“Going to the show?” My memories of growing up in Peterborough – I have to say it was a while back, from the late 1940s into the early 1960s – are flooded with a steady and I hope not too damaging rush of movie-going experience.
When I was quite young and before we had TV, my family regularly went out together to catch a movie. We were a working-class family – in the late 1940s and early 1950s my father was a “lab assistant” at the city’s then-biggest employer, Canadian General Electric – and “going out” to movies as a family, I later found, had from the start been a working-class form of amusement. When I was a bit older, even after television came along I kept going to the movies, usually with friends, later with partners and children and others, and I’ve never stopped going.
Movies in the late 1940s and early 1950s were a form of cheap family entertainment – adult tickets sold for maybe fifty cents a person, depending on the movie, and children’s tickets for much less. In the 1950s my parents would send me off to Saturday-afternoon movies with a quarter – fifteen cents to get in, and a dime for a small box of popcorn. In the late forties and early fifties the movie theatres ordinarily changed their movies twice a week, so there was always something new to see. Sometimes, so I’ve been told, families went to movies not just once but twice a week, or more.
The postwar movies I grew up with tended to follow a standard plot – with good versus evil constantly personified: good guys, bad guys, good girls, bad girls – and time after time I saw (thanks especially to a production code) the good winning out, all very reassuringly, though it is not particularly true to life. Happy endings were the norm, and, I might ask, what exactly did this mean for an impressionable and uncritical boy like myself in that period? Peter Biskind touches on this point in his book on movies of the 1950s: “To understand the ideology of films, it is essential to ask who lives happily ever after and who dies, who falls ill and who recovers, who strikes it rich and who loses everything, who benefits and who pays – and why.” I was there, soaking it all in, responding as well as enjoying, and, I suppose, learning.
The heroes and heroines fell in love at the drop of a dime (or the fifteen cents it took to get into the movie). There were usually certain obstacles, but they were quickly overcome. The movie-going of the time offered a variety of goods: the “shows” might include a double feature (one of them possibly a B movie, which was quite often a Western), a newsreel, a live-action comedy short, a documentary short (a “travelogue,” perhaps), musical short films, and/or cartoon shorts, all for the relatively cheap price. The price could vary sometimes depending on the quality of the film and theatre. An extravaganza like The Greatest Show on Earth (1952, with Charlton Heston, Betty Hutton, and James Stewart, among a long list of other stars) might cost more than routine actioner like Thunder in the East (1953, with Alan Ladd and Deborah Kerr), both of which I remember going to see with my parents – and both of which had certain scenes that bowled me over.
People in those days drifted in and out of the theatre at any old time, often with no mind as to when a particular film was starting. It was the period of “continuous admissions” or “continuous performances,” with brief intermissions. The programs, with all their various bits and pieces, had one film following another through the whole day, or at least from early afternoon (even on weekdays) to late evening. After grabbing some popcorn from the concession booth, you would go in while the movie was in progress. The theatre was dark except for the picture on the screen, but uniformed ushers with flashlights would show you to a seat. You would normally stay through the whole cycle and leave, even if it was in the middle of a feature, when you recognized a scene from the beginning of your visit. That accounts for the phrase “This is where we came in . . .” In some cases, you’d know the ending before you saw the beginning – but you could still enjoy the film. As time went by, like other people I began to find this a less than satisfactory way of seeing motion pictures. In any case, nowadays it is no longer an option – theatres are “cleared” after every performance.
And, indeed, now, in the twenty-first century, much has changed. But, to my considerable surprise, much has also remained more or less the same . . .