The first movie I ever saw in a theater was Mary Poppins. It is my very earliest memory. The three things I recollect vividly about that personal milestone from fifty years ago are the moment when Dick Van Dyke balances on an animated turtle’s back to ride across a pond, the fact that it was raining when we left the movie, and clearest of all, I remember that the blouse my mother was wearing had tiny bowling pins printed all over it. Looking back, it makes perfect sense that Mom was such a key player in my first movie memory. As I got older, although it was my father who taught me most of what I know about movies from an artistic and historical perspective, it was my mother, Elaine Kellner, who instilled in me a love and appreciation for the immersive act of seeing a movie, particularly in a theater.
I’ve never spoken to her specifically about the topic, but I’ve always sensed that Mom finds more enjoyment in the activity of going to see a film than in the film itself. As a young, non-discriminating movie lover, I was a perfect companion for fairly frequent mother/son jaunts to the movie theater – usually The Meyerland Cinema.
The only problem was, my pre-teen years coincided with the advent of the MPAA ratings system, so in the late 60s and early 70s, the release of G-rated, kid-appropriate films grew increasingly rare. Understandably, Mom had little-to-no interest in enduring noisy “kiddie” movie audiences, so our choices were narrowed to then-popular nostalgic salutes to Hollywood’s past like What’s Up Doc, That’s Entertainment, and Movie Movie, as well as the handful of musicals still occasionally being made and revived at the time. Mom took me to see Oliver!, On a Clear Day You Can See Forever, Scrooge, Fiddler on the Roof, Funny Girl, West Side Story, Hello Dolly, Sweet Charity, and Thoroughly Modern Millie. (The latter, despite the expectations of my mother and the filmmakers, traumatized me and gave me nightmares for weeks.)
When it came to determining appropriateness, Mom wasn’t prudish, but was certainly cautious. As I grew older, however, she grew more lax and permissive in her choices. Together we saw Paper Moon, my first movie that contained considerable profanity. As we left the theater, we ran into a kid I went to school with and his mother. The mother asked Mom if she thought the language in Paper Moon was appropriate for her child. Mom responded, “Ehh…a few ‘shits’ and ‘damns’… no big deal.” Mom’s saying that in front of my classmate made her a true badass in my eyes. The following year, she accompanied me to my first R-rated movie, Blazing Saddles, which made us both feel like badasses.
Of course, nearly everyone can cite at least one uncomfortable instance of seeing a movie with questionable content in the company of our parents. The two that I’ll never forget were watching All That Jazz and Kentucky Fried Movie — particularly the “Catholic High School Girls in Trouble” segment — with Mom.
I also shudder as I recall being pelted with rice and water at a midnight showing of The Rocky Horror Picture Show as Mom joined a sizable portion of the audience doing the “Time Warp” in the aisle of the Alabama Theater.
For my mother, every aspect of going to the movies is pleasurable. Starting when I was in my thirties, she and I began a tradition of standing side-by-side at the ticket window together where she would smile at the salesperson and say, “Two seniors, please,” just to see if they would give both of us a senior discount. They always did. There’s no resisting Elaine Kellner’s smile. Of course, now that I have my own AARP card, it’s nowhere near as much fun.
The concession stand is another great part of the event. Mom’s movie fare of choice has always been Milk Duds or her beloved Dots (or both on occasions when we “marathon” and see multiple movies in a day). Mom’s request for a “courtesy cup with ice” was a sure sign that I’d be sharing my drink with her.
My mother and I have seen scores of movies together, but two very specific and special Mom/movie memories stand out more than any other. In October of 2002, Mom endured a personal tragedy. The following Thanksgiving, she called me and said she wasn’t in the mood to celebrate, so we spent that Thanksgiving Day and evening seeing Standing in the Shadows of Motown and Far From Heaven. Both films were excellent and helped my mother get through a very difficult holiday. I was thankful to be with her.
The other profoundly memorable instance (for me, anyway) happened when I was eleven. Mom and I were driving on our way home from somewhere one weekday evening. We passed the Bel Air Theater and its marquee advertising Charlotte’s Web, the animated Hanna Barbera adaptation of E. B. White’s book. Mom asked if I wanted to go and see it. I assumed she meant eventually, since, as a kid, I rarely went to evening movies, and never on a weekday. I answered that I definitely intended on seeing it at the earliest opportunity. Much to my surprise and delight, Mom drove into the parking lot and we went to see Charlotte’s Web. As I recall, we were the only two people in the empty auditorium, which was so cavernous the soundtrack echoed. The characters in the film were astounded at Charlotte’s literary spinning skills, but as I joyously watched the main titles roll that night, I reveled in the precious miracle of sitting with my mother in a movie theater at a “private screening” on a school night!
To this day, I don’t know the reason for Mom’s uncharacteristically impulsive behavior that evening. Was she upset about something and didn’t feel like going home? Was I upset about something and she assumed, correctly, that a movie would help? Whatever the reason, Charlotte’s Web always reminds me of one of my favorite evenings at the movies and mother/son moments.
With each passing year, I’ve become far more selective about what films I will venture to a theater for. But my mother is one of a tiny handful of people with whom I will go to the movies regardless of what’s playing. As I mentioned, she loves the activity of watching a movie. She really gets into it, which I love. Naturally, she never talks during a film (God forbid!!), but doesn’t hold back when it comes to laughing out loud, gasping in surprise, bopping her head to musical numbers, or softly offering occasional “commentary” with a sagacious “hmm…,” or “ah hah…” or my favorite, when a malady befalls the protagonist, a sympathetically sighed, “oy.”
After all these years Mom and I have never really talked about movies at length. I still don’t know if my mother has a favorite film, star, or director, and I’m pretty sure she has minimal interest in film history, analysis, politics, or business. But I do know that, when it comes to movies, she totally gets it. She fully understands the tricky and debatable balance between film as art and entertainment. Mom’s innate respect and understanding of the true purpose of going to the movies has always inspired me – ever since that rainy day half a century ago when she wore that bowling pin shirt as together we watched the turtle carry Dick Van Dyke across the water.
Happy Mother’s Day!
“Two seniors, please.”
Imagine you’re standing on a stage. The house lights come up and you can see the individual audience members clearly. Picture their faces.
Now imagine the outside of a movie theater. There is a long line of eager patrons waiting to purchase tickets. Again, picture their excited expressions. Remember those faces. I’ll come back to them later.
It’s no surprise that I love old movies. Yet I watch them with full realization that, for better and worse, they reflect the times in which they were made. It is sad and astonishing that diversity in mainstream American films is a hotly discussed topic in 2016. Surely by this point we should all be rolling our eyes at how politically and socially unenlightened movies and moviemaking once were, rather than still being frustrated at how bereft of diversity they still are, onscreen and off.
As we all know, the catalyst for the most recent firestorm was the recent Oscar nominations, prompting many to accuse the Academy’s members of being racist and exclusive. (Those who know me already know how I feel about the Oscars and other award shows, so I’ll refrain from a digressive rant on the subject.) Other protesters immediately recognized that the Oscars’ all-white nominee roster is indicative of a much larger problem – mainstream Hollywood producers’ stubborn unwillingness to adapt to changing times and provide equal opportunities to a more diverse community of artists and behind-the-scenes moguls.
Throughout the discussions about and between various groups of filmmakers, executives, Academy voters, etc., I have heard very little mention of the most vital group of all – the audience. What about the ticket-buying public for whom the films are made? This brings me back to my initial request. When you imagined the audience gazing at you and the faces of those standing in the movie line, did you picture a diverse group? Or did the faces all look pretty much the same?
I suggest that, for all the advanced technology that currently goes into American filmmaking, Hollywood executives show woefully little imagination when considering the demographic of the audience consuming their product. They seem to think that, with limited exceptions, only white people go to the movies. They therefore aim the films’ content and casting at that crowd. Notice the trailers that accompany the films we see. They typically match the genre, style, and yes… ethnicity prominent in the main feature. It appears that Hollywood producers and distributors have trouble imagining a single culturally diverse group of people as an audience, but rather suppose that we only go to the movies with people who look like we do.
Of course, aiming movie content at a predominantly white audience has been an unfortunate aspect of Hollywood history for generations. This is why older films are rife with negative images and xenophobic portrayals of non-whites as the servile or demonized “other.” Of course, back in those days, there were irrefutable financial reasons behind these stereotyped portrayals. For example, if a film depicted an African American character as someone other than a servant or as having some humanity or integrity, it would be boycotted by a substantial portion of the country, losing equally substantial box office revenue. Sadly, such “artistic” decisions were a matter of financial necessity if the films were to make money. Today, Hollywood has no such excuse.
The thing that makes the current mainstream film industry seem all the more prehistoric in terms of its limited representation of variety in American culture is that other media (advertising, TV, the internet) and smaller independent films have deftly and successfully embraced the concept of audience diversity and are continuing to move forward.
If you want to see social progress, watch today’s commercials. During its first two decades, the television industry suffered from the same malady as Hollywood – the false perception that the entire consumer population of “TV land” was white. This is most plainly demonstrated by the 50s-era Band-Aid commercial that proudly touts the product as being “almost invisible” by virtue of its being “flesh-colored,” suggesting that every person watching the ad has skin that matches the hue of generic Band-Aids.
By the early 1970s, however, advertisers caught on to the fact that TV viewership was socially varied and that all kinds of people make up consumerism. This was memorably and influentially demonstrated by Coca-Cola’s iconic ad from 1971.
Today, the scope of diversity in TV commercials is widening by the day, most recently including inter-racial families and the LGBT community among the target audience. Unlike the fiscally sycophantic approach Hollywood took to Southern politics in decades past, today’s advertisers see protests and threatened product boycotts as healthy publicity, placing the needs and of a progressive society over those of bigots.
I started watching TV again fairly recently after a twenty-year respite. Clearly, television and internet-based programming are also stretching the reach of their embrace to be more all-inclusive and respectful of its multi-faceted audience.
It’s 2016. Hollywood decision-makers need to reconsider their definition of a “target audience.” Of course, this will be easiest and most effective when they themselves become diverse and culturally inclusive. Since advertising and small screen programming have made such great strides, Hollywood (and the rest of us) would surely benefit from not allowing technology to be the only way in which theatrical movies are making advancements. It’s time for the mainstream film industry to take a deep breath and rip off the old-fashioned monochromatic Band-Aid that is neither invisible nor “flesh-colored.” As we learned when we were children, it hurts more when you remove it slowly.
With each passing year, more and more attention is being given to the restoration and archiving of one of our most treasured and valuable resources – movies. The reasons for this are obvious. Every inch of motion picture film is a “time machine” that preserves a living, breathing moment in history, allowing us to see just how we’ve changed and how we’ve remained the same as a society for well over a century. Therefore, each bit of film – particularly those from cinema’s infancy – is a precious educational commodity. It can further be argued that every (narrative) film ever made is produced with the tastes of its then-contemporary audience in mind, resulting in movies that allow us a window not only into how society dressed, spoke, etc. in any given year, but what that year’s moviegoers found scary, funny, meaningful, and entertaining.
As a staunch believer in Film Preservation and Archiving, it is my fervent hope that I can someday play an active role in that professional community. In the meantime, a large amount of my time and energy during my former career as a middle/high school teacher was spent introducing kids to old movies. Part of my reason for doing this was to share my keen enthusiasm for movies with them (I’ve been obsessed with old movies since age eight), but I also had a loftier goal in mind. Inspiring kids to gain an avid appreciation for old movies is an essential part of the Film Preservation movement. What is the point of saving and archiving films if future generations will be apathetic towards them? As we ensure the future of film history, we must also ensure that there is always an audience who sees the presence of old movies as a vital part of their lives.
Thankfully, Houston’s Emery Weiner School, where I did most of my teaching, afforded me the opportunity to create and develop a long-running Film Appreciation course, primarily geared toward eighth graders. As the class evolved, the students (hopefully) learned a thing or two about cinema and I learned more than I ever thought possible about the fascinating and complicated relationship between young people and old movies.
I had three main goals in creating the course:
- To try to help the students overcome their prejudices against old movies – particularly those in black and white. It is important to remember that for kids, an “old movie” is any film made before they were born. They tend to think of film in the same sense as we do newspapers. “Once it’s outdated, it’s useless.”
- To encourage them to be more than “stars and story” movie watchers. In other words, to see that there is much more to a film than just what it’s about and who plays the leading roles. This is especially important when considering today’s kids’ ever-shortening attention spans. Older movies are typically slower-paced than current ones. Therefore, it is important that kids be able to appreciate a movie holistically, giving them more to look at. Naturally, this also helps them when watching current films.
- To demonstrate that there is inherent educational and entertainment value in watching old movies… even those that aren’t necessarily “classics.”
Realizing that the selection of the first movie to show could make or break the entire remainder of the course, I spent several semesters agonizing over which movie to start with. I eventually settled on what I found to be the perfect first-day-of-Film-Appreciation-class movie and it never failed to set the scene and engage the students. Rather than a known “classic,” I began the course with Tarzan’s New York Adventure (1942). What makes this film a perfect primer for future open-minded movie watchers is that it contains both the best (compact, compelling storytelling and well-staged action sequences) and the worst (blatant racism) that old movies have to offer. Typically, I never paused movies while showing them, but I always made this Tarzan film the exception, stopping often to point out the subtle and overt lessons such films can teach us today. Nearly everything in Tarzan’s New York Adventure, positive and negative, provides teachable moments about what both studio system filmmaking and mainstream American society were like in 1942. For example, the students found it odd that the windows in a fancy New York hotel room would be wide open, prompting the explanation that in 1942, even fancy hotels weren’t air conditioned. And, of course, today’s kids always find scenes of people smoking indoors or on airplanes rather jarring.
The key ingredient that makes Tarzan’s New York Adventure a hit with eighth graders is that its central character is not Tarzan, but “Boy.” I quickly discovered that, not surprisingly, young people tend to like movies about young people. This greatly informed many of my screening choices throughout the course.
Though the movies I showed changed from semester to semester, the course’s overall structure altered very little over the years. On Monday, I would show introductory clips centering on the week’s topic and then show one or two relevant films for the remainder of the week.
The first half of the semester focused on gaining an awareness and appreciation for the off-screen artists. Each week, we zoomed in on a different cinematic element including the directing, the screenwriting, the cinematography, the editing, the music, the production and costume design, etc. The semester’s second half dealt with a different genre each week. Focusing on cinematography allowed me my best opportunity to display the virtues of black and white. The legendary opening sequence to David Lean’s Great Expectations (1946), photographed by Guy Green is extremely effective (and startling) in demonstrating what black and white can accomplish in terms of setting a stark and somber mood that color just can’t manage to convey.
I knew from the beginning that the course would require a certain amount of presentational experimentation on my part, including considerable trial and error. Over the years, films that I was confident would be big hits were duds and those I wasn’t completely sure about were resounding and sometimes surprising successes, inspiring the kids to further explore other films with the same actors and/or directors and even purchase the DVD for future viewing.
