Sunday, April 27, 2014

In Which I Remember the Days When You Had to Remember Things

And we’re back ...

As I’ve been harping on, in the 60s, 70s, and 80s, there were very few opportunities for a person to develop an interest in old movies. Before I could drive, my options were limited to television and the Stanley-Warner Theatre in La Mirada – which was a nice theatre (I can still picture it vividly, even the little smoker’s rooms in the back of the auditorium) – but one which had only one screen, and in those days, if a movie was a hit, it could monopolize a theatre for months.

If adults were willing to take me, I could branch my options out, going to, say, the Norwalk Theatre (in Norwalk, of all places), or the Meralta in Downey, or even the Wardman in Whittier, but even then, the selections were limited.

 The Norwalk. I actually saw the "Batman" movie here in 1966 -- 
and remind me to tell you that story sometime.

I have memories of going into Hollywood sometime in the mid-60s to see a double-bill of “Frankenstein” and “Dracula” (I was crazy for monster movies, but my most vivid and pleasant memory of the evening is the buzzing on the ancient soundtrack – still one of my favorite sounds), or in the early 70s, going to see “The Adventures of Robin Hood” at the Fairfax in Los Angeles or someplace similar. Such screenings and the subsequent excursions were rare, though. I remember being in San Francisco in the mid-70s and insisting on my sister and mother go with me to see “Bringing Up Baby” and “His Girl Friday.”

While there were always revival and second-run theatres (particularly in New York), in the late 60s, a real boom began in the Boston area that spread across the country – or at least to the Los Angeles area, and I was just in time to catch the wave.

In memory, there were (at the very least) the Vista and the Beverly in Hollywood, the Nuart in West LA, the Monica in Santa Monica, the Sherman in Sherman Oaks, the Wilshire in Fullerton (in a converted swimming pool space), and best of all, the LA CountryArt Museum (with thematic programs curated by the late, great, and invaluable Ron Haver), the Vagabond on Wilshire, and the Encore on Melrose. 

It really was a converted swimming pool -- the diving 
boards were stored behind the screen.

I can’t even begin to catalog the hours I spent in those theatres, watching movies on the big screen in the way they were intended to be seen. I used to keep track of my moviegoing in those days, and there was one month in 1976 or 1977 when I saw over 100 movies – it helped to have the Los Angeles International Film Exposition (or “Filmex,” as it was officially known) show a 50-hour marathon of movies that had won Oscars. 

I still miss Filmex.

There were even outliers like “The Old Movie Theatre and Motion Picture Hall of Fame,” which was a converted banquet room in the long-departed Saga Motel in Anaheim – literally across Harbor Blvd. from the entrance to Disneyland. It was a one-man operation; Doug Wright, who ran the place, sold you your ticket, and on his way up to the booth to start the projector, he’d shout notes about the current film and upcoming attractions over the wall of the “lobby” – which was a partitioned-off area that had a few exhibits, such as one of the skeletons used for animating the 1933 King Kong, and a self-service popcorn machine. It was kinda cheesy and wasn’t the most optimal place to see a movie, but it had a certain charm – and was the first place I ever saw the Marx Brothers in “Animal Crackers,” their second released film that had been tied up in legal proceedings for decades. I’ve been told it was an awful bootleg print, but I remember it as being fine.  

Not only was it across the street from Disneyland, 
it even had a miniature golf course.

Doug Wright in the Hall of Fame

Other than “Animal Crackers,” my most vivid memory of the Old Movie Theatre and Motion Picture Hall of Fame (I always think of it that way, since, when you’d phone the theatre to find out a showtime – which was about the only way of finding out what would be playing – Wright would bellow that phrase at you as part of the message) was coming home from it one night. KTLA was showing “The Bride of Frankenstein,” a movie I’d seen as a kid but hadn’t seen in a long, long time – and certainly not since I’d read about it and realized what a sharp and intentionally funny movie it is; “campy” decades before the term would be invented. It hadn’t been on TV in forever, and it was finally going to be on on a Saturday night at midnight. It had been so long since it had been on at all, in fact, that there was no telling how long it would be before I could see it again. I left Anaheim after seeing something (god knows what) and got caught in the most hellacious traffic jam in the history of the Santa Ana Freeway. (Freeways had names, not numbers, in those days). Normally, it’d be about a half-hour drive (that was one of the advantages to living in La Mirada then; it was about a half-hour from anywhere) .This night, though, it took me hours to get home, and so I missed most of the movie. I had no idea when – or if –I’d ever see it again. (I eventually did, but it did indeed take years.)

