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In the Beginning

28 Mar
In the Beginning

In the beginning there was theater.

The theater was everything. The marriage of art and literature, an ancient institution. Shakespeare, Broadway.

And then the movies came along. Everybody who couldn’t get a career going in the theater migrated to the new medium. The early movies were generally cheap, crude and intellectually barren, and theater devotees regarded the motion picture like it was something that plopped from the back end of their carriage horses.

But people loved the movies. They loved the lack of pretension, the simplicity, the brevity, and above all the pure entertainment value. Broad comedy and plaintive melodrama were easy to take after a long day of hard labor. Soon, people were watching screens more than they were watching stages. A lot more.

In time, the movies grew up. They slowed down, took on nuance and subtlety. They got longer, more complex and more sophisticated. Great artists emerged.

But as the motion picture began enjoying its new dignity, another new medium came along. The devotees of the motion picture frowned. Most of them have been frowning ever since.

You see where I’m going with this.

When I first became interested in silent film, the Chaplin Mutuals were sixty years old: fascinating, wonderful and impossibly alive (considering they were relics of a vanished civilization). The more I explored early cinema, the more treasures I discovered, and the more intriguing that world became. None of my friends had any particular interest in old movies. But new friends came along.

And now here I am, looking back sixty years once again, drawn to another new world and the treasures within it. My film-buff friends are mainly indifferent to vintage television, and most of them will watch Song of the Thin Man or The Road to Morocco for the ninth time, rather than try a Gunsmoke or a Route 66 —  even though these small-screen productions were shot on film by fine Hollywood professionals, using the same cinematic techniques and conventions as the big-screen productions that get all the respect.

That’s fine. I haven’t turned against vintage cinema. Admittedly it’s been consigned to my back burner for the past year, but the love and fascination are still there. Still, I don’t want to spend my life watching the same 200 movies over and over again. And life is too short to watch the thousands of bad and indifferent movies (as some people I know do, simply because “they’re rare”).

Don’t get me wrong. I’m not saying that vintage TV is better than vintage cinema (or, for that matter, better than old-time radio, another love of mine). A lot of TV is garbage. But there’s a lot to enjoy, too. It’s worth looking into.

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