Watching movies with Aunt Mary

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 β€” particularly about the films in which he’d had a role β€” 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 β€” 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.

Me and my aunt, c. 1977

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.”
Watching "the channel." April 2013
Watching “the channel,” April 2013

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.

36 thoughts on “Watching movies with Aunt Mary

  1. This post gave me shivers. So much of what you mentioned is exactly what’s happened between my aunt Grace and I (and we’re Italian too!). She’s the one who introduced me to classic films and I will forever be grateful to her for that. Your aunt Mary seemed like quite the character: warm, fashionable, intelligent, and blunt lol. What a lovely lady, I’m so sorry to hear about her passing ((HUGS))

    It *must* be an Italian thing because we also do the whole “who’s dead” rundown during almost every movie πŸ˜‰

    1. That settles it then, because I don’t know anyone else who isn’t Italian who does that πŸ˜‰ I love knowing that these patterns repeat. Thanks so much Vanessa.

  2. Sorry for your loss, Paula. What a beautiful tribute to your aunt, may you take comfort in your wonderful memories of her. I think I’d like your aunt very much, after all her fave film is Gone With The Wind πŸ˜€

  3. That was a beautiful tribute to your aunt. It made me cry. It didn’t help that I too had an Aunt Mary that was very important to me. She gave me her copy of the book Gone With The Wind to keep, and called me whenever she saw that it was on TV (like I needed to be told).

    Thank you for sharing your story.

    Pam

    1. Oh my goodness. I didn’t really go into our family’s GWTW affinity as much as I could have…let’s just say, it’s a perennial favorite πŸ™‚ Thank you Pam.

    1. You’re welcome and thank you, Aurora. She definitely did leave me something amazing, the best part has been meeting all of you πŸ™‚

  4. Fantastic piece, Paula! You were very lucky to have an aunt like this who was such a great friend and companion. And bought you clothes!!

  5. I’m so sorry for your loss, Paula. But your aunt would be proud of this beautiful tribute. It’s great that you shared such a bond and she sounds like she would’ve been an absolute joy to meet.

  6. Your tribute to your aunt is sweet, authentic, and touching. You have given me a real sense of her personality. I think she gave you many wonderful gifts, including a love of movies. I am.
    sorry for your loss and thank you for sharing.

  7. Paula, this was absolutely lovely. I was moved to tears by your tribute. That’s one of the most endearing parts about being influenced by our older loved one’s love of these movies… they never leave us as we watch them. Even with the many that I’ve shared with my mom over the years, The Best Years of Our Lives and All About Eve always transports me back to a couple of special late nights with my grandmother watching them.

    Thank you for sharing.

    Hugs!

  8. Hi, Paula:

    What lovely and heartfelt memories. I’d have loved to have sat down and talked films with your Aunt Mary. A keen eye for detail, sense of character and a wonderful disposition.

    Oh, and Hitchcock reportedly blindfolded himself and sat in his director’s chair. Listening to the different sounds assorted fruits and melons made when named and stabbed by a sound tech for the shower scene in ‘Psycho’.

    After listening intently to a number of stabs, Hitch took off his blind fold and said “Kasaba!”.

    1. I’d have loved to listen in on that conversation! She had all of that.
      Thank you for recounting the Hitchcock story. I had forgotten the particulars. I have to agree with my aunt, Hitch was in some ways a weirdo πŸ˜‰

  9. I love this: “To Edie Doyle [Saint]: β€œHe’s no good. Go back to school and study.”

    I also recall the inevitable comment from my mother, “Oh, he’s been dead forever.” There was always a lineup of who either got dead or put on a lot of weight after their careers.

    A lovely tribute to your wonderful aunt.

    1. Thank you for your kind words. I guess it isn’t just my family then…the weight thing comes up too. Sort of as evidence that stars are just like regular people πŸ™‚

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