Sunday, February 6, 2011

Big screens weren't just for TVs.

"Cliffhanger," "B-Movie," "This is where we came in . . ." These are not only terms that came in with movie-going in the twentieth century, they're terms that went out with movie-going in the twentieth century.

I've been listening to a BBC podcast on the history of going to the cinema, by film critic Barry Norman. He makes the point that there's virtually nobody left alive who can remember seeing a silent movie because they had no other option. (Jolson's The Jazz Singer came along in 1927.) So how long will it be before our own memories of childhood visits to the "pictures" are as far back as anyone can go?  Already, my kids have no idea what a B-movie is, although we seem to see a lot of them masquerading as main features and requiring the purchase of 3-D glasses.

Explaining that "cliffhanger" had a literal meaning for the early serials -- before my time -- I was telling the boys the other day about the continuous shows of my youth. Two movies, a Look at Life documentary, the Pathe News, the trailers, the Pearl & Dean advertisements, usherettes with torches and trays of ice creams and Kia-ora orange juice, which we bought only to keep the strange, ziggurat-shaped carton . . .  you got your money's worth for two-and-six, but I only once remember the art deco organ being used at the Hounslow West Odeon, playing "Whistle While You Work" during the interval at a special re-release showing of Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs.

The 1936 Compton organ from the Hounslow Odeon, now rebuilt and gracing the foyer of a cinema in Newtownards, Northern Island. Those cymbals, bottom left, are part of an array of percussion effects controlled from the keyboard.

And then Norman's program brings on a man whose earliest memories of movie-going involved getting dressed up in new clothes at the age of seven and going with his father and little brother to see . . . Star Wars! Already, this is nostalgia? (My first film at the cinema was 1963's Summer Holiday, starring Cliff Richard, at the Hounslow Regal. At least, as far as I recall.)

But another contributor warns us against too much nostalgia. If we went back to the golden days of the picture palaces, he reminds us, we'd be sitting on hard, narrow seats, fighting with your neighbor over the armrest, listening to monophonic sound from bad speakers behind the screen, and watching scratchy prints through a wall of cigarette smoke. (If you could even see the screen between the heads of the people in the row in front of you.) There's a lot to be said for today's comfortable, well-equipped theaters, with their surround sound and unhampered sightlines. The only trouble is, there also seems a lot to be said during the movies, despite the repeated warnings that "Silence is Golden."* I blame television.

*A phrase trademarked by AMC Theaters. So sue me.

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