Cranky Hanke’s Screening Room: Who turned you onto movies?

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.

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About Ken Hanke
Head film critic for Mountain Xpress from December 2000 until his death in June 2016. Author of books "Ken Russell's Films," "Charlie Chan at the Movies," "A Critical Guide to Horror Film Series," "Tim Burton: An Unauthorized Biography of the Filmmaker."

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29 thoughts on “Cranky Hanke’s Screening Room: Who turned you onto movies?

  1. Dionysis

    My own experience, briefly mentioned in past posts, was pretty simple. My father managed movie theaters (he worked for a long defunct Florida theater chain called ‘Wilbey-Kinsey’), and movie-going was just part of my early life (probably because there was no cost to attending movies at his theaters, although we also went to drive-in theaters unassociated with his employer). Typically, we’d all go see family-oriented stuff. I had already developed an affinity for horror and sci-fi films from watching all of those late-night ‘Chiller’ type shows, however. From the age of around 8 or so, I was permitted to go see any movie on weekends (sometimes accompanied by my brother). It was common for me to see 3 or 4 movies each weekend, and I did this for several years.

    Like you, I collected Famous Monsters of Filmland (boy do I wish I still had those magazines), and made it my personal quest to see every scary movie that came down the pike. I also had a fondness back then for peplum and ‘epic’ type films (i.e. Ben Hur) and westerns. Going to the movies for me was as routine as going to school or church on Sundays. While my school days are long over, and I only go to church for weddings and funerals, my love of movies will continue as long as I’m around.

    So I guess this means that there was no single person or event that sparked a love of movies as much as it was simply part of life that remained with me to the present.

  2. David Morrill

    My folks always loaded up the station wagon and took us to one of several drive-ins in the area (Portsmouth, NH). Since mom and dad had eclectic taste in movies, we kiddies got to see everything from Altman’s MASH to PATTON to the PLANET OF THE APES to all sorts of comedies and dramas and thrillers. It was a great way to get a taste of everything cinematic from a formative age.

    On weekends, too, my father would load up the neighborhood kids in the car and take us to the local theater for the double feature, which had everything from Hammer and AIP to Godzilla and science fiction and Disney flicks. We got to see it all, and eat the crappy concession food, which we loved.

  3. Jim Donato

    My family never went out to the movies – that was what TV was for. So the idiot box and the weekly TV Guide was my mentor. The editors who wrote those capsule reviews probably gave me the interest in seeing this or that particular film.

    I can still recall the copy for “Lord Love A Duck” that made me so eager to finally see it. It never seemed to be showing on the Orlando stations at a time that I could stay awake long enough to watch it. It proclaimed that Axelrod’s opus was something on the order of “savage satire, criminally underrated.” When I finally managed to see it many years later it certainly was!

  4. luluthebeast

    My family liked going to the movies, but it was my Mother who really got me started as she secretly liked monster movies, so she had a perfect excuse in saying that I wanted to go. My first movie was Godzilla:KOTM at the drive in, and also saw Rodan, Gorgo, The Mysterians and many others with her. Later, as a family, we would see Steve McQueen movies, James Bond and other mystery/adventure flics. And I could always count on her for a ride to the Fox Bay Theatre for a Saturday matinee of westerns, monsters, scifi or horror.

  5. brianpaige

    I have always watched movies, mainly stuff like my dad taking me to see whatever he was going to see. A lot of cheesy 80s action flicks that Oxmoor used to show in Louisville back when that mall had a theater (ton of Golan and Globus, haha).

    The big moment in my film development was when I picked up a book about vampire movies at a summer daycare I used to go to. I read about Dracula, Nosferatu, and the like and then the next time I went to Blockbuster I rented Dracula (1931). From there it was a matter of checking out stuff on AMC, which is where I first saw Animal Crackers, Scarface, Hunchback with Laughton, etc. There used to be a ton of old classic stuff on the rental shelves back then. In fact I dare say the decline of rental chains and places like Suncoast really hurt someone’s ability to get into classic movies.