If I learned anything from the whole experience, it is that all old movies and even clips must be properly prefaced before showing them to middle schoolers if the kids are to watch them with open minds and take anything from them. Rather than just turning off the lights and starting the movie, it is essential that the film be placed in its proper context and that the class be alerted to what to watch for. Eventually, I became a regular “P. T. Barnum” when it came to getting students excited to watch black-and-white, silent, or even subtitled foreign films. Building anticipation is key.
Many of the films I showed were contemporary, requiring a permission slip for the kids to watch those with PG-13 ratings. Quite a few of the slips I got back included notes from their parents saying how they wished they could attend the class. Eventually, I decided it would be fun to offer the same course to the parents in the evenings. The large weekly turnout was certainly gratifying, but also fascinating, comparing the parents’ reactions to the movies to that of their kids.
Here are the films I showed in class that consistently received the most positive feedback from eighth-graders:
The Blackboard Jungle (1955) – Each time I showed this film, the same thing happened. At first, the kids laughed at the 50s slang and the not-too-threatening “hoodlums.” Then, thanks to the earnest performances by Glenn Ford and Sidney Poitier (whom most kids agreed steals the film), they get pulled in and become fully invested. The first time I introduced this movie, an amazing thing happened after I showed it to a morning class. That afternoon, a group of kids from that class showed up at my afternoon class. They had asked the coach if they could leave P.E. to watch The Blackboard Jungle again!
And Then There Were None (1945) – This Agatha Christie comedy/mystery got me in trouble with the other teachers a few times. If I failed to time it right, the class bell would ring before the murderer’s identity was revealed and the kids would refuse to leave until they saw the outcome, causing me to have to e-mail my colleagues with apologies for group tardies.
The Search (1948) – Montgomery Clift’s performance in his film debut has a very contemporary feel which greatly appealed to the kids. Clift, the compelling story, Fred Zinnemann’s honest direction, and the realism of the on-location setting won them over every time. Many told me it was their favorite of all the films we watched. I was taken by surprise when I showed this one to the parents. Unlike the kids, who typically applauded at the end, the adults were all openly sobbing. I considered both responses a success.
Les Diabolique (1955) – Are you as surprised as I was? At the end of each semester of Film Appreciation, I would show a movie that challenged the students and, depending on their reaction, tested the success of the overall course. This was one of those movies. I had no idea what to expect response-wise, but the classes who watched this black-and-white, subtitled, French thriller absolutely loved it.
Wild Boys of the Road (1933) – I showed this pre-code film about Depression-era runaway teens to demonstrate what we can learn about history from the movies of a certain time period. The kids were pleasantly surprised at how edgy and unrelentingly tough this movie is. The post-screening discussion was exciting, indicating that the kids genuinely took home a powerful lesson on just how good they have it these days. What impressed me most is that the kids complained about the contrived “happy ending,” pointing out correctly that it didn’t ring true with the rest of the film. At the evening showing, the same movie left the adults cold. This was one case in which the kids “got it” and their parents didn’t.
Laurel and Hardy/Our Gang (The Little Rascals) – Horror and comedy are the two genres that, most often, don’t hold up with the passage of time. Quite often, what was considered scary or funny then doesn’t quite come off to modern eyes and ears. However, each time I screen Laurel and Hardy’s short film “Brats!” with its brilliant dual-role performances as the stars play both themselves and their offspring and “The Our Gang Follies of 1938,” an endearingly compact mini-musical, the kids always ask for more.
Bringing Up Baby (1938) – This one was only a partial success. I showed it a few times and, more than any other movie, it consistently polarized the class. Half the kids were delighted by its random mayhem, screwball dialogue, and cute animals, while the other half found Katherine Hepburn’s character annoying and Cary Grant’s plight aggravating. Spirited debates about the movie’s quality followed each screening. I always enjoyed sharing the fact that the dissenters’ viewpoint was the one widely held by critics and audiences in 1938 before Bringing Up Baby eventually won its share of fans.
I must admit, in the end, my Film Appreciation course did not make old movie converts out of every student, but at least they were exposed to films, actors, and directors they otherwise would never have seen. On the other hand, I’m proud to say that a great many of the kids became sincere fans of what they saw and heard and, on their own volition, continued to explore the work of the artists they liked the most. These many years later, I still hear from them on occasion, informing me that they’re taking a college Hitchcock class or attended a silent film festival. About a month ago, one of my former students remembered when I screened The Night of the Hunter (1955) and recommended it to his film teacher. (She hadn’t already seen it????) After watching it, the teacher added it to her class syllabus.
Naturally, I am not the only one encouraging young people to watch old movies. This most worthy cause has always been an essential part of Turner Classic Movies’s agenda, most recently through their excellent Summer Movie Camp series. I’m also glad to say that, over the years, I encountered a sizable handful of kids who came into my class already well versed in old movies thanks to the efforts of their film-savvy parents and grandparents who recognize the importance of passing the magic on to the next generation.
What was the biggest perk in teaching the course? Call me sentimental, but every semester I was guaranteed several moments when I was witness to groups of 21st century teenagers laughing, gasping, or being moved to tears by films made decades earlier – films these same kids initially thought of as remote and irrelevant. Those moments never failed to make me happily emotional, confident in the knowledge that, along with film history, an appreciative future audience is also being preserved. It’s well worth the effort!
The “generation gap” has always been a fruitful topic for comedy, drama, and everything in between, offering young and old alike the opportunity to empathize with their peers and roll their eyes at the other’s folly. The youngster vs. oldster canon includes several sub-genres including the all-too-familiar “body switching” movie in which a parent and child magically and temporarily exchange bodies and therefore, places. Those of a certain age will recall titles like 18 Again (1988), Like Father Like Son (1987), Vice Versa (1948, 1988), and Freaky Friday (1976, 2003). Note that the latter two titles were made twice. (Note also that the first version of Vice Versa featured the movie debut of Anthony Newley in the role later played by Fred Savage…. but I digress.)
The message running through all of these body switching films is the same. We tend to underestimate or forget just how hard the other generation has it. Despite their sameness, these movies had something worthwhile to say. I attribute at least some of my success as a teacher to the fact that I always kept a photo of my eighth-grade self close at hand as a visual reminder of what my young students were dealing with.
Another theme seemingly rife with comic possibilities borrows from the “fish out of water” school and deals with adults of advanced age attending college. These included The Undergrads (1985), Back to School (1986), and High Time (1960). (One might assume that a movie with a college setting called High Time might have something to do with the comic effects of rampant drug use on campus – perhaps a vehicle for Cheech and Chong — but since it stars Bing Crosby and Fabian, the only thing that gets “lit up” is a celebratory bonfire.) I watched all three of these films in preparation for my entering college at age 50 in anticipation of the comic mayhem I might expect. What I discovered was that, even though I was the oldest student in all of my classes and was older than many of my professors, none of the hilarious hijinks depicted in those films actually occurred. From my perspective, the age difference was a non-issue. There were certainly occasions when I leaned on my classmates for tech support and they turned to me for advice, practical problem solving, or old movie recommendations. I suppose the closest thing to an amusing incident took place when my mother came up for Parents Weekend and the two of us were greeted numerous times with the question, “Which one of the students is yours?
Hollywood has now addressed the generational question with the recent releases of The Internship (2013) and The Intern (2015). In terms of quality, both movies are as unremarkable and unmemorable as their titles. Critical and audience response to both has been deservedly lukewarm at best. However, since they deal directly with older people jumping into a fast-moving, technology-driven workforce populated mostly with young people, the films spoke to me and I was able to connect and relate. I only wish the movies had tried harder to reach everybody else.
Disclaimer: I feel a bit strange writing critical comments on The Internship since one of its leading players is a close friend and immensely talented former student, Josh Brener. It goes without saying that none of my issues with either of these movies has anything to do with the cast members or their performances.
I must admit, on paper or in an elevator pitch, the inter-generational workplace idea behind these films sounds like a winner. So why are the finished products so devoid of anything of dramatic or comic interest? I can only surmise as an insider – that is, an older person desperately trying to forge a place in a constantly moving “online” world — the premise isn’t enough of a fantasy for effective comedy and doesn’t portray enough reality for solid satire. Both movies seem so sure that the premise alone is fool-proof, they see no need for fully developed characters or situations. The truth is, though we’d like to think otherwise, neither the filmmakers nor their target audience (today’s society) are completely comfortable with the notion of integrated generations in the workplace. As a result, these two movies aren’t very sure of themselves, either.
Both The Internship and The Intern work needlessly hard to break down stereotypes and show the eventual and obvious advantages of a mixed-age workforce. Each features an awkwardly shoe-horned scene in which the older workers demonstrate that they can be “bad assess” and that “old school” is cool. Vince Vaughn and Owen Wilson take their impossibly nerdy young colleagues to a strip club and Robert De Niro risks arrest by orchestrating (with his impossibly nerdy young colleagues) a well-intentioned home invasion. There are also opportunities in both films for the senior workers to teach their young collaborators valuable, experience-based life lessons not available through any app.
Alternately, the younger crowd has a thing or two to teach the elders about keeping up to speed with technology. Vaughn learns not to say “on the line” instead of “online,” and De Niro learns how to make his first Facebook friend. Both movies depict environments in which, despite occasional awkward moments and rough starts, old and young people can not only work together, but by sharing the skills learned by their experiences, can make the work and its results far more productive. (But why do both movies insist that only awkward and comically geeky young people can get along with older co-workers?)
My college experience showed me that the happy endings The Internship and The Intern play out are totally reachable and easily accessible. But these two films strain so hard to make what ought to be easy points, the contents come across as clumsy fluff and fantasy rather than what they should be – truth. I am confident that, if given the chance, workers in my age group can make palpable, positive impacts in today’s high-tech, youth-oriented companies. Perhaps one of my talented young Columbia classmates will write and/or direct a movie that actually inspires real-life professional organizations that there are countless real advantages to hiring older workers (like myself). I’d be more than happy to collaborate on it!
We all have certain thematic or stylistic elements that will draw us toward certain films. If someone admits to thinking of a favorite movie as a “guilty pleasure,” it is usually because it inhabits one or more of these very personal cinematic elements. I have many of them. I’m a sucker for movies that celebrate music, contain beautiful black and white photography, deal with matters of education, and are loaded with character actors. The presence of a cute dog also helps, as long as it doesn’t die. A few weeks ago, I accidentally came across such a movie and recorded it. It is not a great film, but it is very much a “Larry” movie and after watching it in its entirety, I’ve watched bits and pieces of it every day since.
1939 is widely thought of as American movies’ banner year – the year when Hollywood reached its artistic peak, producing more film “classics” within that twelve-month period than ever before or since. 1939 boasts, among many others, The Wizard of Oz, Stagecoach, Mr. Smith Goes To Washington, Gunga Din, Gone With The Wind, Ninotchka, Of Mice and Men, The Women, Destry Rides Again, Goodbye Mr. Chips, Wuthering Heights, Dark Victory, The Hound of the Baskervilles, and The Hunchback of Notre Dame.
Of course, not every film made that year was a masterpiece. But 1939 was such a magnificent year for Hollywood that even the bad movies were good! Such a movie is 1939’s They Shall Have Music. It’s hackneyed, uneven, predictable, and often downright silly. The stiffness of some of the acting is matched only by the creakiness in the script. There are enormous plot holes. And I love every frame.
They Shall Have Music was made as a vehicle to spotlight violin virtuoso, Jascha Heifetz who appears as himself and plays five extended solos. The story concerns a runaway teenager (Gene Reynolds) who accidentally wanders into a Heifetz concert and is inspired to take up the violin. The boy finds shelter in a classical music school operated by an eccentric teacher and conductor played, in a masterstroke of offbeat casting, by Walter Brennan!
The music school is on the verge of being shut down for non-payment of rent, and only Jascha Heifetz can save the struggling institution.
As mentioned before, the movie is far from perfect. Granted, Jascha Heifetz wasn’t an actor, but even playing himself, he comes across as insincere (except when he’s playing the violin, of course). Joel McCrea is woefully miscast in a clumsy love interest role. A sub-plot involving a blackmailing bully (Tommy Kelly) is established and then disappears.
So what’s so great about this film? Plenty!
There’s Walter Brennan conducting an orchestra made up of plucky children who love classical music and have an intense collective celebrity crush on Jascha Heifetz.
There’s Gene Reynolds’s enthralled reaction to hearing Heifetz play.
There’s an army of stage mothers who fiercely protect the music school from the burly villains who want to close it down.
There’s Gregg Toland’s luminous photography, especially during the riveting Heifetz performance pieces.
There’s Archie Mayo’s snappy direction that never lags.
And as if that isn’t enough… there’s a really adorable dog named “Sucker!”
They Shall Have Music may not be in the same league with many of 1939’s illustrious roster of classics, but it certainly knows its target audience – me.
I have an old friend (and former theatre student) named Josh Brener. Josh and his fiancé, Meghan Falcone, are both professional TV/movie actors and they recently came to Chicago to appear in a movie being filmed, in part, in nearby Naperville. I had never met Meghan before, so it was a real joy to get to know her and catch up with Josh while they were here.
The movie is an independent production called B-Roll, and I asked Josh if I could visit the set and watch some of the filming. At Columbia, I’ve witnessed and been involved in the production of several student films, but had never actually seen a professional film set up close.
On the day I went to the set, Meghan had already finished shooting her scenes, so she picked me up from the train and drove me to the film’s base location, a Naperville church. When we arrived, Josh was in hair and make up, so Meghan and I waited for him in his trailer which contained a sleeper sofa, a full bathroom and shower, and… a double take-inducing remote control-operated artificial fireplace? Josh showed up and, after assuring me that a fireplace is not a usual feature of a movie actor’s trailer, we visited until a production assistant named Brian came to inform us that we would all be driven to the day’s filming location.
The first location was a local high school which, for the needs of the movie, was representing a college campus. Though the project originated in L.A., the set was populated with local production staff including several Columbia alumni. At one point, the film’s location manager approached me and asked, “Weren’t we in a class together last year?” He had since grown a beard, but I recognized him as Tom Lounsbury from my Cinema Studies course. It was heartening to have a school connection on a professional movie set.
Another connection, one that I thought about the entire day, was my brother Saul Dachslager who also studied film in college and has worked as a professional production assistant for many years in Dallas. Watching the P.A.s on B-Roll gave me an up-close appreciation and nsight into his job that I’d never been privy to before. Someday I hope to visit one of his sets, as well.
The scene being filmed involved Josh and three other principal actors (Kurt Bronohler, Adam Herschman, and Karan Soni) talking as they exited the school building. A handful of young Naperville locals had been recruited to serve as background extras to further enhance the illusion that we were on a college campus. While the director consulted with the principals, the production assistants asked the extras to gather for their assignments and placement. Meghan leaned over to me and asked if I wanted to be an extra in the film. I had assumed I’d spend the day doing my best to remain invisible and out of the way, and I was suddenly being offered the chance to be, in a sense, “front and center,” I said I’d love to, as long as it was okay with Josh. It was, and I joined extras and waited for instructions.
