My 1930s education at the movies

I’d long wanted to see the two movies on the double bill at our neighborhood movie house, the Princess at 61st and Main streets in Los Angeles, that week in 1939. Brother Raul and friend Ernie wanted to see the films too, even though they had been made eight years earlier. Mother was not enthusiastic. “Those are very scary movies,” she warned. We were not dissuaded and found ourselves sitting in the darkened theater on Sunday afternoon as the curtains parted.

The first half of the double bill was Dracula; the second, Frankenstein. They terrified me. Movies like this—about a dead man who rose from his coffin at night to find throats to sink his teeth into or about a mad scientist who sought to bring life back to cadavers he dug up by implanting new brains in them—embodied evil and could only end badly. What surprised me is why my brother and friend were not as frightened as I was. I left my seat for the safety of the sofa in the lobby and sat there waiting until my two companions finished viewing the entire bill. For the rest of my life, I have avoided movies about monsters, mummies, vampires, wolf-men, zombies and similar beings. 

I had the formal education my Los Angeles schoolteachers, church leaders, and my parents wanted me to have. But they couldn’t take me to other planets or India—and they certainly weren’t going to talk to me about bootlegging and femme fatales. Movies were frank and immediate, teaching me about an America that was scarier and more exciting than the one I encountered on the streets. Indeed, I saw visions of what America’s most fantastic wishes would look like if they came true, and what its most destructive fears could lead to. (And sometimes, I learned, I couldn’t watch.) 

For many years, we saw movies only at the Princess, but in time, my brother Raul and I expanded the boundaries of our movie-going world, adding two more theaters, the Century at 61st and Broadway, a block west of Main, and the Kiva, a block north. We started going to the Strand, a mile farther north, not long afterwards; it was at the corner of Broadway and Vernon Avenue. A child’s ticket cost 11 cents, and a small bag of popcorn, served in a little white paper bag (with butter), a nickel.

We even went midweek, when neighborhood theaters held Keno nights to increase attendance. Patrons were given numbered cards, the house lights were turned on, and a large wheel on stage was spun. Those with winning cards were given prizes. At the Kiva one Wednesday evening, I was a winner and was called to the stage where I was handed a bag that contained my prizes. I threw away the little jar of mustache wax and the fishing line but took home the box of Kellogg’s Corn Flakes.

Going to the movies typically meant seeing two movies, a cartoon, occasionally a short subject, and, if we went on Saturday afternoon, a serial that continued week to week for 12 weeks or so. Serials featured cowboy stars like Buck Jones and Johnny Mack Brown. But my favorite was Flash Gordon, whose battles with the evil Emperor Ming, ruler of the planet Mongo, took 13 weeks to resolve.

The filmed news of the week was another extra. Charles Lindbergh had made his historic solo flight across the Atlantic in 1927, just a few years before I started going to the movies, and he often appeared on-screen. Many boys, including myself, wore close-fitting pilot’s headgear, some equipped with goggles, in emulation of the young flier. Movies about pilots and their airplanes became very popular. Hell’s Angels, made in 1930, portrayed the lives of World War I combat pilots and featured blond newcomer Jean Harlow, which insured that not all the film’s action would take place in the sky.

Such films taught us who our friends were. In The Dawn Patrol (1938), Errol Flynn, David Niven, and Basil Rathbone played English pilots making early morning flights over German-held territory. Their worthy nemesis was the German ace Von Richter, clearly meant to evoke the real life Baron Manfred von Richthofen (also known as the Red Baron) whom everyone, even us schoolchildren, knew about. Even though the plot details were fictional, reality couldn’t help but intrude occasionally. When war broke out in 1939, Niven had to leave Hollywood to return to England and joined the Army to fight real Germans. 

But the enemies didn’t have to be just the Germans. We school kids loved the action-adventure movie Gunga Din (1939) in which Cary Grant, Victor McLaglen, and Douglas Fairbanks Jr. played British soldiers stationed in colonial India. The bad guys were the Thuggee, who fought the British and who captured the three good guys.

The movies of the 1930s also could be frank about disaster. In San Francisco (1936) Clark Gable played Barbary Coast saloonkeeper Blackie Norton, and Spencer Tracy was his lifelong friend Tim Mullin, a Catholic priest. They fight over a singer (played by Jeanette MacDonald)—but the year is 1906, and the earth shakes, buildings topple, and people panic and flee in one of the most realistic disasters Hollywood has ever presented. (The final scene has the three stars reunited on Nob Hill singing hymns along with other survivors.) John Ford’s The Hurricane (1937) showed a realistic storm, toppling palm trees and buildings in ways that, upon a recent viewing, were as eye-popping as when I was 9 years old.       

At the movies, we learned about more than harmless gathering; there were stories of vice crime. The Prohibition era produced a new type of crime in the United States: the illegal manufacture, transportation, and sale of liquor. It went way beyond the people we knew in our neighborhood who made wine for their personal use—that was not illegal. It didn’t take Hollywood long to jump on the gangster bandwagon. In Little Caesar (1931), Edward G. Robinson played an Al Capone-like figure, glaring menacingly and threatening. Crime didn’t pay in the movies, and Little Caesar (also known as Rico) gets it in the end. As he lies dying he gasps out the words, “Mother of mercy, is this the end of Rico?”

In Scarface (1932), Paul Muni played Chicago mobster Tony Camonte, whose racket is selling illegal beer to speakeasies. Parts of Scarface were risqué. The morning after a wild party, a man picks up off the floor a feminine undergarment that had been shed there the night before. Then there were the gangster films of James Cagney, known for hitching up his trousers with his forearms and uttering the phrase, “You dirty rat!” We knew these stories were make-believe, but we schoolboys mimicked him for fun. 

