What to Stream: Twelve Classic Movies to Watch with Your Kids – The New Yorker


Charlie Chaplin in an iconic scene from 1936’s “Modern Times.”Photograph by Bettmann / Getty

When my children—now in their twenties—were little, streaming wasn’t yet a thing. Home-movie viewing then was a collective activity involving videotapes and eventually DVDs, and my wife and I had a policy for it that we called “one of yours, one of mine.” Starting in the mid-nineties, when our older daughter was in preschool, we figured that she should watch what she wanted (often Disney movies that her friends were watching, too) as well as the kinds of things that we, my wife and I, considered our kind of fun. The reason for this was simple: we wanted our children to experience movies outside of the monoculture of mainstream popularity, and it mattered greatly, I think, that we were doing it together, as a family. It worked—back then, we had a good time together, and now our daughters, as adults, enjoy a wide range of movies.

Every family is different, and every child is different. Parents will have varying ideas about what’s appropriate for their children—whether profanity, violence, sexuality, or stereotypes—and children will differ regarding what sights or subjects frighten or trouble them. My wife and I took a relatively permissive view of such matters, hedged by the fact that we favored classic movies: until the late nineteen-sixties, the Hays Code prevailed in the United States, placing narrow limits on the kinds of behavior that movies could show. Yet in classic Hollywood, demeaning stereotypes abounded. When watching films from that era with our daughters we made a point of explaining and criticizing what we saw onscreen; we made frequent use of the Pause button, and viewings often stretched to two evenings.

Below are a handful of our family’s favorites. I’m not including the new releases my daughters enjoyed when we went to the theatres—“Down with Love,” “School of Rock,” “Napoleon Dynamite,” “Norbit”—though I’d recommend those as well, with the caveat that they, too, warrant careful explanations. As Fredric March says in one of our favorites, “The Best Years of Our Lives,” “We have a rather unusual relationship in our family. It may seem corny and mid-Victorian, but we tell each other things.”

“Modern Times”: Comedy starts with Charlie Chaplin, and so did we. Silence was no object—we all watched in rapt delight the famous set pieces of the feeding machine and the trip through the gears. We talked with our daughters about strikes and their breakers, about the desperate poverty of the Depression years—and were treated, in turn, to at-home performances of the nonsense song that concludes the movie and heralds Chaplin’s entry into the realm of talking pictures. Our next Chaplin viewing was the last movie in which he starred, “A King in New York,” which is even more politically confrontational, dealing, as it does, with McCarthy-era persecution critically, albeit outrageously comedically, and linking it to American money-madness and related indignities (including a primal version of reality TV). (Streaming options.)

“Monkey Business”: Modern comedy starts not with Chaplin but with Howard Hawks, and this 1952 film, starring Cary Grant as a chemist whose concoction, an elixir of youth, gets slipped into his laboratory’s water supply and propels him and his wife (Ginger Rogers) to riotous regressions. Hawks is a director of both antic ingenuity and philosophical power. His idea of rejuvenation is no mere return to frivolity; rather, his protagonists shed the inhibitions and repressions of adulthood and give free rein to lust and rage—albeit in the mild forms that were possible in Hollywood at the time. Marilyn Monroe has a small role in the film, and our family watched her again in another Hawks film, “Gentlemen Prefer Blondes,” the effervescently libidinous musical in which she co-stars with Jane Russell. (Streaming options.)

“Some Like It Hot”: Speaking of Monroe, Billy Wilder’s Prohibition-era gangster comedy, in which she stars as a member of the all-women’s jazz band that Jack Lemmon and Tony Curtis join, in drag, as male musicians fleeing Mafia hit men, was a multilayered delight: along with the enticing complexities of the gender-role switch, and the background stories of the Roaring Twenties, there was Tony Curtis’s impersonation of Cary Grant, whom my daughters knew from “Monkey Business.” (Streaming options.)

“Singin’ in the Rain”: I’m told it’s now a staple of family home viewing, but I’ll recommend it anyway for those who haven’t yet given it a try. Its pleasures include the combined antics of Gene Kelly, Debbie Reynolds, and Donald O’Connor, the deft comedy and catchy songs and heroic dancing, and even the fascinating (if revisionist) view of the transition from silent movies to talking pictures. But all were eclipsed by Jean Hagen’s raucous performance as the arrogant yet hapless silent star Lina Lamont, whose ego-mad aggression—and helium-balloon voice—our daughters imitated with glee. (Streaming options.)

“Goodbye Charlie”: Speaking of Debbie Reynolds, gender-switching, and funny voices, Vincente Minnelli’s brassy yet deeply empathetic 1964 comedy has it all. It’s the tale of a Hollywood philanderer who is killed by his lover’s husband, a Hungarian producer (Walter Matthau) and comes back as a woman—in the form of Debbie Reynolds. She tries to persuade the dead man’s best friend (Tony Curtis) that she is him; then, she learns what it’s like to be a woman in the Hollywood wolf pack when the unctuous producer tries to put the move on her, and does so with an outrageous accent that engendered plenty of mimicry here at home. (Streaming options.)

