film history

What’s Old is New at the Chatham Orpheum

Tony Curtis, Marilyn Monroe, and Jack Lemmon in Billy Wilder’s classic 1959 film “Some Like It Hot.”

I’ve seen Singin’ in the Rain (1952) numerous times; sometimes I watched pieces of the film on television on Sunday afternoons at my grandmother’s house, another time on video for a film course. It is one of just a handful of exceptions to my general anti-musical genre tastes. So when I saw that the Chatham Orpheum Theater was showing the film last week, I made sure I went. My only regret is that I didn’t bring my 10-year-old son to see it with me; what an introduction to film history it would have been.

The role of the repertory cinema is one that’s all but forgotten for most people. Once home video had saturated the American market, even urban cinephiles abandoned these noble institutions in favor of curating their own home libraries, complete with DVD sets including marvelous extras like behind-the-scenes documentaries and director’s commentaries. But as much as I value DVDs for their extra resources and as much as I understand the appeal of curling up on the couch to watch Billy Wilder’s The Apartment (1960) or Al Pacino in Dog Day Afternoon (1975), there is no way to really feel the magic of these movies without going to see them in a dark theater with no reminders of your real life at home and only the occasional interruption from the sound of a neighboring filmgoer coughing in the dark. And for young people, it is truly the best way to appreciate films from the pre-video era, as they were meant to be seen.

Gene Kelly in Singin’ in the Rain (1952)

Singin’ in the Rain is a great example because it’s a film made over 60 years ago about the conversion from silent to sound cinema, a time that is nearly 90 years ago now. I had always been drawn to this film and I always knew it was specifically because of Gene Kelly, but it was only looking up at the screen last week, focusing completely on the movie, that I truly understood Kelly’s choreography, the somewhat surreal “Gotta Dance”/”Broadway Melodies” section, and the way Kelly’s movements differ so strongly from those of his co-stars Donald O’Connor and Debbie Reynolds. Of course, all three can dance, but if you just watch the “Good Morning” dance scene, Kelly’s connection to the music and the rhythm of the piece runs so deep that it appears completely effortless, as though the music and his body are physically connected in a way that Reynolds and O’Connor are just not capable of. On the small screen, it appears as silly but entertaining, but larger than life on the big screen, the fluid beauty is marvelous.

This is why I am so thrilled that finally someone on Cape Cod gets it! The Chatham Orpheum will be showing old movies in special screenings throughout the year. Singin’ in the Rain was this past week, but coming up is another one of my favorites, Some Like It Hot (1959), in which Tony Curtis and Jack Lemmon play musicians who have to perform in drag in order to get a gig with an all-girl traveling band that includes Marilyn Monroe as a sexy ukulele player. I’ve seen this movie easily 25 times, but you can bet I will be there to see it on the big screen next week. (It’s showing on March 13 and 15).

On March 27 and 29, the Orpheum moves ahead to something more recent, Howard’s End (1992). Like most Merchant-Ivory films, this one is sure to benefit from the focused atmosphere of the movie theater, allowing the atmosphere of the period (it takes place in England at the turn of the 20th century) to seamlessly take over our suspended notion of time and place. Then, on April 10 and 12, the Orpheum brings another film from the classic era, George Cukor’s The Philadelphia Story (1940), which I also can’t wait to revisit. This Academy Award winning film features Katherine Hepburn and Cary Grant in a screwball comedy with fantastic, fast-paced dialogue and zany antics that made that genre so endearing.

Cary Grant in Hitchcock’s brilliant “North By Northwest” (1959)

The last revival on the schedule so far is Alfred Hitchcock’s brilliant Cary Grant starrer, North By Northwest (1959). What a great film to take my son to as an introduction to the brilliance of Hitchcock. This is a film whose very design demands the large screen and the experience of watching something with others who care about great movies and don’t mind leaving their email inboxes, Twitter feeds, and Facebook updating until long after the lights come up and we all return to our “senses.”

For complete details on these special screenings, visit the Chatham Orpheum Theater or give them a call at 508.945.0874.

Chaplin’s “The Kid” and its progeny

757px-Chaplin_The_KidI’m currently preparing to teach a course in film history, which I haven’t taught in about 6 years, (although film history figures into the other courses I regularly teach). My favorite thing about preparing for a new course is getting the chance to revisit films I’ve known and loved since childhood within the new context of a history of film. In some cases, these are films that are much older than I am, but which I saw in a high school film appreciation class or at one of the many repertory film houses we had in New York when I was growing up; others are films that I saw in the theater when they came out. Looking at the former brings back all the early enthusiasm I had for learning about movies and seeing classics for the first time while looking at the latter gives me a chance to see new things about them that I couldn’t have understood at the time, either because of my age (my father started taking me to movies quite young), or because in hindsight these films turned out to be something more than just a Saturday afternoon matinee.

I was just watching Chaplin’s first feature The Kid (1921) and remembering how I fell utterly in love with him when I first saw the film as a teenager. He was doing what I wanted to do. As a musician just starting to dabble in filmmaking and unsure of how to do both, I was so impressed with how very independent and talented Chaplin was: writing, directing, producing, and even composing music for his silent films. I haven’t thought about this movie in a very long time, but I had a poster of it in my bedroom next to my other teenage interest, like Ozzy and Aerosmith. Seeing it again reminds me of why I wanted to be a filmmaker.

But also, this time around, I started to recognize how this very simple story has been duplicated so many times in movies around the world. For those who haven’t seen it, Chaplin’s Little Tramp character finds a child that has been left in the street. He is a poor man barely able to take care of himself and at first he tries everything to give the child to someone else, but eventually, he assumes responsibility for him and raises him until the mother finds him again five years later. It is about that bond between the Tramp and the Kid. It’s very sweet and innocent, but it’s a plot that Hollywood in particular loves to repeat.

There’s the one where Walter Matthau suddenly has to take care of a little girl (Little Miss Marker), itself a remake of another version starring Shirley Temple in 1934; Diane Keaton switches the gender on this theme in Baby Boom; the ridiculous 3 Men and a Baby picks up the same theme but with three unlikely fathers; and the recent Mexican import Instructions Not Included also has a man unexpectedly having to man up and be a dad.

I know there are many others with this basic concept, particularly from the past – 1980s, 90s, etc. Can anyone add to the list?