Rick’s Journal – MY FILM CAREER
BACK ON THE TRAIL IN THE ROXY AT THE END OF THE STREET
(This is a revision and expansion of a blog I posted 9/26/14.)
The town where I grew up boasted a Roxy.
In my movie childhood — which chimes with all my childhood because my life has been lived at the movies — one of our downtown theaters, the Roxy, often showed on Saturdays what their ads called reissues. Was the rest of the world calling them re-releases
? Or was everyone saying reissues then?
There were eight movie theaters downtown within a five-block area, seven of them on the same street, three of them in a row on the same block, right next to each other. All of them, on their signs and their marquees and in their ads, used the British spelling theatre. The later and eighth house, on a side street, was called the Temple, and it would eventually become my temple because it showed older movies almost exclusively.
Occasionally the management interspersed an Adults Only documentary shot on location featuring barely clad tribes for the titillation (pun intended) of my budding adolescent urges and surges. But the standard fare was thirties/forties Hollywood. And I ate it up.
I saw It Happened One Night there. And Mr. Smith and Mr. Deeds. Scarface. The Public Enemy and Little Caesar (a double bill!). Jezebel. And I recall a lone British film, called in America The Invaders (English title The 49th Parallel). I was trying to see — and it wasn’t easy then or there — as many Leslie Howard films as I could. He was special to me because he had been Vivien Leigh’s Ashley. (The Invaders featured Laurence Olivier and Anton Walbrook, too.)
The Florida Theatre was downtown’s showplace. Three stories. Three balconies. Three lobbies. Even a Colored Entrance sign over a door on the side street. The Florida was the site of my first movie. According to my mother, the witch in Snow White so frightened me that I claimed to be sick and had to be taken to the rest room. And that reminds me that at the Florida there were also three men’s rooms and in one of them I learned about what the Boy Scout manual used to call self-pollution, learned about it through an incredible exhibitionist demonstration about which one of my tender years in that era neither complained nor sued.
The Florida would later be where I first saw The Yearling and where my teen loins first lusted after Jennifer Jones as Pearl Chavez in Duel in the Sun.
In the next block from the Florida were those three-in-a-row theaters; a regal block: the Palace, the Empress and the Imperial. The Palace was a first-run house, usually for programmers and sometimes for double features. All these theaters had but a single screen, of course, showing just one film or, at most, two. The Palace was where I would see and fall for the Andrews Sisters (cf. Rick’s Flicks 3/24/12 and 2/1/13). And it was where my brother would take me for my first view of The Wizard of Oz. In those days a theater ran a film continuously — no breaks, no bringing up of the lights. And like most people — except for my father who always found out when a movie started and and would never see one except from its beginning — we just walked into a movie at any convenient time. And my brother and I entered the land of Oz as Judy Garland, scouting apples, found the Tinman’s rusted foot. She was, from my first moment, never only Dorothy. She was JudyGarlandasDorothy. Older brother Joe and I were seldom friends. There would come a time when we were near sworn enemies. But he gave me The Wizard of Oz, and I must be ever grateful to him for that.
I have just remembered that the Palace also offered vaudeville — vaudeville in its last days and on its last legs. A double feature AND a stage show. Magicians. My first singing Alaskan princess (probably from the Bronx, had I known). My first strippers. Stand-up comics with raunchy jokes. I started out at the Palace in my grade school years, but you can be sure I understood the jokes. I still remember one of them.
And while the Palace was a first-run house, it showed Gone with the Wind after its initial release at the Florida a block away. So, it was at the Palace that I first saw a preview of the Wind and felt crushed that the trailer was all drawings and paintings. No advanced live footage of the Wind in those days. I had about a year to go before I would fall in love, once and forever, with Vivien Leigh.
The Empress and the Imperial featured second runs, the Empress often opening with what had closed at the Florida the previous day. It was at the Empress that I first saw Gone with the Wind two days in succession. I had already seen it in two neighborhood theaters, as they were then called. Then I saw it on a Saturday and a Sunday at the Empress. My mother was going to go with me on Sunday, but when my Dad drove us past the theater, we saw a two-block line. My mother changed her mind; but they dropped me off, and I waited in that line to see my Vivien Leigh. In those days our city, with its navy base, and our theaters were filled with sailors. I remember a gob in the men’s room at the end of the movie that Sunday saying to everyone there, “If that movie had lasted five more minutes, I’d have pissed all over myself and all over the theater.”
One of the most exciting aspects of Gone with the Wind was its length — unusual then. (At the time I did not know about Italy’s Cabiria or France’s La Roue or any other Gance or the trials and tribulations of Greed.) I was captured by the very idea of the length of Gone with the Wind. I remember being angry when I had first learned about the length of the 1959 Ben-Hur. William Wyler or not, who did Ben-Hur think it was? Soon there would be a slew of lengthy blockbusters as studios — they were still trying to exist, then, in the old way — sought to make films, often of inflated length, that would consume all of an evening. When you got home from your movie it was too late , in those days, to settle into television.
The last of the theaters to be built downtown, the St. Johns, was a studio theater. It was Warner owned and showed Warner films only and was open, of course, seven days a week all day. That’s how many films a studio turned out in those immediate postwar days. I remember a flitty friend from school days describing the theater as “too severe,” something he must have heard his mother say. But the St. Johns was unusual, to be sure. Tomato red walls in the lobby. No decorations on those walls. I visited this severe place less often than I visited the other theaters I’ve fondly named and remembered. Was I already reacting unconsciously to what would become a definite adult perception? — that Warner Brothers movies were filled with unlikable characters who talked too fast.
