Monday, January 15, 2007

Films My Father Taught Me

For certain religious reasons, I was never allowed to go to the picture show as a kid. I could never isolate the specific book, chapter and verse in the Bible that outlawed widescreens, stadium seating and Flav-o-cal-soaked popcorn, but according to the gospel according to my Dad, it was there.

Strangely, I could watch all the movies -- any movie -- cathode-rayed into my house by the local broadcast stations. This was back in the day, of course, before cable, before independent stations were Murdoched and dubba dubba WB’ed into oblivion. In the olden days, when the Channel 11s and 56s showed locally-produced children’s programming, re-runs of The Jackie Gleason Show and hours and hours and hours of movies.

I still can’t figure out from whence my Dad’s prohibition of moviehouses came. Frankly, I think it was because he was kind of cheap. To make matters worse, for a good five or six years growing up, the parsonage we lived in was right next door to a drive-in. Like a cinematic carrot dangling outside my bedroom window, giant images of James Caan in futuristic rollerderby garb taunted me and my brothers as we gathered round the window to try to figure out just what the hell Kung Fu was doing running old ladies over in an armored dunebuggy.

By denying me a ticket to the theatre, my Dad unwittingly unleashed a monster -- forged my destiny, as it were. By the time I saw my first movie on the Big Screen -- The Empire Strikes Back of all things -- the handwriting was already on the wall. I was fated to work in movies. The whiteness of the ice planet Hoth and the sonicness of Imperial Cruisers just made me realize it.

The foundation had already been laid by the Saturday afternoon black-and-whites I watched religiously as a kid. And it was my Dad who hepped me to the Creature Features and John Wayne Theatres and Tarzan Times in the first place. Inadvertently, the old man exposed me to the vocabulary of film I would absorb by osmosis each time I sat down to watch Cowboys battle Indians or elephant stampeding or what-have-you.

Watching them together, he would spout trivia about Johnny Weissmuller, who in addition to being Tarzan and Jungle Jim was a five-time Olympic gold medalist swimmer. Did you know that John Wayne’s real name was Marion Morrison? Marion? That’s a girl’s name! Maybe that’s why he went by The Duke? And then he’d sing me the story of The Boy Named Sue, just for clarification. Frankenstein is the name of the doctor, not the monster. Then what’s the name of the monster? Legion, he would tell me.

It seems to me that Tarzan Time would only play Weissmuller films and none of the other lame-os who pretended to the throne of The King of The Apes, but since he was only in fourteen Tarazan films, that can’t be right. To me, Weissmuller was the definitive Tarzan, to be sure. You can keep your James Peirce and Gordon Scott and Lex Barker and Mike Henry.

Maureen O’Sullivan is still the most beautiful woman to have ever lived.

The Duke must’ve starred in a thousand films and I think John Wayne Theatre ran them all. The serials, the B-grade Westerns, the football films, the war pics, the adventure reels, the Republic “Three Mesquiteers” series. In film school, we were “taught” the films of John Ford. I made the grade effortlessly thanks to the old man’s love of John Wayne. I had already seen The Searchers, The Quiet Man, Stagecoach, The Man Who Shot Liberty Valence, Fort Apache, She Wore A Yellow Ribbon, Rio Grande and who knows how many others upteen times.

We watched the Godzillas and Gameras with delight, but whenever I saw the Universal logo on the screen, I knew we were in for quality. These were the films of Jack Arnold, George Waggner, Tod Browning and James Whale -- Frankenstein, Bride of Frankenstein, Son of Frankenstein, House of Frankenstein, Frankenstein Meets The Wolfman and so many more.

Gods And Monsters, is the story of James Whale, director of Frankenstein. It is a movie about so many things, but certainly a film about the relationship between fathers and sons. Watching it, watching father and son watch Frankenstein together, I couldn’t help but be reminded of the Creature Feature and Saturdays with my Dad. He created his own Frankenstein’s monster in me, instilling in me a monstrous love for movies. Frankenstein is the name of the doctor, not the monster.

I am Legion.

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