Reflections on a Silver Screen

I don’t go to the movies often these days. It has been over a year since I saw a film on the big screen in a theater. Among the many reasons are that with DVDs and the high-definition TV, it is possible to get the same quality of view at home, where you don’t have to pay exorbitant prices for popcorn, can stop the movie for calls of nature, and not have to suffer rude jerks who insist on taking calls or sending text messages constantly.

Fifty years ago, however, that wasn’t the case. Color television existed, but a receiver set was very expensive, and television stations did not broadcast all of their programs in color. The NTSC standard 525-line vertical resolution and picture ratio limited its quality (and would until the late 1990s). The quality of programming was uneven at best. Video recording existed but, also expensive, was not available to the general public. When movies were released to be shown on television, they had to be re-formatted to fit the TV viewing screen. In short, the motion picture theater was the principal entertainment venue for most of us.

Here in Dallas, first run movies were shown mainly in the downtown theaters on Elm Street. The Majestic (which still exists as live venue), the Palace, the Tower, and the Melba, all since closed and demolished, were within a few block of one another. Their existence enlivened that part of an otherwise somnolent downtown. After the initial run, a film that did well would be released to the neighborhoods. There were many neighborhood theaters like the Inwood and the Lakewood, both of which still exist in a somewhat modified state. The Texas on Jefferson in Oak Cliff, to become notorious the next year as Lee Harvey Oswald’s attempted hideout, was but one of several in that part of the city. Then, of course, there were the drive-ins. There must have been about a dozen scattered throughout the city. They had a reputation for being date venues for couples who had something other than watching a movie in mind.

From 1961 through my graduation from high-school in 1963, along with a couple of friends, I had a part-time job working at a neighborhood theater. Except for the summer months and during the holidays, when the job became more or less full time, this theater was only open on Friday, Saturday, and Sunday. One of the fringe benefits was that employees were given free admission to other theaters in town. My friends and I became even more avid moviegoers. Going to the flicks for free was our main leisure activity, not that there were many others available to teenagers at that time.

Looking back, I have the impression that there were an extraordinary number of really good films in 1962. I am sure, of course, that I have not seen them all, either at the time of subsequently. For example, I never saw Lolita, which was the talk of the media at that time. Just never go around to it; no other reason. I did get around to a number of the films, which I mention and briefly describe here. One noteworthy item: Many of the films were in monochrome, not color. Using black & white film as a medium turns out to have been entirely appropriate for these; they would not have been the same in color, and would not have created the same mood in the viewer.

Here are the ones I remember. I have indicated the ones filmed in monochrome.

Lawrence of Arabia

The story of T. E. Lawrence, the British army officer who helped instigate the Arab revolt against the Ottoman Turks in World War I is one of David Lean’s memorable epics. Both Peter O’Toole and Omar Sharif broke into motion picture stardom with this film. The desert scenery was stunning. It won the “Best Picture” Academy Award for the year. Memorable scene and/or line:

Prince Feisal: “Gasim’s time has come, Lawrence. It is written.”

T.E. Lawrence: “Nothing is written.”

Sherif Ali: “Truly, for some men nothing is written unless THEY write it”


What Ever Happened to Baby Jane?

Part mystery and part psycho-drama. Bette Davis and Joan Crawford’s tour de force together about two sisters who were each in their own time successful actors. Davis won a Best Actress Academy Award for her portrayal of an alcoholic crazy woman Jane who abuses her crippled sister Blanche. Memorable scene and/or line: When Blanche lifts the cover off of her dinner tray and see’s a dead rat on her plate. (B&W)

The Music Man

A musical comedy about a con man who comes to an Iowa town in 1912 to sell the citizens on forming a boys’ band. “Professor” Harold Hill is himself snared by Marian, the town librarian. Faithful to the Broadway play of the same title, and with the same leading actor. Memorable scene and/or line: “It’s as clear as a buttonhook in the well water!”

Dr. No

The first film of Ian Fleming’s James Bond thrillers, that were reportedly President Kennedy’s favorite light reading. Didn’t have as many of the techno props as some of the later ones. Ursula Andress became the first “Bond Girl” and the film was Sean Connery’s introduction to American audiences.

To Kill a Mockingbird

This one will be a classic when the rest are forgotten. Mockingbird was nearly as faithful to the book as a film can be. The themes are almost countless, and it really defined Gregory Peck’s career. Before his role as Atticus Finch, he was an exceptionally successful movie star; afterward, he became an icon. For anyone other than Peck to have received the Oscar for “Best Actor” that year would have trivialized the award (not that it isn’t often so). Memorable scene and line: After his client was convicted of rape, palpably unjustly, Atticus leaves the courtroom alone, with the black spectators standing in respect. The minister says to Scout “Stand up, Miss Jean Louise, your father’s passing.” Other memorable line: Speaking of the villain, who appears to have been killed by the town recluse while attacking the Finch children, Sheriff Tate says: “To my way of thinking, taking the one man who’s done you and this town a big service and dragging him with his shy ways into the limelight – to me that’s a sin… it’s a sin. And I’m not about to have it on my head. I may not be much Mr. Finch, but I’m still sheriff of Maycomb County and Bob Ewell fell on his knife. Good night, sir.” (B&W)

