Online Exclusive: The Child Is Father to the Fan
By Dan Cahill
In response to our Editor’s Letter (Nov/Dec 2011) about the formative role played by novelizations, we received the following letter, a personal account of just how movies fit into life for one reader.
In response to our Editor’s Letter (Nov/Dec 2011) about the formative role played by novelizations, we received the following letter, a personal account of just how movies fit into life for one reader:
The scene was set early in my life—before it began, in fact. On Saturday evening, November 23, 1946, while my mother was in labor until early the following morning, my father, like most expectant fathers at the time, was unwelcome at the hospital. So he went to the movies. Subsequent microfilm research revealed what was playing at the Zaring Egyptian Theater in Indianapolis: Sam Wood’s Saratoga Trunk, with Gary Cooper and Ingrid Bergman. It’s a not-bad romantic melodrama with two reliable stars at their peak, but it has had no influence on my moviegoing life, other than a trait I inherited from Dad: when things are uncomfortable, it’s a good time to go to the movies—a trait that resurfaced in me near the end of his life.
One key to my early cinephilia is the year I was born: as part of the first wave of Baby Boomers, I rode the crest of new things appearing seemingly just for us. New school buildings or wings were commonplace, as were new entertainment media, often targeted at the huge number of kids. Looming large over our early Fifties childhood was the expansion of broadcast television to nearly every home, but I can still recall when radio ruled, and it clearly created a taste for audio only. Later, in the early Sixties, I used to lie in my dark bedroom late on Sunday afternoons savoring the last gasps of radio drama: Suspense, Johnny Dollar.
But TV was king, and it actually made it easy to become a movie fan. Old Hollywood movies were standard fare to fill the daytime hours and late nights. Especially memorable was the chance to experience daily installments of the great serials of the Thirties and Forties: Buster Crabbe in Flash Gordon, Clyde Beatty in The Lost Jungle, and Gene Autry in The Phantom Empire. They were always scheduled around four p.m., an ideal time slot for after school. And there was nothing like them for over-the-top frenetic action and adventure: who could resist following the Thunder Riders to the underground world of Murania?
The granddaddy of great adventure films is still King Kong in all of its 1933 black-and-white, stop-motion glory. I don’t know the exact year of the theatrical re-release, but I’d guess 1953, on its twentieth anniversary. I was six, and had never heard of it when my dad took me and my 10-year-old brother. The best way I can express the developing wide-eyed obsession is to recount the negotiation that took place immediately afterward: we persuaded Dad to let us stay through another showing, but he didn’t think we had time enough to see the whole thing again. “Let’s stay through the battle with the Tyrannosaurus Rex!” “OK.” “No, wait—how about the fight with the big snake—and the pteranodon comes right after that!” “Gee, boys, I think we have to get back home for dinner.” “Aw, c’mon, let’s see the Empire State Building!” (The exclamation points are not an exaggeration. This was the dawn of a great passion.) In the end, we made it all the way through to “No, ’twas Beauty killed the Beast.” Ah, sweet victory.
Kong was the perfect lead-in to a second generation of big monster films in the early Fifties. We saw every last one, never quite understanding that they were supposed to represent Cold War anxiety about the Bomb and Communist subversion. We just thought they were cool beyond belief. And they were. Revisiting them now, nearly 60 years on, they still enthrall: who can shrug off James Whitmore’s unexpected demise, rescuing the boys from the giant ants in Them!? The best films of this era were smartly crafted suspense tales with convincing casts: Kenneth Tobey, Richard Carlson, Faith Domergue, and is it OK to admit to a lifelong crush on Julie Adams, who’s still gorgeous in her eighties?
Comics were a big part of my boyhood, but my mother swore that I actually learned to read from a daily scanning of movie ads in the newspaper. Ads for 3-D films were especially graphic, and there is one I recall vividly, not from the paper, but from a wall on which it was painted. There was an alley separating my father’s downtown office building from the Keith’s Theater, and on the cinema’s bare brick wall, they painted the lurid illustration for House of Wax, the most successful of the first wave of 3-D films. Chorus girls extended their long legs out to the viewer, while one of the dancers was being abducted by a shadowy fiend. It lingers in my memory because the painting itself lingered there for close to 10 years, weathering and fading over time but still creating a lurid sensation of depth and doom.
