I have no idea where my obsession with classic Hollywood movies came from. But I do remember on Sunday afternoons, after church, my mother, father, and I went to my grandmother’s for lunch and family time with my aunts, uncles and cousins. One particular Sunday, instead of the usual football game, the silent movie, Modern Times, starring Charlie Chaplin, was broadcast. Everyone else turned away from the TV in disappointment and boredom. But I sat riveted to the screen, watching the characters getting into all kinds of comedic trouble. It struck me that what movie patrons found funny in the 1920’s I still found funny.
I spent many evenings in my childhood lying in the living room floor and watching The Big Valley and Perry Mason with my parents. As I grew older, I read and watched interviews with the stars of these programs. I learned that Barbara Stanwyck had been a determined starlet in the 1930’s who graduated from shop-worn female characters to a classic film noir character. Raymond Burr played some really nasty bad guys when he began his acting career.
That whetted my appetite to know more. Not just about the actors, but about the movies.
In my small Southern town, the only way to access movies from the Golden Age of Hollywood was to stay awake past midnight on Saturday for the Late, Late Show. Once I wanted so bad to watch Lucille Ball and Bob Hope in Fancy Pants. Unfortunately, I didn’t make it past the second commercial break.
When I was in my 30’s, cable finally came to my hometown. And there they were—all those glamorous stars I had heard and read so much about were right before me. In glorious black and white and vivid Technicolor, twenty-four hours a day, seven days a week. I felt I had died and gone to heaven.
To us movie fans, these films stand up today because the human characters are portrayed with real emotions, desires, and goals. And I love watching them in pursuit of solutions to their varied problems. Sometimes they are played for drama, sometimes for sheer comedy.
I lived vicariously through them. As there was no nudity, cursing, or bloody gore, anybody could watch them with me. Whenever plots did contain adult subject matter, it was subtly handled. In The Maltese Falcon, I only realized when I was an adult that Peter Lorre played a gay character. It was noted when Lorre’s character handed his business card to Philip Marlowe, played by Humphrey Bogart, and the card smelled of gardenia.
In Shanghai Express, Marlena Dietrich plays a prostitute. You know that when she says one specific line, “It took more than one man to change my name to Shanghai Lili.” If you don’t listen and watch carefully, you miss it.
I didn’t just watch these movies. I studied them. I have bookshelves devoted to biographies of legendary Hollywood actors and actresses. I have read enough to know how the films were made, and who was originally contracted to play the roles we associate so well with certain actors. Most people don’t know that Ronald Reagan was scheduled to play ‘Rick’ in Casablanca. Or that the movie was almost not made because no one thought Bogie could play a romantic lead.
And sometimes the backstory of these movies proved more interesting than the movie itself. After agreeing to sell David O. Selznick the movie rights to Gone With the Wind, Margaret Mitchell changed her mind and refused to sell. David finally got her to agree, and the movie went into production. Only one problem: There was no Scarlett cast. But there was already a shooting budget and schedule established. Without the perfect actress yet contracted to play the role, the first footage to be shot was a stunt couple portraying Rhett and Scarlett running from the Yankees. For the burning of Atlanta, the original set of the 1931 movie, King Kong, was set afire. If you look closely, you can see the three-tiered platform blazing in the background where King Kong first saw the sacrificial maiden, played by Fay Wray.
I started to understand how the movie industry operated, and I began to appreciate how much work and worry goes into the making of a single movie. Which made me appreciate them even more.
As a history buff, I enjoy how these films show a glimpse of Americana in specific time periods. It still amazes me at how much influence these characters had on the movie going public. Clara Bow made it fashionable for young ladies of the 1920’s to bob their hair and use lipstick – a product that caused many divorces in real life because cosmetics were considered to be used only by ‘ladies of the evening’.
The dresses the stars wore were very important to fashionable young women. When Marilyn Monroe posed for her famous subway scene in The Seven Year Itch, the search was on by every young female for a copy of the white dress that blew over Marilyn’s ankles. That scene was filmed while Marilyn and her husband, Joe DiMaggio, were supposed to be on their honeymoon. Poor Joe had to stand silent and watch while other men drooled over his wife’s exposed legs.
In A Place in the Sun, when Elizabeth Taylor stepped onto the screen wearing a white off-the-shoulder party dress with white flowers on the bodice, every girl would have died to have that dress.
The clothing company, Hanes, almost went bankrupt in 1934 when Clark Gable pulled off his shirt in It Happened One Night, revealing he did not wear a tee-shirt. The male movie-going public decided if Clark Gable didn’t wear tee-shirts, then they would not wear them either. Until Marlon Brando wore his in his famously dramatic scene in A Streetcar Named Desire.
