Sometimes we show up at the theater to see a particular film, sometimes we just want to “go to the movies” and make a selection from what’s available. Films compete against the other titles on the marquee for our dollars and it’s interesting to take a look back at the options we had in the past. Once a month, Back to the Cinema offers a glimpse into the selections offered at theaters for the weekend viewing of moviegoers.
Hello readers. My name’s Matt and I’m a writer here at The Critical Masses. Normally, I publish a weekly blog called 50 Movies for 50 States. This week, Chris — the creator of Back to the Cinema — and I are trading roles. Do not be alarmed.
Anyway, a little background behind this edition of Back to the Cinema:
I’m a collector of “old stuff” — mostly books, magazines, records. I use the phrase “old stuff” because “antique” seems to imply a level of monetary value and I have little interest in ever turning a profit off of my hoarding nor do I have any idea what my collection might be worth. A few years ago my wife and I were renovating the attic in our house when we were surprised to discover, underneath rolls of thick black paper that lined the attic floor, page after page of old newspapers preserved in nearly perfect condition. The papers, which included copies of the Philadelphia Inquirer, the Daily News, were all World War II-era editions from the year 1942. Very cool, but I didn’t have the time to peruse my latest treasure trove — I had an attic to renovate. So, I stored the newspapers away in a bin with the hope that they’d be of some use one day.
This is that day. Let me give a special thanks to … me … for providing the newspaper scans, Netflix for providing copies of some of the movies I watched in putting this article together and www.cinematreasures.com for being an invaluable source of information in researching the history of Philadelphia’s classic movie palaces. All the films reviewed below are available through Netflix, either via mail order or online. Also, a doubly special thanks to my wife Anna for understanding why I’d want to hold onto a stack of dusty old newspapers rather than just toss them in the trash.
– Matt D.
7/12/1942 – Philadelphia, Pennsylvania
The year is 1942. These were trying time. What began in 1939 with the invasion of Poland by Germany spurned on by a megalomaniacal Charlie Chaplin lookalike named Adolph Hitler has escalated into a global crisis by 1942. For ordinary citizens, it is the end of the world as they know it. The world was at war. The whole goddamn world. Again.
I don’t need to explain to you that “World War: Part Deux” was the closest thing to Armageddon that the world has probably ever experienced, but in case you fell asleep in History class or you’ve never seen the first 30 minutes of Saving Private Ryan, here’s a few highlights. It spanned seven years. It was a massive conflict involving most of the world’s nations and more than 100 million military personal. It ended with dropping of two atomic bombs wiping out two entire cities in Japan and over 200,000 people. Then, there was the genocide. Six million Jews died in Nazi concentration camps, two-thirds of Europe’s Jewish population.
World War II was a nightmare. In the United States, everyone was pulling together to bring it to an end.
Because of the war, from 1940 until 1945, Hollywood would take a break from producing movies. There were more important things to worry about. The movie studio heads knew it. They knew that the average American citizen’s mind was overwhelmed by thoughts of kamikaze pilots and stormtroopers — and not the kinds with white spacesuits and codpieces. I’m talking about NAZIS. Hollywood knew the first order of business was defeat the Nazis. After that, they would make a movie about the whole ordeal because that’s how you do things. Maybe someone like Cecil B. Demille could direct. John Wayne could star.
I’m kidding, of course. Even as “our boys” stormed Normandy, raised the flag at Iwo Jima and all that heroic stuff, the entertainment business in the United States carried on with more determination than ever.
People continued to go to the movies throughout WW2. Between 1943 and 1946, “Hollywood film production reached its profitable peak of efficiency,” says Tim Dirks, editor of filmsite.org. Dirks notes that in 1946, theater attendance in the United States was at an all-time high.
It can be argued that, if ever there was a time people in the U.S. needed the movies, it was during a time of national crisis. A trip to the cinema might help people temporarily forget that it seemed as though the world was teetering on the brink of total annihilation. Indeed, war was a common theme in the films of the early 1940s, but practically all held to the optimistic belief that through hard work and sacrifice the “good guys” always come through at the end. That type of thinking was a needed escape from the truth many people were experiencing firsthand — war is bloody and brutal and people were dying.
The city of Philadelphia contributed heavily to the war effort. Philadelphia consistently made war bond quotas and, at the end of the war, over 180,000 residents had served in the armed forces, according to the experts at Wikipedia. Luckily, for those whose primary form of entertainment was the movies, Philadelphia was a huge theater town. Philadelphians in the early 1940s had a wide selection of theaters to choose from.
There were no multiplexes. The innovation of a multi-screen theater would not come until the 1960s (and would not become the “norm” until the 1980s.) Instead, the grandiose splendor of the movie palace was king – huge auditoriums which, in addition to films, occasionally hosted vaudeville and other stage performances. Each of these monster theaters showed one film at a time for one or more weeks in “continuous performances.” They featured exclusive screenings as they were co-owned by film studios which tightly controlled distribution of their films – this would be the way things were until the Supreme Court, which considered the situation a monopoly, prohibited it in 1948.
