I See 12 Movies a Week
You can snooze if the picture’s only colossal—but not the movie critic. However, he has his own revenge
IN MY JOB I go to the movies whether I feel like it or not. For the sake of preparing a balanced diet for a Sunday-night broadcast of movie criticism for the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation I often deliberately attend pictures that all my private instincts warn me to shun like poison.
Invariably, I see more films than I ever review on the air. (Some of them are neither good enough nor bad enough to be worth mentioning.) In one recent week, and it was by no means exceptional, I saw 12 movies—one on Monday, two on Tuesday, three on Wednesday, two on Thursday, three on Friday and one on Saturday.
The ordinary film fan is free to fall asleep or walk out on a stinker any time he wishes. I am denied this privilege; or, at least, if I do leave a show before the finish I usually refrain from reviewing it at all and the time has been wasted. Besides, experience has taught me that occasionally the sorriest floperoo contains at least one incident or one performance that makes it worth seeing. Example: Ben Blue’s hilarious one-man quartet in the recent “My Wild Irish Rose.”
The compensating satisfaction outweighing all these drawbacks, of course, stems from the independence and freedom of speech I enjoy. I say what I please in all my broadcasts and not once has anybody interfered with me. The CBC demands only that I be honest and impartial and that my general approach be more urbane than cantankerous. In all other respects, they stay completely out of what’s left of my hair.
Movie Men Are Touchy
THE ATTITUDE of the film exhibitors toward me and my program is perhaps understandably touchy. I have observed for many years that movie men are usually shrewd and sardonic judges of the product they are selling. Yet they are extraordinarily sensitive to frank public criticism.
Many a theatre manager or local studio representative has agreed with me, over a beer or a coffee, that a picture he himself was sponsoring was an insult to human intelligence and should never have been produced. But if I say so in print or on the radio the same man gives me the Wounded Faun act next time we meet. He is also likely to accuse me of trying to “hurt business” and perhaps drive his usherettes into white slavery, despite the known fact that critics, in the long run, rarely affect the box office. As screen director Mervyn LeRoy himself remarked the other day, “A good review can’t help a bad picture and a bad review can’t hurt a good one.”
No movie manager could resent more deeply than I do the smugly Olympian air assumed by a few high and mighty critics in handing down their pronouncements to a docile public. I keep telling my audience that what it’s hearing is only my opinion. However, I enjoy backing up my opinion as vigorously as possible and by the same token I enjoy the dozens of briskly good-humored arguments I’ve conducted by correspondence with people in many parts of the country.
There is an old gentleman in Winnipeg (“I am nicely beyond the scriptural span,” he once wrote me) who mournfully reproaches me every time I say anything unfavorable about any British picture. I always reply to him and he always courteously acknowledges my acknowledgment. One of these days I am going to reacknowledge his acknowledgment and see what happens after that. Another delight is a cryptic lady who wrote: “Your program makes me so mad I can’t see straight. Also, it comes at a very inconvenient time for me and I have to go to a lot of trouble to hear it.” Nobody in radio could quarrel with anyone like that.
The impact of a steady and heavy celluloid diet for a whole year has been quite different, in many ways, from the one I had Continued on page 32
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I See 12 Movies a Week
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imagined. I have always been a keen film fan. But four movies a week used to be my quota and there were interludes when I stayed away from them for a month. Now I quite often attend as many as four a day, on top of my anchor job on the editorial staff of The Vancouver Daily Province. On one typical recent day, I saw three first-run features and eight shorts. I always telephone the box offices first and make sure the starting times advertised in the papers are accurate. Often a feature begins in one theatre just two or three minutes after the finish of a feature in another theatre a block down the street. I am probably the only adult in the lower mainland of British Columbia w'ho has been seen running to attend “Tarzan and the Mermaids.”
B’s in His Bonnet
At times the unremitting dose of G radeB mediocrity depresses me and the job becomes, temporarily, a dreary burden. But not often. I can still honestly say each week that I “like to go to the movies.”
