Apropos of very little aside from the fact that it’s kind of an interesting exercise, I thought I’d search my memories and create this little list of some of the first movies, and first major movies, I saw as a child. I remember most of the encounters quite vividly; young children are highly open to new experiences, so theoretically these movies shaped me in important ways. It’s pretty safe to say they have. It’s fun to try to identify what that is. There is a certain randomness in what one encounters, an element of chance as to what comes your way and is going to become part of your make-up. But I will also observe that, looking over the list, it’s instructive to note how strong a role the taste and judgment of my parents played; about a third of the movies were ones that they endorsed, recommended, praised, approved of, gushed over, and I came to echo their judgment, never wavering in my feelings afterward. Movies hit you on an emotional level. Nothing is more powerful than emotion. My parents also kept a fairly eagle eye on our viewing habits, meaning they exerted on influence on even the things they weren’t endorsing, i.e., they permitted them. Nowadays, kids watch every heinous thing that’s out there. My viewing diet was strictly films that were rated G or, occasionally (and this was pushing it), PG. There’s only one example of a crucial film I saw that was of dubious appropriateness, and that was fairly accidental.
You may be surprised at the relative lack of “comedy classics” on the list. One of the reasons I ended up becoming obsessed with the comedies of the 1920s-40s was that, though I had often heard about them during my childhood and they assumed a kind of legendary status, I didn’t actually have access until them until much later in my teenage years. (As an example of what it was like back then: when I was about 14, one day I saw in the TV Guide that Duck Soup was being played by Channel 56 in Boston, which was a hard channel for me to pull in from my home at the Rhode Island shore. So I first experienced Duck Soup in fragmentary bursts, alternating with snow, receiving mostly the audio portion, and lots of static as I constantly adjusted the rabbit ears. But I’ll always remember which two scenes managed to reach my brain from that experience: Harpo sticking his feet in Edgar Kennedy’s lemonade tank; and Harpo leaving Groucho behind in the motorcycle sidecar). At any rate, I will never lose that feeling of constantly playing catch-up in this department, despite my having seen more of these kinds of films than about 98% of the general public, and many times. Similarly I didn’t encounter most of the horror classics of the ’30s and ’40s until much later although I certainly read about them in books as a kid.
The films are presented in no particular order, they’re just all movies I saw before I was about ten and made a big impact on me. They’re pretty much a grab bag of all genres. Greater even than my love of comedy comes an even earlier love, a love of movies.
- Dr. Zhivago (1965): This was the first contemporary movie I was ever taken to. I was an infant; my parents went to see it at the drive-in. I obviously have no recollection of the experience, but I’ll always feel a special connection to the movie for the reason that it was my first. My parents always spoke highly of the film. It is pretty great. I’ve watched it maybe three times in my adulthood, and once or twice as a kid. I’ll acknowledge that David Lean’s sprawl requires patience, but I’m willing to sit still for this movie periodically. As you’ll note, at least three of the films on this list are of epic length, and I’ve watched them since childhood. Consequently, I was conditioned quite young to tolerate long movie experiences, where the length was called for. At festivals, I’m glad to sit and watch movies for 12, 14 hours at a pop.
- The Wizard of Oz (1939): I’ve written about this film so many times there seems little new to say here, but I’ll say it again anyway. It was an annual viewing experience on commercial television from about the age of four. The first time I saw it, I burst it into tears when it was over and could not stop crying, it hit me that hard. I cried for such a long time my parents began to become alarmed. When I got a little older, I dreamed of marrying Judy Garland; she was my Platonic ideal of a “true love”. When I learned she was dead, I dreamed of putting roses on her grave. And while, as I say, there are few classic comedy films on this list, The Wizard of Oz contains MUCH comedy of the classic variety. As we’ve written, nearly every cast member and much of the creative team had been in vaudeville. That, and the character of Professor Marvel, influenced where I was to take the rest of my life, culminating in this.
- The Poseidon Adventure (1972) This was my first conscious experience of seeing a movie in a movie theatre, and it’s also the film of dubious appropriateness I spoke of earlier. My babysitter brought my sister and I to see it; she must have known my parents would not have approved, but she obviously just wanted to see the hit movie of the day. So you can not IMAGINE the impact this film had on me, who had never seen a movie in a cinema before: a tidal wave, a capsizing ship, people being burned, scalded, drowned, broken to bits. The copious use of profanity (still new at the time). I still think of it as my second favorite movie (behind The Wizard of Oz). I even named my first dog “Manny” after the character played by Jack Albertson. I blogged about the film a bit more at this post. My childhood coincided with the great heyday of disaster movies and I became an aficionado of the genre. I would also include Towering Inferno, Earthquake, Airport 1975 and Hurricane on this list, but I don’t want to bog down the entire list with disaster movies. And my post about disaster impresario Irwin Allen is here.
- Day of the Dolphin (1973) The second movie in a cinema I saw was also not really for kids. (After a while my parents got wise, hence some of the children’s movies you’ll see below) This movie also made a huge impression. First the emotional impact, when the dolphins are to be set free at the end (I was seven at the time, I didn’t understand why it was happening, and the plot is so preposterous that as an adult one is still unsure), but also, on a purely visceral level, the colors and the textures. The color blue! The sky and the ocean. The sunlight. The undulation of waves in tanks and in the sea. These images etched themselves into my memory in a way I’ll never forget. I’ve blogged about this movie too, it’s here.
