Monday, December 2, 2013

CMBA Blogathon: The People That Inspired My Love of Classic Films

Have you ever asked a classic film fan how they became an admirer of classic cinema? Many of them can't provide a definitive answer--like so many things in life, their love of classic films just evolved over time. For others, though, the answer might be one life-altering film experience. Or, it could be a silver screen star that ignited their passion for classic movies. For me, it was all about my family and friends.

If there was such a thing as a gene for classic film fans, I would have inherited it from my parents. Mom and Dad grew up in a small West Virginia town during the Great Depression. There was no local cinema, so movies were a rare experience (in fact, I don't remember my mother ever mentioning watching a movie in her youth). Somewhere along the way, my father became a fan of Lon Chaney, Sr. and Jean Harlow. He used to regale me with plots of his favorite movies (like an occasional bedtime story). One plot I remember vividly had Chaney as a fugitive who straps his arms to his side and poses as an armless knife-thrower in a circus. Dad couldn't remember the name of the movie, but, boy, did I never forget that plot! (Years later, I learned the movie was The Unknown, directed by Tod Browning.)

As a young man, prior to the outbreak of World War II, Dad worked briefly as an usher in a Loews Theater in Detroit. That was pretty much our family's experience in the entertainment industry until the 1970s. Then, the U.S. entered World War II and my parents' lives changed forever. By the time I was born in the late 1950s, local television stations were showing movies from the 1930s and 1940s. A few years later, NBC ushered in network-broadcasted films with its Saturday Night at the Movies.

My parents had their favorite performers, but none were held in higher esteem than Errol Flynn and Bing Crosby. Whenever one of their movies was on television, it was a special family event. In the days prior to cable, we would frequently fidget with the rooftop antenna trying to pick up a faraway station showing Errol in The Adventures of Robin Hood or Bing in The Bells of St. Mary's. There were others favorites, too, such as Marilyn Monroe, Ronald Colman, and (perhaps more for Mom) Paul Newman.

My siblings, both older than me, also helped shape my love of classic cinema. When he was in college, my brother sent me a copy of Leonard Maltin's TV Movies (it has undergone a number of title changes since the '60s). I wore that book out, perusing capsule reviews of movies I'd seen and noting ones I wanted to see.

My sister and I gradually convinced our parents to let us stay up late on the weekend to watch movies. Shock Theater was a Saturday night staple in our house and that's where I first saw the Universal horror classics as well as early Hammer films, George Pal's War of the Worlds, and other science fiction and horror flicks. When my sister got her driver's license, the two of us often spent Saturday afternoon at a local cinema. (If required for R-rated films, she'd be my "adult guardian"). When she was older, she spent two summers working in a movie theater, which meant I got to watch movies for free! Most of my favorite 1970s films (e.g., The Day of the Jackal, The Andromeda Strain) were ones I saw with my sister.

College expanded my classic film horizons by exposing me to foreign-language cinema and more silent-era films. I took courses in early-sound movies, horror and science fiction films, Fritz Lang, Jean Renoir, the French cinema, and, yes, one called "Sex in the Cinema." Although I had some wonderful professors, I also benefited from friends, who not only attended the movies with me but also enrolled in the courses. One young woman in my American Film Culture class became my future wife! (We had actually met briefly as juniors, but love blossomed during our senior year.) Her film essay for that class was on Laura--it's a marvelous piece that I should post on the Cafe one of these days. I have seen more films with my wife than with anyone else and it's amazing how often we agree on whether we liked a movie.

I could pretty much take you on a journey of my life and describe all the various people who have shaped my love of classic films. In some cases, I may have "converted" them into classic movie buffs. In other instances, they may have changed my perceptions of filmmakers and performers. (For example, I always liked Deborah Kerr, but became a huge fan after we had a "Deborah Kerr Film Festival" when one of my nephews visited).

No, there's not one film that sparked my interest in classic movies. Instead, there are dozens of people who have kept my passion for classic cinema alive with their love of Errol Flynn, Cary Grant, Deborah Kerr, Alfred Hitchcock, Danny Kaye, Gene Tierney, Paul Newman, Hammer Films, Jean Renoir, Hayley Mills, David Niven, Bruce Lee, Powell & Pressberger, Vincent Price, Akira Kurosawa, Bing Crosby, 007, Laurence Olivier, Walt Disney, and many, many others.

