August 18th, 2011 by Bruce Edwards
I got to see what I think were an unusual number of movies before I was ten. Many of these I saw in the theatre, sometimes during our NYC summer trips, but most of them I saw on TV, often late into the night on faraway UHF stations. Technologically, if you saw a movie you loved, there was little chance in the 1950s and early 1960s that you would ever see it again. Think about that. There were “revivals” at some metropolitan theaters, but Akron was not a candidate for them. You came to rely much upon your memory of that first viewing—and, paradoxically, it meant for greater impact, for you knew you had to deliberately hold onto it, or allow it to hold you, or you’d lose it.
There were no Movie Channels, HBO, or Showtime, and, until NBC tried it, no prime time movies on TV. There was no such thing as a VCR. And there were even few “soundtracks” ever made available to rekindle affections such from the aural memory an LP might provide. Here’s a list of ten out of many more that capture some of that youthful knowledge I gained, and retain to this day.
This is a testimony to what indulgent parents incidentally may supply an impressionable child both directly and when left unsupervised for many hours, alone in his own world of solo Strat-o-Matic baseball and psychedelic dreams viewed in black and white. These are presented in the chronological order of when the movies were made, but I do want to give the first one pride of place as my most beloved movie of childhood.
- The Day The Earth Stood Still (1951) — March 2, 1962 is the exact date I saw this movie for the first time, which I know because Wikipedia lists it as one of the movies that NBC used in its inaugural season of Saturday Night at the Movies. It was this movie that helped enrapture me to science-fiction of the literate, thoughtful kind—and taught me how you could smuggle in Jesus into a movie without anyone suspecting. Here the invader was not a monster but a creature of peace with a great robot, maybe the greatest robot ever, Gort. He came incarnate in human form and brought the earth to a stand still in order to dramatize its predicament. Michael Rennie played “Klaatu,” a savior, like Jesus whom he was meant to symbolize, who dies and comes back to life. In the theater showings, Rennie appeared before the start of the film to give a two-minute introduction. His character’s “human” identity was as “John Carpenter,” “J.C.,” who himself, of course, was a carpenter. Did I know this then? No, but it was a powerful register to me, anchoring me to look for such a hero when I met Him.
- Invaders From Mars (1953). This is the original, creepy, watch-your-back-because-anyone might be “one of them” movies, like Invaders of the Body Snatchers (1956) or Village of the Damned (1960) (both of which could be included in this list too). Of course, it is in black and white, and features small town folks whose lives are slowly taken over by Martians, who drill into the back of your neck once they capture you to make you their automatons. Latter day commentators on this movie always mention that this was the dark and foreboding vision of the 1950s that wasn’t really about alien invasion but about totalitarian governments, and sometimes Amerika, taking away freedoms and rights, and causing everyone to conform. To me, it was just scary movie about someone taking your mom or dad away in the middle of the night and changing them into zombie-like creatures. I didn’t like it, or the dreams I had afterward. I looked suspiciously at our neighbors for many years after this.
- The Night of the Hunter (1955). My dad once told me that Robert Mitchum played the maddest of mad men in the 1950s, and this was at the top of the list. Mitchum is a killer fundamentalist preacher, “love” tattooed on one hand, “hate” on the other, who marries a widow (Shelley Winters) and terrorizes her two children, whom he believe knows where their father hid $10K stolen in a robbery. ($10K was a lot of money in those days.) This movie puts the noir in the film noir category. We saw this at the Lyn Theatre in south Akron, at the time, the largest indoor theatre in the area, and having the most ornate and comprehensive snack bar on the second floor. It’s always how I pictured a “Hollywood” palace type theatre. Here’s why it’s on the list—it’s the only movie my dad said I ever peed my pants in, because I was so scared. Again, what were my mom and dad thinking? Answer: they took me everywhere and never used a babysitter. Hence, Night of the Hunter.
- Attack of the Crab Monsters (1957). This is a classic Roger Corman movie that I saw on TV on Cleveland’s own “Ghoulardi” theatre, Friday nights on WJW, channel 8, in the early 1960s. (Ghoulardi was, of course, Ernie Anderson, a famous midwestern TV personality and “voice talent,” who eventually moved to Hollywood to be the voiceover of a lot of primetime shows, including the early years of America’s Funniest Home Videos Ernie is the father of well-regarded director, Paul Thomas Anderson.) This movie is the epitome of the low-low budget monsters-created-because-of-nuclear-experimentation-gone-awry genre. Here’s its claim to fame to me: it’s the first movie I saw where I actually got to see one of the hapless movie extras gets clasped and eaten by one of the crabs, people who are only in the movie to get eaten, and from there I learned to spot them from their first appearance on the screen. No blood, since it was black and white, but it was stomach-churning to see him digested by a giant crab, and I don’t underestimate its imprint on my imagination. But, hey, they were just crabs being crabs (after exposure to radiation).
- Darby O’Gill and the Little People (1959). Truly, this is one of the most terrifying movies I have ever seen, and still is, because of the Banshees, Irish mythic creatures, who presented me for the first time (I was seven, and saw this with my mom at the Colonial Theatre) with a concrete image of death, and death’s transport from this world to the next. (C. S. Lewis had George MacDonald to thank, and i have Disney.) Their shape and the sound they made still haunt me. I think we may have rented it as a VHS tape when we lived at Stadium View apartments in Bowling Green. But never again. Sean Connery is in it, and actually sings.
