Wednesday, March 20, 2013

why people today won't watch old movies

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.


  1. You may be onto something to the extent that the past seems profoundly alien to the present, leaving implicit moral judgments out of it, but my unhappy hunch is that, despite classic cinema's ability to tell stories more efficiently than today's too-often bloated product, 21st century people simply assume that older movies are boring.

  2. there was a recent sketch on SNL that satirized the rapid-patter newsroom dramas of the 30s ala the Front Page, His Girl Friday and Meet John Doe, with Zoe Deschanel as a new typist who has no idea what they're saying, she's like 'talk slower!'

    The problem for people today isnt that they talk too fast is that they don't read enough, so the slang is strange, the references and allusions mean nothing, and yes they do associate black and white with boring, and I blame the production code!! Every kid shoud be forced to see KONGO, BABY FACE, and WILD BOYS OF THE ROAD, just so they know that people in the 1930s partied harder than they ever will, and if they don't get it together and plum the boggy depths of the past, there doomed to drown on an endless CGI surface.

  3. Those are excellent observations D though I'm not sure those reasons tell the whole story. It frustrates me to no end that in order to get my wife to watch an old movie is like pulling teeth. I grew up watching old movies on TV in the precable days. My wife who is 6 years younger pretty much missed out on that experience. She is smart and has a very strict moral code due to her religious faith. My moral code is much less rigid. That said she is used to seeing people on TV hopping in bed at the first opportunity and she doesn't say much about it. As a matter of fact she keeps tuning in every week. I can't stand watching modern TV shows. They are always pushing agendas that I don't approve of. The sex is the only reason to watch and there are better films for that.

  4. Kho, I don't watch modern TV or movies at all. For the same reasons that you dislike them.

  5. I'll sit down and watch a few modern TV shows with my wife just to spend some time with her. Gossip Girl aka How does it feel to be one of the beautiful people, True Blood (which I sort of like) and the worst one of the lot, Grey's Anatomy. That one really gets on my nerves. I loved Kevin McKidd in Rome but Grey's Anatomy is nothing but neo-liberal propaganda of the worst sort. I also see some new flicks now and then. The latest Bond film was pretty good but my favorite film of the last number of years was The Artist. My wife loved it too but she can't seem to get into silent movies from the silent era. I do make her watch a movie with me every once in a while. I only pick the very best of the old films to view with her. Last attempt was DeMille's The Cheat which she sort of liked but had to go to bed before it was finished or so she said. She does like a few old films like Marty and some others that I can't name off the top of my head. She also likes Gary Cooper and Cary Grant so there is hope for her.

    I'm in DeMille mode right now as I'm reading Scott Eyman's bio on DeMille which is fascinating. I've also seen a number of DeMille's silent films and they have forced me to reevaluate and conclude that he was indeed a great filmmaker. Heck, there are only a couple of old movies that still broadcast on the major networks in the US. It's A Wonderful Life and The Ten Commandments. Hokey it may be but its great entertainment. Fie on Sidney Lumet. DeMille had the last laugh.

  6. Kho, I love DeMille's movies. Especially his silent films with Gloria Swanson and his work from the early to mid-1930s, culminating in his wonderful 1934 Cleopatra.

  7. I love and collect old films and happily pay five hundred bucks for the privilege yet I would consider 1915 (the cheat) too early . Perhaps a film like "the crowd "(1928) would be better

  8. Maybe we just like movies from a time when men and women knew they were gloriously different.

  9. I think you've hit the nail squarely on the head. I get so tired of modern viewers giving today's movies superior marks for "accuracy," based solely on things like hats and moustaches, while the characterizations, dialogue, and values are terribly, horribly wrong.

    I really enjoy your blog, besides being well-written, it's the most conservative old movie site I've encountered in my internet travels. However, every time in the past when I've tried to leave a comment, nothing comes through. I don't know if this is a glitch in the system or what. But I'm trying once again.

    1. I really enjoy your blog, besides being well-written, it's the most conservative old movie site I've encountered in my internet travels.

      Thank you!

      However, every time in the past when I've tried to leave a comment, nothing comes through. I don't know if this is a glitch in the system or what. But I'm trying once again.

      Blogspot's commenting system can be quite glitchy at times.

    2. What a nice surprise, I finally made it through! Chrome is NOT my default browser, but I'll use it on your blog from now on. Here's hoping the problem is licked.

      You're most welcome, and thank you for your response :-)