To Share or Not to Share: Kids and Classic Film

One of the things I like to write about most is the journey of introducing my daughter to classic films, especially my personal favorites. From the time she was about three, Ellie knew Gene Kelly, Judy Garland and Fred Astaire by name. She mimicked the movements of Cyd Charisse, rolled around on the floor like Donald O’Connor, attempted pratfalls like Cary Grant and once pointed to a photo of Fredric March and said “Daddy.” I recently wrote a piece here at StreamLine about showing Charlie Chaplin’s The Kid to Ellie, a film I was originally hesitant to share with her due to themes of abandonment, adoption, poverty and classism. She handled it fine, and naturally had questions, which I was more than happy to answer. Education and context are both key to enjoying movies, especially ones that are from past generations, with different sensibilities and social norms. Because of my passion for classic film both as a hobby and a profession, movies and all the stories that surround them are often up for discussion in our home. Sometimes she’ll hear me mutter to myself as I jot down notes for future essays. I’m well aware that many classic films have content that is considered objectionable and inappropriate for children. From complex adult themes, misogynistic behaviors and crude racial stereotypes and bigotry, I always try to be extra cautious when it comes to exposing Ellie to this kind of content. I think we are all well aware that even the most family-oriented classic films can have problematic content. One of the examples I use is a line from one of my favorite comedies, and one that I’ve shared with Ellie: Howard Hawks’ Bringing Up Baby. In it, Cary Grant’s nerdy David Huxley says: “That’s pretty white of Mr. Peabody.” It’s a line Grant says casually, but has a terrible and powerful meaning. Now, I typically take the approach of acknowledging overtly racist and sexist content and using it as a teaching moment, providing age appropriate context when needed (think along the lines of TCM’s old summer series The Essentials Jr.), but I’ll admit that many times, like in the case of Huxley’s comment on Mr. Peabody’s pleasant, generous disposition, I will leave things be until intervention is needed. A lot of things, especially dialogue, typically flies right over a 6-year-old’s head, so I’ll handle it when it needs to be addressed. Other than those little moments, I try to be vigilant.

Back in January, TCM aired a mini-marathon of films starring Loretta Young on her birthday. I had the television on as background noise while working and wasn’t really paying much attention. It was the middle of the 1948 western Rachel and the Stranger starring Young, William Holden and Robert Mitchum, a film that I wasn’t terribly familiar with. Ellie was playing in her room upstairs, or so I thought, and unbeknownst to me, she had come down the stairs and was watching Rachel and the Stranger, completely engrossed with the images on the screen. I looked up right as Young, Holden and Mitchum battled a raging fire and incoming arrows from some pretty scary looking Native Americans. I didn’t think much of it, especially with it being a western and all, and I still hadn’t noticed my daughter watching the television. The movie ended and my daughter never gave me any indication that she saw parts of the film or had questions or concerns about what she saw.

Later that night at bedtime, Ellie struggled to go to sleep. She was anxious and upset, stubbornly fighting us, something that we rarely have to deal with now that she’s older and out of the irrational toddler phase. After a fairly stressful back and forth, Ellie finally admitted why she was so upset: “I am scared of those mean people; the mean people with the feathers on their heads.” We honestly thought it was something she imagined, maybe one of the detailed monsters she comes up with during her play sessions, or perhaps a ridiculous villain from an old Scooby-Doo, Where Are You? (1969-1970) episode. And then it hit me: she must’ve seen the end of Rachel and the Stranger. So I asked her, “Did you see something today that scared you?” She nodded. We came to the conclusion that she was scared of the “evil” Native Americans. A pit formed in my stomach as I realized I failed in the parenting department. My husband and I discussed that movies from long ago often treated certain groups of people unfairly. We brought out her beautiful book about all kinds of native peoples and talked about how they are good like everyone else and deserving of our respect and acceptance. We reinforced our belief that differences are to be celebrated, not feared, ultimately making us all better humans. Our discussion calmed her in that moment, but for weeks we dealt with a new bedtime terror. And I felt just awful that my carelessness was the cause of it.

All of it got me to thinking, though: this passion of mine, am I handling it correctly with my daughter? Should I shield her from questionable content or do I expose her to it incrementally and in an age-appropriate way, and just be more vigilant about educating and providing context? Did I underestimate her ability to understand complex themes and misrepresentations of ethnic minorities?

I decided that I would rather have a child who is well-rounded when it comes to visual arts and literature than one who is sheltered, and with that knowledge and exposure comes complicated topics. I want her to be aware of history and its successes and failures and horrible mistakes, but also come away with an appreciation for the artistry and a stronger moral center. The best way to learn what is right is from past mistakes, either made by yourself or others, right? And so, although I failed in preparing my daughter for the insensitive and inappropriate images she was seeing in that Loretta Young movie (not to mention the horribly sexist themes, with Holden’s character buying Young’s to be his wife and servant), it gave me the opportunity to discuss the marginalization of a group of people, tying it into current events like the Standing Rock protest, which has been an important and unavoidable topic in our home. In a perfect world I would much rather let my daughter remain blissfully ignorant of the terrible things that exist, but that’s unfortunately not realistic, productive or responsible.

I started thinking about other classics that I would like to share with Ellie, but would need to be accompanied with a detailed primer and discussion. Browsing through the catalog on FilmStruck and The Criterion Channel, I came across several, like John Ford’s Stagecoach (1939), one of my all-time favorite films. It’s a beautiful, engrossing journey that I can’t wait to share with Ellie. But it’s a complicated, mature story that is incredibly problematic in parts with its portrayal of the “savage” Native American and the objectification of women, particularly the treatment of Claire Trevor’s Dallas (one of the greatest characters of all time, for what it’s worth). If I play a game of roulette with the current catalog, any of these classics, from Lang to Lean,  Losey to Lloyd, all of these classics have varying degrees of both artistic merit and complicated content. As a parent and a cinephile, I have to carefully weigh the pros and cons of each one, effectively curating the content for my daughter. I want her to appreciate film for all its glorious achievements and embarrassing faults. I’m sure that Rachel and the Stranger won’t be my last lapse in judgement, but I think it will all be worth it in the end when I have a culturally aware and well-informed daughter. I’m looking forward to sharing parts of my daughter’s cinematic journey with all of you.

This piece was originally published at StreamLine, the official blog of FilmStruck on March 25, 2017 and can be found archived here

About Jill Blake 65 Articles
Jill Blake is a writer and researcher based in Atlanta, GA. She is the co-editor of The Retro Set and the co-host of the podcast DWT: Drinking While Talking. Jill has written for various outlets including Indicator, Netflix Film, Turner Classic Movies, and FilmStruck. She is currently writing a book on stage and screen actors Fredric March and Florence Eldridge.

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