Teaching Truth, Goodness and Beauty Through Classic Movies to the Rising Generation

Note: This review originally appeared on Catholic Exchange on July 25th, 2018

From On-Screen Characters to Real-Life Character

By Dr. Kevin Vost


“Do not place value on who says what, but rather, commit to your memory what true things are said.”
-St. Thomas Aquinas – Letter on Study to Brother John

“Spiritual impressions easily slip from the mind, unless they be tied as it were to some corporeal image, because human knowledge has a greater hold on sensible objects.”
-St. Thomas Aquinas, Summa Theologica, II-II, Q. 49, a. 1.

On the Power of Captivating Images in Character Formation

Conflict and distress rise in our nation and our world as rates of senseless, random violence, divorce, depression, loneliness, and suicide climb, while religious and political viewpoints become increasingly polarized and openly antagonistic.  What the world needs now, perhaps like never before, is to re-embrace those fundamental truths and principles of the natural laws grafted into the hearts and minds of every human being, things like respect for truth itself, the acknowledgement of the strengths and limitations of our common human nature, respect for each other’s human dignity, the desire and ongoing efforts to sustain intense and meaningful friendships, marriages, and commitment to our families and our communities so that all might flourish. In a word, we need to strive to become and to nurture the younger generations toward becoming people not of pleasure, of desire for selfish gain, or envy at others’ successes, but happy helpful men and women of good, solid character.

Such principles are so important, but rather abstract, and for many today, perhaps boring as well.  So how can we inspire ourselves and others to seek to build characters upon the foundation of goodness and virtue?  I believe that St. Thomas Aquinas, in our citations above, gives us important clues, and Onalee McGraw, through her works on the great classic movies at the Educational Guidance Institute (EGI), has taken them, run with them, and solved a key part of that riddle.

We should recognize and remember truths, regardless of who speaks them. Even the most flawed among us will sometimes get some important thing just right, especially when they have learned the hard lessons of their follies.  Further, it is easier to remember physical things we have actually seen with our eyes and heard with our ears than things couched in abstractions like those of dry academic texts.  Our minds are simply made to operate that way. Information first comes into us through our senses, and indeed, the more unusual, beautiful, or emotionally moving is some incident, the greater the likelihood that we will remember it. After all, we face again day after day the routine run-of-the mill scenes that fly in one ear (or eye for that matter) and then fly out the other.

I believe that Onalee McGraw has latched on to both of these principles (the importance of truth regardless of its source and the power of physical images) to help us  remember and be moved and shaped by the kinds of lessons that matter the most, through the medium of classic movies of Hollywood’s “Golden Age.” This was a time when movies were intended not only to entertain us, which they did so exceeding well, but also to stir our hearts and minds to elevate our characters, motivating us to strive to overcome obstacles and seek what is most meaningful in life, fulfilling our potentials and nourishing our relationships like the heroes and heroines of those films.

Indeed, among EGI handouts is a copy of the actual Motion Picture Code ratified by the Board of Directors of Motion Picture Producers and Distributors of America, Inc., on March 31, 1930.  The code was developed by a Catholic priest, Father Daniel Lord, S. J.  Along with its underlying principles of the power of film as entertainment and artistic expression were specific guidelines that no motion picture should be made that would lower the standards of those who see it, glorify crime, wrongdoing, evil, or sin, or ridicule natural or human law. As a look at so many modern movies makes clear, these standards are no longer adhered to, and neither do we remain in a “golden age” of film.  Thankfully, though, Onalee has created a most delightful way for us in our day to become immersed in the most uplifting lessons of those golden movies while thoroughly enjoying the ride.

On Sharing the Truth, Beauty, and Goodness of the Golden Classic Movies

To get down to the specifics, Onalee McGraw’s EGI has created a wealth of exceptionally high quality study guides for a host of individual classic movies, for a few examples, A Raisin in the Sun, It’s a Wonderful Life, Mr. Smith Goes to Washington, On the Waterfront, The Snake Pit, and many more, in addition to heftier guides that address key themes expressed in multiple movies like the “Liberty and Justice for All” study guide that examines the things that matter most in a free society through looks at seven different films including Key Largo and The Big Country. Other combined guides include “The Feminine Soul” that examines healthy femininity through seven movies including The Country Girl and Roman Holiday. The nature of true manliness comes to the fore in the seven movies of the “Men of the West” study guide, featuring films as magnificent as The Magnificent Seven and as powerful and moving as Shane. Along with great, ennobling themes, fans who are old enough will revel in the performances of movie greats including Jimmy Stewart, Sidney Poitier, Alan Ladd, Olivia de Havilland, Grace Kelly, Audrey Hepburn and so many others.  Fans young enough will be introduced to a whole new (to them) bevy of classic stars who brought to life heroes and heroines like none before or after them.

All kinds of important human themes are addressed in these beautifully illustrated guides, complete with dozens of screenshot photos. These themes include virtues like justice, mercy, courage, self-restraint, wisdom, love; healthy masculinity and femininity; loving male-female romantic relationships; the possibility of moral growth and redemption; the nature and requirement of true friendship, the value of family, citizenship, and so much more.  Further, the guides function as step-by-step tutorials, providing a teacher or group leader with specific themes, study questions, and access to handouts.  They even provide the timelines in the movies where crucial scenes occur and suggestions as to at what points a film might be paused for group reflection and discussion. They include internet download options for a variety of supplemental materials. In a word, these guides are complete package that could prove invaluable to leaders of youth groups, other parish groups, prison ministries, Catholic school teachers, homeschoolers, and to individual movie lovers too.

EGI’s classic movie study guides are a wonderful resource for Catholics to use to engage young people in the universal themes of natural law we know are derived from divine eternal law, and of the human dignity we know that comes as a gift from God, Who made us in his image and likeness.  Because of their grounding in common human nature, the study guides to these films should appeal to all manner of non-Catholics as well.  Because of the drama and action in these films, they may also capture the attention of many young people for whom reading is a closed book.

And finally, to draw the curtain to a close on a personal note, my wife Kathy and I have long been fans of these classic films and these study guides give them new life and depth of meaning for us. We love to read through a guide and then watch again the movie it addresses, as new levels of truth, beauty, and goodness unfold before us.  So, why not grab a classic movie, its corresponding EGI study guide, a nice bowl of popcorn, get down business, enjoy the show, and then share that joy with others?

Dr. Kevin Vost, Psy D. is the author of Memorize the FaithThe Seven Deadly SinsThe One Minute Aquinasas well as numerous other books and articles. He has taught psychology at the University of Illinois at Springfield, Lincoln Land Community College, and MacMurray College. He is a Research Review Committee Member for American Mensa, which promotes the scientific study of human intelligence. You can find him at drvost.com.