Black and White Film Classics for Kids

Hacking the Holidays

This week, watching the 1982 version of Tron (borrowed from our local library) in preparation for finally getting out to see Tron: Legacy, I couldn’t help but notice that the tinted black-and-white scenes “inside” the computer — especially with the minimal dialogue halting pace — reminded me a lot of some even older movies. Namely, silent films and early talkies.

When I was a kid, everything I watched at home was in black and white. That probably helped me feel comfortable making the cultural stretch that is sometimes necessary to enjoy older movies. At the same time – and especially because I always loved horror and sci-fi — I came to appreciate the sense of mystery and downright creepiness that B&W movies can possess.

Conventional wisdom says that kids today (and a lot of their parents) will not sit still for B&W movies. My own children (who admittedly do not have average taste in their viewing habits) have never seemed to have that problem. If your kids (or you) have never watched a black and white movie, it is an experiment worth trying. So here to get your started are some vintage B&W movies that are suitable for kids. Many of my picks are perfect for this holiday season. Let me know what you think, and feel free to add your own favorites to the list!

Babes in Toyland (1934): This Laurel and Hardy holiday classic, a musical based on an operetta by Victor Herbert, was Christmas-time TV staple when I was a girl – despite nursery rhyme characters so low-budget they will haunt your nightmares. The story involves the kidnapping of Little Bo Peep by the villian Barnaby (we named our family dog after him) and her rescue from his underground lair by Tom-Tom (the Piper’s son). But even with the cave with the giant spiders and the hairy Bogeymen, I always hung onto until the climatic entrance the supersized wooden soldiers to the tune of “March of the Toys.” The entire movie can be streamed online (see above) via Google Video.

Miracle on 34th StreetMiracle on 34th Street

Only the real Santa would want to work at Macy's Herald Square at Christmastime. Image: 20th Century Fox

Miracle on 34th Street (1947) Starring a young Natalie Wood, this movie has not a hint of self-consciousness, and as a result is truly charming. I think all New Yorkers enjoy the behind-the-scenes look at the Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade and the landmark department stores at Christmastime. As someone who once worked at Macy’s Herald Square store, I can also vouch for their authenticity. In fact, when I was there in the 1970s, I was astonished to find that the employee locker rooms looked exactly same as they do in the movie that had been shot more than 30 years earlier.

Alastair Sim as ScroogeAlastair Sim as Scrooge

Alastair Sim meets a pagan deity on Christmas Eve.

A Christmas Carol (1951) To me, the only authentic film versions of Dickens stories are the Hollywood adaptations from the black and white era. In this case, it’s not the 1938 MGM version but this retelling, starring Alastair Sim as Scrooge, the miser who is visited by three rather pagan specters on Christmas Eve, is often considered the definitive “old” version. Certainly Sim has got the cranky-old-guy look down to a fine art.

Marx BrothersMarx Brothers

For sheer silliness, it's hard to go wrong with the Marx Brothers.

A Night at the Opera (1935) My kids love all the Marx Brothers movies (go us!), but given the time of year A Night at the Opera is the obvious choice. Not only does it contain the oft-imitated stateroom scene, it is also the film in which Chico explains what is wrong with his contract with a seasonally-appropriate reference.

King KongKing Kong

King Kong set the standard for special effects blockbusters for years to come.

King Kong (1933) Asked to recommend a B&W film for kids, this was my teen film lover’s first choice. There’s no Christmas connection here, but it’s a great choice for lots of other reasons. Watch it for the great stop-motion animation, the tough-talking characters and the smoky atmospheric scenes, and you’ll begin to understand why black and white movies never go out of style.

(For more great B&W films, also check out GeekDad’s Top 10 Classic Film Comedies for a Well-Rounded Geek!)

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