Monday, May 16, 2016

How I Became a Classic Movie Fan

Today is National Classic Movie Day in the United States. As its name would indicate, it is a day set aside to celebrate classic films. That makes it a bit of an unofficial, national holiday for classic movie buffs. It also makes it a time for classic movie buffs to reflect on how they became classic movie buffs.

 In my case I believe it was simply being born at just the right time. As an older member of Generation X I grew up in an era when local television stations still showed classic films. In those days sports had not yet overwhelmed weekend afternoons. On those Saturday and Sunday afternoons when there weren't American football or baseball games airing, our local TV stations would fill the time with classic movies. This is how I first saw several Abbot and Costello movies,  It Happened One Night (1934), Holiday Inn (1942), No Time for Sergeants (1958), many Charlie Chan movies, the whole Sherlock Holmes series starring Basil Rathbone, and many, many others.

My childhood was also the Golden Age of independent stations, TV stations that had no affiliations with a network. Because they did not have a network on which to rely for programming, independent stations would fill their time with reruns of old shows, original syndicated programming, and, of course, classic movies. Classic movies formed a good part of the programming on KPLR in St. Louis when I was growing up. In fact, there were periods when they aired at least one a night. This was how I first saw King Kong (1933), Casablanca (1942), Bringing Up Baby (1938), The Maltese Falcon (1941), the classic Universal horror movies, Singing in the Rain (1952), Stagecoach (1939), and many others. In those days It's a Wonderful Life (1946) was still in public domain, so it was ubiquitous at Christmas time. I have no idea, then, where I first saw it, but it was on a local TV station.

On top of the local stations, when I was growing up the broadcast networks still showed movies. Each of the three networks (NBC, CBS, and ABC) had multiple movie anthology shows on each week. While they rarely showed classic movies on those movie anthology shows, they showed many more recent films that would come to be regarded as classics. It was through the networks that I first saw such films as Seven Brides for Seven Brothers (1954); The Magnificent Seven (1960); It's a Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World (1963); The Dirty Dozen (1967); and yet others. Of course, the networks did show a few films that were clearly classics even then. Possibly the first classic movie I ever saw was The Wizard of Oz (1939). In those days it was aired once a year on CBS and was always one of the big events of the television season. It was also on network television (NBC, to be exact) that I first saw Gone with the Wind (1939). While the networks aired it, it was shown much less frequently than The Wizard of Oz was.

Sadly, neither the local stations nor the networks aired foreign films with any kind of frequency. Only KPLR in St. Louis would air foreign films with any kind of regularity. I have a very vague memory of KOMU in Columbia airing Divorce Italian Style (1961) one Sunday afternoon, but that is the only foreign film I remember them airing. The local stations, not even KPLR, also never showed silent movies except for the occasional Charlie Chaplin film. Fortunately, the Seventies was not only the Golden Age of independent TV stations, but the decade in which the VCR went on the market.

Of course, the introduction of the VCR led to the development of the video rental store. Most of the video rental stores here only carried the most recent films and a very small selection of classics, most of which I had already seen. Fortunately only thirty miles south was 9th Street Video in Columbia. 9th Street Video was a classic film buffs' dream. They had an incredibly huge selection, nearly all of it classic film. What is more they carried both Silent movies and foreign films. It was through 9th Street Video that I was able to see Seven Samurai (1954), La Dolce Vita (1960), The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari (1920), The Crowd (1928), and many others for the first time. While the local stations in the Seventies generally only showed the most popular classics and programmers like the "Blondie" and "Bowery Boys" series, 9th Street Video had nearly everything. Its content alone would have prevented it from being shown on the local stations, but it was through 9th Street Video that I first saw Blowup (1967). Sadly, 9th Street Video just closed last month after decades in business.

Sadly, sports would eventually overwhelm weekend television and the independent stations slowly lost their independence. Video rental stores would disappear from the landscape. It would seem that many members of  Generation Y (people between 23 and 37 years of age) and nearly all Millennials (people between 7 and 22) would not experience classic film the way that younger Baby Boomers and all of Generation X had. Fortunately there was cable television. American Movie Classics was founded in 1984, while Turner Classic Movies was founded in 1994. TCM in particular would serve as an introduction to classic films for many members of Generation Y and many Millennials.

By the time TCM was founded one would think there was very little that TCM could show that would be new to long-time classic film buffs (Gen X and older). Fortunately, this was not the case. Because of their content Pre-Codes beyond a very few (the Universal horror movies, and so on) were rarely seen on local stations in the Seventies and Eighties. And while 9th Street Video had an incredible selection, they also had very little in the way of Pre-Code movies. Beyond various classic horror movies, prior to TCM I had seen very few Pre-Codes (Scarface, 42nd Street, and various classic horror movies). Now I can not only say that I have seen plenty of Pre-Code films, but it is also one of my favourite eras of film.

Ultimately I really think I was born at precisely the right time. I am just old enough to have seen many classic and soon-to-be classic films on television and rent them through video rental stores. Of course, I suppose this is also true of younger members of Generation Y and the Millennials. Turner Classic Movies, as well as streaming services and releases from the Criterion Collection and the Warner Archive have made classic films available to them in a way that they haven't been in years. While the independent TV stations and video rental stores that were so pivotal in my development as a classic film buff may no longer exist, it would then seem we will still have new generations of classic film buffs for years to come.


Caftan Woman said...

Timing, as they say, is everything and weren't we smart to be born at the right time to be able to enjoy and appreciate over a century's worth of cinema.

KC said...

I had a similar experience and I'm so glad I was able to just fall into my classic movie obsession that way. The sense of discovery, just coming across a gem and loving it was so wonderful. I also miss browsing the aisles of the video store, though I honestly don't have the time to do that anymore.