During World War II, film star Veronica Lake was famous for her peek-a-boo haircut. So many women tried to imitate the blonde bombshell that the Defense Department asked Veronica to star in a short film and demonstrate to female defense plant workers how to put up their peek-a-boo hairstyle up during the day for safety and productivity, then let the popular style down at night.
If you ever watch the original The Postman Always Rings Twice, pay attention to Lana Turner’s character, Cora. When you first meet her, she is in white shorts, white halter top, white turban, and white shoes. After helping commit her husband’s murder, she is all dressed in black.
Same thing with Janet Leigh in Psycho. In the beginning, her character Marion Crane dresses in white blouses and bras and slips. After she steals the money, she is all dressed in black undergarments.
I still laugh at the most controversial aspect of that movie. It wasn’t the shower scene stabbing. The movie almost did not pass the censors because Marion flushes a piece of paper in the toilet, and the censor board thought seeing the bits of paper swirling in toilet water would be offensive to the mature audience.
As a means of bonding, I tried once to get my mother to sit through Casablanca, but a third of the way through the film, she stood up and advised, “something in the kitchen needs my attention.” She didn’t return until the closing credits were rolling up. When dad saw me watching a 1938 movie starring Jimmy Stewart, he just stared at me and asked, “Why are you watching that old stuff? That came out before I was born!”
When we have family reunions, my aunts, uncles, or cousins have no idea what or who I’m talking about. My grandparents never spoke of movies to me. They acted as if the movies never existed, or was too far in the past. Maybe it was because they were poor country folk and glamorous movie stars only reminded them of their poverty. Maybe it was because they lived too far out to come to town every week. Yet, To this day, I still wonder if any of my family members saw these films when they first premiered. Did they see them in movie palaces? And what did they think of them?
Why does any of this matter to me? I don’t know. Maybe it’s because as an only child, I grew up understanding the difference between being alone and lonely, and these movie characters keep me from being lonely. How many times I’ve watched the films is not important; I still find them comforting, almost a guilty pleasure.
My children grew up understanding my fascination with these classics. In 1993, when snow-poccalypse hit the South, we received 18 inches of snow overnight. The city shut down for a week, and my kids were horrified to learn that we had lost cable. “Oh, dear God, we’re stuck inside and mom can’t have her movie fix.” My son stared at his sister. “What are we gonna do?” Their only saving grace was that I had a bunch of movies on VHS.
Once when my daughter came home from junior high school all upset and crying about not being popular in school, I sat her down and tried to console her by telling her of similar experience I had had at her age. But she advised that I was old and things had changed and she was “the only one in the world going through that.” I put Dark Victory with Bette Davis in the VHS player and sat back, watching my daughter. During one scene, Bette’s character comforts a fellow patient in the sanatorium, a pre-teen girl with braces and pig tails, and Bette listens while the girl talks about her fears and doubts about school and friends. That character, from the 1940’s, spoke the same words my daughter had just spewed forth an hour before. I grinned at my daughter. “And you said you were the only one in the whole world to be going through this!” That was thirty years ago, and my daughter still hates it when I bring up that story.
Every time the kids come to the house, they check the TV to see what movie is playing, happy to see that sometimes the movies are in color. Then they ask how many times I’ve already seen it. But that’s not important to me.
I begin each day by sipping on my morning caffeine while checking the “Guide” feature on the remote to see the movies scheduled for the day, then plan my day accordingly. Now days, my TV is tuned every day to Turner Classic Movies, and I record most of them to enjoy over and over. Most days, movies play in the background while I sit at the computer and try to get some writing done. And I know the films so well, I can tell how far along the movie is because of the dialogue.
Most evenings, I bore my husband to tears by pausing a film I have recorded or purchased on DVD to ask if he recognizes a well-known actor in an early role, or what was going on in the star’s life at the time the movie was being made; who was married to whom; how and when they died; etc. The funny thing is, each morning while he prepares his coffee, he asks, “What’s the movie theme for today?”
I anxiously await the month of December when ‘TCM Remembers’ shows snippets of the stars, directors, editors, musicians, etc., who have died that year. It’s heartbreaking sometimes, because I feel that I know these people and/or characters so well, and it is such a loss. But with the movies constantly running, it’s almost like the members of the movie system never really die.
I know life isn’t like the movies, but it is comforting to know that somewhere in the world good overcomes evil, and the characters that need killing eventually get their just desserts.