I am reprinting the entirety of my first and most ambitious book (Moving Places: A Life at the Movies, New York: Harper & Row, 1980) in its second edition (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1995) on this site in eleven installments. This is the seventh.
Of married ones and single ones
And families and daters
There’s fun for all of you this week
At the Muscle Shoals Theatres!
“Three Stripes in the Sun” is the name of one
That’s playing the Shoals today
It concerns an Army sergeant
Better known as Aldo Ray.
“Blood Alley” refers to the Formosa Straits
A dangerous part of the ocean
Where Communists, storms and Lauren Bacall
Keep John Wayne in perpetual motion.
—from Stanley Rosenbaum’s Sunday column, Florence Times , January 8, 1956
Sometimes it wasn’t the movie at all but the configuration that went with it, or came out of it, or burned straight through it like a dropped cigarette—the static image summoned up by title, poster, billboard, newspaper ad, review, or some other form of promotion. Or maybe it was the false yet enduring and prevailing expectation. As Alvin said to me in Washington three months ago, Movies used to be the Rosenbaums’ Muzak —forever buzzing, blandly and gleefully, in the backs of our minds; and meanwhile adding up figures, busy as bees.
In some cases it might have been just a bit of ballyhoo that the theater manager devised, the real-life ads he staged, such as the giant robot from The Day The Earth Stood Still —or rather, a noble facsimile built by Bobby Stewart, the Shoals manager—patrolling the center of downtown Florence during the last shopping week before Christmas 1951, or the “moonshine still” that Aston (“Elk”) Elkins rigged up at the Colbert to push Thunder Road in 1958—a funny prank to play in a county where bootleggers and churches have joined forces to keep liquor illegal since 1952. (When I saw Bird of Paradise during the spring of 1951 in the adjacent county—which has been dry since time immemorial—all those drives across the river, mainly to Sunday school or the Sheffield and Tuscumbia theaters, past all those beer stands and bars and neon neo-nightclubs, conveyed to me at eight a warm, goodnatured, uninhibited paganism that I could immediately ascribe, like a credential, to Kalua’s heavenly tribal people, that happy-go-lucky, pre-hippie, pre-Panavision, pre-Jonestown extended family unit.)
Promo gimmicks like those shown here were one of Elk’s specialties when he managed the Colbert. For Thunder Road he built that “still” and put water in it and a fire under it, and before long his mother and father-in-law had phoned his wife Mae Murray to ask whether he was in jail. That’s the honest truth.
[Aston Elkins ballyhoo, Colbert Theatre, Sheffield, Alabama, December 22 or 23, 1950]
[Aston Elkins ballyhoo, Colbert Theatre, Sheffield, Alabama, September 9 or 10, 1954]
[Aston Elkins ballyhoo, Colbert Theatre, Sheffield, Alabama, March 1958]
“Paul Harvey got aholt of it in some way on his news,” Elk says grinning, flushed as a beet, in the Rosenbaum living room on March 19, 1978, where he and Mae Murray and Bobby Stewart and Stanley and Mimi and a current local theater manager my age, W L. Butler, and his wife Diane and I are all sipping coffee this Sunday afternoon and talking about the theaters. “And it got into every newspaper.” “It did,” says Mae Murray, “it went all over.” Another time, to promote a horror film (he doesn’t recall which one or when it was ) Elk borrowed a casket from his brother’s funeral home and filled it with a department store dummy that he covered with catsup. Ever since the Colbert was demolished Elk has been working with real corpses in his brother’s business. Bobby is still a sign painter, and one of the best.
Sometimes it was the accompanying routine, like Daddy’s checking up, a ritual he performed five or six nights a week, every night but Surprise Night, usually alone, sometimes with Mommy, sometimes with one or more of us (on weekends or on a special holiday or during the summer, when we could stay up later), always leaving the Shoals sometime after nine to drive across the river and pick up the final reports at the Colbert and the Tuscumbian, always returning well before eleven.
A routine so absolute you could check the order of the universe by it. Jonathan, living in France, found himself recalling it each time he attended the Cannes Film Festival (May 1970, 1971, 1972, 1973), whenever he began restlessly to make the rounds of all the places he habitually passed through. He would begin at the Carlton lobby, with its huge square glass ashtrays resting like miniature swimming pools on the spacious marble reception counter, then walk past the shrieking, waving billboards and banners to the Petit Carlton a few blocks away, a noisy, crowded bar for sailors and journalists without expense accounts (like Jonathan, a stringer for the Village Voice, Time Out, and Film Comment ) on rue d’Antibes, a narrow “main street” that led to most of the smaller hotels and cinemas. Then he’d proceed back around the crowd in front of the Grand Palais and all the way down the white hot and blue cool line of ritzy seaside hotels toward the casino, ceaselessly coveting and recovering his happy stations of the Croisette between movies while looking for friends, colleagues, acquaintances, or others whom he could never meet properly in Paris, even though he’d been there since the fall of 1969. Maybe it wasn’t so much checking up as checking things out—perhaps even scaring things up—but it brought back hints of Stanley’s bright pleasure in compulsively repeating a regular itinerary of stops, surveys, pipeloads, and amiable chats.
If the Conquistador had had a radio or TV show of his own in the mid-fifties (we would have watched the latter on our first set, Bo’s twenty-one-inch RCA that he gave us for Chanukah in 1954 when he got himself a larger model, at the same time that Stanley and Mimi bought me my first typewriter, a Smith-Corona portable), he might well have wanted to call his program Checking Up . And if he had gone on the air with it often enough, we would have gladly listened to and/or watched it instead of movies. It was always a narrative, a story in which Stanley Rosenbaum was either the hero or the narrator and the listeners/spectators were the inhabitants of his Indian red 1953 Pontiac station wagon or his green 1949 Oldsmobile as he drove across the river and back to pick up the final reports from the Colbert and the Tuscumbian. The whole trip took about an hour, stops and commercial breaks included.
What was so wonderful about checking up? It wasn’t exactly a western, though it had a few things in common with some of them, a relationship enhanced no doubt by the fact that we most often went with Stanley on Friday and Saturday nights, which also happened to be when westerns usually played. First, you rode somewhere, making stops along the way to pick up important information. Second, adventures and spectacles en route were always a possibility; once, in the mid-fifties, a locust attack swamped the windshield as you and Stanley, alone in the car, were crossing O’Neal Bridge from Sheffield to Florence. Third, women usually didn’t come along for the ride, though they were always waiting faithfully at the stops. These were mainly (apart from Mimi) the box office cashiers, who had to total the number of tickets sold (and how many of each kind—adult, child, student, colored) and the amounts of money made in tickets and concessions. They would also fill out a form, noting the starting and ending serial numbers on the tickets sold that day, which Stanley would collect. In the meantime, the manager would have placed the day’s proceeds in a canvas bag, deposited it in the night vault of the local bank, and returned to the theater before Stanley arrived.
Sometimes Mimi came along on weekends, though she preferred weeknights (after seeing an early movie with Stanley), when she didn’t have to compete for his attention. She didn’t like getting out at the Colbert and the Tuscumbian with the rest of us. The cheesecake on the walls of Elk’s office made her uncomfortable, and by the time we reached Tuscumbia (entering from the north, just past the turnoff for Helen Keller’s birthplace) she had usually located some classical music on the radio. She would listen to that while we went with Stanley to see Jimmy Hall or Walter Arsic, the manager at the Tuscumbian, or perhaps we would watch a portion of the last feature while Stanley took care of business. We stood in the back of the auditorium until he tapped each of us gently on the shoulder and said, “Time to go, Butch.”
The warm familiarity of checking up had a lot to do with the places you passed, the people you saw when you stopped, and the fragments of movies you glimpsed, usually morsels of movies already seen at the Shoals or tantalizing previews of what was coming shortly. (On Friday, May 17, 1957, it was Teahouse of the August Moon —already seen last Sunday—at the Colbert; and Giant—running concurrently at the Shoals, where the whole family would see it the day after tomorrow—at the Tuscumbian.)