Stanley-Warner Theaters owned most of Philadelphia’s downtown movie palaces in 1942. Judging from the size of the print ads featured in the Philadelphia Inquirer, the Boyd — at 19th and Chestnut — and the Earle — at 11th and Market — were two of the most popular theaters in Philly. If you wanted to see the newest and most talked about films, the Boyd and the Earle were the place to go.
Based on a novel by Eric Knight, produced by Darryl F. Zanuck for 20th Century Fox and directed by Anatole Litvak (The Snake Pit), This Above All is a romance set in Britain during World War II, which isn’t that unusual considering the Second World War had been raging on in Europe for about almost four years at this point. (For those of you who aren’t good with history or math, the U.S. had only been involved in the war for seven month as of July 1942.)
The film, which takes its title from Shakespeare’s Hamlet, is pretty good for about an hour. Tyrone Power plays a blue-collar British soldier and Joan Fontaine plays an aristocrat who enlists with the Women’s Auxillary Air Force. Despite being from opposite sides of the tracks, the pair fall in love while on leave. The relationship is fraught with other problems. Power’s character (“Clive”) is AWOL. We learn this about an hour into the movie, which was about the point when I started to lose interest in the film. The first half of the movie is good, dare I say, great. Power, known for his roles as a swashbuckler in films like The Mark of Zorro and The Black Swan, oddly lacks a British accent but aside from that, puts on a good performance. His character is absolutely charming. Fontaine’s character (“Pru”) also has a certain je ne sais quoi. Power and Fontaine’s chemistry seems genuine.
There’s some Hayes Code-pushing content in the movie which I also enjoyed — teasing shots of Fontaine undressing and the insinuation that she and Power, an unmarried couple, had spent the night together. What I didn’t like is how about the film abruptly goes from being a fairly heartfelt romance into a really bad melodrama, despite treading the line between the two genres for almost 45 minutes. The subplot involving Clive’s decision to run away from the military and the importance of serving one’s country may have been a message that audience’s in 1942 wanted or needed to here, but almost 70 years later seems forced. It eventually leads to the movie’s sappy and predictable ending.
It’s worth mentioning that This Above All took home an Oscar for best Art Direction (B&W) at the 1943 Oscars. Take that for what it’s worth.
Also playing at the Stanley-Warner first-run downtown theaters were light comedies like The Magnificent Dope, Lady in a Jam and Rio Rita, with Abbott and Costello. There was also My Gal Sal, a musical biopic about songwriter and composer Paul Dresser, and an adaptation of John Steinback’s Tortilla Flat with Spencer Tracy. Most films were 50 cents and none of these films are available today through Netflix. On a related note, one thing that caught me off-guard writing this column is the sheer number of films that have never been released on DVD — some of which have never even made it to VHS. Even if most of these movies are garbage, there could even be a hidden treasure out there just waiting to be discovered.
Besides the new releases, two older films were being shown at downtown Stanley-Warner theaters, both of which most people have heard of before or seen: Disney’s third animated feature, Fantasia, and Charlie Chaplin’s masterpiece, The Gold Rush. Of the two movies, both of which — no surprise — are available through Netflix, only one was a moneymaker and it’s probably not the one you expect.
The history of Disney’s arguably most experimental film is kind of interesting. Released in 1940 as a two hour and 20 minute long roadshow film, Fantasia failed to pull in a significant audience during a 14 city run which included a stop in my current hometown of Wilmington, Delaware. Two years later, the movie was acquired by RKO, cut to 80 minutes, and given a wider release. In Philadelphia it played for three weeks at the Karlton at Broad & Chestnut, now the Prince Music Theater. Fantasia has a very real Philadelphia connection as its soundtrack was performed by the Philadelphia Orchestra under the direction of Leopold Stokowski. Still, the film didn’t do well this time around either, probably because it didn’t contain any American flags. The film did find an audience when it was re-released again in the 1960s thanks to a certain psychedelic drug that was popular at the time.
Recently re-watching the film’s sometimes surreal, sometimes highly inaccurate interpretations of classical compositions, it’s easy to understand why Fantasia was eventually adopted by the acid crowd. Without drugs, however, the movie’s a bore. The possible exception might be the finale, the Night on Bald Mountain segment, although it’s hard to screw up what’s already a kick-ass piece of music. Even my 7-month-old daughter lost interest in Fantasia after a couple of minutes when I played it for her recently. On the other hand, she was mesmerized by the opening scenes of 2001: A Space Odyssey, another good LSD film.
All in all, Fantasia gets an A for effort and … that’s about it.
Just several blocks away from the Karlton theater was another Stanley-Warner owned theater, the Stanton. The Stanton and the Stanley, both on Market Street tended to feature horror films, says http://www.cinematreasures.com. Am I the only one that gets the impression that in 1942, Market Street was nothing but a long chain of movie theaters — all owned by Stanley-Warner? On July 12, 1942, the Stanton was featuring not a horror flick but The Gold Rush, now “with MUSIC and WORDS.”
