I’ve Survived 10,000 Movies
From Pickford and Fairbanks to Peck and Monroe, movie critic Gilmour’s seen them all. Now he presents his supercolossal memoirs, starring the gorgeous Barbara La Marr of whom it was sometimes said, “When she inhaled, boys became men!”
CLYDE GILMOUR SAYS
AT A cocktail party not long ago in Vancouver, where I live, a woman engaged me in a conversation familiar to movie critics everywhere. Under her persistent questioning I had told her my age (42), the average number of movies I see in a week (seven to ten) and the most I ever saw in one day (seven, starting at 9 a.m. and finishing well after midnight). I had even figured up for her a reasonable estimate of the number of movies I had sat through, including shorts and documentaries. The answer, somewhat stunning even to me, was 10,000, give or take a sneak preview.
The woman blanched, and almost dropped her drink. “Good heavens!” she said, or words to that effect, “how can you stand it? Ten thousand movies —I’d go completely out of my mind!"
I was able to tell her truthfully that I stand it very well indeed. After more than 35 years of constant attendance at movies I am still an ardent fan. My enthusiasm, instead of lessening, has increased. It is not an uncommon thing for me to see a favorite movie, such as The Lavender Hill Mob or The Bicycle Thief, two or three times during its downtown first run and later to catch it at least once after it begins circulating in the suburbs.
I have seen a lot of poor pictures and more than a few dreadful ones, but I have also seen a lot of good ones and more than a few that seemed to me quite wonderful. And, bad or good, most of them help my hobby. Some people collect stamps, others collect butterflies or autographs. I collect Gems of Movie Dialogue. I write them down the very instant I hear them, using a tiny flashlight pencil and a black pocket notebook. Thus I’ve retained an unforgettable moment in North West Mounted Police, a Hollywood picture created in 1940 by Cecil B. DeMille and still making money as a reissue. Paulette Goddard, appearing as the traditional fiery halfbreed girl who so often stirs up the menfolk in movies about Canada, remarks to Robert Preston, a Mount ie, “I loff you so motch 1
eat your heart out, you son-a-ma-gon!”
And the Redcoat, breathing heavily, replies, “Listen, ya little wildcat! You’re the only real thing that’s ever happened to me! You’re the sweetest poison that ever got into a man’s blood!” In 1948 a British studio confected a tidbit called The White Unicorn in which occurs a more genteel but equally significant skirmish in the ceaseless battle of the sexes. A sweet young woman (Joan Greenwood) gazes at her ruthless boy friend (Canadian actor Paul Dupuis) and murmurs, “Why did you ahsk me to tea?”
“Why?” he says, searching for words. “Oh, because ... I don’t know, maybe because . . . because you are you.”
“Ah’ll be a-comin’ back”
Just recently, in the CinemaScope production of King of the Khyber Rifles, a half-caste British officer named Capt. Alan King (Tyrone Power) finally kisses the general’s daughter (Terry Moore) and dares to address her by her first name.
Her response is as follows: “Oh, if you but knew how I have longed to hear my name from your lips! Hold me in your arms, Alan, and tell me, just once, what we both know to be true.”
Long before I started hoarding dialogue gems I saw a western in which the tall wooden-faced hero, his spurs jingling, calmly turns his back on a saloonful of silent, enemies. At the door he pauses and addresses the gathering, “Waal, Ah’m a-goin’ now. But Ah’ll be a-comin’ back. An’ Ah’ll be a-shootin’.”
Corny dialogue, the stuff that’s unintentionally funny, is hy no means the only kind I am fond of preserving. For instance, in Duck Soup, a 1933 Hollywood opus starring the Marx Brothers, I can still see Groucho as Rufus T. Firefly, dictator of Fredonia, rallying his troops against the foe. His bawdy eyebrows are leering above a fat cigar, his arms are dangling, his legs halfbent in the copyrighted Groucho stoop.
And I can still hear his chivalrous exhortation, “Remember, men, you are fighting for this woman’s honor, which is probably more than she ever did.”
