Danny Callahan and I are of different generations. Had we not been, what a superb playmate he’d have made. In connection with his Hitchcock book, The Camera Lies, he has posted three childhood snapshots which I find irresistible. They are from his tenth birthday party, and each of them makes me long to have known him then.
One shows him clutching a favorite present, Hitchcock/Truffault. His eyes are wide with pleasure, and it’s clear that by nightfall they’ll be busily devouring the book. A second photo shows him gleefully holding up a one sheet from Spellbound. In the late 60’s, I had begun to collect movie posters, (I still do), and I bought that same Spellbound for $10. I hope Danny held onto his. Today, it fetches 100 times that amount. In the picture, he is barefoot, and strewn about are unopened presents. Off to the side is another one sheet, another Hitchcock, Rear Window.
The final shot is of the birthday cake. Lucky Dan is blessed with indulgent, creative parents who have procured a cake topped with Hitchcock’s famous caricature of himself. Clearly, this child is no run-of-the-mill fan boy but a born cineaste already immersing himself in the lore of the subject which will become his life’s work. As I said, the ideal playmate for me at that age.
I’ve written elsewhere, in my book, Safe Inside, of the profound effect movies had on me at an early age, and the importance of movie theaters as temples of sanctuary from a scary world into which I was scrambling unsuccessfully to fit. Movie palaces (and their humbler cousins) provided the comforting darkness in which I was no longer the oddball but could be at one with the crowd of normal humans around me. We laughed and gasped and teared up together. Once inside, it was always wrenching to leave, for I found more mercy to be had in these exotic emporiums than any church could offer.
Like Danny, my childhood fascination with movies soon burrowed beyond the glamorous, larger than life images of the stars, potent though they were in a pre-television era. I loved the credits, preceded by those hypnotic studio logos. I devised one for my own imaginary studio. At seven, I could hum the logo music of 20th Century Fox, Warner Brothers, and Universal. I could beep like the RKO tower and roar like Leo, the MGM lion. To my chagrin, Paramount, Columbia, and United Artists brought on their logos in silence.
I paid attention to recurring names of those behind the scenes. I learned pretty fast, for example, that Max Steiner meant lush melodies and different music for each character, and that Van Nest Polglase meant enticing Art Deco bedrooms.
My earliest memory of this sort of thing is of 1942, when I was five. A year earlier, my parents risked taking me along, and I passed the “Will he be quiet?” test in spades. At any rate, 1942, the Shore theater, The Black Swan, a terrific pirate picture. In those days, you just showed up and plugged yourself into whatever part of the movie was unspooling. Later on, you’d see the beginning and catch up on what you’d missed. When Mom and Dad and I settled into our seats, (you’d stumble about a bit in the dark, even with the assistance of a spiffilly uniformed usher brandishing a flashlight), Tyrone Power had already captured Maureen O’Hara and they were inside his ship. The sunlight through the cabin windows danced around in a way that made you feel the bounce of the ocean waves. It was magic, and it made me wonder who could do such a thing. I later learned it was Leon Shamroy.
It wasn’t for another three years that I encountered Shamroy’s work again, this time in Leave Her to Heaven. Once again, Technicolor magic (in those days, nobody’s Technicolor was as juicy as 20th Century Fox’s). Once again, people and objects lit from below with an almost unearthly sunlight.
Much as I loved them, and happy as they made me, I didn’t get to a lot of movies back then. Times were tight, but I pored over the movie ads in the papers. Fridays and Sundays were best because the ads were enormous. I remember a full page just for Meet Me in St. Louis. Finally though, in 1945, the floodgates opened, and I was seeing movies almost every week. I didn’t get it at first, but the reason was my parents’ divorce. They were spending time separately with me now, and each of them knew that movies were a foolproof way to end my mopes for a while. What wonderful conversations we’d have afterward when I wanted to deconstruct everything we’d just seen.
It was a painful time, changing homes, changing schools, and wondering, as kids will, what had I done to mess things up for Mom and Dad. Yet distractions were suddenly showered upon me, happily with little regard for their possible effect on my pre-pubescent psyche. Sure, there were wholesome romps like Anchors Aweigh, but there were also steamy noirs like To Have and Have Not, Mildred Pierce, Scarlet Street, Three Strangers, and Confidential Agent. Zowie! as it were.
The apogee of this windfall was the day my father took a day off from the steel mill just to take me downtown to the movies. We went first to the mill where he introduced me to his co-workers. They picked me up and put me on the giant truck scale to weigh me. Hearty laughter all around. I was painfully shy and a little scared, but the laughter seemed friendly, and I was pleased by how much the men liked Dad. They seemed to like me, but I feared that wouldn’t last if they got to know me.
Next we had breakfast at a cafe near the mill. The waitress spread out a newspaper so I could see what was playing. She cajoled Dad into taking me not to just one movie but two! I was in heaven. I wanted to see State Fair, (I’d already memorized the words to “It Might as Well Be Spring”). Blood on the Sun sounded good, but the adults urged me toward Our Vines Have Tender Grapes, and I wanted to please them. Still, swapping Sylvia Sidney for Margaret O’Brien was not my idea of a neat trade. But two first run movies downtown on a single day! I could barely contain my excitement.
I never lost my fascination with the artistry of those behind the scenes. In time, I found a partner equally keen on such rarefied matters. Sometimes, the only reason John and I would keep watching an obscure old film was that Richard Day or Hans Dreier had designed the sets. The plot might be flimsy, but the doors and staircases and bookshelves and clocks would be sturdy, intricate and beautiful (or aptly ugly).
Decades and decades have passed, but I’m still that child of the silver screen. I no longer enter a movie house seeking refuge. As a confident adult, I enter seeking joy, and the pleasure of witnessing the creative imagination at work. Or I used to, before the pandemic. When will it happen again? It must.
Forgive me for rambling this time. I know that I have. It’s just that with a present as unpalatable as we currently face, I’d like to take a long term lease on the past.