For one thing, they have enriched my language with a custom-built set of Hollywood catch phrases which can be used with fine effect to stimulate a routine conversation. Whenever I feel glum for any reason and someone asks me why, 1 freely adapt a deathless line of dialogue I picked up last year from “Desert Fury,” and reply:
“Ah’ll tell yuh why Ah’m feelin’ low, ma’am. Ah was rasslin’ a steer once and All slipped. Nnv . . . Ah’m all busted up inside.”
Similarly, if a waitress delays my order and mentions that she is quite busy, 1 can often restore my own priority with her by saying starkly, “You mean there’s . . . there’s Someone Else?”
If you go to the movies in a critical mood but without an antagonistic chip on the shoulder, you are likely to give thanks that such an assembly-line industry ever produces something beautiful and stirring and heart-felt. The really good pictures are scarce but they are worth waiting for. 1 don’t mind squirming through “Night Song” and “It Had to Be You” and “If Winter Comes” if I can occasionally be rewarded with “Great Expectations” or “The Treasure of Sierra Madre,” or perhaps with a reissue of “The Long Voyage Home,” or “The Ox-Bow Incident.” Just when the weary patron begins to despair of both the present and the future, a near-miracle happens, and once more the screen takes on force and fluency and freshness.
This applies not only in the case of the infrequent masterpiece which everyone recognizes. It applies also in regard to unexpectedly good pictures which may bear all the advance earmarks of grisly floperoos. For instance, when 1 went to see a modest Hollywood opus entitled “Killer McCoy” a few months ago, all I knew about it was that it was about boxing and that Mickey Rooney was the star. 1 had suffered even more than most people from young Mr. Rooney’s standard brand of mugging and hamming but “Killer McCoy” turned out to be one of the most diverting prize-ring stories I have ever seen in the filmswith a Rooney performance marked by skill, judgment and impressive restraint. I was so astonished 1 went back and saw it again two nights later, without altering my opinion.
The same sort of gratifying reversal of ordinary values occurred in “Kiss of Death,” a harshly exciting gangster
movie starring Victor Mature as a stool pigeon. Mature’s work in this film, no doubt shaped and strengthened by firm direction, almost made it possible to forgive and forget the average performance he used to offer when he was chiefly renowned as “that gorgeous hunk o’ man.”
A disappointing feature of these ebbs and flows in cinematic tides, however, is the fact that the same actor who surprises you in one picture is apt to let you down all over again in the next.
The underlying lesson, of course, is one that Hollywood has been shamefully slow to learn and to put into operation. The theme, the story, the direction are all more important than the stars.
Both the American and the British studios in recent months have somewhat formulized the so-called “semidocumentary” or fact-fiction approach which two years ago began infusing new life and vigor into contemporary film making. The mere intrusion of a pontifical narrator into the sound track does not imbue a screen play with a universality not already inherent in its story and its emotional impact. The thing that gave vitality and immediacy to such early fact-fiction films as “Boomerang!” and “The House on 92nd Street” was not the off-screen comments of an unseen commentator, but the bold use of a real story, real places and real persons instead of a prefabricated plot, elaborate studio sets and the familiar faces of big boxoffice stars.
Wedding Bell Concerto
As to the influence of the movies on human society, a matter which sociologists have been kicking around for a half century, I have my own opinions the same as everyone else. One of them, I’ll admit candidly, was considerably sharpened by a series of wardroom conversations I enjoyed a few years ago in Newfoundland with a psychiatrist on duty there with the Royal Canadian Navy. That specialist in emotional ills told me he blamed Hollywood indirectly for having sponsored a whole false set of values concerning love, passion, loyalty and other human relationships. He didn’t think —nor do I—that the movies alone have built up an emotional climate in which immature film fans may find it impossible to get along with one another. But the movies have helped to do this, along with glib popular fiction and the slick glamour of boy-meets-girl advertising.
There are still far too many motion pictures, on both sides of the Atlantic, which try to teach us that the wedding means the end of all life’s problems and perplexities instead of, as is so often the case, their real beginning.
There are movies that carry implications injurious to healthy and honest living, implications fully as dangerous as the sex mania which mistakenly absorbs many film analysts to the exclusion of everything else.
