Baby Boomers in the Black and White Universe

If you are a baby boomer, you are not alone. Boomers rent and collect bushels of black and white classics. They also swarm to vintage film festivals and swell the ranks of TCM viewers. We boomers made a seemingly odd entertainment choice: we've leapfrogged back several generations to savor the popular entertainment of the WWI, Depression, and WWII eras. Some of us know more about old films and their production than the original audiences.

Television brought the glories of old Hollywood right into baby boomers' homes. In the mid-50's, the Our Gang shorts, repackaged as The Little Rascals, reached local TV markets. About 130 of the sound shorts eventually aired, to be rerun for decades. The best of these shorts, from roughly 1929 to 1938, are expertly paced comedies displaying the Hal Roach Studio's mastery of gag writing and prop design. Few boomers have forgotten the moaning birthday cake the kids bake in Birthday Blues (1932). It made a sound like 'Weeep-Wow' that kids today still mimic. Roach's child stars were allowed to improvise, and his producers drew natural performances from them that delight us.

Five-reel westerns were an early mainstay of weekend TV schedules. William Boyd bought syndication rights to the 66 Hopalong Cassidy films he made in the '30s and '40s, and then revived the Hopalong character in a TV series. Television made him a bigger star than he was in pictures. Gene Autry and Roy Rogers repeated this formula after Republic syndicated their film backlog. With so many Hollywood westerns available for airing, the '50s saw a new golden age for the genre, with bigger budgets and longer running times for theatrical features, and long-running hit TV series like Gunsmoke and Bonanza.

In 1958, Columbia dropped a package of 75 Three Stooges shorts on the market. To their delight, they started a craze, as a new generation found its favorites screen comics. Soon all 191 Stooges shorts were on the air coast to coast. At some point, almost every child of the '60s and '70s imitated the Curly Howard arsenal of squeals, whoops, and nyuks. Boomers picked up ancient vaudeville patter from the Stooges, and some of us perform 'Slowly I Turned' on request.

Along with 2-reelers and hour-long westerns, there was the Tarzan series, from which I absorbed my love of old Hollywood. Tarzan films were rerun constantly in the '60s. Watching them, I began to appreciate the style markers of both the studios and the star actors. The MGM Tarzans outclassed the RKOs in both story value and set design. There were various 'acceptable' Tarzans, such as Lex Barker and Gordon Scott, but Johnny Weissmuller was the ideal Tarzan, every inch the jungle hero.

One could intuit film technique from watching Tarzan films over and over. When characters jumped out of the path of a charging leopard or rhino, the back projection was betrayed by minor glitches in lighting or perspective. One of the great riddles of my childhood involved the underwater sequence in Tarzan Finds a Son! (1939).

I revisited this film recently. Tarzan and Boy frolic in a river in two extended dives, shot underwater in some beautiful black and white cinematography. On their first dive they play hide and seek among some sunken logs, staying underwater for 83 seconds. In their second dive, they hitch a ride on a sea turtle, a magical image, and stay under for 51 seconds. This tormented me as a 7-year-old; I knew after 15 seconds underwater I was in trouble. How could Tarzan and son swim happily like fish, well past the minute mark? After repeated viewings, I noticed the edits in the scene, and I was able to guess the process of filming extended action.

It took me years to figure out how, in nightclub scenes with edits, there could be a consistent music track while the shots were divided among the bandstand, the dancers, and the diners. At last, I concluded, with some amazement, that the scene had to be filmed without music, and a band track added in post-production.

Like most film buffs, I transitioned to Hollywood melodramas, romances, and musicals. The first non-juvenile feature I connected with was C. B. DeMille's Unconquered (1947). Today the film strikes me as fun but artificial, but at the time, I was taken under the spell of DeMille's storytelling, and especially Gary Cooper's trek through the wilderness. By age 12, I was familiar with the look of studio era films, and black and white photography was a plus.

The weekday matinee movie was a windfall for movie buffs. In the Cleveland TV market, there were vintage films running at 1 p.m. and 4 p.m. I usually caught the 1 p.m. WUAB Prize Movie, which showed lots of '40s and '50s films and, once in a while, something from the late '30s. The host, a wisecracker named John Lanigan, would show a 5-second movie clip during the station break, which callers could identify for a cash prize. One clip that ran for months showed a few chorus girls in a dressing room. The prize grew as callers unsuccessfully guessed every show business story from the '30s, '40s, and '50s.

Exasperated callers began to give silly or made-up answers. One man guessed The Prime of Ben Franklin, while another tried Scudda Hoo! Scudda Hay!, to which Lanigan replied, 'Scudda Hoo, Scudda Hay, Scudda no.' I wasn't watching the day the clip was identified.

Now, let's hear three narratives from baby boomer friends who became vintage film buffs:

Mark grew up watching Roy Rogers westerns on Portland TV. Later his interest expanded to Roy's competition in sound westerns and silent westerns. He built a collection of 16 mm prints and has also helped organize film festivals.

Sandra grew up near Detroit and as a preteen watched the matinee movie on Windsor TV. She would rush home from school, often missing the first 20 minutes of the movie. She soon knew dozens of old movies minus their opening reels, which she would try to catch on summer reruns. The first old film she connected with was Norma Shearer's Romeo and Juliet (1936). 'That's where I really got the photography, the production, the whole thing.'

On Saturday afternoons, Celine watched bad science fiction with her father. They would laugh at the cheesy monsters and low budget special effects. Her interests expanded to classic noir, drama, musicals, and comedies. The first old film she connected with was Ronald Colman's Lost Horizon (1937), which she and her father discussed at length. It remains her favorite film.