Dr. Fred Eichelman: My Hollywood Teaching Partners Jimmy Stewart, Rhonda Fleming, Bob Hope
. . . and [Jesus] did not speak to them without a parable… Mark 4:43
The use of commercial films and television shows in my classrooms was not done on a continual basis. Feature films were only used when there was an appropriate setting. I believed there were films and TV shows that could reach students who might not be reached otherwise, and I made use of them. More often, using television shows most students were familiar with, I would refer to certain programs when there was an example I could relate to their lives.
Storytelling has been an important part of teaching since the beginning of time. Good stories are easily remembered, especially if they have a definite point and the storyteller expands upon that. The greatest Teacher is Jesus Christ, and the parables he used are among the very best stories ever told. Some have been made into films.
As an adult, I continued what had been a hobby as a kid: Writing to those involved in the films I shared with my students.
Sadly, letter writing is becoming a lost art. My favorite historical letter writer is Thomas Jefferson, who kept several duplicate sets of the nearly 20,000 letters he wrote. We can learn so much about people through their written words, and for me, letter writing is not just a way of reaching other people, but a communion of ideas.
One of my favorite feature films to use in government class was the classic Mr. Smith Goes to Washington, starring Jimmy Stewart. It was a special film showing not just the process of lawmaking, but also the behind-the-scenes maneuvering that may take place among members of the U.S. Senate.
Stewart, as Jefferson Smith, is appointed to the Senate to fill out a term. The appointment comes about because Smith is fairly popular in his state, especially with kids. It is assumed his innocence will make him easy to deal with by the state political party machine. Jefferson is optimistic and naive, as he thinks everyone in DC is as honest as he is. His wisecracking office assistant, Saunders, played by Jean Arthur, is worldly wise and tries to keep him out of trouble. It is also obvious in the plot that she will fall in love with him. The party bosses find he is not the soft touch they believed, and he goes against them on a very important bill he has written with help from Saunders. The machine uses the news media to try to destroy Smith.
It was interesting to me how many high school seniors would become teary-eyed when Smith seems about to quit, and they share his anger at the political machine. There is a most dramatic filibuster carried out by Smith, with advice from Saunders, that receives national attention. Despite the film being made in 1939, throughout the years my students applauded and cheered at the conclusion. As often as I have seen this film, I am still emotionally touched by the story. There is more to the film than the nuts and bolts of lawmaking. Jimmy Stewart’s role shows the importance of honor and how one man alone can make a difference. When I wrote Jimmy about this he was very pleased and encouraging. He corresponded with me often.
As I worked with various stars I tended to think of them as “teaching partners.” The very first was Rhonda Fleming, and she took an interest in how and why her work was being used in my classroom. A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court, in which she co-starred with Bing Crosby, was a musical, and while it was not a very realistic look at the Middle Ages, it did interest students in world history. The movie contained scenes that were visually realistic, most significantly when Bing Crosby, as Hank Martin, takes King Arthur (Sir Cedric Hardwicke) on an undercover tour to see how his people really lived. It was a good portrayal of the poverty in the land and the suffering under powerful and greedy lords. Rhonda was excited about my being able to use her films in the classroom and we stayed in touch as friends for many years.
The pioneers of our industry that made the great classics of yesterday—the Selznicks, the Warners, Cecil B. DeMille, and Zanuck—were more dedicated to good taste and quality. Today it is a business of businessmen and conglomerates who really don’t care, and pictures are generally not better than ever. Films are being made that reflect either the lowest standards of society or what the filmmakers want us to believe reflects society. Fortunately there are still a few good ones for us to enjoy.
I met Maureen Reagan, the daughter of then Governor Ronald Reagan (whom I had corresponded with) through a charity she sponsored, Volunteers in Vital America (VIVA). My wife and received a special invitation and Bob Hope was the honorary national chairman of VIVA. He was in Roanoke at the local civic center to put on a show so Maureen asked if we would like to meet with him. We jumped at the chance. Bob was more than a stage, screen, radio, and TV star, he was one of the most loved entertainers in our nation, as he made it a point to visit and entertain our military all over the world. He was also a teaching partner for me because I used several of his films in the classroom.
The Paleface was the Bob Hope film I used most often when covering the western myths in American history classes. It is one of my favorites in which he plays Peter “Painless” Potter, an incompetent dentist who goes west. He is partnered with a retired female bandit, Calamity Jane, played by Jane Russell, who uses him to help find out who has been illegally selling guns to Native Americans. A number of western stereotypes are comically handled in the film, and my students loved it while at the same time spotting things that were not true of western living and Native Americans.
When we met Bob Hope I had the opportunity to tell him how I used a few of his films, though we were fans of all of his work. He was touched by that, but what pleased him most was our involvement with VIVA. That evening during the civic center performance, he made it a point to show the audience the bracelet he wore and to give a major plug to the program.
Bob had to poke a little fun at me:“There’s a teacher here, Fred Eichelman, who has used some of my films in his classes. And they say I never did anything for education.”