With stories of crime came stories of guns. And so, with our pocketknives, we whittled blocks of wood into guns that we armed with rubber strips cut from automobile tire inner tubes. With wood and metal clothespins we made pistols that fired lighted matches when we pulled the trigger. We wanted to imitate cowboy stars like Tom Mix, who lent their names to pairs of six-shooters with holsters that every toy store sold. We had cap pistols that we loaded with rolls of caps that exploded when we pulled the triggers.

The movies weren’t all about good vs. evil. There was great comedy that taught us about what was funny about the country. Comedians Bud Abbott and Lou Costello made their film debut in a movie they made about Army life, Buck Privates. In 1940, the United States initiated a pre-Pearl Harbor military draft, and the comic team depicted their version of life in the Army of that time.

And the Marx Brothers, Groucho, Harpo, and Chico (and for a time, Zeppo) could make anything funny, even the severe immigration restrictions of the 1930s. In Monkey Business (1931), the four try to pass an immigration checkpoint by each in turn presenting the French singing star Maurice Chevalier’s passport as their own. When the immigration official remarks to each passport holder that he bears not the slightest resemblance to the French singer, each begins to sing “You Brought a New Kind of Love to Me,” a Chevalier standard. Harpo played a mute, and when his turn comes, he sings exactly like Chevalier, to the moviegoer’s surprise. But then we discover he is playing a portable record player strapped onto his back.                       

I recently came across the 1998 list The American Film Institute compiled of the 100 Greatest American Movies of All Time. I have seen 96 of them. I’ve always devoured stories, whether in the form of movies, fiction, or non-fiction. Americans have an almost insatiable need to be entertained, and Hollywood has filled that need for over a century, and hasn’t stopped yet. Of all the movies I’ve seen, my favorite is The Wizard of Oz. I first saw it not long after its release in 1939 and have seen it many times since. I never fail to be taken in by the fantasy and by its lessons—that there’s no place without troubles and there’s no place like home.

Manuel H. Rodriguez taught in local Los Angeles schools for 41 years, 35 of them at Los Angeles Valley College. He wrote this for What It Means to Be American, a national conversation hosted by the Smithsonian and Zocalo Public Square.

Comic book artist Gene Colan dies at 84

Comic book artist Gene Colan, a “towering figure” and “one of the giants of the comic book industry,” who drew characters from Batman to Dracula to Howard the Duck for nearly seven decades, died June 23 at 84.

Colan drew for the two mainstays of the North American comic book industry, Marvel and DC, as well as others, and worked closely with Marvel’s legendary Stan Lee on characters such as Daredevil; Falcon, one of the first black superheroes; the aforementioned Howard the Duck; and others. Over his long career Colan also worked at various times on Batman, Wonder Woman, Iron Man and others.

Colan’s work was described as different from most comic artists, for he “preferred a realistic look that emphasized texture and fluidity: the drape of a hero’s cape, tilt of a head, the arc of an oncoming fist.”

Comic artist and writer J.M. DeMatteis said Colan’s Howard the Duck and Tomb of Dracula were “two of the greatest comics of the 70’s… Colan at his finest: radiant with mood, texture, humanity and a reality all its own. Gene was totally unlike any other artist working in comics at the time—he was a genre unto himself; in the mainstream but with one foot always outside of it—and there’s still no one who can touch him.” Click here for a lengthy comics fan’s retrospective of Colan’s work, with many images of his art.

Tom Field, co-author of the book “Secrets in the Shadows: The Art & Life of Gene Colan,” said “he was referred to as a painter with a pencil.”

Colan was born Eugene Jules Cohen in New York and raised in Manhattan. He studied at the Art Students League of New York and served in the Philippines with the Army Air Forces in World War II. He joined Timely Comics, the precursor to Marvel, after the war, where he drew Captain America, Captain Marvel, Iron Man and Sub-Mariner.

Writer Mark Evanier said fans consider Colan’s work in the 1960s and 1970s on Daredevil, Howard the Duck, Tomb of Dracula, Doctor Strange, Iron Man and others as “the defining versions” of those characters.

Evanier said that Colan was “a charming, self-effacing gentleman who was genuinely moved when fans tried to tell him how good he was and how much joy his work had given them.” In recent years, Colan had glaucoma, and was nearly blind in one eye and limited vision in the other, but continued to work.

Comic book writer Clifford Meth, who helped Colan with his finances and personal affairs in the last few years after the death of Colan’s second wife, offered an emotional elegy to him in a recent blog post: “Gene taught by example the importance of being happy for happy sake. He was what Pirke Avos characterized as a rich man. He was happy with his lot.”

Before Colan’s death, Meth posted excerpts from a conversation he had with Colan at his hospice: “I’m not beyond fear. I’m fearful about death. Everything that you ever wanted to do just goes up in smoke. The idea of being put in the ground or put under the ground is frightening. Most people don’t want to talk about it… But I’ve decided to change my way of thinking. What they’re telling me is not acceptable to me. I’ve got a tumor and it’s cancer. And that’s it. But I’m thinking that whatever you are thinking can come true. If it’s not a selfish thought. I lean heavily on G-d now. I wasn’t always like this. There isn’t anything I have to be afraid of. Love is the answer. And the way to get there is by trying to find good in someone you don’t necessarily like. Prayer can’t be selfish. You don’t pray for a yacht or money—you work hard if you want those things. But if you pray for unselfish things… And if you’re looking for an answer, just ask. You’ll get the answer if the question is worthy of an answer.”