by Lara Fowler
I can trace my love for classic film back to one person.
Inhabiting a small house in a quiet neighborhood just north of the Santa Clara Valley, my grandparents, Julian and Frances Polon, were both Los Angeles transplants. My grandmother, born Canadian, had moved to Los Angeles for nursing school and stayed on as a nurse at Cedars of Lebanon Hospital, where she had the opportunity to take care of such luminaries as Betty Grable, Farley Granger, Robert Walker, and Judy Garland. A devoted classic film fan, she had been an avid collector of Jeanette MacDonald/Nelson Eddy records as a young girl, and when my love for Judy Garland became clear, she encouraged me to collect everything I could find, because she “knew how it felt to have that kind of passion.” She seemed determined that her eldest granddaughter be exposed to the classics, and at the age of 4, she decided to rent a movie for me that would direct the course of my life.
The movie was Lili (1953), and from the very first moment, I was entranced. It may have been the fanciful, sweet, gentle nature of the story that drew me in, but what I remember most vividly is the color on the screen. I had never seen color like that before. Those soft, clear tones were comforting and gentle to my eyes, and it enhanced even further my perception of a movie whose storyline speaks so much to childlike innocence. A young orphan girl is taken in by a circus after it is discovered that she has a way of interacting with puppets, and her talent is made into a lucrative act for the circus. A love triangle forms between her, the circus magician, and an injured dancer-turned-puppeteer who has been communicating his feelings toward her through the puppets. Looking back on the movie, there are some VERY sinister insinuations in the plot and some pretty bizarre characters, but all of that went straight over my head, of course.
I loved Lili so much that every time I made that hour-long journey to the Santa Clara Valley from our home in Oakland, I all but dragged my grandmother to the video store so we could rent Lili. She always obliged me, and it became something of a tradition. She would take me out shortly after my arrival, and I remember her often exclaiming “Ok, there she goes!” as I ran straight to the movie’s location on the video shelf of the “Classics” section. She would watch it with me every time, and I think after a while she decided that it was time to broaden my horizons–for her sake as much as mine! One afternoon when I arrived at her house, she had already gone to the video store. The video she had picked out was Meet Me In St. Louis (1944)–a movie she pitched to me as “having Judy Garland in it.” She knew how much I loved The Wizard of Oz (1939), and as soon as she said that this movie had Judy Garland in it, I stopped protesting and sat down to watch. Again, I was hooked. Again, the colors got me. I decided then and there that I was a classic film fan.
Thanks to my grandmother’s influence, Judy Garland became my queen. I saw every one of her movies by the time I was eleven, and listened attentively as my grandmother told me stories of how she took care of Judy at the hospital. I began to notice small similarities between them–they were born just across the border from each other, and my grandmother’s maiden name was Frances Evelyn Stone–Judy’s was Frances Ethel Gumm. My grandmother also had a beautiful singing voice. In my infinitely wild imagination, I imagined that Judy hadn’t actually died at all and had simply reinvented herself as my grandmother. She would encourage me to take her classic film books, and if I found a Judy Garland picture I didn’t have, I could cut it out. While my parents were worried about my extreme passion for Judy Garland, my grandmother was enthralled. I think she was glad to have another classic film fan in the family, and I was so glad to have her.
I miss my grandmother terribly. Our common bonds brought us extraordinarily close together, and after my grandfather died, I moved in with her for a summer to help take care of her as her health began to decline. Her movie memory remained sharp even as the rest of her memory went–during that summer, she and I would talk about our movies even as she had trouble remembering family members’ names. We were always there for each other, and when she passed away, a large part of me went. She died on June 22, 2010–the same day as Judy Garland.
Lara Fowler, 26, runs the classic film blog Backlots. A native of the San Francisco Bay Area, she has attended many film festivals around the world, and was profiled on NPR when she won a Wizard of Oz trivia contest at the age of thirteen. Lara collects old Hollywood memorabilia and owns over 300 films, 200 classic film books, nearly 100 old Hollywood magazines, and autographs from the classic Hollywood stars she has had the privilege to meet. She lives in Oakland, California and is also an accomplished cellist.