Even Elsa and Colin found that traffic jam appalling.

These theatres almost always showed double features, so you had to choose your seat carefully for maximum comfort, but you were always in the presence of people who loved movies and who knew how to appreciate them – no commenting on them with sighs or catcalls – and certainly no cell phones or texting in those days. People were there to watch the movie and see long-dead (or at least, long-retired) stars at the peak of their abilities.

Prints were almost always good, projection was handled by actual people in the booth, and there was frequently a sense of either discovery (“Oh, how long have I waited to see this one?”) or comfort “(How many times have I seen this?”) or even disappointment (“I waited to see that?” – for some reason, Lucy in “Mame” comes to mind here …), but there was always a sense that you were in for an interesting and unique evening or afternoon.

Bea Arthur and Lucy in "Bosom Buddies:" 
"Two foghorns meeting in the night."

We’ve lost that, I think. Take “The Bride of Frankenstein.” In those days, I had no idea if it’d ever come around again, so when it was available, I could feel both anticipatory that it was showing and fulfilled that I’d finally seen it. You were forced to absorb a movie and remember it because it might be the only time you’d see it – and, granted, they weren’t all gems; for every 1936 “Show Boat,” there was the potential for 1937’s “High, Wide, and Handsome.” The latter is a movie I chose at random, but which I realize makes my point. I saw it sometime in the early 80s, and haven’t seen it since (though I've wanted to), but remember it distinctly, from the “The Folks Who Live on the Hill” number – one of Kern and Hammerstein’s finest songs – to the elephant stampede (in 1870s Pennsylvania!) at the climax. Now, it’s not a bad movie by any means, but it’s certainly unique – from the aforementioned stampede to being a musical with a male lead who doesn’t sing a single number (because he can’t sing at all), but that does feature a number by William Frawley.

"I never miss a William Frawley musical."

Now, I’ll never deny that I’m as much a “victim” of our current ability to have almost any media or informational desire fulfilled immediately; in fact, I revel in being able to indulge in it. There’s been something lost, though, in being able to whip out my phone and look up anything from Garret Morris’s age to when the stapler was invented (both of which I actually did today) rather than indulging in the old “barroom argument” over when something happened or who did it.

Just as we no longer have to wonder about stuff, we also no longer need to remember it. It’s always there, accessible with a few clicks or taps, so that there’s only an eternal present. We’re like the people who sustain brain damage and are no longer able to make new memories. Why remember something when you can just watch it or read it or listen to it whenever you want?

Tuesday, April 15, 2014

A Master's Degree in Film History -- in the Comfort of Your Own Home!

So, where was I? I’ve got plenty to talk about, especially the TCM Classic FilmFestival, but that will have to wait for another day. (And, yes, I know it’s a version of not getting to the point again …)

I had been talking about how moviegoing’s changed since I was a kid in the Stone Age.

     Growing up in Los Angeles in the 60s and 70s, I was lucky, we had nine television channels – 2, 4, 5, 7, 9, 11, 13, and later 28, and, still later, 56 – all of which had extensive film libraries, as well as regular movie broadcasts.·     

