I gracelessly hectored my friend Joscelyn Dunlop to write something for Reckonin’s series on one’s best dozen movies. I got back much better than I deserved when she responded with this charming Southern memoir. Older Southerners will be cascaded with memories of life in former (and better?) times. –Clyde Wilson
Picking your favourite movies from the hundreds---and maybe thousands---you have watched over the years, is not easy. In my case, the years mount up. I remember being told in my later years, I had attended my first film at the age of six weeks. So the years and films increase in number—for that was 94 years ago.
My first personal remembrance of attending movies came when I was about three. We lived in New Orleans and attending movies was a weekly treat. I sat in the lap of my parents and (according to them) seemed to enjoy the movies, which were all silents. What I really enjoyed was watching the starry heaven which twinkled in the ceiling, slowly moving from wall to wall over the screen in front. I wondered where the stars went after they disappeared from view, imagining them moving on and on---for miles and miles---until my mother explained they were attached to a long screen which moved on rollers, forth and back, forth and back. After I spotted my favourite star disappear over the screen as we arrived, to reappear at the back as we left, to know Mother was right. Sigh. But it still seemed magic to me.
I also liked one of the commercials which were seen between movies. It featured a mama cat, tail aloft, strolling through high grass. “Aum” I’d cry (my version of Meow) for I knew she would be followed by four small kittens, one behind the other, with tiny tails erect. “Aum” I’d repeat. “Aum, aum, aum!” as my folks tried to shush me. Fortunately our neighbours always were amused by my outbursts.
In the spring of 1927, New Orleans suffered from a flood as great as Katrina, but without civil turmoil. I well remember Dad being picked up in a rowboat, which came to the edge of our porch, to get to work. Then he lost his job, but quickly found another. He would be chief engineer for one of the many oil tankers which headquartered in Galveston, Texas.
Then I caused a problem.
Always a skinny little kid, I had picked up a low grade infection which while not life-threatening was a nuisance---and doctors said the disease was endemic to the area and was incurable. Then my folks found out the climate in Galveston was even worse than that in New Orleans.
So our happy home broke up and, as Dad left for Texas, Mother and I took the train to Virginia to live with my Grandmother---and, yes, I do have one vivid memory of that trip. We were going through Mississippi (or possibly Alabama) and the view was a bleak one. Just one mass of tree stumps. I had never seen stumps in the aggregate before and asked what they were. “Pine stumps,” I was told.
I fell asleep for two minutes? an hour? who knows? but when I woke up all I could see were pine stumps. “Have they cut all the trees down?” I asked, alarmed. “Looks like it,” Mother said sadly. It marked a life-long interest in trees for me.
At least there were plenty of trees where Grandmother lived, at the base of the tallest mountain in Roanoke County. I sure missed my Daddy, but I enjoyed lots of new experiences and my “incurable” endemic disease disappeared after a few months of breathing mountain air and drinking white sulphur water (all our water came from a spring a block or so from our house), I was cured of my “incurable” disorder, which never returned. The water might have tasted like rotten eggs to tourists, but it was like magic to me.
About a year later I remember attending a Biblical movie which Grandmother’s church sponsored to show to locals who seldom attended church. Grandmother thought we should show a good example and attend. When we arrived at the makeshift auditorium, she, Mother, and I were escorted to the front chairs. I watched it a few minutes and then turned away. “Don’t stare at the audience,” Mother reproved. “That’s rude.” “I’m not looking at them.” “Then why?” “I don’t like the movie.” “Well turn around and shut your eyes.” I did, but ever so often I’d sneak a peek at the movie (which was a silent, of course), and it was always the same. Grown people went around in the broad daylight in their night clothes! I was APPALLED.
The first movie I can remember attending (by name) was “Gay Divorcee,” starring Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers. I was nine at the time, and Mother (a ballet enthusiast) has heard good things about the film, so she took me to a matinee performance at the Uptown Theatre in the nearby town of Salem. I was astonished by the dancing, and I’ve remained an Astaire fan ever since.
We were living in Salem when I was in high school. An attractive college town, it was in fact built on land Gen. Andrew Lewis had patented for assisting the young George Washington in the French and Indian War of the 1750s, and even then had not passed beyond the original patent. It was proud to be the home of the academically renowned Roanoke College (named for the county) and of being the county seat.
In the 1870s an odd thing happened. The Norfolk Southern Railroad had just renamed itself Norfolk & Western for all the western short lines the Norfolk based railroad had acquired after the Cruel War of Northern Aggression, and they wanted to build a “roundhouse” in Salem to repair engines further west than Norfolk. The city fathers refused, so the group went west maybe 10 miles and asked the tiny hamlet of Big Lick the same question.
“Of course!” was the answer, and the town grew so fast they decided it needed a better name. So they called it Roanoke!
I soon made new friends in Salem. My new best girl friend, Jean, lived half a block down the street from our home, and we would double-date with Bob and Merrill, who would walk us about a mile to the Uptown (the only movie house in town) to enjoy the 7 p.m. Saturday movie. (The 9 p.m. showing was for the more sophisticated Roanoke College kids.)
The movies were always musicals, westerns, or comedies. I loved the first two categories, comedies not so much since they featured generally the Three Stooges or the Marx Brothers. However, I knew, from the hoots and howls of laughter that they evoked, that mine was a minor taste.
