Everything I learned, I learned from the movies. The ones I got to see and the ones I wasn’t allowed to see.
From as early as I can remember I could be found in the darkness of a movie theater with a fistful of malt balls in my hand, my bottom firmly planted on a seat somewhere in the middle row of the theater, and my legs dangling over the seat’s edge, barely skimming the floor, which was covered in chewing gum and a sticky coating of Coca Cola.
I was three when I first saw the musical “Gigi.” The plot was thin but the music and costumes, lush. Plus, the setting was Paris. What could be more magnifique?
Sure, the film was about a young girl being groomed to be a courtesan, but Leslie Caron sparkled and Maurice Chevalier singing, “Thank Heaven for little Girls” made me beam with female pride. (Only when put in the context of present day does Chevalier’s song have a questionable tinge to it, don’t you think?)
In grade school, movies seemed to be part of the curriculum. It’s where I first saw “Bambi” and cried profusely when his mother was shot by Man. It’s where I fell in love with the film, “I Remember Mama” and got teary over all the sacrifices made by the mother of a Swedish immigrant family. It’s also where I learned that San Francisco has very steep hills.
My brother and I would go on our own to a movie theater in Queens. It was there that we first saw Jerry Lewis in “The Nutty Professor.” We fell over ourselves, laughing so hard at Jerry’s antics and goofy expressions. We’d laugh until the tears rolled down our faces.
On special occasions we’d take the train into the city and go to Radio City Music Hall to see whatever new movie had opened. Those treks were wonderful experiences. Only the best movies played there and we’d see them all, whether or not appropriate for someone of my age. A few went over my head. Like “Lawrence of Arabia,” which I didn’t get at all and found terribly boring, save for the scene where Lawrence of Arabia get his back whipped. There was something titillating about it, don’t ask me what.
I saw “To Kill a Mockingbird,” there, too, and though I didn’t understand the courtroom scenes, I loved any scene featuring Scout. And the music. The theme song’s poignant melody gets me every time. I felt a kinship with Scout, and her brother reminded me of mine. The two of us were always out and about in our neighborhood. All summer long.
I also saw Patty Duke as Helen Keller in “The Miracle Worker.” Now, I already was a big fan of “The Patty Duke Show,” in which she played twins, one British go figure. But seeing her in this film, with her arms outstretched and eating off of everyone’s plate, absolutely terrified me. For months after, I’d imagine Patty Duke following me into the dark hallways, reaching for me and trying to touch my hair. I had short, choppy hair that stuck out in every direction, making it easy pickings, so you can imagine how scary that must’ve seemed to a kid.
During the Beatles craze, my brother and I went to see “A Hard Day’s Night.” Man, those pubescent girls in the audience sure had powerful lungs. You’d think the Beatles themselves were there. Screaming their heads off the entire length of the film, I had to cover my ears to survive the experience, for crying out loud. But that didn’t stop us from going back to see the film again and again. After all, we were insane about the Beatles, too.
Once I went to the movies with my oldest brother to see “Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid.” What I mean is, I sat through the film once, and he stayed in the theater and sat through two additional showings. Back then, no one made you leave the theater after the movie’s end and you could sit there all day if you had nothing better to do.
Then there were the films I wasn’t allowed to see, like Alfred Hitchcock’s “Psycho.” There was no way on earth my mother would let me go see it, not after she was warned by a neighbor’s mom about it. So I couldn’t go, but my brother, three years older than me, did. As a result, that movie did me no harm, but my poor brother became terrified of taking a shower and would often make me keep him company in the bathroom when he did. He’d make me keep my eyes closed and sing aloud so that he could hear my voice and know that he wasn’t alone. Made me glad that I had missed that movie.
I played hooky from high school once, just to see Elizabeth Taylor and Mia Farrow in “Secret Ceremony.” I was so overcome with guilt about it, though, that to this day, I can’t think of that film without remembering what I did. Thank God my mother never found out.
Even when we were home we were watching movies on TV. In New York, one of the TV stations had a weekly series called “Million Dollar Movie,” and every week they’d show a different film several times. I fell in love with the classic films of the thirties and forties because of that film series.
On Saturday mornings, while other kids were watching hours of Bugs Bunny and Rocky and Bullwinkle cartoons (which I also watched on occasion), my brothers and I would watch Abbott and Costello films, though I never could figure out who’s on first.
In high school and in college, when it came time to writing reports for class, I always tried to choose a topic involving cinema. I wrote about the films of Disney, the Golden Age of the Silver Screen, women in movies, and the comic giants of Silent Film era. Getting to write about a topic I loved would pretty much guarantee me an A.
Our family was perfectly made for seeing films. We’d rarely go on excursions to enjoy the outdoors. Instead, we could be found at the movies. The glorious Technicolor, Cinemascope and Panavision 70 mm wide movies of yesteryear.
It’s funny, but the movies of my childhood are still and always will be my favorites. They have a special place in my heart and are woven into my psyche. They taught me compassion and empathy, hope and dreams, and how anyone can have a happy ending, as long as they’re beautiful, witty and have access to a fashionable wardrobe. (Think Doris Day or Cary Grant.)
Indeed. Where would I be without the movies?
How about you? What do films mean to you?