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Movie Greats: A Broken Leg Leads to a Lifetime Passion

Updated: Aug 25

When I was eight years old, going on nine, I broke my leg badly while playing in the graveyard in Hiram, Ohio. (See my previous post!) And while you might not think it likely, after the initial shock, blood and gore, having a broken leg wasn't an entirely bad experience. I stayed home for a few months with my mother's undivided attention, got to read a lot of great books, and didn't have to go to school. And while I was home, I even developed an unlikely passion for what we now call "classic movies."

Classic movies. Some perspective is important here. I broke my leg in 1971. Among the top movies at the box office that year were A Clockwork Orange, The French Connection, The Last Picture Show, Dirty Harry, and Willie Wonka and the Chocolate factory. In other words, the movies that were popular fifty years ago were movies that we would now regard as classics of another era.

Gene Hackman in The French Connection (1971)

Yet, looking at Gene Hackman above, as Popeye Doyle, we can still connect to him as somewhat of a contemporary in 2023. Popeye's porkpie hat--though not, perhaps, the rather uncompromising character in the movie--even has a sort of trendy vibe that one could imagine today on a trying-hard Brooklyn hipster.

So much for the 70s--and here's where some perspective helps. When I was home from school in 1971, the movies of fifty years before were actually silent! The first "talkie" wasn't released (I believe) until 1927. Popular movies from 1921 include The Tramp (with Charlie Chaplin), The Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse (with Rudolph Valentino), The Three Musketeers (with Douglas Fairbanks), and The Phantom Carriage (with Swedish actor/director Victor Sjostrom). These movies and actors were most definitely of another era!

Rudolph Valentino in The Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse (1921)

These are antiques, cultural artefacts closer to the Victorian era than they are to the Swinging Sixties. Wikipedia tells us that Valentino (above) was born on May 6, 1895, in Castellaneta, Kingdom of Italy. While he was a real sensation in his day, very few people outside of film schools and history departments today (or in 1971 for that matter!) would have the slightest notion who Rudolph Valentino was. Even the most dedicated hipster wouldn't dress up like Valentino, whose style is basically Edwardian!

It's hard to remember in the streaming and on-demand world of today that when you wanted to watch a movie in 1971 you either had to go to a theater or watch it on broadcast TV (with commercials). My brother and I were always hoping that the CBS Friday Night Movie (on Channel 8 from Cleveland) would be a favorite like The Guns of Navarone or The Good, The Bad, and the Ugly. There were no VCRs and very few people had reel-to-reel film projectors and collections of films. So when I had a few months available to get started watching movies as a kid, I was limited to a few local UHF channels from Cleveland and Youngstown. As I recall, every morning at 9:00 there was a movie on Channel 33 from Youngstown; every afternoon at 1:00 there was the Prize Movie on Channel 43 from Cleveland. And if we were lucky, we might be able to stay up late and watch an old horror movie like The Creature From the Black Lagoon (1954) on a show called the The Ghoul on Friday night at 11:30 on Channel 61 from Cleveland.

These stations were not showing the movies that were popular in 1971, of course. These were older movies that were available for the stations to rent cheaply but still had resonance with audiences then. The big stars were such as Humphrey Bogart, James Cagney, Glenn Ford, Gary Cooper, James Stewart, Gregory Peck, or Cary Grant. The starlets were such as Rita Hayworth, Ingrid Bergman, Grace Kelly, Loren Bacall, Bette Davis, and Katherine Hepburn. These were stars of the sound era, actors who would have been popular with viewers who had been born in the 1920s to the 1940s (my parents' generation).

So, every morning at 9:00 I dragged my enormous, thigh-length, cast over to the 12 inch black and white TV in the living room and switched on a movie. Many were amazing; many were completely forgettable melodramas. But I'm pretty sure that this was where I first saw Errol Flynn battling Basil Rathbone (as the Sheriff of Nottingham) in The Adventures of Robin Hood (1939) . I'm pretty sure that this is where I first saw Humphrey Bogart as Sam Spade in The Maltese Falcon (1944). And I'm pretty sure that this is when I fell in love with Rita Hayworth from any movie she was in...

