About 15 years ago, my younger brother, George, looked over my DVD collection of classic movies, including Gone with the Wind, The Searchers, and Animal House, and said, “You know, pretty soon you won’t need any of these. You’ll be able to download every one of them off the internet.” George was proved right technologically, but what he couldn’t predict was that cancel culture would target those films. No one could in 2006. Now I, like many other naïve movie lovers, regret having discarded my hard copies of the titles and am racing to replace them before they get erased.
I recalled that moment last Thursday when watching the premiere of Turner Classic Movies’ (TCM) ill-advised March series Reframed: Classic Films in the Rearview Mirror featuring Gone with the Wind (1939), Seven Brides for Seven Brothers (1954), and Rope (1948). With the series, TCM hopes to continue its only raison d’être — presenting screen masterworks — yet protect itself from modern woke vampires bloated with fresh blood — Dr. Seuss’s and Mr. Potato Head’s. Other classics to be deconstructed for anti-wokeness include Woman of the Year (1942), Gunga Din (1939), and The Searchers (1956). TCM declares its intent in a ghastly website statement:
Many of the beloved classics that we enjoy on TCM have stood the test of time in several ways, nevertheless when viewed by contemporary standards, certain aspects of these films can be troubling and problematic. This month, we are looking at a collection of such movies and we’ll explore their history, consider their cultural context and discuss how these movies can be reframed so that future generations will keep their legacy alive.
That the announcement is typical progressive drivel becomes obvious in the first sentence. Because “the beloved classics” clearly “have stood the test of time,” the phrase “in several ways” signifies nothing. Neither does “when viewed by contemporary standards,” nor the utterly insipid “certain aspects of these films can be troubling.” Hey, welcome to art, snowflakes. The sentence ends with the ultimate vague yet loaded word, “problematic.”
The second sentence is even more offensive to TCM viewers. The last thing they need is liberal movie hosts explaining the “cultural context” and “refram[ing]” these films to “keep their legacy alive.” They tune into TCM instead of modern cable dreck precisely to escape politically correct propaganda and spend a couple of hours with a story, time, and place they can appreciate, and as a break from their day-to-day labors. They don’t need to be told that slavery was bad to enjoy Gone with the Wind, or that kidnapping women is an improper way to provide Seven Brides for Seven Brothers. And they just might enjoy how the lumberjack brothers try to gently romance their abductees with song and dance until the women reciprocate, without feminists blaming Stockholm Syndrome.
Who’s to say the 2021 progressive lens is correct? Maybe years from now, people will look at Reframed and scoff at the hosts’ smug criticism of wiser minds than theirs.
Yet TCM felt the need to deprive them of these pleasures by throwing its cinematic treasures under the bus, beginning with the first film on the program, Gone with the Wind. Reframed cohostess Jacqueline Stewart explained why TCM’s sister network HBO Max had recruited her to make the perennial favorite acceptable: “HBO Max was concerned, like so many organizations, so many media companies, about what it would look like for them presenting a film that so obviously was supporting a kind of white supremacist view. It’s a film that celebrates the Confederacy as this kind of long lost world of chivalry associated with a fantasy of what the slave system was like in the pre-bellum South.”
Almost everything Stewart said about the film was wrong. The movie does not support a white supremacist view or “a fantasy of the slave system” but accurately reflects the historic tragedy of one race “owning” members of another. As for “a long lost world of chivalry,” the hero of the story, Rhett Butler, harpoons the Confederacy as a fools’ paradise early on (“All we’ve got is cotton, slaves, and arrogance.”) And the South pays a heavy price for its hubris in the same movie. Again, great art cannot be deconstructed to politically correct bullet points.
When introducing the second film on the program, Seven Brides for Seven Brothers, Reframed cohost Dave Karger began with the poor salesmanship of dampening customer enthusiasm for the product: “I don’t feel that we’re here to throw shame on any of these movies, particularly one that’s as fun as Seven Brides for Seven Brothers. But I think when you look at a movie through a 2021 point of view, it’s helpful to be just a little bit critical about it and give some context about the time it was made.”
Why it’s helpful instead of irritating, Karger didn’t say. Viewers don’t need him or his colleagues to understand the context about the time this, or any other movie, was made. Karger’s cohostess, Alicia Malone, unwittingly made that very point. “When we look at this film, we’re looking at it with a modern lens,” she said. “But we also know that it was created in 1954. During the 1950s, we know there were a lot of messages in movies for women to stay home, to be mothers, to be good wives. And then the film is also set in the 1850s, when of course that was the job of women when men went out to settle the land.” She was right on both counts.
In other words, Seven Brides for Seven Brothers does not need to be reframed. What’s more, a lot of women today agree with that 1950s message about stay-at-home wives and prefer movies that deliver it. For who’s to say the 2021 progressive lens is correct? Maybe years from now, people will look at Reframed and scoff at the hosts’ smug criticism of wiser minds than theirs. Just maybe John Ford knew what he was doing about racial prejudice when he created Ethan Edwards, an Indian-hating psychopath, and cast John Wayne to play him in The Searchers. And maybe a single scene where Wayne cradles the Comanche-raised Natalie Wood in his arms instead of killing her like he had intended is more powerful than any reframing.