A Budding Cinephile

BrownI first became aware of movies as a young kid watching “B” westerns on TV with my father on Saturday afternoons; Johnny Mack Brown westerns always comes to mind when I think of this. There were plenty of other cowboy films in the 1950s; showing westerns was popular back then with TV stations looking to fill up airtime. I can remember my father reminiscing about his own cowboy hero, silent film star William S. Hart, who apparently at the end of the film would ride off with his horse into the sunset, leaving the girl behind. Whether he actually did this or not, I don’t know, but that’s the story my father handed down.

Like today, Disney was a big attraction with kids and my folks took me to my share of Disney films, though I barely remember seeing any except for Pinocchio (1940), Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs (1937), and Davy Crockett and the River Pirates (1956). I ‘m sure there were others … maybe. My earliest remembrance of an adult film was seeing The Bridge on the River Kwai (1957) at the Loew’s Delancy. I remember being in awe of the bridge being blown up! I was about seven years old, give or take, and watching that bridge blow with the train on it was, to my young eyes, impressive, to say the least.

Other early films I remember seeing in theaters included The King and I (1956), Tammy and the Bachelor, Jailhouse Rock, The Joker is Wild (all 1957), and Al Capone (1959), my very first gangster film. The local theater near where we lived and saw most of these films was the Loew’s Commodore, which later in the 1960s would become better known as the Fillmore East.

quinnimodoOne early experience that sticks in my mind was seeing The Hunchback of Notre Dame, the 1956 Anthony Quinn version, on TV. I pleaded with my folks to stay up late and finish watching it even though it was way past my bedtime. They reluctantly agreed and I got to watch the entire film. I paid dearly for that request later in the night. You see, after I went to bed, my overactive imagination kicked in, and I began to envision Anthony Quinn’s Quasimodo climbing up the side of the apartment building we lived in, sort of like King Kong climbing up the Empire State Building. He was heading directly to my bedroom window, his deformed face staring in, ready to strike at any moment. Let me just say here that pulling the bed sheets over my head, a protective measure I always felt secure with in the past, did not help at all this time. I did manage to barely escape from the terror by running out of the bedroom and into the protective arms of my parents.

OrientalIt was not until we moved from Manhattan to Brooklyn, just days shy of my eleventh birthday, when I truly fell in love with movies. I was, and yes, I still am, an only child, a bit shy in those days, finding it hard to make new friends. There were actually plenty of kids around my own age in the apartment building we moved to; still, it was not a smooth transition. Movies became my outlet, and fortunately there were three theaters close by. The Loew’s Oriental was my favorite, a large majestic theater only about six blocks away, an easy walking distance. I was there on most Saturday afternoons, at first alone quite a bit, and later sometimes with friends. But it didn’t matter who I was with or not with–it was the movie that was important, even then. In fact, I preferred going alone. When I did go with friends or a cousin, we usually managed to get thrown out of the theater by one of the matrons for fooling around.

Back in those days, many theaters had a children’s section. Now, I’m not sure if I got the age correct here or not, but if you were thirteen or under, you had to sit in the children’s section, even if you paid adult prices (which you did at thirteen–that in itself I thought was unfair). The children’s section was toward the back and on the left–in other words, out of the way. As you can imagine, when you reach the age of twelve or thirteen, you do not want to sit with seven and eight year olds. So when the lights went down, and the matron wasn’t looking, like a plan right out of The Great Escape (1963), we crept away in the dark to another part of the theater … generally only to be caught a short time later because the guys I was with could not stop throwing popcorn and Good & Plenty at each other, causing a noisy disturbance. We were marched back to the kids’ section, and there we sat for a while before making another attempt to escape into adult land. We would try again and again, only to be caught and marched back each and every time. Finally, after numerous failed attempts, we were thrown out of the theater by the old Nazi commandant–ah, I mean the old biddy matron. While I probably did partake in some of the popcorn bombings, I never initiated it since, like I said, for me, it was always about the movie.

cagedA word about matrons: they were a special lot. They wore uniforms; generally it was a white uniform of sorts, similar to a nurse. More importantly, to be a matron you had to look menacing and always, always carry a very bright flashlight that easily could be aimed directly into the faces of the little brats. A close physical resemblance to Hope Emerson in Caged (1950) was also mandatory: a big, mean-looking woman, with her hair in a bun and a scowl on her face that would make you burst into flames if she stared at you long enough. Cross her, and brain matter–your brain matter–would splatter all over the theater.

