Over the Christmas holiday, my wife and I watched a lot of Christmas themed movies, especially the older ones. I knew I had reached full holiday movie saturation when I could recite lines of dialogue along with Edmund Gwenn from Miracle on 34th Street, as he tried to explain that he wasn’t an insane old man who thought he was Santa Claus. Next came White Christmas with Bing Crosby and Danny Kaye, which had as improbable a plot as anything, but we enjoyed it nonetheless. What happened after we watched those two movies is the stuff of dreams or possibly nightmares, depending on how one wants to look at things.
We have Netflix, which at $7.99 per month is a wonderful bargain for people who want to stream a virtually unlimited amount of movies, last season’s TV shows, the entire catalog of older TV shows, or original programing, all without commercials. Another feature that Netflix has is an algorithm that immediately takes what one watches, and churns out suggested programming that is similar in nature. These selections will show up on the TV screen in a nifty category called, “Since you watched this, Rick, you may like this.” I like that my TV calls me Rick.
This programming clairvoyance is mildly scary, as was the case when my wife watched a documentary on World War II, and suddenly our playlist was filled with all things Hitler. Not the big historical items that everybody knows about, but the Hitler minutiae such as what Hitler liked for lunch, where Hitler slept, and what if Hitler escaped to Argentina and opened a cheese shop called Mein Cheddar. The depth to which documentarians will go to milk a subject dry is amazing. I’ve always recognized Hitler as being the epitome of evil, so I really wasn’t interested in filling my head with archival footage of him wearing tweed jodhpurs, and strolling around the Austrian countryside while walking the dog.
The only way I was able to get rid of Hitler was to watch old movies, and there was no better time to do this than over the Christmas holiday. White Christmas and Miracle on 34th Street netted dozens of older, non-holiday movies, all with the same theme—one, two or possibly three ditzy women go to the Big City to either find a rich bachelor or to join the cast of a Broadway show. If space creatures or possibly Hitler had traveled to Earth from the outer reaches of the galaxy in the 1950s and watched a movie, they would have surely thought that Earth was populated with nothing but scheming showgirls looking for rich husbands.
All of these movies featured the same crew of actors with old-timey names such as Audrey Hatbox or Howard McTalltrousers. Good, solid Hollywood names mated with well-groomed actors who spoke with a transatlantic accent. That’s the part that I find hysterical; seemingly normal, everyday people who sounded as if they were quasi-British auctioneers hopped up on triple-shots of espresso. Put it all together with the clothes, the hats, the hair, and the cigarettes, and you have ninety or so minutes of entertainment that can’t be found in the wocka-wocka movies of the seventies or eighties. If I want to watch an old movie, I can’t go back thirty or forty years to a time I actually lived through, because everybody looks and sounds ridiculous with their bell bottoms and sideburns and groovy haircuts. I have go back almost before I was born otherwise it’s uncomfortable to watch.
Most of the time when I’m watching these old movies, I simply assume that the actors are dead, but I have to check anyway. I’ll watch the movie, grab my phone, go to IMDB, and do a quick search. Then I’ll hit the names of certain actors, and for some odd reason, I’m shocked to find out that many of them were born in the late 1800s or shortly thereafter in the early 1900s. For example, Edmund Gwenn was born in 1877. He was born only twelve years after Lincoln was assassinated, yet here I was, watching him brilliantly play Kris Kringle in a movie that was streaming over the Internet right into a flat screen television hanging on my living room wall. It’s almost difficult to imagine.
One of the old movies that popped up in my Netflix queue was The Day the Earth Stood Still, which I had remembered from the Saturday TV matinees when I was a kid. I actually watched that one twice because it was alternately great and the dumbest movie ever. The gist of it is simple: a spacecraft that looks ridiculously similar to a large, silver nipple comes from somewhere out there, in space, lands in Washington D.C., and a perfectly handsome humanoid strolls out of the nipple-craft holding a fruit basket and a spiral sliced ham. And flowers. And a puppy. He couldn’t be friendlier or more benevolent, but straightaway somebody from the Army shoots him.
The alien (his name is Klaatu) ended up in a dimly lit hospital room where his alien healing powers puttied up the bullet hole, so he left and got a room in a boarding house. Do they still have boarding houses? I mean, whole families and drifters alike were living in these leased out bedrooms, sharing dinners and reading gigantic newspapers while sitting in chairs that had doilies on the arms. One of the residents was Aunt Bea, who isn’t Aunt Bea in this movie, but she shows up a lot in old movies and TV shows still looking like Aunt Bea. The best part of this movie is not Aunt Bea or even the flying silver nipple, but that Klaatu pays for everything with diamonds. Nothing odd about that. “How much is that thick, huge newspaper? Ten cents? Here’s a diamond.”
Watching The Day the Earth Stood Still stocked my Netflix portfolio with other cold war era, men from Mars movies, but it also added The Twilight Zone and Alfred Hitchcock Presents. How do you know me so well, Netflix? There are only so many hours in a day, and I still have five books that I got for my birthday and Christmas that I want to read.
I’m hoping that I don’t turn into one of those cranky old guys who think that good movies and TV stopped in 1962. There are a lot of great, contemporary TV shows across all the new platforms, along with some marvelous movies, but like the old B&W days, there’s also a lot of garbage. Adding the good old stuff with the good new stuff, and making it available whenever I want has really given me more options than I have time to watch, and that can’t be a bad thing, especially during the short, cold, dark days of winter.
Klaatu barada nikto, Aunt Bea. Wherever you are.