Swashbuckler

The long drawn out rasp of metal on metal accompanied the image of the sword being drawn from its scabbard. So began Richard Lester’s The Three Musketeers. Throughout the title sequence a series of stop action multiple images of two figures locked in combat beautifully set the tone for the next hour and an half.

I was standing on the stairs of one of the exits, checking something behind the screen, when a customer who had recently entered came bounding up these stairs to bump the exit door open and let his pals in. I stepped forward and told the “doorman” that he could join his friends outside. Too bad, they missed out on what was going to happen next.

My friend Dave liked the film too. And it may have been the reason behind our seeking out a fencing club to join. We found one that met in the community center in the Green Lake area north of Seattle.

As for all beginners, there was no jumping into things the first day. Nor the second. Nor any time soon. Basics had to be learned first. How to stand. How to move. Forward and back. The stance at first was awkward, and self-conscious, but as you began to move, it became the most natural thing in the world. Your favored foot was pointed forward and your other heel in line with the front one and pointed at the perpendicular. And you sat into a crouch, with both knees bent, and with your weight balanced over the rear or anchor leg. The lower half of your body was changed into a giant spring, so it was explained. And you felt it, especially in rapid movement.

Then practice, practice, practice. Lunge and recover, lunge and recover. And then we were taught how to hold the foil. (Dave preferred the pistol grip; I preferred the regular). Lectures followed on the geometry of fencing. Everything comes down to two points: the point of your foil and that of your opponent, your line of attack or parrying of his.

I kept waiting for a reference to The Three Musketeers, but was surprised when the instructor mentioned a sequence from another film instead. He was demonstrating the balestra – a movement used to close distance quickly between yourself and an opponent. It is a fast hop, followed by a lunge at the other fencer. This was a movement that Basil Rathbone employed against Errol Flynn in the Adventures of Robin Hood. I remembered seeing it, but it was all so fast – a blur really – that it took this extra knowledge of what the move was to understand what had taken place.

[Actually at the time I was more fixed on another realization. When I saw Robin Hood – at the Harvard Exit, of course – it was double billed with another Flynn flick, The Adventures of Don Juan. Watching them back to back you notice things. In Robin Hood, I saw a scene in which a drawbridge drops down and a number of riders charge out in pursuit. The exact same footage was repeated in Don Juan. It was my introduction to library footage. Say the director or the editor needs to fill a gap in his story, rather than setting up everything for another shoot, you just see what you can use from what the studio has in its “library.” In this instance the makers of Don Juan (1948) went back and borrowed this footage from the older film (1938).]

The Three Musketeers had a long run at the UA Cinemas, from the end of March 1974 through to September. And I was able to check in often and observe the swordplay. About the time it left, I was also leaving the UA (that story later) and moving on to the 5th Avenue Theater in Seattle. And you bet I was back when the sequel – The Four Musketeers – opened the next year. And I kept on fencing, even when we moved down to the Portland OR area. But that’s another story for another day – so stay tuned and Watch This Space.

Singing in the Rain in Seattle

Singing in the Rain in Seattle

I may have been beginning my junior year in college, but I was probably at the post graduate level for viewing films, all thanks to the Harvard Exit.

Around town the latest features were:

The French Connection – still racing down the suburban screens after opening the year before

The Godfather – packing them in at the 7th Avenue

Deliverance – floating down the river at the Music Box

Superfly – jiving at the Town

Ground Star Conspiracy – at my dad’s theater the Renton Village Cinema (bet you’ve never seen nor even heard about that one)

And as I mentioned last time, I was tearing tickets at the Cinerama for Woody Allen’s “Everything You Always Wanted to Know About Sex * But Were Afraid to Ask.”

My girl friend and I did see five of the six listed above, but we were more interested in films of an older vintage. Films that were in good supply at Seattle’s premier revival house, all (or almost all) in glorious black and white.

