I’m a big fan of the movies of Hollywood’s golden age and I belong to several online movie communities. From time to time the question gets raised - why do modern audiences have such an enormous resistance to the idea of watching old movies?
The answer that was duly wheeled out was that modern viewers are alienated by the trappings of the past. The cars look different. The furniture looks like the furniture in their grandparents’ house. The clothes are different. Everything is old-fashioned, so to modern movie-goers watching an old black-and-white movie is like visiting a museum.
I wonder if that's what is really going on? I have my doubts. Modern audiences will cheerfully watch movies and TV series set in the past. The success of movies like LA Confidential and TV series like Mad Men proves that. In fact the popularity of the BBC’s endless Jane Austen adaptations shows that modern viewers are quite happy to watch a TV series set two hundred years in the past. So why should a 1940s movie present any problems?
It obviously isn’t the clothes or the furniture or the cars. In fact if anything those elements are probably a plus to viewers of today, if we are to judge by the popularity of retro blogs. Retro fashion and retro style are big.
So what is the answer?
I think it's the values represented by old movies that confuse and frighten modern audiences. They can't comprehend a romantic comedy where a man and a woman go out to dinner and don't end up in bed together. They can't understand characters in movies who take their marriages seriously. They are dumbfounded by the idea that people used to put duty before selfishness. Their blood runs cold when they see characters who sacrifice themselves for others. They are mystified when characters in a movie volunteer to serve their country by joining the army. And they are reduced to abject terror by the fact that these people in these old movies had high moral standards even though they didn't mouth the proper politically correct platitudes.
All of these things raise the terrifying prospect that maybe the values of today aren't eternal. Even worse, the values of today might be wrong. Maybe we’ve got everything wrong today?
People today know they are unhappy and dissatisfied by their lives. They know that people in the past didn’t feel that way. In the mid-twentieth century people went off to work every day, they got married and they had kids. And they were happy. What if those people in the past knew something that we don’t know? Old movies are a disturbing reminder that people used to live by different values, and were apparently happy and content.
So modern audiences run back to the comfort of modern movies where people have the morals of alley cats but never say anything politically incorrect. That way they won’t have any upsetting thoughts.