If I had to write about my lifelong infatuation with movies (let’s not call it cinema), I’d begin at the Park Theater on Bergen Street in the heart of Newark’s Weequahic section, circa 1950.
Attendance became a Saturday afternoon ritual and shared experience. Rather than being shomer Shabbat, we (and this applied to scores of neighborhood kids, overwhelmingly Jewish) were shomer serial, meaning of the “Flash Gordon,” “Don Winslow of the Navy,” and “Rin Tin Tin” variety.
For 25 cents, this boisterous cohort enjoyed some really pugnacious cartoons and the latest installment of Hopalong Cassidy, or westerns churned out by Poverty Row studios featuring Hoot Gibson, Tex Ritter (you must hear his dirge-like version of “Streets of Laredo”), and Leonard Slye, aka Roy Rogers. Only years later did I learn that Hoppy, the righteous hero played by Bill Boyd, drank himself out of pictures in the ’30s. But by starring as the black-outfitted good guy, Boyd paved his road to recovery and redemption. It was the first of many sobering facts I would learn about my celluloid heroes.
The Park couldn’t compare with palaces like Radio City and the Roxy in New York or Loew’s in Jersey City. Every nook and cranny of the nondescript building vented an aroma of Juju Fruits, Good & Plenty, Raisinettes, York patties, and overbuttered popcorn, plus the intense vibe emanating from a darkened venue packed with pubescent preteens. When we didn’t have a villain onscreen, the role was filled in over-the-top-casting by Charlie, the career usher. Outfitted in a gray blazer and armed with a flashlight and insatiable nosiness, this martinet darted from aisle to aisle trying to keep a lid on the juvenile chaos. He also wielded the power of eviction and used it mercilessly.
The Park introduced me to occasional A-films like the 1938 “Adventures of Robin Hood,” starring dashing, decadent Errol Flynn. In terms of special effects, however, the closest the pre-digital age came to verisimilitude was Robin splitting the shaft of another arrow down the middle. How did Warner Bros. do that? And why were there so many actors in the movie with plummy English accents like Claude Rains, Olivia de Havilland, and Basil Rathbone? Again, I learned years later that the studio moguls, many of them immigrant Jews and heavily accented, believed dialogue would sound classier and sell more tickets if it were uttered by Brits.
Linguistically at least, a compromise of sorts known as mid-Atlantic diction came into vogue and was taught by voice coaches until postwar mumblers like Marlon Brando and James Dean shot to stardom. Natural regional accents also became acceptable. Think of Tony Curtis (Bernie Schwartz) proclaiming, “Yonder lies de castle of my fodder.” New York-ese also served Curtis admirably as groveling PR flack Sidney Falco, playing against Burt Lancaster’s vicious columnist J.J. Hunsecker (modeled after Walter Winchell) in “Sweet Smell of Success.”
In the 1950s, when a kid explored Newark by bike, bus, or on foot, theaters were one obvious and reliable landmark. The Roosevelt was up in the Clinton Hill section, the Mayfair just across the border in Hillside, and the Elwood all the way over and practically out of reach in North Newark. You went with your family to the really big shows at the Paramount and Loew’s downtown and into New York with your temple youth group to watch the Red Sea parted in “The Ten Commandments” at the Criterion. RKO Proctor’s, the Branford, and the Treat, all downtown, were reserved for high school hooky days, and the Empire and Minsky’s were off-limits burlesque houses.
Fast forward to my college years at Rutgers in New Brunswick, where the Albany theater offered a refuge and classroom of sorts. One afternoon, I watched “Dr. Strangelove” and was blown away (poor choice of phrasing) by Stanley Kubrick’s directorial techniques and apocalyptic vision. I marveled at performances he coaxed from Peter Sellers, George C. Scott, Sterling Hayden, and Slim Pickens (who rode the bomb to earth like a rodeo bull, waving his Stetson all the way). And when referencing Kubrick, mention must be made of his other war/antiwar masterpieces, “Paths of Glory” and “Full Metal Jacket,” both of which hold up hauntingly well as the years and new conflicts unfold.
Another mini-milestone in my movie journey occurred in early 1965, when I found myself at Fort Dix, armed with a degree in journalism, six months of experience as a reporter for the Record, and serving a half year’s obligation of active duty as an Army reservist. I was confined to the base hospital with German measles and fearful I would have to repeat basic training. One morning, after mopping my area and making my bed, I turned on the TV, and the situation appeared even bleaker. A musical was about to air, and I was never much for these confections. I decided, however, that I had no choice but to endure 1936’s “Swing Time,” starring Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers.
Amazingly, the opening number, “Pick Yourself Up,” had me from the hello. Fred appeared full-on debonair (tails, striped pants, and spats), while Ginger partnered perfectly as they tapped and vamped their way through the Dorothy Fields/Jerome Kern evergreen. I completely forgot my own klutzy shortcomings as a dancer, and also, at least for a few hours, that I was in the Army and felled by measles.