Then there was a richly comic job performed in a British affair called Dulcimer Street hy Alastair Sim. He plays a phony spiritualist, at least, honest in his self-appraisals. Bald and unctuous, his sanctimonious eyes frequently raised toward heaven, he hesitates briefly in front of his shaving mirror while deciding whether to proceed with his scheme to swindle a rich widow.
“Henry Squales,” he asks himself aloud, “have you sunk so low as to do this thing? . . . There can be only one answer: Yes!” And off he goes, serene and purposeful, spiritually prepared for the dirty task at hand.
Movie critics too are generally serene and purposeful as they set off to see their seventh movie of the week. As I’ve said, a good many have turned out to be a special experience and you never know but what the next one you see might yield the richest reward. In my time there’ve been several highlights so many, in fact, that I’d be hard put to pick my all-time best. Alphabetically, however, I can reel off my ten best over the years:
THE BICYCLE THIEF: A tragi-comedy from Italy, directed by Vittorio de Sica. With an early -Chaplinesque blending of laughter and tears it tells of a man who sets forth, with his small son, to recover from a robber the bicycle he desperately needs to keep his family from starving.
BRIEF ENCOUNTER: Director David Lean’s sensitive and honest treatment of the Noel Coward story. A British film, and one of the finest, it has to do with an ill-fated romance between a decent suburban matron and an unhappy doctor. The roles are flawlessly played by Celia Johnson and Trevor Howard.
CITY LIGHTS: One of the funniest, saddest and most wonderful works of art in the history of celluloid. Made by Charlie Chaplin in 1931, it narrates the selfless infatuation of a gentle tramp for a blind flower girl who imagines him to be a Prince Charming. Some of Chaplin’s later films have been marred by half-baked philosophizing and maudlin self-pity, but this 23-year-old classic remains among the prime glories of the screen.
Movies like these have helped Clyde Gilmour survive a long ordeal. For his money, they’re the best he’s ever seen
For more nostalgia and Gilmour’s word on current movies turn the page
THE FALLEN IDOL: Carol Heed, who has since been knighted, directed this Graham Greene drama in 1949. It’s a compelling tale about a small boy who becomes unwittingly involved in a frightening world of grown-up passions and intrigues.
FROM HERE TO ETERNITY: All about soldiers and their women in a U. S. Army base just before Pearl Harbor and far better as a movie, in my opinion, than in James Jones’ often shrill and depressing novel.
GREAT EXPECTATIONS: Another David Lean opus, a faithful and absorbing re-creation of the Dickens story. A model, I would say, in f he difficult, craft of transferring literature to film.
'HENRY V: Olivier’s first venture in screened Shakespeare, and probably the best ever produced in that department. His later Hamlet and Hollywood’s excellent 1953 Julius Caesar, however, are also formidable competitors.
HIGH NOON: A superlative western drama which established new frontiers for the Hollywood hoss-opera. It’s about a corrupt and cowardly town and the one man in it (Gary Cooper, as a middleaged marshal) who stands firmly against an invading band of killers.
THE LAVENDER HILL MOB: A roguish and sparkling crook comedy from Britain. It has Alec Guinness as a mousy nobody who coolly plans the biggest bank robbery in history, and Stanley Holloway as a flamboyant sculptor who tries to help him.
THE MALTESE FALCON: John Huston’s brilliant 1941 transcription of the Dashiell Hammett mystery, and practically perfect as a sample of the modern crime t hriller.
Of all the bad movies I have squirmed through, I find that most of t he bad old movies have mercifully faded from my consciousness, leaving only the faintest of scar tissue. In alphabetical order, the ten all-time worst are The Babe Ruth Story, Blowing Wild, Bwana Devil, Colt .45, Duel in the Sun, The Fountainhead, My Brother Jonathan, Three for Bedroom C, Unconquered, Winter Meet ing.
All, incidentally, are from Hollywood except My Brother Jonathan, a well-stuffed British turkey.
