One Woman’s Quest to Restore American Values ​​Through Classic Films


Classic Hollywood movies have the power to ignite ‘young people’s moral imagination and cultural memory’, says Onalee McGraw

“I believe God made us creatures that tell stories,” says Onalee McGraw, an avid fan of Hollywood’s Golden Age and co-founder of a classic film studies program called Educational Guidance Institute (EGI). ).

McGraw’s remark seems incontrovertible. Our distant ancestors gathered around fires at night and in the throne rooms of kings to recount their exploits in hunting and war. Centuries later, troubadours sang of nobles and legendary warriors such as El Cid and King Arthur to delight audiences. As time passed, and in the parlors of New England, the family would gather to read aloud works such as the Bible, poetry and the novels of Charles Dickens. Down south, their counterparts circled their chairs and rockers on the porch, where Grandpa would entertain young and old with family traditions.

These exchanges were not only entertaining, but also educational. The exuberant hunters tipped the younger ones. These parents and their children in Massachusetts drew strength from the scriptures and verses they shared. Those who traded stories about Uncle Bud talking about possums in the trees and living alone for a month in the bayou were building bridges between past and present.

Onalee McGraw, co-founder, Educational Guidance Institute. (Courtesy of Onalee McGraw)

We do the same today. We read the little ones’ fairy tales at bedtime; we chat with a friend about the best restaurant in town, then amuse him with a story of the last time we dined there; we read Mark Helprin’s novel “A Soldier of the Great War” and gain courage and wisdom.

The same goes for the movies we watch, which, after all, are stories. We sit in a theater or in our living room, and find ourselves moved and enchanted by words and images on a screen. And sometimes, like those threads and stories once spun by fireplace light or an orchestra of crickets, these movies can change hearts and lives for the better.

A life in brief

“I was 7 when I saw ‘It’s a Wonderful Life’ the year it came out,” McGraw said. “I still remember watching this movie at the cinema.” She smiles after this remark.

“There. Now your readers can tell how old I am.

McGraw came of age during post-World War II San Luis Obispo, California, a childhood she remembers fondly.

“We had the generation that fought the war and came back and made their home there,” she said. Several of these veterans taught at the high school she attended, where she received a classical education.

McGraw then entered Whittier College, during which time she spent a semester at Washington’s historically black school, Howard University, which exposed her to the growing civil rights movement in the United States. Graduating in 1961, she entered Georgetown University as a graduate student in political science, where, she said, natural law advocate Heinrich Rommen’s “Just War” seminar was one highlights of his studies. In 1970, she obtained her doctorate, specializing in American political theory.

Over the next several years, McGraw worked as an education specialist at the Heritage Foundation, at one point appearing on Phil Donahue’s talk show to discuss classical education and the then-popular values ​​clarification programs in some schools. Later, she received a presidential nomination from Ronald Reagan and served two terms on the National Council for Educational Research.

In 1963, she married William Francis McGraw, her husband of 46 years until his death in 2012. Their marriage produced three children and 15 grandchildren.

The Institute was born

“Around the age of 10,” McGraw says in a documentary on the EGI website, “I was really obsessed, frankly, with movies.”

Nearly 40 years later, this obsession has given birth to a dream: to share classic films made before the mid-1960s with young people so that they “recover their moral imagination and their cultural memory”.

Inspired by writers such as Robert Coles, author of “The Moral Lives of Children”, and seeing the need for standards and “the structured architecture of truth, goodness and beauty”, McGraw partnered with a friend, Margaret Whitehead, and the two women launched their mission to bring great movies to classrooms, churches and youth detention centers. They founded EGI as a vehicle to promote older movies and a way to learn about virtues, about love and family, and about life in general.

Some films they recommended and screened during the early years of their business were “Johnny Belinda,” the story of a tangled relationship between a doctor and a deaf-mute young woman; “No Way Out”, with Sydney Poitier playing a young black doctor persecuted by a rabid racist (Richard Widmark); “It’s a wonderful life”; “Key Largo”; and “High Noon”.

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Cinema legends Lauren Bacall and Humphrey Bogart in “Key Largo.” (MPTV Images/Warner Bros.)
Lloyd Bridges and Gary Cooper in High Noon
Deputy Marshal Harvey Pell (Lloyd Bridges, L) has little interest in helping Marshall Will Kane (Gary Cooper) catch the bad guys, in “High Noon.” (United Artists)

A film central to EGI’s efforts is “A Raisin in the Sun,” which again stars Poitier and depicts a family that experiences racial prejudice when they buy a house in a white neighborhood. At a 1992 conference at the University of Virginia, where Coles was one of the speakers, both McGraw and Whitehead were struck by his account of the film’s influence on one of the black children who had faced hatred and threats of violence when she entered a previously segregated elementary school.

Carry the weight of love and truth

In a detention center for troubled youths, where most of the young men – boys, in fact – were angry and depressed, a teacher announced that they were going to watch “It’s a Wonderful Life”, the film in black-and-white who was older than anyone in the audience, during an EGI-sponsored show. According to McGraw, some of the inmates threatened to rip the movie off the VHS player before it even started, but at the end they said, “This is the best movie we’ve ever seen.”

McGraw and his colleagues understand that these silver-screen classics possess the power to instill in people – not just our youth, but all of us – truths about love, family, honor, justice and justice. other virtues. In a 2020 article published on his website under the heading “Word on Fire,” McGraw perfectly sums up the universal appeal of these old movies and why watching them can make us better human beings or, in some cases , save us from mortal errors and disasters:

“The greatest of classic films presupposes a moral universe where our power to know, to love and to do good is at the center of the drama. From the mid-1930s to the early 1960s, this art form occupied the front and center of our popular culture.

“God has placed in us a universal aspiration for the transcendent. From informal gatherings in coffeehouses and college campuses to structured church events, high school and college classrooms and even prison ministries, classic films uplift, educate and inspire all at the same time.

“One thing is essential: to allow the films themselves to carry the weight of truth as they draw us in. We are participants, not mere observers who are entertained.”

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James Stewart in “Mr. Smith Goes to Washington. (Columbia Pictures/
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Audrey Hepburn as a princess in her most elaborate “Roman Holiday” costume. (Public domain)

A treasure trove of resources

Visiting the EGI website offers more than just a trip down memory lane. There are recommendations, testimonials, free study guides and more for sale, and reflections from Plato, GK Chesterton and other philosophers and writers on topics ranging from natural law to the transformative power of art.

Follow the links to McGraw’s blog and to her Amazon author page, and you’ll find more of her writing covering cinematic topics like freedom, femininity and romance. A recent post – “From ‘me’ to ‘us’ in the art of classic cinema: 15 films that depolarize our civil society” – addresses the divisions that have fractured our country.

Here, too, you can get to know McGraw herself. In 2014, she appeared with then-host Robert Osborne of Turner Classic Movies to celebrate that television network’s 20th anniversary and to discuss the movie “12 Angry Men.” You might also enjoy her interview with writer John Clark, in which this passionate and insightful lawyer shares more of her personal side with viewers.

EGI’s motto, “Teaching truth, goodness and beauty through classic films to the next generation”, forms the very heart of this remarkable program.

As McGraw says in his documentary, “Let’s try to restore our culture with cultural assets. Let’s teach our young people what these cultural assets are and why they were good.

In those old movies are treasures waiting for a new audience, gold and silver to remind us not just who we were, but who we can become. And what’s better than that?

Popcorn, anyone?


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