Friday, April 11, 2008

Our House of Hope and Dreams: Revisited

Earlier this week a Hollywood legend passed away, and with him passed the legend of Hollywood, or at least a large part of it. John Charles Carter, better known as Charlton Heston died on April 5, 2008 at the age of 84. Although he was perhaps never considered the greatest actor in Hollywood, he was most certainly Hollywood's most formidable presence, and was at one time easily the most recognized American actor in the world. This recent loss got me thinking about Hollywood and the movies, our Hollywood and our movies, and how they -- and we -- have, for better or for worse, changed over the years.

As a kid growing up in America during the Second World War, long before the internet, well before the advent of television, our movies, and our beloved movie theaters, played an essential and integral part in our lives. It was where we went to be together as a people, as citizens, as Americans. Some people went to ball games, some people went to church, and some people went to the bars -- but everyone went to the movies. Going to the movies was an act of community participation -- especially during the War. A chance for us to all be together and to share our anxieties and our common hopes and dreams. Through our movies we got to see the world, and the world got to see us -- at least that hopeful vision of us that we all still believed in.

It is said that the story of a people is told through its myths. In today’s America, our myths are told through our movies. There are no more persuasive nor effective advocates in the Court of Public Opinion than our movies. Those movies that we’ve watched and loved and grown up with over the years have, I propose, played a significant and underrated role in the development of the conceptions we have ultimately formed of ourselves and our role in the world.

In 1942, it is estimated that 16,000 theaters entertained two-thirds of the American Public each week. Throughout the darkest days of that catastrophic war, America never lost its spirit and its hunger for fun and adventure, and we flocked to our wondrous Art Deco Orpheums and Bijous in record numbers. With gas rationed at five gallons a week there was nowhere else to go. Life on the American homefront during WWII was, what could best be described as, sparse. In addition to gas, in 1942, sugar and coffee began to be rationed, followed in 1943, by rationing of shoes, meat, cheese, fats and all canned foods. We, all of us, in one way or another felt that we were involved and committed to The Effort in ways which would seem utterly incomprehensible to most people today.

Today we are engaged in heated arguments about the rising costs of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. The historical reality of our situation seems curiously irrelevant to these arguments. The facts are just ignored to prove the point. Here, for example, are some interesting comparitive statistics concerning our exorbitant economic committment to our present day military:
Percent of GDP spent on Defense under President Clinton: 8%.
Percent of GDP spent on Defense under G. W. Bush: 3.3-4%.
Percent of GDP spent on Defense during WWII: 40%

During those years, we experienced daily discomforts that reminded us of the necessity of sacrifice. And some of us -- all too many of us -- experienced the personal tragedies of the loss of fathers and sons and brothers. Yet we persevered. Somehow we held it all together and we never gave up our hope or our dreams. There can be, I believe, no serious discussion of America or American culture without acknowledging this uniquely American trait—our deep, abiding and absolutely genuine sense of optimism. And nowhere was this unflagging sense of communal optimism more strongly experienced than in our magnificent movies.

Whole families got all dressed up to go to the local theater and sit through two feature films, three cartoons, a comedy serial, a travelogue, two or three previews, and a newsreel. Yet through all this the war was never far away, and certainly not forgotten. Before the show started, we all stood to attention with unabashed patriotism while they played the “Star Spangled Banner” to stirring scenes of our proud American flag unfurling in the breeze and endless squadrons of khaki-clad GIs marching in parade. During the intermissions we signed up for War Bonds and gave our precious coins to those hardworking Red Cross ladies. And sometimes, if we were lucky, there would be a sing-along.

How to explain a 1940s sign-along to a 21st century audience?

Picture this: The theater would darken and suddenly the words to some old familiar song would flash up on the screen. Then this big friendly voice would come booming out from somewhere, “Okay, now, everybody sing along with me!” And up there on the screen this little white ball would start bouncing up and down over the words as they were to be sung; and with an innocence and enthusiasm which in today’s cynical world is simply inconceivable, the whole damn theater would start to sing, “Row, row, row your boat gently down the stream...” Young lovers and old people holding hands, moms and dads and little freckle-faced kids, all together sitting in the darkness, swaying to the rhythm of the music, singing, “Merrily, merrily, merrily, merrily, life is but a dream...”

For some of course the dream had been a nightmare. The world had lost somewhere between 40 to 60 million people and countless millions more were left homeless or severely injured, or both. Half of the major cities in Europe and Japan lay in ruins. Fourteen million Americans had served their country in uniform (more than ten percent of a wartime population of 135 million). Over 400,000 Americans had given their lives (including a staggering 4,000 GIs killed in a single day—D-Day, June 6, 1944).

The Second World War had been a clash of titans, an epic battle between the colossal forces of Good and Evil, and we were the Good and the Good had prevailed. For a whole generation of American kids who had grown up earnestly following the adventures of Superman, Batman and Robin, and Captain Marvel as they fought the Germans and the Japs (and occasionally the Italians), never again in their lifetimes would their adversaries be so clearly defined or the issues involved so easily discernible.

Our great nation had been redefined by our victories, but we had been changed forever. Our defensive Post-World War One isolationist shell had been shattered. Our place in a fearsome new Nuclear Age was, to say the least, uncertain. There would of course be new enemies and new wars and new personal losses. But the world had become more complex, our enemies less easy to define. The battle lines have become more obscure and the issues murky. We no longer feel personally involved or committed, and, far from being drawn together, we feel that we are being torn further apart every day.

And of course our movies are different now too, and we experience them differently today. We watch more movies in our homes now than in our vast impersonal multiplexes. It is no longer a communal experience, it is a private affair. Imagine, if you can, being in a theater today and having the lights suddenly come down and this big booming voice suddenly coming out from somewhere in the darkness: "OK, now, everybody, sing along with me! " And then that little white ball starts bouncing over those words again... What in the world would we do?

Yes, there's no doubt about it, we and our wonderful movies have changed irrevocably. They'll never be the same. Our movies are more ubiquitous now but considerably less important. We don't need them anymore like we used to. Perhaps we don't need to come together like we used to. Yet, somehow I believe, despite all of these drastic changes, despite all these cultural losses, we still haven't lost our hopes and our dreams and, most importantly, our optimism.

Interestingly, according to author Claire Berlinski in her book Menace in Europe, this uniquely American trait still abides. She points out that according to a recent poll only 17 percent of Europeans feel “hopeful” about their future -- whereas between 60 and 70 percent of Americans feel “hopeful” about their future. And someday, God willing, we will all come together again as we did back then in our Houses of Hopes and Dreams.

So, goodbye, Charleton Heston. Thank you for all you have given us. You have become a part of our American story now, and we will miss you. And, have no doubt, sir, we will persevere.


  1. And they were air conditioned, so my older cousins told me. So in the summer you can sit and relax comfortably.

    And remember the Saturday matinée for kids. 2 Feature films, a serial, a couple of cartoons, previews, a newsreel all for a nickel. Then a pop (in a bottle and you got your deposit back) and popcorn for a few cents more. Plus you could buy a War Stamp for a penny or two.

    Not a bad way to spend a hot summer day.

  2. Roger thanks for the kind words about Charlton Heston. The bad guys didn't waste any time putting him down, so it's great to see the good guys doing the right thing!


  3. great post Roger..may he rest in well deserved peace.!

  4. Another good post, Roger. I think we are losing a special kind of entertainer and they are not being followed by the same quality. Heston was a very special man, gifted, loyal husband, father, served his country in the military, unassuming, Conservative, ..... And boy could he act.

    Debbie Hamilton
    Right Truth