Sometimes, if you arrived at either theater far enough ahead of schedule, before the last feature had begun, you’d see trailers (the trade term for previews) you had already seen at the Shoals as well as trailers that were new to you. Outside, under the marquees, you could study the paper advertising, the one-sheets and three-sheets and picture cards for the movie that would be showing tomorrow, while inside, in the lobbies, there were additional one-sheets for future attractions (and occasionally a special display, such as this one by Elk in 1959). Further inside, at the back of each auditorium, next to the semidark areas where we stood watching fragments of the movies, were the bright green and red CinemaScope-shaped lobby cards, sprayed with the magical hue of violet fluorescent bulbs inside a vertical Day-Glo display case, announcing attractions that were even further off in the future—like the serial numbers of the tickets for any given day, a chain that stretched forward and backward in an infinite series, neither progressing nor regressing as it proceeded in two directions, endlessly, beyond any human ken.
An only child, Stanley didn’t like checking up by himself, so he sometimes invited friends to come along. One of them was A.G., a good-natured fellow who was missing an arm, read a lot, and was a fan of Ray Bradbury, Jonny’s favorite author from Surprise Nights. He was also an epileptic, which was how Daddy met him in the first place, after he had had a fit in the Shoals balcony. He had lost his arm when he was a kid, holding on to the back of a truck while riding a bike. Mommy never liked to check up with Daddy when A.G. came along; she agreed that he was a nice man, but being around him made her skin crawl—one of those feelings that wasn’t his fault and wasn’t hers.
The grand climax, the final dramatic cymbal-clash of checking up, always occurred before Stanley returned to the Shoals. One felt it building up during the long drive back from Tuscumbia to Florence, Stanley’s route nearly always taking one through Muscle Shoals City. There he’d automatically reduce his speed in order to avoid getting a ticket (it was a speed trap before becoming a music and recording center in the sixties and thereby expanding the Tri-Cities into the Quad Cities), passing the Park-Vue Drive-In (today the Marboro, where W.L. is the manager), which belonged to a competitor yet afforded a quick, fragmented glance of still another movie. After passing a small patch of government-owned TVA property, Stanley would retrace a portion of his route into Sheffield by turning right at the intersection where Ron’s Gym is today, less than a quarter of a mile from O’Neal Bridge. Finally, after recrossing this bridge back into Florence and proceeding gradually up the main drag toward the high embankment facing the river and the
[Aston Elkins ballyhoo, lobby display for the fortieth anniversary of Rosenbaum Theatres,
Colbert Theatre, Sheffield, Alabama, summer 1959]
Sheffield palisades, you would pass on your left the twenty-four-sheet announcing the next big movie at the Shoals, a giant billboard smiling down on your return to Florence like a divine countenance, perhaps with the face of a pretty woman, reminding you how nice it was to be home again.
I’ve never seen Behind The Rising Sun , but this ad was a familiar one throughout my childhood. It appeared with two intriguing variations in the July 24, 1943, Showman’s Trade Review, an issue that featured Bo on the cover (“business and civic leader . . . now serving his second year in the chairmanship of district 1 for the Alabama War Chest appeal by appointment of Gov. Chauncey Sparks . . . ” says the blurb inside). I must have looked through that magazine dozens of times in Stanley’s office over the years, usually while waiting to go home with him after having seen a movie next door at the Shoals. It was kept in the same low bookshelf that housed all the Motion Picture Almanacs , and as a rule I would resort to it only after I had gone through the latest Time or Boxoffice on the desk.
My memory of this ad (“exterminated,” the title, and the message at lower right are rendered in bright blue) and its two companion pieces elsewhere in the issue (identical themes and credits have slightly different characters and texts, and red or orange letters instead of blue) gradually became interwoven and intermixed with afterimages of movies I had seen, a long, rich anthology of monsters that included
the Japanese insect torturers of The Purple Heart (1944), a reissue at the Princess in June 1950;
Ming the Merciless in a Flash Gordon feature digested from a thirties serial, at the Shoals some time in the mid-fifties;
the invisible, all-destroying title feline in Track Of The Cat (Shoals, April 1955);
the quasi-visible barbarian Indians at the beginning of The Searchers (Shoals, June 1956);
the visible but faceless villains of Rio Bravo (Cinema, May 1959);
the Mongolian savages at the end of Seven Women , John Ford’s last film, seen with Carolyn Fireside at Studio Cujas, October 10, 1969, three days after I moved to Paris;
the Vietcong gooks in The Deer Hunter , seen in a midtown Manhattan screening room on December 12, 1978, the day before I flew to Berkeley (and wrote my review of this movie for Take One );
and countless other xenophobic images in between.
Of course there are significant differences between these images. The Japanese insect torturers in The Purple Heart (reseen at the Museum of Modern Art, February 1979) appeared at the same time that the United States was at war with Japan, and a few clumsy attempts were made to give human (i.e., American) characteristics to these strange people from afar. By contrast, the Oscar-winning racism of The Deer Hunter was articulated, enjoyed, and rewarded in mid-April 1979—several years after the withdrawal of U.S. troops from Vietnam—and no effort whatsoever appears to have been made to humanize its buglike villains.
[Advertisement, Showman's Trade Review, July 24, 1943]
1. Run through any movie, good or bad, frame by frame, until you arrive at your favorite frozen instant, the point at which characters, emotions, sets, and ideas suddenly merge in an ideal symbolic configuration that conveys a maximum of unified meaning within a minimum of space and time—an orgasmic flash of signification that strikes like lightning between two bats of an eyelid, which any idiot (like you or me) can read at once.
2. Got it? Now hold on to it for dear life. Throw the rest into the disposal unit, for eventual retrieval by nostalgia (a term coined in 1688 by Johannes Hofer, an Alsatian medical student, derived from Greek roots meaning “return home” and “pain,” and regarded as a medical problem through the end of the nineteenth century), but don’t let go of the snazzy book-jacket logo, that relic which can somehow stand for all the rest. Keep it securely locked in drawer or cabinet, protected in a plain brown envelope. Maybe, if you’re lucky, it will be available in several sexy poses (the ad for Behind The Rising Sun generously offers not one but two “villainous Japs [manhandling] captive women,” one woman with a baby and one without; and if I could show you the two variant ads in that issue of Showman as Trade Review, you would have at least as many images to choose from as in a typical Playboy feature spread).
3. Take out this favorite image once a day and stare at it for at least five minutes, ridding your thoughts of everything else. Recite the film’s title over and over like a mantra. Varying the emphasis on words or syllables in the title is permissible (e.g., The Deer Hunter, The Deer Hunter, The Deer Hun ter, The Deer Hunter ). Take a deep breath. Repeat exercise.
4. Watch the Academy Awards presentation on TV once a year, preferably on an Advent screen.
“Who Wins Ava?” reads the caption in the newspaper ad for The Little Hut (June 9, 1957), over a cartoon desert island hut on steep poles that is entered by ladder. A giant photograph of Ava Gardner in the foreground shows her standing in a dark, gauzy, almost see-through nightie, her ample legs crossed. Part of her body, including her right arm, is cut off by the left border of the ad; her left arm hangs saucily over her hip. Around her are diminutive cartoon figures recognizable as Stewart Granger and David Niven, urbane English Lilliputians to this female American Gulliver. Granger, in a white tux, stands at the base of the cartoon hut, arms and legs both crossed, looking up at a little dog standing inside the threshold; Niven, in shirtsleeves, crouches on all fours at Ava’s feet, his nose aimed (more or less) at a spot directly between her legs.
The movie is awful, Jonny discovers to his regret at the Shoals the same day—another grim exercise in blocking libido with frustrated giggles, served up in “blushing” MGM Technicolor yet delivering absolutely none of the scintillating perversions promised or suggested in the ad. Yet this doesn’t prevent the ad from furnishing the décor and determining the mise en scène for at least three of his most sublime teenage orgasms afterward. So what if one winds up believing in the ad but not in the movie it describes? Just as many—perhaps most—films exist solely in order to “maneuver two or three scenes into position to maximum effect” (as Ray Durgnat puts it in a discussion about nonnarrative that he and I wrote together in Del Mar last spring, along with David Ehrenstein in L.A.), the ideal form and expression of many films can be found only in the ad or title—an emblem, unlike the movie, that we can sometimes keep.
