WASHINGTON -- Turner Classic Movies (TCM), which show on TV here in Washington around-the-clock, have had a strong and lasting effect on me. This is not because all of the movies are perfect or even that good. It is not because they improve my moral mettle. And it is not because they have taught me how to be Betty Hutton during the day and Greta Garbo after 8. No, it is something more.
If anyone has addictively watched Turner Classics as I have, I wonder whether he -- or, particularly, she -- has any of the same responses I've been having.
Ted Turner, whose sins in other venues will, I am certain, be mitigated by the good Lord for creating TCM alone, started this replay of old American movies some years ago. They run from silent movies from the 1920s and the advent of the talkies, to the frightening war films of the '40s, to the nuttier comedies and film noir of later years.
What is so valuable for viewers like me, who came to adulthood in the 1960s and '70s, is that they show us dramatically what we were watching in our growing-up and young-adult years; what the influences upon us were and the degree to which we rejected them; and how our lives today reflect the enormous changes in the world, from nuclear war to equality of men and women to the perverse attractions of gangland and Gangnam.
Watching the changes in the depiction of women in these films is what has particularly fascinated me -- to the degree to which I now find myself turning down attractive dates or evenings outside to immerse myself in this world of my youth.
Above all, I have found one element repeated in almost any serious (or even not so serious) film. The women are not stupid. They are not unkind or cruel people. They are very much the kind of people you would want to have next door. But they are virtually always unimaginative. Far from creating anything, they do everything in their power to keep their men from creating, too.
I am sure there are some old films in which the women push their men ahead, brave and true. But I have not seen them.
What I will go on the record as saying irrevocably is that the women in these films have left me very sad. I am tired of it. The only actress who seems always ready to go along, now that I think of it, is Lauren Bacall. If you think of "To Have and to Have Not," and you can remember her skipping along with Bogie out of the Caribbean bar, you realize what a great gal she really is. But, also, the degree to which she was leaning against the tides and times.
It seems to me, if I am not being unfair, that the producers and scriptwriters must have been reflecting a deep feeling of the times or, at least, THEIR feeling of the times -- that women's role was to hold their men back, period. And that the only thing that women wanted was to stop anything that was really fun.
There is another part of the TCM movies, however, that I can see with far greater sympathy. These are the short, newsy features, usually written by James A. Fitzpatrick and often called "News of the World," that were run in between feature films.
One superb one I saw was Fitzpatrick's filming of Soviet Russia. Even at that contradictory time he managed to be remarkably truthful about the barbarities of the "New Russia" and to film it honestly. When you compare this with the insanely brutalizing previews that come before our main features now, focusing on which killer film will come next, one can only wish we were back in 1936.
Today, of course, films and their stories are so very different. Now it is not the women who hold their men back from adventure, but the men who hold their women back. As women proclaim they can "do anything," the men too often look like sad sacks warmed over.
I have no idea, being in the newspaper business and not in the movie business, whether this is because there are more women in movie production and writing now. But I do know that, when I watch these otherwise precious old movies, I find myself feeling sorry for the men -- and that's a heck of a place to be for a woman!