It was at this time that we caught up with the film that beat out not only The Maltese Falcon but also Citizen Kane for the Best Picture Oscar for 1942. That film was John Ford’s How Green Was My Valley. I must say that I think Kane was robbed, but I also can see why Valley won. Both had stunning cinematography and magnificent ensemble casts. (And yes, I do love Ford’s films very much). Obviously in the mind of the voters, one just razzled while the other dazzled.

We took in a comedy double bill of Duck Soup and Horsefeathers, following the serious drama of Valley. Cinematography was not the distinctive for the Marx Brothers films. The sparkle came from the antics and patter of the madcap quartet. It was a good portent, for now I was anticipating catching the brothers (pared down to a trio) in A Night at the Opera. I say that I was anticipating it, not so much Karen, whose taste in comedy runs along different lines. Hurrah for Rufus T. Firefly.

In the comedy line, we both enjoyed Buster Keaton in The General which popped up on the Exit’s schedule a few weeks later. This had been on my Must See list ever since reading about it in Brownlow’s The Parades Gone By. And it did not disappoint. One marvels at Keaton’s comic genius, a genius which can engineer comedy gold out of large inanimate objects. Every time we pass by Cottage Grove down in Oregon, I long to get off and go in search of the places where Keaton filmed what many consider his masterpiece. It was the only place in the US at the time that had the right track gauge for the trains he wanted to use.

And now, for the whole reason for this post. (It seems I have veered, -I swear it was unplanned – into the comedy genre). What I want to blog about is the best comedy film of all time, and the best musical film of all time. They are one and the same. And I will define it even further – Singing in the Rain is the most perfect movie made under the Hollywood studio system.

I can state truthfully that neither of us knew what we were in for when we took our seats at the Harvard Exit that night. Right from the opening credits through which Gene Kelly, Debbie Reynolds and Donald O’Connor sing and dance the title tune, all the way to the HAPPY ending, we were treated to a rollicking good time. It was exhilirating, and dare I say intoxicating, in the best sense –  a joy and a delight to see Kelly dance (not only in his famous solo reprise of the title tune, but throughout), and jaw-dropping wonder at O’Connor’s solo turn that made us laugh. And sweet, winsome Debbie Reynolds won our hearts completely.

And the contrast with the black and white films we had seen could not have been greater. The colors popped off the screen. I could say that the colors “sang and danced” too. All the elements came together – cast, crew, sets, costumes, writing, songs, choreography to make a sweet cinema confection.

We were not alone. Leo the Lion roared at the beginning and the audience roared its approval at the end.

Note – we recently saw the new release The Intern, a film directed by Nancy Meyers and starring Robert DeNiro and Anne Hathaway. We were delighted that a clip from Singing in the Rain was used to effect as the title character is remembering a time when he and his now departed wife had watched it together. It was a poignant moment. (And it was all my wife could do, not to burst out into song along with it).

Invasion of the Body Snatchers or What Happened to My Wife

Invasion of the Body Snatchers or What happened to my Wife

Invasion of the Body Snatchers – I’ve seen both versions of this sci-fi opus. And have a particular fondness for the seminal version. There is something about the black and white medium, that seems, well, more real. And more horrifying. Perhaps it’s a state in which it is more easy to deny the proof of your eyes.  You saw it, but did you really see it. And what you don’t see is what truly terrifies you. Your imagination steps in and magnifies ideas that were only pinpoints into voracious thoughts, filling your consciousness and crowding out all else.

We probably saw it on TV originally, but it only made its best impact in that venue of our film education, the Harvard Exit. Seeing it on TV with interruptions for car or Alka Seltzer ads every ten minutes can seriously dilute the effect of the tension. So with those distractions out of the way, we were right there with the protagonist Kevin McCarthy as he tries to cope with the rising fear that the people he is helping, really are fearful for good reason that their friends and loved ones have been replaced by something eerily like them, but ultimately not them at all.

I had a similar real-life experience recently. At Winco of all places.

