Maureen Byrne reminisces about her lifelong love affair with cinema, from post-war film fandom right through to modern multiplex fare.
I am 86 years old and I have been in love with the silver screen since around 1940. My older cousin took me to the local cinema to see a Sherlock Holmes film starring Basil Rathbone, with whom I immediately fell in love! Those small local cinemas, which we called fleapits, had such a friendly, familiar vibe. There was always the main film, a supporting feature, and a newsreel (Pathé or Gaumont News) and usherettes with torches to see you to your seat, who sold ices and cigarettes in the interval. The larger cinemas would also have an organist who appeared from under the floor and played popular music during the interval.
Wartime and post-war cinema
From 1944, I became entranced with the pirate films Hollywood was making and with the stars appearing in them: The Black Swan with Tyrone Power, The Spanish Main with Paul Henreid and Maureen O’Hara, and many more. My friend and I went to the matinee screenings on Saturdays and sometimes the film’s certificate demanded children of our age be accompanied by an adult. Our mothers would have been horrified to know that we then asked the US sailors who were queuing outside to get our tickets for us and they willingly agreed and threw in some free “candy” as well!
Other films I enjoyed at that time were black-and-white British costume dramas distributed by Gainsborough Pictures, including The Man In Grey (with Stewart Grainger and Margaret Lockwood) and The Wicked Lady (again starring Margaret Lockwood, this time with James Mason – he was a special favourite of mine as I loved his voice). During the war, whilst I was at grammar school, we had a special screening of Henry V, with Laurence Olivier as the king. We were all totally thrilled by his speech before the battle and it certainly did its job of making us all feel very patriotic! This was a time for stirring films and several I remember (which still find their way to TV screens nowadays) were In Which We Serve, Way To The Stars, and The Dambusters. Hollywood was also doing its bit to uplift the spirits with Mrs. Miniver, and later the post-war drama The Best Years Of Our Lives.
At this time, many of us schoolgirls were reading the movie magazines such as Picturegoer, mooning over the glamorous photos of handsome male stars, and trying to emulate some of the glamour of stars like Veronica Lake, with her long hair drooping down over one eye.
The 1950s saw the advent of the Ealing comedies, with actors such as Alec Guinness, Dennis Price, Michael Redgrave, Edith Evans, Michael Dennison, Dorothy Tutin, Margaret Rutherford, Joan Greenwood, and the never-forgotten Alistair Sim. Films of this era included The Ladykillers, The Importance Of Being Earnest, Kind Hearts & Coronets, An Inspector Calls, and The Best Days of Your Life. At this time, I joined the Plymouth Amateur Cine Society. We were a small group, comprising people mainly interested in films and filming, and this is where I met my first husband. He was a keen photographer and owned a 16mm Bolex camera which he used to make films, mainly in black and white. Some other members used 9.5mm cameras and there were lively discussions on the merits of each!
We made a film entitled Pools Paradise in which I and another member acted the parts of a young couple who had won a fortune on the football pools and, whilst filming one day in a park, we ended up being besieged by an excited crowd wanting our autographs – my short-lived claim to fame! The Society also made a documentary about Plymouth which included shots of the rebuilding taking place in the city after the war and the ceremonies on Plymouth Hoe for the coronation of Queen Elizabeth II in 1953. We also used to have film evenings where, for the first time, I was introduced to such silent classics as Nosferatu and The Cabinet Of Dr Caligari, as well as Charlie Chaplin and Buster Keaton comedies, all of which I really enjoyed.
It was also in the 1950s that I developed a taste for foreign films. The two I especially remember were Rififi, directed by Jules Dassin who won Best Director at the 1955 Cannes Film Festival, and The Wages Of Fear, starring Yves Montand. The Wages Of Fear offers nail-biting suspense and an ending I thought was very clever.
The 1960s were buzzing with feelings of change, and films started to reflect this. This was the birth of the Bond films. I remember seeing Dr. No for the first time and being captivated, both by the film and Sean Connery, who for me is the best Bond. I eagerly returned for Goldfinger and Thunderball. These films were produced at Britain’s answer to Hollywood, Pinewood Studios, which has many stages specially equipped to deliver the thrilling scenes required. Also high on my ‘must-watch’ list were the Hammer House of Horror films; Dracula, The Devil Rides Out, and many more starring Christopher Lee and Peter Cushing. Of course, we must not forget the horror films from America, from the real chills of Psycho to the terror of The Omen later on. After seeing this with my second husband, who was superstitious and Irish to boot, I had to take him into the local pub and pour a brandy down him to help him recover from it!
As cinema screens got bigger, they were better equipped to show great films such as Lawrence Of Arabia and Dr Zhivago, with sweeping vistas that were totally captivating. Large-screen coverage was also vital to the film 2001: A Space Odyssey, which was a real departure from the sci-fi films we had seen to date.
One night, when I went to the cinema with a friend from work, we ended up seeing A Fistful Of Dollars, a film that affected us in very different ways. She was rather horrified at the level of violence being displayed, whereas I was thrilled by everything in it: the music, the acting and the unfolding of the story. It was my first ever experience of a Spaghetti Western.
Following on from that I enjoyed many more: For A Few Dollars More, Once Upon A Time In The West and, what I think is the best of them, The Good, The Bad And The Ugly, which has the usual violence but with a humorous twist and reflections on the futility of war. Other films containing violence mixed with humorous dialogue which I find engaging are Quentin Tarantino’s productions. I have seen and enjoyed many of his, from Pulp Fiction to his latest, Once Upon A Time in Hollywood.
Another genre I enjoy watching is ‘silly’ comedy, especially films by Gene Wilder, Steve Martin, and Mel Brooks, to name a few. I never tire of watching these and remember so many of their lines. The Producers is a favourite of mine with its ‘Springtime for Hitler’ song, and Gene Wilder is so funny with Marty Feldman in Young Frankenstein. I must also mention Airplane, a hilarious send-up of the disaster films of the time, and Galaxy Quest, a really rather clever comment on the Star Trek franchise and the conventions staged for its fans. A particular family favourite is The Great Race, directed by Blake Edwards in 1965, starring Jack Lemon and Tony Curtis (that dynamic duo from Some Like It Hot). There’s a gem of a scene that spoofs another earlier film, The Prisoner Of Zenda, and the custard pie fight is a classic! My family remembers the film especially because my eldest daughter first met her future husband while watching it, and they’re still together 35 years later!
The present day
I’ve come to admire the work of many directors, but some really stand out, including Ridley Scott with Blade Runner and Gladiator, Christopher Nolan with Memento and Inception, and Martin McDonagh with In Bruges and Seven Psychopaths. Amongst the DVDs I have collected, I have all but two of the Coen brothers’ films. Some such as Fargo are brilliant and others not so much, but all are utterly quirky and enjoyable. Today, the screen has been taken over by franchises, the Marvel films being an outstanding example. While I do enjoy a blockbuster, I feel they are becoming repetitive with all their CGI effects.
Living as I do in Spain, I see films at a multiplex which has some smaller, more intimate screens. Here, I have seen some really good films which I think I would have otherwise missed, such as Night Train To Lisbon, Le Week-End, and 45 Years. With these films in mind, I hope to continue my love affair with cinema for a few years yet.
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