March 27, 1998
As you may have deduced, I am an unabashed movie fan. That does not necessarily mean that I enjoy the graphic carnage, gutter language and gratuitous sexuality of today’s offerings from Hollywoodland. No, it is hard in our modern society to find a film that is even a little bit wholesome, and I have mistakenly quite often bought tickets to some really bad movies without reading a reliable review in advance. I don’t regard myself as prudish but when I find myself wincing painfully and blinking in disgust at some of the images on our contemporary wide screens, I have to wonder why I paid to get in. Still, I love the movies, probably because I was partly raised in the Roxy and Annex Theatres on the east side of the Perry square. My teachers were Mickey Rooney and Lewis Stone, of the Andy Hardy films; Wallace Beery and Jackie Cooper; Nelson Eddy and Jeanette McDonald; Johnny Weismuller and Maureen O’Sullivan; Fred & Ginger; William Powell and Myrna Loy; Gene Autry, Hoot Gibson, Ronald Colman, Rin-Tin-Tin and dozens of others who ruled the film world as authentic stars in the 1930s. Gloria Stuart, the 87-year-old actress who is now being acclaimed for her role in “Titanic,” was several years too old for me back then but I remember her as a beautiful blond star with a wistful smile. I was in love with her for a while, but it was a sort of May-December thing and to this day she does not know that I had that enormous crush on her.
In my growing up years, my sisters Jeanice and Gloria, my cousin Fred, my mother and I all worked at the family business, the City Drug Store. Jeanice left when she married Syd Wade and Gloria found other employment, but I had so much fun jerking sodas and car-hopping that I stayed with it all through high school. We didn’t have any money to spend on most of the things available for entertainment because it was the Great Depression era, when everyone was more or less broke, but our drug store had a huge magazine rack where the selection of literature included a number of monthly movie fan magazines. Photoplay and Screen Stories are examples. These I studied as soon as they arrived at our store, along with a broadening assortment of other publications. I kept up with the latest gossip about Betty Grable, Lana Turner, Loretta Young, Tyrone Power, Robert Taylor, Warner Baxter and, of course, Clark Gable, who was everyone’s image of the perfect American male. Reading the columns written by Hedda Hopper, Louella Parsons, Jimmy Fiddler and other less well-known byliners, I knew who was dating whom and what they had to say when caught by reporters at the Mocambo, Coconut Grove, the Brown Derby or other night spots they habituated. It was almost like being there. It prepared me for the fullest possible enjoyment of those glamorous people when I actually saw them on the screen. They were friends of mine.
Times and society have changed since then. Small town movie houses like the Roxy and the Annex have virtually disappeared. Perry folks must go to Stillwater, Ponca City, Enid, Oklahoma City or some other metropolis to shell out $7.50 for a ticket to the movies. The actors are unknown to most of us, except for a few legitimate stars. We know little of their background, contrary to the old days. Or perhaps we know more about them now than we want to know. Movie production styles have changed greatly; stories are not told the same way they were a few decades ago, and quite often that makes it hard to figure out the plot lines. The dialogue and visual qualities are supposedly more “real,” but are they?
My basis for appreciating or recoiling from the movies is grounded in the early years described above, but I must tell you that I was once the film critic for this newspaper. In the 1940s, The Perry Daily Journal’s publisher, W.K. Leatherock, converted the paper’s format temporarily to tabloid, and he wanted to do some innovative things in the news department, which is where I labored. We had some new theatre owners in town at the time, and Mr. Leatherock decided that his paper should have a reviewer to write about the major films when they appeared here. The news department consisted of managing editor Francis Thetford, women’s page editor Jane Schneider, and your humble servant, who was being introduced to the Fourth Estate as sports writer, general assignment reporter, city editor, relief wire editor, makeup editor in training, and an apprentice in the advertising department. Mr. Leatherock chose me for the paper’s movie reviewer, and it was fun while the tabloid format lasted. I even got on the mailing list of some major film studios and received ballots each year for voting in the film critics’ awards for best actor, actress, movie, and so on. It was good fun, but mighty heady for a green adolescent. There was a sense of power with each ballot I filled out.
But now I’m rambling. I’ll pick up the thread of this column again in a few days.