My Journey through Films and Film Songs 14

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Watching English Films in 1950s

We began watching English movies in 1949, mostly in morning shows. In the beginning we watched adventure and swashbuckling movies but switched to classics like Random Harvest, Captains Courageous, Lost Horizon, All Quiet on the Western Front, and Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde. We also began reading English movie magazines like the British Picturegoer and the American Photoplay. By 1953, we were watching English films regularly. In the locality in which I lived most cinema halls showed Hindi and Marathi films. Some of them screened old English movies in morning shows on Sundays. Three of them, Regent in Sitabaldi, Minerva on Kamptee Road (later renamed Bharat), and Liberty in Sadar, screened new English movies in regular evening shows. Bharat cinema has been closed and replaced by a shopping complex. Regent is also shut down but the new owners have retained the building and opened a restaurant, recreating the atmosphere of a cinema hall. Liberty is still in business, proudly declaring its vintage.

The import policies in force at the time allowed free import of British and Hollywood movies. Most of the British films were in black and white, while a higher percentage of American films were in colour. We grew up learned to speak English in the British way, so we found it easier to follow the diction of British actors in contrast to the American accent in films from Hollywood. Barring a few, each film played for only two to three days, so we had about ten English films to choose from every week. We were selective about what we watched. We were not interested in cowboy movies that glorified white Americans at the cost of American Indians. But there were several Western dramatic films like High Noon, Broken Arrow, Bad day at Black Rock, Vera Cruz, Shane, Seven Brides for Seven Brothers, River of no Return, The Wild North, and Magnificent Seven that we enjoyed.

We keenly watched the films based on books we had in our school curriculum, Prisoner of Zenda, Pride and Prejudice, Oliver Twist and Great Expectations. We looked forward to watching film versions of Shakespeare’s plays, some of which were included in the curriculum of my eldest brother, who was a student of English literature. I was introduced to Shakespeare in my eleventh year in 1944, when I was awarded the children’s edition of Much Ado About Nothing for standing first in my class in the annual examination. Reading of other Shakespeare plays and Charles Lamb’s Tales from Shakespeare followed to make me a fan of the Bard of Avon in my early teens. We were fortunate to watch some memorable movies and privileged to witness the entry of some of the most iconic actors and actresses. We also witnessed changes in technology that made movies more watchable, spectacular, and entertaining. The list of movies we saw would be too long for this article. I mention some films that moved us and some that were milestones in one way or another.

Gone with the wind holds a special place in my memories, as it probably does in those of millions of filmgoers across the world. The book by Margaret Mitchell was in the Nagpur University Library. Most students felt it was too unwieldy to carry and even more difficult to read. I found it deeply engrossing and emotionally moving. So, when the 1939 film was re-released in Nagpur, my brother Murty, my friend Mahesh and I made a beeline for the hall where it was showing. Rhett Butler, Scarlet O’Hara, Ashley Wilkes, and Melanie Hamilton, so well enacted by Clarke Gable, Vivien Leigh, Leslie Howard, and Olivia de Havilland respectively, were the favourite characters of most youngsters of our generation. Director George Stevens’s A Place in the Sun, based on the novel An American Tragedy by Theodore Dreiser, was distinguished by the presence of ravishingly beautiful Elizabeth Taylor and the brooding romanticism of Montgomery Clift. In a sequence in Ivanhoe (1952), MGM’s film version Sir Walter Scott’s novel, the camera zoomed onto her face as she delivered her dialogue, filling the screen with her luscious lips. Cecil B. DeMille’s Samson and Delilah overawed us with its mind-blowing sets, and innovative special effects. Call Northside 777 was an engaging film of crime detection starring James Stewart, while Father of the Bride was an endearing comedy starring Spencer Tracy and Elizabeth Taylor.

