From Small Screen to Big

One of the biggest rewards of going to a historic movie theater is experiencing an old movie as it was originally meant to be shown—on a big screen.

That was the main thing that drew me to the Redford Theatre, which specializes in such movies. I’ve also enjoyed silver screen classics among the wide variety of offerings at the Detroit Film Theatre and the Michigan Theater.

How is a big screen showing of an old film different than watching that movie on a television in the comfort of your home?

I explored that comparison recently, with both small and big screen showings of To Have and Have Not, the 1944 Warner Brothers movie that introduced the world to one of the most genuine screen couples of all time—Humphrey Bogart and Lauren Bacall, who later married in real life.

Small Screen

I first took in the television version, on Thursday, May 13, 2010. Interestingly, it was a tape of the recent WTVS Film Festival showing that was hosted by Detroit Film Theatre founder Elliott Wilhelm. So I got to enjoy the kind of insightful commentary that Elliott has provided many times from the stage of the DFT.

The 19-inch TV set that I used to watch To Have and Have Not—an MGA model that I bought in 1989—has attained its own classic status. I’ve decided that I won’t replace it with anything more modern until it breaks down, which doesn’t look like anytime soon.

I then settled in for some late afternoon relaxation from the work week, which had one more day to go. As I watched To Have and Have Not, the most obvious benefits jumped out. Both the food in my kitchen and the bathroom were nearby. I had a more comfortable chair than I would have at any movie theater. I didn’t have to bother with travel time or traffic headaches or annoying theatergoers.

But there’s more than just the things that stand out.

Watching television can be like listening to music on headphones. It can be an immediate, private experience in which you can personally connect with the artists. In general, a television showing adds something extra to your living space. One minute, it’s a blank screen that’s part of the general decor, and the next minute, it’s alive with motion and sound, giving more energy and personality to your environment.

Even though these old movies were meant to be seen in theaters, most peoples’ experience with classic cinema has been through the television screen. So any TV showing of an old movie fits comfortably into your history of television and old movie watching.

The special relationship that movie fans have with television has existed for a long time.

“The first tv break for film lovers came when independents of the calibre of Walter Wanger, David O. Selznick and Alexander Korda released their old pictures,” wrote John Springer in the May 1956 issue of Films in Review. “Despite their age, films like Stagecoach, The Private Life of Henry VIII, Pygmalion, The Long Voyage Home and Nothing Sacred, are far superior to nine-tenths of new pictures now in theatres.”

Since I knew I would be seeing the movie at the Redford a day later, I mentally noted what scenes might get the most audience reaction, which told me something about how seeing movies in theaters has affected my expectations of how to experience them. I also tried to guess where the Redford intermission might appear. My Thursday night guess was right at the end of the famous “whistle” scene, which at the Redford would appear about halfway into the two hours worth of entertainment that was planned at the Redford (a 20-minute Laurel and Hardy short, and the 100-minute main feature).

After my TV showing of To Have and Have Not finished, I was able to walk over to my bookshelf of film books and read more about the film. I first reached for the Turner Classic Movies book Leading Couples: The Most Unforgettable Screen Romances of the Screen Era, which had an entertaining and informative section on the four movies that Humphrey Bogart and Lauren Bacall made from 1944 to 1948.

Big Screen

So on to the Redford, on May 14, 2010, for the opening night of its May-August 2010 season. Highlights of this spring/summer schedule include a 70-mm showing of 2001: A Space Odyssey on June 25-26 and a Laurel and Hardy film festival on August 27-28.

After the lights dimmed for To Have and Have Not, the first theater-unique experience was the stirring impact of the famous fanfare music that opened many Warner Brothers movies of the 1940s. The sound resonated through my emotions and my body in a way that I didn’t experience at home. That sensation continued through the film, with both the dialogue and the music.

In a theater, the soundtracks of movies from the 1930s and 1940s often have an echo that gives the film more depth and pulls you into the action more, makes the characters seem more alive than they do on television.

A special impact was also felt through the images of To Have and Have Not. The black and white photography revealed more texture and detail than what I saw on TV. You could pick up more nuance and communication in the faces of the characters, especially in the deceptively brilliant supporting work by Walter Brennan as Bogart’s alcoholic buddy.

The photography made the movements of the characters more vivid, particularly the contrast between the loose, relaxed style of Lauren Bacall and the tough, focused style of Humphrey Bogart. You could fully appreciate the special lighting that was used for the faces of Bacall and Bogart in certain scenes.

Of course the Redford audience was a big difference from my TV viewing of To Have and Have Not. There was a lot of chuckling at the romantic sparks and bantering between Bogart and Bacall. And a loud roar of applause met Bacall’s famous line about Bogart being able to whistle whenever he wanted something. Bogart’s confused and amused reaction to that line also drew a lot of laughter.

My guess at the timing of the Redford intermission was about 15 minutes too early. The big “Intermission” lettering flashed on the screen just as Bogart and Brennan were setting off on their mission to transport a French patriot. Good spot for the break—it left the audience hanging with anticipation, and left less than an hour in the movie before it ended.

One scene that I greatly anticipated seeing again from my TV viewing was the final one, with Bacall’s stylish movements in time to Hoagy Carmichael’s bouncy piano playing. The film ended on a musical, upbeat note, leaving the Redford audience with another warm feeling of an evening well spent.

But That’s Not All

Besides the big screen, this visit to the Redford brought many other pleasures that I didn’t experience at home.

There was the lively, friendly atmosphere that greets you in the outer lobby and continues into the concession lobby and the auditorium. Organist John Lauter played in his usual melodic, fast-paced style, and provided energetic accompaniment to a short 1928 Laurel and Hardy silent movie, We Faw Down.

This summer you will have many chances to see old movies on the big screens of the three Detroit Movie Palaces. The Michigan Theater opens its Summer Classic Film Series on June 6 with another Bogart classic, The Treasure of the Sierra Madre. The Detroit Film Theatre launches its summer season on June 11 with the restored version of the 1927 silent film Metropolis.

And the Redford adds some fun to Memorial Day weekend with The Music Man on May 28-29.

Detroit Movie Palaces Home Page

Copyright © 2010 by Robert Hollberg Smith, Jr.


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