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Friday, November 16, 2012

The first picture show

Anyone who knows me well will probably know also that I love The Last Picture Show – that bleak, stark b&w Bogdanovitch film set in a dusty tired little Texan nowheresville.

   Like matter and anti-matter, things have their reverse somewhere in time and space, and this incident in Calliope illustrates it.

   Shell Oil Co. would periodically bring travelling movie shows to little places like ours, mainly propaganda about how wonderful Shell was in helping to build our fair country by providing services for various progressive operations of national importance.

   One project I remember involved great tractors with a ball and chain between them, to mow down masses of the only spindly vegetation that could grow naturally in great swathes of the country. Then, using fertilisers sold by Shell, Gardens of Eden could result. Stuff like that.

   They also brought cartoons like Woody Woodpecker, a Movietone newsreel or two, and some health films, so we hicks could learn about sanitation and other things that hadn't crossed our minds.

    Because we had no movie theatre, they'd set up in the Diggers Arms dance hall, starting when it got dark enough to see the screen. Country people got up early and if Shell were going to get its propaganda in, then the show couldn't go very late.

   We loved these free shows and gladly put up with the boring stuff just to see the cartoons, which would be the subject of discussion in the playground for weeks after. No doubt we also absorbed the idea how altruistic Shell was in contributing to the growth of our nation.

    People brought pillows and blankets for the littlies, and put them on the floor down at the front.

   On the occasion I'm describing now, the Marr family, backwoodspeople even by Calliope standards, turned up for the show. There was a tribe of them that I don't think anyone, maybe not even their parents, could keep an accurate count of. Ma and Pa Marr just had fun year in and out, and kids kept on turning up. Had Ma Marr been in the USSR, she would have been declared a Mother of the Soviet Union and received the Order of Lenin from Stalin himself.

   This was their first picture show. First ever movie for the lot of them.

   The kids sat on the floor at the front, cross-legged, noses in a line nearly touching the screen until someone told them they'd see it better from slightly further back. They weren't entirely convinced, based on the principle that the closer you get to something like a red-backed spider, the more clearly you could see it – but they obliged. They were also told to stop getting up and down in front of the screen, which was a bit of a disappointment to them as they'd never been able to make shadows with the kerosene lamp at home anywhere near as good as those made by the film projector.

   They took seriously a threat from the back of the hall from Blue Savage that he would bite off the next Marr head or hand that made a shadow on the screen. With a couple of rums and several 10 oz. beer chasers under (and above) his belt, Blue Savage and his promises were not to be ignored.

   If you think I'm laying it on a bit thick, let me tell you that the first thing that came on the screen – maybe a movietone news – was such a delight that all the Marrs burst into gales of laughter. Regardless of subject matter, they chuckled their way through it, and roared gleefully at anything that moved on that thar screen. 

   To them, the cartoons were magic. Woody Woodpecker, which was in colour, did amazing things like getting chased by a live circular saw blade. They screamed in fear and delight, and were greatly relieved when Woody's indomitable spirit saved him time and again.

   Of course, everyone else in the vill-arge, seasoned Shell free-movie veterans, became highly amused at their antics, and there was much mirth all round. Even the serious bits of the propaganda soundtrack regarding Shell's vital contribution to the nation were compromised. In spite of earnest Shell executives on the screen, no-one could now hear them because of the squeals of glee coming from the Marr camp, plus the general guffaws from everyone else. Only the Shell guy seemed to mind about that, but he was outnumbered. Everyone else was having a rip-roaring time.

   The Marr chuckling bonanza lulled slightly until the Health film came on. This one was a colour cartoon about building an earth closet lavatory. What did they think we did – build nests to live in like gorillas, befoul it till it became unliveable, and then move on and make another one?

   The movie was at the stage where the dunny toilet lavatory was complete except for the cladding; in other words, at this stage, it had no wall covering. For a touch of humour, they had a little smurf-like boy character hurry into the dunny, and is about to drop his pants when he discovers, to his horror, that it's a completely see-through structure. But he is saved by the magic of Disney-like cartooning. The walls are added in a flash, wrap-around style, and a door appears exactly where a dunny door should be.

   This was altogether too much for the Marrs. They screamed with laughter at the smurfie boy who had been so nearly caught with his pants down for all to see. They rolled round the floor in hysterics and the littlest ones hugged each other at the spectacle. Never in their lives had any of them, I'm sure, seen anything so utterly side-splitting.

   It must be said that the laughter was infectious. You know where someone is in hysterics so much that you catch it too? That's what happened. The whole hall was full of people laughing so hard that not even a Blue Savage threat could have brought order to the proceedings. There wasn't much chance of that – he was nearly pissing himself laughing anyway, tears coming from both eyes, which was as near as Blue Savage had ever been seen crying – probably even by his mother.

