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 the last time this question was raised 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 looks 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 don’t understand that concepts like duty used to be considered to be all-important. It’s the attitudes towards religious, moral and social beliefs that are so alienating to modern audiences.
The idea that people at one time thought differently from the way we think today, that they had beliefs and values that they took for granted that were in many ways the polar opposites of commonly held beliefs and values today, that’s an idea that is both alienating and threatening to many people.
Even worse, the characters in old movies seem to have very definite moral codes and seem to take such matters more seriously than they are taken today. The idea that you can live by such a different moral code and still be a person who is generally regarded as a good person is very unsettling.
If you look at modern movies and TV series set in the past it immediately becomes apparent that the values of our own age have been imposed on the past by the makers. They just don’t ring true. They might get the clothes and the furniture right, but the attitudes and behaviours are all wrong. They’ve been modernised to make them acceptable to modern audiences, so in fact they are completely unhistorical. That’s why modern movie-goers will watch a modern movie set in the 50s, but they won’t watch a 1950s movie. The modern movie reassures them that the way we think today is the way people have always thought. The genuine 1950s movie doesn’t offer them any such reassurance.