I saw a wonderful movie this weekend with my beautiful bride of 46 years (actually, longer, if you count the time we were seeing each other before we got married.) That is, I thought it was wonderful but she thought it was just okay. The movie was “The Artist” and it sought to replicate the black and white silent movies of the 1920s. Very cleverly done in black and white on a smaller screen it was almost all silent. Something different, and extremely well done with a highly-talented and mostly French cast and director. A central character in the movie was a highly trained dog which is the part my wife especially appreciated.
It told the story of a rich and successful silent movie star, who, of course, is also vain and ego-centric similar to a Douglas Fairbanks swashbuckling type, and what happens to him after “talkies” come on the scene. Naturally silent movies quickly disappear from the scene and his life goes into a downward spiral and becomes a living hell. By the way this scenario actually occurred to more than a few silent movie stars. Anyway it was very entertaining and of course it had to have a happy ending as was the mandate for movies made in that era.
Almost from the time they were invented motion pictures have been Americans favorite form of entertainment. When “talkies” came on the scene in the late 1920s people thought utopia had arrived. During the Depression of the 1930s movie attendance actually rose as people forked over a dime for at least 5 hours of entertainment, during which they could forget their hunger or lack of shelter or just plain misery. Yes, at least 5 hours of entertainment.
In those days you got 2 movies, what they called an A and a B movie. The A was the feature and the B was something extra they threw in, but often the B was better than the A. Movie times weren’t posted so if you walked in during the middle of one, as was often the case, you got to see the second one from the beginning and then back to the part of the first one that you missed. Besides the two movies there were films of the latest news (I remember seeing tons of World War II footage when my mother took me to the movies as a child) and one or two cartoons and a “serial” which was usually a schlock western divided into 20 chapters, with a new one shown each succeeding week.
When I started going to the movies myself it cost a quarter for all this entertainment. Movies quickly become a refreshing retreat from the discord in our apartment or neighborhood in Brooklyn. During summers the heat level in our un-airconditioned apartment made “Dante’s Inferno” seem like like a day at the beach. But the movies became air conditioned soon after WWII and it was well worth price of admission just to be able to go in and cool off for 5 hours.
When I was a teenager in high school I got a summer job as an usher in one of the two theaters in our neighborhood for the colossal sum of 75 cents per hour. Yes, believe it or not movie theaters still had ushers in those days. Of course I never had anything to do, (my kind of job) so I spent all my time either making out with the girl behind the candy counter or watching the movies. The owner finally caught on that he was wasting his money and I was fired in less than a month. Oh, the shame. I even had to wear a suit and tie for that crummy job.
Today I believe that movies have degenerated significantly in quality. Movies today are either cartoons for the kids, fairy tale types like Harry Potter, so-called romantic comedies where each guy is out to show how much dumber he is than the other guys and the girls are more or less sexy props, or so called action movies usually based on comic book figures which are merely a collection of not to be believed daredevil stunts. It’s like the fast-buck artists have totally taken over Hollywood and if people are willing to buy tickets, they will mass produce even the worst sort of schlock. I wonder if there will ever be another “Citizen Kane” or “Gone With the Wind” or “Maltese Falcon” ever produced.
Movies, however, even at today’s prices, are still a relatively cheap form of entertainment and so much more easily accessible than other types. Millions go to movies every week so the industry thrives. There is one surprisingly good movie out in theaters now called “War Horse.” If you haven’t seen it I highly recommend it. A quality movie was actually produced in this day of fast-buck artists.