  6. MPGold

    This column reminded me of a great memoir, “The Film Club,” about a father who allowed his unhappy teenage son to drop out of school for a year if the kid promised to stay off drugs, watch three movies a week with his father, and discuss them. (Amazon link and description are below.)

    http://www.amazon.ca/Film-Club-True-Story-Father/dp/0887622852

    When David Gilmour’s 15-year-old son, Jesse, starting failing the 10th grade, the Canadian film critic/novelist let him drop out of school. Gilmour didn’t home-school him, dispatch him to boarding school, or decide there was something terribly wrong with him. Instead, Gilmour — himself struggling professionally — required Jesse to watch three movies a week with him and to not use drugs…..

  7. Chip Kaufmann

    My introduction and initial interest in the movies came from my mother. She had been quite a moviegoer in the 1930s and 40s but stopped going on a regular basis in the early 1950s after my sister and I were born. Television was just starting up (we had a 1952 Philco the size of a small safe) and when they began to broadcast the older movies my mother had seen in the theaters, she watched them again and I watched them with her. She knew all the actors’ names and was fond of every genre but especially loved mysteries and comedies. She loved to point out the older actors on the new TV shows as younger actors from the old movies.

    In the late 50s we acquired Steven Scheuer’s first TV movie ratings book and he did the rest along with TV GUIDE. My love of horror movies also comes from this time with the release of the old Universal titles in the SHOCK THEATRE package and with shows like ALFRED HITCHCOCK, TWILIGHT ZONE and THRILLER. It wasn’t until we got an Admiral color TV in the early 1960s (to watch BONANZA) that I discovered that movies like DUEL IN THE SUN and HOUSE OF WAX were actually in color.

    When it came to actual movies up on the big screen, I only saw Disney movies and “6 Coke cap Saturday matinees” until I was 10 (no wonder the older movies had such appeal). My first real non-kiddie film was THE HAUNTED PALACE in 1963 but thanks to my mother and TV I already knew who all the principals were which added immensely to my enjoyment. The rest as they say…is history.

  8. Barry Summers

    My mother took us to see the latest Charlton Heston movie, “The Omega Man” when I was eleven years old. After only 10 minutes or so, she hustled us out of there. I couldn’t wait to grow up & watch the rest of it without her – that was probably the moment that hooked me on movies.

  9. Ken Hanke

    I also had a fondness back then for peplum and ‘epic’ type films (i.e. Ben Hur) and westerns.

    I never took to westerns — yet, Clapton knows, you didn’t get through 1950s TV without a large dose of westerns — and epics I usually had trouble relating to unless they were pretty cheesy. And while I now would say Ben Hur (the 1959 one) is pretty cheesy, I mean that Italian kind of cheese we got with things like Siege of Syracuse and The Minotaur (which is probably more that weird area of mythology horror than pepulum).

  10. Ken Hanke

    On weekends, too, my father would load up the neighborhood kids in the car and take us to the local theater for the double feature, which had everything from Hammer and AIP to Godzilla and science fiction and Disney flicks.

    While that was a viable option for us for a time, I’d say 1966 was about the end of that kind of double feature. I’m not sure why because the line of kids on Saturdays stretched all the way around the theater and down the sidewalk into the next block.

  11. Ken Hanke

    So the idiot box and the weekly TV Guide was my mentor. The editors who wrote those capsule reviews probably gave me the interest in seeing this or that particular film.

    What era was this? When I was first getting started with the TV Guide listings they were mostly non-commital plot synopses (and not always correct). Editorial comment was pretty rare, though it started creeping in more commonly in the 1970s — occasionally changing over time. I remember when Swing Time was “not one of Astaire and Rogers best movies” and it later became “This lovely film, best of all Astaire-Rogers movies.”

  12. Ken Hanke

    From there it was a matter of checking out stuff on AMC, which is where I first saw Animal Crackers, Scarface, Hunchback with Laughton, etc.

    I’d say TCM carries that on — and possibly improves on it — today. Granted, they’re heavier on titles they own, but they do program a good amount of properties held by Universal and Sony. They’re a little light in the Fox realm, though, but then so is FMC.

    There used to be a ton of old classic stuff on the rental shelves back then. In fact I dare say the decline of rental chains and places like Suncoast really hurt someone’s ability to get into classic movies.

    It probably depends on where you are. Asheville supports no less than three independent video stores with much broader selections than Suncoast ever had. Plus, with Netflix, it’s probably even easier than it used to be, though it lacks the browsing the shelves option.

