Sunday, June 1, 2008

My Life in the Movies

When I was a kid growing up in Brooklyn, I would go to the movies twice a week. In the middle of the week when they changed the features I would go with my mother, who loved the movies as much as I did. Besides, in those days they would give away free dishes to lure people in the middle of the week and her kitchen cupboard was filled with "movie" dishes.

Parenthetically speaking, my mother was an inveterate novel reader and moviegoer, which, of course, explains a lot about the bent of her progeny. So much for genetics. For my father, the movies were a soporific and he was usually asleep before the opening credits ended. His movie going presence was respectfully declined.

On Saturday afternoons, I went to the movies with my friends. It was a Saturday ritual and the theatres were filled exclusively with rambunctious, screaming kids letting off energy. During the chase scenes of which there were many, the howls and cheers were deafening as we rooted for the good guys, especially during the westerns. The good guys always won.

During the love scenes, we grew bored and carried on, throwing candy and spitballs and driving the harried ushers crazy. Remember ushers? They all carried flashlights, often brandished as weapons in those halcyon days before political correctness.

There were no ratings in those days, and the sex parts were so deliberately subtle to get past the censors that unless you were naturally prurient and sexually precocious, you rarely understood the "dirty" parts. A good example is in the closing scene of The Thin Man with the elegant William Powell and the beauteous Myrna Loy as the immortal Nick and Nora Charles. They are in a double berth stateroom on a train, both in pajamas. Nora gets in the lower berth; Nick bends over to kiss her goodnight, presumably to climb to the upper berth. Obviously, the kiss gets Nick's hormones roaring and we cut to their dog Aster, ever the compliant companion, who jumps to the upper berth and, paws between his head, gets comfy for the night. Who doesn't understand what is going on in the lower berth as the movie ends?

The movies were all black and white studio products, and the names of the actors were burned into our brains, their images ubiquitous in fan magazines, advertising endorsements and especially on the inside of Dixie cup covers, which sealed the cup of ice cream which were uniformly vanilla and chocolate.

There was no television in those days and we lived our parallel lives in the movies with those beautiful stars as our guides, role models and look a-likes. My mother thought I looked like Gregory Peck, which did a great deal for my self-image.

Indeed, I find the stars of today pale imitations of those of yesteryear, which, I suppose, is the result of galloping senility and a certain snobbishness about "the old days." Hell, twenty thousand people showed up at the funeral of Rudolph Valentino, a silent film heartthrob. Ask anyone under sixty. Rudolph who?

My children have always been astonished when I could name not only the stars in those old movies, but the bit players. I still can. Show me a black and white picture, and I can reel off the names of the complete cast, almost. Of course, in those days I would have seen four movies a week for years, two in the middle of the week with my mother and two on Saturdays with my friends.

The movie program consisted of double features augmented by movietone news, a cartoon, a novelty short and coming attractions. On Saturdays, they might show two cartoons and, invariably a serial like Flash Gordon, Rin Tin Tin, which was the name of a heroic dog, Dick Tracy, the detective, and others. All episodes ended in cliffhangers, and you had to come back the next Saturday to find out what happened, even though you always knew that the hero or heroine would escape danger in the nick of time. Certain theaters would also show a comedy race where your ticket stub carried the number of a winner and you won a prize if the winner came in.

One theater in my old neighborhood actually showed three full-length features, two cartoons, a serial, shorts and, to top it off, they gave away prizes in a drawing in the middle of a Saturday afternoon. I once won a pair of roller skates.

The showings were continuous and often you "came in the middle" and would only leave the theater when the part in the movie in which you had entered the theater came on again. The candy concession was a machine that dispensed five-cent candies. My olfactory memory recalls a pleasant caramel or chocolaty smell that pervaded the theater. There was no popcorn or drinks sold.

There were no annoying commercials. They didn't try to sell you anything in those days and didn't keep you herded in long lines, except in the big Broadway movie palaces where you lined up six across to wait your turn to see a movie and a stage show, usually a big band and a pop singer like Frank Sinatra or Tony Bennett. Admission for kids, if I remember was a dime plus a penny or two tax. It might have been double that for adults and higher for evening performances.

On days when my mother took me into the city to the big theaters like the Roxy, the Paramount, the Capitol or Radio City Musical Hall, we always had to rush to make it before one in the afternoon when they raised the prices. In those fancy downtown theaters, the ushers were dressed in crisp uniforms with epaulets and brass buttons and stood around like toy soldiers.

What astonishes me most about these recollections in a time before rating systems was that my mother, twenty odd years my senior, enjoyed the same movies I did or vice versa. We laughed and cried at the same situations and plot turns. It is only recently, since I have been exposed to watching those old movies again on CDs and Turner Classic Movies on television that I have begun to unravel this odd mystery.

It was the story, dummy. Good stories are universal and defy age and gender. I believe they told them more skillfully in those days. In my opinion, they were better written, the dialogue sharper, the acting more believable, the costuming more creative. Was the talent pool greater in gifts and scope? I dare not court the condemnation of the young.

I am not discounting the power of nostalgia, sentiment and the golden glow of youth. Yes, it does cloud one's objectivity. Perhaps the moisture glazing my eyes as I watch these old films is really tears of longing and regret for those lost moments when the blood pounded more powerfully in my veins.

This is not to say there are some movies around today that tell stories that are equally as compelling and well written and performed. But they seem too few and require much energy and ingenuity to search out since they are no longer in the mainstream of popular culture.

Admittedly I am no longer in the demographic that the movie industry is courting in their blockbuster offerings, and I am often repelled by the noisy trailers which telescope the same old tired cliché ridden stories in their booming noisy special effect wrappers. This does not mean that there aren't talented filmmakers around, but the stories they tell are not as readily available as those churned out by Hollywood in its Golden Age.

Nevertheless, the movie going habit persists. The darkened auditorium beckons although the disappointments often outweigh the enjoyment. To me, car chases, gunfire and explosions are like watching grass grow.

Were there any lessons for living and wisdom acquired from the surfeit of these old Hollywood fantasies? You bet. They taught me that America offered infinite possibilities, that one could find love and beauty and wonder and enchantment in everyday life, despite the grit and hardship laying just outside the theater, that striving could reap rewards and decency and compassion could win the day, that one could aspire to be as suave as Cary Grant, as stalwart as Gary Cooper, as handsome as Tyrone Power, and as beautiful as Madeline Carroll, as sexy as Jean Harlow and as exotic as Marlene Dietrich.

Best of all, they taught me that the good guys always win. I still believe that.


~Red Tin Heart~ said...

Warren, I have always wished I could have grown up in those days.
My Mom is 72 and she has told me stories of when she and her family went to the show on Saturday's.
She always said it was such a special time.
She thought the movies were better than because most of them had a happy ending.
The movies then gave people hope as well as glamour.
I love the way you wrote this post, because I could see it all in my mind.
Nita Barrow-Zimmerman

The Sparrow's Heart said...

Warren, I have a second blog that is more of a private journal. If you would like to read it.

Warren Adler said...

Thanks for your comments, Nita.