One of the things I love about being a dad is not only going to the movies with my kids and seeing the movies they want to see together, but also trying to encourage their exposure to great movies from the past that I might sneakily suspect, sometimes against all reason, they might enjoy. This desire to cultivate an appreciation for old Hollywood doesn’t always yield great results, but lately more often than not I have been happily surprised by my daughters’ reactions, especially those of my oldest. In preparation for the upcoming publication of my year-end piece—which is, at this late date, teetering toward even more irrelevance than it would have if I was able to unveil it on January 1—I have been thinking over my most treasured movie-going experiences of the year, and among those that will be listed are several wonderful times when my daughters and I, out of design or response to insomnia or whatever other possible reason, were able to sit down and enjoy a movie considerably behind their time line.
This year alone I’ve had the chance to share with them pictures as disparate and wonderful as Robert Siodmak’s The Crimson Pirate, Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger’s Black Narcissus, Budd Boetticher’s Decision at Sundown and Buchanan Rides Alone, Robert Wise’s Born to Kill and Robert Altman’s Popeye. (Yes, that’s on one level a kid’s movie, but certainly unlike any they’re used to.) And each time I have been gratified by the degree to which they have been open to more classic, or at least more measured and (for them) unusual approaches to storytelling. They like their fast-paced cartoons and doses of mindless junk like Pokemon, to be sure, but it’s good to know that it’s never a good idea to give up entirely on what we adults (naturally?) assume is the rapidly corroding level of patience our children will have for something that doesn’t fly past them at a mile a minute.
The most recent happy evidence to back up this radical notion came for me last night at the Egyptian Theater in Hollywood when I brought my daughters, along with my good friend Andy and his teenage son Will, to see a beautiful new print of The Magnificent Seven, part of the current tribute to John Sturges at the American Cinematheque. For most of us of a certain age this ridiculously entertaining western is one of those touchstone movies, thanks to the iconographic presence of Yul Brynner (later tweaked in Westworld) at the head of a once-in-a-lifetime cast of soon-to-be icons like James Coburn, Eli Wallach, Charles Bronson, Robert Vaughn and, of course, Steve McQueen; the soaring, equally iconographic score—influential, yet never eclipsed—by Elmer Bernstein; the sharp-as-obsidian script by William Roberts and (uncredited) Walter Newman, based on Akira Kurosawa’s peerless Seven Samurai; and the muscular, observant direction of John Sturges, with its clarity of action and nuanced sense of the toll taken on the lives of the hired guns who freely roamed the rough-hewn landscape of the American West. But what are the odds a six and an eight-year-old girl would enjoy it? I lured them with the carrot of seeing the beautiful façade of the Egyptian itself (my oldest is a bit of an Egypt buff), and we did have a grand time exploring the hieroglyphics and design of this magnificently restored movie palace. But I also had a hunch they might actually like the movie, based on their enthusiasm for the Boetticher/Randolph Scott and Mann/Stewart westerns, and certainly there is an element of adventure the movie shares with the Burt Lancaster pirate epic (though certainly not that movie’s silliness and penchant for physical comedy). But it’s also a long movie, and though it could hardly be considered stately the pace of The Magnificent Seven is much more deliberate than my own wife can put up with—no fan of manly action, she-- so it might reasonably be anticipated that her own leanings away from this kind of film might be reflected in her daughters.
So much for reason, then. Though the six-year-old finally fell asleep on my lap with about 45 minutes left to go, she was engaged with the movie all the way up to that point. The eight-year-old, on the other hand, was completely enthralled, from Eli Wallach’s first appearance as the evil bandit Calvera straight through to the movie’s bittersweet end amid the settling dust and the corpse-littered streets of the tiny village the Seven had been hired to defend. She immediately responded to the quick wit of the movie’s script, laughing in all the right places—a loud chuckle for McQueen’s in-your-face rejoinder to Calvera’s threats (“We deal in lead, friend”), an even heartier laugh to Val Avery’s exasperated retort to undertaker Whit Bissell’s refusal to bury the dead Indian at the beginning of the film (Bissell: “It's not a question of money. For twenty dollars, I'd plant anybody with a hoop and a holler. But the funeral is off.” Avery: “Now, how do you like that? I want him buried, you want him buried, and if he could sit up and talk he'd second the motion. Now, that's as unanimous as you can get.”) And the movie, elegant but easy to digest, turned out to be perfectly realized for keeping her wrapped up in the straightforward elements of the story. She responded much as I remember responding when I first saw it—with almost total surrender to the pleasure of losing oneself in the world into which the movie breathes life. And once again my little girl surprised me with the degree to which she can give herself over to a movie experience.
Unlike High School Musical 3, I would guess there was little to which she could directly relate in The Magnificent Seven that would allow her access to the kind of sincere response she gave to the Troy and Gabriella epic. Yet here she was, overcome with sadness upon the death of Charles Bronson’s character, the loner Bernardo O’Reilly, whose bond with three village boys who earlier vowed to tend to his grave, should the need arise, shored up her empathy to a surprising level. As we made our way out of the theater and out into the brisk Hollywood night, my wonderful daughter turned to me and said, “Daddy, I had no idea a cowboy movie could be so emotional.” My first instinct was to respond that I had no idea that being a father could be so rewarding. But by now that’s old, if never less than happy news. Instead I just kissed her on the head, thanked her for coming to the movies with me and began thinking ahead to the next time we could take a chance on yet another great old film within the spectacular confines of the Egyptian Theater or, in a pinch, late at night on our couch in front of the TV.
(P.S. My 2008 year-end piece, which I resolved last week would be next out of the gate, has taken a lot longer than I anticipated, due as much to the amount of elements I'm trying to cram into it as much as to school and work commitments. But I'm hoping that by end of day tomorrow (Sunday) it will be up and running for the enjoyment of anyone who still cares to look at yet one more review of the past year in movies. There should be at least one difference between my list and the bulk of those you may have seen so far that might make it worth the wait, if only for scoffing purposes. Until then!)