Remember going to the movies with your dad?
Most people do — afternoons or evenings spent with one’s father in front of a giant screen can resonate in the memory like a struck bell. They were often rare and therefore special, a window onto the world and a window into a man. In the run-up to this year’s Father’s Day, I took the liberty of sending out a social media APB, asking for people to share their remembrances of screen time with their pops. I was hardly surprised when the replies lit up like a string of firecrackers. In the process, I learned a few things and confirmed others.
First, there is definitely a Dad Movie Hall of Fame. True, most of the people responding on Twitter and Facebook straddled the late boomer-to-early millennial generations, but the consistency with which certain films cropped up was striking. A lot of westerns and a lot of John Wayne and wartime adventure adaptations like “Where Eagles Dare” (1968) and “The Great Escape” (1963) — that was to be expected. Less so “Lawrence of Arabia” (1962), “Young Frankenstein” (1974), and “2001: A Space Odyssey” (1968). One person recalled coming out of the Stanley Kubrick milestone at age 11 thoroughly confused and further amazed when her father had no answers for her: “The idea of a movie even adults couldn’t fully explain was exciting & mind-blowing.” (She’s now a professional film critic; there’s a lesson in there somewhere.)
Another friend puzzled over why her dad took her to a rerelease of “The 7th Voyage of Sinbad” (1958), but that makes perfect sense to me, since any movie featuring Ray Harryhausen’s funky, stop-motion special effects (swordfights with skeletons!) is catnip to boys of all ages.
Often these were just movies that Dad Wanted to See, and you were lucky to come along — and, OK, maybe a little shaken up if it was “Dirty Harry” (1971) or “The Deer Hunter” (1978) or “Saturday Night Fever” (1977). Or maybe not, since the idea that you were being entrusted to handle grown-up subjects and emotions could be intensely flattering. (“I loved being treated as ‘old enough,’” wrote one friend.)
The corollary is that these were often movies Mom Didn’t Want to See and Quite Possibly Didn’t Approve Of. One correspondent recalled his parents arguing whether he should be allowed to see “Eyes Wide Shut” (1999) at age 14 and his father saying, as the two of them drove to the theater, “I hope this is worth it. I’m not getting any sex for a month.”
Most of the stories I heard were personal, unique, and handled like precious objects. The father who woke his son in the middle of a school night to watch “Stalag 17” (1953) on TV. (“I was exhausted the next day but it’s still a fond memory.”) The father who took his daughter out of school and drove 25 miles to a showing of “The Adventures of Robin Hood” (1939). (“Best dad ever?”) A son watching “The Searchers” (1958) at the bedside of a father who suffered from dementia but still recognized John Wayne. A father and son watching the nuclear-doomsday thriller “Fail Safe” (1964) and having their first-ever political discussion, about what JFK would have done if he were alive.
Then there were the dads who took the job seriously, inculcating sons and daughters in the Universal horror classics, the Anthony Mann-Jimmy Stewart westerns, Chaplin and Keaton comedies, foreign warhorses, “Casablanca” (1942), Hitchcock, and “the forever traumatizing ‘Whatever Happened to Baby Jane?’” (1962). Or who wanted their children to soak up lessons of the world and how to live in it by taking them to multiple viewings of 1962′s “To Kill a Mockingbird.” (As for the father who took his kids to see 1965′s “The Sound of Music” 10 times, that’s grounds for an emancipation hearing.) All of these experiences are remembered not as drudgery but with affection and gratitude, a grounding in cultural literacy and a springboard to one’s own movie love.
The best part of seeing movies with dad, many remembered, was glimpsing something of the man you weren’t able to get anywhere else — a partial solution to the mystery, a sideview into his dreams and vulnerabilities. The cliché of the father who reveals little of himself to his children is rooted in truth, especially for older generations, and movies can provide a powerful shared experience without the embarrassment of having to actually look at each other. My Globe colleague Chad Finn over in the sports department wrote, “I’ve seen my dad cry three times that I recall. When his best friend died in an accident in 1976. When my mom died 11 years ago. And at ‘E.T.’” (“To be fair, we ALL cried at ‘E.T.’,” posted someone in commiseration.) One man told of watching “The Friends of Eddie Coyle” (1973) together and hearing his father say afterward, “Y’know, if it hadn’t been for the war, I’d have been that Coyle fella.” The TV movie classic “Brian’s Song” (1971) is remembered by others as a talisman that opened the floodgates in otherwise stoic men.
Look, whatever it takes. “Me and my dad communicate primarily in quotes from ‘Coneheads’” (1993), responded one friend, and she’s lucky to have that. One of the reasons I was curious to hear these stories is that I have none of my own. My father died when I was 9 and, while I recall a few family movie nights — seeing the Beatles in “Help!” (1965) at the Dedham Drive-In, my dad’s silhouetted head taking up half the screen — there are no one-on-one memories. If he’d lived longer, there certainly would have been.
And yet his taste in films still changed my life. About five years after he died, my mother mentioned that my father’s favorite movie was on late-night TV and that I should stay up to watch it. Seeking connection with a man I’d never really known, I dialed into “Duck Soup” (1933) — and had my doors blown right off by the sweet black-and-white anarchy of the Marx Brothers. I especially saw in Groucho the wit and wordplay of the late Sturdy Burr, and I thought about my dad watching the movie at 23, nine years older than I was then, and finding in the Marxes a fearless modern frontline of comedy.
After “Duck Soup,” I started watching other Marx Brothers movies, and other old movies, and then newer movies and foreign movies and midnight movies, and half a century later I write about movies for a living, connecting readers with our shared experiences and emotions in the dark. What got me here was my mother pointing at one movie, and, through her, my dad. So thanks and Happy Father’s Day, old man. We didn’t get to watch a movie together, but we shared one just the same.