It was at the Loew’s Oriental in 1960 when I first came across Jack Lemmon. The film was The Wackiest Ship in the Army, an innocuous little comedy that at the time I found enjoyable. Soon after, I coincidentally saw a few of Lemmon’s early films on TV: Phffft, It Should Happen to You (both 1954), and My Sister Eileen (1955). Then along came the movie that made Jack Lemmon my favorite movie star, The Notorious Landlady (1962). I also happened to have my first crush on a female movie star at that same time, one Kim Novak, Lemmon’s co-star in the film. I caught every film with Lemmon as they came out: Days of Wines and Roses (1962), Under the Yum Yum Tree, Irma La Douce (both 1963), Good Neighbor Sam (1964), How to Murder Your Wife, The Great Race (both 1965), and The Fortune Cookie (1966). Irma La Douce was the first film I saw in a Broadway theater, The DeMille. Two of my cousins (plus a friend of my older cousin who was old enough to drive) and I all made our way to Manhattan and Times Square. One thing would change over those next few years: by the time The Fortune Cookie arrived on screen, it was not a Jack Lemmon film so much as it was a Billy Wilder film.

Wilder and LemmonIt was between 1962 and 1964 when I recognized a series of films with the name “Blake Edwards” included in the credits. I have long forgotten what made me first pay attention to screen credits but his name kept re-appearing: first as co-writer of the screenplay for The Notorious Landlady, then as director of Days of Wine and Roses, The Pink Panther (1963), and A Shot in the Dark (1964). It was with these last three films that my heavy-handed brain began to think, “Hey, maybe I should start paying attention to who directed and wrote movies.” I seem to like the stuff this guy Blake Edwards was doing. Now, I didn’t know exactly what a director did; in fact, I had no idea what they did, but there seemed to be a correlation with the name of the director on the film and my attraction to that film. As happenstance would have it, I caught a couple of Billy Wilder films on TV around the same time, The Lost Weekend (1945) and Double Indemnity (1944), cementing my attraction to the names behind the scenes. I began watching films in a new light, always checking the credits; directors became my focus with the names Edwards, Wilder, Hitchcock, Frankenheimer, Preminger, Polanski, Kazan, and Penn my new stars. I started combing through the local library for books on film. Unfortunately, unlike today, there was not very much on the subject. Arthur Knight’s The Liveliest Art was one of the first film books I read, discovering names like Griffith and DeMille.

Within a couple of years–I was probably around sixteen years old now–I began traveling by subway into the City (Manhattan), a Mecca for film lovers, discovering films and filmmakers whose works would most likely not make it over the East River into Brooklyn, especially foreign films like La Guerre est Finie, Cul-de-sac, Mademoiselle, King of Hearts, and Hunger (all 1966). Manhattan was a whole new world for a budding film freak: Times Square was loaded with movie theaters, the Upper East Side had the newest and trendiest theaters, and in the Village you had the more adventurous theaters showing experimental, independent, and foreign as well as repertory. New York City was a gold mine filled with celluloid dreams.

Coronet-Baronet-1967- The GraduateAnd then there were the bookstores! In Manhattan, many of the bookstores actually had a section dedicated to books on film which I began to devour! A few years later in the late 1960s I found the mother lode of bookstores: it was called Cinemabilia, located on Cornelia Street in Greenwich Village (years later they relocated to 13th Street between 5th and 6th Avenues near the Quad Cinema). Here was a small, cramped store dedicated to movie memorabilia, movie stills, lobby cards, posters, and books, and not your average movie star biographies, either. They had books on directors, the history of movies, the art of filmmaking, film analysis, even books imported from England. There were magazines like Films and Filming, Sight and Sound, and Films in Review, among some other short-lived and long-forgotten publications.

I have to backtrack a bit here. I need to mention a bit more about the part New York City television played in my film development. During those early years, long before home video, New York TV was a treasure trove, a repertory theater filled with old films, only with commercials. There was “The Early Show,” “The Late Show,” “The Big Preview,” “The 4 O’clock Movie,” “The 4:30 Movie,” “The Late Movie,” “Five Star Movie,” “Chiller Theater,” and the best of all, “Million Dollar Movie.” “Million Dollar Movie” presented a lot of RKO General films and was on every day, twice daily during the week and three times on weekends (when baseball was not in season). Its theme song was “Tara’s Theme” from Gone With the Wind (1939). Each week they showed the same movie about sixteen times. I drove my mother crazy watching King Kong (1933) one week and Mighty Joe Young (1949) the next.

For a film lover, New York was a grand place to grow up: there was always a film to see and discover somewhere. I look back on those days with fondness. I still see myself–a wide-eyed, innocent, younger version–and the thrill I got discovering something new and exciting, like watching West Side Story (1961) at the Rivoli Theater on its gigantic screen or seeing Sidney Lumet’s The Pawnbroker (1964) or Antonioni’s Blow Up (1966) or Penn’s Bonnie and Clyde (1967) for the very first time. The directors I admired since those early days have changed a bit, some names dropping down on the list, others moving up, new ones added, and a few originals still hanging in there at the top. What has not changed is my love of movies as an art form and how much more there is still to see and learn.

