Matinees & Memories
By Bob Levin
When I was a boy, my father took me to westerns (Whispering Smith, Red River) and my mother to musicals and Disneys (Easter Parade, So Dear to My Heart).
But once I entered fourth grade (1951), my parents decided I was old enough to attend Saturday matinees alone. In my neighborhood, the Nixon and State, both on 52nd Street, between Chestnut and Market, had them, but I usually went to City Line Center. My Uncle Bernie and Aunt Esther’s cookie-cutter row house in the new neighborhood of Overbrook Park backed up on Cobb’s Creek Golf Course. My father would play 18 holes with cronies. My mother and aunt would prepare spaghetti and meatballs for dinner. And I would spend the afternoon transfixed by the bright screen in the dark.
Admission was ten cents. That bought you a short, a serial chapter, three cartoons, a double feature, and, if you were so inclined, the opportunity to stay through the early show of what was playing evenings. Popcorn was a dime and candy bars a nickel. That was how I spent four uninterrupted hours a week for three years.
During those years, that was the most time I spent on any waking activity unsupervised by parents or teachers. It was a time to laugh (Knock on Wood, Son of Paleface), to duck behind the seat ahead, covering one’s ears in fear (the flying monkeys in Wizard of Oz, the minefield in Steel Helmet), to be indoctrinated (good guys always win, the F.B.I. was our friend), to hoot and holler and toss paper cups from the balcony, to cheer one’s preferences and, unconsciously, add definition to one’s still embryonic self.
The movie star to whom I most cathected during this period was the Burt Lancaster of The Flame and the Arrow, Ten Tall Men, and The Crimson Pirate.
Lancaster had been born, blonde and blue-eyed Irish, in East Harlem, the son of a postal clerk, in December 1913. A six-foot-one basketball star at the academically select DeWitt Clinton High School, he had developed an interest in painting, singing and theater at the Union Settlement House. It offered him a partial scholarship to NYU in return for his continuing to coach and work there. One afternoon, Lancaster spotted a man exercising on the stationary bars and convinced a neighborhood pal, Nick (“Little Dempsey”) Cuccia, a five-foot-two, heavily muscled eighth grade drop-out, to take lessons with him. By 1932, “Lang and Cravat” had developed a gymnastic act that carried them through the Depression, working one-ring circuses, fairs, carnivals, and burlesque houses. During World War II, Lancaster served in Army Special Forces, entertaining troops in North Africa and Italy.
In 1945, following his transfer stateside, someone in an elevator spotted Lancaster, and, on the basis of his looks alone, offered him a reading for a Broadway play. During a preview of that play at Philadelphia’s Locust Theater, an agent for Hal Wallis, an independent producer at Paramount, signed him to a movie contract. A Sound of Hunting closed after two weeks, and Lancaster left for Hollywood.
The Lancaster I met had already been in about a dozen, mostly black-and-white noir films. The most notable were The Killers (his debut), Sorry, Wrong Number, and Criss-Cross, all of which were deemed too murky, shadowy, gloom-ridden for kiddies on Saturday afternoons. We got him resplendent, in full color, shirt often off (displaying his 41 in. chest), muscles gleaming, eyes twinkling, smile wider and whiter than Lambert Glacier, a vision of heroic male perfection, one of the brightest of Hollywood’s post-World War II stars, dazzling us in the slim mirror of time before Brando and Dean re-calibrated our vision.
In Flame, Lancaster plays Dardo, a free-spirited brigand in 12th century Lombardy, who after refusing to join a band of rebels against Frederick Barbarossa (“I depend on no one. Why should anyone depend on me?”), changes his mind once he realizes, “A man can’t live by himself alone.” In Tall Men, he plays Sgt. Mike Kincaid, a French Foreign Legionnaire in the Sahara, who assaults his commanding officer and then leads a squad of fellow outlaws to honor by besting an army of blood-thirsty Riffs. And in Pirate, he is Captain Vallo, scourge of the late 18th century Caribbean, who initially spurns the entreaties of an island’s populace to aid their struggle for freedom (“You’ve got your world, and I’ve got mine”), only to change his mind when he recognizes, “All my life, I’ve witnessed injustice and dishonesty fly the flag of decency.” In Burt Lancaster: An American Life,”his biographer Kate Buford views these tales of common men struggling against their oppressors as blows against HUAC’s efforts to stifle leftist dissent in motion pictures. But while Lancaster was an early, fervent foe of the committee, she goes on to strongly suggest that, despite his later assertions to the contrary, he sought–and received–its clearance to continue his career, after authoring a confidential letter affirming his patriotism and anti-Communism.
