Movies have long been one of my passions, but considering the ticket prices—an average of $10—first-run films in New York City seldom find me in their audiences. As a child, I rarely missed the Saturday features at my hometown’s sole theater, the Milo, located across from the courthouse and only three blocks from our house. The Milo is long gone, swept away by an ill-advised 1960’s urban renewal project that also took with it rows of handsome Victorian-era red brick stores that many towns would now prize.
First-run films not being an option then, I turn to old ones, either in real theaters or on video. The latter approach generally constitutes my Saturday night entertainment, when one of the Catholic Workers at Mary House shows a video on a donated VCR for a small but appreciative group made up of residents and a few neighbors. After evening prayer in the Mary House dining room, chairs are arranged for the best sightlines. Bill, the Catholic Worker who provides the videos—and often soda too—dims the lights and starts the feature film. Discussion often follows.
The viewers themselves choose the films from week to week. My own preference runs to movies made from the 1940’s through the 60’s. Recently we watched a notable film from the late 40’s, “Gentleman’s Agreement,” with Gregory Peck, John Garfield, Celeste Holm and Dorothy McGuire. It deals with anti-Semitism, and the title itself refers to an unspoken agreement among wealthy Connecticut householders who refuse to rent to Jews. Gregory Peck plays a reporter set on exposing this hypocrisy. He poses as a Jew in order to experience the effects of anti-Semitism at first hand. His son, for example, is beaten up at school, and he himself is denied a room at a pricey resort hotel. Aside from the fine acting, one sees in such a film a seriousness of purpose generally lacking in today’s violence- and sex-saturated movies.
What also comes through to me from watching old movies, however, is the realization that their stars are usually no longer living. Gregory Peck, Dorothy McGuire and John Garfield have all died. Only Celeste Holm is still living. Watching these older films therefore brings with it an awareness of mortality—both the stars’ and my own. This is true even of lesser films. Take “Desert Fury” (1947), which I saw not on video but at the Museum of Modern Art. The male lead was John Hodiak. I had heard his name, but remembered little about him. A biography on the Internet notes that he died suddenly in the early 1950’s of a heart attack at the age of 41. (John Garfield also died of a heart attack, at only 39.) Hodiak’s co-star was Lizabeth Scott, who—if still alive now—would be well into her 80’s. And yet there she was, a stunningly beautiful young woman with long blond hair who made this film in her mid-20’s. Youth and beauty do indeed vanish, and vintage films underscore that sobering fact.
Sometimes, when the stars are people of outstanding gifts, a sense of loss can accompany the sense of mortality. This was my feeling on seeing a Fellini film from 1965 that I had missed the first time around, “Juliet of the Spirits.” Federico Fellini’s wife, Giulietta Masina, has the title role. Realizing, as I watched, that she had died nine years ago evoked both the sense of mortality and a corresponding sense of loss. The latter was all the greater because I remembered her in “La Strada,” my favorite of all Fellini films for its implicit spiritual overtones, especially in Masina’s role. As the waif-like Gelsomina, she dies in a seaside village after her flight from the man who exploited her and who ultimately tries to find her again.
Fellini himself died in 1993, just six months before his wife. But their creative collaboration serves as an ongoing reminder that what gifted human beings leave behind can perdure as lasting legacies, whether in films or in other forms of artistic expression—thus trumping, in a way, mortality itself.