The other day I was watching a clip from a Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers vehicle…
…Top Hat, 1935.
I don’t know how old I was when I first watched one of these extravaganzas. When I was in my teens here in the valley, there really wasn’t a lot to watch on late night television. It was all UHF stations, it was Movies ’til Dawn or Night Owl Theater on Ch.36 out of San Jose, or Night Comfort Theater, on KTXL, Ch. 40, out of Sacramento, hosted by waterbed mogul, Tom LaBrie. There were a lot of B-movies, B-horror movies, and then there were a lot of RKO pictures, musicals, comedic farce, like The Marx Brothers, and there was Noir. Every now and then they might throw in an Alfred Hitchcock film but those were usually Saturday afternoon kinds of movies, as were Westerns. Depending on what stations one could actually get to come in clearly with a tin-foiled bent coat hanger, it could sometimes literally be, Slim Pickens. I stayed up late. For a variety of reasons during my youth, I got to know all of these film genres pretty well.
I loved the Astaire and Rogers pictures because they were beautiful, romantic. Nothing really bad ever happened in them and all of the problems were easily solved with a dance number and a happy ending. Even in black and white, the sets were gorgeous, the clothes, stunning. There was a time when an 8×10 glossy of Fred and Ginger graced the wall of my bedroom in a fine, plastic, frame from the Woolworth’s, which was one store over from the record store that I’d purchased the print from. A rare artifact of true Hollywood glamour that had found it’s way to small town America.
As there wasn’t much that I found to be particularly beautiful about the world that I was in at the time, I became fascinated with the beautiful world as portrayed on celluloid and the idea that anything was possible. If that world could exist on film, then why didn’t people dress as wonderfully as they could all the time? Why didn’t they sit up straighter, put their cigarettes in holders, sip champagne and only communicate with witty banter? Fred and Ginger gave way to an interest in dance itself and a trip to the ballet in the city, The War Memorial Opera House. The ticket was twenty dollars and the only Christmas gift I received that year. I was in love with the atmosphere of the romance of it all, a refined and beautiful world, where crudeness was forgetting to put one’s napkin in one’s lap and vulgarity was non-existent. A world seemingly without ugliness, I was in love with it.
One night the only thing on television was Ernest Hemingway’s “To Have and Have Not,” starring Humphrey Bogart and Lauren Bacall. I can tell you that Humphrey Bogart did not interest me one whit. I had already been a Hitchcock fan for several years and my preference was Cary Grant, the films “Suspicion,” and “North by Northwest.” Jimmy Stewart was okay in my book too. Bogart got on my nerves. He was short, he was cocky, he was irritating, all of the things that anyone ever read about him that kept him from becoming a real “star” until he had “matured.” On screen Lauren Bacall looked too young for him and I just wasn’t into it. But then they started to talk. The dialogue was snappy, sharp, the storyline was smart, intricate, you had to pay attention and be able to keep up, not unlike a Hitchcock film, or say, an Agatha Christie story. They had that chemistry where from the first they were a team, a couple, without ever saying it, just that understanding of, “I’m with you and you’re with me and that’s that.”
All of the adults in my family smoked cigarettes. I smoked cigarettes because of Lauren Bacall.
My favorite Bogart films are “The Maltese Falcon” and “Dark Passage,” the latter simply because of the way it was shot, without revealing Bogart’s face for the first part of the movie because that beginning is shown from his point of view and sight line. There’s also a great supporting performance in “Dark Passage,” by Agnes Moorehead, known to most as Endora, from “Bewitched.” I grew to appreciate these films that often shared a myriad of jazz tunes found in episodes of “The Twilight Zone,” and “Alfred Hitchcock Presents.” I can get my thinking into that rhythm of two bit gin joints, pool halls and dames you don’t take home to mother but will light cigarettes for all night long in the dim glow of flashing neon and jukebox highlights…pretty easily.
I know my way around Hollywood’s so called Classic or Golden Age of red carpet glamour, scandal and big budget extravagance well enough. Films released from 1930 to 1968 were subject to the legendary Motion Picture Production Code, more commonly known as the Hays Code, a list of rules, a kind of morality code and censorship that was put into place after a variety of scandals both on and off screen. The code was finally abandoned in 1968 and the first rating system, that we still use a form of today, was put into place. But what the Hays Code did was make for some great film making as under its guise, most anything salacious or violent, sexual or of questionable morality, had to be implied rather than graphically portrayed. Noir films of the era are strewn with a bloodless violence and death scenes that often look like childhood playacting, pretending to take a bullet during a Saturday morning game of “Cops and Robbers,” uttering the catch line, “Ya got me.”
So maybe so called classic Noir was a tip-toed foray into darkness, because while the films of that era are over acted, plot heavy, and maybe too smart for their own good in places, they are still about the hideous side of human nature. Lying, scheming, between a rock and a hard place, lust, romance, maybe love, but maybe not, maybe just looking for the quick dime and the next train out of town. I could curl up with a blanket, a bowl of pop-corn, and watch those movies all afternoon or all night. I studied them, I read a couple of Raymond Chandler and Dashiell Hammett books. I read “movie star” biographies and found out what Cary Grant’s real name was, and that David Niven and Errol Flynn were roommates. They all knew each other, as we suspected.
