Tuesday, April 23, 2013

Read & Reel Part 1: The Great Movie Stars: The Golden Years - David Shipman

Since I moved next door to a cinema almost three months ago, I've had movies on the brain.  Old movies, new movies -- it doesn't matter.  I started missing this book, which is safely (?) in my U.S. collection:

The Great Movie Stars: The Golden Years (1970) is a big, heavy hardcover film encyclopedia crammed with mini movie bios of stars that made it big before 1945.  There are also beautiful black-and-white movie stills on every page. The copy I have in the United States is actually my second copy, which I found at Larry McMurtry's bookstore in Archer City, Texas.

My first copy was bought at a Stars & Stripes bookstore in Germany.  I was 12 years old, and for some reason, I was in there with both my parents and my brother. I think we were killing time before going to a movie. Anyway, I took one look at this book and thought -- no, knew -- that I would love it.  I had just seen a re-release of Gone With The Wind and was attracted to the picture of Clark Gable and Vivien Leigh as Rhett and Scarlett on the dust jacket.  Problem: it cost 12 dollars!  I can't remember how I convinced my parents to buy it for me.  Perhaps it was close to my birthday or Christmas because I went home with it, and read it over and over again.*  It was mesmerizing. I carried it to school and showed it to my uninterested friends.  Well, one girl said that she liked Ingrid Bergman's dress in the Saratoga Trunk still. Otherwise, it was a boring book.

The Great Movie Stars: The Golden Years helped me define how I would educate myself about movies. From late middle school and all through high school, I went through TV Guide and circled the movies I wanted to watch the following week.  I had two rules:

1. No movies newer than 1945.

2. If the movie was newer than 1945, it had to be in black-and-white.

When I was in 9th grade, we had an assembly and the principal announced that we were going to watch The Hunchback of Notre Dame.  As he droned on about appropriate behavior while the first reel was being loaded onto the projector, I cast my mind back to Shipman.  Let's see. There were two versions of this movie.  One came out in the 1920s and was silent and the other one came out in the 1930s and started Charles Laughton. (It would be years before I realized that his name was pronounced "Law-ton" rather than "Laff-ton".)  Older was better, but either of these versions would be acceptable. I leaned forward expectantly.

The movie started.  The credits came up.  Lon Chaney!  That meant we had the silent version! Excellent!  (I had seen Chaney in the 1930 movie The Unholy Three the year before at another school, and admired his work.)  The teachers and students caught on a few minutes later when they didn't hear any talking and there were title cards.  The students started rumbling and the teachers and the principal got into a huddle with Oh, fuck! looks on their faces.  I think I was the only one in the auditorium that was happy.

That happiness was short-lived, because the movie stopped and the principal returned to the podium.  There was a mistake; they'd gotten the "wrong" movie, and we all had to go back to class.  Everyone looked disgruntled.  I was late getting back to class because I stopped off in the girls' restroom to cry.  Why was a silent movie anathema?  Didn't they realize that this movie was like...history?  I couldn't believe that I was being thwarted.  Never mind.  I blew my nose on a long strip of  toilet paper and flailed around for some icy dignity.  I had David Shipman and TV Guide.  I would educate myself.

A few weeks later, we 9th graders were herded back into the auditorium* to watch House of Usher with Vincent Price.  Since it came out in 1960 and was in color, both of my rules were broken, but I watched it anyway.

*The book stood up to my constant handling for a while, then the binding gave way and the volume broke into sections.  At some point, I lost track of it.

**This determination to foist a film based on a classic upon the 9th graders must have been a way of meeting a district/state curriculum requirement.

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