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Sunday, 26 February 2017

Dad’s 1950s Films

After posting recently about Nevil Shute and the R100, I found myself dreaming about the film of his book On the Beach which I saw around the age of ten. If you know it, you might wonder how a ten year old in 1959 got to see something so pessimistically awful and depressing. It was because my dad took me. We went once or twice a year from perhaps as young as four. It was always to see what he wanted to see. I had no idea what was on.

Over the next couple of weeks the names of other films came back. I am surprised to be able to recall twelve titles, all from before the age of twelve. They were mostly nautical, or about the war, or both, and are listed below with links to trailers or clips, together with my own vague, idiosyncratic, reconstructed childhood impressions.

What an unsuitable catalogue of horror they are: casual violence; cold blooded killing; wartime death and destruction; the stuff of nightmares. Although most had ‘U’ certificates meaning Universal or suitable for children, that does not mean they really were. Films tended to be restricted more often because of sexual content than violence. The films I saw would now be considered highly inappropriate for children. But fear not. I think I emerged undamaged. For most of the time I was completely mystified as to what was going on: a feeling not experienced again until I sat through films in French during foreign exchange trips to Belgium.

Just as with everything else, children have to learn how to make sense of the special language of film and moving images, and those of us born before every home had a television would have came late to this kind of literacy. It was especially true for me. We did not get a set until I was around twelve, and as I went to my grandma’s on Saturdays I never went to Saturday morning children’s cinema. It is no surprise I did not understand the films I saw. Sometimes I don’t even now.

We can now easily look up film release dates and work out my age at the time, although they may have taken a few months to reach our small Yorkshire town. 

Shane (Certificate A, released April 1953, aged 3)

Shane had lots of shooting and fighting in magnificent landscapes. It also had an ‘A’ certificate which meant children were allowed to see it only if accompanied by an adult. It is pretty violent. Did my dad really take me to see this aged four at best?

He always enjoyed a good ‘cowboy’, as he called Westerns, and I remember his infatuation with Alan Ladd’s quick draw, but how can I be sure it was this particular Alan Ladd Western we saw? On seeing the trailer again now on YouTube, I feel sure it was indeed Shane. Not even a four year old could forget nasty Jack Palance’s flat nose, deep-set eyes and wide cheekbones. 

The Student Prince (U certificate, released June 1954, aged 4) 

The only film not to have guns, ships or aeroplanes. Not at all what you would think my dad would see. Despite being only four or five I retain some faint impressions. It was in colour and there was lots of singing, most memorably the Drinking Song, “Drink, Drink, Drink”. My dad believed he could sing as well as Mario Lanza whose voice was used in the film.
The Dam Busters (U certificate, released May 1955, aged 5)

Some of my dad’s school friends had flown in bombers, and many had died in them. He talked about having a drink one wartime Thursday evening with a lad who flew as a navigator and had to return to his squadron on the Monday. He was terrified. He was lost over Germany a week later.

The Dam Busters might have given my dad some idea as to what it was like but all I saw was lots of aeroplanes flying. The only incident I specifically remember is the black dog belonging to one of the pilots being run over and killed. It was most distressing. Today people only get upset at its unfortunate name.

Thanks to Uncle Mac and Children’s Favourites we can all still hum the iconic theme tune (‘Derrr der der der de de der der’). I also subsequently learned that some of the aerial sequences were filmed over the River Don at Goole, otherwise known as the Dutch River, a dead ringer for the Dutch canals.

Reach for the Sky (U certificate, released July 1956, aged 6)

Another war film. Kenneth More walks about with a stiff upper lip and even stiffer legs playing Douglas Bader, the amputee wartime fighter ace. Again there were lots of aeroplanes but More’s delivery was far too fast and clipped for my Yorkshire ears.


Around the World in 80 Days (U certificate, released October 1956, aged 7)

Another display of British stiff upper lip, this time with David Niven playing Phileas Fogg who bets he can circumnavigate the world in 80 days. He arrives back five minutes late, losing £20,000. The twist is that because he travelled eastwards he gained a day, so wins the bet after all. That was useful in school Geography, years later.

Afterwards I always recognised David Niven and remembered the odd name of his character from before it became a brand of crisps, and also that of his sidekick Passepartout. The film now seems like an attempt to get the most stars possible into one production, but I knew none of them at the time.