We were each given assignments. Two extras tossed a football back and forth. One was presumably sunbathing on the grass. Some were given books to carry and were paired up to stroll across the sidewalk at predetermined points. My traffic pattern entailed walking past Josh and the three principals during their dialogue. As I waited for the production assistant to cue me, I suddenly became very self-conscious. I was carrying my “Emery Theatre Department” bag with the rubber chicken emblazoned on the side. My decades of acting training gave me the presence of mind to turn the chicken side away from the camera lens.
As my cue approached I then became very apprehensive about my walk. We don’t typically pay much attention to what we look like when we walk. I started to worry that my natural gait would somehow look foolish and if I tried to alter it, I’d appear unnatural and affected. I imagined the director yelling, “CUT!!!!! Get that no-talent walker-wannabe out of my movie!!!” Ridiculous as it sounds, I quickly realized that the only way for me to appear and feel natural would be to make specific decisions about my “character.” I decided that I was a professor who had just bought a new car and was heading to the parking lot after class, excited for the drive home. I know it sounds extreme, but thinking in those terms and being “someone else” really did quell my anxiety for those few steps. We ended up walking our traffic patterns five times so the scene could be covered from various angles. After the second take, the production assistant turned to me and asked, “Have you done background work before?” I said, “Never. Does it show?”
Thankfully, Meghan was pro-actively taking photos of my “performance” as we shot the various takes. (Josh is in the red jacket.)
When I saw her pictures, I was immediately reminded of another person who occasionally strolled through scenes.
The director decided to get the entire scene from a different angle, so the entire set up was shifted to another part of the campus. This time, a bench could be seen in the background, so Brian asked if I would, upon hearing “action,” count three seconds, approach the bench, sit down, and “act like a teacher.” He asked if I had any papers in my bag that I could pretend to grade. I said I had a book of acrostics. “That’ll work,” he replied. For five or six takes, I sat down on a bench and did acrostics. Between shots, a production assistant brought me a water bottle. I felt like a real movie actor.
Here’s the take as seen on the director’s monitor. (The guy in the blue shirt is the director, Travis Long.) So if this shot ends up in the finished film, push the freeze frame button and look to the far left.
Once the scene wrapped, it was on to the next location – a Naperville horse farm. We were among the first to arrive at the farm. Tom told us where to park and I watched as a large crew calmly, but quickly and efficiently erected various tents, a green screen, and other equipment, transforming the vast farm near a railroad track into a house in a suburban neighborhood. There were no extras required for this scene, so we waited beneath a tent with chairs and a table replete with snacks. I chatted with the principal actors, crew, and co-screenwriter Lenny Miller, all of whom were extremely cordial, inclusive, and non-stop funny. Once shooting began, I watched the scene being played out, both live and on the monitor. The scene being filmed involved the ringing of a doorbell which short circuits and catches the house on fire. The housefire had already been filmed earlier, and the doorbell was just a button on a post. The house the doorbell was attached to was in the actors’ imaginations. Ah, the magic of movies.
At 5p.m., the shoot broke for “lunch.” (They would continue shooting into the night.) I wanted to get back to Chicago before dark, so I decided to leave after we ate. I don’t know what I expected on the set of an independent film, but the meal set up was spectacularly unglamorous. Salad and pasta from foil containers and drinks from a large cooler. It reminded me of the meal breaks on the middle school productions I directed. Throughout my visit, ending with the meal, I was constantly struck and impressed by the easy, relaxed, respectful, professional, and totally non-hierarchical interaction between cast, crew, and production staff. And I was made to feel completely welcome.
On the way home, I thought about life. When I first met Josh Brener in 1996, he was an eleven-year-old Little League baseball player auditioning for his first school musical. Eighteen years later (depending on the outcome of B-Roll’s final edit) I “shared the screen” with Josh for a few seconds. I pondered the warm, “happy ending-esque” quality of this turn of events as the train I was on literally headed into the sunset. Just like in a movie.
When I first started this blog, many advisors warned me that it would be a challenge to keep it up because I’d run out of material. Not so. I have plenty of material to post about. What I did run out of was time. Between classes and my tutoring job, my blog simply got away from me. However, I’m happy to report that, thanks to my formal film studies and having co-written two children’s books with my friend Dylan Siegman, I’ve gained the confidence and hopefully readied my abilities to the point where I can finally write the non-fiction Disney book I’ve wanted to write for decades. More about that in later entries…
For now, appropriately enough, I am finally posting the long-awaited entry about my visit to the Disney Archives. You may recall from our last episode that I was visiting Mt. Rushmore when a former student, Jonathon, a.k.a. “Sparky” Reckles informed me via Facebook message that he was doing an internship at the Disney Studio and invited me to stop by if I was ever in California. It is important to note that access to the Disney Studios or Archives is not available to the general public. I messaged back, “I’ll be right over!!!” The following morning, I got in my car, waved farewell to George, Abe, Tom, and Teddy, and headed for California.
Before I continue, I must point out that my love for the Disney product is selective. I’m not one of these people who covets just anything with the Disney name on it. For example, my appreciation for the more recent Disney films is spotty. I like Beauty and the Beast, the Toy Story films, and a few others, but my real passion and fascination has always been for the old-school, hand-drawn animation, Disneyland, and the live-action films the studio produced up through the 70s.
I arrived at the Disney Studios (and took the above photo) on July 8, 2009 – a day I will never forget. As a long-time Disney fanatic, I had already taken many a virtual tour via years’ worth of reading and countless documentaries on the subject. The Walt Disney Studio in Burbank was built in 1940, shortly after the success of Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs.
For decades prior to visiting the studio in person, my primary point of reference was a 1941 film called The Reluctant Dragon. As we all know, Walt Disney was a master at mixing entertainment with self-promotion. He did this for decades on his weekly television show. The Reluctant Dragon is a part animated, part live-action piece in which humorist Robert Benchley takes an entertaining behind-the-scenes tour of the then-new Disney Studio. For Disney fans, The Reluctant Dragon is a banquet of cool stuff! Though some of the studio staff are played by actors (including Alan Ladd), and the technical information being imparted is fictional (let’s face it – Disney “documentaries” are hardly known for their historical or scientific accuracy), the movie offers a generous look at the layout of the studio, some of the real animators and voice artists, and the awesome “toys” including the multiplane camera, which was used for giving two-dimensional drawings the illusion of depth. Also of interest in The Reluctant Dragon are many references, in the form of drawings, clips, and models, to animated projects that were still in development at the time, including Fantasia, Dumbo, Bambi and Peter Pan.
Anyway… back to my tour. When I pulled up to the front gate, the guard asked many questions and took my driver’s license for a background check. She then gave me a visitor’s badge (which I still have) and told me where to park. I listened politely as she told me where Sparky’s building was even though I already knew how to get there. Early in The Reluctant Dragon, Robert Benchley comes across an amusing street sign. As I walked toward Sparky’s building to meet him, I encountered the same sign that Benchley does in the film. It was the first of several times during the day I became emotional. For a Disney fan, it’s an iconic landmark. Assuming that photos were not allowed, I snuck this one:
I met Sparky and we headed for the Archive building where he introduced me to Archive Director Becky Cline who led us around. Much to my astonishment, Becky told me that picture taking was allowed, so through my overwhelmed and somewhat tear-dimmed eyes, I clicked while I listened. As I mentioned, the Archives are not open to the public, so many of the items I saw were displayed rather unceremoniously. Legendary costumes such as that worn by Guy Williams on the Zorro TV show were hanging draped in plastic and plainly labeled. The helmet Dean Jones wore in The Love Bug was kept in a drawer of a metal cabinet. You may remember the mystical painting seen in 1959’s The Shaggy Dog:
That very painting was casually leaning up against a wall inches away from me, so I grabbed a photo.
We then went into what Becky called the “Reading Room,” a small area with bookshelves, chairs, and tables. This is where historians come to conduct research for Disney-related projects. Unlike the main office, the artifacts in the Reading Room were formally displayed, either in cases or high on shelves. Becky told me what each of the items was, but she didn’t need to. I recognized all of them on sight. There were props from Bedknobs and Broomsticks, a film I hold very dear.
There were props from the Disney TV show including a zoetrope and the toy bird that gave Walt Disney the idea for audio animatronic figures first seen in Disneyland’s Tiki Room.
The Disney animators used three-dimensional reference models so they could draw the characters from different angles. Here are two from Pinocchio:
The first movie I ever saw in my life was Mary Poppins, and it remains one of my favorites. In the “Feed The Birds” scene, Julie Andrews holds up a snow globe, custom made for the film.
Naturally, I was thrilled to see it “in person.” It no longer contains water, so as you can see from the bottom, the birds haven’t been fed in a long time.
Becky then showed us the famous Multiplane Camera, responsible for so many breathtaking moments of animation in the pre-computer days of Disney.
At that point, Becky had to leave us. Sparky and I then ate lunch in the Studio Commissary (which contains a Panda Express!) and visited the on-site Disney Store where I took full advantage of Sparky’s employee discount. During lunch, Sparky introduced me to Dave Smith who founded the Disney Archives and was, at the time, the Chief Archivist. I knew Mr. Smith from having read his books about Disney history and had seen him in numerous documentaries, usually accompanied by Leonard Maltin.
Sparky had to go back to his job. He worked in the P. R. department and gave me some wonderful souvenir “swag.” He said I was welcome to wander around on my own, which I did for an hour or two before reluctantly returning to my car. Much of the studio remains unchanged from the way it looked during the “golden age.” The recent film Saving Mr. Banks was shot at the studio because it required very little alteration. The original structures with the art deco lettering still remain, so I entered the famed Animation Building where so many legendary animators painstakingly created Dumbo, Bambi, Cinderella, and so many moments and images treasured for so many years by so many people.
My sincere hope is that, through my current book project, I will be able to visit the Disney Archives again, but this time, as an author and researcher. But even if that dream doesn’t come to fruition, I’ll always have July 8, 2009. Thank you, Sparky!
In the summer of 2009, I decided to take another long solo road trip. I chose Mount Rushmore as a destination for several reasons. First, it would give me the opportunity to visit South Dakota and drive through states I hadn’t experienced. I was excited to see as many states as possible because, by that point in my life, I still had yet to leave the United States.
Another reason I chose Mount Rushmore is that, after polling a great many friends, I discovered that nobody I knew had ever been there. The notion that I would be the first in my social and familial circle to see the iconic presidential faces in person excited me.
Naturally, another reason I wanted to visit Mount Rushmore was its connection to Hitchcock and the climactic scenes in his North By Northwest. (Legend has it that Hitchcock wanted to call the film “The Man In Lincoln’s Nose.”) For the movie, some of the Mount Rushmore scenes were shot on location in South Dakota, but the filmmakers were not allowed to film on the actual sculpture. Therefore, the scenes in which Cary Grant and Eva Marie Saint are seen traversing across George Washington’s hairline were accomplished through post-production special effects.
However, most of the scenes in the surrounding tourist areas and commissary were the real deal.
Since this is a movie blog, I’m going to keep the non-Hitchcock-related info to a minimum. But here are a few facts that you might find amusing and/or relevant. Nestled at the bottom of Mount Rushmore is the town of Keystone. It has a population of 311, according to the sign. Keystone’s current purpose is to serve Mount Rushmore’s tourists. It is filled to overflowing with activities including a toboggan slide, a train ride, a helicopter ride, a miniature golf course, and a caverns tour. There are also several Mount Rushmore museums and a Presidential Wax Museum. During my stay in Keystone, I did everything – yes, even the toboggan. I decided that the average Mount Rushmore tourist must be fairly stouthearted because the activities were surprisingly strenuous. Even though I lean toward the claustrophobic, I do enjoy caverns. This caverns tour was no leisurely stroll through the stalactites and stalagmites. It was fast-paced and required a fair amount of contortionism. I was exhausted afterward. Even the mini-golf, called – I kid you not – Holy Terror Mini Golf, was tougher-than-average.
Another nearby indoor mini-golf place was called “Putz-n-Glo.” I guess they’re not up on their Yiddish in South Dakota.
I’ve never been much of a picture taker, preferring, instead to use my memory rather than see my vacation through a viewfinder. My mother, an avid photo maven, insisted that I borrow her digital camera for the trip. It was a strong reminder that one should always listen to one’s mother. I ended up being extremely grateful that I had the camera with me.
One of the available options was a ten-minute Mount Rushmore helicopter ride. As far as I know, I didn’t know anyone who’s ridden in a helicopter either, so I plied myself with Dramamine and climbed aboard. Thankfully, I have no fear of heights and enjoyed the ride immensely – snapping several photos along the way.
If you’ve never been in a helicopter, the best way I can describe it is that it feels like being in a plastic bubble that’s dangling in mid air. It was just the pilot and myself, so I decided to make conversation. Though the propeller was very loud, we were wearing headphones with microphones, so we could speak at normal volume and didn’t have to shout at each other, the way they do in the movies. As we flew closer to the faces, I decided to bring up North By Northwest. I was surprised to hear the pilot say that he’d heard of the movie, but had never seen it. His job is to fly around Mount Rushmore, and he had never seen North By Northwest! As it turns out, this conversation was the beginning of an equally surprising trend that would continue throughout my visit.
The following morning, I was more than ready to drive up to Mount Rushmore itself. On the way up the road, I was excited to see this sign:
At the Visitors’ Center, they have a display of “Mount Rushmore In Pop Culture” with examples of the four famous faces as seen in daily comics, The Muppet Show, etc. Blended among the cartoons and photos, were a few laminated newspaper clippings and behind-the-scenes photos of the location filming. That was it. When I asked a few of the employees about the movie, the response was polite and unenthusiastic. As with the helicopter pilot, none had actually seen the film.
The restaurant scene in the movie was filmed at the actual Mount Rushmore restaurant, but it had long since been moved to a different location and remodeled. In the film, the restaurant scene also contains a famous movie mistake. Clearly, the young boy in the background screen right knew Eva Marie Saint’s cue to shoot Cary Grant as he prepares himself for the noise.
Here is the restaurant as it looks today (or at least in 2009):
Once I accepted the fact that there were no die-hard Hitchcock fans or actual filming locations to be found, I shifted my focus to the monument itself, and what I discovered was awesome – in the true sense of the word. I took the walking tour and got close to the faces.
For me, the most impressive thing was how the presidents’ eyes were designed so that, depending on the movement of the sun and shadows, they seem to possess a life and a “sparkle.” I also thought the way the sculptors created the effect of Roosevelt’s glasses was ingenious.
I learned about how Mount Rushmore came into being and met Nick Clifford, the last surviving member of the team of sculptors responsible for the monument’s creation. I told him a joke right before this photo was taken, which is the reason for his delighted expression.
That evening, I attended a performance at the amphitheater where I discovered why the faces of Mount Rushmore are never photographed at night. They look creepy!
