First Impressions

When I see a movie at the Michigan Theater that is attended by a lot of children, I often wonder what they think of this magnificent movie palace. During a question-and-answer session before the Warner Brothers cartoons that were shown on the day after Thanksgiving (November 23, 2007), I got a peek into what parts of the Michigan most arouse their curiosity.

“Is that real gold on the ceiling?” came a small voice out of the large crowd. On stage, Executive Director and CEO Russ Collins explained that it was a gold-foil metal called “Dutch metal.” The spaciousness of the Michigan drew questions about the height of the theater (five stories) and its seating capacity (1700).

Another young visitor asked when the theater was built, and learned that construction started in June 1927, with the theater opening on January 5, 1928. And what was shown that Opening Day? The 1927 silent film A Hero for a Night, which recently returned to the Michigan for its 75th anniversary celebration.

Holiday Fun

Russ Collins’ introduction to the Warner Brothers cartoons launched a day of special programming that helped movie fans continue the fun of their Thanksgiving weekend. Bugs Bunny and friends hit the screen at about 11:20 a.m., thanks to the strong turnout that changed the original starting time of 11 a.m.

Later, the 1940 classic The Philadelphia Story played at 1:30 p.m., and the recent science fiction hit The Matrix appeared at 4 p.m. And in the evening, the regularly scheduled movies hit the screen, making this Friday after Thanksgiving a feast for patrons of the Michigan.

“There’s Nothing Better Than A Wonderful Happy Thanksgiving Show for All the Family,” read a November 27, 1957 ad in The Ann Arbor News for the Michigan and the other local Butterfield theaters (Campus and State).

That was still true fifty years later, as scores of excited children and their parents settled into their seats for more than an hour’s worth of cartoons from the 1940s, 1950s and 1960s starring Bugs Bunny, Daffy Duck, Elmer Fudd, the Tasmanian Devil, and other favorites.

Russ Collins (who came to the Michigan 25 years ago and teaches an “Introduction to Film Appreciation” course at Eastern Michigan University) explained that Hollywood studios used to have production units that focused on cartoons. These short movies would then become part of an evening’s entertainment that also included newsreels, travelogues and the feature film. The Redford Theatre currently shows Warner Brothers cartoons before many of its classic movies.

Much laughter greeted the battles between Bugs Bunny, Elmer Fudd, and Daffy Duck. The whirling energy of the Tasmanian Devil could be felt throughout the theater. The finale, Rabbit of Seville, was greeted by the strongest applause, because of its familiarity to the older members of the audience.

The Philadelphia Story

I stayed around to watch James Stewart earn an Academy Award for his lead performance in the 1940 M-G-M film The Philadelphia Story. I thought that Stewart was good, but not great, and I got the feeling that his Oscar might have been for other work, like his roles in Mr. Smith Goes to Washington (1939) or another film from 1940—The Shop Around the Corner.

Also starring was Katharine Hepburn, with her angular, expressive face, and Cary Grant, who once again did a splendid job of playing himself. Ruth Hussey, Virginia Weidler and Roland Young led a supporting cast that had many witty lines as it played off the lead actors.

As the movie built to its funny, complicated climax, I felt the full star power of the three leads. It was a privilege to watch Hepburn, Grant and Stewart bring out strong performances in each other, under the skilled direction of George Cukor. This was old Hollywood at its best.

I thoroughly enjoyed the movie, and the good feeling continued as I walked out into the bright sunshine of the crisp, early winter weather. I tried to savor this moment, as the radiantly blue sky and Christmas music on my car radio helped fill me with anticipation for the rest of the holiday season.

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Copyright © 2007 by Robert Hollberg Smith, Jr.

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