Longer lasting, too—like Debra Paget’s delicate Polynesian feet in Bird of Paradise , after she has walked barefoot on red-hot coals to prove that her love for the white man, Louis Jourdan, is good and true. “You’re not burned!” he exclaims, examining her feet afterward. “No,” she says calmly, “I did not feel the fire.” “But I stood there—I saw the fire in the stones. This is incredible!” “We have the answer ,” she says, joy sparkling in her eyes. “The gods have smiled on us. Now we can be one . Now you can buy me.” “Buy you?” Louis asks, incredulous. “Yes, from my father. It is the custom,” she says with a tender, loving laugh, taking pleasure in his innocence, starting now to tease him. “I will be very expensive . . . ” “You will be worth it,” he responds in deadly earnest, not long before the impending volcanic disaster strikes.
Sometimes the title was more than enough. I can’t remember much of I Wake Up Screaming , seen at least one and one-half times on a Saturday night (November 20, 1948) at the Princess, while waiting to see Lash LaRue, on stage in person, pop the top off a Coke bottle with his bullwhip. All I can recall is a shot of Betty Grable on the telephone and the curious experience of stepping behind this gigantic image in order to meet Lash in his dressing room backstage. But the title scared the living daylights out of me at five, and it continued to do so for years afterward.
Sometimes all it took was an unexpected hookup between movies and life. Movies were our Muzak then, so the distinction wasn’t always clear-cut. I can’t remember exactly when in the early fifties the whole family went to the Ringling Brothers and Barnum and Bailey Circus in Memphis and found none other than Harry Earles, the midget in Freaks , featured in the sideshow. Yet I still recall that I was the only one of us unwilling to go over and talk to him. Persuaded irrationally that the encounter could only make the movie seem more real, not less, I was still more than a quarter of a century away from the perception that the movie’s disturbing effect on me in August 1950 was mainly an aesthetic one, not the effect of a “documentary” rendering of any sort of reality, however horrible. Instead I froze into a sort of adlike tableau off to the side of the raised platform inside the tent, turned away from the others on my little patch of sawdust, hints of tears tickling the edges of my eyes as I stood petrified, refusing even to look at him.
Stanley chided me later for my hypersensitivity: “He’s friendly, Butch, and very intelligent. And he’s real, not just a character in a movie.” I’m not at all sure that I understood precisely what he meant. Maybe it was better that I didn’t understand; displays of sensitivity were an essential part of my vanity, a virtually patented counterpart to David’s jock and macho credentials, so why should I relinquish any part of their justification? And why should I again have to confront my confusion about my sexual identification with Earles in the movie? (The identification seems closer than ever when I return to Theatre 80 on Saturday, April 28, 1979, to see the movie a fourth time. Two weeks later, after reading a copy of a treatment of Freaks that was circulated at MGM in 1931—and lent to me by Elliott Stein, a friend, colleague, and SoHo neighbor—I conclude, as I type this sentence, that sex really was the structural glue that held the scenario together before studio and censors began cutting things out, mutilating the movie just as the newspaper ad for The Little Hut mutilates Ava Gardner by removing her right arm and shoulder, thereby making her an even more erotic fantasy—a “total object, complete with missing parts, instead of partial object,” as Beckett puts it—that is completed by the imagination invested in the spectator’s gaze. No wonder that the first time Elliott saw Freaks, in Manhattan in the thirties, it was showing on a double bill with a porn film.) And no wonder that Earles’s plight in Freaks seems so close to that of Emil Jannings in The Blue Angel —a grown man driven berserk with passion by the enormous thighs of a beautiful, cruel, seductive showgirl.
[Monday, December 21, 1953]
As you know, I committed myself long ago to taking the kids to see “Gentlemen Prefer Blondes” whenever it showed again locally. I mentioned in yesterday’s letter that it was to play at the Park-Vue last night and that I was to take the kids. The mission was successfully accomplished, but at a grave cost in blood, sweat and tears. As one of the triumphs of the human spirit against formidable odds, I rate it only slightly beneath the Conquest of Everest.
Transportation Problem Which car to take? The station wagon is no good for a drive-in because of the tinted glass in the windshield; the Oldsmobile, because the sunshade blocks the view. Solution resolved upon: Borrow the folks’ Cadillac. Exchange of Oldsmobile and Cadillac effected in front of Shoals. Mother and Dad proceed home in Oldsmobile. I get in the Cadillac and start looking for the car keys. Can’t find them. Have vivid recollections of Mother handing them to me a moment before. Nevertheless, they are not in my pockets or apparently anyplace else. (She handed them to me while we were in the Olds in front of Elk’s after leaving his “at home.” I go back to Elk’s, borrow a flashlight and search the gutter and nearby grass.) I call Mother and ask her to see if I had dropped the keys in the Olds. She and Dad are both undressed, but she dresses, looks in the Olds and can’t find them. Then she drives to the Shoals and gives me her second set of keys. A few minutes later, when I am driving the Cadillac, I hear a clink at my feet, and there are the missing keys on the floorboard. They apparently dropped from my clothes someplace.
Personnel Problem James is coming to work and naturally we want to take him in the car with us.[*] This may be against the segregation law. Is the drive-in going to be technical about it and embarrass us? Alvin is staying at Rossie’s, but very much wants to come. We arrange to pick him up and we invite Judy too. High conclave of Klibanoffs to decide whether Judy can go. Verdict: No. Judy retires to her room, feeling unjustly treated, and sulks. (Cf. Achilles brooding in his tent, Iliad, passim.)
Seating Problem All four put in a claim to sit by me while we watch the picture. Only one can. David bases his right on priority of request, Michael on his youth, Jonny on the history of past injustices suffered, and Alvin on the idea that because he was staying at Rossie’s he wasn’t seeing much of me, but the others were. They all put in a second choice claim for the other place in the front seat, and nobody would settle for anything less than a seat next to the window in back. But also no one would give up what they felt to be their inherent right to the seat by me. Tempers flared. Arguments grew louder and more simultaneous. I restored order hastily and suggested that we write all the positions on pieces of paper (after automatically and unanimously awarding the middle of the back seat to James) and draw for them. This was agreed to by all, but a new fight immediately broke out on who should draw first. I allayed the tumult with an arbitrary decision that the youngest should draw first and the others in order of ascending ages. David was disgruntled by this until he drew, and then was happy to have gotten the #2 position, by the window on the front seat. Alvin got #1.
Interlude: We ate supper inside at Sam Basil’s place, on Tombigbee, after another argument about who would sit where.[**] We were somewhat pushed for time (after the show, I had to return to Florence, switch cars, deliver the kids to various places, and get back across the river in time to check up), but the kids were in good humor and ate well.
The Ordeal Begins We arrive at the Park-Vue. No trouble about James. We are recognized and they won’t charge us anything. It is now the middle of the feature. It has been sprinkling off and on all day, but we had decided that it was about to stop. As soon as we have parked in position to watch the show it starts raining in earnest. We try running the windshield wiper. It is very distracting. We turn it off from time to time. Whenever it is turned off, it blocks David’s view. Michael complains that he can’t see at all. We change his seat with James, and perch him on the armrest in the middle.
The Darkness Thickens After a while, we are running the windshield wiper all the time, and of course, the motor too, in order to operate the windshield wiper. We alternately keep the windows open and shut. When they are shut all the windows steam up rapidly and we can’t see a thing. I would be disposed to accept this state of things quite cheerfully, but the kids object. So we open the windows. The glass clears, and also Jonny is enabled to stick his head out of one of the back windows, which he claims is the only way he can see. But the rain drives in on all of us, it is cold and windy, and James, who has a cold, starts sneezing. So we close them. Then we open them again. Etc., etc.
The Survivors Beginto Despair The movie is ghastly. I keep telling myself it can’t be as bad as it looks, but I can’t convince myself. The heavy rainfall has affected the screen so that large areas simply reflect light, without any picture at all, like pools of quicksilver. Visibility is so bad that I can amuse myself (somewhat ironically) by trying to distinguish Marilyn Monroe from Jane Russell. We are on a slope, and the car tends to slip a little occasionally. This will break the speaker cable if not checked immediately, and on one occasion we actually had to jettison the speaker hurriedly to keep from snapping the wire. Incidentally, the maximum volume on the speaker finally settles down to a loud whisper. If anybody in the car makes the slightest noise, you can’t hear the speaker. Someone is always making a noise.
Interlude Il—Intermission: David undertakes an expedition to the Snack Bar for provisions. Michael demands a snow man (ice with syrup poured over it). Daddy refuses Michael a snow man on the grounds that it would mess up Bo’s car. Michael accepts the compromise of a box of popcorn, but it is quite clear that he considers himself a victim of inhuman treatment.
