• Ty Burr’s The Best Old Movies for Families: A Guide to Watching Together (Anchor, 375 pp., $16.95 paper) is a prime contender for the Why-Didn’t-I-Think-of-That Book Award of 2007. I desperately wish I’d written it, though I doubt I would have done nearly as good a job. In addition to being the film critic of the Boston Globe, Burr is the father of two young daughters, and he decided to introduce them to old movies when they were still toddlers. This wise, amusing book tells how he did it, and how you can do the same thing.
The Best Old Movies for Families is the sort of book that doesn’t need to be reviewed, at least not in the conventional sense. Merely to quote from it is to show how good it is:
Today I look at the movie offerings afforded my kids and am stunned into depression at the pandering narrowness. . . . Some films aimed at children are good—excellent, even. Pixar: I rest my case. But all of them—and I do mean all of them—arrive in theaters sold out, prepackaged, and co-opted. A modern family film can’t get greenlit for production without marketing tie-ins planned in detail and in-house licensing executives kicking the tires to discern how “toyetic” it is. That’s a real word, by the way. Yes, it makes my flesh crawl, too.
So what’s the alternative? The Best Old Movies for Families contains a series of age-appropriate, shrewdly annotated lists of studio-system films that Burr has successfully road-tested on his daughters. Some of his choices may seem a bit over-ambitious at first glance, but he claims that all of them went over: “To a few of my acquaintances I am still known as The Man Who Showed The Seven Samurai to His Kids. And They Liked It.” More representative of his sensible yet imaginative approach is this list of five toddler-friendly classics: The Adventures of Robin Hood, Bringing Up Baby, Meet Me in St. Louis, Singin’ in the Rain, and Stagecoach.
Burr’s choice of films is wholly secular yet morally aware—he comes across as exactly the kind of father you’d like to have as a next-door neighbor. At the same time, his approach is essentially aesthetic in its orientation:
With any luck, my daughters will be able to go through life lacking that fear of old movies—and, much more to the point, old culture—that keeps so many children and their parents locked in an eternal, ahistorical Now. The only way to comprehend Now, of course, is to understand Then. More than almost any other art form, movies show the way back.
I wish that last sentence weren’t true—I grew up on old books, not old movies—but I suspect that Burr has it right.
Permit me to quote one more passage from The Best Old Movies for Families, just because I like it so much:
Modern kids are raised with the understanding that people don’t spontaneously burst into song at crucial moments in their lives. And isn’t that a horrible thing, to remove such evidence of grace on earth from their belief system? Of course there are people who start tap-dancing at unexpected moments, or improvise a tune while plucking lyrics from the air. They’re called children, and if you spend any time with them, you’ll witness life as a musical forty times an hour.
This one’s a must.
• I like well-written books that tell me everything I want to know about a given topic without going overboard. David Clay Large’s Nazi Games: The Olympics of 1936 (W.W. Norton, 401 pp., $27.95) fills that bill impeccably. Large’s book, which is based on newly available primary sources, is concise but sufficiently thorough and written with a sharp sense of irony—an appropriate commodity, given the fact that virtually everything about the Hitler-hosted 1936 Olympics was ironic. Americans, for instance, still pride themselves on the fact that Jesse Owens won a gold medal in 1936, but did you know that none of that year’s Olympic trials could be run in the Deep South because Southern states wouldn’t allow blacks to run alongside whites? Or that the Germans staffed Berlin’s Olympic village with state-subsidized prostitutes who were under orders to sleep only with Aryan contenders? You’ll learn all this and much more from Nazi Games, and you’ll also learn quite a bit about the making of Olympia, Leni Riefenstahl’s propaganda film about the 1936 games.
Even if you’re not a sports buff, you’ll find Nazi Games an absorbing read—and, given the fact that the next Olympiad will be held in Beijing, a depressing one.