I grew up watching old movies; film noir, musicals, westerns, mysteries, Hitchcock thrillers. We didn’t have cable, but we had a VCR and a membership to the local video store. My parents played films that they had watched on Movie of the Week growing up, or whatever happened to catch our eye. It was a time when video stores, really good ones, hadn’t caught up to the latest fad or Hollywood Blockbuster. It was the best the 30’s, 40’s, and 50’s could deliver. Maybe, if the mood struck us, we would wander into the 1960’s, but mostly we stayed in the slightly hazy and always black and white world of the pre-World War II era.
Some of my favorite actors continue to be from this era. Bogart and Bacall, Spencer Tracy and Kathryn Hepburn, James Cagney, who wasn’t always my favorite but I almost always enjoyed his movies. The character actors of Sydney Greenstreet and Peter Lorre. Above them all though was William Powell and Myrna Loy; the stars of six Thin Man films, they had wonderful chemistry and sparkled in every way.
These films served as an introduction to the world; the era had a look that was plainly not reality. It was so far removed from time or place that I knew, it was impossible to be understood as reflecting reality. I had never met a detective, no one wore a hat or trenchcoat or a suit. No one owned a 1940 Ford, or kept a pretty good bottle of rye in their pocket. But it gave something else.
It was like watching a play every weekend. It was theater, pure and simple. You saw many of the same actors, playing similar roles. You knew who was the bad guy, you knew who was the femme fatale. You knew the good guy always had a heart of gold under the rough exterior. The guy always got the girl, and the home team won and the Allies won the battles against the evil Axis Powers. It was pantomime, but with a great budget.
It gave an appreciation for lighting, for making due. It allowed me to see how acting styles changed and how costumes and sets evolved. It allowed me to tell if something was an A- or B- or C-picture, which part of the reel it would come on, and how the actors were valued. I learned the best directors and how they influenced who would come after. Why John Williams scores are so moving, and where he learned it.
I’ve never seen Gremlins, or Goonies, or Alien. I can’t quote The Termininator, and I probably can’t name a John Hughes movie off the top of my head. But I know the films that influenced those ones, and I spent years learning their language. I appreciate filmmaking and storytelling, because we didn’t have anything else.
Now, it’s late and I’m tired, so time to turn on The Thin Man Goes Home, pour the rest of the wine, and enjoy. So, until next week, good night, and good luck…