Foray Into Enemy Territory The show begins again. I enjoy the commercials, but all too soon we are back to the feature again. The rain comes down harder than ever. Michael informs me (with a hint of sadistic pleasure in his voice) that he has to go to the bathroom. Nerving myself, I grasp his hand and we plunge into the storm. Soon we are at our haven, an unlovely but functional place. The walls are covered with quaint native inscriptions. Michael is affronted by a new blow at his dignity. The urinal is placed too high on the wall for him to reach. I point out that the other fixture in the room is at the usual humble distance from the floor, and he quickly takes advantage of the hint. We strike out again into the darkness and storm, and soon reach the car. I regard this whole incident as definitely the bright spot of the evening. We missed at least ten minutes of the picture.
Internecine War Breaks Out We are now back in the car. The loudspeaker is murmuring hoarsely. The windows are open just enough to clear the mist off the windows. The windshield wipers are slapping back and forth. Michael is sitting again on the armrest but apparently in a somewhat different position than before, as Jonny is now in his way. Jonny tries several positions, but every one in which it is possible for him to see the picture at all, makes Michael very uncomfortable. Sharp words fly back and forth. Michael is obstinate. Jonny gives in, but bewails bitterly that he can no longer see anything at all. (He doesn’t know when he is well off.)
Even the Weariest River Winds Somewhere Safe to Sea David, with his sharp eyes, discovers that the picture is now back to the place where we came in. We start back! It is 9:10, time for me to make all the necessary stops. We churn through some muddy roads leading off in uncertain directions, but finally get back to the highway. Michael had brought some plastic fish in the car which Hank had given him. Now he can’t find them. The light is turned on and everybody in the back seat looks, but they are nowhere to be found . . . Jonny says that “Gentlemen Prefer Blondes” will eventually come to the Norwood as a double feature, and that when it does, he intends to go and see it . . .
These were the years of Jonny’s apprenticeship in the business, a time for learning how to function outside of movies yet somehow in intimate relation with them. Late spring 1954, after attending the exhibitors convention in Atlanta for the second year in a row, he again accompanied Stanley on his visits to the Atlanta offices of the film companies—Columbia, MGM, Monogram, Paramount, Republic, Twentieth Century-Fox, United Artists, Warner Brothers—to book movies. At the last of these places (alphabetically and chronologically) Jonny suggested that Stanley book Jack and the Beanstalk , with Abbott and Costello, and The Lion and the Horse , with Steve Cochran, as a second-run double feature at the Princess for its Wednesday–Thursday Thanksgiving program (he thought kids would like it); and Stanley, really pleased with the idea, did precisely that.
During the same trip to Atlanta Jonny saw his first demonstration of Vista Vision. When he remarked to Bo a month or so later that he thought that CinemaScope was better because it was bigger, his grandfather was so delighted with the phrase that he got Stanley to add a snappier version (“It’s bigger! It’s better!”) to the enormous Sunday ad for King Of TheKhyber Rifles in the July 12 Florence Times . All this culminated, more or less, in Jonny’s taking over Stanley’s Sunday column in March 1957 on a one-shot basis, describing that week’s main films (The True Story Of Jesse James, ,Fantasia, The Beast Of Hollow Mountain, Six Bridges To Cross, Ain’t Misbehavin’ ) with the help of pressbooks, and, at age fourteen, making his first published pronouncements as a film critic.
Not all the sequences [in Fantasia ] are stories, but they all are thoroughly enjoyed by children and adults alike. In this movie hippopotamuses dance, Mickey Mouse practices magic, fairies and brownies celebrate, and brooms march—just to mention some of the unexpected events of this film. The picture is very colorful and will be remembered for a long time. Along with the feature there’s an Academy Award-winning CinemaScope Disney cartoon, Toot, Whistle, Plunk and Boom . I’ve seen this cartoon myself out of town a few months ago, and frankly it’s the best cartoon I’ve ever seen. Colbert: Monday and Tuesday. Shoals and Tuscumbian: Thursday and Friday.
Taking over Dad’s column didn’t seem at all like advertising to me; it was more like a personal declaration, This I Believe. Twenty-two years ago I was more or less pretending that my advertising copy was criticism. This is something that all critics do all the time, that I continue to do on this early morning, May 1, 1979—George Axelrod’s brilliant Lord Love A Duck of 1966, in glorious black and white (see what I mean?) on Channel 7—or when I write articles for American Film and reviews for Take One in order to buy more time for this book (can I finish a first draft before Sandy moves here?). Everything always pays for something else in the long run, toting up figures, piling up goods the way that Tuesday Weld’s daddy buys her sweaters, flipping out in a prolonged incestual frenzy as she slowly and deliciously recites and he deliriously and joyfully repeats the styles and flavors of all the sweaters that she models vivaciously for him—Grape Yumyum, Lemon Meringue, Pink Put-on, Papaya Surprise, Periwinkle Pussycat. Like those people on the screen, like me in 1946 and 1957 and 1968 and 1979, I just go on making money off movies, moving places and placing movies, all the time, in every way.
And that’s just one of my ways of being like Stanley, which was something I wanted to do in every possible respect, from handwriting to typing to reading to ordering my hamburger steaks well done. Or seeing an exciting movie with him like The Narrow Margin , Saturday night, August 30, 1952, right before checking up, the two of us sitting in the Shoals balcony so that he could smoke his pipe, both of us enjoying the terse, macho wisecracks that breezed back and forth between Charles McGraw and Marie Windsor, both of us loving the fact that practically all of this hardboiled black and white thriller was set on a train and that the fat man—for both of us, a Bo surrogate—turned out to be a good guy, a plainclothes cop traveling incognito.
Hardboiled or not, the one kind of soap opera in the early fifties guaranteed to get me blubbering helplessly or glowing incandescently was the father-and-son sob stuff, especially when the son was a little boy. You know the kind: William Holden (Uncle Johnny Rutledge) becoming a daddy to five fatherless kids named after the months in Father Is A Bachelor (1950) and singing “The Big Rock Candy Mountain” to cheer them all up (in a dubbed voice, Jonathan notes glumly in Del Mar on September 23, 1977) or training a homeless boy to be a jockey in Boots Malone (1952). Or Red Skelton losing his son because of his drinking in The Clown (1953); or even that voluptuous, devouring moment of love and acceptance at the end of The Window (late September 1949), when Bobby Driscoll, the boy who cried wolf, was finally believed by his parents (Arthur Kennedy and Barbara Hale), made safe and secure from the stalking killer, and hugged by both of them at once in the back of that cozy dark cab, sheltering him in their forgiveness and warmth. (“Now showing for the 7th week on Broadway at $1.50,” Stanley’s ad in the Florence Times pointed out, after mentioning that at the Princess it was only ten cents for children and thirty-five cents for adults, “selected by Time Magazine as ‘Current and Choice.’ Added: Leon Errol in Uninvited Blonde .”)
Was it a buck fifty that the World Theatre (on 49th Street between Sixth and Seventh Avenues) was charging for Bicycle Thief at the time of our family trip to New York, the last week or so of June 1950? We’d all gone to see One A.M. and The Kid at the Museum of Modern Art, City Lights with Norman McLaren’s Begone Dull Care at the Paris (children fifty cents at all times), South Pacific with Mary Martin and Ray Middleton at the Majestic, Peter Pan with Jean Arthur and Boris Karloff at the Imperial, George C. Tilyou’s “Steeplechase the funny place” at Coney Island (admission plus any six rides, fifty cents; any twelve rides, one dollar), The Next Voice You Hear with the Gala Two-Part Holiday Stage Show at Radio City Music Hall (the two parts were “Let Freedom Ring, thrilling patriotic pageant” and “Shoot the Works, dazzling extravaganza with Rockettes, Corps de Ballet, Glee Club and Symphony Orchestra . . . climaxed by a gigantic fireworks display “).
