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When the Pictures Were Big

How a young boomer learned to love Hollywood’s Golden Age

By Ellen Ryan

In the packed hall, an audience of flickering bluish faces stare raptly as Janet Leigh's sister looks up, then down the creaky staircase. Having seen snippets of "Psycho," I had found the movie's shower scene only moderately unnerving. But now, as my fellow students cheer and stomp, the sister enters the cellar, turns the chair — and I scream. Just like Janet Leigh.

A still from "Dial M for Murder". Next Avenue, film, classic movies
Grace Kelly and Anthony Dawson in 'Dial M for Murder,' 1954  |  Credit: Film trailer screenshot (Warner Bros.)

It startles and annoys the more worldly college kids around me, but Alfred Hitchcock would have been proud.

Hollywood's Golden Age is defined as ending in the early 1960s — so as a young boomer, I missed it entirely. Grown up among dairy farms and apple orchards, where our heavy Zenith TV brought in 2½ channels, there was no chance to catch up on much except the annual showing of "The Wizard of Oz."

For a rural kid who, by age 18, had seen just six movies in a theater, this was a revelation akin to being whirled out of the monochrome flatness of Depression Kansas.

But years before the arrival of cable and streaming services like Turner Classic Movies and the Criterion Channel, immersion in 1940s and '50s movies came from an unexpected source. My university had no film course that I'm aware of, but it did offer so many film series in massive lecture halls, library meeting rooms and the student union, that an observant moviegoer could practically minor in cinema.

A Whole World Opens

I saw roughly 200 films over four years. This astonishes friends now when I mention it, but really, it works out to seeing just three movies every two weeks, hardly a startling number. If a roommate, friend or date wanted to go, great. If not, I'd go alone — just me and some 30 to 500 other students, soaking up thrillers and comedies, dramas and vivid musical extravaganzas.

For a rural kid who, by age 18, had seen just six movies in a theater, this was a revelation akin to being whirled out of the monochrome flatness of Depression Kansas.

Through film, I could travel to Ireland, Japan, Morocco. Marie Curie's lab, ancient Rome and Paris during the French Revolution. Never mind that documentaries were not exactly a thing yet and Cecil B. DeMille's epics were often filmed in California . . . that was the magic of cinema, n'est-ce pas?

Sharing a Love of the Cinema

It was also a bit of a family affair. On college drop-off night, the movie shown outdoors for hundreds of families was 1933's "Duck Soup." (Groucho Marx: "Why, a four-year-old child could understand this report. Run out and find me a four-year-old child.") Nothing like a roar of laughter to kick off freshman year.

My grandfather used to say Claudette Colbert was his favorite star and watching "It Happened One Night" (1934) made me see what he meant. She and Clark Gable peeking around her improvised room-dividing curtain cracked me up, as did her showing some leg on the roadside to stop a passing driver. (Three years later, in "Way Out West," Stan Laurel of Laurel & Hardy stopped a stagecoach by doing the same thing.)

It was interesting coming to my own conclusions on some films. In my father's eyes, James Bond was a tough guy, a world saver, a ladies' man. Seeing early Connery and Roger Moore for myself, I decided he was a human cartoon character. Space hijackings, hopscotch on crocodiles . . . James, really?

A Lifelong Love Begins

Part of my college education involved expanding my vocabulary, and the films I watched contributed to that. From movies, for instance, I learned the meaning of "gams" (legs), "gumshoe" (private detective), "stool pigeon" (informer), "a dame" (woman), "kisser" (mouth) and "going on the lam" (fleeing the police or some other threat).

Film noir. My early-1980s campus was awash with these 1940s and early '50s stylized mystery and crime dramas, the atmospheric ones with underworld characters scheming behind Venetian blinds, on dark, wet pavement and in shadows — everywhere shadows.

I was astonished to see Fred MacMurray, the affable father of TV's "My Three Sons," as an amoral murderer.

In "Double Indemnity" (1944), I was astonished to see Fred MacMurray, the affable father of TV's "My Three Sons," as an amoral murderer. (No spoiler here. Per the Hays Code, it's all in the first scene.) In "Laura" (1944), Dana Andrews fell for Gene Tierney's portrait, and I fell for Dana Andrews. In a classic plotline, Ray Milland was an innocent family man in "The Big Clock" (1948) forced to search for a killer while being framed for that very crime.