This  article is my contribution to the Classic Movie Blog Association’s Film Passion 101  Blogathon. You can find other great offerings by just clicking here.

A “Budding Cinephile” originally appeared  in True Classics  as part of its Movie Memories series.

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30 comments on “A Budding Cinephile

  1. The Lady Eve says:

    I love your movie memories, John, and am SO jealous of your having grown up in New York with all those movie houses so close at hand. Your piece reminded me that the first director I was aware of was Alfred Hitchcock. I knew of his films – and knew they were thrilling and colorful – from print ads and from my older cousins – and, later, from seeing a few “previews of coming attractions” at our local theater – I didn’t see any of his classics, with the possible exception of “The Birds,” first run.

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    • John Greco says:

      Thanks Eve,

      Of course, at the time, being so young, I just took it for granted that everyone had the number of TV stations NYC had back then, as well as movie theaters. It was naive of me, but I was a kid. Who knew? Only later did I come to learn and appreciate that not everyone had multiple theaters within walking distance or a short bus or train ride. Today, of course, with cable everyone can have access more movies than you could have time to possibly watch. After moving away from NYC I came to depend more and more on VHS and DVD’s and of course TCM which when I lived in NY was not on the list of stations our cable company had. Still, nothing beats watching a movie in one of those old classic cinemas.

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      • The Lady Eve says:

        By the way, our small town theater (the Ritz!) also employed menacing ushers – I still remember one woman in particular. Their uniform was a white blouse and black skirt – and a megawatt flashlight. The woman I remember worked there for years.

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      • John Greco says:

        I think it was required that you had to be mean in order to be a movie usher. They all looked like they hated kids and this was their revenge. (LOL), being in charge and controlling them.

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  2. Thanks for taking us along on your journey.

    Here in Toronto there was a store on Yonge Street called Cinebooks. It was up a narrow stairway to a cramped second floor, but it was heaven to my sisters and I who visited, browsed and spent what we could to fill our lives with more about the movies we loved.

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    • John Greco says:

      Patricia, I doubt there are many, if any of those kind of specialist bookstores around anymore. They were wonderful at the time and opened your world up. Thanks!

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  3. John, I can’t believe how many movies you mentioned that I have such find memories of! As a fellow New Yawker, I know all of those TV shows – especially Million Dollar Movie. So sorry about that matron, but she did give you good fodder for future stories! Great article and thanks so much for sharing.

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    • John Greco says:

      Marsha,

      I loved Million Dollar Movie. It gave you the chance watch a movie you loved over and over no matter how much it annoyed your parents. I have no idea how many times I have seen KING KONG and to this day it never gets old. BTW I enjoyed reading today’s other contributors stories also. This was a great idea for a blogathon.

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  4. I had no idea you were such a delinquent, John! 🙂

    New York sounds like the perfect place for a budding cinephile to grow up. These are wonderful stories you’ve shared with us – thanks!

    I laughed at the thought of you hiding under the sheets while you envisioned Anthony Quinn climbing up the side of the building. Hilarious!

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  5. itn Greco says:

    Ruth,

    Yeah, Watching The Hunchback of Notre Dame really spooked me out. My imagination would really run wild and get the best of me. My mother would not let me watch any kind of horror film after that!

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  6. Toto says:

    John, I thoroughly enjoyed sharing in your reminisces across the years. I could envision your terror at imagining Quasimodo was climbing your wall. My husband and I would have loved shopping at Cinemabilia. We also understand that the movie watching experience can be enhanced or distracted depending upon whom one is with when viewing a film.Thank you for your lovely post!

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    • John Greco says:

      Thanks Toto for your kind comments. Cinemabilia was a fantastic bookstore. BTW Punk Rocker Richard Hell of Television and later the Voidoids worked as a clerk in the store in 1976. I never forgot being spooked by Quasimodo and whenever I see a “Hunchback” movie or still or even the book I break out in a cold sweat! (LOL)

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  7. Rick says:

    John, I think we are near the same age and so your movie memories hit close to home. I remember watching THE GREAT ESCAPE at the theater with my brother. I saw CAGED on TV (no theater matrons for me!) and remember being shocked by the head shaving scene. Strangey enough, I always liked Jack Lemmon, but didn’t become a huge fan until about five years ago when I saw several of his films in a short span and realized just how fine an actor he was (I still maintain AVANTI! is under-appreciated gem). Thanks for sharing these memories again. I love posts about personal film-watching experiences.