This post of part of the Classic Movie Blog Association's Film Passion 101 Blogathon. Click here for the full blogathon schedule and for links to other members' posts.


Caftan Woman said...

It may not be scientific, but my family backs up your hypothesis regarding a classic film fan gene.

I did the same thing with Leonard Maltin's books, reading and dreaming, check marking films as I saw them, circling my wish list. We referred to the book as "Leonard" in the family. "Who's got Leonard?" was a frequent request.

I loved reading your memories and look forward to that piece on "Laura", a particular favourite of my daughter's. The gene has carried on.

John/24Frames said...

Rick, thanks for sharing these early memories, fabulous stuff. Meeting your wife is a film class is almost a cosmic kind of thing. As for the family film gene, well it did not run in my family. My parents only went to big event movies like West Side Story or The Godfather. They would watch movies on TV more to just pass time or if I wanted to watch something. In fact, they thought I was a bit odd for being so passionate about film. They were probably right but whatever. Like you, there was not one movie that hooked me. It really was kind of a series of movies, some of which still remain on my favorites list. Back in the day, Leonard Maltin's annual TV Movie book was kind if a must have for many of us. I too wore out many editions of that film bible.

toto2 said...

Rick, what a charming and heartfelt essay about the many reasons why you fell in love with movies. There are so many things that shape our lives and it was inevitable that film would leave its indelible footprint on yours. Thank you for sharing a few scenes of your life with everyone at the Cafe!

The Lady Eve said...

Rick, Loved learning about how your passion for classic movies came about and has evolved. You have been fortunate to be surrounded by those who share that love, then and now - thanks to the Internet, your movie-loving family has grown dramatically.

I have to add that the fact that you founded the CMBA probably attests as much as anything to your commitment to classic film.

Christian Esquevin said...

Rick, I enjoyed your post very much. Like you I couldn't single out a specific film that influenced me the most, but rather it't the combination of so many talents working over so many decades. I'll have to agree with your father on Lon Chaney. Looking at him many decades later, I have to say he's one of the most un-recognized acting geniuses of film history.

FlickChick said...

Rick - what a lovely piece. Now if only Lon Chaney & Jean Harlow made a film together - think how happy your dad would have been! And thanks for mentioning the Leonard Maltin book - I, too, wore that thing out (and still refer to my latest copy - which is pretty beat up).

Silver Screenings said...

Rick, this was a lovely post with some great stories – especially the one about meeting your wife in college and how much you agree on movies.

I also loved your description of the Leonard Maltin movie guide. What a wonderful gift!

Thanks for sharing these memories. :)

Laura said...

In our family we call it "The Book of Leonard"! I love hearing these types of similarities.

Great post, Rick!

Best wishes,

Emmy said...

Lon Chaney is one of my all-time favorites ^_^ (both Junior and Senior). And The Unknown is SUCH a good film! Most people I've talked to don't have the patience for silent films, but I find them to be very rewarding.

Rick29 said...

I think a lot of people miss out on the joys of watching classic silent films and foreign-language movies. Both may require more attention, but there are certainly worth it.

Rick29 said...

Eve, when I started the CMBA, I had no idea how many classic movie bloggers there were! They have enriched my love of classic film, too, through their friendships and through their excellent classic film blogs.

Rick29 said...

My wife and I still refer to the "books" Leonard and Leslie (Halliwell). I also liked MOVIES ON TV by Steven Scheuer, but it never caught on like Maltin's book. Actually, I think it was the first of the capsule film review books.

Rick29 said...

I was bummed when Maltin split his book into separate volumes because it was getting too big. I used to love reading the sections on film series such as Boston Blackie, Tarzan, and Maisie.

Rick29 said...

Toto, there's nothing like showing a friend or loved one a personal favorite movie for the first time. I suppose you run the risk of being disappointed if they really don't like it. My experience, though, has been extremely positive. We showed some friends THE COURT JESTER last summer for the first time and the kids were quoting it for days.

Rick29 said...

His ability to blend into a character (not just the make-up but the physical movements) was uncanny.