However the genres that I started out with are maybe that of anyone, fantasy, superheroes or the fairy tale, most of which are based on, or in, horror and from there my first love was Saturday or Sunday afternoon monster movies which were too ridiculous to be scary, part sci-fi, part horror, and over the top.
I haven’t seen this movie in years.
Though I’ve said it many times, I started out watching “The Twilight Zone,” “Alfred Hitchcock Presents,” Agatha Christie movies, mystery, suspense, thrillers like the a fore mentioned “Suspicion,” which was my favorite movie for quite a while actually, though I never told anyone that until now….
…though of course it isn’t my favorite film anymore.
There was a time when it seemed, or I thought, that getting into Noir was kind of a graduation from Creature Features, except that it wasn’t. I’d simply forgotten that there wasn’t anything else on television and had there been, I’d have not ever watched those movies because I didn’t really like them. I was wishing we had cable so that I could watch what was current, so that I could keep up with what everyone else was talking about. When I look at those two worlds now, I know that I my interest in Noir was a phase that I was going through and that for me, it was an extension of that wanting to romanticize the world where yeah, it’s the ugly side of people but there’s usually a hero and a damsel in distress and everybody’s dressed pretty nicely, well mannered, because that’s part of what makes Noir what it is, the veil of polite society that it hides beneath. There were years when I would not watch any kind of horror, I didn’t want to put anything else that was “bad” into my head, my memory banks, and yet I watched the news every night. There were also the years when I was raising a child and most of those old Noir films are innocuous enough, without profanity, blood and guts or nudity, that they can be safely watched when there is a child on the loose, running in and out of the house or the room.
Noir doesn’t hold the same appeal for me that it once did. When I asked myself what I really knew of Noir films, I realized that what I knew generally a handful of Bogart films. Don’t get me wrong, Mac, if I want to bust out a few thousand words on the way an ice cube melts on a bar at three o’clock in the afternoon on a Tuesday…then I will, but that isn’t the same for me anymore. I’m not in love with Noir in the same way anymore, the same way I’m not in love with Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers movies, in fact I probably have more appreciation for Fred and Ginger than Noir these days. Maybe it’s just that I’ve been there, done that, and realized that I really kind of skirted the edges of those monster movies. That I really didn’t go all of the places I could go with fantasy, so called urban and otherwise, with suspense and thrillers, with horror. I watched some Bogart and Bacall earlier and I felt the way I did the first time I ever watched one of those movies, I remembered that while I grew to truly appreciate and value the genre, that I did discover a few lifelong favorite films, there hadn’t been anything else on, it was a lack of choices. What I wanted to watch, if I didn’t have access to newer movies, was the escape of a lovely dance number in a beautiful fantasy world, one that I’ve yet to find in so called reality, but there wasn’t any of that on so I watched Noir.
While there’s no question that I have a love of good films, and good books, regardless of genre, really, what was my first love? It was probably “The Wizard of Oz,” beautiful fantasy and horror, epic, sweeping stories like “Gone With the Wind” and “The Ten Commandments,” kind of like a mix of “Xanadu,” and “Halloween,” with decent manners and good sex.
You never really get over your first love.
I realized that if it wasn’t, or isn’t, “The Love Boat” or “Fantasy Island,” if it wasn’t/isn’t something innocuous like The Marx Brothers, however daring they were in their time, or as beautiful and as “Xanadu,” then I didn’t want to muck around in the Noir world of dirty shadows. If it isn’t going to be completely beautiful, then isn’t knowing that you’re dealing with a monster, of some sort, more interesting? Bigfoot, aliens, La Chupa Cha-Cha, whatever Leonard Nimoy was “In Search Of…” all those years and was released into the wild when they opened the crypt? I realized that Noir isn’t sexy to me or romantic because it never really was and I don’t have the same ability that I used to have to romanticize what is actually seediness. In the same moment that that has happened I’ve realized, that for the same reasons, “On The Road,” by Jack Kerouac is no longer my favorite book, I romanticized that too. Noir is based, mostly, in reality, and don’t we all deal with some form of that every day, whether in our own lives or on the nightly news, the world itself? The truth is that for me, for my own entertainment, and as a writer, Noir does not provide the same escape that it once did. ( But does it, could it, still provide a different escape? Maybe it isn’t about escape, maybe it is about being able to write the hell out of something because I understand it that well? Possibly. Perhaps the two genres are so interchangeable that the delineation between them isn’t all that important? Lately, I prefer writing the more fantastical.) I’ve realized that I am a true romantic, and that my ability to imagine, fantasize and build worlds, is greater now, as an adult, than ever before.
And when I figure something out the first time, I need to trust myself. 5/24/15