Several weeks ago, I posted a column about how — thanks to DVD and cable TV — it’s so much easier these days for movie fans to view their favorite films than it was when many of us were young. The post prompted a lot of discussions with different people about their early movie-viewing experiences, which in turn prompted me to consider my own early encounters with the cinema. Like many things in my life, those encounters sprang out of my relationship with my father.
My dad has been a movie fan for his entire life. Growing up in Queens, New York during the 1930s and 1940s, he was a fixture at his local neighborhood playhouse, The Corona Theatre, where he saw just about every movie Hollywood put out during its undisputed Golden Age. And he has retained great affection for film ever since (Gunga Din is an all-time favorite). When I was a kid, he would revisit these Golden-Age masterpieces and near-masterpieces (and sometimes not-so-masterpieces) when they were on TV. I would often join him in viewing them and he would tell me about the actors and their backgrounds, and the impact each picture had on him when it first came out — and it was there on that couch that I first began to fall in love with the movies.
It was a frustrating romance, however, because, as anyone who was around in those pre-home- video days can tell you, watching movies on television could be a consternating experience. The screen was small and frequently fuzzy, the prints often dodgy, the story was interrupted constantly by an endless stream of commercials, and arbitrary cuts were made to the narrative in order to fit the picture into its allotted, always-too-short time slot (rendering the film sometimes impossible to follow).
Things improved when my parents moved us to New Canaan, Connecticut in the mid-1970s. A small, quintessential New England town, New Canaan had an excellent local library that would screen 16mm (remember 16mm?) prints of classic movies on Friday evenings during the fall, winter and spring. Here, finally, was a chance to see these great films in a rough approximation of they way they were intended to be seen — on a relatively large screen, uninterrupted, and with the narrative intact. Needless to say, my dad and I both loved the idea and so began a Friday night tradition that lasted (on and off) for several years.
On designated evenings, I would eagerly wait until my dad arrived home from work on the 5:08 from Grand Central. He and my mom would indulge in their weekly treat of a Chinese dinner (with us kids having dined earlier on my mom’s patented race-car hot dogs and mac & cheese). Then my dad and I would put on our jackets (New England nights can be pretty chilly) and stroll the ¾ of a mile to the library, where we’d grab some good seats (of the folding-chair variety), settle in, and enjoy that week’s show.
We saw quite a few classics over the years, but three really stand out in my memory:
• The first was 1931’s Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, starring Frederic March in the title roles. Even then, I recognized how amazingly inventive the filmmaking in that picture was — director Rouben Mamoulian’s delightful intoxication with the technical and artistic possibilities of cinema and his determination to push the creative envelope is evident in every frame of the film. Its effect on the audience that night was palpable. I also recall how racy the film (which was made in the years just before the Production Code was introduced) was, something that — if the gasps coming from the audience were any indication — the majority of that evening’s comfortably middle-class viewers were clearly unprepared for.
• The Man Who Knew Too Much (1934) — one of the crown jewels of Alfred Hitchcock’s early British period — was a thriller about an ordinary English couple whose child is kidnapped by villains seeking to silence them after the wife witnesses a murder. The film was dark and tense and chock-full of atmosphere and suspense and I was absolutely enthralled with it. Most critics and viewers prefer Hitchcock’s expansive, 1956 color remake starring James Stewart and Doris Day, but for me the much more modest and moodier version is the one to beat.
• The film that I remember best from our bibliotheque cinema was 1939’s Goodbye, Mr. Chips, starring Robert Donat in an Oscar-winning turn as a teacher at a British private school looking back on his long life and career. It’s a sweet, lovely, gloriously sentimental movie that I really enjoyed. What made my viewing of it so special was that it’s one of my father’s all-time favorite movies. It had made a huge impression on him as a boy and he had told me about it many times, but this was the first opportunity I had to actually see the film. I loved it, but I think knowing it meant so much to my dad and seeing him have chance to enjoy it again endeared it to me all the more.
When the show was over, we would put our coats back on and talk about the picture all the way home. These were always grand times and, to tell the truth, I don’t think I’ve ever enjoyed going to the movies quite as much as I did on those chilly Friday evenings so long ago.