I realize that this is a presumptuous question that presupposes that the reader did fall in love with the movies in the first place. Still, I’m assuming for argument’s sake that such a condition probably has something to do with the reason you’re reading this column in the first place. The question in my mind is whether this was a cumulative thing for people or if there’s some outstanding defining moment that brought this about.
It’s possible for me to pinpoint several key moments in my later movie watching life. I’ve written about one of them—seeing Casino Royale in 1967—and can easily cite such things as my first encounters with Rouben Mamoulian’s Love Me Tonight (1932) in 1971, Peter Medak’s The Ruling Class (1972) in 1973, and Ken Russell’s Tommy in 1975. I also know that James Whale’s horror pictures—along with Edgar G. Ulmer’s The Black Cat (1934)—had an earlier impact as concerns a youthful growing recognition that there was a significant difference in movies that was related to the director.
However, I’m unable to uncover a single standout moment that answers my own question for myself. What I’m coming up with instead are a series of individual moments—even images—that seem to have paved the way for those later revelatory experiences. Yes, I realize that this kind of cinematic navel-gazing is probably of just as doubtful practical value as is the practice of making lists. That’s also what makes it a little bit irresistible.
There’s no doubt that I come from a moviegoing family. Going to the movies was a standard—and I’m tempted to say weekly, but that may be hazy memory—practice. I’m not sure, however, that it was necessarily a very carefully considered one so much as it was just something we did. I know my own preference in the very early years had more to do with where the film was playing than with what was playing. As a small child, I always preferred going to the Gem Theatre in Kannapolis, NC to going to the Main. This was predicated entirely on the fact that the Gem was festooned with multi-color lights on its marquee, while the Main had all clear lights on its. I think we can all agree—assuming we aren’t buiness school graduates working for a corporate theater chain—that this is a bid wide of the mark in terms of critical acumen. Then again, life tends to be simpler when you’re three years old. (And that may explain business school graduates working for corporate theaters, come to think of it.)
Truth to tell, what I saw on television had much greater impact on me in terms of content. I don’t mean TV programming, mind you. I was never really transfixed by TV shows—certainly not in the way I was by old movies on TV. What will probably seem strange to readers who think that anything made before this century is terribly quaint and irrelevant (and you know who you are) is that the appeal of these old movies lay—at least in part—in their age. It wasn’t the age itself that did it. I very much doubt that I even understood these things weren’t new. No, it was that they looked into a world that was so very different than my everyday existence in middle-class suburbia—and a hell of a lot more interesting. For want of a better word, it was exotic, or at the very least mysterious.
The first thing of this nature that I can remember were Three Stooges shorts. I don’t think I ever particularly liked the Stooges’ brand of comedy, but I did respond to the peculiar world in which their movies took place—not to mention what I now realize was the casual surrealism of much of what was happening. While it was apparent that these silly movies were taking place in a version of the real world, it wasn’t the real world as I knew it. In some ways, it was the world of a child’s imagining made real. A perfect example was their 1941 short Some More of Samoa in which the trio play tree surgeons (“The biggest grafters in town”), but they’re hardly tree surgeons in the real sense. Rather, they’re tree surgeons as a child might envision such a thing upon hearing the words “tree” and “surgeon” put together for the first time. It’s the idea taken literally. There’s an appeal to that—even today.
Take another of their shorts, A-Plumbing We Will Go (1940). This may in fact be my earliest memory from a movie, and it has little to do with the Stooges directly. In the film, they’re on the run from the cops and end up posing as plumbers, which brings about the kind of mayhem one might expect. (Actually, I’m pretty sure the whole thing is stolen from a Little Rascals short, but no matter—the Stooges were not exactly known for originality.) The overall idea is that their efforts at plumbing will resort in water coming from unlikely and inconvenient places. One of these involves the posh lady of the house showing off her new, experimental television to her society friends. In this case, it happens that the special broadcast (in 1940 there was no other kind) is a shot of Niagara Falls. Once again, the literal-mindedness kicks in and the image of the Falls turns into the water bursting through the screen and flooding the room. (And, yes, I do realize there’s an obvious connection between this and the infamous baked beans scene in Ken Russell’s Tommy.) It’s surreal, yes, but it also seems pretty reasonable when you’re young enough to still harbor a faint belief that what’s on the TV is somehow actually in the TV set. (Flat-screen TVs will probably destroy that quaint illusion.)
