A little while back Xpress columnist Anne Fitten Glenn did a piece on children’s movies, specifically referring to movies shown on airline flights—movies considered to be kid-friendly. At the end of the article she asked readers to supply titles of such movies that they’d not mind sitting through on long flights. Being an inveterate smart-ass, I suggested Robert Rodriguez’s Spy Kids (2001), P.J. Hogan’s Peter Pan (2003) and Tom McLoughlin’s Jason Lives: Friday the 13th Part VI (1986). The last was a joke, of course, but it wasn’t completely without point—at least once you take it out of the forced public venue of an in-flight movie.
No one is likely to argue that Jason Lives isn’t inappropriate kiddie fare. It most certainly is inappropriate—not in the least because it depicts a campful of young children imperiled by the machete-wielding Jason Voorhees. Granted, no actual harm befalls any of the rusticating tykes (that’s a line movies rarely cross). And a lot of this is handled as dark comedy (hiding under a bed, one camper asks his companion, “So what did you want to be when you grew up?”). Still, this is obviously not made for children, and, if nothing else, it’s easy to envision it instilling a deep-seated fear of going off to summer camp in the young and impressionable. That said, there’s still the question of whether or not there is such a thing as a one-size-fits-all kid-friendly movie. I’m inclined to say no.
The whole concept of a list of kid-appropriate movies reminds me of when Frank Zappa testified at the Parents Music Resource Center hearings (remember those?). Much of his point came down to the idea that what was inappropriate for one child was not necessarily inappropriate for another, and that as a parent he objected to someone else telling him what his children were mature enough to process. A lot of this is so subjective that the search for an etched-in-stone set of rules is ultimately a fool’s errand.
I’ve seen too many instances of parents who were outraged over a film that was marketed as kid-friendly because it was “too scary” for their children. Last year’s Christmas release of The Tale of Despereaux comes to mind, as does the 2006 mega-bomb The Wild. Whether the disastrous to mediocre box office of these movies can be blamed on their “scary” elements is an interesting question. There’s some historical precedent for that, too. The first Disney feature to underperform at the box office was Sleeping Beauty (1959) and its scare factor was considered to be the reason. Was it too scary? All I’ll say is that it terrified this then three-year-old child. I still find it creepy, though now I appreciate that, while deploring its more vapid aspects.
A lot of people consider the Harry Potter movies to be kid-friendly—despite the fact that they contain material that’s far more horrific (if less bloody) than just about any old 1960s Hammer horror picture. At the same time, you’ll find that there are those who object to the basic concept of the stories on religious grounds. I once saw a child nearly freak out because he was served a drink at a theater in a Harry Potter cup. His mother assured him that just because they bought this drink didn’t mean they were supporting “that” movie. I saw another parent loudly proclaim that he didn’t want his child subjected to fantasy of any kind—and then disappeared into The Santa Clause 2 (2002). This is not a game you are ever going to win, because not only does one size not fit all children, it doesn’t fit parents either.
I suspect that a lot of how one feels about what kids should and shouldn’t see may be generational. For those of us “of a certain age,” our formative moviegoing experiences were a little different. I was in my teens when the ratings system came into being. My formative years were spent in a world where there wasn’t so much pigeon-holing of movies—in part, yes, because there were things that simply weren’t allowed to be said or done in films of that era. Movies more or less came in two varieties—those kids were taken to see and those kids went to see because the whole family went. As you got a little older a third category cropped up in the form of movies you were dropped off to see on your own or with your “little friends.”
What surprises me in retrospect about those movies we were deliberately taken to see—movies it was supposed children would want to see—is how much I hated most of them. I know that things like Old Yeller (1957), Pollyanna (1960) and Big Red (1962) just absolutely stink with life-lessons. But I say it’s spinach and to hell with it. When you’re between the ages of three and eight, this sort of stuff is not only depressing, it’s traumatic. I had a better time cowering under my seat during Sleeping Beauty. At least that wasn’t depressing and I didn’t get the uncomfortable feeling that I was being taught some kind of lesson—and taught it in a manner that I found casually sadistic (though I didn’t understand that concept at the time, of course). Why was I being taken to see things that made me feel bad? Movies were supposed to be a treat and I felt like I was being punished.
Of course, it wasn’t all like this. In those days I was perfectly happy with the latest Jerry Lewis movie—or the not so latest one in many cases, since I didn’t know the difference between a new one and a re-issue. But this is actually a grey area. I know that insisting on being taken to see re-releases of Rock-a-Bye Baby (1958) and The Geisha Boy (1958) was an indulgence on the part of my parents (my father usually got saddled with these), but I have a hunch that we saw them originally as a family outing. That adults would willfully subject themselves to these is one of life’s mysteries.
