WASHINGTON, DC, December 3, 2012 - First let’s get it straight that American movies are more than moving pictures on a screen; they are pictures that show an astonished world what it’s like to be an American. Think Gary Cooper in High Noon, or Gregory Peck in To Kill a Mockingbird, to illustrate but two instances that prove Americans to be strong, heroic, decent and noble.
From Katharine Hepburn to Grace Kelly to Lauren Bacall the huddled masses yearning to breathe free were shown that American women are bred to be resolute, fearless, confident, high kicking and grand…and they can wear pants and they can keep up with Fred Astaire dancing backwards on high heels.
In Gilda, Rita Hayworth gave the world a taste of American sex simply by removing an arm-length glove, and there has never been a sexier moment in the history of film, though Cary Grant steamed it up plenty with Grace Kelly in North by Northwest in that compartment on the train – and not a stitch of clothing came off.
In America itself we learned style, manners and behavior from the best of Hollywood. To the rest of the world, out there where men, women and children are conditioned to be submissive and fearful, America was a dream seemingly beyond reach. Can there really be such a place, so plentiful and free?
Once upon a time I was among those huddled masses. I came from a place where people had to whisper.
I was that kid with his nose pressed against the window of America. I suppose it began with the radio and even within the asphalt decay where I lived, I moved to the untroubled lawns of Beverly Hills with Ricky Nelson, simply by turning a dial. People laughing? How can there be such a place?
But then came the movies and to be honest I do not remember which ones I saw over there or over here, but so many of them remain powerful and indelible.
What was it like the first time I saw Red River and found myself cheering and hurting for Montgomery Clift? At first, I think, it was those Westerns that turned me into a rootin’ tootin’ cowboy. I even got myself a holster and a plastic gun and nobody was safe when I came ridin’ into town.
I was the Cimmarion Kid and I named my horse Cimmaron. (“Where will you put a horse?” asked my father when I told him I was serious.)
What was it like the first time I saw Gone With The Wind? I don’t remember but it’s never the same on the small screen. I guess I’m with Marcel Proust when he tried to recapture the past, or Ernest Hemingway whose big lesson was about getting it down as it really was.
That’s impossible, of course. Once it’s done, it’s gone.
But I have tried to imagine what it was like the first time I saw Lawrence of Arabia up there on a screen bigger than life, breathtaking scene after scene, image after image sweeping the eyes and the senses. I must have watched this epic with my mouth wide open for the entire four hours, in amazement.
I still watch it, often enough, and it is still great, but it will never be the same, not at home, and not on a small screen.
Was there ever an actor more perfect for a role than Peter O’Toole as T.E. Lawrence? Maybe, and if so, that would have to be George C. Scott as Patton. What a moment that must have been the first time around, the American flag going wide-shot until we close in on Scott/Patton brazenly exclaiming, “Americans love to fight. All real Americans love the sting of battle.”
Imagine what it must have been like when we were first introduced to The Godfather, and even part two was a revelation. (Let’s not talk about part three.)
I can remember sharing the sense of triumph with William Holden when in halting German he uttered “ach zo” when it came to him who the traitor really was in Stalag 17. People can shower all they want after watching Psycho on TV, but those of us who saw it for the first time on the big screen, Janet Leigh being cut to pieces – that horror sticks and will never come round again.
So, yes, there’s only the first time. However, you must remember this…a kiss is still a kiss…a sigh is still a sigh…the fundamental things apply as time goes by.
Jack Engelhard can be friended at Facebook
Jack Engelhard is a novelist for such moral dilemma bestsellers as The Bathsheba Deadline, The Girls of Cincinnati, and the classic Indecent Proposal, his memoir Escape From Mount Moriah, and Slot Attendant – A Novel About A Novelist is Engelhard’s partly autobiographical expose about the trials of making it as a writer, bring his words to the Communities page covering all topics, with special focus on the absurdity of human behavior, and reaches around the globe.
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