I 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.
One 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.
It 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.
A 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.
It 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.
And 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.