[In the following guest column, Chapter member Cindy Pope shares with us precious memories of how classic films became part of her life, the lasting impressions of certain images & stars, and how much TCM has come to mean to her.]
I have no idea where my obsession with classic Hollywood movies came from. But I do
remember on Sunday afternoons, after church, my mother, father, and I went to my
grandmother’s for lunch and family time with my aunts, uncles and cousins. One particular
Sunday, instead of the usual football game, the silent movie, Modern Times, starring Charlie
Chaplin, was broadcast. Everyone else turned away from the TV in disappointment and
boredom. But I sat riveted to the screen, watching the characters getting into all kinds of comedic trouble. It struck me that what movie patrons found funny in the 1920’s I still found funny.
I spent many evenings in my childhood lying in the living room floor and watching The
Big Valley and Perry Mason with my parents. As I grew older, I read and watched interviews
with the stars of these programs. I learned that Barbara Stanwyck had been a determined starlet in the 1930’s who graduated from shop-worn female characters to a classic film noir character.
Raymond Burr played some really nasty bad guys when he began his acting career.
That whetted my appetite to know more. Not just about the actors, but about the movies.
In my small Southern town, the only way to access movies from the Golden Age of
Hollywood was to stay awake past midnight on Saturday for the Late, Late Show. Once I wanted
so bad to watch Lucille Ball and Bob Hope in Fancy Pants. Unfortunately, I didn’t make it past
the second commercial break.
When I was in my 30’s, cable finally came to my hometown. And there they were—all
those glamorous stars I had heard and read so much about were right before me. In glorious
black and white and vivid Technicolor, twenty-four hours a day, seven days a week. I felt I had
died and gone to heaven.
To us movie fans, these films stand up today because the human characters are portrayed
with real emotions, desires, and goals. And I love watching them in pursuit of solutions to their
varied problems. Sometimes they are played for drama, sometimes for sheer comedy.
I lived vicariously through them. As there was no nudity, cursing, or bloody gore,
anybody could watch them with me. Whenever plots did contain adult subject matter, it was
subtly handled. In The Maltese Falcon, I only realized when I was an adult that Peter Lorre
played a gay character. It was noted when Lorre’s character handed his business card to Philip
Marlowe, played by Humphrey Bogart, and the card smelled of gardenia.
In Shanghai Express, Marlena Dietrich plays a prostitute. You know that when she says
one specific line, “It took more than one man to change my name to Shanghai Lili.” If you don’t
listen and watch carefully, you miss it.
I didn’t just watch these movies. I studied them. I have bookshelves devoted to
biographies of legendary Hollywood actors and actresses. I have read enough to know how the
films were made, and who was originally contracted to play the roles we associate so well with
certain actors. Most people don’t know that Ronald Reagan was scheduled to play ‘Rick’ in
Casablanca. Or that the movie was almost not made because no one thought Bogie could play a
And sometimes the backstory of these movies proved more interesting than the movie
itself. After agreeing to sell David O. Selznick the movie rights to Gone With the Wind, Margaret
Mitchell changed her mind and refused to sell. David finally got her to agree, and the movie
went into production. Only one problem: There was no Scarlett cast. But there was already a
shooting budget and schedule established. Without the perfect actress yet contracted to play the
role, the first footage to be shot was a stunt couple portraying Rhett and Scarlett running from the Yankees. For the burning of Atlanta, the original set of the 1931 movie, King Kong, was set
afire. If you look closely, you can see the three-tiered platform blazing in the background where
King Kong first saw the sacrificial maiden, played by Fay Wray. I started to understand how the movie industry operated, and I began to appreciate how much work and worry goes into the making of a single movie. Which made me appreciate them even more.
As a history buff, I enjoy how these films show a glimpse of Americana in specific time
periods. It still amazes me at how much influence these characters had on the movie going
public. Clara Bow made it fashionable for young ladies of the 1920’s to bob their hair and use
lipstick – a product that caused many divorces in real life because cosmetics were considered to
be used only by ‘ladies of the evening’.
The dresses the stars wore were very important to fashionable young women. When
Marilyn Monroe posed for her famous subway scene in The Seven Year Itch, the search was on
by every young female for a copy of the white dress that blew over Marilyn’s ankles. That scene
was filmed while Marilyn and her husband, Joe DiMaggio, were supposed to be on their honeymoon. Poor Joe had to stand silent and watch while other men drooled over his wife’s
In A Place in the Sun, when Elizabeth Taylor stepped onto the screen wearing a white
off-the-shoulder party dress with white flowers on the bodice, every girl would have died to have
The clothing company, Hanes, almost went bankrupt in 1934 when Clark Gable pulled
off his shirt in It Happened One Night, revealing he did not wear a tee-shirt. The male movie-
going public decided if Clark Gable didn’t wear tee-shirts, then they would not wear them either.