The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance

John Wayne and James Stewart starred together with Lee Marvin playing the villain Liberty Valance as only he could. A Western with many subtle themes. Memorable scene and/or line: “This is the West, sir. When the legend becomes fact, print the legend.” (B&W)


The Manchurian Candidate

Political thriller of the first order. Laurence Harvey is Raymond Shaw, the brainwashed former POW, whose handler is his mother, played by Angela Lansbury. Shaw is programmed by the Soviets and Chinese Communists to assassinate a Presidential candidate years later. Nightmares about the brainwashing experience prompt Shaw’s former company commander, played by Frank Sinatra, to suspect something is wrong. Lansbury was nominated for an Academy Award and won the Golden Globe for “Best Supporting Actress.” Memorable Scene: Shaw hearing a bartender speak the words that trigger his brain to obey instructions, obeys the next instruction he hears and goes down to Central Park and jumps into the lake. Quote: “It’s a terrible thing to hate your mother. But I didn’t always hate her. When I was a child, I only kind of disliked her.” (B&W)


Advise and Consent

Allen Drury’s political novel about the intrigue in the United States Senate surrounding the confirmation process for a controversial nominee for Secretary of State. This film brought together a coterie of some of the most prominent male stars of the time. Memorable performance by Charles Laughton as the fictional Senator Seabright B. Cooley of South Carolina. Memorable quote/scene: “Son, this is a Washington, D.C. kind of lie. It’s when the other person knows you’re lying, and also knows you know he knows.” Some things do not ever change. (B&W)

The Birdman of Alcatraz

The rather romanticized story of Robert Stroud (played by Burt Lancaster), whose death sentence for murder in territorial Alaska was commuted to life by President Wilson in 1920. Stroud spent the rest of his life in prison (most of the time in Leavenworth, not Alcatraz) studying and becoming an expert in ornithology. (B&W)

Cape Fear

Robert Mitchum’s character Max Cady is an ex-con seeking revenge against Sam Bowden, played by Gregory Peck, who testified against Cady at trial. Mitchum is believably creepy as Cady, and the movie is alternately suspenseful and startling. Memorable scene: Bowden’s daughter runs away from Cady and is almost hit by a car. (B&W)


The Counterfeit Traitor

World War II spy drama. An American expatriate working for a Swedish company is blackmailed by British intelligence into using his business contacts in Germany to target bombing targets. William Holden plays the part of Erickson, the reluctant spy. Memorable scene/line: “Strange… You can read about a hundred atrocities, hear about a thousand, but you only have to see one.”

Days of Wine and Roses

Jack Lemmon and Lee Remick play a young couple who begin as social drinkers and descend into the depths of alcoholism. One is redeemed; the other ?? One of my close friends was highly offended when Jack Lemmon lost out to Gregory Peck for the “Best Actor” Academy Award. Memorable scene/line: Jack Lemmon’s character in a padded cell with the DTs. (B&W)


Experiment in Terror

Lee Remick plays a teller who is being terrorized by a robber to steal from her bank. She manages to contact an FBI agent, and a cat and mouse game ensues. Notable for its startling scene shifts. Memorable scene: The FBI interviews the robber’s Chinese-American girlfriend who consults with her lawyer in Mandarin in front of the agent. When she finishes she addresses the agent in English, and he answers in Mandarin. (B&W)

Ride the High Country

Veteran Western actors Randolph Scott and Joel McCrea partner up to guard a gold shipment. One has a young protégé who he plots with to steal the gold. Memorable scene/line: Elsa Knudsen: “My father says there’s only right and wrong – good and evil. Nothing in between. It isn’t that simple, is it?” Steve Judd: “No, it isn’t. It should be, but it isn’t.”

Walk on the Wild Side

One of Jane Fonda’s earliest films. Dove Linkhorn, a country boy from Texas, played by Laurence Harvey goes to New Orleans in search of his love, only to find her working in a brothel as the main attraction for the customers. Based on a novel by Nelson Algren. (B&W)

Sergeants 3

A remake of the 1939 film Gunga Din (itself inspired by Rudyard Kiplings poem) transported to the Western Frontier. The five “Rat Pack” members (Frank Sinatra, Dean Martin, Sammy Davis Jr, Peter Lawford , and Joey Bishop) star in this movie.

Hell is for Heroes

One of Steve McQueen’s earliest and best portrayal of an iconoclastic loser, his signature role.

How the West Was Won

Pre-revisionist Western chronicling the stories of three generations of frontier families settling the 19th Century American West.

Lonely are the Brave

Kirk Douglas plays a modern day Western drifter riding a horse cross-country to escape the law.

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