Skip to content

Everything Old Is New Again…

by larrydachslager on September 22nd, 2013

There is much to remember (whether one wants to or not) about the 1970s.   I want to keep this entry positive, so I’ll stay away from commenting on the music and fashion of that era.  The quality of the television ranged from the inspired to the insipid.  It was a great decade for movies.   This week, I’m going to focus my memories on an aspect of the 1970s that was quite prevalent at the time, but is rarely revisited today.

At the decade’s beginning, I was eight years old and had just discovered my passion for old movies.  As it turns out, my timing was accidentally impeccable because from about 1972 to1976 or thereabouts, the entire country went crazy for black and white Hollywood nostalgia.  Suddenly, the films of the Marx Brothers, Laurel and Hardy, Busby Berkeley, the Universal Monsters, Astaire and Rogers, W. C. Fields, and Humphrey Bogart were very much a part of 70s pop culture.  Popping up in stores and homes everywhere was a spate of nostalgic posters, records, and books.   In addition, there were puzzles, games, cookie jars, lamps, t-shirts, and figurines featuring visages of the above-mentioned stars and more.

Comic book conventions have always been popular, but in the 70s, I attended many nostalgia conventions where I bought recordings of comedy and suspense radio shows and dozens of old movie posters and lobby cards with which I covered every inch of my room.  These 30s and 40s-era posters and cards were the real things, not reproductions – and they were CHEAP!  I don’t think I ever spent more than three or four dollars for a vintage movie poster.  Of course, these weren’t well-known classic movies.   They were all B-movie fare or from later reissues of classics.  But they were awesome and gave my room lots of character.  They also had a practical aesthetic purpose.  They drew the eye’s attention to the walls and away from the floor which was usually pretty cluttered.

It was at those conventions where I met and got autographs from the likes of Dorothy Lamour, Van Johnson, and George “Spanky” McFarland and Eugene “Porky” Lee of Our Gang/Little Rascals fame.   I always seemed to be the youngest old movie fan at these conventions, so I tended to stick out and sometimes got special treatment.  After talking to Woody Woodpecker creator Walter Lantz and his wife Grace Stafford (Woody’s voice) for half an hour, Mr. Lantz presented me with a stuffed Woody Woodpecker doll, which I still have.

lantz

Revival houses and Nostalgia stores were also popular.  In an earlier entry, I talked about the Bijou Theater in Houston.  It only survived for two or three years, but I went there quite a bit.  On Saturdays, they replicated a 30s-style Saturday at the movies complete with cartoons, newsreels, comedy shorts, a double feature, and door prizes presented by Captain Bijou himself.   I often pestered my father to take me to Roy’s Memory Shop where they sold movie posters, glossy stills, and lobby cards.  From his perch behind the counter, Roy was a very old (seeming) man who was  in a perpetual bad mood and always looked at me with great suspicion.  I always wondered why he was so grumpy when he spent every day surrounded by so much cool stuff.

Since the 30s and 40s were so “in” during the 70s, a surprising number of mainstream movies were set during that era or made reference to it.  These included Paper Moon, The Sunshine Boys, What’s Up Doc, Movie Movie, The Day of the Locust, The Way We Were, The Sting, What’s The Matter With Helen?, Play It Again, Sam, Gable and Lombard, and W. C. Fields And Me, to name a few.   One of the top-grossing films for 1974 was That’s Entertainment, a documentary highlighting clips from the history of MGM musicals. 

The decade’s popular disaster films always managed to get in on the nostalgia craze by adding luminous legends of old to their all-star ensemble casts.  I remember going to see disaster films specifically to watch Myrna Loy, Joseph Cotton, Dana Andrews, Fred Astaire, Jennifer Jones, Olivia De Havilland, Fred MacMurray, Henry Fonda, James Stewart, and Ava Gardner being deluged by water, ravaged by bees, and set aflame.  And who can forget the sight of Gloria Swanson zooming down the inflatable slide in Airport 1975?   And speaking of disasters, if you want to see a cast list to end all cast lists, go to imdb.com and check out the “who’s who” who came out of retirement to appear in Won Ton Ton, The Dog Who Saved Hollywood (1976).  Proof positive that, even with decades’ worth of star power, a dog is a dog!

Since the 70s general public was so familiar with old movies, parodies and references showed up everywhere.  Mike and Gloria dressed as Groucho and Harpo on an episode of All In The Family.  George and Louise dressed as Charlie Chaplin and Mae West on The Jeffersons.  Everyone knew that the animated Vlasic Stork was imitating Groucho and that the Sugar Crisp Bear’s voice was inspired by Bing Crosby.  Mad Magazine, The Carol Burnett Show, and countless commercials could do take-offs of old movies, even rather obscure ones, with full knowledge that the audience would get the jokes.

