Movie Classics for the Family Room
From "12 Angry Men" to "Singin' in the Rain," a critic reveals the best old movies for kids and adults.
Film critic Ty Burr
“One of the neat things about old movies is that they look safe because they’re old. Yet a lot of the themes they cover are provocative.” - Film critic Ty Burr.
September 26, 2007 by Steven Castle

When “Shrek” starts looking like big green cheese and “The Incredibles” has left too indelible a mark on your brain, what’s remaining for a family to watch together? Film critic Ty Burr has some classic answers—as in classic films.

Don’t run away yet. The Boston Globe film reviewer has listed classic movies from the silent era through the 1960s to watch with young kids, tweeners and teens in his book, “The Best Old Movies for Families” (Anchor Books, 2007). Some movies are in black and white, some are in color and some of them will even entertain your couch clan. Burr’s compendium is a helpful tool for parents seeking thoughtful options for their kids’ movie viewing.

Burr took some time out from modern-day movie screening to discuss his book and its topic.

What do classic movies have that are lacking in today’s fare?
I think class. And the idea that you can do more with less. You don’t have to blow up an entire building to make a point. A lot of older movies deal with more adult themes, but kids think about a lot of the same things.  “To Kill A Mockingbird” addresses racism. Today, there’s grown-up stuff with sex and violence, and there’s family stuff, but nothing in between.

Why are kids fed so much trash in films today?
[Movie studios] don’t know how to tell good stories anymore, and storytelling isn’t the [point] of making movies today. Selling them stuff is. They want you to buy the DVD when it comes out. There’s an inherent condescension of the people making these movies toward their audience. So many of the kids’ movies that come out now don’t have strong characters, and the morals are put on the end like frosting.

What are the easiest types of classics to sell kids on?
Comedies and musicals. Start them with those, and they’ll want more. And get something in color. In my mind, “Singin’ in the Rain” is the perfect starter. Drama can be hard if you’re bringing a kid to it for the first time. I watched “12 Angry Men” with [my daughter] Eliza, and she latched onto the idea of a jury deciding someone’s fate. She just had to get over the methodical pace. But the comedy “Some Like It Hot” goes fast.

But…yes, some people have said they wouldn’t show their kids that because of the cross-dressing. But cross-dressing is comedy gold that goes back centuries. There’s absolutely nothing sexual about it in this movie. Also, for boys, try Ohayo, which means “good morning” in Japanese. It has fart jokes.

What about classic action flicks?
Start with “Gunga Din” with Cary Grant and any of the John Wayne movies.  Jimmy Cagne blew my daughters away in “White Heat” and “The Public Enemy.” If you have an older kid, try “The Great Escape” and Alistair MacLean stories like “Where Eagles Dare.”

What’s the best family movie you’ve seen recently?
We like anything Pixar does. I thought “The Last Mimzy” was pretty good. It’s a good sci-fi movie for 10-year-olds to open their brains. And “Pride and Prejudice” with Keira Knightley is good for girls.

You recommend different movies for different age levels in the book, but can teens grasp the satire in “Dr. Strangelove”?
Satire is hard to sell. “Dr. Strangelove” isn’t for little kids. It’s for teens and really intelligent tweeners. One of the neat things about old movies is that they look safe because they’re old. Yet a lot of the themes they cover are provocative.

But black-and-white movies are a hard sell to kids. It depends on the kid. It’s easiest with young kids of four and five and maybe teens—the right type of teen looking to assert his or her individuality. I started my kids on black and white and silent movies when they were four and five, and they learned to accept them as different and something good. You just don’t want to make watching these movies a medicine.

What do you think of the impact of independent movies today?
In a way, that’s where all the good screenwriting has gone, but not much of it is made for kids. My girls loved “Little Miss Sunshine.” The first two “Spy Kids” movies by independent director Robert Rodriguez were intelligent.

Should we be careful with horror, such as Hitchcock movies?
When you get into Hitchcock movies, the kids understand that this is a better told tale than 99 percent of what they’ve had. So much of movies today are sensory assault, and seeing an old movie that’s telling it in a different way is just as exciting. That’s an education in itself.

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Steven Castle - Contributing Writer
Steven Castle is Electronic House's managing editor. he has been writing about consumer electronics, homes and energy efficiency topics for two decades. He is also the co-founder of GreenTech Advocates.

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