Due to troubled times, I have rejected TV news and chosen to watch old movies. TV news is dominated these days by death count from the Covid-19 pandemic, a Trump-led insurrection at the capitol, and disagreements over the value of mask-wearing and vaccinations. Even worse are migrant children in cages, Republicans who won’t budge on gun laws, mass shootings, and police mistreatment of blacks. It is too upsetting, so I have started watching TCM (Turner Classic Movies) instead. Being confined to bed or power chair, I have lots of time to enjoy this treasure trove of entertainment.
Born in 1929, I was a child when many of these old movies were made. We lived in rural Tennessee, on dirt and gravel roads, twenty-five miles from a town with a movie theater, but Shirley Temple photos and paper doll books from a Woolworth ten cent store were brought into our old farm house. The child star and I were about the same age. She was Hollywood’s biggest box office draw from 1934 to 1938 while I grew from aged five to eight. I identified with her, of course, and made comparisons. She was famous and talented, and I wasn’t. She had curly hair, and I didn’t.
When I was a teenager, we started seeing movies in the nearest towns, Paris, Tennessee and Murray, Kentucky. The twenty-five mile trip in our 1930’s and 40’s Fords, on narrow winding roads, was usually made for other reasons, not just the movie. By age sixteen I was in college in Murray where my grandmother, Vickie Martin, and Aunt Katie lived. We students could walk several blocks from the girl’s dormitory on campus to the movie theater down town.
The first movie that sticks in my mind is Trail of the Lonesome Pine (1936), with Henry Fonda, Fred MacMurray, and Sylvia Sidney. I know now my hearing was bad even then, as I remember being frustrated by not understanding what they said. Trail of the Lonesome Pine was much in the news at the time because it was one of the first movies filmed in Technicolor.
Recently, I was watching an old movie (1944) based on Pearl Buck’s bestselling novel (1942) titled Dragon Seed, when I realized the Chinese daughter was played by a young Katherine Hepburn. I was shocked and inspired to do some research. I learned a lot about Japan’s invasion of China before WWII with the U.S. siding with China. One reason for the odd casting was producers correctly believed Katherine Hepburn’s name would draw more viewers. Soon after, I watched Bad Day at Black Rock (1955) with her real life lover, Spencer Tracy, cast as a one-armed WWII veteran in the western thriller. Both movies were surprisingly good in spite of odd casting, and both had a lot to do with WWII, making it a good history lesson. Perhaps most surprising was the realization a frightened German citizen and reluctant witness in Judgment at Nuremberg (1961) was Judy Garland. It was a dark, unhappy role, but singer star Judy Garland played it extremely well.
Being confined to bed with nothing else to do, I watched a full length Tarzan movie for the first time. The monkeys and other animals of the jungle were fascinating. A neighborly elephant rescued Tarzan from a muddy river’s edge, deposited him on the bank, and then rinsed him off with a trunk full of river water. This movie, Tarzan, the Ape Man, (1932) also shows Tarzan and Jane getting acquainted after swinging through trees together and then learning to indicate names by pointing, “Me Tarzan, you Jane.”
I never knew the name of the actor who played the wizard in The Wizard of Oz (1939), but my curiosity was piqued when I recognized him in several other old movies. With a little research, I learned his name was Frank Morgan (1890–1949,) born about the same time as my parents. He played a friend of Mr. Florenz Ziegfeld in The Great Ziegfeld (1936,) a movie about the Ziegfeld Follies which was popular New York City entertainment during the roaring 1920’s and early 1930’s. Frank Morgan also appeared in The White Cliffs of Dover (1944) as father of Irene Dunne in this WWI and WWII story of her losses.
After watching Lawrence of Arabia (1962,) I was curious about the location of Aqaba, where much of the desert action took place toward the end of the movie. I learned that Aqaba is in Jordan at the north end of the Gulf of Aqaba adjacent to Israel. Because the men were clothed in typical Arab desert garb, and due to my poor vision, I failed to recognize Omar Sharif, Anthony Quinn, Alec Guiness, Claude Raines, and Jose’ Ferrer. I did, of course, recognize the star, Peter O’Toole. There were no roles for young women. O’Toole was openly homosexual, which likely had nothing to do with the all-male cast, but I expect he liked it that way.
I was appalled by the number of cigarettes lit in movie scenes. I was concerned about the health of all those actors. I was fascinated by the old cars and tried to judge by them what year the movie represented. Hair styles and skirt lengths were another clue to the year. Outrageous hats were worn by stylish women, especially in the 1800’s. I was reminded that until recent years, telephones were all attached to cords coming from the wall. Silk stockings with a seam to keep straight on the backs of women’s legs evoked the forties and fifties. I remember wearing those, but panty hose soon replaced the sexier garter belt and silk stockings.
Now that I am elderly and accustomed to my hearing loss, I accept that I miss a lot of what is said. It has become a habit to make up a plot to match what I see on screen. I was watching The Barretts of Wimpole Street (1934) from my bed, guessing at the dialogue, when son-in-law John arrived and started watching with me. Because John could hear and understand their words, he quickly identified it as a story about the courtship between Elizabeth Barrett and Robert Browning which greatly increased my enjoyment of the remaining portion of the movie.
One character trait of old movies is THE END announced in large letters when the movie is over. I watch for the kind of font used, sometimes very bold in block letters, sometimes more fanciful in delicate script. Each story has its own personality to represent. French films announce the end with the word, FIN. In Lady Be Good (1941,) the final scene is wintry and THE END is etched in snow.
I am grateful to Ted Turner for creating Turner Classic Movies which shows old movies one after the other. There are no commercials, which makes for a better viewing experience. Movies are shown night and day, around the clock, which is perfect for a confined insomniac. There is no cost other than owning a television. One recent discovery is a web site, tcm.com, where there is a monthly schedule of what’s showing at what hour. It also lists the lead actors in each movie and a brief summary. Thanks, Ted Turner, for providing great entertainment for us shut-ins and other movie lovers. We appreciate you and our new president, Joe Biden, for offering some relief from a year of bad news.