Thursday 29 Sep 2016

Old Movies
AJ Robinson

Martha's Vineyard is not a very big island; so when it comes to movie theaters - there are only four small ones. In fact, other than the summer months, only one of them is open!

As a kid, I always enjoyed seeing the movies at the "Island" and "Strand" theaters - the two that were (are) in Oak Bluffs. We felt so very special - we had two theaters - and they were the biggest ones on the island. Yet, back then (the late 60's and early 70's) summer movies were generally not that big a deal - this was before the era of the blockbusters - and me and my friends tended to want to stay outside and play. Still, a "Rainy Day Matinee" was always great.

Then there was the "Second Story Cinema". As the name implies, it was on the second floor, but it was not your standard movie theater - it showed old movies. My Dad and I found out about it back when I was about eight or nine; it was on the second floor of a big old building in downtown Oak Bluffs - right over a car and bike rental place. Going up the stairs, there was a big open lobby area with an old fashion cash register, candy counter, and a bunch of chairs and benches. The viewing area itself was the classic arrangement of an old theater: big old seats, a padded area down front for the kids to sit or lie down on, and a tiny projection booth - no balcony area though.

The thing is, the place was never very crowded. We went there after seeing a flier tacked up on a bulletin board. As I was under twelve and Dad was over fifty-five, yeah, he was that old, I got in for one dollar, and so did he - kid and senior discounts. That first night, we saw "The Hound of the Baskervilles" with Basil Rathbone and Nigel Bruce. That was it; I was hooked on Sherlock Holmes after that, and immediately checked out Conan Doyle books from the library. As far as I was concerned, being a detective was the coolest thing ever!

The theater was run by a husband and wife, and my Dad - Mr. Friendly - was chatting with them on our very first visit. They gave us their schedule for the summer, and we immediately saw that they were going to be showing a whole slew of movies we wanted to see. We became regular patrons. Sometimes they'd play old shorts before the main feature - newsreels, comedy shorts and cartoons. I also saw my first silent movie there - "Greed" - complete with organ music! They brought in a small pipe organ, and had a woman play the original music composed for the film.

What an experience!

We also saw foreign films there; we saw "The Mad Adventures of Rabbi Jacob", and just about split our sides laughing. As the place played each movie for three consecutive nights, we can back and saw that film two more times. Usually, my Dad was rather tight with money - even just a couple dollars for a movie - but he loved this one so much, he didn't object. As a little side note, I recently got that same movie from Netflix and my daughter and I watched it together - she found it just as hilarious as I and my Dad did.

Then there was humor. One summer they had a Marx Brothers marathon - three of their movies. The first night, it was "A Night at the Opera." Once again, I had never seen such funny men in my life. I became hooked on the Marx Brothers. Harpo was like a big kid, and he truly seemed to love to play the harp. Chico's fingers danced across a piano keyboard as if he was born to play it, and then there was Groucho, my hero. The things he would say and do were so incredibly hilarious; once more, I laughed until I cried. Of course, I came back the next two nights to see it, repeatedly. After that came three nights of "Coconuts", and then "A Day at the Races" - and likewise, I didn't miss a showing.

We were becoming regular fixtures around the place. We were just about on a first name basis with the owners.

I also saw "Monty Python's Flying Circus" for the first time. It was their version of King Arthur's quest for the Holy Grail. The "coconut horses" threw me for a minute, but I finally "got it," and then truly enjoyed the movie.

Every summer, we waited for the theater to open, and then got their schedule to plan for what movies we wanted to see. Over the years, we saw a ton of classic films from "The African Queen" to "Zulu" -- A to Z, don't you know -- and I started to see a trend - especially as I saw other movies at the "regular" theaters. These "old" movies didn't seem that old. Yeah, they were in black and white, and the technology in them was primitive, but they were actually quite adult and mature. Now, these days, those two terms have quite the different connotation, but, at the time, it meant movies made for actual adults to see. I began to see that the more recent movies seemed aimed at me, my friends, maybe kids a little older, but essentially for teenage boys.

Now, looking back, and looking at what's in the theaters today, I see that that's quite true. Once movies aimed to please a mature audience, but these days movies aim squarely at viewers with a short attention span, and a thirst for titillation and violence. I think about the movies I saw at that old theater, could these movies find a backer or actors, today, I wonder. "Casablanca" - I doubt it. We'd get a hot and steamy love scene between Ilsa and Rick, we'd get to see Ugarte tortured to death by the Nazis and Ilsa would probably stay with Rick.

I have to wonder, years from now, how many of today's movies will be on someone's classic list? People can pooh-pooh the classics and say that today's audiences are more mature and sophisticated, but I don't see many films that can hold a candle to those great movies.

Combining the gimlet-eye, of Philip Roth, with the precisive mind of Lionel Trilling, AJ Robinson writes about what goes bump in the mind, of 21st century adults. Raised in Boston, with summers on Martha's Vineyard, AJ now lives in Florida. Most of the time he writes, but sometimes he works at Disney World to renew his fantasies and get a few dollars more. AJ writes, with insight and passion, about his family and his dog. His liberal, note the small "l," sensibilities often lead to bouts of righteous indignation, well focused and true.

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