As we all know now, the 3-D films of the Fifties were generally a disappointment. But the process worked, which explains why such poor content as Bwana Devil lured audiences away from their TV sets. It’s easy to see why the Gill Man clutching for the incomparable Julie Adams in Creature from the Black Lagoon was far scarier when he was clawing at your own face. We’ll never know if the superior content of Dial M for Murder might have reversed the decline of 3-D’s popularity had Hitchcock released the film in that form. I confess, however, to putting my fanny in the seat whenever New York’s Film Forum screens the 3-D version every few years. At last, a master craftsman with the camera doesn’t throw anything at it, but uses it to immerse the audience in a well-told tale that takes place in a single location.
As if there weren’t enough temptations to bring the boys and girls into the cinema, we were absolutely compelled into attending the weekly Kiddie Matinee. Twenty-five cents would admit anyone under 12 to a one o’clock show on Saturday. Forget about beautiful weather, riding a bike, going swimming, playing with the dog, getting up a baseball game—this was where the action was. The show would begin with a dozen cartoons, followed by a feature in a kid’s genre, usually Western or sci-fi. It’s hard to believe that the second-run neighborhood theaters that hosted them could ever make a profit after the cleanup expenses: easily half the popcorn sold would end up on the floor. The Kiddie Matinee served other useful purposes: they gave Mom and Dad a chance to be on their own for a few daylight hours, and they were very important social bonding experiences for the kids. One balmy Saturday, after seeing Tony Curtis as Houdini at the Vogue Theater, several of my neighborhood pals returned to my back yard, where we spent a few more hours with some rope, creating bonds from which we mostly couldn’t escape.
By the late summer of 1958, I was an experienced moviegoer. I’d seen it all, from monsters to musicals, and my parents and I agreed it was time to cross the threshold of maturity: going alone. My family were big Hitchcock fans: he was that coy, portly, deadpan Englishman with the clever twist endings on his weekly TV show. And his movies were trusty, reliable entertainments: The Man Who Knew Too Much, To Catch a Thief, and Rear Window. So what could happen if I went to the neighborhood Vogue Theater to see his latest: Vertigo? It had good ol’ Jimmy Stewart in it—no problem. Needless to say, I emerged from it a changed person. I didn’t know what obsession was. I’d never imagined re-creating a dead lover. And it never occurred to me that Jimmy could be so depressed he was unable to speak. I was plunged into an adult world that I was as unprepared for as I was for my mother’s “How was the movie?” query. I muttered “Fine” and dashed off to finish my homework right away.
I was haunted by Vertigo, just as Scottie was by Madeleine. I longed for a repeat viewing but had to settle for essays and plot synopses, due to a rights dispute that kept it out of circulation until after Hitchcock’s death. But there I was, in October 1983, when it emerged in most of its glory, and there I was again in October 1996, when it was restored to its full VistaVision magnificence. And sitting right next to me was my 17-year-old daughter, who wouldn’t have missed it for the world. These things do get passed on to new generations. My daughter was in a performing arts high school at that time, and has since acted in several films I’ve made, and won awards for.
And that inclination to go to the movies when things get tough came into play in the mid-Eighties. I was back in Indianapolis visiting with my dad who was now alone after my mom had been moved to a nursing home. I was there especially because he’d just had surgery for pancreatic cancer. I’d spoken with the surgeon after the operation, and he told me that Dad had about six months to live. It was on a Sunday afternoon that I realized Dad didn’t know this. I struggled with telling him, knowing that he’d want to know, and before I finally sat down with him, I did what I had to do. I went to the movies. It was David Lean’s A Passage to India, which I’d read and adored in college. It wasn’t until I watched it again nearly 20 years later on DVD that I actually saw it for the superb adaptation that it was. The first time I sat through it in a fog, full of anxiety, but I was in a dark, safe place, distracted for the moment by those intoxicating, addictive flickering images that had taken over my life.