One other theater earns special mention in my movie pantheon and that’s the long-demolished Ormont in East Orange. It was known as an arts showcase back in the day, and I remember seeing three very different and powerful films there: “Birth of a Nation,” “The Pawnbroker,” and “Garden of the Finzi-Continis.” The first, D.W. Griffith’s pioneering but racist excursion into the antebellum South and post-Civil War reconstruction, treated the Ku Klux Klan heroically, which shocked and repulsed me. The second, the unraveling and rehumanizing of a Holocaust survivor portrayed by Rod Steiger, overwhelmed me. The third, the saga of an aristocratic Jewish family bearing the brunt of Italy’s wartime fascism, engaged me, but not totally, since my date was my future wife, Gail, and my focus was somewhat diffused.
If movies facilitate escapism, then by now I’ve escaped in every genre, especially where old films are concerned. And that’s what I’m focusing on here; films produced during the 1930s and ’40s, with stars and starlets churned out by a factory system built on glamour and virility, leaving little squiggle room for nuance, especially after 1934’s morality code (oxymoronic in the extreme) took effect, where evil rarely if ever triumphed and patrons left the theater feeling entertained rather than indoctrinated.
Of all the Hollywood studios, I still retain a soft spot for Warner Bros. MGM boasted deeper pockets and a larger roster of stars. Paramount’s productions bespoke elegance and sophistication. Columbia and RKO were brash, ran on the cheap, and lived off B-features, but were able to deliver “Citizen Kane” and “It Happened One Night.” Darryl Zanuck (the only gentile among the top studio moguls) ruled 20th Century Fox tyrannically but to great effect. Republic kept Marion Robert Morrison, aka the Duke, aka John Wayne, under contract for years. Yet the Warners, four very tough Jewish siblings, seemed to take the pulse of the public best. Their movies tackled social issues, sported the snappiest dialogue, and were undergirded by memorable character actors.
The studio gave full vent and fury to gangster yarns. I’m reaching way back for seminal portrayals by Jimmy Cagney, Humphrey Bogart, and Edward G. Robinson (Emanuel Goldenberg). Considered classics of the genre, Cagney’s “Public Enemy” and Robinson’s “Little Caesar,” both made in 1931, alerted the public to a new breed of urban hoodlum. Nearly a century on, viewers still flinch as a wounded Cagney admits, “I ain’t so tough,” before his mummified body tumbles through his mother’s door, and a broken, battered Robinson whimpers his final cri de coeur, “Mother of mercy, is this the end of Rico?” A bit later, Bogart’s sadistic savagery as stone-cold killer Duke Mantee chilled viewers of 1936’s “Petrified Forest,” while he stole the movie from co-stars Bette Davis and Leslie Howard.
On the flip side, Cagney in “G-Men,” Robinson in the Orson Welles-inspired “The Stranger,” and Bogart as Sam Spade in “Maltese Falcon” played good guys, or at least conflicted good guys, with conviction. And just beyond this category are the heroes/antiheroes of film noir. One of my favorites is Robert Mitchum, cool and laconic when confronting Kirk Douglas (Issur Danielovitch) in 1947’s dark, smoky “Out of the Past,” or as the bumbling small-time hood in 1974’s “The Friends of Eddy Coyle” (post-noir actually), and off the mental health charts in 1962’s “Cape Fear.”
(For more on this category, I recommend the weekly “Noir Alley” feature on TCM hosted by knowledgeable, irreverent Eddie Muller.)
Early on, Warner’s biggest star was the Yiddish theater’s Paul Muni (Frederich Meshilem Meier Weisenfreund). The studio loved biographical dramas, and Muni played Emile Zola and Louis Pasteur to perfection, winning an Academy Award for the latter. But he was also versatile, turning in riveting performances in 1931’s crusading “I Am a Fugitive from a Chain Gang” and 1932’s “Scarface.” His simian-like portrayal of mobster Tony Comante (based on Al Capone) in this pre-code melodrama completely eclipses the 1983 sort-of-remake starring Al Pacino and directed by Brian De Palma.
Another top Warner’s “player” (the studio preferred this terminology to “star” in its attempt to undermine actors during contract negotiations) was John Garfield (Jacob Julius Garfinkle), whose untamed yet vulnerable portrayals clearly elevated such hits as “Four Daughters,” “The Postman Always Rings Twice,” “Body and Soul,” and “Gentleman’s Agreement,” a 1947 attempt to deal with antisemitism considered daring in its day but tepid by modern realities. Garfield died young and is rarely mentioned by film buffs.
What? You feel I ignored Hitchcock, Chaplin, Keaton, Jimmy Stewart, Joan Crawford, the Barrymores, Katherine Hepburn, Jack Nicholson, Bette Davis, John Ford, Monty Clift, Meryl Streep, Sidney Poitier, Frances McDormand, Cate Blanchett, Steve McQueen, Warren Beatty, Natalie Wood, Shirley MacLaine, Martin Scorsese, Gable, Monroe, De Niro, Morgan Freeman, Billy Wilder, the Fondas, Newman, Redford, Daniel Day-Lewis, Mel Brooks, Cary Grant, British films, French films, and Israeli films?
You’d be right.
I also didn’t focus on horror movies, sci-fi, rom-com, screwball comedies, war epics, you name the category. The delights are virtually endless, but I would need a few more columns to complete the rewind. In the meantime, pass the popcorn and enjoy what you’re watching. I’m into a 1932 potboiler about newspapering, “The Famous Ferguson Case.” Maybe I’ll give the profession a try.
Jonathan E. Lazarus of West Orange is a retired editor of the Star-Ledger and a copy editor for the Jewish Standard and the New Jersey Jewish News.