A Jimmy Stewart Education
In the summer of 1997 I worked at a movie theatre. Around the same time I was hired, the small-town theatre went from two screens to three – a big deal at the time. I sold tickets. I ate a lot of popcorn. I saw a lot of free movies. I collected movie posters. I flirted with Syd Field’s tips on “How to Write a Screenplay”. And I met a lot of people who I would genuinely call “movie buffs” – regulars who would come to see whatever was playing just because they loved movies. There was a man who would come in religiously on discount night each week. He never spoke and carried a Ouija board with him to communicate. I learned some sign language while selling him his weekly ticket. There were the “arty” intellectual types who would come in debating the movie they were about to see and leave analyzing it throwing around fancy terms and names I didn’t recognize. There was the manager, Al, who welcomed everyone like they were a long lost friend and diligently worked to sustain an environment where people could enjoy a pure, uninterrupted movie-going experience. He ran a tight but friendly ship and was a walking encyclopedia of all things film, especially the technical aspects of film projection.
In that summer of 1997 the iconic movie actor Jimmy Stewart died at the age of 89. Within our little film-centric cultural community this understandably caused quite a stir, of which I was completely ignorant until one of the regulars came in the next day and made a comment about it while he was buying his ticket. Our interaction went something like this:
Patron: “Isn’t it sad that Jimmy Stewart died?”
Me: [stunned blank look]
Patron: “Do you know who that is?”
Patron: “Really?! Frank Capra?”
Me: [stunned blank look]
Patron: “Mr. Smith Goes to Washington?”
Me: [stunned blank look] [shakes head]
Patron: “It’s a Wonderful Life?”
Me: [shakes head]
Patron: “Hitchcock then. Vertigo? Rear Window?”
Me: [embarrassed blank look] “No, sorry.”
Patron: [shakes head sadly] “Okay then. One please.”
That was the moment I realized that if I was going to work at the theatre (even if I was only selling tickets), I should know some things. Like who Jimmy Stewart and Frank Capra were and why they were noteworthy. Not only had I not seen their films, but I had never even heard of them. I was mortified! Thus began in earnest my movie education.
I rented a LOT of movies that summer (at least one a day – three or four on the weekend – and remember this is in addition to seeing EVERYTHING that came out that summer in the theatre). I watched anything and everything that I had ever heard anyone say was a “classic” or had been parodied on the Simpsons. I began with Jimmy since that was where my lack of education was so unceremonious revealed, which led me to the aforementioned Mr. Smith, The Philadelphia Story, and the darker Hitchcock-Stewart pairings. It wasn’t until a few years later that I would discover my favourite Stewart role – that of Elwood P. Dowd in Harvey – where he is at his most self-effacing and down-home charming. I saw It’s a Wonderful Life for the first time on the big screen when it was rereleased in theatres later that same year.
From The Philadelphia Story, I segued into the Hepburns – Katharine and Audrey. Bringing Up Baby (still one of my favourite all-time comedies), The African Queen, and Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner for the former; Sabrina, Breakfast at Tiffany’s, and Roman Holiday for the latter. I fell in love with Humphrey Bogart watching Casablanca, The Big Sleep, and The Maltese Falcon and wanted to be Lauren Bacall in To Have or Have Not. Cary Grant, Grace Kelly, Spencer Tracy, Ingrid Bergman… I met them all that summer and we became good friends. We still hang out a lot.
I also watched some pivotal films of the 1970s like 2001: A Space Odyssey, The Godfather I and II, Midnight Cowboy, Urban Cowboy, Saturday Night Fever, Easy Rider, Bonnie and Clyde, Scarface, Jaws, Chinatown – some of which I liked and some of which made me cringe. I learned to differentiate between movies I “should” watch and movies I wanted to watch. Watching more and more movies from different genres and eras strengthened my appreciation across the board. I started reading “making of” memoirs, actor autobiographies, and film criticism and trivia. I binged on all things cinematic that summer and have never looked back.
This post wouldn’t be complete without some shout-outs to some others who have contributed to my movie education before and since. I was introduced to a lot of great movies by my parents. For example, they had the good fortune to see Charade on their first date (incidentally at that same small-town theatre where I later worked). It’s a suspenseful romp starring Audrey Hepburn and Cary Grant set in Paris that my folks shared with my sister and me to great nostalgic effect. I grew up on the Oscar-winning My Fair Lady – I could sing all the songs and quote it line by line. I can also remember as a teenager coming home one Halloween night to my parents watching The Birds. I think I groaned and griped about it (“Why do we have to watch this – it’s old and in black and white!”), but it didn’t take long to get sucked into Hitchcock’s strange and terrifying universe. I also remember my parents introducing me to The Graduate in my late teens – still one of my all-time favourite movies (coo coo ca choo, Anne Bancroft).
And of course, I owe a debt of gratitude to my movie-going circle of friends, past and present. Circa ’97 I had a good friend who loved movies even more than I did. And long before the Seinfeld episode with the same theme, he had a hate-on for The English Patient. In fact, this was his cinematic “friend barometer” – if you loved the English Patient, you were dead to him, movie-wise. I also try to surround myself with friends who have diverse tastes and a wide range of knowledge on the subject so they can introduce me to some really wonderful movies I would otherwise never have seen like Antonia’s Line, Like Water for Chocolate, and Dogfight (I can’t believe this was totally off my radar until a couple of years ago). It’s always a nerve-wracking test to watch a movie with someone you care about that you know they really, really love. But it’s so very cool when you end up loving those movies too.