Then the boys would walk us across town to the only drugstore to keep its malt shop open after 6 p.m. After that, came the trip home, mostly uphill. Merrill was happy to consume a sandwich at my house before walking back home. I estimate we walked some three miles over the “date,” but no one considered that odd. Most of us could drive, and some even had licenses, but to have a car on a date? That was impossible to imagine.
I go into such matters to explain why we liked the sort of movies we did. I might add it was no different when I went to college.
We had moved to Columbia, Missouri, In September 1941, so it was during the war years that I attended college, first at Stephens College and then the University of Missouri. Students were forbidden cars, and by my senior year, male students were noticeable by their absence. The following year would come the deluge of just “de-mobbed” (as the British would say) swamping educational facilities.
But I still had dates, and the movies were all upbeat. Not for us the serious “cine.” We wanted to forget the war for a little while. The papers kept us well informed---only later we were to learn they didn’t tell us all the bad news---which was as well. Then the war was over! We had won! And the movies in 1946 were just as upbeat as ever. I read later that percentage-wise more Americans went to the movies in 1946 than ever.
But things were about to change. We heard of something new. Something called television. Years earlier, back in 1939, I had been taken to New York’s great “Exposition” showing what we could expect in the next 20 years. Thus I had “heard” light and “saw” sound, plus a few robots which turned up later in the Star Wars saga.
So, being “attuned” to the future, I attended a program called “Television” with some anticipation. We were herded into a small room which faced two smaller rooms. One obviously contained actors talking at tall microphones busily acting some script. We assumed it was a radio performance. “No, no,” we were told, “it’s television. Look at the screen.” Well, admittedly, they did seem to be on the screen, but the reception was greenish, barely audible, and “snowy.” One could not conceive of anything less interesting. “Bah,” we thought.
Now 1939 was a wonderful year for the movies, with everything from “The Wizard of Oz” to the mighty “Gone with the Wind”---and nearly all in “living” color. We forgot that 20 years earlier the movies had all been black and white silents.
I am currently reading Andrew Roberts’ fine Churchill: Walking with Destiny (a great bio) and it pleased me no end that Churchill loved comedies (particularly the Marx Brothers) and “That Hamilton Woman” starring Vivien Leigh and Laurence Olivier playing Nelson, which he saw repeatedly. Churchill did not care for the serious stuff, walking out half-way through Orson Welles’ “Citizen Kane.”
Ah me. I can’t save a nation, but can share a love of “unimportant” films with the great! I couldn’t stand “Citizen Kane” either.
As everyone knows, the Movie Moguls were quite aware of the potential power of Television, and did all they could to make the new medium irrelevant. They tried 3-D. They made the movie screens bigger and bigger, wider and wider---and, most of all, they changed the moods of their movies, making them darker, more portentous, more peculiar---and much sexier---for they knew such subjects were not likely to be covered by a medium that was in people’s homes.
We were living in Pitman, N.J., a bedroom community for Philadelphia, right after World War II, when the television craze became noticeable. Everyone had to use very large aerials to get clear reception, and so what we called “Mosquitoes” suddenly appeared on the roofs all over. (We heard that many, unable to afford the pricey TVs, just put “Mosquitoes” on their roofs to keep up with the neighbors.) We didn’t succumb until 1952 when both political parties held their conventions in Philadelphia. They finally chose Eisenhower and Adlai Stevenson. We found to our delight that we could get good reception with our “Mosquito” hidden in the attic. You understand, while the three, later four, channels were limited, they were also free. If you could afford to buy a TV, after that expenses were limited to repair work.
And just to show you what a great “futurist” I was at the time, when a clever friend was trying to help me in my feeble efforts to “play” to stock market, he told me the newest thing was Cable TV. “You mean people will pay to see TV?” I asked incredulously. (HaHa.)
Well, I am now up to the 1970s. We still went to the movies on occasion, but it was becoming an expensive treat, and, what’s more, the movies were becoming the victims of strange “Notions.” It wasn’t enough that the films were bigger, broader, and longer in time, they seemed captive to those who were really not America’s friends. We stopped going to the movies and enjoyed the oldies that were on TV.
And with that long, long prologue, I will indeed admit my favourites.
You already know that I have a fondness for Fred Astaire movies, so you know that is one category. All his “Ginger” movies are still fun, particularly “Top Hat.”
I also loved good Westerns, many with John Wayne. He was a highly competent portrayer of Western heroes. I liked his John Ford trilogy of cavalry Westerns: “Fort Apache” (1948), “She Wore a Yellow Ribbon” (1949), and “Rio Grande” (1950). All had positive things about the South immediately after That War, and some of the main parts portrayed Southerners as people of honor. In contrast, I did not like Wayne’s much lauded “The Searchers,” which, it seems to me, suggests that Southerners were naturally a vicious group needing Northern redemption.
Does anyone remember the short, turbulent career of George C. Scott? I liked his flamboyant portrayal of Gen. Patton, but also his portrayal of Sherlock Homes tracing out the twists and turns of a murder in “The List of Adrian Messenger.” Or maybe I liked it because the heroine’s name was Joscelyn, the only time I ever heard my name in a movie.
I still watch movies on TV, but seldom any made after the mid-1960s. However, when I heard about the Western that Tom Selleck made in 2001 from a book by Louis L’Amour, “Crossfire Trail,” I took the chance and ordered a disc. I was not disappointed. Not only was the Wyoming scenery magnificent, Selleck played a character who did things for honor, not profit. How refreshing!
Joscelyn Dunlop is a retired journalist living in Edenton, North Carolina, and a contributor to the Abbeville Institute and Reckonin websites.