It always intrigues me where phrases come from – and “The Silver Screen” is one of them. Apparently in the early days of the silent movie, screens where painted with metallic paint in order to make the projections brighter for the audience. “The Silver Screen” has always been an important part of my life. Roll film…
My very first recollection of the cinema – a cold and rainy night while on holiday in St Austell, Cornwall, going to see Mary Poppins with my “uncle” (who would have been about 12 or 13) and my mum, while Dad went for a drink in the pub next door. I would have only been 4 or 5 years old, but I can still remember the cold, wet streets, the gloomy brick building housing the theatre, I can feel the plush velvet coloured seats, and vaguely remember some of the film – the kerb paintings, the carousel scene, the chimney sweeps dancing “Cheroooooo”, Mary Poppins conjuring steps from smoke, and of course who can forget the dancing penguins and the final Kite scene.
If that isn’t proof of the indelible memories that can be created by the movies, then I don’t know what is – “Shtep in toyme mate, Shtep in toyme”!
After that, a trip to the cinema became a regular occurence. Local cinema’s were still quite popular in those days and just about every village had one including our own village of Rainworth and neighbouring Blidworth – but for whatever reason we still preferred to go to the larger cinemas in Mansfield – either in my Dad’s car or more usually on the bus. The bus to Mansfield dropped off at West Gate, right outside the cinema. Perfect by design.
Mansfield had two cinemas – the single screen Granada in the town centre, and the twin screen Odeon at the top of the town. It was normal in those days for the cinema to have a stage, and two floors – the stalls and the circle, just like a real theatre. The Odeon realised the potential for selling more tickets and converted their two floors into two separate theatres, each with its own slightly smaller screen. Nowadays, with multi screen theatres, people don’t realise that the screen size is much smaller than they were back in the old days. We would normally go the Granada, I think because out of the two Mansfield cinemas, it was a little more “grand” with a sweet shop downstairs and a large restaurant upstairs, and it just felt a little more of a luxurious experience. Of course, it was – times were hard and money tight, so a visit to the cinema was a serious luxury.
A trip to the cinema would either be in the evenings with the whole family, or on a saturday with my mum – probably while Dad was out playing bowls somewhere. The list of films I saw at the Granada was endless, with some memorable moments.
Like “You only live twice” – my first bond film. And I recall how the film would have an interval, so you could slip out and buy more sweets, drinks or the mandatory ice cream tub complete with wooden spoon.
Or another great film (and I didn’t know at the time but also written by the Bond Author Ian Fleming) was the brilliant Chitty Chitty Bang Bang. The beauty of it was, the older I got, the more I understood and appreciated the films.
Depending on the timing we would often go for a meal before or after the film in the cinema restaurant. This was divided into two sections – the front part was an american diner style affair with red leather bench seats and formica tables, while through double doors there was a proper silver service restaurant. I preferred the diner, especially the ice cream that came in little stainless steel dishes with condensation on the outside, while grandma Burch would talk me into a sunday dinner in the main restaurant. Not a great favourite of mine if I’m being honest.
Mid way through secondary school we had to make some choices on subjects we would take for our exams. and a new course that had been introduced was “film studies”. It sounded like an interesting course so I opted for it.
The course was simple. Every friday, a bus full of students would be ferried to a private cinema in Nottingham where we would watch two films back to back, and then we had to discuss them back in class. It wasn’t much of a discussion as most of the kids in the class were academic drop outs and it was an easy option for them.
Up until then, most of the films I had been to see had been either Disney animations or other childrens films like Thunderbirds Are Go. But now we would watch some films each of which would change my perspective on life or widen my horizons.
It was here I watched my first cowboy films – comparing John Wayne in “Stagecoach” to the Spaghetti western “The Good, The Bad and The Ugly”, with Clint Eastwood, and “Gun Fight at the O.K. Corral”
Not being a child accustomed to bad language, I found myself watching the quite violent and adult “Shaft’s Big Score”, which also introduced me to some serious expletives and the racism rife in america at the time. This was then set against the equally racist themed “In the heat of the night” with the great Sidney Poitier, playing black detective Virgil Tibbs. I remember being quite moved by the unfairness of the way black people were being treated in both films.
Next came a more familiar genre to me – Science Fiction. The great classic “Forbidden Planet”, the blockbuster “War of the Worlds”, “Fantastic Voyage” (I remember having already read this novel by Isaac Asimov before seeing the film) and the equally great (now) “Barbarella”, with the beautiful Jane Fonda.
Beyond being a clever sci-fi tale, Barbarella was certainly the most erotic thing I had seen in my fairly innocent lifetime, and as puberty was also on the agenda, it probably left impressions on me that were never intended by the teaching staff. Years on and the film is still brilliant, both due to the technicalities at the time and also the now obvious innuendo in the script that was totally lost on me back then. The strip-tease in the opening titles was impressive, as Miss Fonda really looks like she is floating in zero gravity but in actual fact she is rolling around on a giant sheet of plexi-glass. This only becomes apparent if you check the scene where she takes off her gloves, and you can see the reflection of her hands in the glass plate.
I’m fairly sure that this subconsciously embedded my preference for long legged women for the rest of my life!
It is important for you to realise that films like “Shaft’s Big Score” and Barbarella” were rated 18, and we were only 16 year olds. I understand the academic virtue of comparing different genres and the different ways these were portrayed over the years, but I wonder if the teachers really considered the effect these films were having on their naive underage audience, who were never expected to see these films in real life.
Thrillers were covered in the course, with the great “Twelve angry men” and “North by North West”, while comedies were just as broad, with the sad “The Apartment” with Shirley McClaine and even some of the great silent film comedies with Harold Lloyd and Buster Keaton.
Horrors included “Pyscho”, and the original “Dracula”.
For the epics (we were told at that time that an Epic is defined as a film lasting more than two hours, although this term is now open to great debate) we had “Ben Hur” and “Gone with the Wind”.
I’m not sure why we watched Woody Allen’s “Everything you always wanted to know about sex” but the scene with the sperm (remember my comments re: puberty) still remain permanently ingrained on my mind. And not in a good way!
I’m fairly sure some of the films were on the list just because the teachers wanted to see them!
A few films overlapped in genre – “The Birds” – Horror or thriller? “Invasion of the body snatchers” – Horror or Sci-Fi?
Outlaws was covered by “Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid” and “Bonnie and Clyde”. While Butch and the Kid’s demise was sad enough, Bonnie and Clyde’s horrific and graphic end (regardless of whether their demise was justified given their crimes) certainly left me quite scarred for life with the final scene in the car.
By the end of the “Film Studies” course, I had certainly broadened my horizons, but also had a greater appreciation for the way films are constructed, plot, technicalities, casting. It’s not a simple process. Oh and I also got a grade 1 CSE. Not that it has ever done me any good.
But what the course DID achieve is it definitely gave me the ability to enjoy and critique a wide variety of genres in film, which compliments and mirrors my view of literature, art and music in general. There is no need to be a specialist, or a purist. And I’ve certainly watched hundreds of films since then, and now we have online access through Netflix, Amazon, Sky etc, there is nothing stopping me watching every film on my hit-list.
It’s much more fun to enjoy all types don’t you think?