Primal Screen

The first movie I was taken to see as a kid was DR DOLITTLE, the Cinemascope bloater coughed up by 20th Century Fox in an attempt to  make a roadshow family picture which capitalized on Rex Harrison’s turn as a lovable misogynist in MY FAIR LADY.

This is a history lesson.

Firstly, I was born the year of the film’s release, and I don’t think my parents took me as a baby, so that tells you something — tattered, speckled prints of this gigantic flopperoo were still circulating tiredly in the provinces at least three years after the film died like an obese dog (looking up mournfully, tail wagging in a sluggish but heartbreakingly hopeful manner) at the box office. Film distribution was clearly a whole different thing in the early seventies.

Three seems to be the age at which most children are introduced to the movies. I guess these introductions are managed a bit more carefully now, with the aid of the mass media and so on…

My parents report that my first response to a movie on the big screen was to start bawling. Nobody had told me it would be dark in the cinema.

Now, I just half-watched the film (I wouldn’t attempt a proper review without whole-watching a film, but DR D does rather resist the full attention) with the intent of checking to see if I remember anything about it.

There was one image in my head, divorced from any of the glimpses of the film I’ve caught on TV over the years, and from the bits everybody knows are in it, like Harrison speak-singing “If I Could Talk to the Animals.” I had an image of a ship, or possibly a raft, on a stormy sea at night. But for some reason I had a doubt that the image might have come from Altman’s POPEYE, another family film that flopped, released much much later, which I also saw at the cinema.

The image is there! It’s a couple of hours into the film (which is purportedly about a voyage but takes that long to get properly under sail). The ship gets wrecked and then the characters are on rafts. “I told you Flounder was a terrible name for a ship.” Whereas Robin Williams in POPEYE begins the film on a raft, at sea, at night in a storm.

I suddenly flashed on the possibility that my parents had turned up in the middle of the film. We did that sometimes in those days. I certainly remember double features where we entered midway through the B-picture. Yes, there were films running in repertory then, and double bills (Roger Moore as Bond, Godzilla versus whoever was around, HERBIE VS CHRISTINE) and people still sometimes turned up without consulting the listings and went to see whatever was on, regardless of whether it had started. Alfred Hitchcock tried to wipe out this deleterious practice by banning late entrants to PSYCHO, but it didn’t completely stop careless punters from turning every film into a non-linear adventure in piecemeal narrative composition.

(I still quite like seeing a film where I’ve caught a bit of it years ago and never knew what it was or what was going on…)

So I suspect I was a distressed three-year-old because I was dragged into a giant dark auditorium in the middle of a scary sea-storm at night. Dark in the cinema and dark onscreen. Maybe an usherette with a torch to add further nocturnal drama and hushed urgency, maybe not. Maybe not, maybe we entered during the ads or trailers like civilized people, I don’t know.

I think I was repelled by the pushme-pullyou, also. Say what you like, it’s not natural.

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29 Responses to “Primal Screen”

  1. Have you read Mark Harris’ book Pictures at a Revolution? It’s the story of the five movies nominated for the 1967 Best Picture Oscar. The account of the making of Dr. Dolittle, threaded like candy throughout the book, is one of the most gloriously entertaining things I’ve ever read.

  2. As somebody who had an LP (remember those?) of Alvin and the Chipmunks singing highlights from DR DOLITTLE – OK, I was six – I’ve always found the film to be glorious fun. It has a tuneful score, dazzling design and photography, an engaging cast and slick direction by old pro Richard Fleischer, one of the screen’s great masters of Cinemascope.

    I really cannot understand the film’s dismal reputation. OK, it was savaged by the critics (a notoriously po-faced and humourless bunch). Internationally, it proved popular with audiences, although – like CLEOPATRA and the recent JOHN CARTER – it was not popular enough to justify its stratospheric costs. Yet it remains a staple of afternoon TV, because large numbers of people actually do enjoy watching it.

    Admittedly, it’s not a genre-defining masterpiece like CHITTY CHITTY BANG BANG, which is perhaps the greatest ‘family’ musical since THE WIZARD OF OZ. But it’s at least as good a movie as MARY POPPINS or THE SOUND OF MUSIC.

  3. I keep hearing great things about that book, Eddie, I must obtain it.

    Mary Poppins delights me by being so aimless, it has everything but the kitchen sink, and it’s always pulling something new from the hat. Dr Dolittle, nice songs aside, never seems to go anywhere — by rights, the voyage should be of key import, but it isn’t embarked upon for HOURS…

  4. Ah, but we get to hear Rex Harrison serenading a lovesick seal.

    How can you possibly resist?

