GOING TO THE MOVIES with my parents is one of the great memories of my childhood. I remember getting strong anticipatory butterflies in my stomach long before we’d even leave the apartment. In the late 1940s, early ‘50s, we lived on Manhattan’s West 67th Street, three blocks from two huge “neighborhood” picture palaces: the RKO Colonial and the Loew’s Lincoln. Both were spacious, elaborately decorated, very comfortable stand-alone theaters with huge screens and giant, red velvet curtains that parted before the show. Each seated more than 1,000 (with smoking in the balcony).
A typical evening or afternoon at the “nabes” meant a double feature -- two recent films, usually an A-budget movie paired with a B-picture. We never checked for starting times (no one did); we went when we could or when we felt like it.
Normally, therefore, we would enter in the middle of one of the two features. Part of the fun was trying to figure out what was going on. After it ended, there would be a newsreel, a travelogue, a live-action comedy short, a cartoon and coming attractions. Then the next feature, followed by the first half of the other film until that once-proverbial moment: “This is where we came in.” (All this, by the way, for 25 or 50 cents a head, often less for kids.) On Saturdays, there was the children’s matinee, complete with a white-uniformed matron who chaperoned us and made sure kids didn’t put their feet on the seats in front of them.
Both of my old neighborhood theaters have long since been demolished. But recently I’ve been thinking about them again as I’ve read about the decline in theater attendance -- down from 90 million tickets sold per week in the late 1940s to about a quarter of that number today -- as people rent movies and watch them at home on increasingly elaborate home entertainment systems. Now, some of the big studios are talking about closing the months-long window that has traditionally separated a movie’s theatrical debut from its availability on video or DVD -- a change that some say could lead to the end of the movie-theater experience altogether.
When I was a growing up, there were no ratings -- all pictures being suitable for the whole family. Parents could, if they chose, take the family to serious films such as “How Green Was My Valley,” “Citizen Kane” or “From Here to Eternity” without worrying that it might not be “appropriate” for the children. If a couple on screen were going to bed together, vintage movie shorthand took over and the camera panned to the fireplace or to the waterfall, or, during a passionate kiss, there’d be a discreet fade to black. I would turn to my mother and ask what was happening, and she’d say something ambiguous, such as “they like each other” or “they’re talking now,” which completely satisfied my curiosity.
Movies, when you used to see them on the big screen, had a mystery that they no longer have. For one thing, they were irretrievable: Once the first and second runs were past, most films were not easy to see again. They were much, much larger than life and therefore instantly mythic (screens and theaters were a lot bigger before the multiplex arrived). And they were inexorable; once a film had started, there was no pausing it or in any way stopping its relentless forward motion.
Also, the communal experience of seeing a picture with a large crowd of strangers was a great and irreplaceable happening -- all of us, young or old (if the picture worked) palpably sharing the same emotions of sorrow or happiness. The bigger the crowd around us, the greater the impact.
On special occasions, my parents took me to the greatest movie theater in the country, Radio City Music Hall, which, for $2, would show a first-rate new film exclusively (such as “An American in Paris” or “North by Northwest”) plus a live, 40-minute stage show featuring the Rockettes. That’s why it meant so much to me in 1972 when my first comedy, “What’s Up, Doc?” was booked to open in New York at the Music Hall.
I was so excited I called to tell Cary Grant (a friend of 10 years). “That’s nice,” he said casually. “I’ve had 28 pictures play the Hall.
“I tell you what you must do,” he went on. “When it’s playing, you go down there and stand in the back -- and you listen and you watch while 6,500 people laugh at something you did. It will do your heart good!”
I went, of course, and it remains the single most memorable showing of any of my pictures: The sheer size of the reaction in that enormous theater was like a mainliner of joy. The fact is, it takes at least 100 people to get a decent laugh in a movie -- smaller audiences are just not given to letting go.
On the other hand, a Michigan university student told me recently that one of the few classic Hollywood movies he’d seen was John Ford’s version of John Steinbeck’s novel “The Grapes of Wrath.” He said he’d been looking at a “video of it” and couldn’t get his “eyelids to stop drooping.”
Well, of course. Not only was he alone in his living room, but he was seeing on a small screen a work that had not been created ever to be reduced so radically in size. The especially dark photography (by the legendary Gregg Toland, who the following year shot Orson Welles’ “Citizen Kane”) needs the large screen to convey its effect, not to mention that darkness and TV have never produced easy-to-watch results.
What’s more, Ford was very much the master of the long shot. Twenty years before that famous fly-speck-on-the-desert entrance in “Lawrence of Arabia,” Ford had introduced Henry Fonda in “Grapes” as a tiny figure on the horizon coming toward us. But tiny on a giant screen is not the same as tiny on a TV set. The first makes a poetic impression, the second leaves you wondering what you’re looking at and causes yet more eye strain. No wonder the student’s eyelids drooped.
One of my favorite movies is Howard Hawks’ “Bringing Up Baby” with Cary Grant and Katharine Hepburn -- probably the fastest and at the same time most darkly photographed comedy of all time. When I watch it on TV, I find myself getting tired and running out of steam before the film ends.
Most young people have never even seen older films (before 1962, let’s say -- the end of the movies’ golden age, when the original studio system finally collapsed) on the large screen for which they were solely created. So it’s easy to understand why they’re not interested in them. That they don’t know what they’re missing is a sad fact, increasingly more common, therefore sadder.
What is there to say about seeing movies of quality on an iPod? Chilling.
I was first taken at age 5 or 6 by my father to see silent movies on the big screen at the Museum of Modern Art, and it inculcated in me a lifelong interest and reverence for older films. Starting my daughters at a young age looking at classics from the ‘20s, ‘30s and ‘40s did the same thing for them. Wouldn’t it be a great thing if all the studios pooled their resources and opened large-scale revival theaters in every major city as a way of promoting DVDs of older films, which remain difficult to move in the kind of bulk everyone would like?
It’s hard for me to imagine that the movie-theater experience will ever completely disappear, no matter how reduced it may become. After all, the legitimate theater still exists in the age of TV and film, though of course there is nowhere near as much of it as there was even as late as the 1950s. (Remember summer stock?) In some places you can even still see opera, a very popular medium a couple of hundred years ago.
But Larry McMurtry’s novel, “The Last Picture Show,” and the movie version of it which I directed were both at least partly about the loss to a small Texas town of its single movie theater, a great diminishment in community and sharing. We all now live in a more insular, distanced society. And though our communication capability has never been faster or more inclusive, it does not have the ability to let us experience the silent interrelating that happens in a live theater, at church or at a movie house.
Over the years I’ve noticed that audiences, just before the show starts, radiate a kind of innocence. Considered person by person, that may not be the case, but as a group they share the ability to be taken wherever the film chooses to take them, either to the stars or the gutter, and their communal experience will alter them for better or worse. Let’s not let all that possibility fade away further than it already has.
Better movies would help.