      Probably a Paramount -- something from the 30s.
  • Channel 2 (KNXT) had “The Early Show” at 4:00 pm, and “The Late Show” and “The Late, Late Show” after the 11:00 news.
  • Channel 4 (KNBC) had an afternoon movie hosted by Tom Frandsen. (The listings for Frandsen’s show sometimes confused me. They’d say “Live portions in color.” Literally for years, I thought that meant that the actors from the original movies would come into the studio and do their scenes again, only this time live from the television studio. I can’t believe I’m admitting to that.)
  • Channel 5 (KTLA) had the Paramount and Goldwyn libraries and had extensive shows on the weekends, usually hosted by the genial Tom Hatten (who also hosted the Popeye cartoons).
  • Channel 7 (KABC) also had afternoon and late night movies (other than Johnny Carson, movies, and occasional syndicated sitcom reruns, that was it after the news – and stations signed off at the end of the broadcast day and turned off the transmitter).
  • Channel 9 (KHJ) had the Million Dollar Movie (showing the same film every night all week and multiple times on the weekend) as well as Saturday afternoon genre pictures It was almost always Penny Singleton and Arthur Lake as Blondie and Dagwood, or the Basil Rathbone Sherlock Holmes movies, or Charlie Chans. If you were lucky, you got a Warner Oland Chan. A little less lucky, and it’d be Sidney Toler. If you were even less lucky, you’d get Roland Winters. But who cared? It was Charlie Chan.  Sunday afternoons, it was monster movies from the 50s, and Saturday nights, Larry Vincent would appear as horror host Seymour to mock the lousy monster movies he’d show. Vincent was later succeeded by Cassandra Peterson’s Elvira, but they were just two of the hordes of such hosts, pioneered by John Zacherley in New York and Ernie Anderson as Ghoulardi in Cleveland.
  • Channel 11 (KTTV) had the best movies, with a sprinkling of MGMs, Warners Bros, and RKOs in the afternoon – hosted by Ben Hunter, whose endless commercial interruptions were the inspiration for Johnny Carson’s “Tea Time Movies.” (Hunter’s toupe was almost as bad as Art Fern’s). I remember watching the 1965 Carrol Baker movie “Harlow” and, at almost the end, Hunter interrupted to sell some kind of snake oil or “you-finish” a-frame cabins for some fly-by-night company, after which they resumed the movie to show – literally – the final 30 seconds. But there was gold in them late-night hills, even if you had to wade through Ralph Williams, Chick Lambert (and his dog, Storm), Cal Worthington, and Pete Ellis to see it. (The late night movies were almost always sponsored by local car dealers, who insisted on showing us and describing pretty much every vehicle in the inventory)
  • Channel 13 (KCOP) was L.A.’s bargain basement station. Their operating budget must have been in the mid three figures, but even they had movies. Lousy ones, but they still showed ‘em. 
  • Channel 28 (KCET) was the PBS – or NET in those days – station, so they showed silents, foreign films, and other rarities the other channels left untouched.  
  • Channel 56 (KDOC) was one of the last players in this game, so they ended up with all the stuff that even KCOP had passed on – though they did end up with the Three Stooges package, so we’d watch then after school.
My point is, though, there was something almost magical about flipping through the channels (which almost always meant turning an actual dial on the front of your set) and stumbling across “Grand Hotel” or “Citizen Kane.” Even edited to shreds – most 90-minute or two-hour movies were shoveled into a two-hour time-slot, which meant they were almost always edited to squeeze in more of the endless car commercials – the good ones still retained their magic.

"Grand Hotel" -- edited so severely the rest of the cast was cut out.

You could almost compile a bucket list of movies you wanted to see, but when they were scheduled, you had to be ready to jump. I remember I once talked my mother into letting me stay home from school because KTLA was going to show the Marx Brothers’s first movie (“The Cocoanuts”) at noon, and I’d never seen it – and didn’t know when I’d ever get the chance again.  

 "Dear Principal Stine. Please excuse my son from school so he can watch the "Monkey Doodle-Doo."

So that was the thing. You had to be ready at a moment’s notice to catch a really good movie, and watch ‘em when you got the chance. Some you’d see over and over (KTLA seemed to be obsessed with showing Bob Hope’s “The Princess and the Pirate”), and some you’d see once, never forget, but never see again. I particularly remember a European spy spoof that featured the hero escaping the villains by literally flushing himself down the toilet. I have no idea what that movie was, but I’d love to know the title and see it again.

Things got a little better when – maybe capitalizing on the nostalgia boom of the 70s, maybe no – a number of revival and repertory movie theatres opened in Los Angeles.

The Encore. (Never mind the marquee.) King of Los Angeles revival theatres.

But that’s our chapter for next time.

Wednesday, April 9, 2014

You Damn Kids with Your Netflix and Your Hulu and Your Torrents ...

I was having dinner tonight at Miceli’s. Miceli’s is a venerable Eye-talian restaurant on Cahuenga Blvd in Los Angeles. (What I believe is the original location is on Las Palmas, just off of Hollywood Blvd., but we were at the other iteration.) Miceli’s is old, old, old school Eye-talian, which is exactly what you want sometimes – and tonight, I did. I hadn’t been to the restaurant since I went there on a blind date in the mid-80s. The date didn’t go anywhere, and neither has the restaurant. Things tasted exactly as they should have – and as I remembered – especially the house dinner rolls. My heavens, them boys is tasty.

But, while having this dinner with an old, old, old friend, in the course of conversation, this here blog became a brief topic of conversation (as it will in almost every conversation). My friend told me she liked the blog, especially the way I “never get to the point.”