Once more unto the Roxy and its reissues. I can still see a poster outside the Roxy Theatre, Ann Sheridan sprawled across a tabletop in Navy Blues. I never did get to see the movie. It became one of those movies that you somehow always miss. It would have already shown at the other downtown theaters, and the Roxy was its last stop on the way out of downtown. The Roxy was the place to see things before they got away. But my mother wouldn’t let me go see Navy Blues that Saturday. I called home to ask. It would have been my fourth movie that day. A single feature at the Florida, followed by a double bill at the Imperial, with Krystal hamburgers in between. She drew the line at a fourth movie because, without older brother Joe, I would be getting home alone after dark.
I was sometimes, though, allowed two double features, in fact often. And I saw everything I wanted to. I can’t remember ever being advised, as a child, against a movie — except that she spoke against Duel in the Sun which I was seeing weekly, following it from theater to theater. I was in high school then, hormones a-rage. My father exhibited no interest in what I saw. When I was smaller my parents — I realize, now, always happy to have me out of the house — would drop me off at a theater and come back for me afterwards. Sometimes I would be left at one theater in the afternoon and picked up at another one in the evening.
Before the Temple had reopened and been sanctified, my Roxy periodically had films from the past. How did a grade school kid get hung up on older films? I lived for the “Current Week,” a feature of the Saturday evening paper. All theaters listed their programs for the coming seven days. My brother never dived for his sports pages with more thrill than I lunged for the “Current Week.” It contained the programs not just for those eight theaters concentrated in the holy five-block downtown area but for all the neighborhood second-, third- and fourth-run houses as well.
In my earliest discovery of the “Current Week,” I had no idea of the meaning of the word current. I don’t know how I even knew its pronunciation. In my life at the time it meant my movie week. A poet’s heart leaps. My stomach did when I would reach the Roxy towards the end of the alphabetical list of theaters in the “Current Week” and find, in parenthesis after the title of next Saturday’s movie, the word reissue. The Roxy changed its program four times each week. They offered one movie on Sunday and Monday, a different one on Tuesday and Wednesday, yet another on Thursday and Friday and, finally, one which ran for one day on Saturday. I deliberately read through the theaters in order, saving the Roxy till last where it naturally stood until the St. Johns was added. The Roxy’s add for Saturday would read TODAY ONLY. Saturday was reissue day in a week when they were showing a reissue. Oh, and the ad in the paper on Saturday would contain, under the title, in parenthesis, the word reissue.
I am still unable to answer my own rhetorical question. I don’t know why I was so attracted to what was not new and preferred the Roxy’s Saturday programs and those reissues at the Temple. Some of it may have been my mother’s telling me about her own moviegoing days as a youngster. I knew about Rudolph Valentino and Clara Bow and Mary Miles Minter and Ramon Novarro and Doug and Charlie and the man who would become my beloved Buster — I knew about them long before I had the opportunity to see them. But until that chance came, I had my Roxy and my Saturdays there.
I remember Too Hot to Handle. I went to the movie already liking Clark Gable and Myrna Loy because my parents enjoyed them so much. And Red Dust. My parents loved Jean Harlow, too, though I confess that at the time she never looked real to me. I also saw Algiers at the Roxy. Mom and Dad had Myrna Loy and Jean Harlow, but I discovered Hedy Lamarr myself. There was Tugboat Annie, though as a grade school-er I was incapable of realizing the wonder of Marie Dressler.
But the brightest of those early memories of the Roxy is still The Trail of the Lonesome Pine. Bright indeed. The first Hollywood film shot outdoors in color. The color is rich but never garish; the photography is careful and quietly artful. In the overall running time, there may be two mattes. Fred MacMurray and Henry Fonda and especially Sylvia Sidney compel us to believe this unbelievable tale of sentimentalized mountain folk from the popular novel by John Fox, Jr. which also became popular as a play. (See Pine note below.*)
There is just enough of a hard edge to the characters — and the playing — of MacMurray and Fonda to assist their credibility. There is a surprising and even harder edge to June, the Sylvia Sidney character, a facet the actress grasps and delivers. She is a mountain girl who for years has had an understanding, as it used to be called, with Dave, a cousin (Fonda), an understanding that she has never fully accepted and from which she periodically frets and revolts. To their mountain area comes the railroad, hungry for their land. June finds herself attracted to the railroad’s business representative Jack Hale (MacMurray) who is attracted to her as well but proves a man of mature responsibility, refusing to take offered advantage. When June is given a chance to go to the city, she is fierce in her determination to take it, a chance finally “to have my fancies.” As a small child I somehow knew what she meant. She wanted pretty clothes and pretty things, which were her dreams. The background of the story is a Hatfield/McCoy-like feud. Here they’re the Tollivers and the Falins.
Fuzzy Knight has two memorable songs in the movie, and they actually belong in the story. And while later, seeing this film as an adult, I had to suffer a supposedly cute Hollywood kid, at least Spanky McFarland as Buddy is not a smart aleck and does not even feel superior to all the adults around him. I always enjoy glimpsing Clara Blandick before she became Auntie Em, and she has a small role as a landlady.
Sylvia Sidney gave many outstanding performances during a long career. Well worth watching: Sabotage (Hitchcock); Fury (Fritz Lang) (both from the same year as The Trail of the Lonesome Pine); Dead End (William Wyler); The Searching Wind (from the play by Lillian Hellman); Summer Wishes, Winter Dreams (Academy Award nomination). She also had stage successes, one of which was the role of the governess in The Innocents, a dramatization of Henry James’ The Turn of the Screw.
+Pine note: The novel was filmed in 1914; in 1916 (directed by Cecil B. DeMille); and in 1923 starring Mary Miles Minter, Antonio Moreno and Ernest Torrence.
The Trail of the Lonesome Pine Henry Hathaway 1936
NEXT FRIDAY POST June 3
Let’s go the movies.
See you there,