We were not allowed to watch movies growing up in my family in Madison, Wisconsin. “Allowed” is too strong a word. Movies cost money and were too permissive, and actually we never thought of them. We were too busy living a life outdoors.
Occasionally we saw family movies on television on the Walt Disney show chopped into two-parts, and we treasured them, many directed by Robert Stevenson, I later found out – and later, before his death, interviewed him.
I disappointed a professor who contacted me a few years ago for a book he was writing asking me what my memories were of first seeing Psycho. I have no such memories. Never saw it on the big screen in its time. Surely I didn’t know of its existence, nor did I care. I was too young and carefree.
The first movie we saw as a family that I recall was Ben Hur and, after that, The Alamo. Ben Hur was very Catholic; and we were a very Catholic family – I was an altar boy etc. The movie impressed me then, impresses me still. Frightens and awes me much more than Psycho, or should I say, in a different way.
The Alamo was perfectly acceptable to see (with my mother and father and siblings) because John Wayne was the star. Also, the director – although I’m sure we weren’t particularly aware of this. My parents were for FDR and Kennedy, but John Wayne was America personified. Years later I tried to meet and interview Wayne when I was working for the Boston Globe. Again and again, the request was denied.
Finally when I did meet him, at his home in Newport Beach, I could tell he was ill at ease. It could have been my long hair, but I asked why. He said it was because Boston and New England was one of his worst markets. I assured him I was from Wisconsin, the Midwest, where he was born (Iowa), and he immediately relaxed and became a gracious forthcoming personality. I have a residual fondness for his films nowadays, and find him under-rated as an actor.
It wasn’t until I was in high school and began to sneak into Roger Corman’s teenage-oriented movies like Wild In the Streets that I began to see movies regularly, and even to think of them as films. Before that, I was blissfully unawares.
Patrick McGilligan is an Irish American biographer, film historian and writer. He has written biographies on Robert Altman, Clint Eastwood, Alfred Hitchcock, James Cagney, George Cukor, Fritz Lang, Oscar Micheaux, Jack Nicholson, and Nicholas Ray.