All in all, I enjoyed my Mount Rushmore visit, even if it wasn’t the movie fan haven I had hoped it was. But as it happens, the trip wasn’t a total loss from that standpoint. On my second night in the Keystone hotel, I received a sudden instant message from a former student named Jonathon whom I had nicknamed “Sparky” years earlier. Sparky told me that he had gotten summer internship at the Walt Disney Studios and, knowing what a fan I am of Disney History, he could get me into the Disney Archives if I “happened to be in LA that summer.”
Now, initially I had had absolutely no intention of going to California that summer, and I’ve never been known for being the spontaneous type. Yet, I responded to Sparky in all caps. “I’LL BE RIGHT THERE!!!!!” The following morning, I got in my car and drove from South Dakota to Burbank California.
On my drive to California, I stopped at Bedrock City Campground to ask Wilma and Betty for directions. While there, I saw majestic “Mount Rockmore.”
Next entry… my reunion with “Sparky” at The Walt Disney Studios.
When I was around eleven or twelve, my mother, my sister, and I went to visit my aunt, uncle, and cousins in Baltimore. From there, we took a road trip to Lancaster, PA where I first learned of the Amish community. It was in Lancaster that I visited what would become my all-time favorite tourist attraction, The Choo Choo Barn. I’m not going to expand on The Choo Choo Barn in this entry because it’s not movie-related, but I suggest you check it out on Google and Youtube.
For me, the most exciting part of the trip was riding the train. I’ve always been a fan of any ride that involves a track, so I was excited to board the locomotive. Hanging on one of the walls near the boarding area was a sign and several photos informing that the surrounding area had been used in the filming of the movie Hello Dolly and that one of the cars on the train, the one labeled “Hello Dolly,” was the very one that Barbra Streisand, Michael Crawford, and the cast rode on during the “Put On Your Sunday Clothes” number. My opinion of that movie is completely irrelevant to this story, so I’ll refrain from going into detail on that.
The point is, I was star struck… or rather, “car struck.” I had seen the movie in the theater in Houston a few years earlier and remembered that scene clearly. And to find myself standing in the same car where the actors stood… not to mention its director, Gene Kelly… made me feel absolutely privileged. Silly as it sounds now, at the time I felt that I was part of history. Every time that movie comes on TV, I always try to watch that scene, just so I can brag to myself, “I’ve stood there.”
Many years later, I visited Baltimore alone and my aunt and uncle took me to Lancaster again. The Hello Dolly car was still there (I took the photo below) and is still there today if you want to ride on it. And stop by the Choo Choo Barn, while you’re there.
My second walk through film history occurred ten years ago when I went on the first of what would become several long, solo summer road trips. I drove to Los Angeles to visit friends (and Disneyland!). As always, the real “vacation” aspect of the trip is the drive itself, providing many hours of alone time on sparsely populated roads to ruminate, daydream, and just listen to music of my choosing. One day, I had some free time in LA, so I decided to try to locate the outdoor staircase up which Laurel and Hardy lugged a piano in their legendary 1932 Oscar-winning short subject, The Music Box.
I have always been a huge fan of Laurel and Hardy. (Especially Hardy, but more about that in a future entry.) I’ve never been much of a “joiner,” but if Houston had had a chapter of the Sons of The Desert, the international Laurel and Hardy enthusiasts organization, I would have been a card- carrying member, for sure. In fact, as soon as I finish this entry, I’m going to research the Chicago chapter. I’ve only been to Las Vegas once in my life and, in one of the few photos from that trip, I’m standing next to a portrait of Laurel and Hardy made up entirely of jelly beans.
But I digress. I’m pretty sure I owned every book ever written about the team. One of those books focused on the Hollywood locations where the movies were shot – the most famous of which was the iconic Music Box staircase. Nowadays, it’s easy to find any location using the internet, but in 2003, though I owned a computer, I still was fairly unfamiliar with how the internet worked. My only resource was my book, which contained an address, freeway instructions, and a small map. I never had a great sense of direction, so setting out, I expected the excursion to be a long ordeal. It wasn’t. The instructions were “Larry-friendly” enough to where I found the general area fairly easily. Once I realized I was in the right residential neighborhood, I parked my car and decided to continue the search for the steps on foot. As I got out of the car, I actually felt that anxious sort of excitement when one is about to meet a long-admired celebrity. Though I’d seen all their films repeatedly and read volumes about them, Laurel and Hardy still maintained a sort of mythical, almost fictional quality in my mind. The remoteness of the films due to their age made the duo seem more like the stuff of legends than reality.
It’s well known to L & H fans that, in his later years, Stan Laurel was easily accessible to his fans. His home address and phone number were listed in the phone directory, just like a “real person,” and he famously answered every piece of mail and every call he received. By being born only three years before Laurel died, I had sadly ignored the key element of comedy: timing.
Anyway, as I wandered through the area looking for the stairs, the only thing in my mind was 1932 – another world.
I started taking notice of the neighborhood as it is now. It appeared middle to lower-middle class. Though there were many houses and apartments around, I saw no other people. In the middle of the street, there was a grassy “island” separating one side of the street from the other. Sitting on that island, was a discarded couch. To get my bearings, I looked for a street sign. The first one I saw said, “Music Box Steps” and I realized I was standing right in front of them!
In the movie, there are only buildings on one side of the steps, but now they are hugged tightly on both sides by apartments, almost obscuring them from view when on the sidewalk. Their sudden appearance made me gasp – and then cry. I was standing in the exact spot where they stood. I looked at the house across the street. It still stands and looks much the same as it does in the film. The “island” that currently housed the old couch can be seen in the film, as well. On one of the bottom-most steps, there is a plaque commemorating the location. It is covered with graffiti.
I had a disposable camera and looked around for someone to take a photo of me on the stairs, but still saw no one. I sat on the steps. I touched them. And yes… I walked up all 131 of them.
In the movie, there’s a house at the top of the stairs where the second half of the film takes place. In reality, even at the time, there was no house there. The house scenes were filmed back at the Hal Roach Studios. The magic of movies placed the house at the top of the stairs in the viewer’s mind.
I explored the stairs for about an hour, trying to imagine being present on the sunny day 70 years earlier when the scene was being filmed. The day of my visit was overcast. I felt such envy of the people who lived in the apartments on either side. Did they have any appreciation of where they lived? If I were to go into their homes, would there be photos of Laurel and Hardy standing in the spot immediately outside their front door? Have they even seen or heard of the film? Though vacant that day, I’ve often read that the site is frequently visited by Laurel and Hardy fans from all around the world who make pilgrimage just to take photos and gape in wonder in the stairs’ history. When this happens, are the residents amused or annoyed? And where the hell is everybody? I just need one person to take a damn picture! Sorry… but it was a little disappointing to have such a joyous, personal experience and have no record of my having been there. Just know that it was I who took the photos you’re looking at. Next time I’m in LA and visit the stairs, I’m taking someone with me. Any volunteers? I know I don’t have to worry about the stairs going anywhere. In fact, the couch may very well still be there, too.
Next week – my trip to Mount Rushmore where I walked (and flew) in the footsteps of Cary Grant and Eva Marie Saint.
I love asking and being asked hypothetical questions like the following:
“If you could have been present on any movie set, which would it be?”
“If you could take any famous person’s voice (speaking or singing) as your own, whose would you want?”
“If you could have dinner with any famous living person, whom would you choose?”
I get asked such questions far more often than you might imagine. When faced with them, I usually don’t have to think for very long.
A- Rear Window
B- Speaking: Spencer Tracy…Singing: Fred Astaire
C- Leonard Maltin
Every time I give the third answer, I get the same response. “Really? Are you serious?”
Frankly, I don’t see why it’s so unthinkable that I would choose Leonard Maltin as a dinner companion over any other living celebrity. Then again, nobody knows better than I what an enormous impact Mr. Maltin had on my life at a crucial time.
As has been well established in earlier posts, I became a fan of old movies in the early seventies. As luck would have it at that time, classic films and their actors and directors were enjoying a popularity resurgence, so a great many books came out covering every aspect of classic cinema. Unfortunately for me, however, none of these books was written with pre-teen readers in mind. Regardless, I tried. The Meyer Branch Library was walking distance from my childhood home and they had a small selection of movie-related books. I can still remember the exact shelf where they were located. I loved reading and probably checked out every one of their film books at one time or another, but when I got them home, I invariably found that their academic content went way over my head. As it happens, I was not a strong student and made generally poor grades, so not being able to fully understand these books just added to my frustration and struggling self-esteem. Enter Leonard Maltin!
Across the street from the Meyer Branch Library was a now-defunct place that only long-time Houstonians will remember called Westbury Square, a shopping center designed to look like a quaint European square of yesteryear. It was a very popular spot during the 60s and 70s and was host to some eccentric “shoppes” including a candle maker, an apothecary, and a cheesemonger.
Also in Westbury Square was a tiny bookstore where I spent much of my time and allowance. My family was about to go on a road trip to visit relatives in Maryland, so the night before we were to leave, I went to the bookstore with the sole purpose of buying something to occupy me on the trip. The book I chose was called Movie Comedy Teams and I bought it because Laurel and Hardy were on the cover and there were photos scattered throughout. The book was written by… you guessed it… Leonard Maltin.
From then to now, I have never been able to read in a moving vehicle without getting carsick. However, when I started reading Movie Comedy Teams, I was immediately overjoyed by the fact that Maltin’s writing was completely accessible and I easily understood its contents. This is not to suggest that his writing style was simplistic or condescending or that his target audience was young kids. In the chapter on the somewhat obscure team of Clark and McCullough, Maltin’s description of McCullough’s suicide was graphic and disturbing – but I comprehended it! Nausea be damned, I sat in the “way back” of our station wagon and read the book all the way to Maryland. I was not aware at the time that when the book was published, Maltin was only twenty years old.
While reading his next book, The Great Movie Shorts, I saw that Leonard Maltin was a described as a “Film Historian,” a job title I found intriguing. In his introduction to his The Disney Films, Maltin shared that part of his preparation in writing the book was to screen all of the company’s feature animated and life-action movies made during Walt Disney’s lifetime. Remember, this was before the days of home video rental. I marveled at the fact that Maltin could gain access to these films (some of which I still haven’t been able to see) and could screen them at his will. It was then that I decided that I wanted to be a film historian as well. Little did I know that I wouldn’t get to actively pursue that professional dream for another forty years. But better late than never.
I had read most of Maltin’s books before I even knew what he looked like. I felt a strong kinship with Leonard because it seemed that his books all focused on topics that I was most interested in. Disney, comedians, old radio shows, animated cartoons, Our Gang, and short films from Hollywood’s golden age. Further, his opinions and tastes jibed almost completely with mine. Even though I’d never met him, I truly felt I had a kindred spirit in Leonard Maltin.
I don’t know what I expected him to look like, but when I first started seeing him on TV and then hosting the Our Gang videos and Disney Treasures DVDs, I was somehow not surprised at how, in appearance and manner, he comes across as what can only be described as… rabbinical.
I love his enthusiasm when he talks about aspects of film that casual movie fans would find mundane. Ever the sage, if a film has some historical interest, he finds it exciting, even if its content or execution isn’t the greatest. Only Leonard Maltin can provide an introduction for a Disney-produced wartime army training film called “Four Methods of Flush Riveting” and make it sound like something worth watching and even (pun intended) riveting!
My move to Chicago to begin my Film Historian career has afforded me many great opportunities. Last year, The Music Box Theater, an amazing rep house, screened South Pacific, sponsored by Turner Classic Movies, with an appearance by its star Mitzi Gaynor. I have very little use for that movie, but imagine my excitement when I read that Leonard Maltin would be accompanying, introducing, and interviewing Ms. Gaynor. For the first time, I had the opportunity to see Maltin in person! I went with a friend and former student named Brian who is also a fan of old Hollywood. One reason I wanted someone to go with me was that I was genuinely afraid that I might do or say something embarrassing. Has anyone in the history of Hollywood ever seen Leonard Maltin in person and swooned? I didn’t want to be the first.
In person, not surprisingly, he looks and sounds very much like he does on TV. His rapport with Gaynor was delightful and he was gentleman enough to refrain from giving his opinion of the movie which, according to his capsule review, and despite its generous two-and-a-half star rating, is very similar to mine. Blech!
I debated on whether or not to speak to him. But I have a very bad track record when it comes to talking to famous people I admire. I was just so afraid I would freeze up and say something like, “I loved you in Gremlins 2!!” (see below)
Please don’t get the idea that I’m some sort of weirdo who stalks Leonard Maltin. While I have read everything he’s authored, I don’t religiously follow his website, twitter account, and podcast. Generally, I’m more interested in what he has to say as an historian rather than a movie critic. (I don’t really follow any movie critics.) And I don’t know any more about his personal life than what is written on the dust jackets of his books or what he’s said in personal interviews. (Though I must admit, I’m not too shabby at the “Leonard Maltin Game.”)
But yes… I would like to have dinner with Leonard Maltin someday. In part, to thank him for the role he played in inspiring and indirectly encouraging a young kid with unorthodox tastes in pop culture. After all, if not Leonard, who else can I have an in-depth discussion of which entry in the Penny Singleton Blondie series is the best, or which film contains the greatest performance by Ned Sparks?
“Euphoria” is an emotional state that children and teenagers rarely experience while at school. But most people who were attending elementary, junior, or high school before the VCR days knew what it was like to enter a classroom, see a certain temporary addition to the room, and feel what can only be describe as “euphoria.” That temporary addition was this:
The mere sight of a 16mm projector perched on a cart in a classroom had the power to turn the quality of a day around – even if that morning started out like one of those days, the projector brought joy. The level of that joy was largely determined by the size of the front reel on the projector. The bigger the reel, the longer the film, the more the happiness.
Part of the excitement stemmed from the element of surprise. We were never informed that a film would be shown the following day. The teacher never intended it as a reward of any kind, but we always took it that way. What did we do so right to deserve a movie day??? Nobody cared what the title of the film was or what it was about. It could have been called Lint Is Your Friend and it would have been fine. A movie in class meant a respite from schoolwork. It was a brief unexpected vacation. The prospect of a darkened classroom was enticing, too. It was perfect for note passing. If the film was mind-numbingly boring (and it often was), it could be time for a nap.
Of course, today’s school kids are still happy to learn that it’s “movie day” in class. But much of the magic is gone. Showing a movie in class today is so easy and accessible, it happens more frequently. Before the early 80s, if a teacher wanted to show a movie, he or she really wanted to show that movie. It was a time and energy-consuming ordeal, and schools had a limited number of projectors, so screenings were rare. The film had to be mail ordered through a catalogue. The projector had to be reserved in advance and brought to the classroom and threaded by specially trained technicians (AV kids). Today, anybody in the room can operate a DVD player, but back then, there was an aura of mystery to a 16mm projector because not everyone knew how to operate it – including the teacher. It required training attained through taking a special class. Though I was well versed in how to run an 8mm projector, the 16mm one had me intimidated. First, it wasn’t self-threading like my projector at home. The film had to be manually guided through its serpentine course in a very particular way or it wouldn’t work properly. Then, there was the added complication of sound. More on that later.
