Anybody who has either read this blog for a while or attended a TCM Party knows that I have been watching old movies since I was a young child.
During the summer when my mom was working, I would be at my grandparents’ house, watching the local afternoon movie showcase, Bill Kennedy At The Movies, hosted by the titular raconteur/retired actor. For those who grew up outside of the metro Detroit area and/or were born after 1986 or so, picture a slightly-unkempt, more rambling, hammier Dean Martin. At least that’s how it seemed at the time.
Slinging both fascinating anecdotes — particularly about the films in which he’d had a role — and barbs that mostly went over my head, Kennedy owned those hours after noon and before the 6 o’clock news. He showed pretty much anything old. The Best Years of Our Lives is one that I particularly remember. I can remember just bawling during it, without even really knowing why.
In those days, respectable Italian girls lived with their parents or their husbands, certainly not by themselves or with other girls. Not in my mother’s family. Thus if I was allowed to stay for the evening, I got to see my mother’s oldest sister, Mary Rose Romano, when she arrived home from work. Born the same day as Elizabeth Taylor, February 27, 1932, Aunt Mary seemed just as glamorous and self-possessed. Unlike my parents, she worked in a bank downtown, and wore suits to the office; also scarves, cute shoes, and amazing jewelry. (Also unlike my parents, she liked to take me shopping for clothes.) Though (I now know) she was probably really tired, we’d always talk about whatever I’d watched, because she knew all about Old Hollywood — the movies, how they were made, the actors and actresses. No one has had more of an influence on my film taste than Aunt Mary.
I believe her favorite movie was Gone With The Wind. Back in the day, before cable, really the only way to see it in one piece was on network TV in the evening. Even broken up with ads, it was powerful stuff. She told me all about the burning of Atlanta being filmed first, Clark Gable’s dentures, the long process of casting Scarlett, and how Leslie Howard was a spy and died in The War. This was the first time I was conscious of a film being a purposeful creation, the result of a collaborative effort by many people. Since then, I’ve learned more about the time period portrayed in the film, and I have a fair amount of ambivalence about it, but to this day, if I’m home, I can’t pass it up.
Fast forward 20 years or so. My mother died of cancer in 2002, and afterwards my husband and I began to visit my aunt (now in her 70s) and my grandmother (in her late 80s) every Sunday. The routine almost never varied: lunch at around noon, then movies on TCM until 4 or 5 p.m., accompanied by their inevitable dialogue, which I affectionately call “Who’s Dead?”
— “Jesus, everyone in this movie is dead.”
— “Yeah, there’s so-and-so. He’s dead.”
— “There’s so-and-so. She’s been dead forever.”
I think it may be an Italian thing.
These Sunday afternoons were when I realized how much I had absorbed from her as a kid. She loved the classics and had great respect for both their craft and their magic, but at the same time, she could be irreverent. In other words, she would have fit right in at a TCM Party. Among these random recollections, imagine the quotes from Mary are tweets and you’ll get the picture (may contain spoilers):
- Psycho: “That sound [the stabbing in the shower] is somebody knifing a melon. Nobody could believe Janet Leigh got killed off. It just didn’t happen. That Hitchcock was a weirdo.”
- Now, Voyager: We watched this together so many times that it’s almost painful to watch now. My aunt looked a bit like Miss Davis, and had her crisp enunciation, and I always got the impression from her comments that she could relate to Charlotte Vale, but I can’t know for sure.
- Any Joan Crawford movie: “Watch out…she packs a wallop.”
- Any appearance by Adolphe Menjou or Ray Milland: “He’s such a sleaze.”
- Jeremiah Johnson: Robert Redford was a fave of ours, particularly in The Sting and this downer of a 1970s beard-tastic Western. When the widow freaks out on Jeremiah and forces him to take her son along with him, I remember asking, “What is she going to do? How is she going to get food out there by herself?” Mary shrugged. “She’ll go over to craft services, they’ll find her something.”
- Victor/Victoria: “Has this guy [James Garner as King Marchand] ever really looked at Julie Andrews?”
- On The Waterfront: This is the last film we ever watched together, a couple of weeks before Tim and I saw it at the TCM Film Festival with an introduction by Eva Marie Saint. I so wish my aunt could have gone with us. To Terry Malloy [Marlon Brando]: “She’s not interested in you, you dumb lug.” To Edie Doyle [Saint]: “He’s no good. Go back to school and study.”
- The Pink Panther: [Gales of laughter] “What an idiot. He’s so stupid. He’s so silly.”
- Sunset Blvd.: Norma Desmond: “They had to have the ears of the whole world too. So they opened their big mouths and out came talk. Talk! TALK!” Aunt Mary: “Thank God. Who wants to read a movie?”
- Two Mules for Sister Sarah: “She’s a pretty lousy nun.”
My Aunt Mary passed away on September 27, 2013. Our family and everyone who knew her will remember her unqualified generosity, her style, and her sense of humor, but I also have her love of the movies, and because of that, she is still with me.