Rita Hayworth

And it wasn't just the stars. The character actors of the era were absolutely fantastic. Peter Lorre, Sidney Greenstreet, Clifton Webb, Judith Anderson, Claud Rains, Joan Blondell, C. Aubrey Smith, Nigel Bruce, George Sanders...These actors were always a pleasure to watch.

Peter Lorre and Sidney Greenstreet

Now, it's also worth pointing out that, if you missed the opening or closing credits of a movie on TV, you may not even know the names of the actors even if you've seen them before. There was no internet and you had to go to a library to use a reference work that might have the answers. So that was why I bought a couple of books that I still remember, though I have not seen them in ages.

Movie Greats (1969) was an encyclopedia of actors. The entries told you the name of the actor, where and when he or she was born, their real names if they used a stage name, what movies they had made, and when they died.

The companion volume, The American Movies (1969), listed many of the most famous movies and told you about the actors, director, producers, release date, etc.

So these two volumes worked very well together. Let's say you're watching the classic gangster movie Scarface (1932) and while you definitely recognize the star of the film, Paul Muni, you think you recognize one of the supporting actors playing an Irish gangster...You certainly recognize that distinctive voice, but...So, you go to The American Movies and find the cast of Scarface; you discover that Gaffney, the Irish gangster, is Boris Karloff, whom you then locate in The Movie Greats as the actor born William Henry Pratt in London in 1887. You find that Karloff portrayed the monster in Frankenstein (1931) and The Mummy (1932), while also putting in a rather less distinguished turn as Chinese detective Mr. Wong in a few forgettable detective serials. You then recognize that voice as the narrator for How the Grinch Stole Christmas in your own times!

And this sort of cross-referencing is how I became rather more knowledgeable about old movies than was perhaps normal for a kid. Within a few years I knew all about these actors and their movies. I knew when they were born, what their real names were, what movies they made, when they died...I must say that I was never really that interested in the gossip about them, so I was basically making connections between the actors and their films, not digging into their personal lives.

And of course my mother's interests also influenced me. She was born in 1939 and loved the Sherlock Holmes movies with Basil Rathbone and Nigel Bruce from the late 30s and 1940s. She watched them whenever they were on and so did I. She loved Laura (1944), with Jean Tierney and Dana Andrews (and extraordinary character support from Clifton Webb, Judith Anderson, and Vincent Price). She loved Rebecca (1940), starring Laurence Oliver and Joan Fontaine (with excellent character support from Judith Anderson, George Sanders, C. Aubrey Smith, and Leo G. Carroll), which we also watched when it came on TV. We made quite a team.

And in addition to watching movies on TV, as the years went by, I also found an outlet for great movies as a teenager when an Art professor at Hiram College (whose name I think was Paul Johnson) showed a classic movie periodically in the art building. This, of course, was where I came to see the sorts of movies that we identify by the name of the director, rather than the lead actor: The Battleship Potemkin (1925) by Sergei Eisenstein; The Seventh Seal (1957) by Ingmar Bergman; The Great Dictator (1940) by Charlie Chaplin; Citizen Kane (1941) by Orson Welles. These were the movies they watched in film schools, not on The Prize Movie on Channel 43.

At any rate, this passion for old movies never quite dried up. My love and I recently watched Casablanca (1942) and I couldn't have been more excited. I'm afraid I was mumbling the whole time, "That's Claude Rains, fantastic character actor. That's Sidney Greenstreet, one of my favorites. The little guy's Peter Lorre, who was a Hungarian immigrant who made movies in German before coming to the US in the 1930s. They were in The Maltese Falcon together. The cuddly old waiter is S. Z. Sakall, an Austrian actor who always plays this sort of character. I was in love with Ingrid Bergman when I was a kid." She didn't smack me, so I feel fortunate!

At any rate--once again, that broken leg may have been a drag, but it also resulted in a lifelong passion for old movies, and that can't be too bad...

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