C'mon; you know you want to eat here.

I have no idea, of course, what she’s talking about. I mean, I’m only (checks the toolbar) 171 words into this and I’m just about to deal with the topic at hand. 171 words? That’s barely clearing my throat.

My topic – continued from yesterday, natch – is the ways in which moviegoing has changed over the years. The spark (no pun intended) for this topic was this: I discovered the Warner Archive Collection podcast in the past week or so, and that’s all I’ve been listening to lately. I’ll freely admit that its content – three film nerds discussing the Warner Archive’s latest DVD releases – is not to all tastes. My lovely and talented wife described it as the most irritating thing she’d ever heard – and this a woman who has lived with me for twentysome years.

The subject is meat and drink to me, though. In-depth discussions of old movies and TV series? Sign me up. Although I must admit that, in my early listening, I kept thinking that the hosts are just too damn enthusiastic about these pictures. They love every one of them – or at least they love parts of them – or at least they shut up about the parts they don’t love. “They need a guy like me,” I thought. “Someone who will call out lousy movies and TV shows.” I then, of course, realized, that these hosts are there for one reason: to sell product, and any disparaging remarks will stop those sales. 

I dunno. For all I know, they may genuinely be enthused about all the stuff they’re hawking. But, no matter how hard they try, they’re not going to convince me that either “The FBI” or “Medical Center” are any good.

 A series as bland as its logo.

But what got me thinking was a remark they made about one of the movies (I can’t remember which one); that someone had told one of the hosts that they had seen this movie in 1933, and hadn’t seen it since, but still went on to describe it in great detail.
Nowadays, if I want to watch something or see something, it’s almost always just a few clicks away. I can get it through fair means (Netflix, Amazon, Hulu, YouTube) or foul (wouldn’t you like to know?), but whatever it is, it’s probably out there and available to watch or listen to. Like so much in our modern lives, there’s a good chance I’ll be instantly gratified.

When I was a kid, though, it was different. There were plenty of things you knew you were going to see only once, or if not once, rarely. If there was a television show you wanted to see, you had to be by your set when it was on; there were few second chances. Oh, you might be able to catch it in the summer if they re-ran it (and the odds of that were not good; most shows shot 30 or even 39 episodes and re-ran only about 10 or 13) or the show didn’t have a summer replacement series. You generally had only one shot. (Summer replacement series weren't all bad, by the way. Patrick McGoohan's "The Prisoner," a television landmark by any standard, was the summer replacement for "The Jackie Gleason Show.")

 Also known by its alternate title: "Failed Pilot Showcase."

And movies on TV? I know I was not alone in getting the new issue of TV Guide and scouring it to see what movies would be showing the following week. Sometimes, you’d get lucky and a great picture would be scheduled in prime time. (All three – yes, three – networks had prime-time slots dedicated to movies, and competed to buy the rights to show the latest Hollywood hits. Hell, they’d even show really old black-and-white movies, even after all of the networks had moved to color broadcasts.) About the only evidence of this still remaining is ABC's annual Eastertime broadcast of "The Ten Commandments," a movie that has nothing to do with Easter.

 Almost makes you want to pop up a 
big bucket of popcorn, doesn't it?

In the middle of writing this post, I realized that I'd hit 1,300+ words and was nowhere near the end, so I've chosen this spot to leave matters until tomorrow. 

Suffice it to say, I've missed getting to the point once again. 


Tuesday, April 8, 2014

Back Just in Time to Leave

So, where was I?

In our last exciting chapter, I was whining about not having any time to write any posts. I still don’t, but given that on Mondays and Tuesdays in general (for the next couple of weeks, anyway), I don’t have “The Speakeasy” – and what a rodeo that’s been lately – and this week especially, what with my taking off for Los Angeles for the 5th TCM Classic Film Festival, I actually have some time. My dear wife asked me tonight “Why ain’t you wrote one o’ them there blogs lately?” (Forgive her; she’s from Carbondale, which we once identified as being the model for “Green Acres’s” Hooterville.)

 Typical Carbondaleans.

I calmly explained that, what with getting up at 7:30 in the morning, working from 9:30ish to 5:30ish, then driving up to San Francisco to do the show, getting home at 11:00, then watching David Letterman, Jon Stewart, and Stephen Colbert, I had but little time to do anything, let alone carefully craft one of these. She mocked me, but I maintain my strength in knowing I’m right – even if I do miss penning these entries. (Can you actually pen something when there’s neither pen nor paper involved?)

