By Alan Hurst
Movie fans can usually trace their fascination with movies/film/cinema (take your pick) back to one or two events: the first time seeing a movie in a theatre, an actor or actress who struck a chord, first time viewing of a classic on TV, video or DVD. Whatever it was, something ignited that spark and the avocation grew from there.
Looking back I can definitely see my interest starting with certain films and stars, but there were also other things that served as a catalyst after viewing those films and becoming enamored with those stars – books, magazines, TV programs, who I was with, where I watched them – so many different contributors. These are 11 things that I vividly remember being central to an evolving love affair that continues to this day, however rooted in the past that love affair might be.
1. Mary Poppins/My Fair Lady/The Sound of Music
In a 12-month span in 1964-65 I remember being taken to see Mary Poppins (1964) in a movie theatre, and then soon after seeing it again at a drive-in. I remember being taken to see The Sound of Music (1965) at the old University Theatre in Toronto, and then again in a theatre closer to home. And that summer I remember watching My Fair Lady (1964) at the drive-in and I stayed awake for the whole thing. Those three initial movie going experiences seared themselves into my brain. I became obsessed with Mary Poppins. I can watch The Sound of Music anytime, and that opening scene can still induce tingles. Although my love for My Fair Lady isn’t quite at the same level, anytime I hear the first few notes of the overture, I’m transported back to a place when that music seemed the most beautiful thing I had ever heard. Suddenly movies – particularly musicals and ones that starred Julie Andrews – were important. I wanted to see more.
2. Mickey Rooney and Judy Garland Movies
Growing up we were able to catch all the Andy Hardy films and all the musicals starring Mickey Rooney and Judy Garland on Saturday and Sunday mornings on a local TV station. Shirley Temple movies were part of the rotation as well, but I was much more partial to Mickey and Judy. These two performers made 10 films together. As a kid it seemed like more but even if I had seen whatever was showing before, it didn’t matter. I watched it again. It was the energy of these films that pulled me in. These two were indefatigable – dancing, singing, running around town trying to put on a show, beating all the odds and the occasional villain to find success. Watching these now you see that energy is still there, even if the plots seem oddly similar. But they fired up the imagination to the point we were all convinced we could perform and put on a show just like Mickey and Judy (and we tried). Favorites included Love Finds Andy Hardy (1938), Babes in Arms (1939), and Girl Crazy (1943).
3. The Pyramid Illustrated History of the Movies
Back in the 1970’s there were a series of low priced, soft cover books about stars from the silent era up to the 1960’s. The books told you a bit about the star’s personal lives to give you enough of a back story, but the focus was primarily on their films. Each film was discussed with illustrations and you could very quickly get a sense of who these people were, what made them special and – most importantly – what films on the late show you needed to highlight in that week’s “TV Guide”. I think the book on Bette Davis was the first one I got. I tore through it and immediately wanted to see The Letter (1940) and Now Voyager (1942) based on what I had read. There were literally dozens of these books on everyone from Charlie Chaplin to Myrna Loy to Marlon Brando, as well as some that focused on specific genres (musicals, gangster films). These served as the primer for my movie education (and I still have them).
4. Guest Stars on I Love Lucy, The Lucy Show and Here’s Lucy
In the fourth season of I Love Lucy (1951-57) the characters went to Hollywood where Ricky (Desi Aranz) was going to make a movie. It set the stage for allowing the writers to start developing scripts around many of Lucille Ball and Desi Arnaz’ real life friends. The Ricardos were in Hollywood, so it made sense that they would run into some movie stars. And this is where a 10-year old watching I Love Lucy in reruns heard about some of these people for the first time and decided if they were friends of my beloved Lucy, then they had to be good. Standouts included William Holden, John Wayne, Rock Hudson, Van Johnson and Cornel Wilde. Later, when Ball was on her own in The Lucy Show (1962-68) and Here’s Lucy (1968-74), the parade of weekly guest stars continued. Most of the time Lucy’s encounters with these people didn’t make a lot of sense, but that didn’t mean they weren’t fun, and it was always a major treat to watch the character interact with stars of this calibre. Particularly memorable were John Wayne (back for a second guest appearance), Dean Martin, Joan Crawford, Jack Benny, Ginger Rogers, Ann-Margret and, of course, the duo of Elizabeth Taylor and Richard Burton on a particularly famous and highly rated Here’s Lucy episode in 1970.
5. The Citadel Press Film Series
Much like the Pyramid Illustrated History of the Movies, the Citadel Press Film Series focused less on the personal life and more on the films of major stars of Hollywood’s golden age. These books were glossier, a little more expensive and they gave you a high-level synopsis of the star’s personal life, but primarily focused on their films. The books were filled with vintage photographs and each film was covered by a synopsis and then snippets from reviews from major publications of the day, allowing you to get a good sense of the impact of the film and the performance. The first three I bought and devoured focused on the careers of Joan Crawford, Carole Lombard and Jean Harlow. Again, these became a key part of my movie education and helped fill my brain with useless trivia that I can still access to this day. Don’t bother asking me about the latest Marvel movie, but if you need to know anything about Jean Harlow, I’m your guy.
6. Movie Magazines
By the 1970’s and 1980’s movie magazines had passed their prime, but they were still readily available for movie and star hungry minds to get the latest dirt, read about new releases and generally get a sense of who was in, and who was out. My go to publications at that point were “Rona Barrett’s Hollywood”, “Photoplay”, and “Motion Picture”. The latter was my favourite because each month they had a section entitled “Nostalgia” and they would highlight the career of a star from thirties and forties. And that’s where I learned about Claudette Colbert, Kay Francis and William Powell for the first time. Another great source of education and trivia.