Another element of intrigue was the knowledge that, in many cases, the teacher had not actually seen the movie, but merely guessed at its effectiveness or educational value based on catalogue information. I clearly remember occasions of teachers apologizing to the class for the movie’s being especially and unexpectedly boring, scary, or violent. (Admittedly, a few gave me nightmares.) No apology was necessary, however. We were grateful to the film for getting us that much closer to the sound of the dismissal bell – and for the nap.
The educational films of the 50s are usually thought of as the genre’s “heyday,” so those are the ones most often shown and parodied today. I watched classroom movies during the 70s, so that was my focus when searching on Youtube for examples. The passing years from the 50s to the 70s did nothing to improve the films’ budgets or the low-grade quality of the acting, writing, and directing. The 70s films, however, were in (faded) color and had more “modern” music. The biggest advance for the 70s films was that, unlike the whitewashed 50s educational films, the classrooms, parties, and social circles depicted in the 70s ones were multicultural with the filmmakers being sure that every ethnicity was represented. Whatever the film’s theme… it could needed to apply to everybody.
Educational films were shown in every class, but Youtube provides very few academic ones for our viewing pleasure. That’s understandable. Today, the films geared for English or History class aren’t nearly as much “fun” as the often outdated, politically incorrect ones intended to be shown during Social Studies or, even better, the cautionary ones shown during Health. For many years, these movies have been the subject of ridicule being skillfully lampooned on shows like Mystery Science Theatre: 3000.
But don’t think for a moment that it’s the passage of time that makes them laughable today. Trust me… we laughed and made fun of those films when they were new. Even though we were naïve in many ways, we were still able to recognize and appreciate the stiff acting, contrived situations, and moments that blatantly didn’t ring true. I always remember these films being accompanied by giggling and eye rolling because of the sheer insincerity of the acting. Successful producers of material aimed for children know that genuineness in the writing and playing should be first priority. That memo was often missed when it came to the way classroom educational films were presented.
I don’t know if I actually saw the following three examples in class or not, but they are certainly typical of what I did see. I’ll get the lights. If one of you will pull the window shades down, we can begin. Most films began with the countdown.
It was almost impossible for the class not to count aloud in unison as the numbers flashed on the screen. The temptation was too great. Some brave souls even said the high-pitched “beeeeep.” At the time, nobody knew that actual purpose of the countdown. I always assumed it was to build excitement before the picture began. I was in the 9th grade before a teacher explained that the rhythmic countdown and beep allowed the projectionist to make sure the sound was in sync with the image. If the beep was too late or early to jibe with the rhythm of the numbers, the sync would be off. (Think “No! No! No! Yes! Yes! Yes!” in Singin’ In The Rain.) In all honesty, the countdown explanation was probably the most valuable piece of educational information I took away with me when it came to these films. Incidentally, as grateful as I am to be able to share these movies via Youtube, please be aware that you’ll be missing the loud “BRRRRRRRRRR……” of the projector, which was an integral part of the experience.
Films like Why Doesn’t Cathy Eat Breakfast? (above) were frustrating. First of all, they were short and didn’t use up much class time. It took longer to thread the projector than it did to watch the film. Second, it was a “cliffhanger” with no resolved ending. Instead, we were instructed to turn off the projector and engage in a vigorous roundtable debate about why Cathy skipped breakfast. We wanted a real ending that told us whether Cathy survived not having breakfast. Who cares about the reasons? If we must have a question-based discussion, let’s talk about why Cathy doesn’t seem at all surprised or concerned that, in her bedroom, there’s a middle-aged male narrator (who sounds like William Schallert) pointing a camera at her and asking her questions from the moment she wakes up. Or why she has a poster on her wall that shows people wearing what looks suspiciously like blackface. My theory is that Cathy eats all through the night. After all, who can sleep when the ticking of your alarm clock is louder than the alarm itself?
In the 70s, my classmates and I watched Saturday morning superhero shows like The Secret of Isis and Shazam! In the privacy of our living rooms, we could safely watch those shows and buy into what they offered in a non-jaded way without fear of peer judgment. However, the goings on in Safety: In Danger Out of Doors (above) would had induced many a giggle in the classroom. Even in the 70s, no self-respecting kid would have bought into this premise or the portrayals. If you can endure the seemingly endless and grating “alien voice” giving the character exposition, the way the events play out is pretty entertaining. I give kudos to the lead actress for being able to say her lines, especially in that costume, with a straight face. And be sure to catch the nearly drowned kid’s enthusiastic and genuine delivery of the line, “Safety Woman, are we glad to see you.” But I’m not complaining. At least we know how this one ends.
Bob Crane gets star billing in Patriotism (above). For those of you who are too young to know who Bob Crane is, he was the star of Hogan’s Heroes. For those of you who are too young to know what Hogan’s Heroes was, it was a sit-com in the 60s all about the hilarious hijinks that go on in a Nazi POW camp. I’m not joking. Anyway… Bob Crane gets top billing and narrates, but only about as much on-screen time as Claude Rains had in The Invisible Man. I’m not sure what the point of this film is – it seems to have several – or under what circumstances a teacher might have been compelled to show it. Aside from the vintage 70s fashions, there are two moments worth pointing out as being giggle-worthy both today and in the classroom at the time. After the two boys finish their discussion about the baseball glove, they walk away with their arms awkwardly around each other, presumably at the prompting of the director. This is a moment that would have been laughed at due to it’s being so amazingly awkward and insincere. It’s obvious that the two actors had probably just met each other ten minutes before the scene was shot. As in most of these films, the acting of the kids seems pretty much by rote. But in Patriotism, the kids could be members of the Royal Shakespeare Company compared to the performance by the woman playing the teacher. It’s astonishing to think that this was chosen as her best take!
It’s amazing how dated and somehow creepy these films seem today. In many ways, they’re more educationally valuable now than they were when they were made because they serve as a fascinating sociological time capsule. I must admit, as cautionary tales, they could sometimes be effective and convincing – especially when it came to depicting the dangers of smoking, ignoring safety regulations, or thinking that wearing bright orange slacks looks “cool.”
We’ve all had the experience of seeing a movie in a theatre and immediately becoming besotted with it. Perhaps it struck such a positive emotional chord or succeeded artistically on so many levels, it warranted multiple viewings just to catch everything. For the past thirty or so years, anyone who saw and loved a theatrical movie could touch head to pillow later that night secure in the knowledge that in just a few months that movie would be available for purchase on videocassette or DVD. Once owned, the magic could be revisited often.
For the thirty years before that, (early 50s through early 80s), loving a movie in the theater meant knowing that it would eventually be shown on television, but only at the whim of the networks or local TV stations. Movie lovers knew they’d get to see their favorite films again, but just didn’t know precisely when.
It is strange and almost unthinkable today to realize that, in the years leading up to the introduction of television in the home, once a film ran its theatrical course, its fans, unaware that TV was in their future, not only didn’t know when they’d get to see it again, they didn’t even know IF they would ever see it again. High profile movies like Gone With The Wind might get a theatrical re-issue, but if someone absolutely fell in love with Henry Aldridge Haunts A House, that person left the theater with the full realization that that particular movie experience would never be repeated.
Hollywood saw the value of specific movie-themed merchandise early on. When a film was popular, its fans wanted a “souvenir” of it to keep the experience alive in their memories until they (hopefully) got to see it again. Since re-watching a film is much easier now, there is no longer any need for such souvenirs. In an earlier entry, I discussed 8mm home versions of Hollywood films. This week’s blog entry is about more of these movie keepsakes that have all but disappeared from store shelves due to the fact that we now have ready access to the real thing.
Soundtracks and Story Records:
The movie souvenir that has proved most durable is the Soundtrack Recording. Today, if you enjoy a movie’s score or songs, you can still purchase its music to listen to while driving, walking, working, etc. However, soundtrack albums of today are still somewhat different from those available before home video. In addition to music, many soundtrack albums of the 60s and 70s contain significant sections of dialogue. As a kid, my records of Young Frankenstein, Romeo and Juliet, and Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory allowed me to commit key lines and dialogue exchanges to memory, even though I had only seen the films once or twice.
Home video also brought about the slow extinction of an essential element of my childhood, the Story Record. This is not the same as an audio book read aloud by the author or an actor. A Story Record used music, sound effects, and a cast of voice actors to create a “movie” in the listener’s imagination – much the same way radio did before television. Many children’s TV shows and cartoons came out with record albums featuring their characters, and I got my introduction to classics like Treasure Island and The Invisible Man through story records. My favorite way to hear these records was lying in bed with all the lights off, allowing no visual distractions to interfere with my imagination as I listened.
The following was one of my favorite records for your listening pleasure. Yes, this was at a time when the average child knew who Alfred Hitchcock was.
I was one of many children whose reading skills were improved by the now all but defunct Book And Record sets. Many companies produced these, including Golden Books and Peter Pan Records, but the ones that stick in most people’s memories came from, of course, Disney. Nearly every film the company produced resulted in a Book and Record version with its familiar narrator voices and Tinkerbell’s “brrrrrreng…” signaling that it was time for a page turn.
The long-playing versions had the memorable “magic mirror” covers. The Disney company had a long-standing tradition of shrewdly withholding many of its classic films from television and re-releasing them theatrically every seven years for each new generation of kids could discover them on the big screen. The Disney Book and Record sets allowed us to visually and aurally experience our favorite stories during that long seven-year hiatus between viewings.
Here’s a trivia fun fact: The very first movie to commercially release an accompanying soundtrack album was Disney’s Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs in 1938.
Novelizations and Photo Novels:
As we all know, books have provided source material for movies for almost as long as movies have been around. If you couldn’t watch the movie, you could read the book that inspired it. However, what if you loved a movie with an original story and screenplay that wasn’t based on a book? In these instances, the process was reversed and the movie’s screenplay became the source material for its “novelization.” For decades, many a writer made a solid living turning movie scripts into novels. In the 70s, I was an avid collector of novelizations of live-action Disney films, happily reliving the wacky antics of The Million Dollar Duck or Snowball Express and other such “classics” whenever I was assigned a book report.
The hilarious thing about the Disney novelizations is that they were sometimes based on screenplays that already had books as source material. But the films took so many liberties with the original stories, they were almost unrecognizable and warranted updated, Disney-ized literary incarnations. For example, the novelization of The Shaggy Dog was adapted by Elizabeth L. Griffen from the screenplay by Bill Walsh and Lillie Hayward which was adapted from the book The Hound of Florence by Feliz Salten.
Novelizations are still published on occasion, but there are not nearly as plentiful as they were in the 60s and 70s. While hardly considered great literature, they are fun to read in comparison with their source films. Also, they were usually written long in advance of a film’s release and based on early drafts of the screenplay, so they sometimes contain character information and scenes not present in the finished film. Or the book’s author might have special insight to a film’s content. Take note, for example, of who authored the novelization of Close Encounters of the Third Kind.
For those without the time or inclination to read an entire book, movies were adapted to other literary forms. Batman and Spiderman are okay, but no respectable comic book collection is complete without Peter O’Toole. This was one of the few comic books I owned.
Movie buffs in the 1970s will surely recognize the name Richard J. Anobile. In 1971, Abobile published a wildly successful book called Why A Duck: Visual and Verbal Gems from the Marx Brothers Movies. The book consisted of carefully selected blow up images and accompanying dialogue depicting highlights from the Marx Brothers’ films. Since the films were not readily accessible, this skillfully rendered book was a revelation. When I was thirteen, it was well known that I was a fan of both old movies and the Marx Brothers, so I received no fewer than seven copies of Why A Duck for my Bar Mitzvah.
The book was such a hit for Anobile, he subsequently released similar books featuring W. C. Fields, Laurel and Hardy, and Abbott and Costello. Later, he delighted movie fans by publishing the Film Classics Library in which he devoted an entire volume to one specific film. Titles included Casablanca, Psycho, The General, Frankenstein, Ninotchka, Stagecoach, and Play It Again, Sam.
I was grateful for Richard A. Anobile’s books for many reasons, but one of them served a very special and personal purpose. For many years, I was too afraid to watch Hitchcock’s Psycho. Being a Hitchcock fan, I desperately wanted to watch it and it appeared on late night TV quite frequently, but after all I’d read and heard from those who’d seen it, I just couldn’t muster the courage. I eventually prepared myself for it by going to the book store, leafing through Anobile’s pictorial version of the film, and “watching” the scary scenes that way. Thanks to that book, when it came time to actually view the movie, I was ready. I still found Psycho very scary, but at least I knew what was coming.
In the late 70s and early 80s, Anobile also produced “Photo Novels” of contemporary films, including Alien and Star Trek: The Wrath of Khan. Even though they’ve been made obsolete by home video, the Anobile books are still fondly remembered by movie buffs of a certain age.
When I lived in Houston, I had a large collection of… collections. I accrued toys, records, posters, books, pens, etc. When moving to Chicago, I didn’t want to bring it all, so I gave away or sold most of it. However, the one collection that I brought with me was my extensive and, if I say so myself, impressive array of View-Master reels and viewers.
A View-Master is a stereoscopic 3-D viewer that was first introduced at the 1939 New York World’s Fair. In the 40s, the viewers and content of the reels were clearly designed for adults and most of the available photo sets were of a scenic nature. Eventually, the company produced a few fairy tale reels aimed at children and utilizing puppets and miniature scenery. The children’s reels caught on and the View-Master slowly evolved into a popular toy aimed at viewers of all ages. The company also manufactured a projector, but since the images were in 2-D, it never achieved the popularity of the individual 3-D viewer.
The heyday of the View-Master was during the 60s and 70s when 3-D reels were available for nearly every movie and television show. I still remember walking into stores and seeing the enormous selection of View Master reel sets on display, looking like tiny record albums.
At that time, View-Master photographers actually went to the set of the show or film and shot stereoscopic photos to provide the 21 images that made up the three-reel set. For the most part, the images were photographed and selected with great care. (One exception that comes to mind is a photo on one of the Mary Poppins reels that actually reveals the top of the movie set and some lighting instruments.) The reels based on cartoons were done with puppets and actual miniature sets, adding to the 3-D effect in a way that couldn’t be achieved with drawings.
It wasn’t only children’s movies that were given the View-Master treatment. My collection includes 3-D reels from films such as Superman, The Poseidon Adventure, several James Bond films, Michael Jackson’s Thriller, and Fiddler on the Roof. The sets came with story booklets as well. Back then, fans of “Fiddler” or “Poseidon Adventure” may not have been able to watch those films whenever they wanted, but we did get to see Shelley Winters swim and Fruma Sara rise from the grave in 3-D. How cool is that?
Nowadays, View-Masters are still sparsely available and are geared strictly for young children. Since today’s kids have DVDs of their favorite movies and TV shows, only sets based on extremely popular characters and films are available. Now that 3-D television is on its way, I imagine View-Masters are nearly extinct. The last few times I went to Toys R Us and inquired about them, I had to explain what I was talking about to the sales people. They didn’t recognize it by name.
