By James Wallace Harris, Tuesday, April 19, 2016
Yesterday I watched two movies I had first seen in the 3rd and 5th grades. I don’t know what spurred this bout of nostalgia, but I wondered enough to write this essay. I don’t think I’m unique in wanting to see shows again from childhood. I often read customer comments when buying DVDs on Amazon that start with phrases like “I’ve been searching for this movie for decades.” Been there, done that, more times than I can count.
The first film I watched yesterday was Treasure Island from 1934, with Jackie Cooper and Wallace Beery. I was in the third grade, and we were living in New Jersey. I believe I saw the movie first, then my mother got the book and read it to me, or with me. It’s the only memory I have of her reading to me. I also remember going to a costume party that year dressed as Long John Silver. I’ve seen this film countless times over my lifetime, and it always evokes strong wistful emotions. I don’t know if it’s the story, or memories of my own feelings from long ago. It’s funny, there’s been many versions of Treasure Island since 1934, but I’ve never seen any of them. I either feel the Wallace Beery version can’t be beat, or I’m afraid of ruining my nostalgia. For some reason my memories of black and white movies are stronger than movies in color. There were some old films that were in color, but I first saw them in B&W because we didn’t own a color TV until 1965.
The second movie, the one I first watched back in the 5th grade with my sister Becky, is The Time of Their Lives, an Abbott & Costello film from 1946. Lou and Marjorie Reynolds play revolutionary war ghosts, falsely condemned as traitors, cursed to haunt the Danbury estate where they were killed till the crack of doom. Bud plays a guy in the past and the present, but kind of an asshole in both eras. The neat thing about this Abbott & Costello flick, is the duo are separated. Even as a kid, I could only handle so much of their standard shtick, so The Time of Their Lives was refreshingly different. Becky and I loved the story of very old ghosts interacting with the modern world. Of course, we also love the Charlie the Tuna commercials that came on with the movie. Today, I can enjoy parts of The Time of Their Lives but it’s pretty damn silly. Mostly, it’s nostalgia that keeps me watching. The Time of Their Lives is often referred to as the Abbott & Costello film for people who don’t like Abbott & Costello.
As a kid, I didn’t really like a lot of kid flicks, not even Disney films. But I did love films about pirates, folks stranded on desert islands, ghosts and angels. The first film I remember seeing, High Barbaree, I’ve written about a number of times, included a mystical island and a stranded naval pilot. Did that film start me on my road to loving fantasy, or was I born with a fantasy gene? Or is it just typical for kids to love movies about ghosts and angels? Doesn’t everyone love It’s A Wonderful Life, A Christmas Carol, Here Comes Mr. Jordan, The Bishop’s Wife, For Heaven’s Sake, Angels in the Outfield, Death Takes a Holiday, On Borrowed Time – wait, I seem to be remembering only old black and white angel movies. I do love Wings of Desire, City of Angels and Angel-A, and other modern angel movies, but not like I love the old ones.
What’s hilarious is I’m an atheist, but love angel movies. Go figure. Even as a kid I was skeptic. When I was very young I was extremely gullible that attracted torment. I was a year younger than all the kids my grade. For example, they picked on me for being the last kid to believe in Santa Claus. So I guess I turned towards fantasy in movies and books, my secret way to enjoy ghosts and angels, knowing they weren’t real, but still getting to believe in an approved way.
I have to wonder why the movies I saw before age 13 burned deeper into my consciousness than the movies seen since? I’ve watched thousands of films, and I know intellectually that modern films are far more sophisticated, better made, better acted, and better told, than my old favorites. But it’s the old films that have glued themselves to my neurons. It’s also these films first seen in childhood, that I buy and rewatch. Is that just me, or true of everyone as we get older?
Which reminds me, I also loved old movies about dogs and horses, especially National Velvet and Lassie Come Home, or maybe as a kid I just had a crush on the young Elizabeth Taylor. During that time I used to love reading books by Jack London and Albert Payson Terhune. And don’t forget Johnny Weissmuller’s Tarzan flicks, and shows about monsters like King Kong and Frankenstein. But by the time I was in the sixth grade, I had developed a passion for 1930s movies, especially for MGM and Warner Brother pictures. I didn’t know anything about the studios back then, I just loved black and white movies from the 1930s. That’s what showed on TV growing up, so I was conditioned by them. Films like Manhattan Melodrama and Grand Hotel seemed otherworldly to me then, and maybe now too.
Maybe one reason why those old films are so well buried in my brain is I used to stay up late watching them. During the summer vacations my parents would let Becky and I watch the all-night movies. I realize now my mother probably allowed this because we’d sleep until noon, and this would give her some private time before she had to be at work at 2pm. Anyway, maybe I love these films more because I watched them instead of getting my REM sleep. To me, one of the most powerful forms of nostalgia is watching old black and white movies late at night in a darken room. I love the flicker of movie light being the only illumination of reality. Hell, I had VR sixty years ago.