It only takes one movie to change a person's life.
In 1946, Catherine Scorsese took her 4-year-old son, Martin, to see the lavish Technicolor epic Duel in the Sun. Though the saucy Western melodrama, nicknamed "Lust in the Dust," might seem like an odd choice of cinematic fare for a child, it was a transformative experience for the asthmatic boy from New York City's Little Italy.
It was "a flawed film," the Oscar-winning director and film-history buff recalls in his 1995 documentary, A Personal Journey with Martin Scorsese Through American Movies, "but nevertheless, the hallucinatory quality of the imagery has never weakened for me over the years."
My earliest theatrical movie experience was not nearly as momentous as Scorsese's. When I was 6, my parents took me to see Benji the Hunted (1987). It's ostensibly a children's movie, about a domesticated dog forced to fend for itself in the wilderness against a variety of predators. I made it about half an hour before I fled to the lobby, sobbing. I still don't know how the film ended.
My eureka moment came at age 13, when I rented the 1961 pool-hall drama The Hustler from my local video store. I chose it simply because I liked shooting pool and thought it would contain some interesting billiards footage. I was wholly unprepared for a brilliantly shot and acted morality play, featuring Paul Newman in the performance of a lifetime as pool shark "Fast Eddie" Felson.
From that moment on, I was hooked on motion pictures. I watched as many classic movies as I could find at video stores and libraries. At times, I saw as many as five films in a single day. Besides the fact that many of the greatest movies of all time were made during the 1950s or earlier, classic films were a portal for me into the way things were when my parents and grandparents were growing up. Perhaps more than any other art form, cinema serves as a visual time capsule of societal trends and the cultural mores of past eras.
Want to introduce your kids to the magic of classic movies? Start with the following list. Whenever possible, I've chosen films with characters roughly the same age as the intended viewer. Many of the earlier films aren't rated by the Motion Picture Association of America, but, where applicable, I've added the MPAA rating. Commonsensemedia.org also has detailed information about the age appropriateness of most of the films on the list, including all of the unrated titles.
If you're accustomed to watching movies on Netflix or Hulu, you might be disappointed to find that most classics aren't available there. As of this writing, Netflix has just 20 movies made prior to 1960 — and 13 of those are World War II-era documentaries. However, 10 of my 12 recommendations are available for streaming rental on Amazon Video. The remaining two — Sherlock Jr. and Little Fugitive — are available on DVD.
At the local level, the 2013 shuttering of Burlington's Waterfront Video was a significant blow to classic-movie lovers who prefer the tangible experience of in-person video rental. But Tempest Book Shop in Waitsfield has thousands of titles for rent in both DVD and VHS format, and many local libraries are still clinging to their DVD collections.
While tracking down classic movies is more challenging these days, it's worth the effort. Though these films might not turn your kid into the next Scorsese, there's always the chance that they could be life-changing.
Dumbo (1941, G):
The delights of the animated Disney universe are myriad and span decades. So, where to begin? Dumbo has never gotten as much love from critics as Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs or Pinocchio, but I'll take the underdog. Young children will be entranced by the menagerie of animated animals, while any school-age kid who's ever been bullied, or just felt insecure, will be uplifted by the story of a young circus elephant who's ridiculed for his enormous ears before triumphing as a high-flying star.
The Circus (1928, G):
If your child enjoys Dumbo, then Charlie Chaplin's The Circus is the perfect segue into live-action silent comedy. Also set under the big top, it features Chaplin's 'Little Tramp' alter ego as a would-be clown who's only funny when he's not trying to be funny. One of the best showcases for Chaplin's trademark combination of humor and pathos, the film features some of his most ingenious set pieces, from a caged encounter with a sleeping lion to a high-wire act that goes hilariously awry.
Sherlock Jr. (1924):
While Chaplin's humor tugs at the heartstrings, the deadpan comedy of Buster Keaton thrills with its technical virtuosity. Sherlock Jr. features arguably the most gifted physical comedian in movie history as a film projectionist who dreams (literally and figuratively) of becoming a famous detective. An extended film-within-a-film dream sequence — including a chase scene with Keaton on the handlebars of an unmanned motorcycle — is pure magic. Although countless Looney Tunes and Merrie Melodies animated shorts took their cues from Keaton's comedy, nothing beats the original.
The Red Balloon (1956):
An ideal introduction to the world of international cinema, Albert Lamorisse's 34-minute fantasy stars his son, Pascal, as a lonely boy from the drab Belleville neighborhood of Paris who befriends an anthropomorphic balloon that seems to have a mind of its own. Magic realism has rarely been as magical as the film's soaring climax. It's subtitled, but the dialogue is minimal.