Rick29 said...

I still have several old editions of Leonard's book because he had to drop some films due to size (I think he spun off other variations of his book). Those old books are in four or five pieces--the binding is long gone!

Fritzi Kramer said...

Thanks for the fun post! I too was raised in a classics-loving family and I can remember the first "new" movie I saw but not the first classic. I hope you do post your wife's Laura essay, it would be great fun to read.

Laura said...

I liked Scheuer's book too! I know our family had it before Maltin. A couple years ago I picked up the most recent Scheuer edition I could find on Amazon, which was from 1993-94.

I have a couple editions of Halliwell and received a lovely letter from him when I sent him some corrections. I was very sad when he passed on, too young.

The earliest film book I remember our family having was THE AMERICAN MOVIES REFERENCE BOOK: THE SOUND ERA by Paul Michael. This is one I never come across anywhere else, but maybe someone here knows it? The first half had actor credits and the second half had the credits for some great films, each entry with a single picture. I had that book completely memorized and still feel a jolt when I'm watching a movie and realize I'm seeing a moment caught in a still in what we called "The Big Black Book."

Best wishes,

Rick29 said...

Laura, I remember perusing Michael's book at the library. I corresponded with Leslie Halliwell, too. When my wife and I visited Great Britain in 1986, we asked him out to lunch. He wasn't working in London anymore, so he invited us to tea with his wife Ruth in their home. They were wonderful people! He died the following year from cancer.

Citizen Screen said...

This is wonderful, Rick. Besides that gene, movies were your destiny with such close family members working in theaters through the years. And I love that you and Mrs. Rick ;-) met through a love of film and that she so impressed you with her paper. I'd love to read her commentary on Laura, by the way!


David said...

This brings back some nice memories -- and imagine waiting for months, pre-VCRs and streaming, for a movie to come on TV!

David Lobosco said...

What wonderful memories of the people that shaped your passion. This is definitely a story I could read over and over again. Thanks for sharing!

Ginny said...

I really enjoyed reading your story, Rick! It's great that you've been able to share your classic movie experiences with so many of the important people in your life. Mine has been mostly a solo journey, so you are very fortunate. I especially think it's cool that you met your wife through your film classes, and would love to read her essay on Laura someday.

JavaBeanRush said...

Why didn't I do this? I had to scour my old diaries to come up with an answer to the one film which sparked the classic movie passion, because I couldn't think of only one. I finally found a diary passage that suggested it was a particular one.

Very interesting, Rick.

You and your wife were in a film class together? It was meant to be, obviously. I'm so happy that you have someone who is just as interested in films as you are.

As far as conversion goes, I don't have your persuasive skills; I have yet to convert anybody mostly because I can't think of a time when I wasn't in someway influenced by the old classics. Thus, I have a difficult time understanding someone who would write off an "old" movie as automatically boring.

I just change the subject and we talk about what they DO like (Usually something with Dwayne "The Rock" Johnson in it or Will Farrell.)


Ivan G Shreve Jr said...

It's funny you should mention Maltin's TV Movies book, Rick, because someone sent me a promotional freebie of that very tome a month or two back. Truth be told, I don't buy one every year like I did in the past (the wait for the new copy to come out was like Christmas) since most of the movies I enjoy are in the Classic Movies edition. But it was fun to peruse as always.

I remember you telling me about your family having roots in the Mountain State...but what town did your folks reside in? (I'm just curious, being an Appalachian Highlander and all.)

I enjoyed reading your movie memories - I think this may be the best blogathon idea yet.

Gilby37 said...

Rick, it is interesting to hear how you had multiple influences. I love this blogathon -- it brings out the person behind the blog!

Page said...

I so enjoyed getting a glimpse into what turned you in to such a classic film and TV fan.

You mention wearing out your copy of TV Movies. I have a couple of movie guide books that I found at Blockbuster Video years ago that have seen better days. Even now with so many things available with one click on the internet, I still drag out those books when I want to find info on directors and film plots.

I had no idea that you were able to take such great courses while in college. I would love to go back and take courses on foreign cinema and silent film.

I was also pleased to read that you developed your love for film through your parents as I did. Watching classic films with my mother are some of my best childhood memories.

A wonderful read!