Mel Brooks had his biggest successes in the 1970s because those who saw Blazing Saddles, Young Frankenstein, High Anxiety, and Silent Movie knew those spoofs’ original versions inside and out.  One reason that his later Robin Hood and Dracula movies didn’t succeed as well is that much of the audience was unfamiliar with the Errol Flynn and Bela Lugosi originals.  A few years ago, I saw Blazing Saddles with a very enthusiastic and vocal audience at a midnight screening.   Yet there were many lines and bits that got laughs in 1974 that the 2010 audience didn’t even know were jokes.  I laughed heartily when Mel said “Patsy and Kelly.”  People stared at me.

The popularity of Humphrey Bogart and his films had an enormous resurgence during that time.  Starting with Woody Allen’s Play It Again, Sam, Bogart imitations started showing up everywhere.  I wonder if today’s kids, watching The Brady Bunch, have any idea of what’s going on in the episode where everyone in the family stiffens their top lip and lisps, “pork chopsh… and appleshaush…”   In 1973, Neil Bogart (no relation) created Casablanca Records.  In 1974 a company called Casablanca Fans came into being.   Both companies were named after the movie, not the place. My favorite Saturday morning show was Lancelot Link, Secret Chimp, a Man-From-Uncle-esque spy caper whose entire cast was made up of live-action chimpanzees.  The title character’s voice was an obvious imitation of… who else?   Here’s looking at you, chimp.

While we’re on the subject of kids’ shows, 70s Saturday morning television programming and commercials were filled with old movie references.   Sid and Marty Croft’s trippy shows H. R. Pufnstuf and  Lidsville  were populated by characters who sounded like John Wayne, E. G. Robinson, Boris Karloff, Bela Lugosi, Peter Lorre, Mae West, Ed Wynn, and George Raft.

The Universal Monsters were revived (pun intended) in the form of action figures and plastic model kits – not to mention the cereals Frankenberry and Count Chocula which still haunt grocery store aisles today.

A match made in Larry Dachslager heaven occurred when none other than Laurel and Hardy guest starred in an episode of Scooby Doo.

Scooby

But of all the old-time movie stars to make a posthumous comeback, the most popular was W. C. Fields.  For some reason, Fields, who died in 1946, became more popular in the 70s than he was when he was a movie star.  His face and quotations were found on posters, records, buttons, t-shirts, and bumper stickers.

Fields 1

Fields 2

wc.fields.cookjar

Naturally, I had a Fields poster in my room.  (I was recently delighted to see that teenaged Sam Weir on the 1999 show Freaks And Geeks had the same poster up in his room.)   The most ironic thing about W. C. Fields’s newfound stardom is that much of it was geared toward children whom Fields purportedly despised.  There were W. C. Fields banks and a popular ventriloquist doll that was later used to very creepy effect in Twilight Zone: The Movie. 

TZWCnGirl

I still have my W. C. Fields battery tester.  I’m not joking.  You put the battery on his flower and his nose lights up if the battery is still working.  My tester remains in its original package.  “Wow!” I hear you say, “A working W. C. Fields battery tester in its original package!  That must be worth a lot!”   I checked E-bay.   Ten bucks.  That’s okay.  At least I’m not tempted to get rid of it.

Battery

And then there’s my all-time favorite advertising mascot.  After the Frito Bandito was deemed politically questionable, he was briefly replaced on Fritos bags and TV commercials by “W. C. Fritos.”  I didn’t particularly like Fritos, but I remember having them in my lunch every day for weeks and weeks to obtain the poster and the entire collection of W. C. Fritos erasers.  They were very cool, but once I had all four, I never ate Fritos again – to this day.

6320fritos

8589fritosx2

I was sad when the W. C. Fields craze faded away.  For that short time, it seemed like I was, for the only time in my life, in tune with something that was popular.  In fact, as a ten-year-old W. C. Fields expert, I was more in tune than most.  It should come as no surprise that I dressed as W. C. Fields for three Halloweens in a row.  I did (and still do) a pretty decent Fields imitation and, instead of saying “trick or treat,” I would snarl, in a prepubescent nasal Fieldsian drawl, “I would immensely appreciate a petite morsel of toothsome confectionary.  In short…gimme some candy!”  One time, the guy who answered the door was so delighted by my gift for mimicry, he insisted that I come inside and repeat the performance for his wife and elderly parents who laughed and applauded.  From what I remember, that was my first “public performance.”

The nostalgia fad of the 70s was brief, but I’ll always be grateful that it happened at that precise point in my life.  Thinking back to my pre-teen self, I know that’s when I needed it most.

 

 

 

No comments yet

Leave a Reply

Note: XHTML is allowed. Your email address will never be published.

Subscribe to this comment feed via RSS