My 12-year-old son recently informed me that he didn't much see the point of black-and-white movies, and I realized that this horrifying state of affairs could be blamed only on television. The fact that there's so much good television, that is.
My son and his 10-year-old sister can intelligently debate the relative merits of the three modern doctors of Dr. Who, but they do not (choked sob and how did I fail them?) know who Abbott and Costello are.
Why would they? Even in the dog days of summer, once considered a TV wasteland, new shows are stacked up in our DVR queue like back issues of the New Yorker. USA and BBC America alone can keep our family in "family hour" TV for a full week. Add the perpetual siren call of the Disney Channel, HBO Family, the various Nickelodeons and Comedy Central, and my kids can watch precisely what they want when they want to watch it.
Which means there's no chance of being drawn into something wonderful and unexpected — Topper, say, or Bringing Up Baby — simply because that's what's on.
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Back when I was a kid (and I will say only that my brother and I did a mean Donny and Marie impersonation), we watched old movies with alarming regularity because at certain times of the day and week, they dominated the dial.
The Million Dollar Movie, Friday Night at the Movies, Saturday Night at the Movies, Summer Movie Marathons — whenever you turned on the set, some great (or not-so-great) old movie was flickering by.
If you were home from school, sick, and were not yet old enough to be lured into Days of Our Lives, you might find yourself discovering the joys of She Wore a Yellow Ribbon, Holiday, Now Voyager or Whatever Happened to Baby Jane? (Not, perhaps, the most suitable film for a child to watch alone, but you would be amazed at the personal power a 13-year-old can gain simply by saying "But you are, Blanche, you are in that chair" at the proper time.)
While folding laundry or doing the dishes or ironing, you could watch Gregory Peck, Henry Fonda and Jimmy Stewart.
On Saturday nights, musicals were everywhere — if nothing else, there was at least a Fred and Ginger movie on, and who doesn't like Fred and Ginger? On Sunday mornings, there were Abbott and Costello, the Three Stooges and Charlie Chan (all of which ended just after our family left the house for Mass, which is why, to this day, I do not know who Mr. Chan fingered for any of the crimes he investigated). By the time I entered college, I could (and did, to my friends' growing consternation) quote passages from movies as diverse as The Philadelphia Story ("Put me in your pocket, Mike."), Harvey, The Bad Seed ("Why should I feel sorry? It was Claude Daigle who got drowned, not me.") and Key Largo.
And it all came, ironically enough, from a lack of choice. It was an accidental cinematic education.
Such a thing is virtually impossible today. Even AMC is getting out of the old- movie game — if you want to watch old movies, you have to keep up with TCM, order them through Netflix, watch them on Hulu or download them through iTunes.
Problem is, you have to know what they are to find them. Casablanca and To Kill a Mockingbird get their requisite anniversary press and DVD extras release, but too many others are increasingly consigned to the memories of codgers like me and the quirky lists of self-identified cinephiles.
Only YouTube approx imates the dial spinning of old, but it has only chunks of things, hacked-off limbs of films and old shows rather than the whole thing.
It's a shame. Most of life happens in digression — plans and lists and critics' picks are good starting points, but heaven forbid they define the dimensions of anything at all.
As for my children's lack of black-and-white education, well, I'm fairly certain old movies are why they invented winter break.