Whatever it was, the World was too expensive—no children’s prices of any kind—so Daddy took us all to see Destination Moon instead, at Brandt’s cool Mayfair. We had already seen the gigantic neon sign for it from the window of Uncle Arthur’s office high above West 46th Street, so it seemed like the logical thing to do. Yet I couldn’t hold back my tears of disappointment. For Daddy had already told us the plot of Bicycle Thief , and the story of the man and his little boy looking for his stolen bicycle so that he could work was the saddest thing I had ever heard (I still didn’t know about tragedy, which would come with the synopses of The Great Caruso , Oedipus Rex, and Hamlet the following spring)—sadder even than parts of Huckleberry Finn, which Daddy had been reading to us ever since David, Alvin, and I had had to sleep in one bed at the Dixie Hotel in Mammoth Cave, Kentucky, on the drive up to New York. Maybe it seemed sadder because it was a foreign movie, and I had never seen one. And there was something unbearably sad about the newspaper ad for Bicycle Thief , which showed the little boy on the left and said, “Please don’t let them cut me out of . . . ” above the title, and below it, “The prize picture they want to censor! Exclusive showing now! Uncensored version . . . 7th month.”
But we saw Destination Moon instead. It was roughly five years before I developed an exclusive taste for reading science fiction and six years before I sold a one-page story about time travel to Anthony Boucher at the Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction . And, all things considered, I enjoyed the show—particularly Dick Wessen, who was funny, and jumping up and down on the moon like a rabbit, which was fun and funny too.
For many people, the ultimate praise for a movie is that it’s realistic, believable, real. In fact, this praise doesn’t mean that the movie is realistic/believable/real but that the movie supposedly proves that some aspect of one’s life is realistic/believable/real, ostensibly by duplicating it. Yep, there are more false assumptions here than you can shake a stick at. But it sells lots of tickets, writes lots of reviews, wins lots of prizes, finances lots of movies. So who cares what’s real or true, as long as it keeps you in business?
Don’t you know a book like this can be imagined, discovered, written, or read only within a privileged dream bubble that most people can’t even begin to afford, a real-life movie in which there are always other people to carry most of the props? What is it that gives Stanley and me such charmed existences as we walk through life perpetually losing and rediscovering keys, wallets, books, memories, ideas? Not that we always find them again; today, May 19, 1979, I lost my wallet for the second time this year. The last time was four months ago, in a cab, and the next rider in the cab found the wallet, phoned me the next day, and returned it with everything intact. This time I don’t expect to get it back. I lost it somewhere between the cash register at New Morning Bookstore on Spring Street and the table where I had lunch at the Cupping Place on West Broadway, a block and a half away, and, helpless as M. Hulot, I have no idea what happened to it.
A Note on Temporary Structures
Did you ever see the Central Park Casino in New York? During my college days it was the fabulous night club where Eddie Duchin played the piano. It was torn down in 1940. The site is now known as Mother Goose Playground and the area is restricted to children under 14.
The Central Park Casino was rebuilt—in New York’s Central Park, near the original spot—in order to make this picture. Don’t look for it when you go to New York; it was a temporary structure, and was taken down after the filming of the picture was completed.
“The Eddie Duchin Story,” starring Tyrone Power and Kim Novak, opens today at the Shoals. It’s in CinemaScope, Technicolor and stereophonic sound.
—Stanley Rosenbaum’s Sunday column, Florence Times, October 14, 1956
Bobby Stewart liked to do things his own way. The first concession stand at the Shoals, for instance, had that Lobby Shoppe sign not because Bo asked for it but because Bobby decided to put it together on his own and to tell Mr. Rosenbaum about it afterward. When he redid the sign more than ten years later, in the spring of 1959, with lots of cartoon characters like Tom and Jerry and Bugs Bunny on it, it was the same deal exactly: nobody asked him to do it, but he did it just the same.
He came to work for Mr. Rosenbaum (never Louis or Lou) as a sign painter and general utility man in November 1936, in time becoming manager of the Princess, then transferring to the Shoals when it opened a block away, taking along his newly built Lobby Shoppe sign. (Elmo Johnson, manager at the Majestic, assumed his old job.) Over the years Bobby learned more than a thing or two about theater equipment, and during his stint in the service he was responsible for the upkeep of 198 projectors in New Guinea.
Imagine a reverse angle of the Lobby Shoppe if you want to get the whole picture: the camera, with yet another flashbulb, poised between the one-sheets of Johnny Belinda and Two Guys From Texas and aimed directly across the Shoals lobby at the drinking fountains and the stairs to the balcony. In the center of your field of vision—which happens to be the center of the lobby—is the semicircular ticket taker’s box, a little wooden shell-like partition where general utility man Tom Stafford sat through a good bit of the mid-fifties. The full time schedule for that day’s program was posted opposite his chair, on one side of the square metal container that held the ticket stubs. Jonny would habitually study it whenever he entered the lobby, to see whether there was a cartoon, or what its title and running time were—bits of “inside” information (like the “casual” reference to Orson Welles on the first page of this book) that he was already learning how to pick up on. (It would take him longer, much longer, to learn what to forget and leave out—e.g., Welles’s displaying no interest whatever in Jonathan’s family movie theater background and refusing to pretend otherwise, meanwhile being almost solicitous in his cordiality and generosity about everything else.) Attached to the front of this small partition were holders containing the neatly folded weekly programs of the Shoals, Princess, Colbert, and Tuscumbian, handouts printed up by the Florence Herald, which anyone could have.
What more do I want to say about this lobby? Some kids from the country who came into town with their parents on Saturday mornings were dropped off at the Shoals or Majestic or Princess with maybe thirty cents (or forty or fifty cents) and then picked up at around the time the last show let out. So they would see the entire program (double feature, cartoon, serial, and trailers) as many as four times (at the Majestic and Princess) or even six times (at the Shoals, which never showed double features or serials). For their lunch and dinner these kids would go to the lobby and buy popcorn, RC Cola, Milk Duds, Goobers, Butterfingers, M&M’s. Sometimes there were several of them at once—kids and concessions both, whole families of brothers and sisters
[Concession stand, Shoals Theatre, Florence, Alabama, October 1948]
who saw the program again and again and bought all kinds of stuff in the lobby. Jonny used to wonder what would happen to these kids if their parents never came for them. Would they hide inside the theater, living like the Phantom of the Opera? He imagined entire gangs of them, evading the cleaning ladies by a system of lookouts, subsisting on stolen candy and blinking like coal miners, never seeing the light of day.
Once a grown man fell asleep in the Shoals balcony, was overlooked by the porter and the cleaning ladies, and got locked in; he awoke in the middle of the night, slowly found his way downstairs in the darkness, and hammered on the glass doors in the lobby until the fellow at the Corner Fruit Stand heard the commotion and phoned Stanley, who had to get dressed and go to the theater to unlock the door and let him out.
It reminds me of a story Ron Russell tells about walking past the Shoals with Tom Stafford one night in the mid-sixties, long after Tom had succeeded Elmo as manager of the accursed Princess (the accursed Princess had since been remodeled into the accursed Cinema and Tom had been fired by Stanley from the latter for taking money from the Coke machine in 1960). Anyway, Tom was a hunchback (and alleged hemophiliac) who took a lot of uppers and downers, wrote pop songs, and aspired to make it in the recording industry. He occupied a few dismal rooms over the City Drug and, despite Mimi’s protests, befriended Alvin, Michael, and me. He always insisted that he never blamed Stanley for firing him. On the night in question he wanted to get into the Shoals in order to introduce Ron to one of the black porters, even though it was plainly too late for that, it being well past midnight and the theater dark and quiet. Ron didn’t quite understand what Tom was jabbering about when he called for Bobby—he was acting so speedy, it was impossible to tell—and Tom kept hammering and kicking on one of those lobby doors until the glass finally broke against his fist.
Bobby (March 19, 1978, after Elk has described pouring catsup on a department store dummy as part of a Colbert ballyhoo): “You know, they talk about show business, Stanley—I don’t know how you feel about it, but it never gets out of your blood. I think I could go back tomorrow”
Elk: “I just love it.”
Mimi: “It sure got out of Stanley’s, I’ll tell you that. He just doesn’t give one hoot. He’s glad to be out of it.”
Bobby: “Well, Stanley had all the headaches!” (Laughter)
W.L.: “Did yall get off-days at all?”
Bobby. “Off-days? What is that? What was that?” (Laughter) “We used to say that on Christmas and Thanksgiving and everything, when everybody had a holiday, that was our big day at the movies—”
W.L.: “Still is—”
Bobby: “—and we had to be there. I was off Sunday mornings, Friday nights, and Saturday afternoons.”
Jonathan: “What hours did you work?”
