Essay: THE LATE SHOW AS HISTORY

THIS week in the U.S. of 1968, a Negro waiter will shuffle off, mumbling: "Yassuh, I'se hurrin' fas' as I know how." An angry Indian will vow: "Many white eyes will die!" A Marine sergeant will cry: "Come on, let's get the yellowbellies!"

Such quaint language endures in the movies from the '30s and '40s that unreel on television with the steady persistence of an arterial throb. Ranging back to the baby talkies, late-show films represent what Jean Cocteau called the "petrified fountain of thought." Ghosts of America's past, they evoke the naivete, exuberance—and...