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“This must be the greatest invention since, I don’t know, television or something!”

by larrydachslager on July 26th, 2013

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.

TV Guide

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.

BetaMax

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…

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