One of my earliest movie memories is of seeing Bambi and being totally traumatized by the death of Bambi’s mother. Who wasn’t? It fact, that’s the only thing I remember about the film. Since Bambi was originally released in 1942, I must have seen it after it was re-released in December of 1947. I was born in 1944, so I would have been three or four years old, and very susceptible to being freaked out by the prospect of losing a parent. I grew up on a small farm in northwest Iowa. I’m an only child, so my mother was my main companion until I started grade school. She loved movies and we went a lot, mainly to the Vista Theater in Storm Lake, my mother’s home town, 12 miles north. Besides the Vista, Storm Lake had the Corral Drive-In on the east side of the lake. There was another movie theater in town at the time. I’ve forgotten its name, but it’s where I saw The Man from Planet X in 1951, a film that had a great impact on me. I recalled recently that it’s also the theater where my dad first met my mom. She was working at the concession stand and he was buying popcorn. At least, that’s the story. This was probably in 1940 or ’41. It’s not lost on me that Nancy and I also met by chance at the movies here in New York in 2002. I wrote about that a couple of years ago, and you can read it here.
All of the films referenced in this piece are ones I recall seeing. Some I remember in detail; others only that I saw them. But of all the films I saw during the 1950s, these registered for one reason or another. In one of my first blog posts, “Famous Monsters and Me,” I wrote “…from an early age, as early as I can remember, I was totally in love with science fiction and horror (monsters!) via all their delivery systems; i.e., books, magazines, comics, TV, and movies. Mainly movies, probably because films are so immediate.” I was strongly attracted to these kinds of films, but also Westerns, Biblical epics, war movies, Martin & Lewis comedies, and all things Disney. I didn’t see a foreign film until 1962, when I went to the University of Iowa. Before that, it was Hollywood all the way. Here are the movies I remember.
Samson and Delilah was my first sword-and-sandal movie. There were many such films in the 1950s, usually Biblical epics, with Cecil B. DeMille leading the way. The U.S. posters for Samson and Delilah weren’t nearly as risqué, or as artistic, as the German poster above. Here are the posters I would have seen.
Disney films really kicked in for me in 1950. I loved Treasure Island. My identification with Jim Hawkins (played by Bobby Driscoll) was strong, as I’m sure it was for many young boys. Robert Newton as Long John Silver was both friendly and frightening. He was the definitive pirate. Bobby Driscoll went on to be the voice of Peter Pan in the 1953 Disney film, which I hadn’t known until I looked him up for this piece. Things didn’t go well for him later on. He began using drugs and was sentenced to a California narcotics rehabilitation facility in 1961. He moved to New York City in 1965, where he became part of the scene at Andy Warhol’s Factory. His body was found in a deserted East Village tenement in 1968, four weeks after his 31st birthday. With no identification on the body, he was buried in an unmarked grave in Potter’s Field on Hart Island. A fingerprint match in late 1969 finally identified him. Pretty grim. A long way from Disney.
I’m sure Destination Moon would look fairly hokey today, but in 1950 it was great! Its semi-documentary approach to telling the story of a privately-funded moon shot is a little dry compared to the flying saucers and monsters that were to come, but this was something different. Harvey might have been too grown-up for me at the time, but I liked James Stewart, probably because he seemed like a child in the film. And I wanted the rabbit to be real!
Samson and Delilah, David and Bathsheba, and Quo Vadis were among the first Biblical epics I saw. I recently saw Samson and Delilah for the first time since 1949. It was quite bad, but typical of the era. I ended up fast-forwarding through most of it just to get to the part where Samson brings down the temple with his bare hands. That scene is still exciting. Two years ago I saw Quo Vadis at the Museum of Modern Art, for the first time since 1951. It seems stilted and absurd now, though I’m sure I totally bought into it at the time. Apparently, so did a lot of people. It was a huge box-office success, reportedly the most successful MGM film after Gone With the Wind. But Gone With the Wind is still watchable, while Quo Vadis is a bit harder to take. The sets were very impressive, however, as seen below. Remember, this was before CGI, so all this stuff was built and the crowds were real.
When I saw it at MoMA, I realized the only thing I remembered was the scene where Peter is crucified upside down on an inverted cross. This was pretty potent, especially for a kid who went to Sunday school. I no longer go to Sunday school, but it’s still a powerful image.
I’m probably not alone, but my first exposure to Alice in Wonderland and other children’s classics was through Walt Disney. The films fixed the way I pictured the characters. This was how I thought Alice, the Mad Hatter, and all the other characters should look. I was jolted the first time I saw the John Tenniel illustrations for the Alice books; they were wrong. But they don’t seem that way now. The Tenniel tea party (below the Disney version) is somewhat disturbing, and much more interesting.
I think I started connecting with the films more in 1951. I was, after all, a sophisticated 1st-grader. The two films I saw that year that had the biggest impact on me were The Day the Earth Stood Still and The Thing From Another World. They’re both great films. They’re just as good now as they were then, and I’ve seen them many times. For years after moving to NYC in 1977, channel 9 or 11 (I don’t remember which) would show King Kong and The Thing back-to-back every Thanksgiving afternoon. Seems like a strange holiday choice, but it worked for me. The music for both films used theremins. I didn’t know what a theremin was then, but it’s a sound forever associated with outer space weirdness. Day is literate, intelligent, and thrilling. I made a model of the robot Gort out of modeling clay and covered it with aluminum foil for realism. I also fashioned a woman for Gort to carry in his arms, à la Patricia Neal in the film. Sadly, no photographic evidence of this creative effort remains, but a shot of Gort is in the banner of all my blog posts. The Thing scared me deeply for months. A mother taking her 7-year-old son to such a film today would probably be charged with child abuse, but I loved it. Hell, even the opening titles are frightening!
Fewer films in 1952 made a strong impression on me. I know I saw Bwana Devil, but can’t remember if it was in 3D. Our local theaters sometimes showed 3D films in flat prints, so I don’t know. Ivanhoe began an obsession with knights-in-armor movies. Son of Paleface was a lot of fun. Bob Hope was great at that time, but I was an easy laugh. I liked The Greatest Show on Earth for obvious reasons. It was a circus! This was before clowns became creepy and nightmarish. But the clear standout from this year was High Noon, another film I never tire of seeing. In retrospect, it seems insane that High Noon lost out to The Greatest Show on Earth for the Best Picture Oscar that year, but at least Gary Cooper got Best Actor.
Up to this point, I liked everything I saw. It was wonderful just being in the theater and being transported when the lights went down. I enjoyed all of it. It would take a few more years before I began to develop any kind of critical faculty, before I would see something and think, “Hey, wait a second.” During these years, movies became an extremely important part of my life. They still are.
Part 2 of this saga is coming soon. Stay tuned for the years 1953 through ’56, and a lot more movies. – Ted Hicks