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

Pilot Programs

In each case study we will see how Authenticity, Solidarity and Universality are evident in the responses of the students, whether they are fatherless young men incarcerated in a high security detention home, 6th graders or high schoolers in a structured classroom environment, or college students in a social learning setting.

1. It’s a Wonderful Life and High Noon in a high security detention home in Danville, Virginia

Classic movie storytelling takes us to the universal questions of human nature every time. We encountered this universality at a high security detention home in Danville, Virginia. We were in the middle of a project in the local public schools when Jane Clardy, who taught at the detention home nearby, agreed to pilot It’s a Wonderful Life and High Noon with her students. Jane had given up a stable position in the Danville public schools to answer the call to serve at the detention home. I have told this story so many times because it was the foundation of our efforts for over two decades. It proves our case that learning about life through classic movie storytelling can be a life-changing experience.

It was Christmas time, and as Jane reported later, she saw how lonely and depressed her students were and decided on the spot that this was the moment for screening It’s a Wonderful Life. At first they hated the film and threatened to rip the VHS tape right out of the machine. The film was in black and white and naturally these incarcerated fatherless young men knew nothing about the film’s historic and cultural significance. Jane begged them to give the film a chance and they agreed The turning point was the scene when Jimmy Stewart jumps into the water to save Clarence. These young men told Jane at the film’s conclusion that it was one of the best movies they had ever seen. Jane followed up with a showing of High Noon. Gary Cooper’s performance as Marshall Will Kane had earned him the Oscar for Best Actor of 1952 and film fans know it is one of the best performances of any actor in any film. The mysterious blending of the personal, the psychological and the existential questions of the meaning of life – all of these factors are in play all at once. Some of these new classic film fans turned film critic as Jane Clardy reported to us. There were comments about how the clocks grow bigger and bigger as the suspenseful narrative unfolds. Director Fred Zinnemann and screenwriter Carl Foreman would be edified to learn how their artistic effort succeeded with a group of depressed and dispirited young men in a high security detention home.

2. Students in a Northern Virginia public high school experience solidarity

Some years ago, under our grant from HHS, EGI was blessed to implement Project Heart to Heart at Westfield High School in Chantilly Virginia. We had projects elsewhere in Northern Virginia and in Maryland, but due to one person, the late Mike Greiner we had this unusual opportunity to experience a genuine presence at Westfield for two years. Mike, a popular English teacher and debate coach at Westfield, gained the approval of the school’s administration to conduct two seasons of a film study as an after school social event. In the second season we had gained sufficient credibility to get permission to offer the class in the regular school day; we showed No Way Out, Sidney Poiter’s very first film, during Black History Month!!!

What were the lessons gained from this experience of teaching classic film with high school students at Westfield? For a big part of the answer we can take a look at this great quote from G K Chesterton: “We are all in the same boat in a stormy sea, and we owe each other a terrible loyalty.” This quote reminds us that we are social beings and not autonomous selves – we gain fulfillment with others in family, community and society. But what can happen when the sense of community is not as strong? What happens if we are all locked into tribal identity and lose sight of our common humanity? Viewing and discussing classic movies in a social setting is one of the best ways to focus on what unites us and not how we are different from one another. As we found in many cases, the choice for the right film for the right educational setting is crucial. We were fortunate to have terrific films that grabbed the attention of the students and helped them to probe for deeper understanding of our shared human condition. The films that worked so well at Westfield in our project were Johnny Belinda from Warner Bros. in 1948 and No Way Out from 20th Century Fox in 1950.

In Johnny Belinda, Jane Wyman plays Belinda MacDonald, a deaf-mute young woman who is marginalized by the harsh tribalism of residents in a Canadian fishing village. The importance of the story’s setting is well known in the classic study of literature and drama. It is the setting that establishes the mood for the audience. A lonely Canadian fishing village was the perfect setting for our first film study event at Westfield. One young woman offered an insight into a major difference between the classic films she and her fellow students were discovering and the contemporary films they were used to. She said that in classic film storytelling, “we just walk alongside of the characters.” She commented on how enjoyable it was to just “discover life” in a natural way with the characters in the story.

Jonathan Haidt’s research shows the emotion of Elevation is elicited by witnessing virtuous acts of remarkable moral goodness. As explained in Wikipedia according to Haidt, the emotion of Elevation “is experienced as a distinct feeling of warmth and expansion that is accompanied by appreciation and affection for the individual whose exceptional conduct is being observed. Elevation motivates those who experience it to open up to, affiliate with and assist others. Elevation makes an individual feel lifted up and optimistic about humanity.” Haidt explains that Elevation “is caused by witnessing virtuous acts or feats of moral beauty.” Consider the beauty that the students at Westfield encountered when they witness a deaf-mute young woman learning to communicate and to love.

3. It’s a Wonderful Life in a 6th grade Catholic school.

In January of 2020 a pilot for 6th graders of It’s A Wonderful Life was conducted in two segments of an extended three hour class at Our Lady of Grace School in the Diocese of Oakland. Teachers Shyra Dawson and Sherry Eastwood-Falls reported later that while most of the students did not make comments, those who did evidenced a sense of grappling with the meaning and purpose of life.

