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May 14, 2019

My First Cinematheque


Has anyone written anything serious about watching old movies on network television? The recent passing of actress Peggy Lipton included mentions of her love of older films, with The Razor's Edge (1946) and Tales of Manhattan (1942) cited. I'm five years younger than Lipton. And thinking about Lipton, myself, and others around my age, the aging baby boomers, I'm thinking that those of us who have also been identified as part of the "movie generation" were so thanks to network television.

Back in the 1950s and 60s, before tapering away around the mid 1970s, old movies were on network television all the time. Most major cities had the three national networks, ABC, CBS and NBC, and one or maybe even two local networks. The studios sold their movies in syndication packages and it was easy to fill time, especially later at night. Television at that time often mean prime time viewing, followed by a half hour newscast, which in turn was followed by one or two movies - more on weekend nights. It didn't matter that the films were interrupted by commercials, were sometimes edited for length, or that we were watching a color film in black and white and/or a wide screen film reformatted for the square screen. This may not have been the way the filmmakers intended their films to be seen, but this was the way many cinephiles around my age discovered cinema.

Well before people were bandying terms like "buzz worthy", there was the word of mouth of several five and six year olds excitedly talking about something called King Kong that was to be on TV. This was around 1957, when my parents surrendered and our family had our first television set. I had no idea what King Kong was, but I knew I had to see it. And see King Kong I did, missing part of the beginning but entranced by what was on the screen. My concept of time was such that it didn't register with me that I was watching something produced over twenty years ago. At the end of the film, I asked my mother how they trained that giant gorilla to climb that tall building. I was introduced to the concept of "special effects".

Unlike some families, mine never went together to see a movie theatrically. It was through television that my father introduced me to a couple of favorite films, High Noon and A Night at the Opera.

In my early teen years, living in a suburb of Chicago, I took advantage of my parents being away by watching TV all night one Saturday night. I saw my first Busby Berkeley musical at around three in the morning. Studying the television schedule, I realized that this particular channel was showing movies made in the 1930s, all from Warner Brothers, on weekend nights at around the same hour. I almost always woke up in time to sneak downstairs to watch James Cagney, Pat O'Brien, Joan Blondell and Ruby Keeler, with the volume as low as possible to not disturb anyone else, but just high enough that I could hear all the dialogue while sitting closely to the TV set. To this day I will never know if I was a successful sneak, or if my parents were aware of this particular nocturnal habit and shrugged it off as a silly phase.

What was nice about watching older films was that they were available to anyone with a working television. There was no consignment to a cable channel ghetto, no additional costs, no claims of exclusivity. While my taste in films changed and became somewhat more sophisticated, and the choice of films available was up to the whims of unseen programmers, television did introduce me to a fairly wide variety of filmmakers from classic Hollywood so I wasn't totally unprepared when I decided to seriously study film. I will even admit there was I time when I thought Ruby Keeler was quite cute.

Posted by Peter Nellhaus at May 14, 2019 08:00 AM