7. The Poseidon Adventure (1972)
The first movie I got see without the accompaniment of one of my parents was The Poseidon Adventure (1972). I thought it was the most exciting thing I had ever seen and while the implausibility of the whole scenario is now readily apparent, it can still pull you in. It’s the story of an ocean liner that gets hit by a tidal wave, turns upside down but manages to stay afloat while a group of intrepid passengers work their way “up” to the bottom of the boat to be rescued. Thanks to a combination of a plot that taps into a real fear for many, some interesting set design, state-of the-art special effects and a group of A and B list actors giving it their all, this kicked off the popular 1970’s disaster trend and it remains the best of the genre. Gene Hackman is the leader of the group – not one of his great performances, but he’s certainly intense. Also on board are Ernest Borgnine, Shelley Winters (Oscar nominated), Red Buttons, Stella Stevens and Roddy McDowall, all recognizable faces from the era. As kids we tried to turn everything – a picnic table, a wheel barrow, an ottoman – into the ship that couldn’t stay upright.
8. Taking My Sisters and Cousins to See Age Inappropriate Movies
After The Poseidon Adventure it was game on in terms of getting in to see more “grown up” movies. No more Disney fare. And that’s probably why at 14 – a ripe age for babysitting siblings and cousins – I was dragging them to see re-releases and Saturday matinees of Cabaret (1972), The Godfather Part II (1974), Earthquake (1974), The Towering Inferno (1974), Jaws (1975), Rooster Cogburn (1975), Mahogany (1975) and Barry Lyndon (1975). I never got push back from the parents, but I can’t imagine this would have been allowed to continue if they knew what their eight and nine-year old kids were actually seeing. All I knew was that I was getting to see movies that I really wanted to see, even if some of the content was way over my head as well. Certain images remain with me to this day: the smoky lighting on Liza Minnelli as she’s belting out “Maybe This Time” in Cabaret, Diana Ross’ bizarre but colorful couture in Mahogany, and throwing my popcorn in the air at the sudden site of the severed head in Jaws.
9. Sneaking In To See Restricted Movies
It was time to push the envelope and get into more adult movie, but because they were restricted to people under 18, I needed the adults to help. How it happened I don’t know, but myself, along with my parents, one grandparent and a great aunt all got in a car one evening and headed to the drive-in to see The Exorcist (1973). I think this was during one of it’s many re-releases and I was probably 15. I was riveted. I had (secretly) read the book and couldn’t wait to see it unfold. I don’t think I even blinked during the entire running time. Aside from the movie, the only other thing I remember was the sound of disgust from one of the adults in the car, while two others kept covering the eyes. One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest (1975) and Dog Day Afternoon (1975) were the next two on the list, and I have a couple of uncles to thank for getting me into those.
10. Movies at the Cottage
In addition to swimming and devouring film related books and magazines during the summer, the other memory I have is watching old movies on a small black and white portable TV at my family’s cottage. Sometimes we could get decent reception outside, but usually it was inside. This is were I got see Picnic (1955), Autumn Leaves (1956), That Touch of Mink (1962) and Hush … Hush Sweet Charlotte (1964) and many other for the first time. The fact that it was on a 12-inch screen didn’t matter. The commercials didn’t matter. I was in heaven.
11. The Academy Awards Broadcast
I think I first heard about the Academy Awards via a cover story on a 1972 edition of “LIFE” magazine. It featured an article about the 1971 Oscars, which were to be awarded the following week. There was a picture of an Oscar statue, with photos of all the nominees for Best Actor and Actress and a headline promising a story telling us how the Oscars are picked. I remember devouring the magazine, particularly the listing of that year’s nominees. Not many of them meant anything to me outside of Bedknobs and Broomsticks, which was the only nominee I had seen (it was up for some musical and technical awards). I knew my parents had talked about Fiddler on the Roof (a Best Picture nominee). I knew Ann-Margret (nominated for Carnal Knowledge) because of The Flintstones and a guest appearance on Here’s Lucy. And I knew Cloris Leachman (nominated for The Last Picture Show) as Phyllis from The Mary Tyler Moore Show. But now I wanted to know who all of these other people were, and I wanted to see all these movies but, alas, no luck getting my parents to take their 12-year old to Klute or A Clockwork Orange. Fast forward to the spring of 1973 and the Academy Awards for 1972. I now knew what the Oscars were, I had voraciously read everything I could about pretty well every movie released that year. I had even pulled together my own home-made version of “LIFE” featuring that year’s nominees with images cut out of newspapers and movie magazines. What I really don’t remember is having a conversation about being allowed to stay up and actually watch the awards. It just seemed to happen. Back then they were shown on a Tuesday night – a school night – and a quick internet search shows that they were only two hours and 38 minutes long, so maybe not the big deal it would be today with the near four-hour marathon they’ve become. Since then I have watched at least part of every Oscar ceremony, but it’s not nearly the event that it used to be.
Hooked from a first viewing of Mary Poppins at four and after school reruns of I Love Lucy, Alan has been a movie and TV enthusiast ever since. A particular aficionado of films from the late thirties through the seventies, he enjoys helping others discover the joys of those films, directors and stars. His career has careened from journalism to public relations to marketing, always with one foot in the arts and with a unique ability to relate all work and life experiences back to a movie. Alan’s top five desert island films are Bonnie and Clyde, Sunset Boulevard, Cabaret, Mildred Pierce and, with no apologies, Mary Poppins. Alan’s focus will be on films from Hollywood’s first golden era (and a little beyond) as well as TV.