- Judgment at Nuremberg (1961). This is the craziest one on the list when I think about the circumstances in which I saw. I went with my parents and grandparents in NYC to a 23rd Street theatre in the summer of 1961, the movie shot in dramatic black and white. (This was the summer of Roger Maris breaking Babe Ruth’s one season record, and we took in a game at Yankee Stadium.) This gritty, gruesome, very “adult” treatment of the Nazi War Crimes trial, gripped me and arrested my attention for the whole 186 minutes. What other adults in the audience, who often gasped at what was depicted on the screen, must have thought of my parents and grandparents for having me with them in this graphic movie! If there had been ratings, it would have been hard-R. I did not get up once. And it both educated and elevated my understanding of evil, giving me a palpable set of images with which to reckon wide, conspiratorial evil, and provided my growing vocabulary a horrific challenge. I was transfixed by the courtroom drama and particularly the performance of Judy Garland as a concentration camp victim who was “sterilized” by the Nazis. I asked my mom afterwards what that meant. She told me she couldn’t tell me, but that it was a very bad thing they did to her, whom I only knew as Dorothy in the Wizard of Oz. Why would they want to hurt Dorothy? Later, I learned what it meant, and it was a very, very bad thing.
- The Absent Minded Professor (1961). This is the greatest comedy of my youth, the one that gave me both a sense of what college might someday be like (finding colorful characters to associate with), and what science was really for (helping athletes). This is the great and grand movie that introduced FLUBBER to the world, and the glorious golden days of Disney’s real-action comedies, as Fred MacMurray’s character invents a substance that allows him to help the basketball team beat their bitterest rival, and for Fred MacMurray to win back his best girl from the evil English teacher, who mocked the professor’s discoveries, by creating a flying car. Ever since that day, I thought of the college campus as a place where you could find true eccentrics who were secretly discovering ways to alter the universe for good; I just didn’t know they were in writing programs, not in the laboratories. (Robert Stevenson directed this light hearted movie—and just have realized in writing this that he also directed Darby O’Gill. Hmmmm.)
- The Music Man (1962). This was an unusual movie for my mom and dad to go to, but my dad liked the music from this very famous movie, which i had learned by heart before we ever saw it, because this was a soundtrack made available because of its broadway run. It’s well known story is about a con man from Iowa, who outfits a whole town with band instruments, bringing joy and hope to an otherwise dour town. And my mom and dad both loved then journeyman actor, Robert Preston, who was legendary on Broadway for his portrayal of Professor Harold Hill and his satirical speech about “Trouble,” trouble right here in River City, sung with great aplomb in the pool hall, “Trouble with a capital T and that rhymes with P, that’s stands for Pool!” The movie cast includes the very young pre-Mayberry, Ron Howard, son of Marian the Librarian (Shirley Jones), whom Preston charms by the end of the movie. This is, as far as I remember, the first musical I had ever seen, and I loved the production, the staging, and the performances, the way dialogue and music and poetry merged and did not clash with the unfolding of the plot, which came to signify for me the possibility of someone starting out as one kind of person and then, in the course of the movie, revealing a different kind of person. The anti-hero becoming the hero, in spite of himself, the guilt-ridden grifter who rises to the challenge of redeeming himself while redeeming the people around him.
- State Fair (1962). Pat Boone was a popular singer and actor, and one who was one of our household’s “heroes,” because he came from a Church of Christ background, the church of my childhood. By 1962, when State Fair came out with him as lead, Boone’s career as an actor was reaching the point where his brethren were wondering if he’d “gone Hollywood,” and later he wrote a book to confess that, indeed, his fame had eclipsed his faith, but that he’d come back to it, albeit by becoming a Charismatic. But, this movie, another musical, represented to me something else, something about the wide open sky of the West, the possibility of a summer of discovery and adventure (the greatest season of all to a 10 year old boy), and also the theme of “true love” (which was actually a top 40 hit for Boone in 1959) emerging in the most unlikeliest places. As a romantic ten year old of the time, it set me to dreaming of the day that my own true love would someday come. And she did, and I didn’t need Pat Boone’s help to realize it, though it taught me to wait for her, and to look long and hard until she came, rejecting impostors.
- To Kill a Mockingbird (1962) Even AFI recognizes the brilliance of Gregory Peck’s performance as Atticus Finch, citing him as the greatest movie hero of the 20th Century. I cannot remember now if I watched this on TV, or whether we saw it at the State Theatre, in Cuyahoga Falls, OH (which is where we saw Raiders of the Lost Ark (1981), with grandpa, on the summer we were visiting Akron just after we’d moved from Texas to Bowling Green). But I remember thinking, even without understanding everything going on, that Atticus was indeed a good man whose courtroom speech is one of the greatest in movie history. In the post-trial recessional, Atticus is the last person to leave, save the balcony filled with African-Americans who have witnessed his heroic delivery, to no avail. They all stand to honor Atticus, silently. I have never forgotten that scene of Gregory Peck collecting his papers and walking out of the courtroom with his briefcase, a man doing his duty for another man, convicted but whose only crime was being kind to a person of another race. What a scene. In the movie’s climax, Boo Radley (Robert Duvall), a misunderstood, hulking “mentally challenged” figure in the town, proves himself also to be a hero by defending Atticus’s children against the man who wrongfully charged the African-American in the first place, played by Brock Peters. A thrilling climax to a great movie that made me want to write movies that could depict goodness and heroism without being trite and cloying.