EVERY YEAR,THE ACADEMY AWARDS REMIND ME why I fell in love with the movies. When I was young, movies drew me closer to my family, particularly the devil-may-care Irish side, including my maternal grandmother and a handsome, reckless cousin. In those days, an old movie was the perfect companion for a gloomy afternoon, when the world reverted to black-and-white. And the classic films of the 1930s and ’40s were already relics when I first saw them on TV, grainy reflections of Hollywood’s golden age.
My grandmother lived with us when I was a kid and would often call downstairs, asking if I’d like to watch a “picture.” Nana, once divorced and once widowed, was a frail but feisty woman with orange-tinted hair who liked to play the horses up at Rockingham. Her television, a huge Magnavox, was one of the few items she’d brought with her after the death of her second husband. We’d chat about the old film stars while she perused the racing form, blowing the smoke from her Pall Mall out the window.
In His Girl Friday, a 1940 comedy directed by Howard Hawks and starring Rosalind Russell and Cary Grant, I caught a glimpse of how these strong females influenced my grandmother. The film depicts the tension between Walter Burns, a newspaperman played by Grant, and his tart-tongued ex-wife, Hildy Johnson, portrayed by Russell. The two bicker and banter as Grant tries to lure Russell back to her old job as a reporter and into his arms. Ultimately, Burns must admit to Hildy — and to himself — that she is his equal.
Four theaters lined Broadway in my grandmother’s hometown of Lawrence — the Palace, the Broadway, the Modern, and the Strand, with a fifth, the Victoria, across the street. It must have been gratifying for Nana, unhappy in her first marriage, to see Rosalind Russell giving as good as she got in Hawks’s overlapping, rapid-fire dialogue. And if there was added benefit to making a wisecrack at Cary Grant’s expense, it was doing so in a great hat.
Nana also liked gritty dramas, including The Best Years of Our Lives. This 1946 William Wyler film is a somber rendering of World War II’s effect on three returning veterans, played by Dana Andrews, Fredric March, and Harold Russell. Andrews’s character, Fred Derry, is a decorated Air Corps captain who struggles to find a job. March’s Al Stephenson, a former Army sergeant, drinks too much and feels alienated from his family. Russell, who plays Homer Parrish, was a real-life Navy sailor who’d lost his hands during the war, and Wyler’s camera lingers on the maimed veteran’s prosthetics.
My cousin Kevin was a tough, troubled kid when my parents took him in, before he got drafted and sent to Vietnam. After being discharged, he never came home. Years later, he called on Christmas Day from a prison in California. My mother, then quite ill and a widow herself, sobbed until I took the phone and told Kevin not to call anymore.
There’s a scene in The Best Years of Our Lives when Homer Parrish’s father removes his son’s prosthetic hands and buttons up his pajama shirt. Watching it with my teenage son recently, I felt the story intersect with the sort of psychic ruin Kevin had suffered in Vietnam. And so these films and our lives become indistinguishable: a vision of times gone by and a reflection of the present.
Revisiting these movies is like peering through the lens of my childhood. And when Cary Grant finally gets the girl, I can see the past quite clearly and hear my grandmother calling me upstairs.
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