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    • John Greco says:

      Thank Ricks! I am in agreement with you about AVANTI, a late Billy Wilder gem. Are you aware that film critic Jonathan Rosenbaum has it listed one of his 100 FAVORITE films. I liked Lemmon better in his earlier roles. Toward the end of his career, in dramatic roles, he seemed to go overboard, always Oscar baiting.

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  8. Brian says:

    Had to smile at your Hunchback of Notre Dame story. Having gravitated to horror and sci-fi at that age, I had many such nights, the most memorable being the one spent waking up in terror every 15 minutes or so after watching The Haunting alone in the basement. Did I learn anything from that? Noooo…. 🙂

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    • John Greco says:

      THE HAUNTING was another that scared the you know what of me! It was on TV and my folks were out for the evening. The continuous pounding sent me into nightmare alley! Fortunately, I can now watch horror films and enjoy the dark, evil side without having to throw a sheet over my head! Thanks for stopping by.

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  9. Oh my! Cinemabilia sounds like such an amazing place! Thanks so much for the article. Jack Lemmon is just the thing to get a person hooked on the movies. Oh, and I can confirm that William S. Hart did, on occasion, ride off sans girl.

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  10. John Greco says:

    Thanks for the confirmation on W.S. Hart. I thought so. Frankly, I think the man had problems if he rather be with his horse than a lady, but that’s another story. Cinemabilia was a great store. I loved browsing thru the books and magazines discovering all kinds of new stuff. And of course, there was some stuff I could not resist to buy.

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  11. Aurora says:

    Holy smokes! Fantastic! I love reading about your film evolution and am beyond impressed with your memory! I love reading abut the horrible nightmares Quasimodo caused you, but can’t say I’d fear him more than those matrons! YIKES! And since I too grew up in NYC and was introduced to classic film by the wonderful programming I loved rehashing those memories with you. Great read, John!

    Aurora

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  12. Andrew says:

    john, well done. Sometimes I read things and sanity seems to return. I saw The Great Escape at The Academy of Music.
    Andrew

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  13. Judy says:

    Really enjoyed reading this, John! What a fantastic introduction to film for a child, with so many great resources all around you. I’m sure you never threw too much popcorn! My childhood was pretty much the opposite in terms of classic film, as I lived in a village in the middle of nowhere and probably only went to the cinema once or twice a year – I think the late 60s/early 70s were a period when cinema-going fell off badly in the UK in general, though. One thing we do have in common is a lack of Disney memories – I only remember seeing ‘The Jungle Book’ as a kid, since their films were never shown on television. But I did see plenty of movies on TV.

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    • John Greco says:

      Thanks Judy,

      It has been interesting to hear about the so many different ways folks have been introduced to film. Still, we have all come together. This has been a terrific blogathon, hope you have had the chance to visit some others.

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  14. Great memories, John. Especially about all the theaters in New York – it’s like being locked inside a candy store!

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  15. John, your recollections are so well stated. I enjoyed learning about your journey as a cinephile. I remember the Million Dollar Movie, Chiller Theatre, and 4:30 movie on ABC fondly. It’s cool to realize I’m not the only ones who enjoyed these simple pleasues.

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    • John Greco says:

      Thanks Tracy,

      Some of those shows chopped up the films terribly, like the 4:30 Movie which was on for an hour and a half, but with commericals the film only ran for about 70 minutes of so. Still, we did have access to lots of movies, mangled as they were, and it was a lot of fun.

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  16. Page says:

    John,
    Your article was so full of interesting information that I don’t even know where to start and I certainly don’t want to leave anything out.

    You brought up going to the theater to see Disney films. We went to the drive-in a lot when I was a kid and we did get to see a lot of Disney films. The one I remember most is Jungle Book. Of course, we went to a few that scared our pants off like the original The Hills Have Eyes. My dad would also take us to some films that we probably shouldn’t have been seeing and he would always yell to the back of the station wagon. “Kids, hide your eyes!” (We always peaked)

    Unlike your endearing story about running out of your bedroom during King Kong, when you’re at the drive-in there isn’t anywhere to run.

    I really enjoyed reading about your experiences at the theater in NY. I had no idea that there was a ‘children’s section’ in the back or Matrons that wore nurse type uniforms.

    I could go on and on but let me close by saying this was beyond fun and I’m so glad that you shared your journey with us. It certainly paid off in spades as you give us such passionate content on classic cinema here on a regular basis.

    See ya soon!
    Page

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    • John Greco says:

      Thanks Page,

      It’s been a lot interesting fun reading about everyone’s experiences and how they connected with the movies. Thanks for stopping by once again. Appreciate it!

      Like

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