Movies were central to my life as a child. For ten cents, I could hit the Saturday cartoon matinée and for two hours escape my poverty. Sunday afternoons, mom paid fifty-cents for two tickets to the grown up flicks. After that, we had a cheap dinner, probably Chinese, and went home.
The town where I grew up was small. In the early 1940s, life centered around trailer parks and Japanese bean fields. World War II saw the Japanese interned and their bean fields replaced by an aircraft factory. My mother wasn’t an American citizen, at the time, so she couldn’t work in the factory where workers enjoyed good wages. We scrapped by on her part-time jobs. Sunday afternoon was our one big splurge.
Poverty breeds a need for cheap entertainment and, happily, my community had three movie theatres: the Majestic, the Elmira and the Criterion. We never lacked for venue. A parody of its name, the Majesty was a sleazy outpost with torn seats and greasy popcorn. It showed B flicks, something like Indie films today, meaning they were made on the cheap. B flicks didn’t challenge their audiences. The plots were simple. Good guys versus bad guys and a sexy broad waiting in the wings. Everyone knew their place. Stars of B flicks were soon forgotten, but I loved Maria Montez, Jon Hall, Sabu, and Turhan Bey.
The Elmira had better seats but it was nothing fancy. Most of the scary films I saw there: Dracula, Frankenstein, The Mummy. I’ll never forget The Thing. Terrified throughout, I forgot to touch my popcorn.
The Criterion was fancy, like the inside of an Egyptian palace. The seats were plush red velvet and statues of gods and goddesses lined the theater walls. Though the price of admission was the same as for the Majestic and Elmira, this is where I saw Hollywood blockbusters like Gone With the Wind. I saw Casablanca there, too. It may not have been a blockbuster, but I remember my mother crying when Ingrid Berman kissed Humphry Bogart goodbye. Being seven years-old, I didn’t care for the mushy stuff. But, I felt a tug of patriotism at my heart when Bogart and Claude Rains walked into the night to fight the Germans. “Louis, I think this is the beginning of a beautiful friendship.”
Most films I saw were in black and white. Technicolor was relatively new. Thinking back, I remember the black and whites best: Citizen Cane, The Third Man, Strangers on a Train, The Devil and Daniel Webster.
Movies taught me good and evil was easy to distinguish, like black and white. Being old now, I know that’s not true. Modern heroes reflect the complex world we’ve come to recognize. Their vices and virtues are all mashed together. Breaking Bad, Blacklist, The Sopranos… Still, in a complicated world, I could use the simplicity of a good B movie once in a while. I’d like to cheer, guilt free, when Dracula gets a stake through his heart.