On May 15, 1948, the Supreme Court declared the five major Hollywood studios guilty of a monopolistic conspiracy to control film exhibition. After years of fighting and lobbying, the studios had no choice but to accept a Consent Decree that meant selling off their theaters and ultimately transforming themselves from gated cinema factories with indentured workers into behemoths of banking, marketing, and lunching with freelance artists and their agents. Three weeks later Milton Berle made his NBC debut and soon the number of household televisions increased from the low six figures to two million. If that wasn’t ominous enough, the studios went into hara-kiri mode and knuckled before a HUAC-inspired blacklist, exiling major talent and grown-up subjects when they needed them most.
They combated television and Communism with VistaVision, Cinemascope, Cinerama, 3D, stereo, and other enticements, apparently failing to recognize that TV in the late 1940s and early 1950s was literally
a vast wasteland, its hours desperately filled with quiz shows, wrestling, boxing, and basketball, often going dark by 10:00 p.m. Several entrepreneurs, however, quickly realized that nothing could fill broadcasting hours more reliably and economically than old movies, thousands of them; not just the relatively few hits that were theatrically recycled from time to time, but everything that could be packaged and leased, without discrimination. Welcome to Hollywood University, no tuition required, except for the time shot by commercial interruptions.
It’s no accident that the postwar baby boom produced enough film people—makers, critics, historians, biographers, teachers, and other obsessive fans—to populate Rhode Island. No other generation, before or after, was as inundated with old movies all day every day. Hopalong Cassidy and Farmer Gray enjoyed second acts that, as far as children of the 1950s knew, were first acts. Million Dollar Movie showed the same movie 16 times a week, generating villages of the damned—hollow-eyed boys and girls who knew King Kong and George M. Cohan almost as intimately as their parents knew each other.
The oddest thing about the television experience was how perfectly it complemented the theatrical magnification intended to combat it. Each format offered immersion, close up and repetitive on TV, huge (as in fairly common 35-foot screens and totemic in the theater. The two formats also offered a profound synchronicity in concretely demonstrating the evolution of the mores, clothing, and lingo from my parents’ planet (gosh, that was swell) to mine, from the Depression, several wars, and the travails of Louis Pasteur (the only man in France who knew what he was talking about) and Dr. Jack Griffin (who should have eased up on the invisibility serum), to the modern world of Kirk Douglas as the Viking Vincent Van Gogh and Audrey Hepburn as an existentialist romanced by a dapper dancer old enough to be her grandfather. The lineage was unmistakable until 1960, when La dolce vita and Psycho tore it to shreds.
True, the films on TV were almost always butchered, often to the point of incoherence, but we didn’t know that. For the most part the numberless glitches increased our excitement in rediscovering them later in revival houses and on home video. One of the most vivid memories I have is of a Sunday morning, sprinting into the TV room before anyone else was awake, sitting close enough to the Magnavox to change channels without getting up (yes, my growth was stunted), and in-between Crusader Rabbit and Heckle and Jeckle flipping the channel to a sweaty face with huge, dark eyes speaking gibberish. The station failed to identify the movie at the commercials and even after it finished. I stuck with it 30 or 40 minutes, until the end, riveted by the images. Years later, in seventh-grade English, when Miss Kiss (for real) told us the story of Macbeth, I practically leaped in the air—I know that story! That’s that movie I saw. A few years after that, I learned that the worried guy in the square crown was Orson Welles.
Sometimes my mind may have invented scenes that weren’t there. For example, Michael Curtiz’s The Sea Wolf (1941), a film I saw often and dearly loved—Eddie G. reciting Milton, John Garfield rebelling, Ida Lupino stressing, Gene Lockhart suiciding, Barry Fitzgerald keelhauled: except for Alexander Knox, nirvana! Every reference book, including the AFI, lists its duration as 99 or 100 minutes, yet the only known version today is 90 minutes. What is missing? I seem to remember a battle between Wolf Larsen’s ship The Ghost and that of his brother Death Larsen, but no one I’ve spoken to can verify. Alan K. Rode, whose Curtiz biography will soon be published, says that the 10 minutes were lost when it was rereleased on a double bill with The Sea Hawk in 1949 or 1950. That would make me delusional, but I don’t surrender my delusions easily. Someday, those 10 minutes will be found.
In contrast, there is the case of George Stevens’s Fred and Ginger epic Swing Time (1936). The first time I saw it I found the story incomprehensible. It begins with Fred postponing his wedding by drawing pictures on a model in Esquire. Fine. But then he walks down a street in New York, sees a plaque for a dancing school and decides to take a lesson even though he is a professional dancer. I’m lost. The woman he wants to teach him is inscrutably rude. He pretends that he can’t dance until he shows that he dances quite well, at which point they make up. I watched it several times, thinking: I should be able to figure this out. At age 30, I watched it with a brilliant woman, who said, “What’s going on? Why is she so angry?” I felt vindicated. Then came VHS and I saw it uncut: Channel 5 in NY had been showing, repeatedly, a print without the scene in which they clash on a street corner.
So Hollywood U wasn’t perfect. But it taught me that the Warner Bros. shield held more promise than Leo the Lion, that Laurel and Hardy had better time than many a band, encouraged me to wonder what a director and producer did, imprinted in my memory hundreds of supporting character actors, and made me conversant with several vanished ages, most of which never actually existed, but still. I learned more from movies on TV than I did in high school, not least an eternal regard for black and white, a respect for the old, tyrant-run Hollywood studios that no amount of Bergman and Godard could extinguish, and the desire to see all those movies flickering in their proper size, until multiplexes undermined that pleasure and prepared the way to digital hell.
Gary Giddins is the executive director of the Leon Levy Center for Biography at the Graduate Center of the City University of New York. His books include Visions of Jazz: The First Century; Bing Crosby: A Pocketful of Dreams; Natural Selection; Satchmo: The Genius of Louis Armstrong; Weather Bird; Warning Shadows: Home Alone with Classic Cinema; Jazz (with Scott DeVeaux); and Celebrating Bird: The Triumph of Charlie Parker.