Almanac Life – Old Movies for Modern Kids

Over the years I’ve tried to get my kids to watch old movies, which can be a hard task even for adults if it’s black and white or silent. Here’s a few that worked with mine over the years; you decide how old your kids should be to watch them, but they’re generally family friendly. You may notice quite a few feature kids being treated really harshly (within the context of the story), but what can I say? It really sells with the young’uns. Watching movies from different eras confronts you with the different values of times past, but don’t worry your kids will point them out. Watching ‘The Life of Brian’ my atheistic lot had trouble with a blackface Wise Man and men playing women pretending to be men and found it all very confusing. ‘Playing all the roles is what they did’ didn’t cut it with the teenagers, but great movies lead to great discussions and every family can do with a bit more of that.



Miracle on 34th Street (1947)
Proving Santa is real is still a winner with little ones.



Rear Window (1954)
The voyeurism of watching the soap opera lives of an apartment building told without dialogue is riveting. The turn and stare down the barrel by a bleached Raymond Burr is still one of the most terrifying moments in cinema.



Birdman of Alcatraz (1962)
Burt Lancaster is a misanthropic prisoner who loves his mother and birds. Lots of birds.



Bringing Up Baby (1938)
Done at a cracking pace, Bringing Up Baby is still as wacky, charming and clever as the day it came out. Cary Grant is a slapstick master and Katherine Hepburn’s spoilt rich girl laugh alone is worth the price of admission.



Oliver Twist (1948)
The David Lean version will have the kids agog at the brutal coat-hanger on the fleeing orphan. Oliver triumphs, but not before suffering the worst of the early industrial age. If your kids are old enough you can also discuss why we need unions.



Rio Bravo (1959)
John Wayne looks cowboy to everyone no matter your age. Walter Brennan will grab the kids, because he’s a real-life version of one of the most imitated voices in cartoons. I have been known crack out my bad John Wayne screaming ‘Burdett! Nathan Burdett!’ after a few too many jars.



Random Harvest (1942)
Watched this with my older teenage daughter and it is probably the most romantic movie ever made with a killer plot twist. It features an amnesiac Ronald Colman with a stutter who amazingly learns to speak more beautifully than any human who has ever existed. My daughter and I still call out ‘Smithy!’ to each other to this day. I give it five tissue boxes.



Jeremiah Johnson (1972)
Robert Redford becomes a mountain man in an adventurous, exciting and sometimes tragic tale. My kids thought the mountains were green-screened. No, they really are that beautiful and so is Robert Redford.



To Kill a Mockingbird (1962)
My young inner city multicultural public-school kids sat open-mouthed watching people treat each other like this because of the colour of their skin. Boo Radley behind the door is still scary as crap.



Cabaret (1972)
Older teenage watch that features the rise of fascism and bisexuality. Has not aged a day.



Ferris Bueller’s Day Off (1986)
Entertaining ‘kid skipping school’ movie. ‘Nuff said.



Hair (1979)
Treat Williams, John Savage and Beverley D’Angelo in a musical with great actors who can sing. Devastatingly heartbreaking anti-war entertainment worth it just for Treat singing ‘I Got Life’ on the table to the richies. Did I mention the heartbreaking?



The Bad News Bears (1976)
Whiskey drinking, cigar smoking, junior baseball coach Walter Matthau talks to a kid, who’s only in his Y-fronts, in a tree…and it’s a beautifully poignant scene. Does contain smoking teens, but it’s the seventies, so just tell your kids even dogs smoked back then.



Peggy Sue Got Married (1986)
Kathleen Turner as an adult woman in a teenage body directed by Francis Ford Coppola. Bonus that it contains heaps of Nick Cage being Nick Cage.



Accidental Hero (1992)
Dustin Hoffman being as shifty as Rizzo, but saving the victims of a plane crash is peak Hoffman. Highly under-rated.



The Goodbye Girl (1977)
Budding actor Richard Dreyfuss moves in with a single mother and her daughter and practices nude meditation. In the hands of Neil Simon, it’s funny and touching.



The Kid (1921)
If they can deal with a silent movie, the sight of tiny Jackie Coogan being rag-dolled in Charlie Chaplin’s heartbreaker will have you and your kids’ jaws on the floor. Makes Oliver’s hardships look like a doddle.




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  1. Some absolute beauties there Matty. Feel sorry for the youngsters who can’t just sit back and watch Life of Brian without twisting themselves into gender knots. When I first saw that movie I laughed so hard I had to immediately go back into the afternoon session to pick up all the lines. Correcting the Latin graffiti !! Too funny.

    Jeremiah Johnson is one of my all time favourites. I was riveted. Redford’s eyes were especially piercing.

    A few others I’ve watched with my kids over the years which have not always been completely family friendly but have encouraged a lot of discussion:
    The Sting
    Cool Hand Luke
    The Mission
    Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid
    In The Heat of the Night.
    3 days of the Condor

  2. Great list Matt. Swung by the library yesterday to collect the Bear Grylls series I’d reserved- ideal lockdown viewing- and it was shut!

    Both the novel and film of To Kill A Mockingbird remain favourites (I understand the problem of the author being a white woman speaking about racism and how the black characters are all essentially powerless). I love the simple dignity of the final lines- “He turned out the light and went into Jem’s room. He would be there all night, and he would be there when Jem waked up in the morning.”

  3. Kevin Densley says

    Enjoyed reading through your collection, Matt; overall, I reckon it’s a fine one.

    Isn’t Rio Bravo – to pick out one – such a great film in all sorts of ways?

  4. Trevor Blainey says

    Matt, there’s a 3rd way to enjoy To Kill A Mockingbird (one of the few books I’ve read more than once and the film is a cracker) but the audio book read by Sissy Spacek is fantastic. Her natural Southern drawl is perfect for it; I listened a few years ago over many morning walks. I rate Field of Dreams highly and you could show it to kids of any age (maybe not sub-10s).

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