It may astound you to learn that only once has any producer quit beating around the bush, and given a movie the ultimate in straightforward titles: Sex. Equally baffling is the fact that only once has there been a movie called Violence. Yet these two high-voltage nouns represent the commodities which the picture industry has been selling more vigorously than all ot hers.
Sex and violence are still the staple products today, along with laughter in all its sizes from the snicker to the guffaw. Singly or in combination, these basic ingredients can produce trash like Blowing Wild and Bride of the Gorilla, or an adult comedy-drama like All About Eve, a harsh but honest tragedy like A Streetcar Named Desire, or a polished comedy-of-rogues like Britain’s Kind Hearts and Coronets or The Captain’s Paradise.
Old-time movies had these basic ingredients, and I can remember my share of them. My father, a railwayman who wrote and directed amateur plays, always loved a good movie, and my mother still keeps in touch with the special ones. They began taking me to movies when 1 was about four and two years later, by 1918, I’d become a regular.
Not too amazingly, most of the old silent flickers look archaic and ludicrous today. Griffith’s history-making Birth of a Nation, I now find impossible to sit through, with its semaphoric overacting and its sympathetic treatment of the Ku Klux Klan; yet the picture was a milestone in 1915. (I don’t mean I tried to evaluate it as a lad of three. But 1 well recall that it already had amassed an ultra-colossal renown when I first saw it in 1919.)
The uniquely gifted Chaplin was becoming a comic giant in the land.
Mack Bennett’s Keystone Cops, with their demoniac energy and pie-throwing Olympiads, were among my boyhood favorites. So were the Saturdayafternoon serials (admission price was a nickel) in which Ruth Roland, Pearl White and Hoot Gibson found themselves in ghastly predicaments once a week and got out of them just as regularly. Sex was merchandised in the early 1920s by Theda Bara and other temptresses, all of whom seem wonderfully absurd when glimpsed today in nostalgic revivals. The gorgeous Barbara La Marr, perhaps, was a glowing exception. Of her, humorist Al Capp declared fervidly, “When she inhaled, boys became men!”
I can still remember Harold Lloyd clinging wild-eyed to the hands of a skyscraper clock in Safety Last (1923). The dashing Wallace Reid was among my idols, and so were Art Acord and Thomas Meighan and Harry Langdon and comedienne Dorothy Dalton and that unforgotten king of celluloid swashbucklers, Douglas Fairbanks the First. But I was no fan of the oily Rudolph Valentino, archtype of the slinky Latin lovers who have been largely replaced in recent years by muscle boys with erewcuts. And heretical though it may be for any corn-fed Canadian boy to make such a confession, I’m afraid I never cared much for Mary Piekford, who early mastered the knack of boring me to pieces.
A girl with bobbed hair and a tight red dress used to crouch over a wheezy piano in the Dreamland Theatre and play mood music while Richard Barthelmess or Ramon Novarro crushed some fluttering damsel to his bosom. But The Thief of Bagdad (1924) and a few other super-dupers, sparing no expense, had special scores composed for them and sent out touring orchestras all very posh and cultured.
The first talkies in 1928 and ’29 were incredibly bad, like the early 3-D tripe such as Bwana Devil which so effectively strangled the “depthies” a quarter-century later. The electronicsorcery of sound itself, however, turned many a turkey into a Bird of Paradise. Al Jolson sang Sonny Boy and There’s a Rainbow ’Round My Shoulder, and it took me several years to get him out of my system. A different sort of vocalist named Lawrence Tibbett mingled arias and ballads in The Rogue Song and half a dozen successors, and helped fan the fires of my growing interest in better music. And who can forget the annual torrent of corny backstage musicals? All-talkie, all-singie, allgirlie, all-terrible . . . and some of them made millions for their owners.
Gangster pictures like Little Caesar and Public Enemy starred Edward CL Robinson and James Cagney in 1930-31 as sneering hoodlums who died like
mad dogs under a hail of avenging bullets. I saw them both again just a few months ago and they are merely curios now, collectors’ items for sardonic connoisseurs.