In any event, though I was a junior-Stevensonian Democrat to whom that whole Family-of-Man thing appealed, I can’t say I came out of Lancaster’s movies whistling “L’Internationale.” I was more impressed by his action sequences and way with women. In Flame, he wins Virginia Mayo, who plays the niece of the villainous Count Ulrich, by kidnapping her. In Tall Men, he wins Jody Lawrence, betrothed of the duplicitous Kayeed Hussein, through a similar wooing. And in Pirate, Eva Bartok, daughter of the insurrection’s leader, falls his way after he dupes her aboard his ship, planning to sell her to the authorities. All these ladies, given the opportunity, recognized Lancaster’s inner goodness; and while I lacked his chest and hair and grin, I was certain I just needed the chance to flash my soul to win such swoonings for myself.
Of course, I also lacked Lancaster’s swashbuckling chops. His films allowed ample opportunities for him to climb ropes and poles and walls and to perform vaults and throws, catches and back flips and somersaults, and for chandelier swinging, tightrope walking, and high bar mastery. He did almost all his own stunts; and in two of his films, Flame and Pirate, Cravat played his sidekick (Piccolo and Ojo, respectively), mute in both instances, since he could not unlearn his New Yawk accent, allowing them to reprise many of their act’s greatest hits. Such feats imbued the pictures with a buoyant humor and comic edge. The body count was leavened by prat falls and belly flops and water dousings. More foes were laid out by cartoonish head bonks than ghoulish eviscerations. No one but the most black-hearted ever screamed.
Explorations of my past, like this one, have taken a similar form. I select something in-the-now which had seemed important to me way-back-then, this importance established by my having clutched it in my memory over the intervening decades, rather than any of the countless other incidents that competed with it for attention. I amplify this memory through research in books or movies or Wikipedia or through conversations with friends. Then I theorize about what it was to these bars or basketball games, cheese steaks or comic books that kept them alive within me.
At this point, in this piece, I had expected to focus on a scene in Ten Tall Men which still resonates more vividly to me than any other scene in the movies I’ve mentioned. I saw this film at least three times, though not since 1954 or ‘55, and I had carried this scene with me through high school and college and law school, across a continent, and through a career, into retirement. I was as certain of its particulars as I was of the names of these schools or who had succeeded Eisenhower as president or how the city basketball championship had come out my senior year.
Then I gave the “Play” command to what my DVR had recorded.
In my memory, the sadistic Lt. Kreuger (Stephen Bekassy), having learned that his lady friend Mme. De la Tour (Mari Blanchard) has been dallying with Lancaster, goes to her apartment. When she opens the door, he slashes her across the face with his riding crop, disfiguring her for life with a bright red scar. But in the movie, Lancaster goes to Blanchard’s apartment, after an exchange of meaningful glances on the street. She opens the door. They passionately kiss. “My name’s Mike,” he says. The door closes. Now Bekassy rushes to the apartment. He finds Blanchard and Lancaster, not the least dishabille, having drinks. Bekassy strikes Blanchard bluntly with his crop (no slash, no cut, no scar). Lancaster decks him with one punch.
So where did my adaptation come from? Had the undeveloped, partially formed boy that I was considered Lancaster’s doorway kiss as much an assault as Bekassy’s doorway slash to which I seemingly converted it? At the film’s climax, Lancaster turns a flaming red poker against Sheikh Khalid. We never see flesh sizzle, but had I transplanted its presumed damage onto Blanchard to mark her as the scarlet woman her shameless behavior indicated her to be? As I was indulging myself in Saturday matinees, I was also immersing myself– against parental approval–in comic books of the era. In Fired, (Crime SuspenStories #17. June-July 1953), Patricia, a ranch owner, learns that Roy, a cowboy in her employ with whom she is romantically entangled, is two-timing her with a saloon singer. In the last panel, the story delivers a full frontal of Roy’s “blistered and charred” face after Patricia has stamped her Circle-Diamond brand upon it. Before the Comic Book Code of 1954, comics were freer than films to delve into sex and violence and consistently mix the two. Had I thought that Fired’s message perfectly suited Tall Men and grafted it thereto, where it bloomed unimpeded?
Saturday matinees licensed one to sit in the dark and eat and think and imagine what one desired, free of outside monitoring. But when the lights went, the doors opened, and defenses returned, adjustments had to be made. What I knew about actual sexual behavior between actual men and women was scanty and ill-informed. But I had apparently ingested lessons that contemporary society was promoting. Sex was dangerous and, if uncontrolled, demanded punishment. Once I had left City Line, I had merely meted out what I deemed necessary to confine the urges I had loosed inside it. And I had learned my lesson well enough to be able to replay it upon command for years.
There are those today calling for a return to the values and order of the 1950s. I am not one.
From January, 2012
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