Tuesday, December 28, 2010

Cary Grant Goes to the Cinema (and other tales of film stars' early movie-watching experiences)

Film fans endlessly discuss their own fascination with movies. What are the first experiences that filmmakers or actors have had at the movies? How did these early memories influence their later career? Java has plucked a few books from her personal library at random to share with you the thoughts of these famous people on the movie experiences of their youth.

Characteristic of Cary Grant's (b. 1904) blasé attitude towards his chosen profession, the actor focuses less on the movies themselves (he pokes a little fun at them) and more on the memory of being with his parents and how their tastes in movie theaters differed.


From Mr. Grant's autobiography Archie Leach [chapters 12 and 13]:
“As I grew older I was occasionally taken to the cinema by my mother and father. Though separately. My mother took me to the Claire Street Cinema, the town's most elite, where one could take tea while watching the films, and where I was first introduced to a pastry fork: a perplexing combination of fork and knife; who needs it?

"I saw my first so-called talking pictures in that theater. Two short subjects. One was of a woman singing an opera aria while she was trying to defend her honor, I think. She was being pushed back over a table by the villain, but while engaging his interest by singing in his face she surreptitiously stole a dagger from his belt scabbard and stabbed him right on her high note. It took him quite a long time to die, but while he did it he learned that virtue triumphed. So that's why I never play villains in pictures.

"The other short film showed a group of blacksmiths singing in chorus as they whacked away at their anvils. The sound, as far as I understood things then, came from a phonograph behind the screen. The forerunner of today's perfectly synchronized sound films.

"Now my father, on the other hand, since he respected the value of money, because he worked hard and long hours to get it, took me to a less pretentious, less expensive, though larger, cinema called the Metropole; a drafty barnlike (sic) structure in those days with hard seats and bare floors on which we could stamp at the villain and keep our feet warm at the same time. It smelled of raincoats and galoshes, and no tea or pastry forks. Yet it was, of the two, my favorite place.”

One of Cary Grant’s fans (and at one point a caddy at Grant's country club), actor Robert Wagner (b. 1930), has a different experience with movies. He focuses more on the actors themselves, especially the men. These were glamorous figures whom he wanted to emulate, but never dreamed he would one day join.

 From Mr. Wagner's autobiography Pieces of My Heart [Chapter 22 - “You Have to Have It”]:

“When I was a kid watching movies in Westwood, I was in the dark, looking up at the screen at people who seemed more than human - larger, grander than life. I wasn‘t talking to anyone… I was barely eating my popcorn, because I was totally involved in that glowing silver frame on the wall. You didn‘t actually imagine that you‘d ever see Clark Gable in the flesh - that‘s why I was so stunned that day at the Bel-Air Country Club.  The proper response to actually seeing Gable or Cary Grant was gaping awe.

"But when viewing habits changed, when more people started watching actors in their living room than in theaters… it signaled a sea change. As an actor , you were in people‘s living rooms, that meant you would be a part of their lives in a way that the great movie stars of my youth weren't.”

Sharing Mr. Wagner’s awe for film, movie star Ricardo Montalban (b. 1920), who started in theater and later went to television, recalls an early fascination with movies and the images that he saw.

From the Archive of American Television interview, conducted August 13, 2002  [Part 1, 5:28]:

“As a child, you know, the cheapest form of entertainment, the best, were the movies. Saturday matinees. They used to let me go [to] Saturday matinees, and so on. The Westerns. But I saw a lot of the Andy Hardy pictures which were [of] a family unit. It’s wonderful!

"That was my impression of the United States of America - a good family unit, a wonderful street with a lawn in front, neat. My impression. I really dreamt of perhaps being able to be transported to the United States and experience that.”
After becoming a movie star in Mexico and South America, Mr. Montalban would grace the silver screen in the U.S. for later generations of film-goers to enjoy.

A couple of actors’ generations behind Montalban came George Hamilton (b.1939). Mr. Hamilton recalls the movie theaters of his youth as being fun, but doesn‘t dwell on them much. His focus (as it is in much of his book) is more on the social opportunities in any given situation.

From Mr. Hamilton's autobiography Don't Mind If I Do  [Chap 2 -"Lovely While It Lasted"]:

“The neighbors down the street, the McCutcheons, owned two of the three movie theaters in town. Early on I made friends with their daughter Sally, who would invite me to go free to the movies. Even then I must have known that it‘s good to have friends in high places. In those days, your movie ticket (if you had to buy one) bought a lot. You‘d see the previews, a short, a double feature (one was usually a Western), and a cartoon.…

"In that more courteous era, the theater had a glassed-in crying room where moms with babies could enjoy the movie without disturbing everyone else. (I wish they had the same thing today for loud talkers and cell phone users.) I loved the movies, but it was beyond my wildest dreams to think I would be in them one day.”