 Me with friends behind David Letterman's desk. 
Do you feel a draft?

But I digress.

Preparing to leave for the Festival – along with other things – has put me in the mind of thinking about theatre-going. The Festival itself is simultaneously a marathon, an endurance contest, a feast, a dream come true for film buffs, and an exercise in frustration.
You wouldn’t think it would be so exhausting so do nothing but watch movies all day, but it is. As I said, this will be the fifth Festival, and I’ve been to all of the previous four. Each has had its own character. The first was thrilling, but a little confused, in that no one really knew what to expect or how to run the thing. There was some confusion, but it was an exhilarating confusion. The whole thing ended with a bang; with the American premiere of the restoration of Fritz Lang’s 1926 silent masterpiece, “Metropolis.”

"Lissen, the show's sold out. Can you get me in?"

In the second year, they’d learned a lot from the first festival, but it felt a little too regimented to me – and it suffered from the lack of a big closing night event. That lack of an event is something they’ve had a problem with in every year after 2010. This year, the big closing movie is a screening of the new 3D version of “The Wizard of Oz,” which I won’t be seeing; it’s not one of my favorites, and they’ve actually already shown it at the Chinese Theatre, so it’s not even a premiere or anything.

If it looked like this, I'd see it.

The third year hit a nice balance, and year four felt a little relaxed – but that was the first year I met up with the people I’d friended in a Facebook group. It remains to be seen what TCMFF-V will bring us.

Anyway, the day starts at around 9:00 am, with multiple screenings across the many theatres they use, and go until about 1:00 or 2:00 am, after the midnight screening. (Almost always a horror or science fiction picture.)

One of the things about the Festival is that they really can’t hold it anywhere else. Things take place mainly on Hollywood Blvd., which used to feature a huge number of movie palaces. (Probably the only comparable districts were Times Square, Broadway in downtown Los Angeles, and Westwood on the west side of LA.) While most of the Hollywood theatres have been converted to office space, nightclubs, or something else, Grauman’s Chinese Theatre (I refuse to call it by its current corporate name) still screens first-run pictures in its six auditoria (four of which are used during the Festival). The headquarters for the Festival is the Hollywood Roosevelt hotel (which strikes me as a little seedy, but in mostly good shape – if wildly overpriced), which is more or less across the street from the Chinese. Last year (or maybe the year before), they started using Disney’s El Capitan Theatre (which the Mouse spent a fortune restoring; credit where credit is due …), which is sort of across the street from the Chinese, just farther east on Hollywood. 

The old Times Square

Further east is the Egyptian – which combines a recreation of the faux-Egyptian exterior commissioned by Sid Grauman in 1922 with a nightmarish post-modern interior that was added when the place was refurbished in the late 90s. (I do like it in spite of that interior, though, as it’s the only venue with a balcony.) And the last two years, they’d included the Cinerama Dome on Sunset (showing the Cinerama “How the West Was Won” – which I actually found kind of boring – and “It’sa Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World” – which suffered from having a lousy print, but will always be one of my favorites – and the Dome was the place where I saw it the first time). They’re not using the Dome this year, though, so everything will be more compact.

The beauty part of the Festival is that is gives audiences the chance to see movies the way they were meant to be seen – not just on the big screen, but with a full house of hundreds who are there to watch the film on its own terms. No one’s there to text or to talk or to act up, but simply to watch the movie. In the past, I’ve seen movies that I’d never heard of and ended up loving, or movies that I hadn’t heard of, and hated (I didn’t walk out, though …) or old friends that I hadn’t seen in a theatre in decades. I’ve learned that, except in extreme cases, to opt for things I haven’t seen before.

Just start the picture already!

My favorite programs have inevitably been the oddball ones: the “Censored 11” Warner Bros. cartoons; short subjects; 3D movies – including an inadvertent one by Georges Méliès. Unfortunately, there aren’t any of those programs this year. But I’ll have more than enough to fill my movie-going plate. (In each of the four festivals, I’ve seen 18 movies in three and a 1/2 days.)

And there’s the rub. This year, more than in the past, there’s a real logjam, with all the movies I want to see scheduled against each other and the ones I’m not as hot about in the other spots.  

As usual, I’ve run out of space before talking about why the process of watching a movie today is so fundamentally different from the way it was in the distant – or even recent – past, but since I’ll probably have time to write tomorrow night before the celluloid hits the fans, I’ll deal with it then.