There is a great line from one of many great films by writer/director Billy Wilder in the 1950 classic “Sunset Boulevard.” Desperate screenwriter William Holden takes refuge in a creepy mansion and discovers that his host is once famous silent film star Norma Desmond. He remembers she used to be “big.” Upon hearing that, Norma, played by real silent film star Gloria Swanson, arches her eyebrows and scowls back. “I am big. It’s the pictures that got small.”
Every generation laments something or some things that are lost in the ensuing march of time and I guess it’s my turn to pine. It started with a conversation after watching a commercial for an upcoming movie that initiated the standard conversation every commercial for a coming attraction generates. “What do you think?” Nine times out of 10 the response is, “We’ll Netflix it.” It takes either a movie with a very compelling story or a popcorn movie like “Star Wars” or the next Avengers movie that just play better on a 40-foot rather than a 40-inch screen, to get us motivated to spend the cash it takes to go out to the movies.
Since all films eventually find their way to Netflix, our viewing options are basically limitless. Not so in the days before videotape, and then digital technology, altered the course of the movie industry forever. Not saying that I’m holed up in my own creepy mansion in Van Nuys pining for the glory days of yore, but the almost instantaneous nature of how we consume movies has altered the DNA of the process.
Movies were just so much more events when I was kid. They came … and then they went. If you saw a movie you liked, you had to go see it again (and sometimes again and again) while it was still in theatrical release. This sometimes created a fiscal crisis as there were only so many empty soda bottles to return to the market for their deposit and spare change to be found underneath living room furniture cushions. It also caused a little mental anguish as well knowing that once a movie went out of circulation it vanished only to live in your imagination or until the unlikely event it was sold to television.
Movies appearing on television were rare events in my childhood. There were annual showings of “The Wizard of Oz” and “Gone With The Wind,” and of course old movies were (thankfully) common features on local television stations, but if you went to the movies in the 1960s or even into the early 1970s, your only opportunity to see them was in movie theaters. Once they were gone from those venues, they rarely came back to either big or little screens.
There were the odd occasions when certain financially successful films were re-released theatrically and that news was always heartily welcomed. “Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs” was re-released on a seven-year cycle after its initial 1938 debut to capture a fresh generation of children. It was a master stroke of marketing made moot with the technology that can put Snow White on an eternal loop in any household with a TV — and you know who you are. Now people can watch Grace Kelly or Gene Tierney movies on a continual loop as well — and my children know who they are … but I digress.
During this pre-home-entertainment era there existed a nearly insurmountable wall between the movie industry and television. Movies were for the big budgets and the big stars and edgy artistic ventures. Television was the vast wasteland for the masses. You could say things and show things in a movie in the 1960s and 1970s that you couldn’t on television at the same time. And if you were a TV actor/writer/producer during this epoch, you found yourself on a lower rung of the industry caste system. Some, like Clint Eastwood and Steve McQueen, made the leap from the ghetto of B-Western television series to “A” list movie stars, but most did not.
Television now has as much cache as movies, if not more, and content found in current television would have garnered an “R” rating for a movie back in the day. Cutting-edge is far more likely to appear on cable and pay television sites than in your neighborhood multiplex, where the blockbuster movie reigns supreme with the potential of putting the most people in seats and in the popcorn line.
Things were certainly different when you knew you were on borrowed time when a movie came out. It gave even the most mundane kind of films a sense of urgency, for which I’m sure movie studios, film distributors and the wholesalers of movie popcorn were forever grateful.
Every so often a relatively recent film would find its way to television and it became an event. One of these television events captured my imagination in a way it never would have in its initial release. It was the harbinger of things to come, a wonderful marriage of big screen movie greatness with television accessibility, and it came into my life on television when I was old enough to appreciate it.
If I had been dragged to this movie when it was first released it would have been kicking and screaming. Instead, providence and television intervened and the network television premiere of “A Man for All Seasons” held me spellbound … to be continued.
Robert Brennan has been a professional writer for more than 30 years, including many years in the television industry.