I confess it: My television is always on. I seldom watch the news, the talking heads, the public-spirited uplift, Masterpiece Theater, or the educational stuff. No, I watch old movies. Constantly.
I watch them because they bring back the good old days. I think, for instance, of a film (whose title I forget) in which Humphrey Bogart gets into a serious car accident; in the next scene, he is lying in a hospital bed—puffing a cigarette. The good old days.
Now of course, the moment you utter the phrase “the good old days,” you cross your arms over your skull to ward off the blows it is sure to provoke from the knowing cynics. Yes, I know all about child labor, racial segregation, infant mortality, medieval torture, and the myriad other things that make liberal lips curl when you dare to praise the past. But when people talk about the good old days, they nearly always mean something specific: The era of good manners.
Can anyone deny that American manners have declined from the age of William Powell and Cary Grant to that of Marlon Brando and Dennis Hopper? From the bow tie and the tuxedo to the T-shirt and the leather jacket? From the ballroom and the chaperone to the easy lay? (How do you explain to today’s youth what a chaperone is—or was? “A primitive method of birth control”?) Censors debated...