The old adage that lies repeated become truth is especially true when a subject about which little is known by the viewer is encountered on film. Films are powerful propaganda tools as a result, and have been used as such for as long as they have existed. In 2013 a psychology researcher at Duke University pointed out that people absorb accurate information from historical films, as well as inaccurate information, with about the same rate of retention for both. Scrupulous adherence to historical facts in films has never been the primary goal of the producers, directors, and casts.
In many films based on historical events, multiple participants in the historical record become molded into fictional composite characters. 1963’s The Great Escape stands as an example. It altered the timeline, the characters (the American Virgil Hilts played by Steve McQueen was entirely fictional), and the events before, during, and after the escape. Yet it still portrayed aspects of history as regards being a prisoner of war in a Luftwaffe Stalag accurately. Prisoners’ relationships with the guards, military discipline, preparing for the escape, and the importance of Red Cross Packages were correctly portrayed. The environment of the camp was also accurately depicted, as was the German issuance of gardening tools to the prisoners, after a parole was given they would not be used for escape purposes.
Virtually any film depicting society in any era of the past includes within its pictures scenes within a watering hole where people congregate to eat and drink, but especially the latter. Westerns feature saloons, some elaborately decorated, others a plank across two barrels, at which patrons ordered whiskey or beer. In films of the Prohibition Era, bootleggers were depicted as heroes as often as they were seen as villains. Nightclubs where gowned women and tuxedoed men gathered for drinks and dancing featured in many films of the 1930s and early 1940s. America’s longstanding love affair with alcohol is well-presented in film.
Religion and religious figures have long been important in films about American life. Spencer Tracy, Edmond O’Brien, Bing Crosby, and Karl Malden all played priests as heroes in more than one film. Priests were displayed as hard-working, dedicated to their church and its role in the community. Tracy portrayed Father Flanagan and the creation of Boy’s Town. Malden played a priest determined to end the corruption on the docks in the Marlon Brando vehicle, On the Waterfront. The significance of the parish in the lifeblood of the neighborhood was a theme in many films. Ministers from other denominations appeared frequently in movies during all eras as well.
Also appearing in films were ministers and self-professed holy men of less than savory character. Elmer Gantry featured Burt Lancaster as a con-artist bilking American small towns as part of a traveling revival. Robert Mitchum portrayed a serial killer disguised as a minister preying on women along the Ohio River in the 1930s, a character based on serial killer Harry Powers. Movies about religion and religious life in the United States are often controversial, as few subjects are held as sacred – no pun intended – as are religious views in America, particularly among fundamentalists.
22. The televised situation comedy and American life
In the 1950s television developed a new form of entertainment, based on radio programming which used a similar format. The thirty-minute situation comedy, which remains a major portion of commercial programming in the 21st century emerged. In 1952 I Love Lucy became America’s favorite sitcom. It was joined near the top of the ratings by The Honeymooners. In the 1960s The Andy Griffith Show and the fictional town of Mayberry became wildly popular, as did many other programs, including one featuring a talking horse, Mr. Ed. Yet even these shows carry in their backgrounds and sets elements of history. Lucy was the stereotypical housewife of the era, always wanting to join her husband’s show, while he wanted her at home.
Mayberry was and remains the ideal small town of its day, in part because it was representative of countless American small towns. The Honeymooners, with the scheming Ralph and the obtuse Norton, depicted the life of the working class in New York, including the men’s preferred entertainments (bowling, pool, their lodge, and poker) and their wives’ difficulties in managing the home on small budgets. Even Mr. Ed, the ridiculous concept of a talking horse with something to say, presents a window into history. Most of the vehicles which appeared on the show were Studebakers, since the company sponsored the show from 1961 to 1964. Ford took over in the final season, 1965, when Studebaker ceased auto production.
In the 1920s and even the 1930s American cities and towns were still very much dependent on the use of horses for carriages, delivery wagons, fire departments, and streetcars. Films of the eras demonstrate that dependence. Often observed in background scenes as the camera recorded them while following the action, they are proof that changes to America’s urban scenes were gradual over many, many years. City services and businesses appear in billboard advertising, street signs, and door fronts. From old movies we have pictures of what cities looked like at night, before and after gaudy neon lighting took hold in most urban areas.
We also have records of urban roads at a time before Interstate Highways, and the automobiles which negotiated them. Visual records of markets, long before the advent of self-service, are found in films. In westerns, the general store is nearly as large a feature of towns as the saloon, the sheriff’s office, and the train platform. Well into the 1940s most Americans purchased their groceries from small shops, rather than the supermarkets which evolved in the suburbs. Shop owners knew their customers and their needs and regular purchases long before the emergence of customer reward systems, which are really customer tracking systems.
The evolution of medicine and medical care in the United States are trackable through their appearances in films, both those purporting to depict historical events and in contemporaneous settings. For decades, doctors went to their patient rather than the other way around. In cities and larger towns doctors did both, examining and consulting with patients in their offices, and following up with them in their homes. A doctor’s black satchel made him recognizable to all as he went about his rounds. Surgeons often performed operations in their own surgeries, rather than in hospital operating rooms and theaters, which were used for training.
When automobile ambulances emerged, they were little more than a car equipped with a stretcher and a siren. Life saving equipment beyond simple bandages weren’t available. Not until the 1960s did corporate medical care, driven by the health insurance industry and specialization by physicians, come to dominate health care in the United States. Ambulances became trauma care units, supported by connection to physicians in emergency rooms. Americans once visited their doctor, paid for his services, and presumably followed his advice, as seen in hundreds of films from the past. Those days vanished near the end of the 20th century.
Two types of politicians appear in films of the past, honest and good, or dishonest and bad. Often the two are juxtaposed against each other. Some films of the past attempted to rehabilitate the reputation of real-life American politicians, such as Bob Hope’s portrayal of New York Mayor Jimmy Walker in Beau James (1957). Others films present American politicians entirely in fiction, such as All the King’s Men in 1949. Mr. Smith Goes to Washington was entirely fictional, though the corrupt influence of political machines displayed in the film were a large part of American history.
Film’s about real political events often became as controversial as the events themselves. All the President’s Men, a story mostly about journalism, earned condemnation from conservatives who believed it falsely portrayed the Nixon Administration. Like American politics themselves, political films going back to the 1930s polarized audiences, depending on the point of view of the protagonist in comparison to their own. America has always been a contentious, squabbling, nation when it comes to politics, and films offer a glimpse into how past generations managed to resolve their differences and keep the nation growing.
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