Singin’ in the Rain (1952)

By Noah Charney and James Charney.

The pull of nostalgia is a powerful one. We parents had favorites growing up: favorite TV shows, movies, books and games. We’d love to introduce them to our kids and there’s a particular delight when our kids love something that we recall so fondly. The only problem is that more modern incarnations of entertainment tend to be more, well, entertaining. Today’s films are more technologically advanced, and they’ve become more instantly gratifying. This is most obvious from the perspectives of pace, realism and editing. The black-and-white classics have a hard time competing for the attention of the young’uns when compared to today’s slam-bang, color-rich pageants of action.

But more modern is not objectively better, and can sometimes be less sophisticated, compensating with technology for lack of substance. It’s not for me to say which era produced the “better” material. But what is important to me is that my kids not dismiss older classics as “boring” inherently. To this end, I’ve developed an approach that is easy to implement if you start early.

This approach is more fully developed in my book, Superpower Your Kids: A Professor’s Guide to Teaching Your Children Everything in Just 15 Minutes a Day, a limited-edition available only in June for backers of a Kickstarter campaign for the book + a tie-in smartphone app. I’ll explain two key tricks here that take the concept of the book and apply it to introducing your kids to classic films.

Start with the Older, Advance to the Newer

I borrowed a method from tasting menus for food and wine. You start out with the simpler, rawer, less complex and work your way up. Now this doesn’t mean “better,” that for example a raw oyster is inherently less delicious than a breaded, roasted oyster covered in hot sauce and bearnaise. But to start with the bells-and-whistles version makes it harder to appreciate the purer rendition. It’s the same with wine tastings, which are curated to introduce younger, fresher (less sophisticated) wines first, and then move on to those with more happening in them.

This is no direct analogy to film, because there is sometimes more happening in the older classics, in terms of complexity of ideas and character, than the newer ones. But attention spans have reduced over the decades and, being perfectly blunt, the classics risk feeling boring if you’re brought up on contemporary fare.

I saw this first-hand with my daughters. When the eldest was around two years old, she loved a Slovenian classic (we live in Slovenia) called Kekec, a black and white film from 1951 about the adventures of a warm-hearted, plucky shepherd boy in the picturesque Alps. It was a big hit with her, despite the fact that it is old-fashioned by any standards, particularly so from the perspective of American film, which was far ahead thanks to the bankroll of what Yugoslavia was producing. Now that she’s 7, she finds it a bit boring, because she’s used to much faster-paced, colorful, quick-edited contemporary films. But the trick worked because she already has a nostalgia for it. She remembers having liked it, and so though she honestly considers it to be slow and less of a grabber, it has a place in her heart, and she does not dismiss that which is black-and-white as inherently uninteresting.

Now there’s no need for you to set up your own kids with a Yugoslav classic. It’s best to pick the oldest films that you remember enjoying and think your kids might like and go from there. The overall message is to introduce older films as early as possible to provide a foundation of positive experiences with them that will help your kids give them the benefit of the doubt later.

Instead of Yugoslav classics, how about some classic silent movies? Younger children especially simply “get” these films. They may be slower than modern movies, but the acting is broader and the comedies are wonderfully sillier–which kids love. Maybe start with Charlie Chaplin in The Gold Rush, as a prospector so hungry that he tries to eat his shoe? Watching him carefully spin his shoelaces as though they were spaghetti is both high art and very funny. Laurel and Hardy’s The Piano is another comedy classic–the entire plot is them trying to get a very heavy piano up a very steep hill. There is almost no dialogue – there doesn’t have to be. The simplicity of the concept tells the story. 

Almost any of Buster Keaton’s short films will engage children. His slapstick had a grace and precision that is lovely to watch, and very funny, too. As they get older, they can move onto his masterpieces, like Sherlock, Jr and The General, which combine more of a story with moments of sublime fun.

Offer Classics in Smaller Bite-Sized Pieces

It can be tricky for young children to maintain focus for a 90-minute black-and-white classic, even if it’s one of the greats, like one starring Charlie Chaplin or the Marx Brothers. I introduced my kids to a real love for the Marx Brothers by showing them selected favorite scenes on YouTube. A 3-minute YouTube clip is in no danger of feeling over-long, and today’s kids associate the very platform of YouTube (rife with silly cats, videogame walkthroughs and “best of” compilations) with high entertainment. The very phrase “we’re going to watch something on YouTube” elicits the throes of delight. So take advantage of this and slip in some clips of classics. I got my girls into the famous “stateroom scene” from the Marx Brothers’ A Night at the Opera. It’s less than three minutes long. In it, several stowaways are hiding in a tiny stateroom on a cruise ship, and they haven’t eaten for a while. Groucho Marx, who is the ticketed person staying in that room, calls room service to bring up a meal, ordering everything on the menu, plus dozens of hardboiled eggs. More and more staff and guests show up and want to do various things in the room – clean up, give a manicure, fix the pipes, until the tiny room is bursting at the seams with people. Then the punchline…the stewards show up with the room service order, open the door, and a flood of occupants tumble out of the over-stuffed room. It is comedy brilliance concentrated, and my girls thought it was hysterically funny. They would’ve been unlikely to remain focused for the entire film (which is full of funny moments but does appear rather slow by today’s standards), but this much was a gem that they repeatedly asked to be shown.

I had a parallel experience with the classic musical, Singin’ in the Rain, my father’s favorite movie. I was indoctrinated with a love for musicals through him, and this has the double nostalgia of being a film I like and being his favorite. But for very young children, it can be slow-going. So I started with YouTube clips of three favorite song and dance numbers. “Moses Supposes,” “Good Morning” (one of the happiest songs of all-time, and what I often sing when waking my girls) and the completely ingenious “Make’em Laugh.” These have slapstick elements, a lot of dancing, pure joy and catchy songs. They are the best part of any musical – the “storyline” is often filler between the songs. So we went straight to the best bits and it worked. My girls loved it and regularly ask for Donald O’Connor, the supporting actor in the film who is an underrated dance and comic genius. Then, with various musical numbers to look forward to, it was easy for my kids to watch the whole 90-minute film, because any of the bits that were slower for children were rewarded with the songs that they knew and loved.

I used the same tactic with a favorite of my youth, Bedknobs and Broomsticks. There’s this scene that fascinated me, in which Angela Lansbury, an “apprentice witch” uses a spell called “Substitutiary Locomotion” to animate a museum of suits of armor in order to chase away an invading force of Nazis probing the coast of England. I first showed them just this clip, and it had the same magical effect on them that it did on me. Then it was their idea to watch the entire film, not mine at all (wink wink).

These are two of the tricks developed in Superpower Your Kids, and I hope that they might help you film lovers out there introduce an appreciation for older classics in even the youngest of children.

Dr. Noah Charney is a professor of art history, best-selling, Pulitzer-nominated author and a frequent contributor to Film International. He will be running a Kickstarter campaign for a limited edition book and companion smartphone app called Superpower Your Kids: A Professor’s Guide to How to Teach Your Children Everything in Just 15 Minutes a Day. Dr. James Charney, Noah’s father, is a child psychiatrist and lecturer at Yale Medical School.

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