Essay

Looking at the Past with Rose-Colored Glasses

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by Rebecca Koerselman

Our first apartment, while small, contained a novelty I had never enjoyed firsthand: free cable. I rarely watched most of the channels, but discovered something wonderful when I found TCM: Turner Classic Movies. No commercials, just old(er) movies, with occasional commentary before or after the films. I realized that I had rarely seen many of the old films that I had read about or heard about. Some of the films were difficult for a 21st century person to understand without more information, but I found most of the old films funny, smart, and excellent commentaries or critiques of American society. And I fell in love…with Cary Grant.

Well, maybe not ‘in love,’ but I loved watching him in films. Yes, I realize he is no longer alive, had a rather interesting personal life and was married many times. But when I began to watch old movies on TCM, he was my favorite. Cary Grant’s characters consistently represented the epitome of what I thought of when I pictured old Hollywood glamour: dashing, great sense of humor, tall, dark, and handsome, comfortable in his own skin, and a perfect (and possibly misogynistic) gentleman. Whether that is the real Cary Grant or not, it certainly comes out in the roles and people he played in his films. Perhaps he played roles that reflected aspects of his own persona, or he was very good at creating a successful image through his films. Either way, I was (and still am) hooked.Koerselman 7

A few weeks ago, I hosted a viewing of one of my favorite Cary Grant films, the Alfred Hitchcock classic, North by Northwest. The college students enjoyed the film, but we all laughed especially hard during the many train scenes between Cary Grant’s character and Eva Marie Saint’s character. The passionate closed-mouth kissing, slightly awkward G-rated stroking, and rather R-rated conversations full of sexual innuendo had us all guffawing.

This dichotomy of incredibly suggestive dialogue with very little visible sexuality reminded me of the ways that we view ourselves today and the way we view the past. Many of today’s youth assume no other era in American culture talked about (or had) sex. After all, if it wasn’t visibly present everywhere in popular culture on movies, in music, or in the news like it is today, than it must not have existed, right? Obviously, this is not true, or none of us would be here. Others long for the years of the past because they think it was idyllic, simpler, or more ‘traditional.’ However, as I regularly remind my students, we can find the good and the bad in the past as much as we can find the good and the bad in the present. The people who lived 50, 100, or 1000+ years ago were also people. Different, yes, but still people like us. They probably thought they were smarter or better than the previous generations, as evidenced by their advances in technology. They probably started sentences with, “in the past, people thought x, y, and z. But now we know that a, b, and c are true.” Isn’t it interesting that each generation thinks they know best and have it all figured out, when compared to previous generations?

I enjoy watching old films because of Cary Grant. But also because they remind me that people are still people, no matter the era. People in the 1950s questioned their purpose, significance, and their place in the world. They talked about sex, perhaps less explicitly, and made poor and good choices in dating, relationships, and marriage. They made significant advancements in technology and discovered new things. Some of them longed for a past that was simpler or seemingly more traditional. Some of them thought they were the smartest and most advanced era in the history of the world. Just like many of us.

Is the past something you look back on with rose-colored glasses? Or do you think the best is yet to come?

 

{If you haven’t seen North by Northwest, you should watch the whole thing. It is delightful. But if you just want to see the spicy dialogue between Cary Grant and Eva Maria Saint on the train, here it is.

Rebecca Koerselman teaches history at Northwestern College in Orange City, Iowa.

 

 

 

 

Rebecca Koerselman

Rebecca Koerselman teaches history at Northwestern College in Orange City, IA.

2 Comments

  • Jim Bratt says:

    Bacall and Bogie discussing horse racing in “The Big Sleep.” Or waves crashing on the shore in any number of films. I share your love of TCM, tho my fixation falls toward Hitchcock’s ice maidens, each and every one of them.

  • Daniel Meeter says:

    I very much enjoyed this posting. I have always loved that 20th Century Limited take with the two of them in the dining car, the Hudson River landmarks identifiably through the windows, she being in absolute control.

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