‘Don’t know much about history …’

Joan Bennett and Edward G. Robinson.

Joan Bennett and Edward G. Robinson.

My apologies to Same Cooke for borrowing a line from “Wonderful World” for the title of this.

Don’t take this post too much to heart; it’s a musing, a passing thought, not a lecture. But, do feel free to chime in with ideas.

My youngest saw Edward G. Robinson and Joan Bennett and said, “He’s so handsome; she’s so beautiful,” and I realized he was talking about their clothes. To him, they’re “really dressed up,” but people wore suits and dresses all the time in the 1940s, not just for special occasions. My son is 6, but he’s not alone in his reading of the movies from the 1940s. Costuming sometimes throws my college students for a loop because many of them assume characters in the older movies are supposed to be very wealthy or high-class because of their clothing.

While I understand that keeping up with things like fashion and furniture trends of the 20th century might be asking a bit much of the students, it is disconcerting to have people misunderstand a movie because they don’t have much familiarity with historical events. For example, many students assumed that “the Great War” mentioned in Hugo was a reference to the French Revolution instead of World War I—I can possibly understand mixing up the two World Wars, but the French Revolution isn’t even in the same century in which the film was set. In other years, I’ve had students who wrote exam answers that described the “thriving movie industry during the Civil War’—problematic since the American Civil War ended in 1865 and the some of the first movie cameras didn’t appear for almost another twenty years; a “thriving” film industry wasn’t around until the early 20th century.

If  these kinds of misunderstandings happened with only one or two students each semester, I would figure I was witnessing individual cases of people who didn’t like their history classes and did better in other subjects. But, because there are so many students lacking knowledge of history each semester, it makes me worry about what else they’re not able to put into context. To not really understand the Civil Rights Movement may leave them without an understanding of the deep social changes it brought, nor of the continuing struggle of different groups to find equality in America.

Kindergartners like my son can’t be expected to put many things into a historical context, but at what point should we have an awareness of what happened in the past or what our society was like a generation or two before our own time?

On a lighter note, I wonder what people in the future will assume about contemporary movies based on the clothing?

Seth Rogen and Katherine Heigl.

Seth Rogen and Katherine Heigl.


5 comments on “‘Don’t know much about history …’

  1. Jamie says:

    Love scenes from 40s era movies where men are in the bleachers of baseball games in suits and hats…. Or any movie where little girls went to school in frilly dresses …talk about cultural disconnect.

    • thefilmprof says:

      It’s funny to see those scenes for sure*. In My Man Godfrey, all the homeless men at the dump dress better than most executives today.

      *”for sure” how’s that for a Southernism?

  2. very interesting. somewhat disturbing. To pick up a little point that you make about how people used to dress, people used to dress better (or at least with a certain panache); I touched on this in an essay about how you see less people smoking in films, even in “period” films, which is a form of historical revisionism, and which is here if you like: http://ragingfluff.wordpress.com/2013/09/09/smoke-doesnt-get-in-your-eyes-movies-and-smoking/

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