Classic Films Of Human Drama: Rx For Our Fraught Times

12/12/2016 01:18 pm ET Updated Apr 19, 2017

This polarized nation does not agree on much anymore, but by universal agreement Americans are united in feeling this last presidential campaign was the worst ever. Without reciting details ― we’re a nation in recovery ― it was a contest in which the candidate with an R after his name took us on a tour of the lower depths.

Moreover, since our presidential campaigns run so long, for a good (or bad) year and a half, our exposure to a rotting campaign process was prolonged enough to cause profound revulsion, even a kind of trauma. I know I am not the only American forced to ask during that unedifying spectacle, How low can we go?

Which is why I found myself yearning for movies presenting human beings in a more elevated light, where honor, integrity, courage, love, simple human connection, are on view and in play. Where humanity is defined upward, even heroically, as in the classic films of the ‘30s through the ‘60s, rather than defined downward into pathology, as so much contemporary film portrays humanity, played by anti-heroes. Where characters seem more authentic, without the quirks and “attitude” of today’s film.

Here are eight such classics of human drama. They all feature a central character or an ensemble grappling with a crisis, either historic in scale (war and its aftermath, a foundering economy), or moral in nature (good versus evil), or intimately personal (love, midlife crisis). All portray humans relating with honest feeling. And, while all the films are dramas, when the humor arises, it reverberates.

Casablanca (1942)

I know, I know: such a chestnut. But in this moment of severe dislocation―-Quo vadis, America?―-it might be good to spend time in a mythical bar in North Africa with a group of refugees fleeing the Nazis, all desperate to get to America, which to them shines as a moral beacon and exemplar of civilization. If the contrast between America then and America now is too great for you (and very likely it is), you might focus on the film’s subtheme: Bar owner Rick Blaine’s slow-building return to the fight. When the film opens, Rick is a burnt-out case, cynical about the world or fighting for any cause. But by film’s end he’s found the spark again, and his humanity, and rejoins the fight.

Of course Rick’s journey to get there is well known: Of all the gin joints in all the towns in all the world, his great lost love Ilsa walks into his, the Café Américain, with her freedom-fighter husband Viktor Laszlo, all of which rekindles what Rick and Ilsa had back in Paris. As indelibly portrayed by Humphrey Bogart and Ingrid Bergman, their love story is glorious. And the supporting cast is memorable, too, notably the Vichy wit, Captain Renault (Claude Rains). But this time around, focus on Rick’s return to the fight. I trust the relevance to our Trumpian present is clear….?

High Noon (1952)

Symbolically and humanly, this is another film speaking to us now: A town marshal, alerted that a gang of bad guys is heading his way, seeks allies among the townspeople to help mount a defense. In the end, finding no allies at all, he faces the killers alone (and survives).

In his most iconic role, and at the height of his maturity, Gary Cooper plays Marshal Will Kane as a man whose steely resolve must become steelier as one potential ally after another begs off with excuses, most invoking family―-little understanding that, when mortal danger threatens, the family requires their own skin and resolve in defense. Grace Kelly plays Kane’s new wife Amy, a Quaker who urges him to escape with her, but who, in the end, stays. After the shootout, the townspeople show themselves―-finally. Before departing, Kane throws down his badge in disgust (scene here). In a way, this film throws down a challenge to us: Written during the McCarthy witch-hunt era, another dark time in America, and skillfully directed by Fred Zinneman, this film asks: Who will do battle with the forces of chaos? And who will find excuses not to?

This film about the loss of a way of life―-the coal-mining industry in Wales―-and its impact on a large family of sons―-the sons are forced to leave―-is told in loving retrospect by the youngest son, the one who got an education. These themes―-the still-struggling coal industry, the volatile issue of immigration―-resonate today. The film’s parents, played by character actors Donald Crisp and Sara Allgood, remain stoic as their sons migrate elsewhere, including to America, a decision forced at the paymaster’s window in the form of ever-reduced wages. (The sons will surely turn their mother’s quips into myth wherever they settle.) The only daughter, played by Maureen O’Hara, makes a bad marriage with a wealthy scion after her true love, the pastor played by Walter Pidgeon, concludes he could never provide for her. The superb child actor Roddy McDowall, playing the point-of-view character, matures before your eyes when he retrieves his father’s body after an explosion in the mine.

These events describe a tragedy, an economic one. But this beautifully-acted film, directed by John Ford, reminds us that these tragedies―-some call it “change” or “disruption”―-befall real human beings, real families. There may be no more real a family in all cinema than this film’s Morgan family: Its heartbeat becomes your own. (Full movie here.)

This film of veterans coming home from World War II always repays viewing. The Best Years of Our Lives follows three men anxious about how their families will receive them and how they will fit into a postwar economy. Al, a banker played by Fredric March, comes home to wife Milly (Myrna Loy) and grown children (daughter played by Teresa Wright), only to find it tense going and turning to drink. Fred, played by Dana Andrews, suspects his wife (Virginia Mayo) has been less than faithful and is drawn to Al’s daughter, Peggy. Homer, who lost both hands in the war, has the tensest homecoming (scene here). Homer is played by non-actor Harold Russell, who lost both hands in a wartime accident; he won the Oscar for Best Supporting Actor.