Even stronger in my mind from way back then—and perhaps more influential—is The Laurel-Hardy Murder Case (1930). Viewed today, this is generally considered one of the Boys’ lesser films. In 1930 it was a deliberate play on the then popular Philo Vance mysteries, all of which were the something or other Murder Case. I knew neither that it was considered a lesser film, nor that it was connected to Philo Vance when I first saw the film at the age of six or so. (I wouldn’t hear of Philo Vance at all for years.) What this was to me was my first exposure to an Old Dark House movie and my first horror comedy, even if the comedy was limited and the horror pretty tepid. It hardly mattered and it didn’t keep bits of the film from being etched into my youthful brain—where they still lodge.
Since Laurel and Hardy shorts have gone from being the most easily collectible item in filmdom (during the 16mm and 8mm era) to some of the harder acquisitions, it’s unlikely that younger viewers have ever encountered the film—unless they ran into it on TCM. (My copy came from the now out-of-print UK DVD release.) The film is interesting in that it’s surprisingly elaborately produced and shot, but it definitely has its shortcomings—not in the least because it takes what seems like forever to get to its Old Dark House setting, which we first see in the midst of a thunderstorm (complete with lovably cheesy lightning bolt and rattled tin-sheet thunder). Once there, it picks up with its blustering detective accusing the heirs of having murdered Ebeneezer Laurel. Enter the newest heir presumptive, Stan—with the inevitable Ollie in tow (well, making a claim on the estate was his idea).
The Boys are parceled off to a bedroom—the bedroom where the late Ebeneezer was murdered, of course. Incredibly stock scared Stan and Ollie foolishness follows. There’s even the obligatory false scare by a cat. The most elaborate gag involves a bat flying into the room and somewhat improbably getting into bed with them before taking flight under a sheet, producing a ghost effect. It’s corny stuff and the bat is defiantly hokey. That said, I will admit the ghost effect with the sheet is nicely achieved—to the point that I still haven’t figured out how a couple bits of it were done. But it was less this that stuck in my mind than it was the image of a painting—first illuminated by lightning flash—of the Grim Reaper seemingly coming after the Boys. OK, so it’s scary on the cartoon level of scary. But it’s an image that haunted and fascinated me for years—even after I was old enough to wonder just why anyone would have such a painting in his bedroom!
Somewhere in all this, I started seeing movies with the Marx Brothers and W.C. Fields. I’m relatively certain that I saw the entire movies, but what stuck with me were isolated bits and pieces. It wasn’t hard down the line to figure out that I’d seen The Cocoanuts (1929) and Duck Soup (1933) with the Marx Brothers. After all, there are only so many movies where Harpo eats a telephone or where Chico is a peanut vendor—and these were the things that made the deepest impression on me. The former was by far the more fascinating to me. The very idea that anyone would pick up a telephone and take a bite or two out of it was simply amazing—and, of course, the phone had its own exotic appeal by being a candlestick phone. (You betcha I immediately insisted on one of those when the phone companies decided to cash in on the nostalgia boom and make new ones in the early 1970s.)
The Fields footage was a scene where he chases a runaway tire down some railroad tracks. I’m not sure why this particularly appealed to me. It’s not particularly the sort of thing one associates with W.C. Fields and it’s not the sort of thing that I prize his work for now. Certainly, I was too young to even guess at the idea that the crude rear-projection that made the scene possible was part of the joke (Fields loved daring the audience to notice such things), so I guess I was credulous enough at the time not to even notice. I do wonder, though, if it wasn’t the sense of unreality that caused me to keep the image firmly ensconced in my mind while forgetting the rest of the movie until I caught up with it again around 10 years later.
Now whether these images and fragments really caused me to fall in love with the movies is not something I can answer. What I do know is that these were the things—and the kind of things—that kept drawing me back to the movies, because they were magical. And I wanted more of them. I wanted more of this fantastic world where things like this happened. When you spend most of your days locked into the world of suburbia, such things are particularly resonant. It’s by no means accidental that my favorite Tim Burton picture is still Edward Scissorhands which presents a suburban landscape not unlike my own. (Indeed, part of the film was shot at a shopping center in Lakeland, FL that my parents and I used to frequent.) But it was a suburbia with a magical Old Dark House at the end of the street. I guess the movies were my magical Old Dark House.
Having written this, I think I fell in love with the movies bit by bit, but I do believe that I can safely say that the film that really sealed the deal was James Whale’s The Invisible Man (1933). It was my first late night horror picture. In fact, it was my first late night movie of any kind. Maybe it was the event status that gave it its particular power, but whatever it was The Invisible Man marked the first time I held onto the whole movie. It doubtless helped that I would recount every scene to anyone who would listen to me for days to come after I saw it. In hindsight, I truly appreciate and cherish the patience of all the adults who at least feigned interest in me retelling the film. Most of them are long dead, and I regret that I never thanked them for putting up with my enthusiasm—an enthusiasm that I’m going to go ahead a label as the moment I completely fell in love with the movies.