Once a week we forage for our weekly provisions at our friendly neighborhood Cubfoods, I mean Winco. We each have our duties.  Karen has made her list and I push the cart. I can pull a can off the shelf and put it in the cart, but she has to make the more expert judgement when it comes to which cut of chicken or steak to buy. We travel a well worn path throughout the store, which always culminates at that toll booth, the checkout stand.

We share in the chore of moving our catch from the basket to the conveyor belt, but that task complete, we take up our unique duties. While she gets out the checkbook and monitors the register for price errors, I manuever the cart out to the other end of the conveyor belt and commence to bag the groceries. I have become adept over the years we’ve been coming to Winco (twenty, count them) at filling the bags efficiently and in the main intelligently, though I do come into criticism for the weight of a single bag (cans should be grouped together, right?) or the placement of that carton of eggs (it is in a protective box after all).

This time there was a breakdown in the norm. As I finished with the last bag, Karen had left the clerk (my assumption – the check was written and surrendered) and was talking to a lady with a baby. I swung the last bag into the cart, and was turning the cart around into the exiting traffic, when the clerk called after me with an authoritative insistence in his voice – “Sir, you need to pay for those!”

I had entered the Twilight Zone. I looked at the clerk and he looked back at me. I was sending thoughts his way – don’t you see that I’m a packer, not a payer. And scanning the crowd for my wife. She had moved along, but was still talking to the mom with a baby. And was completely oblivious to our current deadbeat status. I sleep-walked my way back to the clerk and paid up. My thoughts were no longer on the embarrassment of being put on the spot, but who was this person who looked like my wife, and why hadn’t she paid the clerk, a task that she had always performed in the past ad infinitum.

She chalks it up to a “senior moment.”

I just want to know what happened when we passed through the produce department this time.

The Night of the Shrinking Man and the Fifty Foot Woman

The Night of the Shrinking Man and the Fifty Foot Woman

My girl friend and I usually had a weekly date to meet after work on Friday nights over at her family’s house. We sat on their couch and tuned in the Creature Feature – the late night scary movie. In between the ads for a local car dealer we got to see the likes of:

The Creature from the Black Lagoon

Them (them as opposed to us humans – the them being giant ants)

The Blob (inside of which was rumored to be Steve McQueen)

The Attack of the Crab Monsters (by the Sultan of Schlock – Roger Corman).

And many, many more…

For some reason (possibly due to their availability) none of the classic monster movies were broadcast. No Dracula, no Frankenstein, no Werewolf movies. On second thought perhaps it was because they were so much older than these titles – the 1930s versus the 1950s – the concern on the programmer’s part possibly being for more contemporary fare.

Sometimes long nights ensued as the fare put us both to sleep. Cue the Everly Brothers – Wake Up Little Susie, Wake Up.

We were excited to learn that one of our upcoming Friday nights could be spent at one of our favorite places. The Harvard Exit had a calendar program that they printed and made available in their lobby. And scheduled for a midnight show on Halloween was the double bill – The Incredible Shrinking Man and The Attack of the Fifty Foot Woman.

We bought our tickets and joined the midnight throng filling the seats for the sci-fi/horror fest. My friend from college Dave went with us. Dave with his scientific bent could be a bit of a Debbie Downer. He would speak right up when something occurred that was impossible – like explosions in outer space for instance, (that epic rant came out of a viewing of Silent Running). I don’t remember any gaffs pointed out by him in these two pictures. Trust me, had there been, he would have been all over them gleefully. But then again these flicks were more in the fantasy line and were not tied down to any hard science.

I wonder now if there was not a tongue in cheek ideology behind the pairing. This time was the era of the rise of feminism. If I was into conspiracy theory, I could posit that it was a manifesto of sorts, signifying the diminution of men and the elevation of women over them.

The Stuff Dreams Are Made Of

The Stuff Dreams Are Made Of

Having been awed by Bogart in Casablanca I was eager to see him in other films. So when The Maltese Falcon popped up on the schedule for the Harvard Exit, my girl friend and I made a date to see it. Ahead of time, I didn’t know what to expect, not having read any Dashiel Hammett stories or novels. In fact, I had not heard of Film Noir or even the phrase “hard-boiled.” (I did take a class on film at Seattle U, but it was more of film appreciation type class. It would touch a bit on the how tos so that you knew what you were looking at. Really it was a film critique class. And it talked about genres – westerns, sci-fi, comedy, etc.Film Noir included – but this must have been later).

