Silver Screen Escapes
The Globe and Mail
Watching Whisky Galore! together on TV was the best afternoon I spent with my Dad in his mostly joyless final years. We’d each seen the whimsical 1949 movie about Hebridean islanders purloining shipwrecked scotch on countless occasions. But on this pewter-gray winter Sunday, among his dusty clocks and dog-eared newspapers, the slipper-cozy screening felt like a trip back to happier times.
Childhood Sundays in this same room––my brain and body stupefied by heaping lunchtime roasts––meant melding into the sagging brown sofa and pointing my sleepy eyes at a TV matinee my parents had chosen. They favoured British black and white movies from the 1940s and 1950s, preferably those they’d seen decades before at a long-gone local picture house.
Each screening prompted an alternate soundtrack of weathered recollections. War movies triggered my Dad’s retelling of the time his bayonet fell off his rifle during cadet parade. In contrast, my Mum stage-whispered salacious old gossip about celebrities who “liked the bottle” or who had “shacked up” with another star’s spouse, as if she were reading a showbiz magazine from her youth.
At the time, I didn’t realize the motive for these matinees was to transport my parents from the stresses of everyday life (wrangling five kids in a three-bedroom row house being chief among them). Forty years later––Mum and Dad now gone and me living in Vancouver as I dual citizen––I’ve embraced their silver screen escapism, swapping the real-world disaster movie of COVID-19 for an ongoing film festival of old flicks made decades before I was born.
Girlfriend Maggie and our lap-loving cat ginger Max sometimes join the show. But I’ve discovered that solo viewings on quiet, rain-soaked afternoons are especially immersive, facilitating easy time travel from my sofa to the flickering antique realms of 1920s South London, Victorian-era northern England or a paint-peeled prewar seaside resort where grubby criminals rub shoulders with oblivious holidaymakers.
I enjoy the stories, of course, but my focus almost always strays to the background details. The 1947 film noir Brighton Rock, with baby-faced Richard Attenborough as vicious gangster Pinkie, is certainly taught and exciting. But when I watched it, my attention lingered on the drinks in the shabby pub (inky-black ale); the tacky seafront entertainment (rictus-grinning Pierrots); and the multilayered outfits worn on the pier: shirts and jackets for men, hats and even fur stoles for women.
I visited an alternative criminal underworld in They Made Me a Fugitive, a lesser-known 1947 noir where stubbly hood-with-a-heart Trevor Howard seeks revenge on his double-crossing psychotic boss. Character names such as Soapy and Fidgety Phil made me smile during this one, but I also loved the humungous ‘RIP’ sign above the undertaker’s shop––and the fact that granite-thick empty milk bottles could be deployed as highly effective weapons in the film’s gunfight finale.
Delinquency isn't my only destination when I hit my sofa time machine. I’ve spent several distracting afternoons in the hands of David Lean and the movies he directed up to the mid-1950s, several years before he delivered sprawling epics Doctor Zhivago and Lawrence of Arabia. I especially relished Margaret Rutherford’s flying tweed capes and Rex Harrison’s effortless cocktail mixing in Blithe Spirit, adapted from the popular Noel Coward play. Who wouldn't want to live in Harrison’s stylish, sun-dappled home, even if vases float haltingly through the air and doors swing open seemingly at will?
Lean also adapted Coward’s This Happy Breed, a working class slice-of-life set between the wars. There’s a permanent, ever-ready pot of tea in the Gibbons household––well-steeped brews being the era’s universal elixir––where a cantankerous grandmother and superior sister live alongside husband Robert Newton and his tired-eyed wife Celia Johnson. The heart of the household, Johnson works her fingers to the bone, cooking and cleaning as if a team of frenzied clones is toiling alongside her.
The heroine in Lean’s Hobson’s Choice is equally tough. But she also takes charge. Set in 1880, Charles Laughton is a drink-addled shoe seller trying to marry-off two of his daughters while forcing the third to stay at home and look after him. Feistily played by Brenda De Banzie, she instead plots her own marriage and starts a rival business from scratch. Lean’s devotion to detail makes time-tripping easy here: I loved the swinging boot above the store entrance; the lingering shots of Victorian footwear fashions; and the factory-framed park where scrubbed-up locals promenade in their Sunday best.
My latest matinee was 1936 science fiction flick Things to Come. Scripted by H.G. Wells no less, it predicts a not-too-distant future where relentless global warfare has reduced humanity to ragged tribes battling in bombed-out ruins. Suddenly, hope arrives in the form of a high-tech airplane piloted by a mysterious stranger. Futuristic movies often reflect the aesthetics of the time they were made and I thoroughly enjoyed ogling this film’s ‘futuristic’ tanks, planes and utopian architecture––all streamlined with thirties art deco flourishes.
My parents watched old movies like these to reconnect with their halcyon past. But I’m just trying to escape the present by searching for the everyday unfamiliar in filmic depictions of how we used to live. Perhaps there’s comfort in knowing that 2020’s defining touchstones––facemasks, lockdowns and hand sanitizer––will be little more than quirky anachronisms to movie-watchers of the future. Which reminds me: it’s 2:30pm and it’s time to hit the sofa for another immersive yesteryear excursion.