by Ivan G. Shreve, Jr.
In conversations with many of my fellow classic movie buffs, I’ve learned that their viewing preferences often originated from their early experiences watching television in their formative years. I am no exception to this—my folks used the “glass furnace” as a babysitter … something I’m sure they later regretted as I got older when it was apparent that my vocational skills weren’t going to stretch beyond “Jeopardy! contestant.”
Watching cartoons as a young lad certainly whetted my appetite for all things classic: Bugs Bunny is one of my childhood heroes, and what made the viewing experience all the more enjoyable was that my grandfather would also sit down with me to laugh at that “wascally wabbit” as well. (I would not learn until many years afterward that these marvelous animated shorts were not put together solely for my pleasure but for millions of theatergoers as well.) But I was also exposed to the antics of the Bowery Boys and The Three Stooges growing up, and though I’ll admit without hesitation that many of the movies don’t stand the test of time, the nostalgia that emanates from their features more than makes up for it.
Film fans know that the Three Stooges’ two-reel comedy shorts were cranked out by Columbia—but because that studio has chosen to solely concentrate on that product due to their popularity, many people are unaware that Columbia had other comedians on their payroll as well. Scottish-born Andy Clyde made quite a few shorts from the 1930s to 1950s; in fact, Columbia provided a home for funsters whose stock was short in the industry like Buster Keaton, Harry Langdon, and Charley Chase. I watched these shorts with rapt attention as a kid, because TV stations had access to them and often put them on as “filler” after a ballgame or between programming. This is something I’ve always found fascinating … because I didn’t see Keaton’s classic silent comedy shorts and features until well into my thirties—ditto Langdon and Chase’s best work as well. The fact that I was able to detect the genius of these men from watching what many consider the nadir of their careers is a testament to their talent, and those godawful comedies still mean a great deal to me today.
When I was a kid, going to the movie theater could be described in two words: Walt Disney. Uncle Walt has sort of become a corny representation of “wholesomeness” to a new generation … but this jaded opinion overlooks the fact that he and his studio produced a warehouse filled with first-rate family features and is still the yardstick by which movie animation is measured today. My earliest memory of seeing a Disney film was when my parents took my sister Kat and I to see the 1971 re-release of Lady and the Tramp (1955) at a movie theater in St. Albans, West Virginia. We were dressed to the nines because the ‘rents took us out to dinner first, and the experience has obtained additional verisimilitude because Lady was the first film my parents saw together when they started dating nine years earlier. (My mother didn’t wear her glasses to the 1962 re-release because she didn’t want my father to know she wore them … so when she saw it with us in ’71, it was like she was seeing it for the very first time.)
The family and I also went and saw the studio’s notorious Song of the South (1946) during its 1972 re-release (a celebration of the studio’s 50th anniversary) at the Valley Drive-In in St. Albans. Mom popped up a gi-normous amount of popcorn and we watched the movie from the back of the family station wagon, having the time of our lives. The ‘rents never had to worry about bad language in a Disney flick, and since many of the studio’s movies that were playing in theaters were re-releases, either Mom or Dad had already seen them and knew they were kid-proof. (I remember Mom wanted to take us to see Pinocchio  in 1971 but the theater showing it had already changed over to Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory , and she decided not to chance it. Probably the right call in retrospect, since I’m sure my sister and I would have freaked during the chicken decapitation scene.)
I saw my first PG film in 1973 with a Christmas showing of The Sting; our family was visiting some old friends in Illinois and their kids wanted to see it—so we ended up going along. Dad’s admonition was: “Please don’t repeat any of the language outside the movie theater” (which would seem to suggest that I could swear like a sailor provided I didn’t venture into the lobby), but at the age of ten, I sort of found some of the plot twists a little hard to follow. Dad was also instrumental in seeing my first R-rated film, Life of Brian, in 1979; I was a huge fan of Monty Python’s Flying Circus and begged him to take me to see it. (After we left the theater, I was again asked not to repeat any of the dialogue in front of my sisters.)
Our entire family saw Smokey and the Bandit when it was released in 1977, and for some reason the language in that film didn’t bother either Mom or Dad—but I do remember that our high school had planned to show the film as part of a fundraiser and I marveled at how they were going to get away with it. As it turned out, they didn’t—someone in administration was tipped off to the crudity of some of the dialogue and they called a last-minute audible, substituting the Marx Brothers’ Animal Crackers, from 1930. (This was my introduction to Groucho, Harpo, Chico, and Zeppo, by the way.)
Our local library in Ravenswood, WV would often have access to older movies and would show them as part of their film programs. One of the most vivid memories I have of this is the time when they showed the 1933 version of King Kong to a crowd of about 300 people. I know that doesn’t sound like a lot, but since the population of Ravenswood was around 4,000, that’s a pretty impressive turnout. The library was also where I saw my first cliffhanger serial, Flash Gordon Conquers the Universe (1940), and my love for these cheesy but entertaining productions developed from that experience as well.
I make no bones about the fact that I was a strange kid. I was one of the few kids in my class excited about Charlie Chaplin’s return to the United States in 1972. I was fortunate to grow up during what was then described as a “nostalgia boom,” and I was not only mesmerized by things like old-time radio but the silent work of comedians like Chaplin, Keaton, Langdon and Harold Lloyd. Seeing both The Gold Rush (1925) and The General (1926) on TV in the 1970s was perhaps a fait accompli; from that moment on, I genuinely loved old movies.
I made it a point to seek out the films of the comedy greats; I was mesmerized by the classic Universal horror films … and watching classics like Casablanca (1942) and North by Northwest (1959) over and over again took precedence over everything else in life. My brief period of employment as a Blockbuster Video customer service rep in the late 1980s furthered my devotion to classic film because I was encouraged to rent those movies for free (in order to be able to recommend products to the customers), and I quickly earned a reputation as being a human encyclopedia on the inventory in the store, knowing which films were on video (and whether or not we had them) and which were not.
To me, there’s no greater feeling in the world than when I make the acquaintance of a young classic film fan who shares the same appreciation for these movies that I do, because I see so much of myself in them and know that they are privy to a special world of entertainment. I sometimes experience difficulty describing the joys of classic film to a person who just isn’t into that sort of thing. With the advances made in home (VHS, DVD, BluRay) and online entertainment, there’s an endless amount of vintage movies to be sampled–something I often take for granted–not to mention the options to see these films on channels like TCM (aka The Greatest Cable Channel Known to Mankind™). Because when I was young, we only had three channels to watch … and ironically, we always managed to find “something on.” I’m just grateful that I was able to find the right things.
Ivan G. Shreve, Jr. makes his living as a freelance writer … and because it’s not much of a living, he must sometimes resort to looking under couch cushions and sticking his finger in payphone coin slots to make ends meet. But his profession gives him carte blanche to do what he loves: writing about classic movies, vintage TV, and old-time radio, which he does at his weblog Thrilling Days of Yesteryear and for the OTR company Radio Spirits (where he is often asked to compose liner notes for their CD collections). His work can also be found at such venues as The Cinementals and MovieFanFare, and he is fortunate to reside with his family in a modest home in Athens, GA. (He also apologizes for the picture he gave Brandie to use for his bio—he has never photographed well.)