went over BIG, especially with some of the girls, who fell fast and hard for Gene Kelly. My Man Godfrey was appreciated, and the film led to some interesting discussions about history as well as the nature of comedy. When we got to the 1940s, I hit cinematic pay dirt with, of all things, Mildred Pierce. While Some Like it Hot probably proved to be the class favorite, overall, the Joan Crawford tour de force ran a very close second. There was not one snarky comment about her eyebrows or shoulder pads. Those kids were IN!
My footing got a little unsteady when we hit the 1950s however. I take the blame. Somehow, I thought that I absolutely had to show a Hitchcock film…like there was some sort of law…and I chose one of my favorites, North by Northwest.
The students hated it, and I came to understand and appreciate their views. The whole Cold War thing meant absolutely nothing to them, so there went that. Cary Grant, while still absolutely dishy to me, was a little too craggy to draw in my girls…even those who had swooned over Gene Kelly (and would go on to swoon even more for Dustin Hoffman in The Graduate).
Then, there’s the technical aspects of the film. Those of us who love Hitch have learned to overlook and forgive his lack of technical prowess when it comes to filmmaking. We accept all of the tired rear projection and allow it for the sake of the storytelling.
But kids today? Eh, not so much. Most of them complained that the famous crop-dusting scene just went on too long. I guess when you walk home every afternoon knowing you could be caught in the crossfire of some warring gang banbers, being trapped in some mid-western corn field doesn’t seem to pose a lot of peril.
There was, however, one reaction that caught me completely off guard. It came from a charming young man named Juan Cortez. Juan was a great student. He started out more skeptical than any of the others, but got swept up in the films I showed and became my most avid film watcher. When someone gifted me with a small stuffed animal early in the semester, it was Juan who insisted that I name it “Godfrey.”
Juan’s complaint with North by Northwest? Why, that tramp Eve Kendall (Eva Marie Saint), dontcha know.
“Miss, she sleeps with him on the first night she meets him! She’s kinda…well…you know…”
“A what, Juan?”
“Well, Miss…Ummm…kinda a slut!”
We tossed this idea around a bit. I brought up the fact that her actions were all done to keep America safe from the likes of James Mason and his evil, Communistic ways, but Juan was having none of it. Nope. Good women don’t do that sort of thing, and, clearly, Eve Kendal was not a good woman.
Juan did seem to have a qualm or two about the fact that Mildred Pierce hooks up with Monty Beragon on their first date, but, ultimately, Mildred got a pass…something about the fact that she had already been married.
Personally, I live in my own happy little world, where a one-nighter with Cary Grant completely trumps the same sort of fling with Zachery Scott…especially when I am protecting the world from the Red Menace. Or even if I’m not. I mean…c’mon!
But, then again, I’m not wide-eyed and sixteen. Nor would I wish to bel. Still, I love to get their input.