  5. I think I do remember being distressed by the slapstick involving a crying woman and a yelling man with gout who keeps having his bandaged foot mistreated. I never liked that kind of thing, and Fleischer films it in talkie medium-shot rather than silent wide, and so it HURTS.

  6. All good clean practice for the rampant and gratuitous sadism of MANDINGO. Bring it on!

  7. The sadism in Mandingo was anything but gratuitous. It was accurate.

    The song Rex Harrison sings to the seal “When I Look into Your Eyes” is quite lovely.

    Another essential Book on Hollywood and the Dr. Doolittle Disaster is John Gregory Dunne’s “The Studio.” He spent a year hanging out at Fox and checking in on everything it was doing from The Sweet Ride with Michael Sarrazin and Jackie Bissett to Babs in Hello Dolly!

    It was all the fault of The Sound of Music Hollywood was conviced its success meant Big Budget musicals were the way to go. Unfortunately “Big” also mean Bloated and we got the likes of Star!, Paint Your Wagon, Hello Walter! and Dr. D.

  8. You were born in 1967?

    I turned 20 that year — making me old enough to be your father if I were straight.

    Great year for movies, 1967: ****(Four Stars), Point Blank, Privilege, Le Depart, Marat/Sade, Reflections in a Golden Eye, Bonnie and Clyde, Accident, Far From the Madding Crowd, Frankenstein Created Woman, A Countess From Hong Kong, Himself As Herself and The Fearless Vampire Killers

  9. A friend tells the story of going to see Dr. Doolittle on its release, when he was 12, and realizing minutes in that it was awful. With hours to go.

    That’s not as good as his story of going to see It’s a Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World for the third time in the theater and similarly realizing, minutes in, that the third time was a terrible mistake. He stuck it out, however, only to find on exiting that someone had stolen his bicycle.

  10. David, I have all the faith in the world in your judgment and so I’d love to hear an argument for giving four stars to A Countess From Hong Kong… a movie I’d like to like, but just can’t.

  11. The 1967 movie that always stick in my head is How I Won the War. And I think Rosemary’s Baby, released in 68, is SET in 1967, making me the same age as the little bugger.

    For some reason I know the song “I’ve Never Seen Anything Like It” in Dr D quite well, but I’m reluctant to believe it’s from that first screening. I think I remember my big brother singing it.

    I’m not sure I could ever subject myself to IAMMMMW on the big screen. I can barely last the Saul Bass title sequence, and the title sequence is GOOD. The idea of sitting down and actually saying “I will watch this” is just unacceptable. Whereas I’ve probably seen all of it on TV, in stages.

  12. I’ve been meaning to give Countess a proper try…

  13. **** (Four Stars) is Andy Warhol’s 25-hour long movie.
    A Countess From Hong Kong is charmingly old-fashioned. Brando was at sea in it but Sophia Loren, Margaret Rutherford and Angela Scoular were great. Rohmer liked it too.

    Another 1967 “gem” Casino Royale. 5 Directors, goodness knows how many scripts, stars galore, Dusty Springfield.

  14. I love Scoular, that there has sold me. I’ll see it! Anybody who can make Here We Go Round the Mulberry Bush not only watchable but fascinating…

  15. I love “A Countess From Hong Kong”, it returns to the style of “A Woman of Paris” and ”Limelight”, more sombre and elegiac. The opening of the film, pillow shots of the city reminded me of Ozu and the film has the feel of one of his films.

    You know the thing about Peter Sellers in Casino Royale is that he’s playing the part straight and he’s good in it, one of the few decent performances in the film. He would have made a convincing James Bond, but people didn’t have the imagination then(or now for that matter).

    I can’t really recall memorable movie experiences as a kid, I was born in 1988 (and some of you are perhaps old enough to be my grandfather) and I remembered seeing ”Jurassic Park” and ”The Lion King”(which was so short, by local standards, that they put the Mickey Mouse Prince and the Pauper at the start). I remembering seeing Ben-Hur on TV, in full, but the first real movie experience of note was seeing The Godfather at 9 years or so. Didn’t understand much but I was pretty impressed by the end, where he lies to Diane Keaton, really strong stuff I thought. My best cinema experiences are recent, ”Hugo” or Mizoguchi’s Story of Late Chrysanthemums on a 35mm.