The family outing experience, however, is probably more sociologically interesting. I’m not saying that it never happened, but I cannot recall a single instance from my earlier childhood where my parents went to a movie without me. If it happened, they must have bamboozled me into believing they were going somewhere else. The upshot of this is that I saw The Searchers (1956), Jailhouse Rock (1957), Loving You (1957), The Bridge on the River Kwai (1957), Journey to the Center of the Earth (1959), Happy Anniversary (1959), Portrait in Black (1960), Love Come Back (1961), Boys’ Night Out (1962), The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance (1962), From Russia with Love (1963), Hush…Hush, Sweet Charlotte (1964) and Goldfinger (1964) before or by the time I was 10 years old.
There’s nothing particularly remarkable about this—except for the fact that none of these are in any way, shape or form children’s movies. While there was nothing in this particular crop that would garner anything harsher than a PG-13 rating today, thematically a lot of these are clearly adult material. There are movies here that deal with racism, war, illicit affairs (a common aspect), insanity, murder with a meat-axe, rampaging dinosaurs and a largely naked woman painted gold. Of course, a lot of this material didn’t really register with me. A lot of these remained in my mind merely for a striking image or two. In the case of Happy Anniversary (the only of the films I haven’t seen since then), the sole thing I clearly remember is that there’s a scene where David Niven kicks in a TV set. (Well, the movies didn’t like TV very much back then.)
The point for me is that these was nothing even slightly unusual about my experience for its time—at least based on what I know from my contemporaries. A few I’ve spoken to recall that James Bond movies were forbidden, but for the most part the idea of movies that might be inappropriate didn’t arise. I suppose it could be concluded that our parents were simply clueless or inattentive. I’m not sure. I may not get a lot of support on this, but I tend to think that it was more a case of us not being so carefully sheltered. And I don’t think we were necessarily worse off for that.
Now, the business of our solo outings was almost equally just hit and miss, which is to say that we tended to go see whatever was playing. (This was a simple thing where I spent most of my chldhood, because there was only one theater.) The Saturday matinee, however, was programmed with children in mind. The logic of the theater manager was that it was “the cheapest babysitting in town.” You dropped the kids off about 1:30, they lined up around the theater (the line often stretching to the next street), were inside by 2:00 and stayed there till 5:00 or 5:30. All this cost 25 cents (unless a Disney picture was involved and then it was 35 cents). The average age of the audience ran from eight to 12 years old.
Yes, it was a very different time. (I don’t know many parents who are likely to drop off children of those ages on a city street and come back to get them four-plus hours later today, and I wouldn’t suggest it.) But aside from that, there was the programming. Some of the fare was recycled from the 1950s—Martin and Lewis, Ma and Pa Kettle, etc.—but the new movies that were deemed acceptable for these matinees as often as not included a significant quantity of horror movies. And these were considered a treat to judge by the attendance and the reaction.
I suppose it’s possible that our parents would have been horrified themselves had they realized that we were watching such fare as Don Sharp’s Kiss of the Vampire (1963)—a film that opens with a shovel being thrust through the lid of a coffin (with a resulting gush of blood) and ends with bats being summoned from hell to rip the throats out of a cult of blood suckers. (That reads a lot more rooty-tooty than it plays.) They apparently didn’t and we, by and large, just thought it was way cool. I’m sure some adults did go to see movies like this—and they certainly played to teenagers—but in those days, it seemed to bother no one that much younger viewers were taking them in as part of “the cheapest babysitting in town.”
Even some movies that were clearly made with kids in mind were surprisingly strong meat—even if they look like pretty quaint meat today. Schlockmeister Bert I. Gordon put out a fantasy flick in 1962 called The Magic Sword. It’s a pretty silly affair with fairly low-grade effects work and, apart from Basil Rathbone and Estelle Winwood, the acting is at best rudimentary. None of this bothered us much at the time, because it also had guys falling into ponds that quickly reduced them to skeletons, blazing heat that seared the skin off one character, monstrosities various and sundry, and a dragon. Released to a kiddie audience today, it would probably cause much outrage. It passed pretty much without comment 47 years ago.
The question in my mind with all this is are we being overprotective today? It’s a wholly subjective issue, of course. My guess is that—unless it’s informed by some sort of philosophical or religious objection—it is largely driven by what parents themselves saw when they were growing up. But I sometimes wonder if we’re really being honest with ourselves when we remember what that was. Truthfully, what were the movies of your childhood? Were they all carefully chosen and appropriate viewing? Or was it a good bit less carefully calculated than that? And if it was, did it scar you for life? No, I’m not suggesting that it should be an anything-goes approach. Some movies simply are inappropriate for children, but exactly how do you decide?