Mom and the Movies

I’ve said many times that my love of classic film can be traced directly back to my mom, who raised me on MGM musicals, classic dog-and-pony films, and dramas that I’m sure I didn’t get until I was much older, but somehow liked anyway. Mom passed away a couple of months ago, after ten years of suffering from Alzheimer’s Disease. Many people have offered their sympathy and I think you for that, but as anyone who has a loved one with Alzheimer’s will know, it feels in many ways like we lost her ten years ago. In addition, a loved one’s death, especially one who had been fighting disease and age, is in many ways joyful for Christians – she fought the good fight and she’s gone on to her heavenly reward, and while I grieve that my daughter will never know her grandma the way I knew her (until they meet in heaven, of course!), I’m glad my mom is free from the pain and mental loss she experienced here.

Enough of all that. I’d rather talk about the things she loved.

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Mom was born in 1936, in East Brewton, Alabama. That’s a small town about an hour north of Pensacola, Florida. Many of her fondest memories as a child were of going every week with her best friend to the movies. There was only one theatre in town, of course, with one screen, so they saw whatever was playing that week, along with the requisite shorts and newsreels. Going to the movies cost 35 cents, and that’s if you bought a popcorn and a soda to go along with it. There was a balcony, and from her stories, half the fun was tossing popcorn down on people’s heads below them. Remember, folks, there was no golden era of movie audiences!

She must’ve seen all kinds of things, but musicals held a special place in her heart. That’s what she introduced me to first as a kid, and she didn’t have a lot of care whether they were good or not. She enjoyed them all, and so did I. That said, she definitely had more of an affinity for the Technicolor extravaganzas of the 1940s and 1950s over the B&W musicals of the 1930s. I got into Fred Astaire on my own; she associated him with ballroom dancing (rather than tap) and she thought that was boring. I like to think I convinced her otherwise!

But looking back, I realize now that if you were born in 1936 and started going to the movies in the early to mid-1940s, there was almost no way you could’ve seen Fred Astaire in his Ginger Rogers heyday. Mom would’ve seen some of his later films, but only heard about his pairings with Ginger from other people. That’s really weird to me, as I’m sure the fact that we could see everything she remembered and a lot she didn’t on home video was weird and amazing to her.

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Her absolute favorite movie was The Sound of Music, which is kind of interesting since it didn’t come out until she was almost 30. In fact, she basically swore off movies entirely in 1969, so it’s lucky The Sound of Music came out when it did! Mom was quite conservative, moreso in a moral sense than in a political sense, and she always said it was Easy Rider that was the straw the broke the camel’s back. After that, she saw very few movies. I probably took her to more movies post-1995 than she’d been to between 1970 and 1995.

It’s interesting to look back on the films I remember watching with Mom, or watching at her behest. She wasn’t a cinephile, and had no program of films she wanted to introduce me to – she just wanted to share things with me that she had enjoyed, as she happened to come across them. A lot of these were taped off TV, or rented from the local grocery store.

She showed me Hans Christian Andersen because she loved Danny Kaye, and I watched that a million times. I was very horse crazy for a long time, and she found Disney’s now-forgotten Justin Morgan Had a Horse for me, which we never owned for some reason, but rented on what seems like a weekly basis. Of course there were always the musicals, so many I can’t even pick out which ones she gave me and which ones I found myself – I’m sure she showed me my first Jane Powell, Debbie Reynolds, Judy Garland, and Bing Crosby musicals, though, because she loved them.

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VHS tapes she initiated buying included White Christmas, Shenandoah, and Chariots of Fire (one of the few post-1969 movies to make the grade with her). I distinctly remember being in a rebellious frame of mind when she and my dad sat down to watch Shenandoah, a 1965 James Stewart film set during the Civil War. I refused to watch it, but sat in the room with my back to the TV. When they had to stop half way through (I don’t remember why – seeing a whole movie without a break was not something either mom or dad prioritized, though), I secretly watched the rest myself because I had heard enough to be pulled in.

James Stewart and John Wayne were both favorites of hers, but like in other cases, she had little systematic knowledge of their filmographies – I discovered The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance on my own much later. Similarly, she loved Danny Kaye in Hans Christian Andersen and White Christmas, but either hadn’t seen or never showed me The Court Jester. She was decidedly NOT a fan of Bette Davis or Joan Crawford, though I never extracted solid reasons from her on these prejudices – probably I never bothered, as at the time I was influenced enough by her preferences that I didn’t watch many of their movies either.

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She did have some more obscure loves, though, like Stewart Granger and Jean Simmons. She taped a film called Young Bess off TV, and I watched it with her. I don’t know if it was a particular favorite of hers, or if it just happened to be on, but it’s one of the earliest films I remember seeing. It’s about King Henry VIII (Charles Laughton), Elizabeth I as a girl and young woman (Simmons), and the man both Catherine Parr (Deborah Kerr) and Elizabeth loved (Granger), which I’m sure is an addendum to history. In any case, I can without a doubt trace my fascination with the Tudor dynasty to this movie, which I saw well before I could understand any of it.

As you can tell, my mom didn’t give me anything like a cohesive cinematic education. What she gave me was an interest in old things, and a pure joy in watching movies regardless of how acclaimed they were. I took that interest much further and in much more systematic directions (and I was a total old movie elitist when I was a teenager, which I greatly regret now), but thinking back, maybe there’s something to be learned from her more opportunistic approach. She loved what she loved and she shared that with me as movies she remembered turned up on TV or at the video store. That enthusiasm without any constraint to “important” films was probably exactly what gave me the love of them that I have now. Something to think about as I decide what (and how!) to share with my own daughter.