  16. Mye first movie was Singin’ in the Rain in 1952 at Radio City Music Hall

  17. Can only go downhill from there. That’s an awesome movie, which I’ve seen several times (and which my mother loves as well).

  18. judydean Says:

    Hey, if we’re pulling age rank here, I think I’m in the lead. My first film was Disney’s Make Mine Music which I saw at the age of three in 1947. My Dad had just got back from serving in the far east with the Royal Artillery, and was a stranger to me. It was decided that a visit to the cinema together might break the ice – and it worked. I fell in love with my Dad and with cinema on the same day.

  19. David E…

    I agree totally that the sadism in MANDINGO is not gratuitous! I wrote that only to wind up David C, because I know he’s not a fan.

    The first film I ever saw was BORN FREE in 1966. I remember being thoroughly bored by the giant Technicolor lions. But I was fascinated by a roomful of people sitting in the dark and staring straight forward, as if in a state of mass hypnosis. Still am, in fact.

    I also remember that the woman behind me was eating popcorn, which I’d never seen before. I kept turning around and trying to beg some off her, much to the horror of my mother and my Aunt Peggy.

    OK, I was two at the time. I hope my movie-going manners have improved somewhat over the years.

  20. My first film in the theater, so I’m told, was Mary Poppins as well, and it’s truly amazing that I still have fond memories of it, as I could have overdosed…I was dragged off to it three times by my mother, my grandmother, and I believe, my grandfather, separately! You’re right, it was rather kitchen-sinkish but I’ve always enjoyed it. Maybe all that jumping into animated Disney dreamworld bits just appealed to my sense of adventure…still does. Or maybe it was just Julie Andrews’ very fetching dress in that carousel horserace that made an early impression on me. Hmmm. Maybe that’s what made me take to theater costuming??

    My primary memory of Doctor Dolittle is a rather mixed-up image of Geoffrey Holder, laughing, as usual and brandishing an oversized sea snail…perhaps trying to feed it an “Un-Cola?” Drat you, David…now I’m going to have to rent it on Amazon to exorcise the image!

  21. Looking over 1967’s offerings on IMDb…it is a rather interestingly hodge-podge group, isn’t it. My favorite of the lot may be The Fearless Vampire Killers by Polanski, even given the retrospectively sad appearance of Sharon Tate. Really loopy movie.

  22. Britain was in full swing, European cinema was on an all-time high, only Hollywood was somewhat in the doldrums. Which was about to change. Of course I was unaware of all this — I didn’t really get a grip on interesting contemporary cinema until the eighties, though there was the inevitable Star Wars phase.

  23. 1966? For me that’s the year of Modesty Blaise

  24. Jenny in my Polanski book (which you can pre-order HERE )there’s a teriffic picture of Sharon Tate in a gorgeous ball gown leaning up against an artificial snowbanks. She was obviously waiting for the props and lighting to be set up for the last scene where they ride off in the carriage. Polanski has said the making of that film was one of the happiest times in his life.

  25. Things like Dr. Doolittle are why I’m glad my father was such a cheapskate we didn’t go to the movies. Late ’60s family films are really an acquired taste, and truthfully I hated Disney product from the time I was 4 or 5 and was seeing old Walt doing intros to his TV show. When I was a kid, I didn’t like entertainment that was geared toward kids.

    One of the few of the genre I saw and liked (on TV) was Chitty Chitty Bang Bang. Lots of the films discussed I still haven’t seen. IAMMMW is one of those films I saw on TV and what I remember about it was I went to the bathroom and when I came back, I was a little worried I’d missed something but the plot hadn’t advanced two inches.

  26. That’s it alright! One has to question why anybody would even want to make “the comedy to end all comedies.”

  27. Why, to end all comedies! The carcass of comedy was merely wounded, and after some patching and medicine, soldiered on.

  28. The first cinema visit I remember was being taken to a double bill by an Aunt – the first film concerned a boy and his dog lost in the desert, resulting in the dog (I think) nobly sacrificing itself to save the boy. I wept uncontrollably. The second film was a Harryhausen (I’m not sure which, but suspect a Sinbad) and I was swept up (of course) into a delirium of joy, monsters and animation. My Aunt could not understand by a boy would cry at something so sentimental but be utterly delighted by such horrors, which confirmed me in my suspicion that adults knew nothing.

    We were only related by marriage, thank goodness.

  29. David E…I’ve never read a good book about Polanski, so am hoping yours will be it! Thanks for letting us know.

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