Little Fugitive (1953):
This landmark in low-budget independent filmmaking is about a 7-year-old boy who runs away from home after being pranked by neighborhood kids into thinking he has killed his older brother. François Truffaut — whose coming-of-age masterpiece The 400 Blows (1959) borrows liberally from the film's Coney Island sequences — credited director Morris Engel's street-photography techniques with inspiring the guerrilla aesthetics of the French New Wave movement. Historical significance aside, Little Fugitive contains charmingly rendered life lessons about work ethic and the importance of sibling responsibility.
The Day the Earth Stood Still (1951, G):
There's no better intro to the world of science fiction than this flick, which was unimaginatively remade in 2008 as an often violent action movie, starring Keanu Reeves. Seek out the original. A precursor to Steven Spielberg's Close Encounters of the Third Kind, Robert Wise's Cold War classic, about a UFO that lands in the middle of Washington, D.C., features an alien life form that carries a rational message of mutual assured preservation, not destruction. Even if the film's Red Scare politics fly over the heads of youngsters, they'll surely identify with the preteen character who discovers the truth about the mysterious visitors before any of the adults do.
With all due respect to the young Scorsese's cinematic epiphany, there's no better starter Western than Shane. One of the archetypal films of the genre, George Stevens' meticulously directed oater stars Alan Ladd as a reformed gunslinger reluctantly forced to defend a family of Wyoming homesteaders against a greedy cattle baron. As seen through the eyes of a precocious 8-year-old (the Oscar-nominated Brandon de Wilde), the action assumes a mythical, larger-than-life grandeur. The film contains a pair of non-gory gunfights and the granddaddy of all barroom brawls.
Shadow of a Doubt (1943, PG):
Alfred Hitchcock is probably the best-known director from Hollywood's Golden Age. While his twin masterpieces — Rear Window (1954) and Vertigo (1958) — are perfect places to start a discussion of film as art, Shadow of a Doubt occupies a special place in his oeuvre. Cowritten by Our Town playwright Thornton Wilder, the film — Hitchcock's favorite of his own work — concerns an 18-year-old girl (Teresa Wright) who gradually begins to suspect that her beloved uncle (Joseph Cotten) is a murderer. Like a homey Frank Capra film turned upside down, Shadow is a darker portrait of seemingly idyllic small-town America.
A Raisin in the Sun (1961):
This film version of Lorraine Hansberry's landmark 1959 play — the first by an African American woman to be produced on Broadway — retained seven members of the original cast, including Ruby Dee, Ivan Dixon and the superb Sidney Poitier. The plot isn't complicated: A black family living in a cramped apartment on Chicago's South Side go about their daily routines as they debate what to do with a $10,000 life-insurance check that could be their ticket to a better life. But within that basic framework, the film explores the complexities of racism, the generational clash between a mother and her children, and the quiet dignity of a dream deferred but not deserted.
Dead Poets Society (1989, PG):
A companion piece to director Peter Weir's haunting mystery Picnic at Hanging Rock (1975) — which was set at an all-girls boarding school in his native Australia — Dead Poets Society follows a group of boys at a fictional Vermont prep school (it was filmed in Delaware), whose lives are transformed by an unconventional teacher. At times tragic (it contains a suicide which might be disturbing for some viewers) and laugh-out-loud funny, the film speaks volumes about the importance of critical thinking and the profound impact a teacher can have on students. Featuring Robin Williams, in one of his most well-rounded performances, as poetry instructor John Keating, the movie also stars the fresh-faced Ethan Hawke as a painfully shy but talented student. If you've never seen it, I suggest promptly following Keating's advice: "Carpe diem."
Breaking Away (1979, PG):
This quirky coming-of-age comedy, filmed on location in Bloomington, Ind., pits a group of 19-year-old townies against Indiana University frat brothers in a class-conscious turf battle. The film's modest scale and goofy brand of humor belie its resonant message of embracing one's roots and the dignity of blue-collar labor. The climactic cycling race is every bit as exciting as the car chase in the Steve McQueen vehicle Bullitt (1968), also directed by the versatile Peter Yates.
American Graffiti (1973, PG):
If your kid has seen any films from the Star Wars franchise, they may well know the name George Lucas. But they might not be familiar with his second feature, an autobiographical slice of early-1960s nostalgia, about a group of recent high school grads pondering their futures as they listen to rock 'n' roll on AM radio and cruise the streets of Modesto, Calif. Set on the last day of summer vacation, it's a great movie to watch as a family before your son or daughter leaves the nest for the great unknowns of college and adulthood.