Monthly Archives: April 2020

Getting my cinematic education

In the late 1970s Westerly (R.I.) had a little arthouse cinema called The Wayfarer. Now the home of a Mexican restaurant, this narrow building had not been designed to show movies. Folks sat at small tables in a long room with a screen at the end; if you were short, you had to be careful how you positioned yourself.

It was at the Wayfarer that I discovered a whole world of cinema outside the two-screen suburban theaters that had sprung up all over America. I began to get my movie education, seeing the classic films that had never come to our antenna-bound television.

My friend Richard Whitman introduced me to the Wayfarer. Brilliant, sardonic, and a savant of literature, music, and film, he had skipped a grade to join our Class of 1978. He was a dear friend, not a boyfriend, and we stayed in touch after high school, when Richard was at UMass and I was at Keene State.

That winter of our senior year in high school, he often invited me over to his house, where he lived with his divorced mother. Sometimes he would make us dinner, and afterwards he would play guitar on his front step – Dan Fogelberg and Neil Young.

But we also went out a lot, and one of our favorite destinations was the Wayfarer. Here he introduced me to film noir, the Marx brothers, and Hitchcock. At the Wayfarer I first saw “Casablanca,” “Rain” with a young Joan Crawford as Sadie Thompson, and “Monkey Business.”

Richard liked the Marx Brothers more than I did, but a night out was a night out. The classic black-and-white movies held me in thrall, especially Hitchcock’s “Rebecca,” which we had just read in Mr. Cohen’s English class, and “Double Indemnity” with Barbara Stanwyck and Fred MacMurray. I loved the shadowy camera shots and smoldering-eyed heroines.

The closest to this I’d seen on TV was the haunting “The Spiral Staircase,” about a creepy killer who stalks a mute woman and imagines she has no mouth. This 1946 film occasionally showed up on the Saturday matinee rotation and was guaranteed to give me nightmares.

Before the Wayfarer, I hadn’t given much thought to my cinematic ignorance. I didn’t set foot in a commercial movie theater until I was 13 years old (on a school field trip, to see “Sounder” with Cicely Tyson), and I hadn’t had much chance to develop a film aesthetic. (In truth, my favorite movie was “Smokey and the Bandit.”)

Six months later I was in college. In the Mabel Brown Room of the Keene State Student Union, I saw “Psycho” for the first time. At Brattleboro’s Latchis Theater, I was introduced to Bergman (“Smiles of a Summer Night”).

But the movie that made the deepest impression on me in these years was a 1967 documentary, Frederick Wiseman’s “Titicut Follies.” The fact that I saw it all was a miracle, because a judge had ruled that only professionals and students in certain fields could watch it after a suit by the state of Massachusetts. Somehow Keene State’s progressive film club managed to get a copy and opened the showing to the campus at large. 

Wiseman, in his typical immersive style, spent nearly a month filming the inmates at Bridgewater State Hospital. The title comes from a variety show they put on, an ironic distraction from their otherwise abused and neglected existence. The movie was shocking in a way even Hitchcock could not rival. Naked prisoners were taunted, roughed up, and force fed; no wonder the state tried to keep the movie out of circulation. 

That we could be watching this grim realism one week and “Rocky Horror Picture Show” the next did not faze me. It was all part of the great cultural stew of college, where movies, books, music, and ideas came flying at us from every direction. I could never hope to know as much about anything as Richard did, but I had come a long way from my “Ma and Pa Kettle” days.

Gradually, Richard and I lost touch, and when I learned he had died suddenly (in his 40s), I was filled with dismay. I remember him fondly, and the great times we had in a funky makeshift theater watching Groucho Marx yuk it up with Margaret Dumont.

Note: A judge ruled “Titicut Follies” should be released to general distribution in 1991 and it is now available on DVD.

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A nostalgic look at TV movies

These days we have access to a vast catalog of movies, through streaming and on-demand, but when I was growing up the choices were slim.

The Saturday matinee on TV rotated through the local channels’ slim selection. Francis the Talking Mule, Ma and Pa Kettle, Tarzan the Ape Man and Abbott & Costello pretty much covered it.

There was also an obscure 1952 film called “It Grows on Trees,” about a family who finds its new saplings sprout $5 bills; one local station showed this movie over and over and over. It appealed to me because my mother was always saying she wished money grew on trees.