Bobby: “On the average, my day was: I’d come in at 9, work till 11, go home and eat lunch, and come back ’cause we opened at 12 . . . and stayed to 4, came back at 7; and then whenever the cashier got through checkin’ up, I made the deposit—that was the end of the day.”
W.L.: “Bobby, when did the Tuscumbian open?”
Bobby: “We opened the Tuscumbian in ’50. That opened the week my boy was born, and I didn’t know whether to go there and help Jimmy Hall fix up for the opening or stay at the hospital.”
Jonathan: “What’s the biggest crowd you can remember at the Shoals?”
Bobby: “Elvis Presley.”
Bobby’s right; the crowd came for Elvis, not for Love Me Tender . People came in droves to that first Sunday afternoon show, December 2, 1956 (the same day that the Tri-Cities made the switchover to dial telephones), so many that they quickly jammed the auditorium to capacity, filling aisles as well as seats. Jonny only managed to squeeze in by entering through the secret door that led from the upstairs offices to the balcony, and once he had arrived, there was clearly no question of even getting over to the stairs before the movie began, much less going down them.
The enormous ad in the newspaper showed Elvis no less than five times—as “a fightin’ man,” “a singin’ man,” “a lovin’ man,” a giant face, and a small, full figure holding a guitar—with a text promising You’ll Love Him Tender In The Story He Was Born To Play (as well as Richard Egan and good old Debra Paget) and offering a free Elvis photo to each customer as long as they lasted. The movie started late, but in a way it didn’t really start until Elvis himself appeared on the screen, at first merely a speck at the far end of a field, about as far away as black and white CinemaScope could make it. Then the girls went wild, screaming in ecstasy, while the boys, Jonny among them, hissed and booed with equal fury, each faction trying to drown out the other. According to Ron, virtually the same sexual warfare was waged across the river at the Colbert a few days later. In both theaters it was too noisy to follow more than a few fragments of the dialogue, and much of it had to be lip-read. How utterly ridiculous, Jonny thought with a scowl, scoffing still more when a dead Elvis appeared at the end in double exposure, to sing the title tune, and some of the teenage girls nearby began to sob inconsolably.
How curious it is to compare this sexual division and intense participation with the audience behavior at the packed midnight screening of The Rocky Horror Picture Show at the 8th Street Playhouse, attended mainly by teenagers, that Jonathan saw in March 1979 with another film critic and a couple of her friends. Here the lack of sexual division on and off the screen seemed no less a sexual release. A female made up to resemble Tim Curry’s drag queen stood below his film image and aped him grimace for grimace; a male in drag impersonated Susan Sarandon’s innocent-American-bride gestures with equal precision; and the beams of flashlights were glued theatrically to both faces throughout their turns. The awesome experience of hearing large portions of the audience recite much of the movie’s dialogue in unison with the screen actors, adding sarcastic lines of their own to fill in the pauses—lines selected collectively (and, apparently, democratically) from a pool of candidates heard and sifted in the course of scores of fanatically attended screenings—was similar to that of hearing the Babel-like cacophony of comments that greeted Elvis. In both cases it seemed impossible to distinguish contempt from worship, disgust from adoration. Maybe this was because Elvis Presley and The Rocky Horror Picture Show were no longer movies in the ordinary sense but tribal events that took place around movies, each a communal nexus around which certain emotions, ideas, exchanges, expressions, and dollars were allowed to accumulate.
Bobby: “You know, Tom was well educated, all those Stafford boys were well educated, but Tom just happened to be the baby of the family, and he used to come into the office and cry to me, he says, ‘I wish you’d tell my Mama to leave me alone, so I can grow up!’” (laughter) “But it was a pathetic case, really, because of that relationship to his mother. She wanted to, you know, tie onto the last one she had—I think it was five-a those boys in all . . . ”
Unlike the managers, none of whom could be classified as a hardcore film freak (with the possible exception of Tom, who in late May 1959 said he liked watching Al Capone again and again for Rod Steiger’s acting), Beulah Sutton would often leave work, go home and fix supper, and return to the Shoals with her little boy to see the 7 P.M. show. Back in the bookkeeping office, where Jonny talked to her (pestered her ) as he rummaged through the pressbooks, she revealed another interest they had in common. She was a passionate reader of (and believer in ) mysteries, the only person apart from Stanley with whom he could discuss Fredric Brown. And she offered him one of his first exposures to film analysis when she compared the construction of Kubrick’s The Killing (seen on Friday night, January 4, 1957, before checking up with Daddy) to that of Clean Break, the novel on which it was based. It was the same sort of interest that Tom Milne (a flatmate in London in the mid-seventies, whom I still regard as the best practicing film reviewer in England) commonly showed in comparing novel adaptations with their origins.
In London Jonathan often felt a direct emotional correlation between the offices of the Editorial Department of the British Film Institute at 81 Dean Street, where he worked every weekday, and the offices of Rosenbaum Theatres on Seminary Street in the fifties, not only in the approximate physical layout but in the more abstract arrangement of dynamic balances of power and authority. Penelope Houston, department head and editor of Sight and Sound, corresponded in this setup to Bo, and her secretary Sylvia to Bo’s secretary Dot. Penelope’s associate editor David Wilson, who replaced Tom Milne in the early seventies, sat in the next office, paralleling Stanley with his Motion Picture Almanacs, and further down each hall was the larger office where the plebes gathered—which Jonathan, as assistant editor of Monthly Film Bulletin, shared with editor Richard Combs and their secretary Sue Scott-Moncrieff, and Beulah Sutton shared with the other ladies in bookkeeping.
When Tom Stafford left the Cinema in 1960, he was making $66 a week, a little more than half of Bobby’s salary. During the summer of 1963, before Alvin went north to start Bard College as a freshman (Jon had transferred there from Washington Square College the previous winter), the two of them photographed Tom in his natural habitat, the rooms over the City Drug on Tennessee and Seminary, halfway between the Shoals and the Princess, with his full cooperation and enthusiasm. (“Let’s see how seedy and depressing we can make this,” he chortled. “Don’t I look lak a first-class buhm?”) Alvin brought his camera, and Jon took over the mise en scène and framing. With memories of Antonioni’s trilogy—L’Avventura, La Notte, L’Eclisse —fresh in his mind, he decided to place Tom off-center in the composition, using two jars to accentuate the way in which the reflected light offset this, vaguely balancing the bottle on the windowsill in a pretentious, pornographic style of photography favored at his prep school in Vermont, which contributed to the atmosphere of artistic desolation and existential decrepitude that he remembered from Jeanne Moreau’s walk through Milan near the beginning of La Notte . The picture eventually wound up in the Bard literary magazine.
[Tom Stafford, summer 1963]
Eleven years earlier, consider the passion of Janet Leigh, a Hungarian secretary named Rosa Szabo, daughter of S. Z. “Cuddles” Sakall, and Gene Kelly, a Greek soda jerk named Icarus Xenophon, who fall madly in love at first sight with a speechless mystical ecstasy expressed equally well by the title of the awesome American anthology that they’re both in, It’s a Big Country , a bright gleam in Dore Schary’s eye that found life in MGM’s hard-edged black and white photography, bringing together all the favorite minority groups (Indians naturally not included), usually one or two minorities per episode, nine episodes in all—
“Oh Rosa, we must get married!” says Icarus, a few days or minutes later (take your pick). The movie is so all-fired, gutbusting cheerful that Rosa’s blissful way of purring Yes, my darling Greek! before they kiss—their bodies snugly intertwined in silhouette; an indelible, bite-size chunk of meaning that a warm nimbus of orgasmic bliss envelops like a shroud—was for Jonny at age nine a concise summary of all the beautiful, bountiful, bustful, and baroque things that true love could possibly bring and be. (If looks could kill, could that have been a clue?) And if Rosa’s papa was prejudiced because he absolutely hated the Greeks, all Icarus had to do was place a big tin of Washington Post coffee in front of Papa at the soda fountain (a picture of George Washington on the label, as on a $1 bill) and “Stars and Stripes Forever” would start up passionately and loudly on the soundtrack—and S. Z. Sakall would look at his daughter, then at his son-in-law, and smile, smile, smile.
