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“It’s ALIVE!!!!!!” The creation of a movie fanatic

by larrydachslager on July 19th, 2013

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.

Cracked Magazine

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.

Harold Lloyd

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.

Charlie Chaplin

There was also a startling photo of a weirdly (and scantily) clad woman looking directly at me with an intense, piercing  stare.

Theda Bara

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).

Lon Chaney

The other, even spookier to my innocent mind, was of a bound, armless, yet ever-placid Buster Keaton as the Venus De Milo.

Buster Keaton

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.

One Comment
  1. Ina Miller permalink

    Larry, I loved reading about your ViewMaster. You may remember that I have my ViewMaster in its original box. Don’t have many reels. Hope you are doing well. Glad you are enjoying school.

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