4. 12 Angry Men, Mr. Smith Goes to Washington and A Raisin in the Sun in a multi-generational Zoom class

With the onset of the pandemic, my friend Bill Genereaux who teaches computer science , came up with the idea of sharing three classic films with friends and family members on Zoom. A highlight of the session on 12 Angry Men was the discussion of how classic movies help us to rediscover common truths now obscured by political division.

5. 12 Angry Men at All Youth Night and with Robert Osborne on Turner Classic Movies

Several years ago we had the opportunity to screen 12 Angry Men with a group of middle and high schoolers. At this youth event there was an amazing confirmation of the findings of Jonathan Haidt in his study of the emotion of Elevation. As Haidt points out, the emotional state of Elevation is in the same psychological mode as the emotions of Awe and Wonder. When we are experiencing a great classic film, this cluster of emotions is present for most of us. We become participants in the drama and not merely passive observers being entertained. At the conclusion of the movie, during the break and prior to the discussion period, none of the students turned to their cell phones. I was so encouraged to observe this given the enormous pull that cell phones have on young people.

A few years later, imagine my wonder and delight to be chosen as one of twenty film fans to introduce 12 Angry Men with Robert Osborne during Turner Classic Movies’ 20th Anniversary celebration.

6. A group of young men in a Houston alternative school classroom view Roman Holiday

We live in a time when people are suffering from hidden emotional pain and many situations can unexpectedly trigger these wounds. The social and moral norms that once culturally united us together have been disappearing from communities, civil society and film for the past fifty years. With films like Roman Holiday, these young men in a Houston alternative school classroom got a chance several years ago to put the fragmented puzzle pieces of love and life together. In the discussion that followed the film, a 16-year-old boy reflected on the new knowledge he had acquired as follows:

This program has changed the way I feel about girls. I now have respect for them. I learned also what it means to be a real man from watching Joe Bradley and how I should act in any situation.

7. Truth, Beauty and Goodness in Classic Films – a two semester course for high schoolers at Holy Trinity parish in the Diocese of Arlington

Father Richard Carr’s film study class was already into the second semester when I had a chance to observe and record the class discussions. Father Carr had developed a format for the class, based on my study guides, that had the students watching the film on their own, in the first week discussing the film, and in the second week presenting their papers. Father Carr used the Socratic method which had the effect of letting the movie itself weigh in on the minds and hearts of the students. The students had already experienced It’s a Wonderful Life, Mr. Smith Goes to Washington, Rebecca, Shadow of a Doubt, Shane, Key Largo, 12 Angry Men and Key Largo, among others before I joined them. I was blessed to be with the students and Father Carr for two great movie events: Carbine Williams, a biopic starring Jimmy Stewart as a convict and The Best Years of Our Lives, William Wyler’s Oscar winning film of 1946.

The class was held on Zoom once the pandemic hit. The movies on Zoom included The Snake Pit, All About Eve and A Night to Remember. Because the educational outcomes from the course are so fundamental, I will be devoting a future blog focused on the course alone. In observing the classes both in the classroom and on Zoom a very significant outcome was noted. As the classes went on, particularly in the second semester, students not only focused on their own discussion points and presentations, but the spirit of friendship seemed to deepen among the students. What a different story from the self-pitying, anxious and fragile students described in The Coddling of the American Mind!

8. Students explore life’s purpose and meaning at campus ministry events

Several years ago, we had the opportunity to introduce three great classic films at the St. John Bosco Catholic student center at the University of Mary Washington in Fredericksburg, VA. Fr. Fred Edlefson as chaplain at the time, led the discussions for On the Waterfront, Brief Encounter and Roman Holiday. On the Waterfront, as all classic film fans know, is one of the most morally and emotionally powerful films ever made. The weight of the film itself reveals what conscience really means and what it means to confronts moral truth. With Fr. Edlefson’s help in understanding the true meaning of conscience, students readily grasped what philosophers embracing postmodernism rarely discuss.

9. Women of classic Hollywood in focus: Kitty Foyle, The Snake Pit, & The Country Girl

Ginger Rogers, Olivia de Havilland, Grace Kelly and other great actresses of the Golden Age dramatize women who realize their identity and grow in integrity through the course of the film stories. The pressures on young people today to be successful and self-sufficient are well known. These stories about women and the challenges they face can give a whole new perspective that helps young women understand themselves as whole persons. Our pilots with these three films at a women’s college dorm proved that classic movie storytelling can inspire, elevate and inform young women in our postmodern world today.

10. Fathers and sons explore stories about men as acting persons in Shane and The Hasty Heart

One of our very best pilots was a double feature of Shane and The Hasty Heart that my late beloved husband Bill and I conducted in our home some years ago. We wanted to see if deep conversations could really take place if young men and their dads could just relax with classic movies and yet discover deeper truths about our human condition at the same time. The biggest challenge is to select films that have a deeper narrative and are not just entertaining adventure films. The Hasty Heart, one of the finest films ever made by former President Ronald Reagan, was just right for an evening of conversation “for men only.” The film setting is right at the close of World War II in a army hospital in Burma. Based on a true story, a fatally injured soldier finds life in the bonds of true friendship.