My spouse and I recently caught two of Hitchcock's best, "Dial M for Murder" and "Shadow of a Doubt." "Noir represents a fascinating meeting point of American and European styles and sensibilities," writes Kat Bello in The Collector blog. "The constant twists, betrayals, red herrings and double and triple crosses aim to constantly disorient the viewer. Film noir is never as concerned with the reveal of the mystery as it is with the psychological dimensions of crime."

I was able to draw the connection between this 1940s genre I instantly adored and 1974's cynical, corruption-ridden "Chinatown" (which took place in 1937). It may have arrived three decades later, in color and with a tremendous amount of sunlight, but "forget it, Jake" — it's still film noir.

Requisite Academic Connections

Several movies actually did complement my college studies. Those wacky 1950s monster and alien flicks ("The Blob!" "Invasion of the Body Snatchers!") and "Dr. Strangelove or: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb" (1964) provided insight into the neurotic early days of the Cold War. "The Third Man," filmed on location in Vienna in 1948, offered viewers a you-are-there look at Austria immediately after World War II.


Reading "For Whom the Bell Tolls," Ernest Hemingway's antifascist Spanish Civil War epic, and then watching the movie version filmed in 1943 amid WWII made for a gripping two-fer. (Did Ingrid Bergman, who starred in "Casablanca" as well as "For Whom the Bell Tolls," make a habit of playing stoic wartime heroines?)

Learning about the intricacies of the civil rights movement in the 1950s and '60s was eye-opening; encountering the blackface and cringeworthy racial references in such otherwise delightful films as "A Day at the Races" (1937) and "Holiday Inn" (1942) was eyebrow-raising.

Ever use "gaslight" to mean the psychological manipulation of someone to get them to doubt their own sanity? See the 1944 film that gave birth to the term.

When sociology courses examined the collapse of female employment and the push to diminish women's prominence after World War II, I saw this echoed in the difference between "Baby Face" (1933), in which a young Barbara Stanwyck cheerfully slept her way to the top in business, and "Marjorie Morningstar" (1958), in which our heroine Natalie Wood had romantic misadventures only to (apparently) settle down as a housewife.

Of course, the Hays Code also had something to do with that. But societal changes don't occur in a vacuum.

Why 'Old Movies'?

Not only were some of our best films made in the 1930s through the 1960s, but the best of recent films are influenced by those before them.

"Mank" (2022), which won two Academy Awards and was nominated for eight others (it won two), tells the story of Herman J. Mankiewicz, the screenwriter who collaborated with Orson Welles on the script for "Citizen Kane" (1941); together, those movies make a perfect double feature. "La La Land" (2016) doesn't hide its connections to 1950s and '60s films of all kinds.

You'll get more out of "The Aviator" (2004) if you've seen Katherine Hepburn, Ava Gardner and Errol Flynn rule the screen themselves. "Star Wars" (1977) was said to be a Western set in space, a "yee-hah" rehash of the serials and adventure pics of George Lucas's boyhood. And so on.

Ever use "gaslight" to mean the psychological manipulation of someone to get them to doubt their own sanity? See the 1944 film that gave birth to the term.

Betty Bacall's Pursed Lips

Without knowing old movies, you won't understand some of the greatest lines, either. "Well, nobody's perfect." "Rosebud." "Goodness had nothing to do with it." "Today I consider myself the luckiest man on the face of the earth." "You know how to whistle, don't you, Steve?" Eighty years after Lauren Bacall purred that to her future husband Humphrey Bogart in "To Have and Have Not," viewer reaction is still "Whew!"

Whether your exposure to the Golden Age is through a home screen or years of theatergoing, the experience is both enjoyable and enlightening. "To me, the perfection of classic movies is the pure art of the story," says Bennett Garner Green in The Odyssey. The plot and characters keep you gasping, guessing, laughing or swooning . . . no special effects needed.

Ellen Ryan is an award-winning writer and editor. She is the former managing editor of The Washingtonian. Read More
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