  13. Ken Hanke

    My mother took us to see the latest Charlton Heston movie, “The Omega Man” when I was eleven years old. After only 10 minutes or so, she hustled us out of there. I couldn’t wait to grow up & watch the rest of it without her – that was probably the moment that hooked me on movies.

    So your mother perhaps served as an unwitting mentor. That Heston guy was always causing havoc, too. When my friend and I unwisely made reference to Chuck’s bare ass in Planet of the Apes in front of his mother, she forbade his brother to see the movie and in fact banned further trips to “M” rated movies.

  14. Barry Summers

    So your mother perhaps served as an unwitting mentor.

    And my father was an advanced weapons designer at McDonnell Douglas during the height of the Cold War who also adored Mad Magazine. We all read it as kids, and when he died, I inherited his collection of back issues. I blame them both for how screwed up I am…

    But that also informed my movie fascination – often, I read the Mad parodies of movies long before I saw the movies themselves. And I probably saw some movies but avoided others because of those parodies – “In Cold Blecch!”, “The Dirtier Dozen”, “Rosemia’s Boo-boo”, “Balmy and Clod”, “Guess Who’s Throwing Up Dinner?”… These were often brilliant deconstructions of the issues underlying the good movies, and cheerful destructions of the bad ones.

  15. Ken Hanke

    “In Cold Blecch!”, “The Dirtier Dozen”, “Rosemia’s Boo-boo”, “Balmy and Clod”, “Guess Who’s Throwing Up Dinner?”…

    Don’t forget Throw-up.

  16. Barry Summers

    Don’t forget Throw-up

    Don’t remember reading or seeing that one, although I have heard of the film of course…

  17. Ken Hanke

    Don’t remember reading or seeing that one

    The more I think of it the more I think that may have simply been a parody of the poster and not an actual strip.

  18. Lady L

    My dad is the one who got me hooked on movies. When I was little I would sit with him in the living room watching James Bond movies, John Wayne westerns, and anything else he cared to see. We were cutting edge with a laser disc player AND a Beta player and, of course, we got a VHS as soon as that came out. He would watch “Stalag 17” over and over and we watched “Aliens” together in the dark sitting at the dining room table; the only light coming from the really small tv set in the corner. I remember that at one point during the movie we both turned to each other and he said “Oh my” and I said “Holy cow!”.
    He’s the reason I saw “Gone With the Wind” numerous times growing up and the reason I knew who Tony Curtis and Jack Lemmon were from “Some Like It Hot”. My dad and I aren’t that close anymore, but its good to be reminded that his influence set me on the road to being a life-long movie lover.

  19. Marjorie J. Birch

    I remember seeing “Pinocchio” at the local tiny theatre (long defunct, still a theatre and still for sale! The last movie it showed was “Muscle Beach Party”!) I can still recall how I cowered in my seat during the Monstro sequence (gross slander of whales, by the way) and the kid next to me kept saying “it’s a Disney movie, it’s a Disney movie, it’ll work out okay!”

    Wasn’t sure at first, but of course it did.

    I saw few movies beside the Disney feature length cartoons. I came the realize that movies seen on TV were butchered to fit the time slots and subject to brutal commercial interruptions. Then there was the problem of my father. I never saw an entire Marx brothers movie until college because (1) they were shown on Sunday afternoons; and (2) that’s when the baseball games were broadcast. Halfway through the movie, my father would come in and change the channel. Oh well. The movies were better at college anyway — bigger screen and no damn commercials.

    I am grateful to my friend the late Martha Wright, who was a year ahead of me in high school and who was a fan of W.C. Fields and Mae West. She told me that an independent TV station in Washington D.C. (this was during the reign of the Big Three TV stations) showed Fields and Mae West movies at 1 am on Saturday morning. So… I stayed up and watched (through a great deal of static) “She Done Him Wrong.” And was hooked for life.

    Then came college and the free movies at the auditorium, plus the many movie theatres in the area. That turned me into a devoute movie-goer.

    Most of those movie houses are gone, but not before being sliced into mini-mini theatres.

    I’ve been watching “Movies and Moguls” and I wish I knew of an old-time movie palace still in operation. The Senator (between Towson and Baltimore, MD) is the only one I can think of.

