Posted by Greg Ferrara on May 6, 2016
When we think of message movies, we tend to think of the Stanley Kramer variety where a serious social issue is dealt with heavy-handedly by an all-star cast letting us know it’s time for a lesson in civics that sorely needs to be learned. They aren’t all like that, of course. Sometimes the message is interwoven into a movie that deals with its characters and story first and puts the message in service of the plot and not the other way around. Crossfire, for instance, which airs today on TCM, is a thriller first, a message movie second. But what about all those movies that so subtly hide their message they’re not considered message movies at all? They still have lessons for us, if you know where to look.
The Wizard of Oz is a wonderful, enchanting movie that waits until its final moments to sell us its message: Stay at home, kid! You’ll be safer and besides, who wants to explore the world anyway?
Star Wars takes the opposite tack: Stay at home? What’re you, crazy? There’s nothing here for you anymore. Go! Explore! Find out who you really are. Maybe get a laser sword in the process. Just be careful who you kiss, okay?
Forbidden Planet has a pretty good lesson, actually. When you show up in an unfamiliar place and there’s some really awesome toys there, that doesn’t mean you should play with them. You just might create a situation you didn’t intend. Also, keep your id in check.
It’s a Wonderful Life: Whatever you do, for goodness sake, don’t entrust an entire Savings and Loan deposit to the flighty uncle who has a squirrel living in his office. Seriously, take it to the bank yourself.
The Godfather: Rule 1: Never go out to dinner with the son of the guy you just had shot. This seems so simple and yet…
The Godfather: Rule 2: Never take toll roads.
The Godfather, Part II: When you betray your brother and he assigns his lead bodyguard/assassin to go fishing with you, suddenly develop a fear of open water.
Chinatown: If there’s a part of town that has always caused you heartache and trouble, just forget about it.
Psycho: When you check into a motel and the owner/operator tells you no one ever stays there and has a weird dinner with you in a room filled with taxidermy where he talks a lot about his mom, tell him you just remembered you left your oven on and LEAVE IMMEDIATELY!
The Bridge on the River Kwai: No one ever appreciates the hard work you do. Ever. They’ll just blow it up in your face.
The Fountainhead: No one ever appreciates the hard work you do. Ever. Just blow it up in their faces.
Midnight Cowboy: That job you have flipping burgers in Texas? It’s pretty good, just stay there. (See The Wizard of Oz)
Citizen Kane: If given the task of researching the meaning of a famous person’s last word, and there’s no internet available, just make something up. Come on, nobody’s going to know. Just say it was a sled or something.
The Bride of Frankenstein: Before setting up a nihilist on a blind date, disable the castle self-destruct lever.
Jaws: When someone who has just seen what you’re up against tells you that you need a bigger boat, turn around and get a bigger boat. The shark’s not going anywhere.
Dracula: If you have a dinner guest who refuses wine by saying he never drinks it, demand he tell you specifically what he does drink. Also, serve a dish heavy in garlic. If he’s fine with it, invite him again. If he runs screaming from the dinner table, put wolf bane and crucifixes everywhere. Oh yeah, and make sure you have a nice big full length mirror in the foyer as your guests come in. Couldn’t hurt, right?
Raiders of the Lost Ark: First get the whip, THEN throw the idol. P.S. When you do throw the idol, throw it hard, right at that guy’s head.
Deliverance: You know what’s a better idea for a vacation than canoeing down an unfamiliar river in unfamiliar territory? Anything.
Ghostbusters: When someone asks you if you’re a god, you say YES!
Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid: The next time you say to a friend, “Let’s go someplace like Bolivia,” go someplace like Bolivia!
There are, of course, thousands of other lessons to be learned from the movies. Why, I could probably do a whole piece on lessons from The Godfather alone (another one: When Don Corleone offers to pay you to put his nephew in your movie, take him up on it before it becomes the kind of offer you can’t refuse!). Likewise there could just be a “lessons learned” section for rowboats in the movies alone. From Sunrise to A Place in the Sun and Monsieur Verdoux to the aforementioned Godfather, Part II, rowboats should be avoided at all costs, period. But I know from writing here is that you never need to include everything because the readership is so knowledgeable, they’ll contribute more than you ever could. Lesson learned.
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