It vaguely occurred to Jonny to compare this movie with The Well , which he saw later the same day (March 16, 1952) at the Princess, another collectively directed “group” movie that had no single hero, this one somewhat more analytical and distanced, about a race riot forming in a small town. (Jonathan sees It’s A Big Country again on a Steenbeck at the Library of Congress in February 1979 and once more tonight, May 28, 1979, on Channel 9; The Well on TV in Del Mar in 1978 and again two weeks ago, at the Thalia.) Could the juxtaposition and dialectic of these two sociologies possibly have been an oblique comment, a private joke, or a subtle form of protection on Stanley’s part when he booked these films in Atlanta? . . . The booker writes a text of his own, too.
And what about the chance encounters between this cartoon (booked by Beulah) and that western (booked by Daddy), the purely unpremeditated montages composed of various coming and main attractions, trailers and features? Seeing the trailer for Woman of Distinction along with Sunset Boulevard at the Shoals in late October 1950 unquestionably tickled Jonny’s libido. It had something to do with Rosalind Russell’s shorts and Ray Milland’s having to pedal her uphill on a bike because she didn’t tell him the bike had a motor. And it was stimulated again some three years later in another nullity, All Ashore , this one in color, when Mickey Rooney, a gob, is accidentally knocked unconscious with a horseshoe thrown by pretty Peggy Ryan in shorts, who revives him by placing his head in her lap, on her sunstruck thighs. Yummy, felt Jonny in both cases, a seven- and ten-year-old connoisseur of light, teasing masochism related somehow to an infatuation with female legs, and—who knows?—perhaps conjured up, confirmed, or prepared for by the conscious perversities in Sunset Boulevard . Or perhaps not.
I Love a Mystery
I’m looking at two photographs reproduced on microfilm, neither of them reproduced in this book. In the first photograph (June 20, 1957) Chief of Police Noah H. Danley is pointing to a blank patch of sidewalk next to the area below the Princess marquee, on Tennessee Street; hanging from the marquee is a sign announcing that day’s program. The camera, turned away from North Wood Avenue, faces Seminary; it’s a sunny summer morning, and the shade under the marquee appears to be the only dark and cool space on the block—except for Danley’s face, which is protected by his hat. An unidentified black man, probably a theater attendant, stands behind Danley’s right elbow; four silhouetted onlookers are visible in the background beneath the marquee; and two blocks past them, on the other side of the street, one can see the Hotel Negley.
Everything in this photograph is a red herring—except, perhaps, the sign hanging from the marquee. If there were a camera on the other side of the sign, facing North Wood, one could read the same titles on the back:
In the second photograph (October 21, 1957) Danley—dressed now in his Sunday best, with a pipe clenched between his teeth—stands on the bank of the Tennessee River, pointing at a blank patch of river, an area just behind three rowboats. The camera faces the Sheffield palisades; if there were a reverse angle, it would show part of Florence. The patch to which Danley points is where Elmo Johnson, manager of the Princess, was found for the second time that year. The first time was four months earlier, when he was found alive near the Princess marquee, a bullet lodged in his head. (There was no sign of a gun.) In the second photograph Danley is standing where Johnson’s coat was found, in it a note and a list of six pallbearers, one of them Bobby Stewart.
The headlines that accompany the first picture say:
Early This Morning:
House Manager Found Wounded
In Alley By Princess Theatre
E. B. Johnson Victim;
Condition is Serious;
Police Seeking Clues
Manager now free on bond after
Shooting of his wife at Memphis
The headline with the second picture says:
Missing Gun Could Be Key
To Johnson Death Mystery
A third headline, in the next day’s paper, says:
The third story reports that Officer Dalton Lindsey, using a borrowed magnet, found a .32 caliber pistol (“reportedly purchased during August by Elmo Johnson”) a few feet from where Johnson’s body was found floating. As far as I know, this was the last story that the Florence Times, or any other newspaper, ran on Elmo.
The second story, written by staff writer Fred Dillon, begins by asking:
The first story, unsigned, in June 1957, begins and ends as follows:
― 138 ―
Other Selected Highlights of 1957
January 4: Jonny sees The Killing , after discussing it with Beulah that afternoon and before checking up with Stanley. January 21: Eisenhower is inaugurated for his second term. February 22: Jonny attends a Louis Armstrong concert at the Sheffield Community Center with his girlfriend Jean McIntosh (the 7 P.M. show for whites, not the 9:30 one for colored). March 3: Jonny sees The Girl Can’t Help It , and Stanley’s Sunday column ends with this paragraph:
Family note: My son Jonny is often critical of my handling of this column. So the other day I asked him, “Would you like to try it?” It turned out that he would, so Jonny will be guest columnist next Sunday.
March 7–8:Lust for Life at the Shoals. March 23: David Rosenbaum shoots a hole-in-one at the Florence Golf and Country Club, earning him the nickname “Ace.” March 24: Jonny sees Julie with Mimi at the Shoals. March 31: He sees The Wages of Fear , another suspense ordeal, at the Princess. (Is it possible that Grandma’s aggrieved claim that I actually hit her while we were watching High Noon together at the Shoals in mid-October 1952 was true, despite my faulty memory, because the relentless throb of the suspense, driven home by those tilted camera angles of various clocks, exacerbated my impatience when she made some querulous remark to herself right in the middle of a crucial line of dialogue? Not a very nice way to act toward one’s grandmother. But I was a loyal slave of the Conquistador, a dutiful, touchy thug who belonged to the Big Boss and wouldn’t let anybody treat him with disrespect .)
April 9–11:The Wrong Man at the Shoals. April 16: Jonny is given a scratch test at the Florence Clinic, leading to four allergy shots a week for seventeen months.
May 5: Stanley’s all-time best Sunday column appears in the Florence Times. Here are a few excerpts:
This is my 25th year in working for the local theatres, and in that entire period I have not known a picture to provoke as much discussion and controversy as “Baby Doll.” . . .
I had to make the decision whether to show it or not myself; my father was abroad at the time. I had several of my friends see it. Some were enthusiastic; some were lukewarm; and there were a few who frankly detested it. I didn’t buy it until I had seen it and read all the principal comments about it. And when I bought it, it was under the condition that I would not admit children under 16, I would not play it on a Sunday, and I would not show it until May.
The reasons I held it back until May were as follows: 1. I thought it would give time for the dust to settle and for the whole matter to be seen more clearly. 2. I didn’t want it to play during Lent. 3. May is the month in which children and teen-agers are the busiest at school and go to the movies the least.
It has been our practice in the past to judge each such controversial case on its merits, as we saw them. For instance, there have been several pictures in the past which we refused to show in their original uncensored form because it was obvious that the only excuse for them was that the producer was after a fast duck [sic] . In a couple of such cases we were the only towns of comparable size in the state that didn’t show them.
I cannot regard “Baby Doll” as being in this category. Tennessee Williams, who wrote it, has won two Pulitzer Prizes and three New York Drama Critics Awards. Some regard him as the greatest living American playwright. I know of drama critics who do not like him; I know of none who do not regard him as important . . .
The industry, as almost everyone knows, is self-censoring. There is a Production Code and a board which decides whether each picture should get the board’s seal of approval. There have been two or three cases in the past where they refused the seal but we played the picture anyway, because we thought the board was wrong. “The Moon is Blue” is one of these cases.
However, “Baby Doll” did pass the board and received the seal of approval. It must be said, on the other hand, that the board has recently been concerned about the straitjacket which the thinking of all-pictures-should-be-suitable-for-children was putting on production, and that their approval of “Baby Doll” does represent an expansion of the principles by which other pictures have been judged in the past.
Catholic organizations have been fairly consistent in their opposition to the picture. The Legion of Decency condemned it. Catholics in Alabama were asked to deny their future patronage to theatres which showed it. This boycott, however, has since been removed . . .
“Baby Doll” has been passed without objection by every single state censorship board in the United States. It has not been banned in any city or town in Alabama, and has in fact, already played in every community in the state of a size comparable to us or larger. There were four places in other states in which it was banned: Atlanta, Memphis, Nashville, and Jackson, Miss. In the three largest of these, however—Atlanta, Memphis and Nashville—the censor boards voted to reconsider, and in all three they have now passed the picture. They prescribed a few cuts, and labelled it for adults only . . .
The prints used here will not be cut . . .
A number of Southerners have objected to the picture on another ground. It takes place in the ramshackle remains of an old Southern mansion in a small Mississippi town. The characters in the picture are of a low cultural and intellectual level, and some object to this as a slur on the South.
