by JEFF LUNDENBERGER ~ Posted April 10th, 2016
I have a confession to make. I had a lapse in my dedication to classic film.
Now, don’t worry – it was a while ago. Today I am as obsessed with all things movie as any red-blooded TCM fan, and we all know how devoted (to put it mildly) we are. But there was a time when classic film took a back seat to other pursuits, sometimes a shadow but always there, waiting for the time it would once again command my full attention. That time came about thanks to TCM and the TCM Classic Film Festival.
It all started late one Saturday night in small town Ohio where I was a nerdy teenager with not so many friends. I’d watched a lot of horror movies on TV and had been to the movies with my family, mostly at the local drive-in. But on this particular night, I turned the television on and was suddenly mesmerized by the blonde woman on the screen. Almost not a woman but a spirit, a beautiful ghost, glowing, drifting languidly around a secluded backyard at dusk, having her luscious way with a paddle ball, going in the house, coming out of the house, now an outraged banshee in the middle of the desert, finally at home in a pickup truck with a hound dog and a grizzled Clark Gable. This was Marilyn Monroe in “The Misfits,” and I was hooked.
At about the same time, I found a book at the local library, “A Pictorial History of the Talkies.” A few years later I bought a paperback copy of the book that I have to this day, and that served to solidify things for me. Pictures, page after page of pictures – candid shots, head shots, movie stills – I read every caption, hundreds of them, and the brief introductions to each chapter. I wanted to learn the names of every star and every movie, anything and everything pertaining to this mysterious and seductive world. (Could that be the way some boys feel about baseball cards?) I was particularly drawn to the women,
Marilyn, Jean Harlow, Mae West, Sophia Loren…I guess those gay stereotypes come from somewhere! But they all seemed so glamorous, unlike any woman I was familiar with in little Bolivar, Ohio. I made my way through the hefty book several times before returning it to the library two weeks later.
There weren’t that many classic films shown on the three TV stations we received at the time (this, the days before cable) so I started collecting books. A discount catalog mysteriously arrived in the mail one day, addressed to me, (In hindsight, I’m sure I received it because of the book club I’d recently joined. And if memory serves, I also belonged to a movie book club at one point.) I became a good customer, ordering oversized books I paid for with my lawn mowing money. I covered the front of a paper folder with the ads for current movies, clipped from the local newspaper, and put in it the obituaries of movie stars – sadly, many greats were passing at that time. I remember standing in a bookstore, looking at a book that had as its cover a still from “Double Indemnity,” Fred MacMurray and Barbara Stanwyck meeting at the grocery store, he in his fedora and she in her sunglasses. It looked incredibly dangerous and enticing and I dreamed of seeing it one day, but doubted I’d ever have that chance. I graduated from high school and, after an aimless delay, started college, where I met some new distractions: rock and roll, classic literature, art, boys, and beer, that last being a particularly potent seducer. I did regularly attend contemporary films and a foreign film series on campus, and there was another series that screened a few classic films, along with underground and experimental films, but this was all part of a new world of fun, freedom, and friends (They like me! They really like me! I totally get it Sally Field!). I still bought the occasional movie book but I began to read more “serious” stuff, mostly classic fiction or art history, with a trash novel or a star bio thrown in for spice once in a while, but I usually felt guilty about it. I thought I should be reading something of substance.
I eventually moved to Manhattan and found a glorious overabundance of movie possibili-ties, but mostly contemporary films (some of those now classics in their own right). My new New York friends and I took it all very seriously and we went to all the latest releases, often in groups after work. I didn’t mind going on my own (I still don’t) and would sometimes get out of bed late on Saturday and go to the first matinee screening of whatever it was I needed to see that weekend.
I somehow never tuned in to some of the theaters showing classics at the time – MOMA, the Thalia, – but there was an odd little theatre down the street from my apartment, Theater 80 Saint Marks, that felt like going to the movies in someone’s living room, where I saw an assortment of classics. And, though I now had a TV with only “rabbit ears,” I managed to catch some classics there.
It’s not that long a trip from New York City to Asbury Park, New Jersey, but it is a long story so I’ll jump from there to living with cable TV for the first time. When I discovered TCM, it was something of a shock. Here were all those movies I wanted to see, in my living room! With no commercials! And informative introductions! And “Double Indemnity,” at last! But still, at first, I sprinkled TCM in among the sitcoms and dramas I’d taken to watching. Afraid I’d OD? Bit by bit that began to change as I turned to TCM more and more regularly, until that fateful trip to our first TCM Classic Film Festival in 2011. The promos for the first year of the festival in 2010 had piqued my interest, and I’d gone as far as researching the price of a hotel but I’d let it slip by, doing nothing more about it. When I started seeing the promos the following year, however, featuring the smiling, happy attendees, I knew I had to go. I thought I’d have a hard time talking Ed into it but he was a pushover. We bought our passes, made airline reservations, and in no time were on our way. We arrived and checked into the Hollywood Roosevelt Hotel, retrieved our gift bags (totally unexpected on my part), saw Robert Osborne in the lobby, Ben Mankiewicz by the pool, and hundreds of other classic film fans sharing our delight. I knew immediately that that was where I was supposed to be all along.
As I look forward to my sixth trip to the TCM Classic Film Festival I have to thank TCM for changing my life. I know that sounds overly dramatic, but I’m afraid it’s true. I watch TCM almost exclusively. (My only question when it comes time to find a new cable provider: “Does it have TCM?”) If a movie comes on that I’ve seen a million times (although that doesn’t always stop me from watching it again, right “Casablanca”?) I have at least 50 movies on the DVR that are ready to take its place. TCM is the film studies program I never took at school that I supplement with reading – star and director bios, film history, Hollywood history, reviews, anything movie – all enjoyed without guilt! Although they don’t know it, Robert and Ben are instructors and friends. I spend more time with them than I do with most family! I attended last year’s festival as a Social Producer, an amazing experience which I have the good fortune to be repeating this year. Then there’s the fan community, both at the festival and on Facebook and Twitter. Who knew there were so many wonderful, sympathetic souls out there, knowledgable, helpful, and oh so amusing!
When I first fell in love with the movies it felt like some sort of mission, that I was called to witness and cherish this mystery of light and dark. While I still believe that this is true, not so long ago I was watching a movie, I don’t remember what it was, and I suddenly realized that one aspect of my love of the movies is pure escapism. I want to be someone else and go somewhere else for a while – where the good guys win (most of the time), the girl gets the boy (and if they don’t get each other there’s always a darn good reason), and most problems can be solved with a big song and dance number – not just worry about the silly things that chase my mind in circles so much of the time. And that’s OK. Serious pursuit or intoxicating dream, classic movies are both my calling and my getaway. Thank you, TCM and TCM Classic Film Festival, for returning me to my first real passion, and for giving me an ever-expanding family to enjoy it with.
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