Anyone who goes to the pictures regularly can recite these themes without prompting: an uppercut to the jaw is the only manly response to any spoken insult. If a girl looks good in a tight sweater she doesn’t need to wear glasses, no matter how poor her eyes are. All “foreigners” are either unwashed and sinister or else quaintly amusing. If a man and a woman instantly dislike each other on firs! meeting, that’s a sure sign that they arc soul mates. Romantic love is the only possible foundation on which to build a marriage and cheap and easy divorce is a noble democratic institution. There can’t be anything wrong with a man who likes dogs, no matter how he
(treats his wife and children. Luxury arad casual idleness are normal and desirable, with or without the intelligence and self-discipline that can turn leisure into fine living.
These are only a few of the staple plulosophies that animate the bulk of oar movies. Curiously enough, often the very fans who most listlessly and unprotestingly imbibe these phony doctrines are the first to sit up and take grateful notice whenever a picture comes along that presents recognizable people, grappling with poignantly authentic problems.
From long experience sitting in movie houses I am convinced that the indlustry is underrating the basic taste and perception of the average audience.
I have talked about the films in hundreds of mutually anonymous conversations with waiters, taxi drivers, strangers in buses and restaurants, and not once in 20 times have I encountered the moronic attitude regarded as typiical in cynical assessments of the movie public. People go to the pictures regularly because there’s always a theatre around the corner, the prices are reasonable, the carpets luxurious and the candy and ice-cream bars just as good as they can get in the corafectionaries. They also attend because a movie is an easy way to kill time, or because they want to rest the-ir feet after shopping tours, or because they want to enjoy a short nap or to pitch woo in a dark corner, unbothered by the neighbors. Despite all this, people still respond with interest andl respect to most movies that deal tolerantly and honestly with situations of real interest to the ordinary man or woman. A case in point is the success of the 1946 Academy Award winner, “The Best Years of Our Lives.” On a recent reinspection, I found this film a bit long and its neatly happy ending a bit contrived, but it still portrays real people in real situations and I can’t imagine any audience failing to receive it with laughter and tears.
Swooning to Music
The way the movies deal with the subject of music and musicians is a matter of sharp personal interest to me, as it must be to millions of others who collect recordings, attend concerts and sing opera in the bathtub. Hollywood
has paid a lot of lip service to the classics. But the scriptwriter’s climax of last year’s pretentious “Carnegie Hall” was not any of the bits and pieces of the masterworks, performed and conducted by eminent virtuosos, but the performance of a jerry - built jazz concerto with an ex - charwoman’s wavy-haired son as soloist.
Another significant clue to Hollywood’s true feeling toward great music is the fact that a polished, intellectual villain is always supposed to become more plausible if it turns out that he enjoys hearing the Good Friday Spell from “Parsifal” on a phonograph while torturing Linda Darnell with a hot cigar.
The films have helped to popularize a great deal of fine music, hut they usually manage to make the music secondary to the picture or the star. I still shudder at a whispered remark overheard at a symphony concert. Right in the middle of a concerto a lovely girl in the row ahead of me turned to her escort and said dreamily, “I’ll never forget Cornel Wilde’s eyes when he played this!”
Like all film fans, I have my private and personal foibles and fancies that may or may not be reflected in sober critical judgment.
I go to every picture Humphrey Bogart ever appears in. (He’s been in some good ones, but he’s been in some stinkers, too.) If a film has Eric Blore in it, you’ll find me in the audience even if six friends have told me it’s the worst fiasco they ever attended. And I also confess to a passion for the singing of one Jerry Colonna, the atomic-age tenor with the rolling brown eyes and the gay-nineties mustache, who used to be on the Bob Hope radio show and has appeared briefly in a score of forgotten movies. Any time Colonna is in the picture, I go every day as long as the run lasts—to the horror of my music-loving friends. Recently Colonna in the flesh played a night-club engagement in Vancouver and I had the privilege of teaching him a raffish song entitled “Violate Me in Violet 'Time” which I myself had been screaming Golonna-style all the way from Esquimau to Londonderry. Before Colonna left town, he even let me sing a duet with him in his hotel room! Say— anybody wanna join my Colonna Fan Club? ★