I would like to point out in this regard that William Faulkner, our neighbor in Oxford, Miss., winner of the Nobel Prize and often named as America’s greatest living novelist, is just as uninhibited in his portrayal of Mississippi. In fact, many of the greatest novelists of all countries have described the seamier side of life. Think of Dickens, Dostoevsky, Tolstoy, Flaubert, Hugo, Dreiser, De Maupassant, Zola, Hardy. The fact is that human nature is most completely revealed when the amenities and superficialities of civilized living are stripped away as they sometimes are in the lower levels of society . . .
What is “Baby Doll” about? I’ll tell you, as briefly and boldly as possible. Carroll Baker has been married for some time to Karl Malden, a cotton-ginner who is having a hard time. He is much older than she. Carroll still clings to her childhood. She sleeps in a crib, and has retained her virginity. Malden is anxious to end this state of affairs. This is the situation at the beginning of the picture. Eli Wallach, a rival cotton-ginner with a just grudge against Malden, senses the situation and attempts to awaken Carroll’s slumbering womanhood. I’ll let the picture take it from there.
May 7–10:Baby Doll at the Shoals. May 15: Great Britain sets off its first hydrogen bomb in a test in the Pacific. May 18: Mimi, Stanley, David, Jonny, Alvin, and Michael see Giant at the Shoals.
June 9: Ad for The Little Hut appears in the Florence Times . In the same issue there is a small item about the use of the Sheffield Ritz as a recording studio by Tune Records. June 16–18 : Boy on a Dolphin at the Shoals. June 20: Mimi picks Jonny up after band practice at Coffee High School (where Jonny will be starting as a freshman in September) and tells him about Elmo’s being found wounded near the Princess. (When Jonny sees Elmo again, he seems quite different: his hair is cropped closely, and he speaks shyly, in a curiously quiet and high-pitched voice, almost a wheezy whisper. )
July 17 or 18: Jonny sees One Summer Of Happiness in Swedish, with subtitles and no cuts, at the Princess; he doesn’t see Written On The Wind at the Shoals. July 21–24:Loving You , with Elvis Presley, at the Shoals. July 24 or 25: 2¢ Worth Of Hope and Rome 11 O’clock , both subtitled, at the Princess; Jonny sees the latter. July 28: Jonny sees Bernadine at the Shoals; free photos of Pat Boone are handed out with each admission.
August 4: He sees This Could Be The Night at the Shoals; David Darby can’t come along because his mother finds the title too risqué. August 7:The Ten Commandments begins projected three-week run at the Princess. August 22: The Florence Times reports, “The Princess Theatre, located at 213 East Tennessee Street in Florence, will be closed for an indefinite period as a result of an early morning fire which caused considerable damage to the ceiling and balcony in addition to smoke and water damage to the entire structure.” (When it reopens in spring 1958, it will be called the Cinema.)
September 1: Jonny sees Will Success Spoil Rock Hunter? twice at the Shoals. September 2–3: Bart A. Floyd, thirty-one, proves his worthiness as a new member of the Ku Klux Klan of the Confederacy in Zion City, Alabama, just outside of Birmingham, by picking out a Negro male at random—Judge Edward Aaron, thirty-four—and, with the help of five other Klan members, kidnapping, beating, torturing, and then castrating him. September 4: Governor Orval Faubus orders National Guardsmen to prevent nine Negro students from entering Central High School in Little Rock, Arkansas (birthplace of Marilyn Monroe and Jane Russell in Gentlemen Prefer Blondes ). September 19: First underground nuclear explosion set off by Atomic Energy Commission in Nevada; Jet Pilot starts ten-day run at the Norwood. September 29: Jonny sees An Affair To Remember at the Shoals and almost cries.
October 4: Sputnik I, first man-made satellite, is launched by Soviet scientists. October 6: Jonny hears about Elmo Johnson’s body being found in the Tennessee River.
November 3: Sputnik II, carrying a live dog, Laika, is launched by Soviet scientists. November 10:Jailhouse Rock begins five-day run at the Shoals; Soviet authorities announce Laika’s death. November 15 or 16: Jonny sees Dino, with Sal Mineo, at the Shoals. (Dino is an expansion of a Studio One teleplay that Jonny saw and liked on January 2, 1956. At 1:12 A.M., May 11, 1979, on Channel 5, Sal Mineo, a juvenile delinquent named Dino, wakes from a nightmare in his T-shirt, experiencing a psychodramatic torture session that sounds and feels like an avalanche performed by Stan Kenton’s brass section, the trumpets cackling ghoulish torment. All that energy waiting to be released, I imagine the ads for the picture saying. Suffering is so glamorous, comforting, romantic, exotic, dramatic, sexy, exciting, even aesthetic at the movies: Like Dino, in this James Dean spinoff, being slugged again and again by his old man, his mouth bloodied, screaming for his dad to slug him again, again, again. Fifteen minutes later he points a loaded revolver at his father’s sleeping head, and that demonic chorus of west coast trumpets again starts to cackle, with the same false promise of release.)
December 29: Stanley discusses The James Dean Story in his Sunday column:
“The James Dean Story” is a most interesting, unusual and well-made movie, but the ads on it annoy me. They all say: James Dean Plays Himself in “The James Dean Story.” That seems somewhat misleading. Since James Dean died before the picture was made, he is not in it in the ordinary sense.
I Love a Solution
Those were the days when it was possible to say that The Admiral Was A Lady, Mother Wore Tights, Father Was A Fullback , and God Is My Co-Pilot , when everything from Daniel And The Devil to Hell And High Water by way of Pandora And The Flying Dutchman could be given to The Girl From Jones Beach, The Fuller Brush Girl, The Good Humor Man, The Lemon Drop Kid, The Barefoot Mailman, The Beautiful Blonde From Bashful Bend, The Wac From Walla Walla, The President’s Lady , and recycled into The Strip, The Sunny Side Of The Street, The Halls Of Montezuma, The Hills Of Home, Fort Apache, Mysterious Island , or My Blue Heaven , meanwhile assuring you that Here Comes Trouble, The Best Things In Life Are Free, You’re Not So Tough, It’s A Wonderful Life, You Can Beat The A-Bomb, My World Dies Screaming, It’s A Big Country, There’s No Business Like Show Business , and anyway, She’s Working Her Way Through College .
Titles were so important. When Stanley had to fire the Tuscumbian cashier for incorrectly reporting the number of tickets sold and pocketing the difference, the movie playing then was To Catch A Thief . And what about the problems the Shoals cashier had when Phffft! was showing, and people telephoned to ask what movie was playing?
Titles kept telling people to do things in those days (as briefly and boldly as possible, like Stanley describing baby doll)—to Wake Up And Dream, Hit The Ice, Walk A Crooked Mile, Always Leave Them Laughing, Bring ‘Em Back Alive, Watch The Birdie, Hold That Line, Walk East On Beacon, Bring Your Smile Along, Excuse My Dust, Ride The Man Down , and Come Fill The Cup . Aggressively, they’d insist, in turn, that you Rock Around The Clock, Don’t Knock The Rock, Rock All Night , and Rock Around The World ; ambiguously and ungrammatically, they would propose that you Cry, The Beloved Country; Love Me Tender ; and Kiss Me, Deadly . (Why not Rock, The Crooked Mile? or Love Me, Deadly? ) They made life pretty easy by saying that all you had to do was Make Mine Music or Ride, Ryder, Ride or Ride , Vaquero! or Take Me Out To The Ball Game or Come To The Stable or Love Me Or Leave Me .
So what if just one of them, on a white-hot summer day or summer night, had whispered Please Murder Me to Elmo Johnson, as one of the black porters put that title up on the marquee—offering Elmo a Dark Venture as sauce to go with it—a complementary title, as cool to the touch as the Princess air-conditioning system, or the beckoning draft from an open refrigerator—inviting him in to curl up with the lettuce and enjoy soothing relief, a new way to beat the heat, and a long, untroubled sleep? Could his own Conquistador have listened, and understood? I know that it’s presumptuous, perhaps even obscene, to speculate about the unknowable—the focus of this entire chapter—but what if these titles on the marquee and in the ad in the paper, on the one-sheets and the three-sheets, the words themselves, said more to Elmo than the movies possibly could—because they left more empty, pliable spaces for his mind to shape and fill? If looks could kill, could that have been the way?