For more than a decade, my Aunt Virginia Lee ran the Prudential Theatre in New Canaan, Connecticut, called the New Canaan Playhouse. My father’s family lived in Norwalk, Connecticut, and New Canaan back then was about a half-hour ride down a two lane highway. So I, my brother and my sister alternated taking “vacations” with the Lees of Stevens Street. My grandparents, being grandparents, and having worked in the hat factory most of their lives, would on occasion persuade “Aunt Ginny” to take the visiting minikid to the theater with her, to give aging Ma and Pop Lee a few hours off.
This was the best thing that ever happened to me. Starting at age 7, and ending at age 15, I spent a few weeks, then a few months every summer at the theater. The last two summers, I was employed as an usher and learned how to walk backwards with a flashlight (when theaters were still truly dark). And a saw a lot of movies. In those days the Playhouse was a single screen theater, there were two or three shows a day: 7pm and 9:30pm, and on Tuesdays and Saturdays, a Matinee as well. My grandfather worked the matinees as the ticket taker, resplendent in his starched shirt and bow-tie.
Of course, as I spent more and more time at the theater, I got to see some great movies, as many as 16 times in a row. Some of the those films really affected me, and I’m here to list the top five and why.
Forbidden Planet (1956)
This is now regarded as one of the great science fiction films of the fifties. It uses an all-electronic score, even for the opening credits, which were credited as “tonalities” not music.
It is the story of a spaceship from our planet (led by square-jawed pre-Airplane Leslie Nielsen) going to a remote planet to retrieve a scientist who is the sole survivor of an exploratory crew sent 20 years before. Leslie falls in love with his daughter (miniskirted Anne Francis), the doctor has strange mental powers, there are weird howls and images of large lions jumping through the air It’s all because of some left-behind technology by a prior civilization, who built a giant underground machine to pump up their intelligence.
For a 7 year old, it was frightening. Sitting in the tenth row, I actually called out repeatedly to my aunt when one of the monsters showed up on the screen. She wasn’t happy.
But this wasn’t a creature from outer space movie. It was actually a take on Shakespeare’s The Tempest, and very thought provoking, even for a seven year old. Repeated viewings much later via dvd and vhs proved that to me.
Lonely Are the Brave (1962)
Kirk Douglas is a cowboy lost in a modern (the 1960’s) world. He’s the last of a breed, and wanted by the law. The film is a study of a man trying to adapt to a new world, one which he has ignored most of his life in favor of the “old ways”. But modern police methods, big city traffic, new attitudes and the pace of a new world are seemingly too much for a man on a horse. I only saw this one once, and I don;t remember the ending. But the empathy you feel for Kirk and his own view of the world are very real, and you root for him to elude capture (if I remember, he doesn’t but I may be mixing it up with “Cool Hand Luke”).
Irma La Douce (1963)
Well, if I hadn’t already reached puberty, this would have done the trick… Shirley MacLaine as a Paris prostitute. This was a Billy Wilder film with all of his typical humor, and features Jack Lemmon as a naive cop. Shirley teaches him a few tricks. It also features Lou Jacobi in the role that really made him, but that’s another story. Great music track, basically studio shot (I know Paris streets can be small but not that small). I only saw this a few times, so I don’t remember the whole thing, but took a look at a few minutes on Amazon the other night and got reacquainted with my Catholic guilt.
A Shot in The Dark (1964)
Now we start the summer where I worked for three straight months, and these are the films I saw 16 times each. Let’s start with a “Shot in the Dark”, the second Pink Panther film and this time I fell in love with Elke Sommer, the femme fatale of the movie. Peter Sellers is in his prime as police detective Inspector Clouseau, and Herbert Lom is his long suffering commander his first appearance in the series). George Sanders is the perfectly oily villain, setting up Elke Sommer to take the fall for a murder. And speaking of falls, there are plenty, from the tumbles in the suprise practice judo attacks of manservant Cato, and all kinds of pratfalls , both dry and wet, by Sellars. Also, in this film he began using the exaggerated French accent that he would use for the rest of the series.The main theme by Henry Mancini uses an early synthesizer as the lead instrument, and is perfectly paced for the cartoon vignettes that used to populate the credits in comedies like this. I can stil laugh at this film!
The Carpetbaggers (1964)
Was a fifteen year old boy ready for this film? No, but I loved it. “This is the story of Jonas McCord”….so begins the narration, and so begins this story, really, of Howard Hughes, as Hollywood would see it. There is sex, big time fights (Jonas and Alan Ladd as Nevada Smith– his last role), more sex, an unrequited love, crazy airplane daredevilry, and lots of alcohol. The music by Elmer Bernstein is incredible– pulsating western motives, in a big movie large orchestra style. Get the soundtrack on CD if you can. I never stole any f this music for my early slide shows but I should have.
EXTRA: A Hard Day’s Night (1964)
My Aunt told Headquarters she would have nothing to do with it! So I went to see it that summer in Pleasantville, New York with my friend Dave English. I would have preferred seeing it 16 times at the New Canaan Playhouse.
The New Canaan Playhouse was a single screen theater back then, and the last time I was there (begging to be let in for a looksee) it had been split into two theaters. It is now run by BowTie Cinemas, which is a good sign.
During my run as an usher, I broke up two lovemaking sessions in the balcony, ate a lot of candy working at the candystand, read and collected a lot of press kits (where I was introduced to the world of blatant PR), and spent an inordinate amount of time in the projection booth with Jimmy, the potbellied old man who I had to assume worked there forever. I also learned to drink gallons of coffee in paper cups from the variety store next door.
So what’s playing this week?