Films and Television Teach History from the Comfort of Home
Films and Television Teach History from the Comfort of Home

Films and Television Teach History from the Comfort of Home

Larry Holzwarth - April 20, 2020

Films and Television Teach History from the Comfort of Home
Karl Malden as a crusading priest in On The Waterfront. Wikimedia

21. Religion

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.

Films and Television Teach History from the Comfort of Home
The Honeymooners offered a humorous look at working class citizens of New York. Wikimedia

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 set 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.

Films and Television Teach History from the Comfort of Home
Films give us a record of how cities changed over the decades. Wikimedia

23. Changing cities over time

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.

Films and Television Teach History from the Comfort of Home
Doctor’s frequently visited patients in their homes, rather than in their offices and clinics. Getty Images

24. Medicine

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 patients 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.

Films and Television Teach History from the Comfort of Home
Senator Jeff Smith addresses a Senate largely ignoring him in Mr. Smith Goes to Washington. Wikimedia

25. Politics and government

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). Other 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.

Films 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.

Where do we find this stuff? Here are our sources:

“Rewriting the past: Do historical movies have to be accurate?” Alex von Tunzelmann, The Guardian. February 1, 2019

“Film as Social and Cultural History”. History Matter, George Mason University. Online

“Movies as the Gateway to History”. Paul B. Weinstein, The History Teacher Journal. November, 2001

“The Oscars: Why Hollywood Tales Become ‘Real’ History”. Tia Ghose, Live Science. February 22, 2013

“History on Film. Film on History”. Robert A. Rosenstone

“The History on Film Reader”. Marnie Hughes-Warrington. 2009

“What were the best history movies of the decade?” Jason Herbert, Smithsonian Magazine. December 30, 2019

“Product Placement in Hollywood Films”. Kerry Segrave. 2004

“The Best 50 Movies of the 1940s”. Staff, Paste Magazine. March 4, 2017. Online

“100 Essential Thrillers”. Listing, British Film Institute. Online

“The Most Important Movies of the 1950s”. Christopher McKittrick,

“10 Great Films Set in the Swinging Sixties”. Thirza Wakefield, British Film Institute. August 16, 2018

“50 years of 2001: A Space Odyssey – how Kubrick’s sci fi changed the very form of cinema”. Phil Hoad, The Guardian. April 2, 2018

“10 great American films of the 1970s”. Oliver Lunn, British Film Institute. April 12, 2017. Online

“The 22 best political movies ever, ranked”. Jason Guerrasio, Business Insider. Online