The Gold Rush, available to watch instantly through Netflix, is an 80-minute long silent movie. I don’t know if it’s the “MUSIC and WORDS” version, since it only features what seems to be a generic ragtime piano score.
Question: Is it a compliment when I – one of the MTV generation – proclaim that I was not bored at any point while watching for the first time recently? Or does that sound condescending. It took a while to adjust my internal settings to comfortably watch the film in its entirety, but once I had gotten used to the old-timey film conventions (the title cards, the sped-up – or is it slowed-down? – frame rate), I found myself chuckling pretty regularly — even laughing out loud at points.
The plot involves Adolph Hitler’s fashion icon, Chaplin, playing a character known only as “The Lone Prospector”, traveling to The Yukon in search of gold, meeting up with two other prospectors (one of whom is a criminal), and falling in love with a comely young lass played by Miss Chicago 1922 Georgia Hale. Sadly, the Tramp’s love is unrequited and his search for treasure is fruitless — that is, until everything comes together for him in the third act. Not that I’m complaining about the happy, but fairly implausible, ending. The Gold Rush isn’t about a complicated plot, as like most of Chaplin’s films the story serves as a platform to allow Chaplin to show off his comedic mastery — the most famous scene here is Chaplin’s “roll dance.” Chaplin is great in The Gold Rush, not just his pratfalls and more overt antics but also in his facial expressions and more subtle gestures.
On a side note, vaudeville actor Mack Swain, who plays fellow prospector Big Jim McKay is pretty funny as well and makes a good duo with Chaplin. In one of the funniest scenes, McKay and The Lone Prospector are starving to death in a cabin awaiting the third prospector’s return with food. After eating the boot of Chaplin’s character, McKay imagines Chaplin as a giant chicken. McKay apologizes after Chaplin notices his leering stare, but then decides that he’s so hungry he might as well resort to cannibalism and chases Chaplin around the cabin with a fork and knife! Just hilarious. If you see one full-length Chaplin film in your lifetime, this one — which happens to be the actor, writer and director’s favorite — is the one to see.
If you had a moral objection to Stanley-Warner’s stranglehold on the landscape of local cinema and didn’t mind seeing something a few months old, there was always the independent theaters. Literally dozens more films played at smaller movie hoses throughout Greater Philadelphia on July 12, 1942, including My Favorite Blonde (with Bob Hope), Escape From Hong Kong (“Torn from today’s headlines!”) and two films I decided to check out: Reap The Wild Wind and This Gun For Hire.
Reap The Wild Wind, playing at the Roxy on Ridge Avenue in Roxborough and several other theaters is a Cecille B. Demille production with a promising premise: a pirate lass living in Key West, Florida in the mid-1800s is caught between two men. The first is an uppity aristocrat from Charleston, North Carolina played by Ray Milland. The second, John fucking Wayne, who plays a salty skipper somewhat closer to her lifestyle. Guess which guy the woman (played in overly-dramatic fashion by Paulette Goddard) chooses? Watch the movie and find out. Or Google it.
Despite being directed by Demille — which means garish costumes, garish sets, a cast of THOUSANDS — Reap The Wild Wind is entertaining. I like Miland but his character (Stephen Tolliver) is obnoxious and it’s hard to understand why Goddard’s character (Loxi Claiborne) would be attracted to him. Throughout the film, Tolliver has this ventriloquist schtick with his dog that has to be seen to be believed. Not to mention he’s an unbelievable sexist, even for 1940s standards — at one point when Claiborne says something he doesn’t like, he actually grabs her, bends her over his knee and spanks her! Meanwhile, John Wayne’s character, Jack Stuart, is the silent, strong type — which is a good way to describe most of his movies. I ask you again, which of these two men do you think Claiborne chooses in the end?
In the end, Reap The Wild Wind winds up being too silly to take seriously. If your not put off initially by the Gone With The Wind-style racist black stereotypes, you’ll probably be offended by the sheer absurdity of the film’s ending, which has John Wayne fighting a giant squid.
This Gun For Hire, playing at the Star at Kensington and Lehigh, on the other hand is a real treat. A black-and-white film noir featuring Robert Preston, Veronica Lake and “the New Sensational Star” Alan Ladd, This Gun For Hire is fast-paced, well acted, dark, suspenseful and just an all-around great movie. Ladd, whose career catapulted after appearing in this movie, plays a hitman and is a fascinating character. The film’s opening, where Ladd’s character is shown feeding a stray kitten and then pimp-slaps a maid who shoos his little kitty away tells you all you need to know about him. If that last sentence doesn’t make you want to run out and see this movie, it’s probably not for you. If you do see it, I guarantee you’ll be entertained from start to finish.
As the year went on, the “big” films would begin to lean more and more toward wartime propaganda. In about a month, Stanley-Warner’s downtown theaters would feature more rah-rah-go-USA style fare as their headlining shows Yankee Doodle Dandy, a musical biopic with James Cagney, and the wartime drama Mrs. Miniver, which went on to win Best Picture at the 1943 Oscars (Cagney would win Best Actor for Yankee Doodle Dandy.)
But that’s another story for another time.