Until Marlon Brando wore his in his famously dramatic scene in A Streetcar Named Desire.
During World War II, film star Veronica Lake was famous for her peek-a-boo haircut. So
many women tried to imitate the blonde bombshell that the Defense Department asked Veronica
to star in a short film and demonstrate to female defense plant workers how to put up their peek-a-boo hairstyle up during the day for safety and productivity, then let the popular style down at night.
If you ever watch the original The Postman Always Rings Twice, pay attention to Lana
Turner’s character, Cora. When you first meet her, she is in white shorts, white halter top, white
turban, and white shoes. After helping commit her husband’s murder, she is all dressed in black.
Same thing with Janet Leigh in Psycho. In the beginning, her character Marion Crane
dresses in white blouses and bras and slips. After she steals the money, she is all dressed in black undergarments. I still laugh at the most controversial aspect of that movie. It wasn’t the shower scene stabbing. The movie almost did not pass the censors because Marion flushes a piece of paper in the toilet, and the censor board thought seeing the bits of paper swirling in toilet water would be offensive to the mature audience.
As a means of bonding, I tried once to get my mother to sit through Casablanca, but a
third of the way through the film, she stood up and advised, “something in the kitchen needs my
attention.” She didn’t return until the closing credits were rolling up. When dad saw me watching
a 1938 movie starring Jimmy Stewart, he just stared at me and asked, “Why are you watching
that old stuff? That came out before I was born!”
When we have family reunions, my aunts, uncles, or cousins have no idea what or who
I’m talking about. My grandparents never spoke of movies to me. They acted as if the movies
never existed, or was too far in the past. Maybe it was because they were poor country folk and
glamorous movie stars only reminded them of their poverty. Maybe it was because they lived too
far out to come to town every week. Yet, To this day, I still wonder if any of my family members
saw these films when they first premiered. Did they see them in movie palaces? And what did
they think of them?
Why does any of this matter to me? I don’t know. Maybe it’s because as an only child, I
grew up understanding the difference between being alone and lonely, and these movie
characters keep me from being lonely. How many times I’ve watched the films is not important;
I still find them comforting, almost a guilty pleasure.
My children grew up understanding my fascination with these classics. In 1993, when
snow-pocalypse hit the South, we received 18 inches of snow overnight. The city shut down for
a week, and my kids were horrified to learn that we had lost cable. “Oh, dear God, we’re stuck
inside and mom can’t have her movie fix.” My son stared at his sister. “What are we gonna do?”
Their only saving grace was that I had a bunch of movies on VHS.
Once when my daughter came home from junior high school all upset and crying about
not being popular in school, I sat her down and tried to console her by telling her of similar
experience I had had at her age. But she advised that I was old and things had changed and she
was “the only one in the world going through that.” I put Dark Victory with Bette Davis in the
VHS player and sat back, watching my daughter. During one scene, Bette’s character comforts a
fellow patient in the sanatorium, a pre-teen girl with braces and pig tails, and Bette listens while
the girl talks about her fears and doubts about school and friends. That character, from the
1940’s, spoke the same words my daughter had just spewed forth an hour before. I grinned at my daughter. “And you said you were the only one in the whole world to be going through this!”
That was thirty years ago, and my daughter still hates it when I bring up that story.
Every time the kids come to the house, they check the TV to see what movie is playing,
happy to see that sometimes the movies are in color. Then they ask how many times I’ve already
seen it. But that’s not important to me.
I begin each day by sipping on my morning caffeine while checking the “Guide” feature
on the remote to see the movies scheduled for the day, then plan my day accordingly. Now days,
my TV is tuned every day to Turner Classic Movies, and I record most of them to enjoy over and
over. Most days, movies play in the background while I sit at the computer and try to get some
writing done. And I know the films so well, I can tell how far along the movie is because of the
Most evenings, I bore my husband to tears by pausing a film I have recorded or
purchased on DVD to ask if he recognizes a well-known actor in an early role, or what was
going on in the star’s life at the time the movie was being made; who was married to whom; how
and when they died; etc. The funny thing is, each morning while he prepares his coffee, he asks,
“What’s the movie theme for today?”
I anxiously await the month of December when ‘TCM Remembers’ shows snippets of the
stars, directors, editors, musicians, etc., who have died that year. It’s heartbreaking sometimes,
because I feel that I know these people and/or characters so well, and it is such a loss. But with
the movies constantly running, it’s almost like the members of the movie system never really die.
I know life isn’t like the movies, but it is comforting to know that somewhere in the
world good overcomes evil, and the characters that need killing eventually get their just desserts.