January 9, 2022

I Found It At The Movies

By Kenneth Ring, Ph.D.

One of my favorite authors has long been Roger Angell, who for many years was an editor at The New Yorker, but who today is chiefly remembered for a series of wonderful books and New Yorker articles about baseball. Because ever since I was nine years old when I first saw the New York Yankees play, I have been an avid baseball fan, I’ve relished Angell’s marvelous baseball yarns and seasonal recaps in the New Yorker. I still have a couple of his baseball books – Season Tickets and Once More Around the Park - in my library.

People familiar with The New Yorker – and I’ve been reading it since the age of thirteen since my mother subscribed to it – will also know that Angell has a very distinguished New Yorker pedigree. His mother, Katharine White, was a founding editor of the magazine and played an important role in establishing it as one of the leading weeklies in the country while her second husband, Roger’s stepfather, was the famous writer and essayist, E. B. White, the author of such classic books as Charlotte’s Web, which caused me to cry when I read its ending to my children. He, too, was one of the important early contributors to the New Yorker, along with humorists like James Thurber and S. J. Perelman, often writing droll pieces for its “Talk of the Town” column. White, whom his friends invariably called Andy, was also the co-author of the indispensable book on style, The Elements of Style, which was every writer’s Bible as I was growing up. (I still have it in my library, too.) “Brevity, Brevity, Brevity,” was one of its witty ironic strictures, a telltale White sally.

With parents like these, it was virtually ordained that Angell would follow them in his career becoming, like them, a fixture in the New Yorker family and a well known author in his own right. Angell wrote on other subjects besides baseball, including some charming memoirs, the last of which, This Old Man, came out a few years back when the author was ninety-three. And he’s still with us at the age of a hundred and one, Roger, the Indestructible!

Recently, at loose ends, I ordered an earlier set of Angell’s essays entitled Let Me Finish, published when he was still a stripling at eighty-six, and have just started reading it. The second essay is called Movie Kid, and evokes Angell’s early but passionate love of movies, which takes us back to the period when “talkies” were still novel movie fare before the Great Depression occurred. He has fifteen years on me, but I also remember many of the films he saw during those years and most of the character actors about whom he lovingly reminisces. His stories took me back to the years of my less than golden youth when I, too, spent my weekend afternoons at the movies in Oakland where I grew up.

There were two movie theaters in my neighborhood I could walk to. The closest was The Capitol. Two dimes were all that it cost for the price of admission. The Fairfax was further away and a little bit more upscale, so the tickets there cost a quarter, which was my weekly allowance. I had to steal loose change from my aunt Mary in order to buy my popcorn and candy. I would eventually pay a price for my petty pilfering, although my penchant for alliteration would go unpunished for years.

But before I started to attend those theaters, my mother took me to see some films at what I now recall were more like palaces than ordinary movie houses. The seats were plush, and we sat up high in a balcony. (I remember climbing the stairs.) It wasn’t until many years later when I saw it again that I realized that the first film I had ever seen with my mother was Walt Disney’s Fantasia. I’ve since wondered whether my love for classical music wasn’t born with that film. The then celebrated conductor, Leopold Stokowski, was brought in to conduct such pieces as Paul DukasThe Sorcerer’s Apprentice and Mussorgsky’s Night on Bald Mountain.

It’s odd but perhaps significant that mostly I remember the music and not the images from that film. (I’ve never been a visually-oriented person.) Of course, I also saw another Disney favorite from those years, Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs, and I still remember being frightened when I saw Bela Lugosi in The Count of Dracula. Like many kids, I’m sure, I had nightmares for a while after seeing that scary movie.

But after that, I can’t remember seeing any more films with my mother. I think I mostly went to the Capitol and the Fairfax by myself, but I do have a distinct memory of going to the movies with two would-be girlfriends when I was about ten. I am walking down Fleming Avenue with Bonnie Sartwell, a redhead, on my right, and Sandy Reader, a tall brunette with bad skin, on my left. Did we hold hands on the way? I don’t recall, but what I do remember was that I was into girls, and movie goddesses, too.

My first love from the “silver screen,” was Veronica Lake, she of the peek-a-boo haircut. I found her entrancing, but what films did I see her in, I wonder? Was it perhaps Sullivan’s Travels, with Joel McCrea? Perhaps, but more likely it was I Married a Witch. It doesn’t matter. Any matinee with Veronica Lake was enough to enchant me. Watching her, even at a young and tender age, I knew that I was already drawn to beautiful and alluring women. My gonads were still to develop, of course, but clearly my amatory yearnings began early.

I’ll return to my early longings for the voluptuous screen stars of my youth later in his essay, but first I should probably tell you about some of the failed erotic encounters I had during my outings to the movie theaters in my neighborhood.  

