Leonard Maltin recently discussed the concept of comfort movies on his podcast Maltin on Movies. He didn’t dwell on the idea too much, but I’d like to explore it a bit here, possibly seeking answers to questions about why we watch what we watch and how those movies not only entertain us, but provide a significant level of comfort.
As a recent guest on Maltin’s show, Dana Gould mentioned that he was nine years old when he saw The Ghost and Mr. Chicken (1966), a Don Knotts movie that has become a comfort movie for him. (It’s also one of my comfort movies, which I discussed not too long ago here.) Maltin mentioned the Abbott and Costello “meet the monsters” movies, such as Abbott and Costello Meet Frankenstein (1948), Abbott and Costello Meet the Invisible Man (1951) and others. Maltin noted that in order to fully appreciate those films now, you had to have seen them as a kid, allowing good memories and the nostalgia factor to deepen your love and appreciation of those movies.
Some of that is no doubt true. It would be difficult for people encountering these films for the first time as adults to have the same reverence for them as a kid from the 50s or 60s. And show those films to a kid today and they’d probably be bored stiff. But I think there’s something more than just nostalgia going on.
I can look back at certain parts of my life and point to several movies that were pivotal in my thinking, that helped me through some bad times, scratched a certain itch, or simply entertained me. I know for many people one or more of the Star Wars films will be mentioned, or an Indiana Jones movie, films you can see over and over that never grow old, films that just make you feel good.
A Shot in the Dark (1964) was one of those movies for me. It was probably the first time I’d ever seen Peter Sellers, probably the first time I’d laughed so much at the movies, and definitely the first time I’d ever watched a scene that takes place at a nudist camp (although everything was tastefully covered; much credit for that goes to Sellers’s guitar). I still love the film and enjoy it each time I see it.
When I was a bit older, it was The Blues Brothers (1980), a movie I literally wandered into after being bored with and walking out of another movie I’d payed to see at the same theater. The music, the comedy, the ridiculous over-the-top chases, the quotable lines, all of it struck a chord I wasn’t even aware of. It still does.
Of course my all-time favorite comfort movie has to be It’s a Wonderful Life (1946). I first encountered it on cable in 1982 and haven’t stopped watching it since.
With the exception of a very dark section of It’s a Wonderful Life, most of the films I named are fun and light. They may not even be good movies, but that doesn’t matter; those are the films we most want to revisit and relive. Who doesn’t want to revisit the laughs, the adventure, the suspense. Yet there are films that hold other memories that are maybe not so pleasant.
I walked into a theater to see John Carpenter’s Starman (1984) just a few days after a devastating breakup (recounted somewhat here). Although it was a very painful reminder of that relationship, I can look back at that film (and often do) without regret, thankful that everything worked out, looking at where I am now, how I’ve grown and (hopefully) matured.
I learn something about myself, human nature, and the world each time I watch Vertigo (1958). It reminds me of who I am, who I almost became, and the dark places our minds can go. Other films that continue to teach me about myself and the world we live in include The Searchers (1956), The Best Years of Our Lives (1946), Double Indemnity (1944) 12 Angry Men (1957), and more recently, No Country for Old Men (2007).
Roger Ebert once said that Fellini’s La Dolce Vita (1960) had a profound effect on his life, seeing it over the span of several decades. In his 20s, he saw the film as glamorous, exotic, and adventurous, everything he wanted to experience in the world of journalism. In his 40s, he saw the Marcello Mastroianni character as a victim trapped in “an endless search for happiness that could never be found…” Another decade later, Ebert recognized that Marcello’s fate was something he had thankfully escaped and “while I had once admired and then criticized him, now I pitied and loved him.” The film never changed, but Ebert certainly did.
So what are your comfort movies? Your life-changing movie? What films do you revisit the most? Please share your stories (the ones you feel comfortable sharing, that is!) in the comments section below.