The Ma and Pa Kettle series was my favorite, and I waited eagerly for Percy Kilbride as Pa to change the radio station by moving his rocking chair. I thought that was hysterical.

The Kettles were characters introduced by Betty McDonald in her memoir, “The Egg and I,” about the years she spent chicken farming in Washington state with her first husband. I discovered the book when I was 13 and promptly gobbled up its sequels, “The Plague and I,” about her battle with tuberculosis, and “Onions in the Stew,” about settling on a remote island with her daughters and second husband. (There’s another book between, “Anybody Can Do Anything,” which I did not know at the time.) While some of the humor is forced, particularly on more serious subjects, McDonald had a wry outlook fueled by keen observation.

The advent of the TV movie stepped up my film game. The genre began in the 1960s but it was the early 1970s before my mother would let me stay up to watch the ABC “Movie of the Week” or the mini-series that later became popular. TV movies, often dealing with serious subjects and filmed by talented directors (Steven Speilberg had his debut in 1971 with “Duel”), made a deep impression on me. I often mentioned them in my little five-year diaries, and I’ve no doubt they contributed both to my fictional imagination and my nightmares.

“Duel,” of course, is now a classic. I watched it twice – when it premiered, on Nov. 13, 1971, and when it was repeated exactly a year later. I noted it was “really scary.” Dennis Weaver stars as a sort of Everyman (his name is “David Mann”) in a cheap car crossing the Western desert, when he absently passes an aging oil tanker on a rural highway. The truck driver, who is never shown, becomes enraged and begins to tail him; gradually it dawns on Mann that the driver means to kill him. The ending left me flummoxed, and I wondered if it were really a man behind the truck’s wheel.

Fright was often a feature of these movies. There was the ensemble piece, “Home for the Holidays,” starring Eleanor Parker, Jill Haworth and Sally Field as three sisters who gather at the family estate to discover their father (Walter Brennan, in his last screen role) believes his young wife (Julie Harris) is trying to kill him. It had all the gothic trappings I already loved: old house, family trouble, mystery and murder.

TV movies often had casts of stars who had aged out of the “hip” films being released to theaters. Thus we find Bette Davis in the horror film “Scream, Pretty Peggy.” Rex Harrison in “The Adventures of Don Quixote.” Susan Hayward in “Say Goodbye, Maggie Cole.” They lended TV cinema a certain cachet.

TV movies also gave full-time work to a host of emerging stars, such as Cloris Leachman, Martin Sheen, Sally Field, William Devane and Meredith Baxter Birney.

And what movies they were. Adaptations of great literature abounded. TV movies were made of Steinbeck’s “The Red Pony,” “Tom Sawyer,” Edward Everett Hale’s “The Man Without a Country,” “The Picture of Dorian Gray,” “A Tree Grows in Brooklyn,” and “Great Expectations,” to name only a few. Some TV movies became instant classics, such as “The Autobiography of Miss Jane Pittman” and “Brian’s Song.”

Gradually, TV filmmakers became more daring in their examination of social issues. I will never forget Elizabeth Montgomery in “A Case of Rape,” a disturbing film about a housewife who is brutally raped and then victimized anew by her husband and the legal system. I was 14 that winter of 1974 and the movie left me stunned and afraid. 

But it was the premier of the fall 1974 season that would create a firestorm of controversy. In “Born Innocent,” Linda Blair plays a girl sentenced to juvenile detention who is raped with a broom handle; the FCC subsequently cracked down on the networks by creating the “Family Hour,” a move later overturned when producer Norman Lear filed suit.

These titles and more are chronicled in Alvin H. Marill’s Movies Made for Television (Arlington House Publishers, 1980), and as I thumb through my copy, I find myself wishing we had a TV movie channel. I would happily rewatch the thriller “When Michael Calls,” a miniseries about FDR and Eleanor Roosevelt, Natalie Wood in “Cat on a Hot Tin Roof,” and a young Sissy Spacek in “The Girls of Huntington House.”

My sensibilities were fine-tuned in my late teens, when a local classic movie house brought film classics to Westerly. More on that later.

Percy Kilbride as Pa and Marjorie Main as Ma Kettle were staples of the Saturday TV matinee.

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