Although I generally went alone to these showings, I have a distinct memory of sitting with a girl – I cannot remember who she was or her name – toward the back of the theater in what were then called “the loges.” That was the area where one could “neck” with one’s girlfriend. I must have only been about ten years old at the time, but what I remember is putting my arm clumsily over the girl’s shoulders and being gently rebuffed. Oh, well, there would be plenty of time for that sort of thing in a few years….

Another time I was sitting alone on the left side of the theater when a man sat next to me. After the movie began, I felt his hand start patting my left leg. He then whispered, “Would you like to go outside?” I was a very naïve boy, but this made me uncomfortable and I wanted no part of it. I made some kind of excuse, probably saying I wanted to get some popcorn, but I just went to the other side of the theater and afterward left the theater hurriedly in order to make sure I would not be accosted by that creepy guy. 

In those days, the typical movie fare before the films began was quite different from what it is today when we are plagued with ads and then assaulted with a series of seemingly endless deafening previews. When I was a kid, the first thing we would see was a newsreel, typically one called The March of Time, which was narrated by a guy with a deep baritone voice spoken in a highly inflected and dramatic manner. I remembered his name was something like Voorhis, so I looked him up on the Internet. And sure enough, there he was. His full name was an impressive mouthful: Westbrook Van Voorhis. The entry about him reminded me of his signoff signature: “Time marches on.”

One of the things I remember from those newsreels was seeing the emaciated skeletal figures of the survivors of the Nazi death camps in their striped uniforms. I had had no idea about such things and didn’t know what to think. Actually, the war had never touched me personally in California. I never felt afraid and the war was only a distant event beyond my youthful understanding. The only person I knew who was in the war was my father, Phil, who would write me letters and send presents to me (I remember receiving a pair of Dutch clogs from him) and who seemed to be having a grand time. I don’t remember what he wrote me except for one sentence that has always remained with me. The gist of it was this: “Kenny, whenever you go somewhere new, always say it’s your birthday because then people will give you nice party.” My father was not exactly a Lord Chesterfield type of guy giving advice to his son about his manners. 

After the newsreel, there would be a cartoon. Maybe it would be one with Tom and Jerry or the Roadrunner, but most of the time it was a Bugs Bunny cartoon (with Elmer Fudd) or occasionally one with Mickey Mouse. That was more my speed. Walt Disney was the king of animated movies then.

Finally, we were ready for the movies themselves. In those days, it was always a double feature. There was a main film, later called an “A” film, followed by a lesser “B” film. The B film was usually some kind of gangster movie with a villain named Slade, who invariably was dressed in a black shirt. Or maybe it was a “cowboy movie” (they were not called “westerns” then) with Hopalong Cassidy or Roy Rogers and his horse, Trigger. [Synchronistically enough, the day after I wrote this paragraph, I came across this waggish description of a B cowboy movie: Your standard B-movie had only about four lines: “Yep.” “Nope.” “Thank you kindly, ma’am.” And “I wouldn’t do that if I was you, mister.”  Just those four lines, and some dust and six-shooters, and that’s your whole story.  Touché, as we said in the old West….]

During the war there were many “patriotic films” showing American “fighting men” (none of whom were actually in the armed services of course) inflicting heavy casualties on our enemies. I remember one famous film at the time, Thirty Seconds Over Tokyo, with Van Johnson, a popular star of that era. And there were any number of films showing evil Germans, speaking in their vile guttural language, who were always Nazis, of course. What I knew about the war came mainly from those films about American heroes and despicable and cruel Nazis. 

But I didn’t care that much for those sorts of action films or ones about cowboys chasing and killing Indians. No, what I loved were comedies and especially MGM musicals.

I can’t actually remember the names of many of the films I saw during and shortly after the war, but one I do distinctly remember was a film with Jack Benny and a then well known actress by the name of Alexis Smith (she of broad shoulders) called The Horn Blows at Midnight. After seeing that film, Jack Benny became my favorite comedian whose programs I loved to listen to on the radio. 

But as I loved to sing, musicals were my favorite movie fare, and through them I soon encountered one of my own movie heroes, the dancer, Gene Kelly. Strange because I was born with two left feet and during the days when it was raining and we couldn’t have gym at my grammar school, we were forced to assemble on the basketball court and made to dance. Well, I couldn’t. (“I don’t dance, don’t ask me,” as the song went.) I was graceless and clumsy, and my hands always were damp with sweat. 

But somehow I loved to see Gene Kelly dance (often with the long-legged Cyd Charisse). He would usually be wearing loafers with white socks, and I soon was imitating his foot ware if not his foot moves. For many years afterward, I wore loafers and I still wear white socks every day. All due to Gene Kelly’s attire on his dancing feet. I remember certain films from that period, too, such as Meet Me in St. Louis, with Judy Garland and Van Johnson (again). But mostly I remember the dancers, such as Anne Miller, Virginia Mayo, June Havoc, etc.  

