You can blame my mother. Seriously. If you want to know why I love classic movies, it’s all her fault.
I’ve been wanting to write about my mom for quite some time, about how she introduced me to classic movies and now seems like as good a time as any. My mother would’ve turned 86 tomorrow. She passed away two-and-a-half years ago.
Even when I was a kid, it was clear that we both loved movies. We just didn’t love the same ones. I think she probably took me to the local theater when I was a little kid to see Disney movies, but once I was old enough, she’d just drop me off and pick me up when the movie was over. I knew she wasn’t interested in the “new” movies that were playing when I was a kid in the early to mid-70s. She liked the old stuff, especially a program called Golden Classics that showed old movies on one of the Jackson, Mississippi TV stations on Saturday afternoons.
I never could figure those movies out when I was a kid. First, they were all in black-and-white, which I thought was as boring as watching paint dry. Second, I could never tell anyone apart. The men wore suits and hats and all looked the same. The women were a little easier to tell apart, but how could they tell the guys apart?
Plus, nothing ever seemed to happen in those movies. My mom’s movies contained no monsters, no spaceships, no mutants from distant planets, nothing but people talking and occasionally yelling at each other. I could see that in real life and I could see it in color.
This went on for years, maybe even until I was 12 or 13. Then one day I saw my mom sitting in front of the TV watching some black-and-white snooze-fest. I probably made some smart-ass remark about another boring finger-quotes-in-the-air “golden classic,” and she said, “Look, why don’t you watch one. Just one.”
“Okay,” I said, “I’ll watch one.”
It wasn’t that afternoon, but not too long after that, my mom pointed to the TV Guide and said, “Here. We’ll watch this.” The movie was The Maltese Falcon. I watched it and that was it: I was hooked. I don’t know if it was Bogart, the tough talk, the weird characters, the exotic story of the black bird, or what, but something clicked (and it’s still clicking today). I hated to admit it to her, but I had to see more movies like this.
My mom and I watched many movies together over the years, many of them classics, but not all. Although we saw most of them in our den, I did manage on a few rare occasions to get her to one of the Jackson movie theaters when I was in college. I remember finally twisting her arm to see Raiders of the Lost Ark, many months (maybe even a couple of years) after its initial release in 1981. We walked into a small theater (I think it was on State Street) that was showing it one weekday afternoon. For several minutes we were the only people in the theater. Eventually the manager came up to us and said, “I’m sorry, but if more people don’t come in, we won’t be able to show the movie.” We were about to leave when two more people – just enough, I suppose to justify operating the projector – came in. My mom watched the film I’d told her so much about and was delighted. So was I.
In later years we always talked about movies. Right up to the end of her life, we watched movies together when my wife and I visited her in her assisted living facility. I remember once we were watching Burt Lancaster in Come Back Little Sheba. At one point my mom said, “That Burt Lancaster sure was handsome…” Dementia had already started to take hold of her mind and that may have been the only thing she said that day that made any sense, but it was something.
The last thing I ever watched with her was the pie fight scene in The Great Race. Even though she was sinking fast, that scene made her smile like a little kid. There’s just something about the movies that spoke to her. She never really went into any depth talking about any particular movie, she just loved them. She must’ve known that if she was patient enough with me, I’d also love the classics. And as she was with most things, she was right.