Pretty soon the Hamilton family would be on the Hollywood social scene and would become a part of the movies. Mr. Hamilton’s mother and brother were film aficionados, loved Hollywood and baby brother George was along for the ride.  It's understandable that the actor would be relatively nonchalant about his early movie-watching experience - the Hamilton family's real life was more exciting and unpredictable than much of what you might see on the screen.

Like George Hamilton, actress Rosalind Russell (b. 1907) writes only briefly about watching films in her youth.This is due in part because the star of His Girl Friday was not allowed to watch very many films as a child, but the ones she did see made an impression.

From Ms.Russell's autobiography Life is a Banquet [Chapter 1 - “…Until the Strangers Come”]:

“I saw [Rudolph Valentino] as the Sheik in the movies, and he was wicked and marvelous, so Latin. I remember his taking the girl to his tent, carrying her in, doing marvelous depraved things to her... I was crazy about movies.

"We weren‘t supposed to go, but my brother John took me to a little theatre called the Princess, where they had the serials with the girl tied to the railroad tracks. And Birth of a Nation, I remember seeing that. I‘d sneak away as often as I could, but wasn‘t an addict because I wasn‘t allowed to be. A lot of actors say, ‘I lived at the movies, I was an usher,  I saw everything fifteen times,’ but they didn‘t have my father. The Russell kids were out every Saturday going to those fairs, riding those horses, or piling into  our Uncle Jim‘s car and chugging off to the  Yale Bowl for a football game.”

Like Ms. Russell, playwright/librettist/screenwriter Betty Comden (b. 1915) grew up watching early features and was impressed with the pantomime and lusty storylines which predated the Hayes Office codes.

From Ms. Comden's autobiography Off Stage [Chapter 8 "Movies, Movies, Movies"]:
“Having grown up on silent pictures, all my earliest images are in black and white, and of course, not knowing they would ever talk, we did not call them “silents,” nor did we refer to them respectfully as “films.” They were just “the movies."
...
"I remember sweeping into the Whalley [Theater] … to see the great double feature of two very grown-up sophisticated films, God Gave Me Twenty Cents with a siren named Lya de Putti plus The Crystal Cup with some hot current romantic team…[Later], in my aunt’s bedroom, I practiced slinking around like Lya, pretending to smoke a cigarette in a long holder, sure that Lya had a bedroom just like [it], with its apricot taffeta spread and curtains. I would receive imaginary phone calls from lovers on Aunt Leah’s phone, which to me was the height of glamour, housed as it was inside a porcelain doll. You could get your calls only by separating her apricot taffeta skirt and reaching inside for the phone, a French phone, no less, the only one in my experience.”

Ms. Comden would later lampoon the sultry sirens who slinked about in silence when writing for the movie Singin‘ in the Rain (1952).

Whether the movies made a strong impression on the show biz crowd in their youth, whether it encouraged them to pursue a career in Hollywood, whether they had unlimited or restricted access to films, one line runs through all these stories - they were entertained. When you boil out all the hogwash, the real purpose of the movies is just entertainment.

6 comments:

  1. wonderful post! I especially love Robert Wagner's remembrance because I'd never thought about how television affected stardom specifically.

    ReplyDelete
  2. From a 1999 post by Jason O'Brien:

    "Academy Award Memorable Moment Number 4

    From 1990 -- special film where actors and directors talked about their "first times", their very first movie experiences. Bob Hope, in one of his last appearances on the Oscar telecast when he was still in good shape, surprisingly walked on stage to a very warm reception.

    He then introduced this film package, assembled by veteran filmmaker Chuck Workman. The package was extraordinary, as it prompted thoughts in our own minds of the first movies we ever saw. It was fascinating to hear Katharine Hepburn talk about her movie idols, hearing Richard Harris and Candice Bergen talking about the thrill of seeing Snow White, Michael Douglas telling how he saw Lilly 9 times ... many humorous moments and many nostalgic moments were edited together, and it became one of the more memorable film packages used on the Oscars."

    "

    ReplyDelete
  3. also, I was just watching The Sorcer's Apprentice, and in the "making of" short, N. Cage says that perhaps his first movie experience was his parents taking him to Fantasia, and that's one reason he wanted to make the current Disney movie...

    ReplyDelete
  4. Fascinating collection of different movie-watching anecdotes of famous stars! Very intriguing and original post, Java.

    ReplyDelete
  5. joem18b,
    I'd love to see that portion of the 1990 Oscars ceremony, but I'm sure it's not available for home viewing.

    I love it when the Academy does memorable things like that. If they did it consistently I'd probably watch it every year. As it is...

    Rick [CF&TV],
    Thank you very much.

    ReplyDelete

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