The Battle of the River Plate (U certificate, released October 1956, aged 7)

My dad especially liked films about the sea because his grandpa had been a captain and his cousin was in the merchant navy, so he knew all about it. Three Royal Navy cruisers chase the German pocket battleship Admiral Graf Spee around the Atlantic Ocean. There was lots of naval shelling and one of ours, the Exeter, was hit and caught fire. The main thing I remember though, was wondering what on earth was a “pocket” battleship.

Dunkirk (U certificate, released March 1958, aged 8)
 
I remember this quite well, especially the terrifying Stuka dive-bombers with their wailing sirens, and men queuing chest deep out into the cold sea to be picked up by small civilian boats. I wonder whether the new film to be released this summer will be anywhere near as good.

I was fascinated by my dad's personal acquaintance with small boat owners on the Yorkshire Ouse who had sailed down to Ramsgate to take part in the evacuation. 
 

The Vikings (A certificate, released June 1958 , aged 8)

Did my mum really know what my dad had taken me to see – a violent certificate ‘A’ Norse saga?

Kirk Douglas with his ridiculous dimpled chin has his eye pecked out by a falcon and leaps about with a disgusting blind eye for the rest of the film. When he dies at the end his body is cast out to sea in a burning Viking longship with dragon heads at the ends and a big square sail.

I recognised other actors who later became familiar as having been in the film, most notably the tousled head of Tony Curtis and the lined face and wide toothy grin of Ernest Borgnine. The most memorable thing however was the theme tune played over a backdrop of animated Viking scrolls. I can still hum it after nearly sixty years.

A Night To Remember (Certificate U, released July 1958, aged 8)

A film about the sinking of the Titanic, said to be the most historically accurate of them all. Kenneth More’s stiff upper lip made another appearance but with working legs this time. I remember thinking I would not want to be a stoker down in the boiler room, and also asking what was wrong with the wobbly guy who drank the best part of a bottle of whisky which later supposedly protected him from the cold, but don’t think I followed much else at all. Events take place calmly and without panic so as not to frighten the passengers – or the audience.

On The Beach (Certificate A, released December 1959, aged 10)

A film about the aftermath of a nuclear holocaust. Only the Southern Hemisphere remains inhabitable. To the strains of Waltzing Matilda, men spend interminable boring hours in a submarine sailing from Australia to America to investigate the source of telegraph signals which they discover are caused by a bottle suspended as much as your disbelief from a fluttering window blind so that it rests upon a Morse key which happens still to be powered and switched on. They then go back to Australia where everybody either kills themselves or dies of radiation sickness. It is so boring that the trailer has to focus on telling you how good it is rather than showing you excerpts from the film. Oh well, Nevil, at least it would have put an end to those brutish and uncouth Yorkshire women, as you describe my grandmother’s social group in your autobiography.

Sink the Bismarck (Certificate U, released February 1960, aged 10)

The fifties have ended but my dad is still taking me to see yet more rousingly patriotic films about the war at sea. Again we see Kenneth More and his unintelligible stiff upper lip. H.M.S. Hood explodes when hit in the magazine (armoury) by a German shell but we begin to get our own back when we attack with torpedoes delivered by Fairey Swordfish biplanes. I still know the names of all the English and German battleships.

The Alamo (Certificate U, released October 1960, aged 11)

At last I get to see something I had asked to see: Davy Crockett in his bizarre hat – basically a dead raccoon on his head with its tail hanging down the back. There were lots of people fighting, riding horses and shooting each other. It was just as boring as my dad’s films.

I had only wanted to see it because of the Davy Crockett song (thanks to Children’s Favourites again):
Born on a mountain top in Tennessee,
Greenest state in the land of the free.
Raised in the woods so's he knew every tree,
Killed him a bear when he was only three.

Davy, Davy Crockett King of the Wild Frontier.
But the song wasn’t in the film. I didn’t like John Wayne’s sanctimonious voice either. 

Davy Crockett was the last one. Soon afterwards we got a television which put paid to our joint cinema outings for a decade.

I may have forgotten one or two. I definitely remember going to see Bambi at some point, but it wasn’t with my dad and certainly not in 1942 when it came out.

I think we only went to the pictures together twice again, for The Battle of Britain in 1969 and Murder on the Orient Express in 1974 which we saw in Leeds. That was another film with a lot of stars. My dad wanted to see it because of Lauren Bacall.

Now I wish we’d gone more of course.





The links to the trailers on YouTube may cease to work if blocked by the copyright owners.

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