The best of the Mae West, W. C. Fields and Marx Brothers farces have retained an astonishing amount of their original gusto and virility.
Biographical epics were all the rage for several years. Paul Muni, George Arliss, Don Ameche and Mickey Rooney were among the well-assorted portrayers of historical bigwigs. The best of these pictures were quite decently done, but most of them suffered from a sort of Nice Nelly reluctance to face the well-known fact that their subjects had been, after all, human beings with mortal flaws and foibles. The recent Joe Louis Story, with a boxer instead of a scientist or composer as its real-life hero, strikes me as being one of the most honest biographies ever brought to the screen. Hollywood, however, gave it scant publicity because its excellent cast contained no big-name star for ballyhoo purposes.
The most profitable movie ever made, it now appears definite, was 1939’s Gone With the Wind. It has been reissued four times, including the current successful revival on widescreen, and its total ticket sales have exceeded $40 millions. It’s still good, with Vivien Leigh and Clark Gable at the top of their careers as Scarlett O’Hara and Rhett Butler, but four hours or thereabouts is an awfully long time to sit watching any movie.
As to the future of the movies, I’m an optimist. I believe movies and television, along with special-events TV in the theatres, will mutually survive the present era of bitter competition and flourish as universal popular entertainments.
They Beat an Idea to Death
At least one dismaying omen, though, beclouds the sunny view. “Because The Glenn Miller Story broke boxoffice records right and left,” said a recent United Press story out of Hollywood, “a rash of musical biographies is about to hit the screen.” A week or two earlier, a leading show-business journal reported that the immense success of The Robe had inspired another Hollywood cycle of lavish Biblical or quasiBiblical epics, all in wide-screen Technicolor with earsplitting sound.
That prospect is anything but cheerful, although The Robe has its solid merits and Glenn Miller is a pleasant musical. One of the gravest faults of the movie makers since the days of the nickelodeon has been their lazy and cynical policy of endlessly repeating sure things. Restless experimentation, with an eye to the future, is the lifeblood of any mass-production industry. The manufacturers of automobiles learned this lesson while Henry Ford was still a young man, but it has been too often disregarded by the people who control the movies. They keep killing off every goose that starts laying golden eggs, killing it off through overwork and sheer boredom. Before it dies, the goose protestingly lays the biggest egg of all, an egg without any gold in it whatsoever.
In the meantime, and in spite of these melancholy misgivings, I still like going to the movies. And I still chortle, like a happy miser, over my mounting cache of dialogue gems.
One of the best came during Hell’s Angels, the 1930 aviation picture. The late Jean Harlow is seen ent icing a shyyoung officer (Ben Lyon) up to her apartment. She is wearing a slinky gown with a low neckline but the moment he reaches the chesterfield she toys girlishly with the back of her hair-do and murmurs, “Will you excuse me while I slip into something more comfortable?”
(When Hell’s Angels was reissued in Vancouver a year or two ago, a fellow in the balcony shouted, “Listen, lady— how comfortable can you get?”)
In Green Dolphin Street (1947) someone asks Lana Turner if she is in love with the leading ne’er-do-well in the community.
“No,” says Miss Turner, with hooded gaze. “I’m not in love with him. But I could he . . . with the man he could he.”
An early postwar picture from Britain, The Tawny Pipit, gave me one of the most cherished items in my collection. A pair of extremely rare European field birds begin nesting on a piece of wasteland outside an English village in wartime. Instantly the protection of these tiny visitors takes precedence over mere military problems. As part of the festivities the lady poet of the district writes an anthem dedicated to the pipits, and runs over the words with the vicar for his approval. The final couplet reads as follows:
It’s a very great honor, we’re all agreed,
That they came to Lipsbury Lea to breed.
The vicar nods his blessing, but the lady poet is worried. She asks him if he doesn’t think the word “breed” is “a little strong.”
Averting his eyes, the good man blurts, “Well, that’s what they’re doing, whether we like it or not.”
And the lady poet, her doubts at rest, tells him cozily, “I always think it’s all right, as long as it’s just eggs.”