At this time Daphne du Maurier had emerged as one of the most favourite writers amongst the youth of the country. Her mystery novel Rebecca was converted into a gripping movie by director Alfred Hitchcock, known as the "Master of Suspense". This was Hitchcock’s first film in Hollywood. His thrillers The 39 Steps (1935), The Lady Vanishes (1938) and the psychological crime thriller Rope (1948), Hitchcock’s first colour film, are ranked among, the greatest British films of the 20th century. In 1939, David O Selznick persuaded him to move to Hollywood to make Rebecca.

We followed English movie magazines to learn about films nominated for Academy Awards, presented annually by the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences, United States. Academy Award to Hamlet in 1948 had acquainted us with Laurence Olivier’s immense talent both as actor and director. We watched his earlier film Rebecca for which he was nominated for acting. In 1949, we read about Kirk Douglas who was nominated for acting in Champion but lost to Broderick Crawford for All the King’s Men, a film about political corruption in America that seems to be replayed now. In 1950, All About Eve had several nominations including best film and best actress, for the redoubtable Bette Davis, but only bagged the best film award. Best actor awardee Jose Ferrer was magnificent in Cyrano de Bergerac.

The best picture award in 1951 came as a surprise to filmgoers and film critics alike, when it chose An American in Paris, MGM’s musical starring Gene Kelly and Leslie Caron directed by Vincent Minnelli, for the award. This was only the third musical to win Best Picture after The Broadway Melody (1929) and The Great Ziegfeld (1936), and the second colour film, after Gone with the Wind (1939), to win the Best Picture award. The Academy also introduced a new policy of giving the award to an individual producer, rather than the studio. Golden Globe awards created a new category for comedy or musical films in the 1952 awards ceremony. An American in Paris was the first to win the award. The films arraigned against it in the nominations were Decision before Dawn, A Place in the Sun, Quo Vadis, and A Streetcar Named Desire, each a great film in its own way.

Musicals were regularly produced in the 1940s and 1950s and were quite popular in India, but knowledge and appreciation of Western music was confined to Europeans, Anglo-Indians, Indian Christians, and a few rich westernised Indian families. Most students in Nagpur enjoyed the fast-paced numbers in western music but had no ear for classical western music. Compared to Indian films, English films were generally short, often running to less than two hours. Newsreels and short films would be played in the beginning and the main feature would start after the intermission. Occasionally, there would be a film of a musical performance by a philharmonic orchestra from London or New York. We would find it difficult to sit through the performance due to our ignorance of western classical music. We often wondered why there were so many instruments of each type, instead of one, as in Indian music. That reminds me of a joke popular during the early days of management studies when time and motion studies were being undertaken. A musical company engaged a work study expert to study an orchestra and suggest improvements. The expert, no lover of classical music, reported an unnecessary and wasteful duplication of instruments and suggested reduction to one instrument of each type. This would release space on the stage and reduce expenditure on furniture and sound equipment. The expert further stated that when his recommendations were implemented there would be a drop in audiences leading to further economies by way of a smaller auditorium.

My friends Mahesh Chandra Sharma and Karuna Shankar Chaurasia did not care much for English music and dance so I would see the musical films alone or in the company of my brother Murty. I became fond of singers Bing Crosby and Frank Sinatra and the trumpeter and vocalist Louis Armstrong. I enjoyed the tap dancing of the dancing stars Fred Astaire, Gene Kelly, Ginger Rogers, and others.

I enjoyed watching An American in Paris then and love to watch it even now.

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More by :  Ramarao Annavarapu

Top | Cinema

Views: 338      Comments: 4

Comment Admirable at 90+.
Most of us have left for our heavenly abode, let alone recall & write volumes on past English movies,
Thank you for sharing.

05-Mar-2024 07:03 AM

Comment Thank you very much JL and Ronnie.
No I don't maintain a diary. By God's grace the memory continues to be functional even at 90+.
I seek the blessings of all my friends to continue to regale you with my stories.

04-Mar-2024 10:04 AM

Comment What a detailed and precise memory for the events of distant past! Do you maintain a diary? Lord bless you. Regards.

04-Mar-2024 07:00 AM

Comment Brilliant Ramarao.Ca'nt wait for the sequel

04-Mar-2024 05:00 AM

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