  20. DrSerizawa

    This is easy. My parents used to load us up in the station wagon with our jammies on , like so many families did, and take us to the Century Drive-in. We really looked forward to that. When I was a bit older she’d give my brother and I 50 cents each and we’d watch a double bill at the Rio or the Imperial and load up on Red Hots. At home my parent would indulge me to the point where they once let me watch “Godzilla” every night for a week when it was on the “Million dollar Movie” on KTTV. We only had one TV in a home back then. They didn’t like sci-fi or monster movies so I can imagine how much it hurt them to hear Raymond Burr’s narration 5 days in a row.

    I just always loved movies. Even today with several hundred cable channels at my fingertips only the movies get a workout.

  21. Ken Hanke

    Interesting responses. One thing that surprises me is that no one — including me — has credited any film historians. And, for me, not citing Arthur Knight, Denis Gifford and William K. Everson — and a little later John Baxter — is pretty unthinkable. Everson was a particular influence, even though we only interacted once and very briefly, despite having mutual friends. Indeed, my early writing style is heavily indebted to his work.

  22. luluthebeast

    Interesting responses. One thing that surprises me is that no one—including me—has credited any film historians.

    When I started watching movies, I was too young to even know what a film historian was. It would be a decade or two before I even heard of these people, much less read their work, so they did start pointing me in some new directions.

  23. Ken Hanke

    My parents used to load us up in the station wagon with our jammies on , like so many families did, and take us to the Century Drive-in. We really looked forward to that.

    This drive-in thing has come up before and it’s kind of foreign to me — which may have something to do with being an only child. I know we went to the drive-in on occasion, but nothing stands out till later when I coerced my grandmother to take me to the very odd drive-in double feature of Elvis in Girl Happy and Bob Hope in Fancy Pants around the age of 10. I also remember tagging along with my teenage step-uncle-in-law and his girlfriend to see Curse of the Mummy’s Tomb and The Gorgon, which I later saw again by myself at a regular theater.

    We only had one TV in a home back then.

    We had two briefly in North Carolina. My grandmother (who lived with us at the time) invested in a second one when a den was built onto the back of the house. It, however, did not move with us to Florida — probably because my grandmother didn’t. I think I got a TV — a hideous watermelon colored GE black and white — in my room around 1965.

    they once let me watch “Godzilla” every night for a week when it was on the “Million dollar Movie” on KTTV.

    Things like this are exactly why I was given a TV of my own in 1965, though that “Million Dollar Movie” concept (I think that originated with WOR in NY) never showed up in my part of the world.

    Even today with several hundred cable channels at my fingertips only the movies get a workout

    I can narrow it even further. The box could get stuck on TCM and I’d be satisfied. I don’t even do the premium movie channels anymore — it’s too much like living through last year’s reviewing gigs all over again, except usually in pan-and-scan.

  24. DrSerizawa

    I don’t even do the premium movie channels anymore—it’s too much like living through last year’s reviewing gigs all over again, except usually in pan-and-scan.

    As someone else mentioned before there are a couple of other channels worth checking out. IFC, Sundance and Retro show independent and classic movies as well. But definitely TCM is the best because they always letterbox. The others sometimes don’t.

    Pan and Scan is evil.

  25. Ken Hanke

    As someone else mentioned before there are a couple of other channels worth checking out. IFC, Sundance and Retro show independent and classic movies as well.

    I don’t think either Sundance or Retro are in my package (so to speak). IFC isn’t bad, but almost everything they show that interests me it seems I already own.

  26. Fran

    Two factors were central in my coming to love movies. One was a group of folks who were friends of my older brother. These folks introduced me to musicals, my first love of movies…I admit. I broadened out very quickly from that group and moved into musicals that I found and learned about on my own.

    But really…for movies, coming to see that movies were more than the story, for beginning to have eyes to see the art along with the story, learning about a whole host of movies I would never have seen or considered, not parents or any older person comes to mind in life. Only one cohort stands out. I learned a few other things from this old friend, such as learning how to rinse the bubbles off the bar of soap when we were in elementary school. I love having this world that I have drawn from ever since. Thanks for the question that let me remember.

  27. Ken Hanke

    I learned a few other things from this old friend, such as learning how to rinse the bubbles off the bar of soap when we were in elementary school.

    Can he help it if his mother told him it was good manners to rinse off the soap after you use it?

  28. Ken Hanke

    I should perhaps note that, in addition to Fran, my daughter and the reader known as Jackson, have credited my influence on them as concerns movies.

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