Is Turner Classic Movies a repository for socialist thought?

Victoria Ward
Victoria Ward

I spend some of my time in the past. Although I have Netflix and my share of current movie channels to choose from, I find that I am usually more interested in what is on Turner Classic Movies (TCM). Old black and white films from Hollywood and beyond interest me not because I think they are better than current films or because I like old things, but because the era I love, 20s silent and early 30s films have at their core certain values I can relate too. While these films can seem to be embarrassingly racist and sexist at the surface, in many instances there is a strong progressive undertow percolating under the black and whiteness.

I find a tone and suggestion from this era that is socialist, pro-labour, pro-innovation and creativity and for the most part these films illuminate class struggle which is front and centre in most plots. An odd Hedy Lamarr, Clark Gable, Spencer Tracy film about oil exploration and production has at its climax a speech declaring oil to be man’s savior from poverty however only with proper regard for the environment and that it is a finite resource and should be treated as such. Within the film there is also a discussion about how getting wealthy for the sake of getting wealthy leads to nihilism.

The world is full of colour, never reflected in these films however their balance of pro and anti capitalist stance makes them a historic curiousity.
The world is full of colour yet it’s never reflected in these films. But their balance of both a pro and anti capitalist stance makes them a historic curiousity. Are they still relevant?

These films were not really written by screen writers. It was a new profession, and not a respected one. Writers from New York (many of them card carrying communists) and other intellectual havens went to Hollywood to make money. They did however have to spend time on these scripts and so a lot of their thinking ends up in these movies. Today, it’s a profession that attracts not so much writers as hopeful, wonderstruck people who want to be close to the flame that is celebrity. A recent blog by the glorious RM Vaughan in Momus about Jurassic World wonders aloud about the strong anti-art messaging and conservative tone of the movie. But it also warns about how ignoring the leviathan that is pop culture puts artists at peril without any understanding of the audiences that are now trained by such blockbuster events. Many mainstream movies today extol the virtues of brutality, the military, money, celebrity and anything else that keeps capitalism humming away. The creativity that goes into them is mind boggling, over 1000 animators for most of the mega action films. I agree with Vaughan that there is an artistry there that we shouldn’t ignore lest we forget what the “people” actually go and see.

But back in the early days of film as a commercial entity, there wasn’t a global market and films were still finding their audiences. For the most part people just loved the idea of going to the movies and cared less about what they were watching. My mother used to tell me how this aspect of film is what made it so special; it was cheaper than a theatre show and it was more anonymous. It was a private and public experience. Today you can watch an old TCM film on your phone on the bus so in many ways it is still private and public. The difference is that the propaganda on display then extolled the virtues of community building, modesty and love – of course racism, homophobia (there are also examples of lots and lots of homo eroticism in old films, beautifully suggested), blind patriotism and other heinous ideas were in abundance too but the adoration of wealth was balanced with the want of equality. It was fine to become rich but you were evil unless you were kind to the poor and there are more films made that obliquely reference Roosevelt’s New Deal than you can shake a stick at. Government funding for this new art form was of course one reason for this.

I would go so far as to say that the densest amount of progressive thinking in the media today isn’t a news channel or a blog but TCM.

If you are Chinese or Aboriginal person then old Hollywood presents a threshold of ideas that you will have a hard time crossing since the casting was done with no cultural sensitivity at all. However if you are a woman you might be surprised at how equally liberated Jean Harlow is as Scarlett Johansson. As propaganda these films sit firmly left of center with thousands of examples of how capitalism has glaring weaknesses. It’s no wonder there was a black list and back lash against liberal(communist) thinking; generations were indoctrinated on progressive ideas in bold (yes, I see the irony) black and white.

Image from the film Boomtown! Google images

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2 thoughts on “Is Turner Classic Movies a repository for socialist thought?”

  1. Funny, several times a year I go visit my Mom and we watch TCM together. Otherwise I don’t own a TV and there’s nothing on cable but TCM that I have the patience to watch. And you’re right, those movies from the 30’s, 40’s. and early 50’s are remarkably scripted. “On The Waterfront” is a prime example. But then something changed radically in Hollywood (and probably everywhere. As films reflect predominant attitudes) in the late 50’s early 60’s. I was with my Mom just three days ago watching TCM and was struck by the shift from black and white movies about working men and women, to suddenly to a massive color film of pure eminent domain propaganda in the early 60’s – “How The West Was Won”.

    1. Exactly. You can see the shift right around the time of the black list. I tend to also think the early movie days were driven by more creative aspirations as no one really knew what the behemoth they would become. But this might be debatable.

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