Wednesday, July 13, 2016

Speaking of movies...

... I could be wrong, but I think my generation may have been the last one to have any deep appreciation of films that came before we were born. That's not meant as a disparaging remark about younger people; it's just that the options for discovery aren't there anymore. You can't really thumb through the channels and just stumble across some old black & white flick now. Yeah, there's TCM, and probably a couple of others, but that's it. And the thrill of "accidental discovery" is long gone. Quite literally hundreds of channels to choose from, and still so little in the way of old movies.

I grew up in the '70's, before the dawn of cable, and we had four or five channels to choose from. And I was a fairly obsessive television watcher. Cartoons, of course, and cop shows and syndicated sit-coms. But it was MOVIES that always gave me a thrill, movies usually made long before I was born, that gave me weird, tantalizing peeks into exotic and mysterious worlds.

In the Detroit area, the 4 O'CLOCK MOVE happened every weekday, coinciding perfectly between the time you finished your homework and the time dinner was ready. They would often have "theme weeks"-- "Elvis Week" was always something to look forward to, and "Godzilla Movie Week" was extra-special.

In the summer time, or on those days you stayed home from school, there was BILL KENNEDY AT THE MOVIES. Bill Kennedy was a bit player in Hollywood back in the day, and mostly showed classic flicks from the '40's and '50's. It was through his show I had my first glimpse of actors like Bogart, Mitchum, Jane Russell, Spencer Tracy, Cary Grant, Katherine Hepburn, etc, etc.

Black & white. Loved it.

Saturday afternoons: SIR GRAVES GHASTLY. A cheesy horror movie host in the grand tradition, Sir Graves showed me the old Hammer Horror-- Christopher Lee and Peter Cushing-- as well as Roger Corman's Edgar Allen Poe adaptations, all in glorious blood red color.

If you forced yourself to get up early on Sunday morning, your day would start at 8 with an Abbot & Costello movie. Then some shorts, like Laurel & Hardy or Our Gang. After that, Tarzan would usually swing in, although sometimes it would be Shirley Temple instead (always a massive disappointment to me at the time) or a Blondie & Dagwood movie with Penny Singleton and Arthur Lake. I liked those, but mostly because I had a crush on Penny Singleton. If you were really lucky, you'd catch a Thin Man movie, because Myrna Loy was even more alluring than Penny.

Sunday afternoon was CHILLER THEATER time. The credits started with that creepy interlude from the Led Zepplin song "Whole Lotta Love" (I wonder if they had permission to do that?) and showed a lot of horror/sci-fi from the '40's and '50's, movies about giant ants and flying saucers, as well as the Universal Studios monster movies.

And in the evenings, there would almost always be a movie showing at some point, usually a drama or period piece. Late nights, if you managed to stay up, would be poorly-preserved flickering black & white images of places and things that seemed so alien-- men with guns and fedoras and dangerous slinky females and big black cars and rain and street lamps and one-room apartments-- that they were like artifacts from ancient times. Film Noir, although at the time I had no way of knowing that.


In my teens and early 20s, I developed a special affection for horror films, old and new, and was more than a little obsessive; I'd even venture to say there isn't a horror film made before around 1987 I haven't seen. But eventually I outpaced that hang up, fell in love with the aforementioned film noir, transferred my obsession to that.

In my late 20s, I discovered Buster Keaton and fell in love. Buster is STILL my go-to when I'm feeling depressed. His films always cheer me up.

In my 30s, I discovered the joys of foreign films. The Japanese stuff, like Kurosawa, of course, but also the great Italian neo-realists like Fellini and Antonioni. The French as well, especially Jean Renoir. The great stuff from the Golden Age of British crime movies, in the late 60s and early 70s. Not long after that, I became obsessed with westerns and WWII movies.I would never have thought twice about any of that if I hadn't developed a deep love of film from an really early age.

The jist of all this is, because our young brains were exposed to all this great cinematic art, we developed a specific set of references that went far beyond our own experience and our own lifetimes. When I talk to someone now in their teens or twenties, and they have no idea who Buster Keaton is, or the Marx Brothers or William Powell or Vincent Price or Greta Garbo, it makes me a little sad. It's not their fault; they missed out. They missed it all. So many viewing choices now, and yet the options have never been fewer.

I know there are plenty of young people out there now who have a deep appreciation of old movies, and again I want to stress that I'm not being dismissive of newer generations. But they're sort of a specialized little group, removed from the mainstream. But when I was coming of age, this sort of thing was probably a bit more of a given. It was just always there.

I think I was really lucky to just catch them, those last few years before it got late and the station played the National Anthem and signed off.


  1. Great article. I agree. I think access to my parents world- and they were born in the 20s - seemed so natural and easy. Even getting the Eddie Cantor references in Bugs Bunny cartoons!

  2. Great post! Sounds like we had similar upbrings. In the little town of Wahpeton, ND, where I lived as a kid, DIALING FOR DOLLARS was our late afternoon movie show in which the movie would be interrupted every now and then so the weatherman dressed in a leisure suit and some chick in a blonde beehive hairdo and long earrings could spin a bowl, pull out a phone number, and call someone in the Fargo/Moorhead area and inform them they'd won something. On that show I was introduced to movies like THE SEARCHERS and VERTIGO among many, many others. I miss those days. Stumbling on old movies from across the years was a fertile garden for the imagination, which led to comics and novels.

  3. Absolutely right, Heath! I grew up in the 60s and 70s and I recently worked with a lot of young people under 25. They were great but they had a very different appreciation of movies to me. They didn't get the question: 'Who's your favourite movie star?' for example, they didn't have that concept. In my era your tastes were very star-centric; you went to a John Wayne movie, or a Bogart movie or Charlton Heston movie etc. with a pretty good idea of what you would get, and these people became heroes and even role models. That concept seems to have gone, you don't even get credits at the start of movies any more, and I think Hollywood has definitely lost something.

  4. I completely relate and concur. But then I'm old.

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