On a few occasions during my teaching career, I brought my View-Master collection to show my classes. For some reason, I always had to remind the students not to close one eye when looking through the viewer. The kids’ reactions to the 3-D photos of their favorite cartoon and Disney characters were always heartening. Kids who often gave rather jaded responses to things I showed them would marvel enthusiastically at View-Master reels, say things like “Wooooaaaah!” and “This is soooooooo cool!!!!” The reels that consistently impressed them were Cinderella, The Wizard of Oz, the flight images in Disney’s Peter Pan, and one of my favorites, the Seven Wonders of the Ancient World reel. I included an image from that one below, but believe me… it’s much cooler in 3-D. The kids would always ask where they could get those reels and how much my collection is worth. The answers: You can’t, and unfortunately, not very much.
Hopefully, some of you remember some of these movie souvenirs. For those of you who are too young to remember them or to even need them, I’m glad to share some insight into the fact that we actually did have some cool things back then that aren’t around these days. Next week, I’ll share my final thoughts on life before and after home video and then move on to other topics.
I became a teacher in 1987. Last year, I temporarily stopped teaching to become a film student. One thing that all of my Houston students and my current classmates at Columbia College Chicago have in common is that they never knew a day without a home video system. If asked, each of them can easily cite one or two favorite videocassettes or DVDs that they watched repeatedly as a kid. I’d be lying if I didn’t say that I love having my favorite movies or TV episodes at my fingertips and being able to watch them whenever I like. To a degree, I envy my young film-loving colleagues for having had access to this technology their entire lives.
That said, the movie lover in me is also grateful that I grew up when I did, with no VCR in the house until I was 19. Those of us who are older can appreciate and identify with the feeling of enjoying a film with the full knowledge that it would be a long time before you’d get to see it again – and you usually didn’t know when that would be. It gave the experience of watching a favorite film a quality of preciousness that doesn’t exist today. Each cinematic moment was fleeting and therefore, to be savored.
The most obvious and famous example of this experience is the annual television broadcast of The Wizard of Oz. It’s well known that the movie didn’t truly attain its iconic status until its received its once-yearly showings on TV, the first of which was in 1956 at…starting at 9 p.m.????
I suppose that it required the distance from 1939 for people to realize how truly timeless the film is. Since it’s in color and isn’t typically “1930s” in its dialogue, costuming, and musical arrangements, even today’s children don’t tend to think of it as an “old movie.” During the 60s and 70s, other old films were shown on TV with a fair amount of regularity, but with “Wizard,” we only got one shot at seeing it per year. The networks (either CBS or NBC, depending on the year) gave it star treatment, giving each subsequent airing a big build up and presentation.
For many years, the film was presented with a celebrity host. The hosts for the 1956 broadcast were Bert Lahr and ten-year-old Liza Minnelli. After that, hosts included Red Skelton, Danny Kaye, Richard Boone, and Dick Van Dyke. The movie was usually featured on the cover of the TV listings announcing, “Get ready! This is the week!!!” Many of the commercials shown during the movie had special Wizard of Oz themes and tie-ins even if the product being sold had no direct connection to the film. Note that the advertisement below says absolutely nothing about sewing machines. (There’s another “Singer” associated with The Wizard of Oz, but it’s not politically correct, so I won’t go there.)
For over two decades, watching “Wizard” on TV every year became, for many, a family tradition. For those who experienced it, the memories are vivid and detailed – and various people’s memories contain a surprising number of common elements. For example, I know I’m not the only person who equates The Wizard of Oz with this piece of furniture.
That’s right. This was one night when the entire family ate dinner in front of the TV – and for some reason, dinner on that night in our house always included corn on the cob. Like I said – a special occasion.
From what I can figure, my first viewing of The Wizard of Oz was in 1969 when I was seven. Depending on whom you talk to and when they watched it, the movie was associated with different times of year. For most of my “Wizard” watching years, it was shown in March or April. Under normal circumstances, I wasn’t really known for obsessive behavior, but on Wizard of Oz day, I appointed myself to make sure the TV was set for the correct channel well in advance, and that the set was turned on at least a half hour before the movie started. As some of you will recall, a TV had to “warm up” for a few minutes after being turned on before an image could be seen. I didn’t want to miss a precious moment of my yearly viewing of this beloved film.
I was too late for the years when the film was presented with a host, but with my family present, I didn’t need one. I heard the same running commentary and reactions from my parents and sister and at the same exact moments year after year. For example
When this image appeared…
…my father would always comment that, when he first saw that scene in 1939 (he would have been seven) he was “scared shitless.”
…always caused my younger sister to dive underneath the coffee table. Shielding her eyes, she would repeat, “Is she gone, yet? Is she gone, yet? Is she gone, yet?” That was the moment when I would typically, and with great bravado, look down at my sister and razz her for being a “scaredy cat.” But let’s face it. I was probably doing that to avert my eyes from the witch, too. How very “cowardly lion” of me.
My mother, ever the educator and responsible parent, commented on more than one occasion that she didn’t like “Ding Dong, The Witch Is Dead.” “I don’t think it’s very nice that they’re ‘celebrating’ someone’s death, no matter who it is.”
To this day, I can’t watch the movie without those predictable familial routines and lines coming to mind, and I remember them fondly. That yearly TV routine is so much a part of me, even if I’m watching “Wizard” on DVD or on the big screen, as soon as the lion jumps through the glass window, I still expect there to be a commercial.
Back then, my annual routine, albeit a quiet, internal one, was to get a very emotional lump in my throat during the “goodbye” scene. As Dorothy said goodbye to her treasured friends, I knew I was saying farewell to this special movie for another whole year. I can recall feeling what can only be described as a void as the film ended each time. It usually aired on a Sunday, which meant that the following day it was back to school and the drudgery of normal life.
In my next entry, I’ll be writing extensively about the movie “souvenirs” that were manufactured in the pre-VCR days to keep a movie’s memory alive between viewings. The Wizard of Oz offered several such items to mollify the kid going through Oz-withdrawal while waiting for March to arrive again. There were toys, games, books, etc. My favorite was the original soundtrack album, first released in 1956, the same year as the initial Oz broadcast. Thankfully, in addition to the songs, it included a generous amount of dialogue to keep the story intact. In case you’re wondering, the lion was pictured on the back side of the album, all by himself. (A subtle plug for MGM, perhaps?)
In 1975, the Mego set of action figures and elaborate play set were released. By then, I was 13 and knew I was too old for such things, but was impressed by the attention to detail and the likenesses to the film’s actors.
One thing I did buy was the enormous comic book version which also came out in 1975. I was never really into comic books, but I loved how closely it adhered to the film, including having the first part of the story printed in muted “sepia” tones. I’m ashamed to say that I didn’t take good care of the comic book, allowing it to yellow and its pages to rip. I didn’t realize at the time that I had something of great significance in the comic book world. It was the very first collaboration between Marvel and DC comics. If you know how much it’s worth today in good condition, please don’t tell me.
I continued to watch The Wizard of Oz every year until I was well into my teens. As I grew older, I got more and more of the jokes and started enjoying it more on an artistic level than a purely emotional one. As a child, I didn’t really get the “King of the Forest” number because it stopped the story. Eventually, I caught onto the brilliance of lyricist Yip Harburg’s incredible wordplay and, after reading John Lahr’s biography of his father, Notes on a Cowardly Lion, I learned that the number was the perfect vehicle for Lahr’s shtick. Now I find the number hilarious.
The way I watched the scene where the scarecrow, tin man, and lion finally get their “rewards” altered drastically with repeated and matured viewings. As a child, I was just happy that they were happy with their prizes. As I later struggled with my own issues of brain, heart, and courage, I gleefully discovered the subtle and powerful self-esteem message as well as the clever satire about materialism and hollow tokens and awards lying just beneath the scene’s surface.
I also learned to appreciate the technical aspect of the movie and remember the first time I watched it after having read that the whole film was shot indoors, how the cyclone was achieved, and how much of the scenery was done with matte paintings. This knowledge added a whole new dimension of wonder to the experience.
In 1979, MGM Home Entertainment released The Wizard of Oz on VHS and Betamax, making the film much more readily accessible, but effectively ending a revered tradition that can never be replicated. Interestingly, the ever-available presence of the movie on home video has had a surprising effect. In the 60s and 70s, there was no child in America over the age of ten who hadn’t seen The Wizard of Oz. Yet, during the 80s and 90s, when I referred to the film in my classroom, I was shocked to discover how many of my middle and high school students had not seen it. They knew some of the songs and the characters, but had never seen the film all the way through. Its very availability has made today’s kids think of it as, to quote the wizard, “a very mediocre commodity” and no longer essential viewing for the average child or movie fan.
Even so, the current distributers of The Wizard of Oz continue to try to give the film that special quality it had when it could only be seen once a year by constantly striving to “improve” it. “NOW! For a limited time, on the big screen! NOW with stereophonic sound! NOW in wide screen! NOW Sing-along with The Wizard of Oz! Now in high definition! And in a few weeks, for the 75th anniversary…NOW in Imax and 3D!!!!” No doubt, for its 80th anniversary, they’ll offer up one of those “4D” things like they do in theme parks including setting the audience on fire and then dousing them with water.
Well, I’ve seen it in all the other incarnations and yes, I’ll go see it in Imax 3D. As the old joke says, “It couldn’t hoit.” I truly consider The Wizard of Oz to be indestructible. Regardless of screen size, with or without commercials, it still works. None of the technical or digital “improvements” have improved it. High definition just allows you to see the wire holding up the lion’s tail a bit better. Seeing it in 3D may be cool, but it will never equal the joyous anticipatory thrill I used to feel opening the Sunday paper in March and seeing Dorothy and Toto on the cover of the “This Week On TV” section.
I had a fourth grade teacher named Mrs. Johnson who will always stick in my memory for two reasons. First, she kept two pet birds in the classroom. They had a cage with food and water in it, but the cage door was always open, so the birds had free reign of the classroom, flying and perching wherever they pleased.
Second, and more pertinent, Mrs. Johnson once posed a question to me that triggered a major turning point in my existence as a bonafide film geek. I had written an essay on Charlie Chaplin. When she returned the paper, next to the grade, Mrs. Johnson had written, “Did you know that you can borrow silent movies from the downtown central library?”
My family typically never went to the downtown library because we had a branch just a few blocks from our house. Also, downtown traffic and parking were rather a pain. But the Saturday after Mrs. Johnson shared her information, my father and I made a special trip downtown. Sure enough, there were stacks of 8mm films just waiting to be checked out. Mack Sennett shorts, Chaplin, Keaton, Laurel and Hardy, Our Gang, and more. The library had special rules regarding checking out the movies. They could only be checked out two at a time. They could not be returned to a branch, but had to be returned to the downtown library. Also, the fine for late returns was considerably more expensive than it was for books. My father warned me that day not to expect these library movie trips to become a habit. With this knowledge, choosing the two precious films was agonizing. I finally settled on two films that I’d seen stills from in my movie books. They were Charlie Chaplin’s The Floorwalker and Big Business with Laurel and Hardy.
When I got home, I asked my father if I could “borrow” our projector and screen and set them up in my room “for the time being” so I could watch the films without disturbing anyone. Neither of us knew it that day, but the projector and screen would remain in my room from that day forward. My room at the time was long and narrow, so the distance between projector and screen was far enough to throw an image of pretty respectable size. I loved having the family projector in my room. Maybe it’s because movie projectors vaguely resemble Mickey Mouse. Whatever the reason, looking at it made me happy.
For the next two weeks, I watched those two films repeatedly. The boxes they came in advertised a free movie just for sending away for their free catalogue. Needless to say, I sent for the catalogue and film. It seemed to take forever, but when the package finally arrived, I was not disappointed. The Blackhawk Films catalogue offered an extensive selection of movies for sale, and the sampler “Prevue 8” reel was great. It was about twelve minutes long and provided clips from a variety of silent film comedy, drama, and documentary. More importantly, the film was mine. I was the owner of a movie. The collection had begun.
The films in the Blackhawk catalogue were expensive. The first one I bought was The Barber Shop with W. C. Fields. It cost $13 plus shipping. It amazes me now to think that, at the time, I thought $13 was an enormous amount of money. Then again, at that time a child’s movie ticket was $1.25. The catalogue came once a month and I was always allowed to order one film. Now that I look back on it, Blackhawk Films, located in Davenport, Iowa, was a great company and showed enormous respect for their product and patrons. They offered “silent” versions of sound films by inserting title cards. Of course, for dialogue-heavy films such as The Barber Shop, the large number of title cards had a negative impact on the film’s comic pace and timing, but since I always read the titles aloud and did a fairly decent W. C. Fields imitation, it wasn’t really an issue. Every Blackhawk film began with extensive explanatory text relevant to the film about to be seen. Since there was no way to “fast forward” through the information, and my audiences rarely were interested in the historical significance of the film, so I would always cut that part out. Only now do I appreciate how great it was for Blackhawk to have included that information.
Around this same time, I discovered that 8mm professional films for home viewing could be also be purchased in the camera department at stores like K-Mart. Most prominent among companies that distributed these films was Castle Films.
Here are three of my favorite of the Castle Films I had. Even though the title character in The Spider did not have a human skull as pictured on the box, it was still pretty cool.
Where Blackhawk was for hardcore film enthusiasts, Castle provided for more casual home movie fans. At that time, many people who owned home movie projectors also bought these films because… well… it was just cool to own a professionally made film in any form. Castle Films’ vast selection included comedy, horror, cartoons, and historical events. Various film studios released three to ten-minute home versions of their feature films and they cost anywhere from $2-5. Much of my allowance went toward these movies.
Disney also put out 8mm home versions of scenes from many of their classic films and rides. In fact, a silent film of the It’s A Small World ride could be a good thing, depending on your personal feelings toward that song.
Between Blackhawk, Castle, and Disney 8mm movies, I eventually built up an impressive collection and really began to manage my room like a silent movie showplace. Every chair in the house that wasn’t regularly used ended up in my room, awaiting any willing audience member. I designed and drew posters. I created musical scores using records – typically Scott Joplin as it sounded most like the music accompanying the silent films I saw on TV.
I was like a mad scientist with a splicing machine, I put the three-minute films all together, creating a “mix tape” of cartoons on one big reel. I even eviscerated the Fisher-Price and Easy Show cartridges to remove the cartoons and spliced them together on a reel as well. 8mm film would easily break. Sometimes, the projector would jam and the hot bulb would melt and burn the film. While I hated when the film would burn, I must admit, on the screen, it looked kind of cool the way it turned brown and looked like it was “bubbling.” Eventually, I became an expert splicer. Actual splicing tape with matching sprockets was expensive and hard to come by. So I learned how to splice with scotch tape. I even remember using Band-Aids on occasion. 8mm projector bulbs were good for about twenty-five hours. They were intended only to be used for the occasional home movie viewing. My showings were frequent and lengthy, so I went through bulbs fairly quickly. While showing films, the projector sat on my immediate left. I can still vividly recall the warmth and sweat on the left side of my face and left arm during a movie-watching session.
