“Glorious Technicolor, Breathtaking Cinemascope, and Stereophonic Sound”
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.