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It Happened One Night
Watching old movies with my daughter -- it's like watching a whole new movie…


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Summer has always been old movies time for my daughter and me, and now that she’s 17 I can finally be pretty confident that we’re actually watching the same movie. When she was younger, this wasn’t always so.

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She was about ten, for instance, one hot evening when Rear Window was on TCM. As it happens, this wonderful old Hitchcock romantic thriller takes place during the summer. So when photographer James Stewart is temporarily laid up in a wheelchair because of some adventurous accident, spying on his Greenwich Village neighbors with his binoculars and zoom lens, all their windows are open and you feel like you’re part of the sweltering show.

Now as you may remember, at the end Stewart has broken his legs again, and Kelly is curled up on the couch keeping him company, reading a fashion magazine. It’s a charming ending, but not if you’re a ten-year-old who jumps to all sorts of odd conclusions.

“What a stupid movie!” Maia yelled as the credits rolled. “That’s the most terrible ending I’ve ever seen!”

“It’s a perfectly happy ending,” I said.

“It’s happy now that Grace Kelly’s leg is amputated?”

There must have been something about the way Kelly had her leg tucked under her, I guess. But I used to spend a lot of time exasperatedly explaining things like that.

These days, though, she sometimes comes up with interesting questions. I’d seen All About Eve many times, but until we saw the excellent new TCM documentary Stardust: The Bette Davis Story, I’d never wondered about that famous seatbelt line. Maia asked: “Since cars didn’t have seatbelts then, how did people understand that ‘Fasten your seatbelts, it’s going to be a bumpy night’?”

I’m still kind of stumped by that. Probably it was a reference to seatbelts on planes… but still, how many people were familiar with plane travel in 1950? Not many outside those glamorous All About Eve characters, who in any case still traveled mostly by train in those days. Maybe the general public was familiar with the concept of fastening seatbelts via airline industry promotions in newsreels.

I’ve often been surprised by the strange old pop-culture flotsam that’s made an indelible impression on Maia’s brain, and that for some reason she’s understood perfectly clearly. Once we were in the car when “I Got You, Babe” came on the oldies station. “Oh, I love this song!” Maia exclaimed excitedly. “How long was Sonny Bono the mayor of Palm Springs anyway?”

“Uh…” I said.

“Remember when that was on the radio every time the guy woke up in Groundhog Day?” she added. “But it’s so sad! Sonny and Cher were so much in love, and then Sonny died, and now poor Cher’s a doll for Jack to play with, on Will & Grace. That’s just awful! But I want ‘I Got You, Babe’ for the music at my wedding. Or maybe ‘Die Fliedermaus…’”

The funny thing is that we’d rented Groundhog Day a few years earlier, during that rather frustrating Rear Window period of Maia’s not quite getting movies. She hadn’t even seemed to particularly enjoy Groundhog Day when she first saw it. Not until “I Got You Babe” came on the car radio did I have any idea it was one of her favorite movies of all time.

When she was around 13, we watched Hitchcock’s Notorious, in which Ingrid Bergman is enlisted to spy on Claude Rains, a suspected former Nazi, in post-war South America. Maia didn’t understand why the diamond necklace Bergman wore to a party was simply to make her appear more glamorous.

“It’s not a gadget?” she asked in disbelief. She liked Notorious, but as a big Alias fan I think she was disappointed that Ingrid Bergman didn’t just kick Claude Raines in the head and be done with it.

Sometimes old movies open up interesting facts-of-life, mother-daughter discussions. I was not allowed to see Goodbye, Columbus when it first came out, because I was too young and readers over a certain age may recall it was considered extremely risque at the time. I remember asking my mother about the meaning of that famous ad campaign line (“Every father’s daughter is a virgin”) and getting absolutely no satisfactory answer.

But who would have predicted in 1969 that the really shocking thing almost three decades later about the Ali MacGraw and Richard Benjamin characters’ relationship would be that they weren’t using condoms? In the shower scene near the end, Ali tells Richard (who she’s been sleeping with for two weeks) that she hasn’t actually been taking birth-control pills. That flummoxed Maia, who didn’t understand why he assumed she had been taking care of it.

“The pill,” once such a loaded term, means nothing to kids now. I had to explain to Maia that in the old days, birth control was considered the woman’s responsibility –- that men didn’t worry about getting a disease unless they were visiting prostitutes. So if a girl had sex with them, they just assumed she was taking birth-control pills.

“So why did men start to use condoms?”

“Because they began to worry about getting a disease, which would be something bad happening to them. Something bad happening to a girl, like getting accidentally pregnant, wasn’t enough.”

“Huh!”

Huh, indeed. I hadn’t actually thought about it before, but it was a good opportunity to discuss some of the harsher facts of pre-marital sex.

The neurotic pathos of that final scene, though, where Richard Benjamin walks out on Ali MacGraw because she’d insisted on leaving her diaphragm at her parents’ house and couldn’t really explain why, was entirely lost on Maia. The whole notion of a diaphragm, especially one discovered in a drawer, by your parents, at their house, just struck her as too comically absurd. I tried explaining why the scene was supposed to be sad and not funny, but eventually just gave up.

“Good-night!” I said, quoting my favorite line from The World of Henry Orient, another favorite old movie. “It’s later than I thought.”

Catherine Seipp is a writer in California who publishes the weblog Cathy’s World. She is an NRO contributor.



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