- Historic Sites
A child of the Republic looks back on a lifetime spent at—and occasionally in—the movies and discovers how strongly they have shaped the way all of us understand America
September 1992 | Volume 43, Issue 5
As I now move, graciously, I hope, toward the door marked “Exit,” it occurs to me that the only thing I ever really liked to do was go to the movies. Naturally Sex and Art always took precedence over the cinema. Unfortunately neither ever proved to be as dependable as the filtering of present light through that moving strip of celluloid that projects past images and voices onto a screen. Thus, in a seemingly simple process, screening history.
It is a universal phenomenon that whether one is at Harvard or at Oxford or at the University of Bologna, after the dutiful striking of attitudes on subject of professional interest, like semiology, the ice does not break until someone mentions the movies. Suddenly everyone is alert and adept. There is real passion as we speak of the falling off of Fellini in recent years or of Madonna’s curious contours and have they yet passed the once-disputed border of mere androgyny to some entirely new sexual continuum? Movies are the lingua franca of the twentieth century. The Tenth Muse, as they call the movies in Italy, has driven the other nine right off Olympus—or off the peak anyway.
B riefly I was a newsreel personage. But what I wanted to be was a movie star—specifically, Mickey Rooney.
Recently I observed to a passing tape recorder that I was once a famous novelist. When assured, politely, that I was still known, read, I explained myself. I was speaking, I said, not of me but of a category to which I once belonged that now no longer exists. I am still here, but my category is not. To speak today of a famous novelist is like speaking of a famous cabinetmaker or speedboat designer. Adjective is inappropriate to noun.
Today where literature was, movies are. For the Agora, Art is now sight and sound; and the books are shut. In fact, reading of any kind is on the decline. Half the American people never read a newspaper. Half never vote for President. One hopes it is the same half.
In 1925, the year that I was born, the Tenth Muse was already installed atop Parnassus, but she was mute. Curiously the movies were not as popular in the twenties as they had been before the First World War. Even so, in the year of my birth, Chaplin’s The Gold Rush was released, and in my second year the Tenth Muse suddenly spoke those minatory words “You ain’t heard nothin’ yet.” Thus the moving and talking picture began.
I saw and heard my first movie in 1929. My father and mother were still unhappily married, and so we went, a nuclear family melting down, to the movies in St. Louis, where my father was general manager of TAT, the first transcontinental airline, later to merge with what is now, as of this week anyway, TWA.
I am told that as I marched down the aisle, an actress on the screen asked another character a question, and I answered her, in a loud voice. So, as the movies began to talk, I began to answer questions posed by two-dimensional fictional characters thirty times my size.
My life has paralleled, when not intersected, the entire history of the talking picture. Although I was a compulsive reader from the age of six, I was so besotted by movies that one Saturday in Washington, D.C., where I grew up, I saw five in a day.
I was born of mortal woman, but there my resemblance to other writers ends. My mother did not shop, and my father was not cold and aloof, nor was he addicted to the sports page of the newspapers. Unlike most American fathers—sons too—he did not live vicariously. He was his own hero, and the Agora had loved him for a time. He had been an All-American football player at West Point, and he had represented the United States in the decathlon at the Olympic Games. Later he started three airlines. He was, I like to believe, the first person to realize that there was absolutely no point to cellophane.
“Du Pont just invented this,” he said. We played with it for a while. “What’s it for?” I asked. “Nothing!” He spoke with a true inventor’s delight. For a season, in the thirties, one could see in the movie musicals cellophane used as curtains, tablecloths, showgirl dresses. But in the end cellophane, unlike celluloid, ended up as irrelevant wrapping. Yet it was nice in itself, like certain minor works of art or, as Cole Porter apostrophized, “You’re cellophane!”
Did my kindly maternal grandfather preside over a hardware business in Oklahoma City? No. From two unrelated accidents he was blind at the age of ten. He put himself through law school, memorizing texts that were read to him by a cousin. At thirty-seven, having helped invent the state of Oklahoma—wit of this sort runs in our family—he became a famous senator.