   All were enjoying themselves except for the Shell man, swapping the reels of film over, convinced he had come to a backwater of lunacy so uncouth that its inhabitants probably did need basic toilet training. He still had several pieces of propaganda to run.

   He needn't have worried, for here's the funniest thing of all. The Marr kids, every last one of them, had hystericked themselves out. They were used to going to bed with the chooks every night of their lives. By the end of that Health film, not halfway through the proceedings, they'd had enough excitement, and not even they knew it.

   They simply sank exhausted from cross-legged on the floor to prone, and fell fast asleep in seconds. There was not another peep out of one of them for the remainder of the show. Not a murmur.


  1. Nicely described Denis ... how well I remember 'This is Movietone' and ... 'Don't the kiddies love it'.

    What a place the cinema once had in our lives. As a country kid, I was given my bus fare and sixpence to go to Saturday Morning Pictures in the nearby market town. Roy Rogers and Trigger; Hopalong Cassidy, The Lone Ranger, Red Indians ... lots of shooting, no blood, Indians falling off horses ... deafening noise in the Odeon cinema from start to finish.

    Later in High School, our progressive teacher sometimes took our class (same town; same cinema) to see the classics. How well I recall the collective sigh that went up from our class of teenage boys when the beautiful young Jean Simmons as Ophelia, fell to the ground to display a shapely leg ABOVE the knee. This was near-porn in those days.

    Even later, we had the magic of the drive-in, where most of us achieved a freedom from adult constraint in the backseats of barely roadworthy old bombs. Here we grew up, got pregnant, pledged undying love, and sometimes began lifelong relationships.

    The video may or may not have killed the radio star, but it did effectively kill the drive-in cinema. Multi-cinema complexes seem to keep going, however, I don't know how.

    Today, when I occasionally visit a cinema, the place is almost empty, the audience is silent, and there are no pert young girls bringing around chocolates, peanuts, popcorn, ice-cream and cigarettes.

    Mainly though, like everyone else, I sit at home, in glorious isolation, with movie downloads or DVDs, and am able to concentrate on, and enjoy, a movie without all those intrusive people around me.

    Or am I missing something here?

    1. No, Bob, you aren't. You got it right, allowing for a little regional variation and, I suspect, a minor upgrade in sophistication in your movie world of the times.

      Ah, those terrible Indians, stopping perfectly good white people in those covered wagons from building a grand new world of civilisation such as we still see in Dakota [and cheating those fierce savages of all their land, dignity and culture in the process].

      It might have been Jean Simmons for you, but Esther Williams was the most beautiful creature in the world for me, until Marilyn came along in my adolescence, driving all thoughts of Esther's glacial beauty out of my head [even though Esther never was clad in anything but a swimsuit the whole movie].

      Yes, the cinemas are mostly forlorn, unless there's a blockbuster to see with many explosions and no plot – the only way they survive I guess. Much better to wait for the DVD, where you can stop for a tea or loo break [probably both], volume exactly as you want it.

      You're an old bugger like me – that's the long and short of it. :)

  2. Well put, Denis. We were looking at a friend's 'picture show' this afternoon (very good photography and evocative music), taken on his extended trip to Canada and the US. In one picture - taken in Boston - was a large statue depicting an Indian who had given so much assistance to the first Mayflower pilgrims. "Bet he regretted that," Julie said.
    You're right too about the 'old bugger' bit but whereas you are an erudite and admirable old bugger, I am tending to become a grumpy old man!

    1. I believe Julie in her comment; don't believe you in yours. Off you go – be as grumpy as you like! :)

      PS – I've seen some photos – very old, of some Indigenous Americans as they were late Nineteenth Century – magnificent stature and bearing.

  3. Thanks...for the memories (I write with the tune of that song playing in my head...). My mother, Jean Godfrey, was the daughter of Bill Godfrey who in the 1920's and 30's owned, until it burnt to the ground, the picture theatre in the one-horse town of Pambula (NSW) where I was subsequently born in 1950. My grandparents were emotionally absent parents to my very sweet, sensitive and imaginative mother as she grew herself up, sitting on the top step of the theatre's aisle after she'd taken tickets at the door and shown the village patrons to their seats. She witnessed the change from silent, to sound to colour and absorbed the world of the silver screen through her senses and into her being as if it were the real world.

    So I grew up with a mother who believed deeply in princes rescuing fair maidens, of knights on white horses and "they lived happily every after". My father was that brave and fearless knight for her from when she was 15 (and took her to the pictures in the same village) until her death almost 60 years later.
    That, in itself, was a romantic story worthy of the olden-days-at-the-pictures.
    Thank you again, for recording these rememberings, Denis.

