Tuesday, April 5, 2011

The Movie Generation

Broadcaster Tom Brokaw has hailed what he calls The Greatest Generation, those young Americans who survived the Depression and fought (or outlasted) World War II. I’ve just finished reading Samuel G. Freedman’s Who She Was, an exploration of his own mother’s growing-up years that also manages to be a lively social history of the home front during that same period. What struck me in Freedman’s book was how the lives of young Americans were intertwined with moviegoing.

Baby Boomers like me were raised with TV sets in our living rooms. By the time my kids came along, entertainment had come to mean an ever-evolving spectrum of novelties: home video, the Internet, the Smart Phone, and whatever those Silicon Valley types can dream up next. But the “Greatest Generation”—my parents’ generation—had the movies. For Depression-reared kids with limited horizons and little discretionary cash, a movie theatre was the best place to forget the trials of everyday life.

Sam Freedman’s mother Eleanor, growing up in the East Bronx in a one-bedroom flat shared with parents and two siblings, was badly in need of magic. She found it at the movies, most especially at the Loew’s Paradise, a palatial edifice that had sprung up on the Grand Concourse during the boom years of the 1920s. For a dollar, writes Freedman, you got open sesame into “a realm of tapestries and mahogany panels and a marble fountain, which replenished the water for a pool of live goldfish.” In the flush of first love, his mother and her date would ascend to the balcony, over which shimmered “a ceiling painted with clouds and lit with twinkling stars.”

Young couples went to the movies for a modicum of privacy. They snuggled while watching Wuthering Heights, It Happened One Night, and other films that cast a romantic haze over the world. Above all, Freedman zeroes in on his mother’s passion for The Wizard of Oz. The song “Over the Rainbow” captured her longing to escape the drabness of her parents’ home.

The Wizard of Oz was not an instant hit in all quarters. Many early reviews were extremely harsh, and it took twenty years for the film to recoup its budget. When it debuted in 1939, the U.S. was still two years away from being drawn into World War II, so perhaps adult Americans were not yet quite so desperate for fantasy as they would soon become. But The Wizard of Oz was from the first a huge success in Britain, where it spoke especially to English soldiers going off to war and to English civilians keeping the home fires burning. More recently, many in the gay community have taken to heart Judy Garland’s plaintive certainty that somewhere over the rainbow there exists a better place. And I think I speak for kids everywhere in remembering how The Wizard of Oz gave me—from all those repeated TV viewings—a hopeful vision of friendship enduring, good triumphing over evil, and home always being there when you need it most.


  1. For me as a kid, The Wizard of Oz was a highly anticipated annual event on TV - with no home video that was the only way to see it. It was a HUGE part of my childhood. Now there are at least two new generations who may or may not have caught part of an airing on a Turner network, but who don't care about it one way or the other. I also didn't realize it took so long to move into the black. I hope I can foster a love for it in my granddaughter when I get to show it to her in a few years...

  2. That's what grandchildren are for, I hear -- they give you an opportunity to pass on your own tastes and passions. I can't wait!