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Rob Edelman: Debbie, Carrie, Donald, Gene... And The Death Of History

Several points can be gleaned from the recent deaths, one day apart, of the legendary Debbie Reynolds and her daughter, the equally celebrated Carrie Fisher. First, we may adore our celebrities. We may envy their wealth and fame and wish we could be as universally beloved as they are. But still, they are human beings with human needs and feelings-- and anyone who has ever lost a child will be able to comprehend the sheer horror that Debbie Reynolds must have felt upon learning that her daughter has passed. So all the money, all the fame, all the awards and honors and Red Carpet appearances will not separate you from the everyday ravages of life. 

Next, on the subject of fame: For quite a few years, I have been teaching film history to young people, and I have come to realize that practically all the iconic 20th-century celebrities-- those who were not flavors of the months, and who enjoyed decades in the limelight-- are completely unknown to the majority of 21st century twenty year olds. And this is understandable. If you were born at the tail-end of the 20th century, why would the likes of Bob Hope or Bing Crosby, Bette Davis or Barbara Stanwyck, Cary Grant or Clark Gable have any meaning to you? (However, I only can pause and shake my head when a young person admits that he or she has never heard of Jack Nicholson... Or Martin Scorsese... And this is no exaggeration!) 

So in our today-is-Tuesday-so-whatever-happened-on-Monday-is-ancient-history culture, fame is indeed ever-so fleeting. And this is so not just for young people. On the morning after Debbie Reynolds’ passing, several talking heads were discussing her life and career on CNN. A clip from SINGIN’ IN THE RAIN was shown and one of them noted that, in it, Debbie was dancing with “two men.” Did this alleged expert know that the “two men” were Gene Kelly and Donald O’Connor? Had this alleged expert ever even heard of Gene Kelly and Donald O’Connor? Why not acknowledge them? Why cloak them in anonymity? Plus, it also was casually noted that SINGIN’ IN THE RAIN and STAR WARS were the respective film debuts for Debbie Reynolds and Carrie Fisher. Not so. These were the films that won Debbie and Carrie stardom, but they were not their first films. 

And this mindboggling-- not to mention casually accepted-- lack of knowledge transcends popular culture. It focuses on historical events that are much more significant than who won the Best Actor or Actress Oscar last year, or thirty years ago. I have had students-- not all students, but some students-- who may have spent twelve or fourteen years in classrooms but have no idea of the difference between World War I and World War II. Who were America’s enemies in these conflicts? When did they occur? Indeed, who was Adolph Hitler? Can you define the Holocaust?

Ask these questions, and the response once-too-often will be a shrug of the shoulders. Very sad, indeed. Very distressing. And what does all this tell us about our lack of knowledge of, and the importance of, basic American history?

Rob Edelman has authored or edited several dozen books on film, television, and baseball. He has taught film history courses at several universities and his writing has appeared in many newspapers, magazines, and journals. His frequent collaborator is his wife, fellow WAMC film commentator Audrey Kupferberg.

The views expressed by commentators are solely those of the authors. They do not necessarily reflect the views of this station or its management.

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