Movie Mom

Movie Mom

List: Happiness Movies

posted by Nell Minow

I believe that happiness is a choice, and one that requires courage and honesty. And I believe that happiness is a moral choice. We spend so much time thinking that we would be happy if we only had this or that or if the people around us would only do this or that or that if we allow ourselves to be happy we will become vulnerable when it is taken away. But everyone must take responsibility for his or her own happiness.

Many people forget that there is a difference between happiness and pleasure. They may feel similar, but pleasure is a momentary response that comes from outside stimuli and happiness is a frame of mind that comes from an inner sense of purpose, mastery, generosity, kindness, and connection. Happy people are well aware of life’s struggles and tragedies but know that it is in no way disrespectful to the pain and loss and injustice of the world to stay connected to all that is good, kind, and loving.

These are lessons we must be taught and re-taught. Many great movies are wonderful teachers about happiness, with characters who set great examples and stories that help to remind us of what it is in our own lives that make us happy. Very often they have what I call the “Cat in the Hat” theme — a straight-laced character who is not getting much out of life is transformed through contact with a character or circumstance that triggers the questioning of assumptions and the throwing off of restrictions.

Here’s a list of a dozen happiness movies. Some of these movies are about happiness, some make us happy — and some do both.

Hairspray Tracy Turnblad (Nikki Blonsky) is like a box of sunshine in this cheery musical about the integration of a Baltimore teen dance television show. “You can’t stop my happiness, ‘cuz I like the way I am.”

Duck Soup The deliciously anarchic comedy of the Marx brothers reached its peak in this hilarious comedy about countries warring over the affections — and fortunes — of a wealthy dowager played by Margaret Dumont. “I suggest that we give him ten years in Leavenworth, or eleven years in Twelveworth.” “I’ll tell you what I’ll do: I’ll take five and ten in Woolworth.”

The Court Jester Pure joy. This musical story of a medieval rebellion is Danny Kaye’s best movie, and one of the funniest comedies ever, with a plot that is both exciting and hilarious and a heroine who is courageous and loving. “Life could not better be…”

Yellow Submarine Glorious Beatles music, spectacular animation, and a witty and endearing story of the rescue of the gentle citizens of Pepperland from the Blue Meanies make this a perfect family movie. “All you need is love.”

The Incredibles In this instant classic from Pixar, characters with super-powers that essentially super-size traditional family roles give great resonance to the story: the father strong, the mother stretched in a dozen different directions, the hyper-active son and the daughter who just wants to be invisible and create a force field to keep the world away. “You keep trying to pick a fight, but I’m still just happy you’re alive.”

Some Like it Hot The American Film Institute’s pick for the funniest movie of all time is a Roaring Twenties story about two male musicians on the run from the mob who pretend to be women so they can hide out in an all-girl band. Hilarious, exciting, musical, and romantic, it is non-stop pure entertainment. And it even has a good lesson about honesty, authenticity, and, yes, the difference between pleasure and happiness. “Well, nobody’s perfect!”

A Thousand Clowns Jason Robards stars in this film about an unconventional man who must decide what is most important to him — rejecting society’s standards or caring for his nephew. “If things aren’t funny then they’re exactly what they are; and then they’re like a long dental appointment.”

Step into Liquid This documentary about surfing is a stirring tribute to waves and sun and the people who believe that they best honor nature and the farthest potential of the human spirit by riding on the waves. The footage is exhilarating and it is touching to see the way that even competitive surfers believe that the winner is the one who has the most fun.

Amelie (some mature material) This lovely French fairy tale is the story of a shy young waitress who learns that the greatest happiness comes from helping others. “Amelie has a strange feeling of absolute harmony. It’s a perfect moment. A soft light, a scent in the air, the quiet murmur of the city. A surge of love, an urge to help mankind overcomes her.”

Sullivan’s Travels A successful Hollywood director wants to stop making his popular comedies so he can produce a serious film about economic hardship. He goes undercover as a homeless man and learns that he can do more to help those who are suffering by making them laugh than by trying to tell them about life’s miseries. “There’s a lot to be said for making people laugh. Did you know that that’s all some people have? It isn’t much, but it’s better than nothing in this cockeyed caravan.”

Happy-Go-Lucky An irrepressibly happy schoolteacher frustrates some of those around her with her optimism but demonstrates that being cheerful can be smart, thoughtful, sensitive, and right, especially when contrasted with characters who make a different choice. “You keep on rowin’, and I’ll keep on smilin’.”

Pollyanna Hayley Mills plays the little girl who invented “The Glad Game.” Her ability to find the good in every person and every situation endears her to her troubled community and to her starchy aunt. It is true family classic and a wonderful lesson in finding happiness by knowing where to look. “When you look for the bad in mankind, expecting to find it, you surely will.”

  • Marjorie Millner

    Hi Nell,
    Thanks for this list! (By the way, the Amazon link for “Hairspray” is for the recent remake. Did you like that one as well as the Divine/Ricki Lake original? I haven’t seen the recent one.) Some are old favorites of mine, but some I had never heard of before (“Happy-go-Lucky”, for instance) and I am glad to be able to seek out additional happiness films!
    I came across Abraham Lincoln’s quotation on happiness (“People are about as happy as they make up their minds to be”) when I was age 12 I think, and it was a revelation! I can’t say I’ve been as successful as I’d like at making up my mind to be happy, but that saying has helped me through some challenging times.
    I also received some words of wisdom from my grandfather, who taped this statement to my bedroom wall when he visited my family in New Jersey when I was about 8 (he left to fly back home to Utah while I was in school and I came home to find it): “When it takes great big trouble to trouble you, and little things to make you happy, then you are on the right track.” I kept that note on my wall until I moved away, and took it with me when I went!
    I keep wanting to mention “Rudy” here as one of my favorite happiness films. I know it isn’t a classic “happiness” movie in the mold of an inhibited character blooming after having an catalytic experience, but it is such an inspiring story! Rudy learns that the nature of happiness might be something other than what he thought he wanted (if that makes sense!) Or, as Charles S. Dutton’s character points out, Rudy can choose to be happy and proud of what he HAS achieved, rather than focusing on what he has not achieved. And I always cry at the “jersey” scene. Sometimes people really come through for each other.
    Sometimes I think that if people would eat properly, exercise properly, and watch films like these when they need a bit of encouragement, there would be no need for antidepressants!

  • Alicia

    Great list, Nell. Some of my favorite “happiness” films (excluding Christmas movies for the moment) are “The World of Henry Orient,” “Mr. Smith Goes to Washington,” and “The Pink Panther.”
    There are a number of films I’ve heard called “mod comedies” that can’t help but perk me up, such as “Casino Royale” (with Peter Sellers) and “What’s New Pussycat?” Also, “In Like Flint,” and “Our Man Flint” with the divine James Coburn. Those wonderful films of the 50’s and 60’s like the Doris Day-Rock Hudson movies. They bear no resemblance to reality, and Thank God for that!

  • Nell Minow

    Great choices, Alicia! “The World of Henry Orient” is one of my all-time favorites, and I am a huge fan of Doris Day. A wonderful comment, as always.

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