I’ve just spent most of the day watching old movies. I started with Gates to Paradise: A lesser-known work of the noted Polish director Andrzej Wajda, it was released in 1968 and is a fictionalized version of the tragic medieval “children’s crusade,” in which hundreds of children set off from European villages hoping to reach Jerusalem.
Then I watched Dreaming Out Loud, one of many films starring the early-20th-century comedy duo who called themselves Lum and Abner and built their careers portraying dimwitted but kindhearted hillbillies. In this 1944 quickie, they strive to identify a hit-and-run driver.
Then I watched Road to Happiness, a 1941 drama about a penniless divorced dad struggling to support his beloved only son. The boy’s mother has divorced the protagonist to marry a millionaire. Dad wants to sing opera — and raise his child. Tears and laughter ensue.
Why did I do this and why am I telling you about it?
Because never in any of those films was the phrase “self-esteem” uttered. These films were all released long before the self-esteem movement began, and before “making people feel better about themselves” was an international mandate.
Yet self-esteem as an unnamed emotional state made its way into all three films. In Gates to Paradise, four young crusaders confess their sins to a priest, who realizes that what spurred them to abandon their families and undertake an almost surely doomed ordeal was not actually faith. All of them were trying to boost their self-confidence or battle self-loathing: One had been abandoned by a lover, another was pursuing the object of her affections, another adored his leadership role, and another was ashamed of feeling like a slut. God played little role in all of this.
In Dreaming Out Loud, the town drunk sobers up after his daughter is hit by a car — and the town doctor is partially paralyzed following a stroke. Lum, Abner and their fellow townspeople devise ways of making these two men feel useful, bringing a very sick child to the disabled doctor (who then saves the child’s life) and giving the former drunk new powers as the town constable (who then makes an important arrest).
In Road to Happiness, the penniless father seeks whatever job he can find — even those that are far below his skill level — in order to support his child. Compared to the boy’s millionaire stepfather, this protagonist feels like a failure. Yet when the stepfather offers to adopt the boy, the boy staunchly refuses — insisting on staying with his dad through thick and thin. Knowing how much he is loved lends the dad a newfound confidence — which helps him land the perfect job.
So although I chose these films to watch at random, all three turned out to be “self-esteem films.”
But is there any film that isn’t?