Remember the heart-wrenching scene in Gone With The Wind when the miserable horse, frothing at the mouth from the long journey to Tara, finally, and mercifully drops dead? Well, that’s what happened to my movie projector. One day, it heaved an exhausted sigh and stopped working. Thankfully, this happened around the time of my Bar Mitzvah and I had some spending money with which I bought a new projector. I didn’t buy just any projector. With $300 of my own money, I bought a new, state-of-the-art, Kodak Moviedeck. This was no “Mickey Mouse” operation. It looked nothing like any projector anybody had ever seen. The film reel was placed on top like a record, and the take up reel was hidden underneath. Unlike my earlier projector, it was light and portable and required no threading. It could be paused without burning the film, and it could run in reverse. It also had a speed rewind feature.
Every time I acquired a new film, my father, mother, and sister were obligated to attend a screening. My father had a passing interest in what I was doing. My mother dutifully attended as part of her parental responsibility. My younger sister had to be bribed, but she always attended. Out-of-town guests were usually treated to at least one visit to my theater.
Aside from these family showings, I usually watched the films alone. Even though I was definitely a lonesome kid, I don’t remember ever feeling particularly lonely. At the time, I had two friends who were interested in old movies. Unfortunately, one of them, Travis, moved to a far suburb and another school by the time I started my collection. The other was Tim whose parents would never allow him to come to my house. Other than Travis and Tim, I was too shy and anti-social to ask people to come over and watch movies.
The closest I got to public showings happened when word of my collection started to get around. I was a popular babysitter, always showing up with projector and movies in tow. There were several times during elementary, middle, and high school when I was invited to bring my projector and selected items from my collection to school. I remember thinking long and hard about what films to show. I would always bring a cartoon or two and a short that I knew had a lot of fast-paced action. Those were the films that got the best responses from my classmates. A Sunday School fundraiser was built around a showing of my cartoons. And my mother even sent some of my movies to me to show at summer camp. These occasions gave me shots of self-esteem and taught me that, under certain circumstances, being “weird” could be “cool.”
Eventually, the VCR arrived and my projector and movie collection ended up in a closet for many years. More recently, all of the cartoons and movies I owned on film became easily accessible on Youtube. To save room, I ended up donating the films to the Central library, which is appropriate, since that’s where the whole adventure began.
I end this entry with a legendary family anecdote: As I mentioned, through the 60s and 70s, it was not unusual for people who owned home movie projectors to also own home versions of “real” movies. Whenever I would go to someone’s house for the first time, I would often ask, “Do you have any movies?” Since these were the days before VCRs, the question could only mean one thing – 8mm cartoons or short films. One time, when I was around ten, my sister and I were visiting the home of some kids who were around the same age as we. We were looking in a closet for a game and I spied a stack of 8mm reels of film without containers sitting on the top shelf. We got them down and, while they were not labeled, I could tell that they were in black and white. Driven by curiosity, my young host set up his family’s projector and, aiming it at a white wall, started one of the films. There were no titles, no story, no familiar characters, and no action to speak of. There was, however, a naked woman and… well… that was the day I learned that not all 8mm black and white films are suitable for children.
Back in the pre-VCR days, there were times when a kid simply couldn’t get to a movie theatre and there was nothing worthwhile on television. Asking one’s parents didn’t help because their suggestion was, inevitably, “read a book.” Granted, I was one of those kids who loved to read. But sometimes, the desire for visual entertainment was so intense, even a good book couldn’t suffice. Thankfully, the toy companies came to the rescue.
I was never big on toys as a kid. I had a few action figures, but I don’t remember ever playing with them. Yet I coveted and eventually owned every one of the toys I’m about to list. Such gadgets have been made obsolete by the abundance and variety of entertainments currently available, but throughout the 60s and 70s, they were a popular and welcome respite from boredom.
The Kenner Give A Show Projector –
Not actually a “movie,” this was, essentially, a kids’ version of a Magic Lantern or Carousel Slide Projector. An early incarnation of a power point, perhaps? The battery-operated projector came with a wide selection of cardboard strips, each of which contained seven color images that told a story featuring a popular cartoon or TV character. The strip would be slid manually through the projector to magnify and illuminate each image on the wall. (White doors worked best.) On some versions, the pictures had explanatory captions, but fancier Give A Show variations came with accompanying phonograph records. Every kids’ TV character of the day starred in Give A Show strips, which were also sold separately. Even though the Give A Show box came with slits to house and protect the strips from smudging or creasing, during a certain twenty year period, a messy kid’s room wasn’t complete without random strips (along with a rogue View Master reel or two) strewn about. Speaking of View Master, they manufactured a projector as well, allowing for public showings, but it was never as popular as its 3-D viewers or the Give A Show. I’ll be discussing View Master in more detail in a later entry. But first… a word from our sponsor…
The Easy Show Projector –
This toy was also by Kenner, but rather than individual slides, it adorned your wall with actual cartoons and live action movies using cartridges containing 8mm film. They were short, silent, and black and white, but they moved. The coolest thing about the Easy Show Projector is that, since it was hand-cranked, the “projectionist” could control the speed of the film or even show it backwards. This “control” factor was one of the intriguing features pointed out in the commercials. Later, fancier incarnations contained a motor which eliminated the need for cranking, but I always preferred the old fashioned way. Perhaps it was the sound of the clicking crank that I found appealing. The Easy Show Projector was the toy that taught me a true appreciation for how film, especially animation, worked. Cranking very slowly allowed for watching the film one frame at a time. I remember coming to the realization that someone had to make a separate drawing for each frame. This video is a demonstration and includes the movies that I watched many times as a child. Maybe some of you did, too.
The Fisher Price Movie Viewer –
Despite its uninspired name, this was a very cool toy. It was packaged and advertised as though it was geared for very young children, but everyone I knew who had one was at least ten or eleven. Basically, you inserted the cartridge (which also contained 8mm film) held the viewer up to your eye and cranked away (making that awesome clicking sound and allowing for one-frame-at-a-time viewing). Unlike the Give A Show or Easy Show toys, the Fisher Price Viewer was very portable and didn’t require a wall or a dark room. In fact, it required light in order to see the image. Also, unlike the Easy Show films, the Fisher Price ones were in color. There was a great variety of cartridges available, everything from Popeye to Sesame Street, but my favorite was always the one the viewer came with – an edited version of the great 1937 Disney cartoon, Lonesome Ghosts, featuring Mickey Mouse, Donald Duck, and Goofy. Fisher Price Movie Cartridges also worked in the Fisher Price Movie Theater which had its own light and a small screen. For some reason, I always preferred the viewer. Not to keep you in suspense, but in a later entry, I’ll let you know what eventually became of my Fisher Price and Easy Show cartridges. Let’s just say I was “resourceful.”
I’ve saved my favorite toy for last. It’s the Show n Tell by General Electric –
Like the Give A Show Projector, it showed still color images instead of movies, but even as a little kid, I thought it was ingenious. It looked like a small TV and had a record player on the top. (I was just as obsessed with records as I was with movies.) The Show n Tell accessory packages, of which there was a great variety to choose from, each came with a record and a plastic strip of film. The strip was inserted into a slit on the side of the machine. The record’s music, voices, and sound effects told the story as the filmstrip automatically advanced to the next frame. If your timing was right, it was as if the machine somehow knew when the narrator on the record wanted it to change pictures. Of course, the record player could play regular records as well, so it was infinitely practical. The Show n Tell was my favorite toy.
Since General Electric wasn’t exactly known for manufacturing toys, they weren’t very adept at advertising them. I love how this ad hilariously tries to appeal to parents and make the Show n Tell look more “educational” than it actually was.
I hope the title of this week’s entry didn’t mislead you. (That’s a lie. I was actually kind of hoping it would.) It’s the opening lyric from the Give A Show commercial. Though I loved all of these toys, they were never really the crowd pleasers as depicted in the ads. And even though I never really played with my action figures, they made a very attentive audience.
As I said, since today’s kids can watch any movie or cartoon they want at any time (not to mention video games), these kinds of toys no longer serve a purpose. That said…after I moved to Chicago, I finally got cable TV. Like many of us, I’ve since learned that having a choice of hundreds of channels does not necessarily mean there’s something worth watching. Many’s the time I still wish I had my Easy Show Projector.
The big VCR boom of the 80s brought about not only a change in attitude and practice toward watching studio movies, but it changed the entire concept and execution of making and watching amateur or “homemade” films. The purchase of a video camera and VCR made it possible for parents to easily record anything their children did at any time and immediately (and repeatedly) watch the adorable antics on TV. Today, with the ability of recording video with any camera or phone, any child’s action, as monumental as his/her first steps or as trivial as adorably spitting strained peas at the camera can be captured and shared with the world in a matter of minutes.
I can see how this ability would now be a proud parent’s dream. But speaking as a former child, I am eternally grateful that I was not brought up at a time when it was easy for my parents to document and replay my every waking breath. Most of my sister’s and my childhood events are relegated to our memories. Thankfully, if various family members recall the details of certain occurrences differently, we can’t simply consult the “instant replay” to learn the bald truth. This convenient inability affords us the luxury of selective recollection, allowing us to remember things as we wish.
This is not to say that there exists no cinematic proof that I was once a child. Before the days of digital and video recording, it was typical for families to own a movie camera and projector and make and screen their own amateur films. (Note that I use the world “film.” Frames, sprockets, and celluloid – just like the 35mm film they showed at the movie theatre, only, at 8 mm, much smaller – and always silent.)
In addition to the camera and projector, it was also important to have a folding movie screen and, for indoor filming, a movie light bright enough to land an airplane at night. Film would often break, so it was also important to have a means to splice it back together. My father also bought a small moviola for editing which later played a very important role in my childhood. More on that later.
My mom recently had our home movies converted to DVD and a few months ago, out of somewhat masochistic curiosity, I watched them all. Prior to this viewing, I hadn’t seen the footage since I was around eleven. From what I can tell, my family’s home movies aren’t much different from those of most families at the time. They mainly consist of get-togethers with relatives, travel, milestone events, and stage performances.
It must be remembered that making these films was neither convenient nor cheap. Film was bought in limited roles of fifty feet (around three minutes) or two hundred feet (around ten minutes) and once the film was shot, it had to be taken in for developing – at additional cost. Therefore, film was not to be wasted. When the movie camera was aimed at you, the pressure to do something was enormous. When you watch a home movie, be assured that whoever was filming was yelling some variation of “DO something! Don’t just stand there. You’re wasting film!” That’s why people in home movies are often seen frantically waving, performing impromptu dances, and animatedly blowing kisses. Even though my family’s homemade films are now preserved on digital media, I am not technically savvy enough to share them with you on this page. You’re welcome.
Home movies don’t have great production values and the content of ours weren’t very well documented when it comes to dates, locations, or even certain cast members who, to this day, remain unknown. I kind of enjoy the sense of mystery that pervades our films. Some people were canny enough to handwrite and hold up “title cards” in their movies for identification purposes. As a kid, I remember watching another family’s home movies and being terribly impressed by their idea of spelling out their titles on their refrigerator using plastic magnetic letters. I recall being wowed by their professionalism.
The viewing of home movies back in those days was somewhat inconvenient which made showings a relatively rare “special occasion.” The films were usually brought out when out-of-town family came to visit. Furniture had to be rearranged for optimum viewing opportunity. The screen had to be set up. The projector had to be dusted off and threaded. I even remember popcorn being served. Since the films were silent, everyone felt the need to provide a running Mystery-Science-Theatre-esque commentary throughout the showing. As a kid, I had very mixed feelings about these screenings. On the one hand, I loved watching the films projected on a large screen (well, much larger than our TV screen, anyway) right in our living room. I loved the accompanying often hilarious reminiscing of the adults. The aspect of the event that I didn’t like had to do with two personally appalling and embarrassing sequences that were always shown. When I knew those scenes were coming, I would “go to the bathroom” to avoid hearing the supposedly good-natured gibes from the crowd. I will now dim the lights and take you through some of the highlights. Please refrain from making shadow puppets on the screen.
By the time we were watching these films, we’d already moved to Texas from Maryland. I loved the early Maryland films because they filled in my pre-memory information. The earliest films of me are of my second and third birthday parties, held in the tiny basement of our house. I’m at the head of a table, surrounded by kids eating ice cream. The adults are all standing. The men are wearing ties and the some of the women have pearls which may seem strange at a child’s birthday party, until you recall that these were the days when people dressed up to fly on airplanes or go to the movies. Even in that confined, windowless room, people are smoking. When the camera points at them, people suddenly smile, wave, and squint at the light. I always loved watching the part where I open presents. In one, Mom helps me rip off the wrapping and then brandishing its contents for the camera. Look everyone! It’s a Frankie Frank! For those who weren’t around in 1963 (and even some who were), Frankie was a close, personal friend of Mr. Potato Head. Sadly, neither Frankie nor his pal “Mr. Mustard Head” hung around long enough to star in Toy Story.
In my early birthday party movies, I always appear rather underwhelmed. However, there is one magical moment where I unwrap a Fisher Price “Radio.” That was the one where you twisted the knob and music played as the dial spun around slowly. In the film, I gaze at the toy, confused. Someone turns the knob and my expression shifts from suspicious intensity to sheer wonder and amazement. As the music continues, I smile in delight and look around to make sure everyone else in the room can hear it. To this day, it is one of my favorite moments in any movie. It’s very likely that that was the very instant where I discovered my love for music.
By the time my younger sister’s birthdays were being filmed, we lived in Kingsville and then Houston, Texas. There are several running themes in all of the Texas party movies. First, I’m happy to say that the birthday cakes are always homemade and decorated imaginatively by Mom. My sister’s always seemed to be Barbie-themed. One of my cakes is made to look like Snoopy’s doghouse and has a paper cut out of Snoopy sitting on top. Very cool!
Second, apparently there was a rule that every birthday party movie had to include a party horn war in which two children sitting next to each other try to put each other’s eyes out by uncoiling the horn at close proximity.
Third, watching the films now, aside from relatives, I cannot recognize or recall the names of any of the guests at any of our birthday parties – even my own.
As I mentioned, as we watched scenes of travel, family, and carefree youth and nostalgia, there were two segments that made me flee the room in shame. One was tied to my participation in a dance recital. I am onstage wearing a “shoe shine boy” costume and am tap dancing up a storm. That wasn’t the embarrassing part. Following the onstage portion, there was a scene outside of the theatre where I was clearly being instructed to dance. Still wearing the costume, but without the magic of stage lights, in broad daylight on the concrete, I just looked ludicrous. In another scene, filmed many years earlier when I was still in diapers, my father actually filmed me taking a crap. I could never quite see the entertainment value of this. I’m toddling along when I suddenly squat down with a concentrated expression. Then I stand up and continue toddling, but with a slight variation to my gait. Though I remember the raucous laughter when this scene was shown at family gatherings, I cannot share any of the remarks that were made. I couldn’t hear them from my bedroom where I took refuge.