Rather than replayed in flashback, the war reverberates in the characters’ faces and voices and, most starkly, in Homer’s hooks. His anxiety about reconnecting with his fiancée Wilma provides the film’s most moving drama, especially when, to make clear what she’s in for if she marries him, he shows her how he gets into and out of his prosthetic harness. Fred’s war comes back to him when, after being fired from his job as a soda jerk and waiting for a flight out of town, he wanders onto an airfield of decommissioned bombers, finds himself inside one of them, and breaks into an existential sweat (scene here). The film ends on a hopeful note, with a wedding. Director William Wyler may be the best director ever of real human beings relating.

It might seem odd to select this noir film set in postwar Vienna as an exemplar of human drama. But, ultimately, it’s about a man who belatedly comes to see the criminal soul in his old pal and, in the end, stops him. Also the film’s climax takes place in the city’s sewers―-a rather fit metaphor for the present era.

Holly Martins, a writer of Westerns engagingly played by Joseph Cotton, is lured to the city by a job offer from old friend Harry Lime, only to learn upon arrival Lime has died. But Lime is not dead; he’s on the lam for peddling bad penicillin on the black market; his victims include little children. It takes the full movie for Martins to work out who his friend really is, aided by evidence provided by an impatient Major Calloway (Trevor Howard at his sardonic best). Meanwhile Martins falls in love with Lime’s grieving girlfriend Anna (Alida Valli). Lime himself finally appears in the film’s second half, to menace Martins. Played by Orson Welles in a sleek phase, Lime is chilling (scene here). The film is directed by Englishman Carol Reed, written by Graham Greene, and scored with memorable zither music. In its examination of the truth and consequences of a friendship, how good to see that, in the end, Martins’ decency vanquishes his friend’s evil. Still, he doesn’t get the girl. Life.

Turning to more personal themes, this film is a story about a couple going through a midlife crisis, though in the ‘30s it might not have been called that. Sam Dodsworth, a successful car manufacturer, has retired and takes his wife Fran on a long sojourn in Europe―-where the marriage falls apart. Fran, insecure about aging, allows every swain to court her, from a young David Niven on the boat over (scene here) to an aging playboy in Paris (Paul Lukas). Sam fights for the marriage, reminding Fran of their history together. (And he’s crafty: Note the scene in which he wonders aloud what Fran’s swains would think if they knew she’s become a grandmother.) Happily for Sam, his future also sails on the aforementioned boat: a beautiful American expatriate, whose path he crosses again in Italy, where she lives on the cheap.

Playing Sam with American robustness is the great actor Walter Huston. Ruth Chatterton plays his shallow wife, whose devastation at finally losing Sam is moving. The expatriate is played by Mary Astor, for once cast as kind and wise, not snarky or sly. William Wyler directs again, from a novel by Sinclair Lewis. For all its wrenching sorrow at midlife, Dodsworth portrays a good man ultimately getting his due: not only a new and more suitable mate, but a glimpse of new and exciting work to come.

The tenuous existence of the working class in bad times is brilliantly reflected in the postwar Italian film The Bicycle Thief, in which the worst thing that can happen to a worker is signaled in the title: His bicycle, crucial to his new-found work as a poster-hanger, is stolen. While the film tracks the man’s increasingly desperate search around the infinitude of Rome, his little son, Bruno, is at his side throughout, sharing the panic and, wise beyond his years, offering solace. Sadly, he witnesses his father’s final desperate act: stealing a bicycle himself―-and getting caught. The utter humiliation of father and son is hard to watch―-and should be seen by those who feel the poor have only themselves to blame for their suffering. Astonishingly, the leads are played by non-actors; the boy, Enzo Staiola, has an especially expressive face. This film, directed by Vittorio De Sica, is often cited as one of the best films of all time.

At a time when race relations have soured, and with the recent election described as a “whitelash” against minorities, it is useful to revisit this film about a white woman falling in love with an African-American man and coming home to announce the wedding to her parents. Even though the parents are liberals―-the father Matt (Spencer Tracy) is a newspaper publisher, the mother Christina (Katharine Hepburn) owns an art gallery―-they have misgivings (scene here) about a marriage between Joey (played by Hepburn’s real-life niece Katharine Houghton) and John (Sidney Poitier in a strong performance). Not my favorite Hepburn-Tracy vehicle (Woman of the Year is), this film earns points in showing everyone, including John’s parents who arrive for the momentous decision, listening to each other so intently. Hard to argue with that. (Final scene here.)

I hope these gems will hearten the reader downcast about this dismal presidential election and the turbulence to come. While some of the films are tragic, somehow the characters’ humanity never is. It remains to be seen―-it is the drama we have yet to write―-if America can avert tragedy and achieve higher ground. These films, in their humanity, point the way upward.

For my other posts about film, see here, here, and here.

Carla Seaquist’s latest book is titled “Can America Save Itself from Decline?: Politics, Culture, Morality.” An earlier book is titled “Manufacturing Hope: Post-9/11 Notes on Politics, Culture, Torture, and the American Character.” Also a playwright, she published “Two Plays of Life and Death” and is at work on a play titled “Prodigal.

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