I know I’ve batted around the question of when you fell in love with the movies, but in one of those moments of passing pensiveness I found myself pondering the related question of who—or alternatively what, I suppose—got you started watching movies in the first place. I think it’s probably safe to assume that most of us had some kind of moviegoing mentor—even if it’s just as probable that the mentor in question had no earthly idea that’s what he or she was. Myself, I’m having a little difficulty actually pinpointing such a person.
From my conversations with older folks—by which I mean older than I am—I have a hunch this was probably an easier thing to consider in a pre-TV age. Two filmmakers born in the latter half of the 1920s I’ve known—Ken Russell and Curtis Harrington—have talked about going to movies with their mothers, though both seem to have gone off on their own moviegoing paths fairly early. And in Harrington’s case somewhat despite his mother, who wouldn’t let the nine-year-old Curtis go see Bride of Frankenstein (1935), but couldn’t keep him from being mesmerized by the billboards. I can relate to this to some degree. There were certainly some things I saw thanks specifically to my mother—notably Gone With the Wind (1939) and the 1951 Show Boat. Somehow I got keen on the movies despite her help.
We were always a moviegoing family, but as I’ve mentioned elsewhere I can detect little or no pattern to how movies were chosen. There was a distinct prejudice against “British pictures,” which I never understood—especially since James Bond movies didn’t figure into that—and which now seems on the ironic side with the way my tastes developed. For that we may blame Richard Lester, the Beatles, The Avengers and The Prisoner. Come to think of it, the last named was started by my father who assumed that a new show with Patrick McGoohan would be like the Secret Agent series. I got hooked, but he pretty much bailed after three or four episodes.
In my earliest years I think I was more drawn to the idea of the movies I wasn’t seeing. This is the penalty, I suppose, of being a four-year-old living next door to a family with a couple of teenagers. If I was lucky I might get to see the trailers for the horror movies. On the other hand, they actually saw them. I was absolutely terrified by the image of the Blob oozing out of the projection booth windows in the trailer for The Blob (1958). Indeed, I had to turn around and be sure it wasn’t oozing into the theater we were sitting in. But James and Shirley—the teenagers in question—actually saw the movie. How thrilling I was sure that must have been. Yeah, when I caught up with years later on TV it wasn’t all that thrilling, but then again I was no longer four.
So in some ways I guess James and Shirley were mentors in a cockeyed fashion. I don’t actually remember ever going to the movies with them, but I remember them talking about movies. The strange thing is that apart from The Blob I can’t remember the names of any of these movies, but putting together things that were described, I’m reasonably sure that Curse of Frankenstein (1957) and Revenge of Frankenstein (1958) were among them. Being told about brains in dishes and eyes floating in tanks of fluid is pretty impressive when you’re four.
I won’t say that my father never had any influence on me. That trip to see Bing and Bob in The Road to Hong Kong (1962) dazzled me—but even more dazzling was his subsequent assurance that there were far better “Road” Pictures with the duo. I mean, could this be? It must be, since when you’re seven your dad isn’t wrong—and it turned out he wasn’t. He also decided I would like Abbott and Costello and took me to a reissue of Comin’ ‘Round the Mountain (1951). I thought this was pretty dinky-do, too, but mostly because it had elements of witchcraft and voodoo in it. It didn’t take long before I outgrew Abbott and Costello, in any case, Bing and Bob stuck.
My father’s biggest contribution—apart from being able to explain things I didn’t “get” in movies—was buying me that first issue of Famous Monsters of Filmland, which I’ve mentioned before. What wasn’t clear to me then and is still unclear to me to this day is why he bought it. He didn’t seem especially interested in “monster movies,” but for some reason he seems to have thought I would be. He was more than slightly right and I’m sure—though he never actually said so—he soon would rue that Sunday evening in the Rexall store when he made this rash purchase.
At this point, my mother kind of enters the picture—mostly because she had a kind of weird passion for one horror picture,House of Wax (1953). This largely seems to have stemmed from her viewing of it having been interrupted before the ending—at least so she always said. By the time it finally showed up one late night TV, she had managed to get me pretty fired-up about it, too. Unfortunately, the movie itself got in the way of my enthusiasm—and pretty quickly, too. By then I’d seen way too many bonafide classic horrors to be bowled over by this. Ironically, upon seeing the movie again, my mother somehow realized that she had seen the whole thing after all. I wouldn’t call it an auspicious evening.
By that time, I also had a small circle of friends who were interested in movies and I guess we sort of influenced each other. But in many ways—back in those primitive times—we were being mentored en masse by the programmers of the handful of TV stations we could receive. Without what was then called cable (which has no relation to what we now think of as cable) that netted us a whopping three channels like to show movies of any interest. With cable that brought us up to six—a veritable embarassment of riches by our standards. In other words, our standards were pretty low. OK, so briefly we had seven stations, but the oldest and most out of date station in the state—channel 38 with its cache of old Columbia, RKO and Republic pictures—finally gave up the ghost.
So sad as it is to say, my own mentoring was really done by a bunch of nameless folks working at TV stations in Tampa and Orlando. While we alerted each other to what was on and when—often calling each other as soon as the then-Bible of such things, TV Guide, arrived in the mail—the selection was sufficiently finite that we were all pretty certain to see the same movies. Living in a town with one single screen movie house took care of the need for much guidance there. Of course, cars and mobility increased the range a lot, but by then you were already into movies or not. That isn’t to say that I didn’t end up doing more than my share of convincing friends that it really was worth driving over to Tampa because the University of South Florida was showing Busby Berkeley’s The Gang’s All Here (1943) at midnight. In that regard, I ended up being something of a minor mentor myself, I guess.
The dynamic is very different now, and it has been for some time. I know some parents actively try to interest their kids in movies they like or consider important—and it’s a lot easier to come up with titles for that purpose. At the same time, I wonder how many kids get turned onto movies by the more adventurous process of rummaging through their parents’ collections and picking things willy-nilly. I have no idea if this really happens, but it wouldn’t surprise me in the least.
OK, I find my own attempt at an answer—nameless TV programmers—incredibly unsatisfying. As a result, I’m hoping that somebody out there has a better or at least more personal answer.