I’ve loved old movies for as long as I can remember. When I was a kid one of the local TV stations would show an afternoon movie. I think they called it the “early” movie as opposed to the “late” movie they would show just before going off the air for the night. The movies were almost always something old. Nothing truly popular like “The Wizard of Oz” or “Gone with the Wind”, those were still reserved for prime time, but you could still get a good movie every once in a while. I remember seeing “Citizen Kane” when I was a kid, without knowing what Rosebud was. I saw “It’s a Wonderful Life” long before this gem fell briefly into the public domain and became a staple of the Christmas season. Due to some local television programmer’s perverse sense of humor it was in the midst of a summer heat wave. I don’t know what drew me to those films in my youth. Back then there were a limited number of channels even with cable and I wasn’t likely to watch soap operas or Match Game 73. How many times can Brett Somers come up with the answer “tinkle” in a single episode anyway? At this time, I was especially fond of Frank Capra films: Mr. Smith Goes to Washington, Mr. Deeds Goes to Town. Their folksy, small-town, populist values appealed to me.
My love of film persisted through my teen years and into college. I went to the University of Michigan where I majored in film…and also majored in computer science. I was too pragmatic to think I could make a living with a film major. At that time, U of M had a large number of film societies that showed films in the local auditoriums. You could see at least one, and often had a choice of between five or six movies, every night. These films included art house fare that you would normally expect the intellectual college kids of the early 80’s to flock to, but they also showed a lot of classic Hollywood films. “Casablanca”, “Public Enemy”, “L’Aventura”, “Tommy”, “Faster, Pusscat, Kill, Kill”, “Salo: 120 Days of Sodom”. These were all films I saw for the first time thanks to these college film collectives. By this time, my tastes had changed somewhat. The film study classes had turned me on to the expressiveness of film, to its ability to convey emotion through mise-en-scène, color, chiaroscuro lighting. My favorite director at the time was Welles. I thought deep focus and a canted angle were the last word in film style. I started using words like mise-en-scène and chiaroscuro.
After college, I moved to New York. That was in ’86 and the city was still home to a plethora of revival theaters showing basically the same kind of films those college film societies showed: TheThalia, Bleecker Street Cinema, and my favorite Theatre 80, St. Marks, among others. They were small, somewhat dingy, and quite literally flea-bitten, but they were an oasis of classic film. Towards the end of the decade, sadly, these theaters began to go out of business, a victim of VHS tapes which were becoming popular. Pretty soon every block had its own mom and pop video store right next to the bodega and the ease with which you could pick up a copy of “His Girl Friday” and pop it into your VCR made it impossible for the revival theaters to compete. One by one they closed. I can still remember when Theatre 80 showed their last film. They were seating people in the aisles; we all so wanted to be a part of the end of something that, for us, was very special.
These days I get my old movie fix mostly from Film Forum
and Turner Classic Movies. Film Forum is one of the last theaters in New York that still has a revival bill and I always try to make it there when they’re playing an old favorite. Even though I can see most films on DVD in the comfort of my home, there’s something special about seeing an old classic with a live audience that gets me to make the hour long trek to Houston and Varick. I guess it’s the feeling of being with other like-minded people.
For Turner Classic Movies, my wife taught me the trick of going through the entire TCM schedule for the next week and setting up to record those movies I have an interest in seeing. I’m constantly in a battle to watch the movies I’ve recorded and delete them from the DVR before it fills up. These days I find myself drawn to the films of the 30’s. They made so many films in the 30’s and not many of them were considered classic enough to get shown on TV or even in the old revival theaters so there are many I haven’t yet seen. I love watching an old favorite but I really love watching a movie for the first time and loving it so much that it becomes a new favorite. It’s like making a new friend.
This was the time of the studio system when the studios had a roster of stars that they had under contract and they would use the same stars over and over again. This was especially true of character actors who would make countless films a year appearing in the most unexpected places. “Oh look, the orchestra conductor is Franklin Pangborn.” Or “Eric Blore is good as the butler but I especially love Robert Grieg as the valet.” It’s gotten so I scan the opening credits looking for names I recognize. You never know who’ll show up in the smallest roles.
As I’m watching these old movies, I constantly see things that grab my attention. That make me want to turn to my neighbor and say “Did you see that?” This blog is going to serve as that neighbor. When I see an interesting old film, this is where I’ll review it, discuss it. I’m hoping this will eventually turn into a dialogue.
So I’m coming to the end of this first blog entry and I haven’t come close to answering the question with which I opened. “Why do I love old movies?” Frankly, I’m not sure. Maybe in writing about those old films I love, I’ll figure that out. Now, do you think they have Match Game on Netflix?