A bit later, perhaps when I was eleven or twelve, I had moved on in my imaginary love life with beautiful actresses like Veronica Lake. Now it was gorgeous creatures such as the stunning green-eyed Rhonda Fleming who stirred my nascent loins. There was also the glamorous Arlene Dahl and the dark brunette Linda Darnell. These iconic screen stars helped to shape my love for beautiful women, even if I never was able to bed any movie stars. 

But I also loved quirky comedic actresses such as the charming Jean Arthur with her croaky voice and slightly hysterical antics. And who can forget her (and Jimmy Stewart) in the Frank Capra classic, Mr. Smith Goes to Washington?

Roger Angell, in his reminiscences of his movie-going youth, mentions his fondness for various male character actors, and some of his favorites, such as Eugene Pallette (though I only knew him by sight and not by name), were also mine. There were also the always grouchy and bombastic Edward Arnold, the irascible William Demarest and the adorable S.Z. (Cuddles) Sakall, everyone’s favorite, even Bogie’s. 

Well, I could go on with my nostalgic trip down my movie-going memory lane, but I had better start to wrap up this account of my early days as a star-struck kid.

However, I do need to mention one more extremely pivotal film that I saw a few years later, when I was fifteen years old, which changed my life. Around 1950, a new tenor burst onto the scene and became wildly popular. His name was Mario Lanza, and he starred in a film about Enrico Caruso called The Great Caruso, in which his co-star was the lovely Ann Blyth. I saw that film seven times! I couldn’t get enough of hearing Lanza sing operatic arias. It was by watching and listening to him that I became a lifelong opera fan and even for a while entertained a fantasy of becoming an opera singer myself. That exposure to opera soon led to my discovery of classical music, which has been one of the great passions of my life. But it was Mario Lanza in that film and others that he made during that same period that was the impetus for me and my consuming love of music. His co-star in those days was usually Kathryn Grayson, a popular singer and actress in her own right whom I soon came to fancy. And she changed my first daughter’s life. I named her Kathryn after Kathryn Grayson. 

Thus have movies informed and changed my life. It wasn’t until I started to attend college, at Berkeley, however, that I really began to develop a more sophisticated taste in films. It was during that period that foreign art films began to make themselves known to American audiences, and Berkeley, with film critics like Pauline Kael there, became something of a mecca for such films. (By the way, I made a playful riff for the title of this essay by making an oblique reference to one of Kael’s books of film criticism, which she had called I Lost It At the Movies.) It was then that I discovered such “auteurs” as Bergman, Fellini, Antonioni, etc.

And a few years later, thanks to that exposure in Berkeley to foreign films, I saw the greatest film of my life, which also made a deep and lasting contribution to my then completely dormant spiritual awareness. At the time I had just started graduate school at the University of Minnesota. One Saturday morning I went to see a film by a Danish director, Carl Dreyer, of whom I had never heard. And you have probably never heard of the film I saw that day, which was called Ordet, meaning “the Word.” It is a film about a demented Christ. It’s a black and white film and every scene is mounted beautifully like a painting. The film had me riveted from the very beginning, and by the time it had reached its shattering conclusion, I was convulsed by emotion and started heaving and crying. That film caused the first fissure to form in my wall of atheism and also changed my life for keeps.

I’ve since seen it four or five more times and I always respond the same way. If you can find a copy, you might find it changes your life, too.

Well, that was more than sixty years ago now, and since that time I have of course seen – what? – surely many hundreds of films, including many foreign films. Movies have remained one of my most treasured sources of my education and spiritual life in addition to providing countless hours of entertainment.

Of course, these days, with COVID, it has been impossible for me to go to movie theaters. So thank God for Netflix, Amazon Prime and other movie sites. And because of them, I have been able to undertake a new role in my life as something of a film maven and critic.

You see, my girlfriend Lauren, for reasons I had best not disclose here, seems to have lived her life without seeing more than few films and when I met her had hardly ever even seen a foreign film. Horrors! So, with her consent, I have spent the last several years trying to fill this dreadful lacuna by conducting a kind of film tutorial. During these years, I have introduced her to many dozens of films, including all my own favorites. I usually provide a brief introduction to them and then afterward, over a dish of ice cream, we discuss them. Lately, we’ve been working our way through most of Woody Allen’s oeuvre and have now moved on to the films of one of my favorite directors, Pedro Almodóvar, whose use of color, especially red, is sensual and marvelous. His stories of often wacky and hysterical women are a treat for one’s eyes, especially when they feature the glorious Penélope Cruz. Lauren has come to enjoy these films very much while I get to play Henry Hiiggins to her Eliza.

We found it – and love -- at the movies.