I will now make a confession that I have never shared before. Eventually, my father taught me how to use the moviola. One day, I snuck into the closet where the movies were kept, placed the movies on the machine, cut out the offending frames, spliced the film back together, threw the vile footage in the trash, and put the newly edited films back in the closet. I am satisfied that, unlike The Wizard of Oz’s missing Jitterbug number and King Kong’s long lost “spider pit” scene, both of which may someday be found – the legendary daylight interpretive dance and nefarious “crap” scene will never be seen again.
I’m very grateful to my father for shooting and my mother for preserving these films – especially to see my youthful parents, grandparents, relatives, beloved pets, and former homes as they looked back then. There’s something wonderfully eerie and “otherwordly” about all home movies before video with sound took over. There is much to be discovered and learned via homemade family films. The best views of the 1939 New York World’s Fair, the only moving footage of Anne Frank, and of course, the Zapruder film of JFK’s assassination are all powerfully provided to us by amateur filmmakers. Home movies hold the answers to mysteries of the past. Here’s a great example:
One of my favorite Hollywood clichés from before the mid 80s is where, after the untimely death of a parent, the surviving family members, sit on the couch, arms around each other and, with tearful smiles, watch home movies containing the lost loved one. The cliché continues today with the family watching the departed on home video with sound. But somehow, it’s just not as poignant as the earlier scenes where we know that the family went through the elaborate routine of setting up the screen and projector – just to watch a few fleeting ethereal silent images of happier times.
While I was growing up in the 70s and early 80s, television was my primary source for old movies. However, in those days, it was also relatively easy to see such films in all their larger-than-life, “silver screen” glory in theaters and with big appreciative audiences. Unless you live in a city like New York, L.A., or Chicago, that experience is all but lost – and its loss is directly due to the availability of home video. Just as the arrival of television in people’s homes caused a dramatic drop in movie theatre attendance in the 50s (“Why should I pay to go to a movie when I have free entertainment in my living room?”), the invention of the VCR caused the downfall of the Revival House (“Why should I go out to see Casablanca when I can own my own copy and watch it whenever I want?”) Currently, the closest thing Houston has to a rep house is the Brown Auditorium of the Museum of Fine Arts. The audiences for old films, when they showed them, were usually sparse. Even though I was well into my forties, I was often the youngest person there. And they didn’t allow food. Still, I was grateful for the Art Museum’s existence and attended their films frequently. Imagine my euphoria when, a few days after my arrival in Chicago, I attended a screening of a beautiful IB Technicolor print of Vertigo. Both of the showings in the large auditorium of the Gene Siskel Film Center were sold out. Not only was seeing Vertigo under those conditions an electrifying event, it was a nostalgic one. The Siskel Theater has a curtain in front of the screen – a sight I hadn’t seen in decades. As a kid, I loved how the very beginning of the film would often be projected on the closed, rippled curtain and “clear up” as the curtain opened. Even though Vertigo was made in 1958, the experience took my memory to the 1970s.
Back then, most big cities had at least one Revival or Repertory Theater, the entire purpose of which was to show older films. In addition, summer film festivals and midnight movies were fairly commonplace. In Houston, we had The River Oaks Theatre. Built in 1939, the theatre still hangs on and maintains much of its original art deco design. These days, it is under the constant threat of being torn down by real estate developers who I always picture as dressing like Snidely Whiplash. Today, it is a Landmark theatre specializing in Art House, Foreign, and Indie movies. But all during my childhood, the theatre maintained a constantly rotating film schedule of that changed every other day. The program was almost always a double feature with both movies connected by the same star, director, or theme. One might see two Tracy/Hepburns, two Hitchcocks, or two silent comedies. Sometimes they’d show a movie alongside its remake. Some pairings referenced each other. Casablanca was often teamed with Woody Allen’s Play It Again, Sam. On rare occasions, the pairings were odd and it was a puzzle to see the connection. I remember seeing a double feature of Singin’ In The Rain and San Francisco. Neither my father nor I could figure out the connection between the two films other than the fact that they both came from MGM. It turns out that both films also contained the fairly obscure Freed/Brown song “Would You.” The River Oaks Theater’s monthly schedule hung magnetized to many a refrigerator in Houston during the 70s.
For a very brief period in the early part of that decade, Houston had another rep house called The Bijou Theater. On weekends, the venue attempted to replicate the Saturday movie experience of the 30s and 40s with a double feature, a cartoon, a newsreel, and a short subject. Between films, a costumed and caped “Captain Bijou” would hold a contest and give out door prizes to lucky kids in the audience. The Bijou Theater was where I had my eleventh birthday party. The films were Under Nevada Skies with Roy Rogers and Dale Evans and a Charlie Chan mystery, the title of which I don’t remember. Accompanying the feature was a Fleischer Superman cartoon. The Fleischer’s smooth rotoscoping, lush color, astonishing sense of realism, and almost 3D-looking use of the multiplane camera grabbed me immediately as being startlingly different from the flatness of the made-for-TV Superman cartoons I’d seen up to that point. The Superman cartoon The Bijou Theater showed that day had the unfortunate title, Japoteurs (1942), and came complete with World War II propaganda stereotyped Japanese villains. I remember my mother’s deep concern that one of my party guests, Mike Huang, would be offended by the Asian stereotypes in the Charlie Chan and especially the Superman cartoon. If he was offended, he never mentioned it.
Here is a link to that cartoon. Watch it for its artistic merit. The political content is a product of its time.
As a kid, I also attended many Midnight Movies. Of course, there are still Midnight Movies today, but the concept now is very different from that in the days before home video. Now, Midnight Films are those with a cult following and encourage a Rocky Horror Picture Show brand of audience participation. No matter what the film is, people shout out the punch lines, sing along, and talk back to the characters. At the risk of sounding like a curmudgeon, I hate it. I remember going to Midnight Movies with my father and just… watching the movie. And the films didn’t have to be “cult” films, either. I first saw The African Queen and The Lady Vanishes at Midnight Movies.
Aside from my birthday party, I always saw old movies accompanied by my father. Luckily for me, he was an old movie lover, too. My mother also loves movies, but rarely went with us to see the revivals. But one especially satisfying memory I have is of Mom accompanying Dad and me to a midnight screening of Top Hat. I know it sounds corny, but every time I hear the song “Cheek to Cheek,” I remember sitting between my parents at that movie.
I am grateful to the fact that home video came into my life when I was nineteen. Due to that fortunate timing, my first exposure to many classic films was in theatre with large, appreciative audiences. Thanks to The River Oaks Theatre, The Bijou Theatre, and The Alley Theatre and Jewish Community Center’s Summer Film Festivals, I had my first experiences with Citizen Kane, Good News, Royal Wedding, And Then There Were None, Idiot’s Delight, Dinner at Eight, Rancho Notorious, Safety Last, The Great Dictator, Modern Times, The General, March of the Wooden Soldiers, Duck Soup, Abbott and Costello Meet Frankenstein, Spellbound, Rebecca, Freaks, The Thirty-Nine Steps, North By Northwest, Stage Door, My Little Chickadee, The Jazz Singer, Lost Horizon (1937), Way Out West, Shall We Dance, Casablanca, Forbidden Planet, The Thin Man, Sparrows, and countless others, on the big screen. I remember each of these experiences vividly.
Of course, sometimes neither parent was available to drive me to see a certain film, so I had to miss it for lack of transportation. My father wanted no part of the then-popular Disney slapstick comedies of which I was also very fond. We didn’t live within walking distance of a movie theatre, so I always had to find a ride. I vowed that the very first I could legally drive alone, I would drive myself to the movies. The day after receiving my license, not caring a bit about what I was going to see, I drove my own coming-of-age self to the Southway Six Theater. Feeling more grown up and mature than ever before, I saw The Muppet Movie.
Special thanks to Cole Porter for providing the title of this entry.
When I was in the fifth grade, we were assigned to write an essay describing an invention we wished someone would create. I didn’t have to think twice. I wrote about a TV that would allow the viewer to watch any movie he/she wanted at any time. I spent much of my childhood fantasizing about such a machine. In the days before the advent of home video, life was not easy for a movie geek, regardless of age. I had accrued a long list of favorite movies that I wished I could summon up at my slightest whim. Even more tantalizing was the ever-growing list of movies I’d read about and seen intriguing still photos of, but wondered if I’d ever get to view in full.
During my childhood, I had a perpetual early Sunday morning ritual of grabbing a pencil and a red pen and combing the TV Guide and circling movies to watch in the upcoming week. We had seven channels (2,8,11,13,20,26, and 39) and they all showed old movies as non-prime time filler.
As my pencil scanned the listings, I was always on the lookout for anything old. Any comedy, particularly one featuring W. C. Fields, the Marx Brothers, or Laurel and Hardy, received the “red pen” treatment. I rarely bothered to look at the during-school hours because if something really good was scheduled, my dreaded math class would be made even worse by the knowledge that, as the teacher was droning on about numerators and denominators, I was missing cinematic ambrosia. Thankfully, the “Little Rascals” was always on after school, so I took comfort in knowing that I could get my “30s comedy fix” in just a few hours.
Many of my most desired films were scheduled for the middle of the night. This meant that I would have to set my alarm clock for unsavory hours. I knew I’d be a zombie at school the following day, but I didn’t care. I had a nine-inch black and white TV in my room, complete with a pair of pliers for changing the channel. The actual channel-changing appendage had gone to the “Island of Lost TV Knobs” long before. I still get a twinge of nostalgic sadness when I think of the many times I woke myself up at 2a.m. intending to watch something like The Big Broadcast of 1936, only to fall asleep shortly into the film and wake up the following morning not knowing if and when I would ever again get the opportunity to see it.
When my fifth-grade fantasy invention eventually came to light and we finally got a VCR (Beta format), I immediately went out and rented the film Airplane! There are not adequate words to describe the joy I felt as I put the videocassette in the machine, pressed play, and saw the opening of the film come up on the TV screen.
I didn’t even watch the film. I spent the next few hours starting, stopping, rewinding, fast forwarding, ejecting the tape, placing it back in the machine, going to a favorite line or moment and watching it, then watching it again ….just because I felt like it, pausing the film, going to the bathroom, coming back and starting it again without missing a frame…just because I could, and fully relishing every moment of the fact that I had complete control of the movie! Many of my life’s happiest moments are related to movies, and my first experience with a VCR was one of the all-time best. Needless to say, I wouldn’t trade home video and its many pleasures for anything and am immensely grateful for its very existence. Incidentally, the quote that titles this entry is from the movie The Iron Giant.
In the play and movie Inherit The Wind, Henry Drummond (a thinly disguised Clarence Darrow) tells a crowded courtroom about the losses and sacrifices that must be endured with each step forward. “Progress has never been a bargain,” he proclaims. “You have to pay for it.” I must admit that there are certain things about the pre-VCR days that I genuinely miss – not only events like my TV Guide circling ritual (which I excitedly get to relive once a month when Now Playing, the TCM schedule guidearrives), but many truly wonderful things that the advent of home video has made obsolete. Such pleasures lost to time include…
To be continued…
Unlike most people who are obsessed with movies, my passion for film was sparked, not by a specific movie or formative film-going experience, but by a feature in a 1970 issue of Cracked magazine. Cracked is thought of by many as a “touring company” version of Mad Magazine, but as an eight-year-old, I didn’t know the difference. This particular issue included a two-page spread of stills from silent movies with funny lines in comic book cartoon-bubbles.
I lost the magazine years ago and don’t remember the captions at all, but the haunting photos themselves fascinated and, to a degree, scared me. I couldn’t take my eyes off of them.
First, I couldn’t understand why they were in a magazine that was supposed to be funny. To my young mind, their content was less amusing than dramatically disturbing. One picture showed a frightened, bookish man dangerously dangling from the hands of an enormous clock many stories above the street.
Another depicted an oddly mustached policeman in the act of suffocating another equally grotesque-looking man by holding the latter’s head inside the top of a street lamp.
There was also a startling photo of a weirdly (and scantily) clad woman looking directly at me with an intense, piercing stare.
In addition to the startling strangeness of the pictures’ content, I was immediately struck by the stark black-and-white distant quality of the look of the photos and their subjects. These people looked like no people I had ever seen, either in real life or on TV.
I took the magazine to my father who immediately identified the people as Harold Lloyd, Theda Bara, and Charlie Chaplin. (I later learned that the man with his head stuck in the gaslight was Eric Campbell and the movie was Easy Street.) My father also explained that the photos were from old movies that came out before even he was born. I had seen many movies by age eight, but the very notion that movies existed before I did astounded me. I understood that movies were fantasy, but it hadn’t occurred to me that there was such as thing as “old” and “new” movies.
My father then reached up on his bookshelf and handed me a hefty tome called The Movies by Richard Griffith and Arthur Mayer, first published in 1957. The book was enormous and I remember that holding it on my lap for a lengthy period, which I did often, made my legs numb. The Movies is still widely available and I highly recommend taking a look at it. Unlike most of my father’s books that consisted primarily of tiny print and big words, this one featured photos – hundreds of black and white, scary, yet riveting photos like the ones I’d seen in the magazine.
Two of the images gave me nightmares – literally. One was an agonizing close up of Lon Chaney with one completely white eye (a contact lens).
The other, even spookier to my innocent mind, was of a bound, armless, yet ever-placid Buster Keaton as the Venus De Milo.
Being familiar with neither Chaney nor Keaton, these visages haunted my young imagination.
The few lines of text that accompanied all of the photos in the book identified the films and actors but did nothing to explain what was going on in the scenes depicted, making the pictures all the more enigmatic and intriguing. I asked my father if I could borrow the book. He agreed and that was the last he ever saw of it. Sorry, Dad. I spent endless hours poring over the pages of The Movies, memorizing every inch of its photos and eventually, the names of the movie stars pictured. Some of the stars’ names intrigued me as much as their appearance. (To this day, I still find the name “Vilma Banky” hilarious.) The people, their expressions, their dress, and their manners held my imagination captive as I pondered the mysteries of the photos’ sources – the films themselves. Unlike today, there was no easy access to the films and no internet to provide quick research, so exactly why the man was hanging from the clock remained a mystery to me for many years until I was finally able to see Safety Last.
A few years ago, while watching Martin Scorsese’s personal and insightful Journey Through American Movies documentary, I felt an exciting sort of kinship and empathy with Scorsese when he described his childhood experience of becoming similarly enthralled with the still photos in Deems Taylor’s book A Pictorial History of the Movies.
When looking back from my childhood to now, I realize how greatly my personal movie timeline was affected by the enormous range of technological advancements made in how we watch movies. During my teaching career, and in my current position as an undergrad Cinema Studies student at Columbia College Chicago, I have met countless young film fanatics. Unlike they, however, I was not born into a house with a VCR or DVD player. Upon much reflection, I realize now what a lucky movie fan I am to be able to divide my life into “without home video” and “with home video.” I must say, as grateful as I am for DVD players, Youtube, and Netflix, the “before home video” days offered – believe it or not – some truly great advantages that are now, sadly, lost to time. In future entries, I will elaborate.