By Aubrey Malone
I didn’t really like war films when I was young. I used to get bored watching cities being bombed when there was no human interest. The storylines in these kinds of films were pretty standard. A guy would stand in a trench telling his friend about his sweetheart. Often he’d take out a picture of her.
When he did that you knew he was done for. After the Japanese or the Germans killed him his friend would take the photo from his uniform. It would have his sweetheart’s address on the back. God knows why. He should have known where she lived. She was his girlfriend.
The friend would look her up after the war ended. He’d tell her that her boyfriend died a hero. That would make her feel good. Then he’d start dating her. They’d fall in love. It would be the friend’s tribute to the dead hero, falling in love with his girlfriend. Yuck.
Science fiction films were better. They were scary but exciting too. I always wanted to know if there was life on other planets. Creatures only visited earth from other galaxies to destroy us in the fifties. Then Steven Spielberg came along with all his cuddly aliens. That was much later.
‘Twilight Zone’ was like the gold standard of science fiction programmes. You got sucked into it like into an irresistible nightmare world. There was funny music when it went into its dream sequences. It made the hair stand up on the back of your neck.
Vampire films were even scarier. They had stars like Bela Lugosi and Christopher Lee. Other ones might have Peter Cushing or Lon Chaney or Boris Karloff. Most of the vampire films I saw seemed to have some of these actors in them. Put them together and you’d need a prescription for tranquillisers for the rest of your life.
I always felt brave going into these kinds of films in the daytime. Nothing was really scary at a matinee. When I came out of the cinema the sky would still be bright and I’d forget about what I saw for a few hours. If I was sent out to the turf shed that night to get some fuel for the fire it was a different story. If a cat squawked I’d jump ten feet in the air.
We went to a lot of comedies. Charlie Chaplin was regarded as the main genius of the time but I preferred the Marx Brothers. I didn’t understand a lot of the dialogue but even my young mind knew something was going on that was light years away from people like Bud Abbott and Lou Costello. Abbott and Costello banged one another over the heads with saucepan lids. That was the level of most of the comedies we saw in those years.
The Three Stooges pulled each another’s noses. Laurel and Hardy got into one fine mess after another. Charlie Chaplin ate his shoes in a film.
Buster Keaton had a wall fall down around him but he wasn’t hurt because there was a gap for the window. His body was under that bit. It was one of his many brilliant ideas. Next to the Marx Brothers he was my favourite. He was much more imaginative than Chaplin but he never became as big a star as him. Chaplin was middle-of-the-road. That’s why he became so famous. Keaton never played the Hollywood game. He stayed on the edge of the industry.
Beneath all the slapstick and puns the Marx Brothers were subversive. How did they come out of that simple time? They were even before it. Most of their films went back to the thirties and forties. Sometimes comedies could be before their time just like literature was.
Someone once said to Samuel Beckett that the tramps in Waiting for Godot spoke as if they’d been to college. He replied, ‘How do you know they haven’t?’ People say Vladimir and Estragon were based on Laurel and Hardy but there was a lot of the Marx Brothers in there too.
The most famous director of frightening films was of course Alfred Hitchcock. There was a programme on television called ‘Alfred Hitchcock Presents’. He used to appear on the screen before it started and say a few words about it. He’d always have something scary in his hands like a chain or a rope. He’d give a little speech about what we were about to see. I found his programmes too scary to watch. Even though they were only a half hour long they gave me nightmares.
The scariest film he ever made was Psycho. Everyone was talking about this guy who had half his mother inside him. I was too young to be let into it. I didn’t see it until years later. Anthony Perkins was the psycho. He scared me half to death. When a man dressed up as a woman it was usually funny but Perkins sent a chill up my spine.
You were able to smoke at the pictures when I was young. Couples also courted in the back seats. We were as bored looking at them as we were looking at actors and actresses kissing on the screen. We hissed them at the matinees. You couldn’t do that at the night shows or the manager would probably kick you out.