    1. It's very hard for me to imagine being in a place where you could watch every movie that came out – and in those days, the programme changed weekly, if I'm not mistaken, to make sure a cinema kept its audience. I'm sure she would have had a marvellous story to tell. So many stories just disappear forever.... but that is the way things are.

      For us, cinema was such a rare event, Gladstone being 20 km away from Calliope – which was a big trip in those days – so we didn't get to go much. It did make the ones we saw all that much more vivid though. Most vivid of all? The African Queen. All those leeches, crocs, Germans shooting at them from the ridges – and that execution scene at the end [I was literally under the canvas seat for that] but the relief when I popped my head up at the explosion and found them joyously swimming away from that German ship.

      Thanks, Ros. I wonder what everyone's most memorable movie was as a child?

    2. Dad took us all to see every Jerry Lewis movie possible. I remember Dad laughing so hard, Mum, my little sister and big brother cringed with embarrassment. But we loved him for loving Jerry as much as he did.
      I've also deeply fond memories of the Tarzan movies which I was allowed to go to on Saturday matinees when we lived in Tamworth - The Regent? The Capitol? And I remember with great fondness, my big brother taking me to see "Summer Holiday" (Cliff Richard) when I was about 12. Nothing very profound, but burnt into my DNA memory nonetheless.

    3. I wasn't fond of Jerry Lewis either. He always seemed to be trying to be clever and funny and not quite making it. Maybe it was the hamming it up.

      Yes to Tarzan – and yes to Captain Africa – even if they left them hanging in an impossible situation at the end of an episode and then cheated at the beginning of the next one [next week of course, which I rarely saw] to get them out of it.

      I think it's the Capitol in Tamworth but wouldn't bet my pants on it.

      My sister Lyn and I were allowed to go and see The Blue Angel – not the Marlene Dietrich version but Mai Britt, at the tiny Tugun cinema as it was in about 1958. I was so utterly naive that I found it hard going. My first encounter with something odd in adult relationships....

  4. Clearly I missed out on the sort of childhood movie experiences described here. I was born in 1946. By the age of five my family was living in deepest rural England (on the Norfolk-Suffolk border). At that age my only film memory is of being paralytic with laughter at a few Charlie Chaplin films shown by the vicar of the neighbouring village who ran a sort of pre-school in his home. I can remember sitting on the floor of his living room, with the projector whirring away. Going to see a film was an extremely rare thing for us. By the time I was in my teens I was at boarding school and there on Saturday nights in the winter we had occasional film showings,from which I have fond memories of some of the great English comedies,the Ealing comedies, The Lavender Hill Mob and so on. But all the American stuff, all the big names of the 1950s, went totally unseen by me. It wasn't until I was a student, aged about 18 or 19, well into the 1960s,that I started to go to the cinema reasonably regularly.

    1. Hi Martin - thanks for the memories! I shared your experience of Charlie Chaplin, as I mentioned in an earlier blog piece, when we sat on a loungeroom floor in the house of a school friend – what a comic genius he was, and what an incredible athlete! I don't know the other comedies you mentioned except by repute [there's only so many thing you can do in one lifetime, isn't there?]

      I really got into movie watching only much later in life – somehow I just didn't have the patience to sit and watch most movies – but in a way I'm glad, because the real classics are best understood and appreciated then, I think.

  5. Have you read McMurtry's last in the "Picture Show" trilogy - Duane's Depressed? We both enjoyed it..lots of resonances for anyone who grew up in Nowheresville. The "flicks" were a treat when I was a kid. We used to have Saturday morning flicks with cowboys and I loved them (little tomboy that I was) except for Gene Autrey and Roy Rogers - I always knew they were phoney! I loved Tarzan movies too - even though, living in Africa, I knew they were hokey. My grandmother used to occasionally take me to more grown-up pictures, usually musicals starring the likes of Gordon McRae and Howard Keel. I vividly remember the first Elvis picture being shown at our local fleapit owned, as they all were, by an Indian. I was about 14 and all the teenagers in town went to see it. The owner/manager announced beforehand that "please, there must be no rocking and rolling in the aisles". Obviously he'd heard of this happening overseas. It had never occurred to US, well-behaved little colonials that we were, but once he'd put the idea in our heads you can bet we were all up there, dancing away!

    1. No, Julie, I saw only the second of the trilogy after the first – Texasville I think it was called – and it was bleak in a different way. It was fascinating that they got those same actors back to perform it, and time had ravaged some of them. Wait – you are talking about reading, not movie-going, for the third. I read none of them. Was it really called Duane's Depressed? Hang on.... well whaddya know. [All about Larry]. It's a movie as well. Amazing!

      As to the Elvis movie, yes, I can believe that. I'd have barred you from the cinema [but I've no doubt you would have got back in somehow.] INCORRIGIBLE MINX!!


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