- The War of the Worlds (1953) This sci fi classic was probably the closest I got to old time horror as a kid. As I blogged here, it was close to the top of my list of favorites. It was shown periodically on TV as a kid, and it was so devastating, so apocalyptic. (That’s a theme through a great many of my favorite childhood films!) As with The Wizard of Oz, I loved the movie so much it pointed me to the original book, which I’ve read many times.
- The Ten Commandments (1956), I probably watched this Biblical epic annually every year of my childhood. I was a religious kid. It’s certainly my favorite religious movie. It doesn’t hurt any that it’s saturated with Cecil B. DeMille’s no-holds-barred spectacle and showmanship. I’m planning a full blogpost on this movie for next Easter/Passover season; meantime there’s my Chuck Heston post which talks a bit about it. Those images! Thousands of slaves building pyramids! The Plagues! The Parting of the Red Sea! The Burning Bush! The giving of the Tablets! To me, no other movie remotely captures the story of Moses as effectively as this one, in spite of some flash elements like having the smoldering Anne Baxter as Moses’ love interest! No regrets there! And, as with Wizard of Oz and War of the Worlds, my love of the movie drove me to the source literature. As a kid, I re-read the book of Exodus many times (I read the rest of the Bible too but not as much as Exodus). I was fortunate also in having my dad’s old Classic Comics Illustrated version of the story of Moses, which was very much akin to experiencing the film version.
- Gone with the Wind (1939) My experience of this classic film came slightly later than the others on this list, but it had the same kind of impact. It was shown for the first time on television with great fanfare in 1976, when I was ten years old. It aired over two evenings, and had been so hyped by my parents that my sister and I watched with enormous avidity. My father was from the South; we were steeped in the lore of the Lost Cause. And my mother was in it for the romance, obviously. My parents were both too young to have seen the film on its original release. The movie was such a blockbuster, it had been re-released to cinemas to 1942, 1947 and 1952, and they had obviously caught it during one of those tours. We’ve written about the problematic racial aspects of the film on other occasions, and will again. But, again, as in many of other favorite films, as a child we loved the spectacle: the burning of Atlanta, for example, and the image of the great pile of moaning, wounded me will always be haunting.
- Shane (1953) This was my dad’s favorite movie, and I got to see it once or twice as a kid when they played it on tv. I’m sure I’ve been asked a few times what my favorite western is (I’m been working on a long-term western project) and I’m sure I fumbled for an answer. But it hit me the other day — duh! This is it. In fact, it was that realization that led to me drawing up this list. This movie packs a heavy emotional impact at the end when Shane, whom everyone idolizes, says goodbye for good, and Joey keeps calling his name but he won’t turn back. That’s nightmarishly powerful to a kid. And that stark, empty wilderness on all sides of the farmhouse — the imagery is dreamlike. I know I’ll write more on this at some point.
- The Gold Rush (1925) This Chaplin masterpiece is the only classic comedy film I saw early enough in my life to have had the same kind of seismic impact as most of these other movies I’ve listed. I saw it at my school, and I’ll assume they screened it around the 50th anniversary when I was about ten? Although it feels like I was younger than that. I wrote about in my introduction to my book Chain of Fools, and in this blogpost here.
- Rumplestiltskin (1955) After getting wind of The Poseidon Adventure and Day of the Dolphin, my parents insisted we only attend rated G children’s matinees. So I vividly recall this one, as one of the earliest we saw. I’m pretty sure this was the version, which is in German, with dubbed dialogue. I can still remember the little person in the title role, and even the tune to the magical jingle he sang, and vividly recall his angry tantrum at the end.
- The Golden Voyage of Sinbad (1973) This, too, from our children’s cinema phase — and a first run movie, no less! With visual effects by Ray Harryhausen, there were MANY memorable visual takeaways from this. The most vivid impression on me was made by the Six Armed Goddess Kali, and a one-eyed Centaur. And, as with Day of the Dolphin, the blue, blue ocean.
- Willie Wonka and the Chocolate Factory (1971) Though I’m old enough to have seen this classic when it was first run at the cinema, I’m certain my first experience was a couple of years later on television. I became a devotee of Roald Dahl’s book as well. God, how I would love to play this character (in this version — Tim Burton’s remake isn’t worth talking about).
- Chitty Chitty Bang Bang (1968) — blogged about this powerful kid’s movie here.
- Haunts of the Very Rich (1972) — a tv movie of the week I guess I just happened to see, one that I found very powerful at my young age. It anticipates the arc of Lost three decades earlier, and has very excellent tv actors in key roles. I blogged about the film here.
- The War of the Gargantuas (1966) Yes! The War of the Gargantuas! For some reason now lost to me, this Japanese monster movie was shown with great fanfare on prime time tv when I was in 2nd, 3rd or 4th grade (circa 1973 or 74). I seem to remember all the kids talking about it. The climax had these two giant monsters, the Green Gargantua and the Brown Gargantua, in mortal combat amongst the skyscrapers of Tokyo. I can conjure the image of their faces at a moment’s notice. Naturally many Godzilla, Mothra and Gamera movies would follow on weekend afternoons, but this was my first engagement with this type of movie.
I cut it off here artificially, of course. I’m already thinking of others. Must. Stop. I’m going away now! Thanks for reading!