“The Pajama Game”: The story, of the romance between a pajama-factory union organizer (Doris Day) and the new manager (John Raitt), who’s her bargaining-table opponent, is unusual; the songs, by Richard Adler and Jerry Ross, are uniformly memorable (we all sing some of them to this day, including “Seven and a Half Cents”); the musical stagings range from piquant (Raitt’s duet with his own voice on Dictaphone) and explosive (the most athletic love duet in Hollywood history, “There Once Was a Man”) to comedically haunting (the most famous number of all, “Hernando’s Hideaway”). It also features one of the most idiosyncratic and original musical performances ever, by the short-lived Carol Haney. (Streaming options.)

Carmen Miranda in the film The Gang's All Here
Carmen Miranda in Busby Berkeley’s “The Gang’s All Here,” from 1943.Photograph from 20th Century Fox / Everett

“The Gang’s All Here”: Busby Berkeley’s bravura reached unmatched heights in this giddy wartime Technicolor extravaganza, which is famous for its giant bananas but is even more thrillingly original in other musical sequences, including its very first scene, which goes from complete darkness to a closeup of Carmen Miranda to a ship at a New York pier to the inside of the night club where the number is ostensibly being staged. It concludes with a special-effects routine that appears to dissolve the actors’ personalities into sociobiological abstractions. What’s more, Benny Goodman and his band are in it, and Berkeley films their performances swoopingly. To this day, my daughters remember and sing his song “Paducah”: “If you want to, you can rhyme it with ‘bazooka.’ ” (Streaming options.)

“Playtime”: Jacques Tati’s colossal comedy of infinitesimal misadventures was filmed in a skyscraper city that he actually constructed on the outskirts of Paris. He plays his familiar character Monsieur Hulot, an everyman of traditional habits and tastes who’s caught in the physical and psychological labyrinths of technological modernity. It’s a choreographic delight and a delicately frustrated romance that also features the frantic comedy of retail absurdities. One particular sequence in particular, involving a little song hummed through the nose of a derisive passerby observing a grandiose construction project, unfailingly delighted our daughters. (Streaming options.)

“Dragonwyck”: An ingenious form of the Gothic, set in upstate New York in the eighteen-forties, starring Gene Tierney as a farmer’s daughter who is lured to the grand estate of her distant cousing (Vincent Price) and gets caught up in a dual plot of murder and political chicanery (in which President Martin Van Buren figures prominently). It’s the erudite Joseph L. Mankiewicz’s first feature, and it resembles a blend of Tocqueville and Poe. Our children had a precocious taste for the macabre, sparked first by over-my-shoulder glances, on the TV, of films by Fritz Lang (such as “While the City Sleeps”) and Alfred Hitchcock, and they were drawn in by the tale of innocence threatened and family curses revealed. (Streaming options.)

“Marnie”: This apogee of Alfred Hitchcock’s filmmaking, with its supreme control of form and depths of psychological torment, starring Tippi Hedren as a kleptomaniac, is absolutely inappropriate for children. But our daughters loved it, and to this day cite a line from it (“Marnie, you’re aching my leg”) as a family catchphrase. Other Hitchcocks they enjoyed included “Rear Window,” “Rebecca,” and “The Man Who Knew Too Much” (the 1956 remake, starring Doris Day and James Stewart, with its concluding rendition of “Que Sera, Sera”). When my older daughter was eleven, I took her and a friend to the Museum of the Moving Image to see “Psycho”; her friend, who loved it as much as my daughter did, said that it was the first black-and-white film she’d ever seen. (Streaming options.)

“The Chaser”: The silent-comedy star Harry Langdon is a favorite of mine, for his blend of mild-mannered passive aggression and self-mocking mannerisms. He’s also a boldly original director of himself, albeit only in a few features, notably “The Chaser”—another gender-switch comedy, in which a judge sentences a misbehaving husband (Langdon) to switch places with his wife for a month—and “Three’s a Crowd.” He was also in dozens of short films, starting with “Picking Peaches,” from 1924—and talking pictures through the end of his life, in 1944, where he often spoke in a kind of confounding distracted patter. With his shy and flickering whimsy, he was a favorite with our children. (Streaming options.)

“The Last Laugh”: One fond reminiscence, of a Fourth of July when, en route to a gathering with friends, I took our daughters to a MOMA screening of F. W. Murnau’s silent 1924 classic about a proud but aging Berlin hotel doorman who is demoted to bathroom attendant and can’t bear the humiliation. (It’s also an extraordinarily intricate spectacle of teeming urban life.) They ran gleefully ahead of me down the aisle to the second row, sat in rapt fascination throughout, and delighted in the experience of a pianist’s live accompaniment. The smile on the musician’s face when the lights came up and he saw two children applauding him amid the sparse audience of adults was almost better than the movie itself. (Streaming options.)

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