Come time for the show, we were settled in our seats, the lights went down, and the Warner Bros. Logo and a fanfare announced the film. And the music score (Adolph Deutsch) ushered us into the mystery heralded in glorious black and white (and charcoal and pearly grays).

So we were thrown into the mystery of the Black Bird, all wrapped up in the events surrounding the murder of Sam Spade’s partner Miles Archer. We were confused along with our hero as odd characters, one by one came on the scene, all trying to enlist the detective’s help and thwart the others in the quest for the fabled bird. Would Sam figure out what was going on? Would we? Would his feelings for Brigid O’Shaughnessy find fulfillment? We cared. And we were surprised.

Some years afterwards I read one of the bios about the director of the film, John Huston. Huston himself wrote the screenplay. He said that he simply took the story that Hammett had written and translated it page for page to the screen. And in my reading and viewing of the two I can concur. It is unusual for a film taken from another source to end up reflecting it in all its little perfections. The norm for this situation eventuates in two artistic expressions with the same title, but with little similarity thereafter. As the expression goes, Huston nailed it.

The Maltese Falcon would join Casablanca and Lawrence of Arabia as seeds sewn in my psyche. Or in another analogy – they were germs that gave me Hollywood Fever.

Everybody Comes to the Harvard Exit

Everybody Comes to the Harvard Exit

The Boeing company, by association, also had another lasting impact on my life (and on lives of countless other moviegoers in Seattle). Two Boeing engineers, Jim Osteen and Art Bernstein left their day jobs in 1968 to take out a lease on a women’s club building on the First Hill, right above downtown Seattle, (and not far from Seattle University where I started college in the fall of 1970).

There was a five hundred seat auditorium in this building that was just perfect for a specialty movie house – for revivals (of the movie kind) and foreign fare. The lobby had a “homey” feel to it – a home out of the 20s that is. The centerpiece was a fireplace, a grand piano and sprinkled around the room were overstuffed chairs and divans. It was a nice place to wait for the next showing when you arrived early. And you always chose to arrive early.

Art was the talkative partner.  Before each performance he would walk down to the front of the auditorium. And after greeting us he would launch into a fun and informative talk about the evening’s entertainment – who the stars were – what they had done in this same period – production notes – how the film had come about – all the same types of topics that are included on DVDs these days as extras.

When he had finished, and called up to the projectionist to start the show, our appetites were fully whetted for an enjoyable evening. And I cannot remember ever being disappointed.

The first film that I remember seeing there was the extremely brief animated film by Marv Newland, “Bambi vs Godzilla.” I won’t describe it, no spoilers here. I would like to relate what feature it was playing with, but I do not recall. Most likely it was part of a festival of short films for there were a lot of those doing quite well back then – with many excellent ones contributed by the National Film Board of Canada.

There are many other “firsts” that I experienced at the Harvard Exit. But none more treasured than viewing for the first time Casablanca (I think we learned at this time from Art that it was based on a stage play -Everybody Comes to Rick’s).  A perfect script (rewritten for the screen by the Epstein brothers and Howard Koch), a perfect cast, and a perfect production.  And my introduction to the greatest MOVIE STAR among movie stars – Humphrey Bogart. His portrayal of Rick Blaine, the cynical ex-pat American running a night club in the Vichy French colony in North Africa is so spot on and so satisfying on so many levels.  Truly it has a deep resonance. One identifies with him in his struggle – trying to forget the love of his life, and coming to terms with it in the light of the bigger picture, as he moves from political apathy to  full engagement in the fight against evil.

In sum, it was the beginning of a beautiful friendship.

(I just learned sadly that the Harvard Exit has closed its doors at the beginning of this month.)