A Look at the Past

How I Came to Love Old Movies

My earliest movie memories date back to when I was a child, growing up in the rural South with only books and movies to pass the time. I couldn’t wait for Saturday Night at the Movies to come on TV. I kept my fingers crossed that no one else in the family would want to watch something else or that a storm would not pop up to play havoc with the antenna. Yes, these were the very unpredictable pre-cable/satellite days, complicated by the distance of around 100 miles from the nearest city with major network TV stations.

The movies shown on this NBC show were usually around 10 to 15 years old, sometimes older, and are the same movies that are considered to be “classic” today. Picnic, The Long Hot Summer, Sunset Boulevard, Cheaper by the Dozen and The Day The Earth Stood Still are some of the titles I remember seeing.

I also watched some much older movies on other networks that would air on Saturday or Sunday afternoons. I’m using the term “old movies” because that is how everyone referred to them. I’m not sure when the term “classic movies” was coined. I don’t remember anyone referring to older movies as “classics” until the late 1970s, early 1980s.

It was a special treat to go to the movies on Saturday afternoon with my older sister, because we didn’t get to go to the movies very often. I really liked the horror and science fiction films. The closest movie theater was in a small town 13 miles away. It usually screened the newest movies, but sometimes it would backtrack and show a movie that was a few years old, like the time they showed The Pit and the Pendulum starring Vincent Price. The horrifying scene where a woman is being walled-up alive has always stuck with me. My sister told me that if I got scared to, “Just look down into your popcorn.” She was always so protective of me!

For a short period of time, a make-shift theater with a screen and folding chairs opened up in an abandoned store building in an even smaller town two miles away. I was so excited! It was close by. I could go to the movies all the time. Unfortunately, the theater must not have had enough capital to operate. It was open for only a short time and did not show first-run movies. I remember seeing a really old version of Ivanhoe. I also liked films set in Medieval times when I was a child.

My first job after college took me to Birmingham, AL. I was still interested in the classic films thanks to television--especially the films of the 40s, especially Humphrey Bogart films. I decorated the walls of a hall in my apartment with pictures of scenes from his movies, Casablanca, The Big Sleep and others.

Soon, I discovered the Alabama Theatre in Birmingham and this contributed to my growing interest in classic films. This ornate movie palace was built in 1927 and featured classic films on some weekends. I saw many great classic movies there, some I had never seen before. To this day, the Alabama Theatre shows classic films on weekends in the summer and features organ music on their Mighty Wurlitzer.

I remember seeing Grand Hotel at the Alabama in the early 80s. When Greta Garbo first came on the screen, a man in the audience gasped and commented on her beauty. After the film was over, I saw the man as I was leaving the theater and asked him how he liked the movie. He told me he had seen the movie as a young man when it was first released (1932). In another thirty years, I wonder who will cause me to gasp?

Every time I watch a classic film, it’s like opening up a time capsule. These films give so much insight into the past—not just events, but the styles, mores, language, politics, attitudes and much more. A classic film’s depiction of the times helps me to understand how day-to-day life might have been for my parents, grand-parents, and other family members.

As a child, my aunt told me that during the Depression she used to take two eggs along with her to the picture show, the price of admission at the small town theater. I didn’t ask her what movies she saw or even how it was to be a child growing up during the Depression. I no longer have the opportunity. Classic films help fill in the blanks.

Today, I like the films from Hollywood’s Golden Era. And the pre-code films. And the silent films. And the modern classics. And the new movies that just came out. Ummm. I guess I’m not an old movie lover, after all. It seems that I love all movies.      

                                                                                                                               —Mary McCord


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