As I noted last week in my discussion of the recent outbreak of rudeness, courtesy is a neglected virtue, often dismissed as tangential or even hypocritical. But courtesy is sincere, based on a recognition of the dignity deserved by all people, and it is crucially important, requiring us to be sensitive to the feelings of others, and to show respect for them and for ourselves. Some movies teach us that being treated with courtesy can be a transforming experience, a lesson well worth family discussion. And this is particularly important because so many of today’s movies seem to depict lack of courtesy as somehow brave, honest, or funny.
In “To Sir With Love,” it is not being treated courteously by the teacher that changes the way the students think about themselves and each other as much as it is being required to change their behavior and treat each other with courtesy. In the delightful “Babe,” our porcine hero becomes the greatest shepherd of all time by asking the sheep to move politely instead of nipping at their heels. “My Fair Lady” has one of the most famous exchanges on the subject of courtesy in all of literature, when Eliza explains that Colonel Pickering treats a flower girl like a duchess, and Professor Higgins treats a duchess like a flower girl. As Americans, we are inclined to agree when Higgins says that the great thing is to have one manner for all people, but we also agree with Eliza when she says she learned more from Pickering’s courteous manners than from Higgins elocution lessons.
“To Kill a Mockingbird” is a movie that resonates on many levels and has much to teach us about many subjects. But I recommend watching it at least once with attention to its emphasis on courtesy, which serves as a beacon in the most troubled and unsettling circumstances.
Babe “This is a tale about an unprejudiced heart, and how it changed our valley forever.” So begins this lovely story about a pig who lives his dream (and saves his life) by learning to herd sheep. Farmer Hoggett (James Cromwell) wins the little pig at a fair. Back at his farm, Babe is adopted by Fly, the sheepdog, who treats him like one of her puppies. Babe learns the ways of the farm and the barnyard, and is very distressed to hear from Maa the sheep that she thinks Fly is cruel, and even more distressed to learn from Ferdinand the duck that humans eat animals. Hoggett enters Babe into competition at the fair, submitting him as the best sheepdog. At first, the sheep at the fair won’t listen to Babe, but when Rex finds out the sheep password (by promising to be kind and respectful to sheep in the future), Babe uses it, along with his unique style of courteous friendliness, to manage the sheep so brilliantly that he wins the competition.
This movie is a delight for the eye, heart, and spirit. And it deals very well with many important issues. The movie is really a tale of two “unprejudiced hearts.” And one of its themes is the importance of kindness–Hoggett’s to Babe, Fly’s to Babe, Babe’s to the sheep, and ultimately Rex’s to Babe, and how it transforms both the giver and the recipient.
My Fair Lady On a rainy night in Covent Garden, Professor Henry Higgins (Rex Harrison) meets Colonel Pickering (Wilfred Hyde-White), a fellow linguistics scholar, as he is correctly identifying accents of all those around him. Offhandedly commenting that in England people are defined by their accents, he says that he could even teach a poor Cockney flower girl to speak like a lady. The next day, the flower girl (Audrey Hepburn) comes to see him, to offer to pay Higgins for language lessons. She wants to be “a lady in a flower shop,” and that requires a more bourgeois accent and manner. Higgins proposes to teach her to talk like a society lady and bets Pickering that he can pass her off. This musical was based on “Pygmalion,” written in 1912 by George Bernard Shaw. In this era, and in this country, it is hard to imagine how genuinely revolutionary it was for Shaw to say that the only difference between the classes was accent and demeanor. It is worth discussing the way that language and accent defined people in this era, and asking children about the conclusions people draw from accents today.
This story has its parallels to Cinderella; it has its climax at a ball, which our heroine attends in borrowed finery. But Higgins and Pickering are far from fairy godfathers. Their interest is not in rewarding Eliza for a virtuous life; they want to show off their own achievement, and play something of a joke on high society. And Higgins is not a prince. In a way he reveals the princess inside of Eliza, though he never intended to, or even took the time to imagine it to be possible.
One of Shaw’s most important insights in this story is of the role of courtesy, and the different characters’ ideas of its importance provide an excellent opportunity for discussion. Pickering’s treating Eliza like a lady has as much to do with her becoming one as all of the training about diction and appropriate topics for conversation. As she says, he treats a flower girl like a duchess. When she says that Higgins treats a duchess like a flower girl, Higgins says that “the great thing” is to treat everyone the same way. That may be, but Pickering is able to treat everyone (even Eliza at her Cockney-ist) with equal courtesy, instead of equal brusqueness. Mrs. Higgins is also courteous to everyone (with the exception of her son); her concern over having Eliza at Ascot is at least as much for Eliza’s comfort as her own.
To Kill a Mockingbird The story is about prejudice and injustice, seen through the eyes of a little girl, the daughter of a lawyer who defends a black man against a trumped up rape charge in 1930s Georgia. The lawyer, Atticus Finch (Gregory Peck), is the essence of quiet dignity, integrity, and courtesy. His efforts to teach his son and daughter the values he believes in, which the community they live in does not always honor, are moving and inspiring.
There is a great deal of emphasis in the movie on courtesy and sensitivity to the feelings of others. In the first scene, Atticus tells Scout not to embarrass a client named Walter Cunningham, when he comes by to drop off some food as payment for legal services. Later, when Scout brings Walter, Jr. home for lunch, she is told not to say anything when he pours syrup all over his food. Atticus treats mean old Mrs. Dubose with gallantry, disarming her. Atticus’ courtesy in cross-examining Mayella Ewell is so unfamiliar to her that she assumes it is some new sort of insult. The black people in the courtroom balcony stand as a courtesy to Atticus. And Sheriff Heck Tate explains why the official record will show that Bob Ewell fell on his knife. He wants to protect Boo “with his shy ways” from the well-meaning gratitude (and curiosity) of the “good ladies” of the town.
To Sir, With Love Released the same year as “Up the Down Staircase” this is also the story of a new teacher in an inner-city school, although this time the city is London, and the teacher is Sidney Poitier. An outsider by virtue of his country (West Indies) more than his color, Poitier becomes impatient with the insolence and narrow-mindedness of his students and imposes his own set of rules, foremost of which is courtesy to him and to each other. At first, they are embarrassed and awkward, as though they don’t want to believe that they could deserve such treatment. The other teachers make it quite clear that they don’t think the students deserve it. But soon the exaggerated sarcasm of “Miss Dare” and “Sir” falls away, and we see a superb example of the transforming nature of being treated with — and treating others with — respect.