The Movies of My Youth

Calvino movie posters.jpg
Posters for The Lives of a Bengal Lancer (1935), Mutiny on the Bounty (1935), and The Thin Man (1934)

There were years when I went to the movies almost every day, sometimes even twice a day, and they were the years between 1936 and the war, around the time of my adolescence. Those were years in which cinema was my world. It’s been said many times before that cinema is a form of escape, it’s a stock phrase intended to be a condemnation, and cinema certainly served that purpose for me back then. It satisfied a need for disorientation, for shifting my attention to another place, and I believe it’s a need that corresponds to a primary function of integration in the world, an essential phase in any kind of development. Of course there are other more substantial and personal ways of creating a different space for yourself: cinema was the easiest method and it was within reach, but it was also the one that instantly carried me farthest away.

I went to the cinema in the afternoon, secretly fleeing from home, or using study with a classmate as an excuse, because my parents left me very little freedom during the months when school was in session. The urge to hide inside the cinema as soon as it opened at two in the afternoon was the proof of true passion. Attending the first screening had a number of advantages: the half-empty theater, it was like I had it all to myself, would allow me to stretch out in the middle of the third row with my legs on the back of the seat in front of me; the hope of returning home without anyone finding out about my escape, in order to receive permission to go out once again later on (and maybe see another film); a light daze for the rest of the afternoon, detrimental to studying but advantageous for daydreaming. And in addition to these explanations that were unmentionable for various reasons, there was another more serious one: entering right when it opened guaranteed the rare privilege of seeing the movie from the beginning and not from a random moment toward the middle or the end, because that was what usually happened when I got to the cinema later in the afternoon or toward the evening.

Italian spectators barbarously made entering after the film already started a widespread habit, and it still applies today. We can say that back then we already anticipated the most sophisticated of modern narrative techniques, interrupting the temporal thread of the story and transforming it into a puzzle to put back together piece by piece or to accept in the form of a fragmentary body. To console us further, I’ll say that attending the beginning of the film after knowing the ending provided additional satisfaction: discovering not the unraveling of mysteries and dramas, but their genesis; and a vague sense of foresight with respect to the characters. Vague: just like soothsayers’ visions must be, because the reconstruction of the broken plot wasn’t always easy, especially if it was a detective movie, where identifying the murderer first and the crime afterward left an even darker area of mystery in between. What’s more, sometimes a part was still missing between the beginning and the end, because suddenly while checking my watch I’d realize I was running late; if I wanted to avoid my family’s wrath I had to leave before the scene that was playing when I entered came back on. Therefore lots of films ended up with holes in the middle, and still today, more than thirty years later—what am I saying?—almost forty, when I happen to see one of those films from back then—on television, for example—I recognize the moment in which I entered the theater, the scenes that I’d watched without understanding them, and I recover the lost pieces, I put the puzzle back together as if I’d left it incomplete the day before.

When I entered the theater at four or five instead, I’d be struck by the feeling of the passing of time, the contrast between two different temporal dimensions, inside and outside of the film. I’d entered in the full light of day and discovered it was dark out, with illuminated streets that prolonged the black and white of the screen. The darkness reduced the discontinuity between the two worlds a little and intensified it some, because it marked the passing of those two hours that I hadn’t lived, swallowed in a stoppage of time, or in the duration of an imaginary life, or in the leap backward across centuries. Discovering in that moment that the days had shortened or lengthened was a special thrill: the sense of the passing of seasons (always mild in the temperate locale where I lived) reached me upon leaving the cinema. When it rained in the film, I pricked up my ears to hear if it had started raining outside too, if a downpour had caught me off guard after escaping from home without an umbrella: it was the only moment in which, still immersed in that other world, I remembered the world outside; and it had a distressing effect. Rain in movies reawakens that feeling in me, a sense of anxiety, to this day.

If it wasn’t yet time for dinner, I’d join up with my friends and go back and forth along the sidewalks of the main street. I’d pass in front of the cinema I’d just left again and hear the lines of dialogue from the projection room echoing through the street, and now I experienced them with a sense of unreality, no longer of identification, because I’d moved into the outside world; but also with a feeling similar to nostalgia, like someone who looks back after crossing a border.

I haven’t said it yet, but it seemed implied, that cinema for me was the American one, current Hollywood productions. “My” period goes roughly from The Lives of a Bengal Lancer (Henry Hathaway, 1935) with Gary Cooper and Mutiny on the Bounty (Frank Lloyd, 1935) with Charles Laughton and Clark Gable, to the death of Jean Harlow (which I relived many years later like the death of Marilyn Monroe, in an era more aware of the neurotic power of every symbol), with lots of comedies in between, the mystery-romances with Myrna Loy and William Powell and the dog Asta, the musicals of Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers, the crime pictures of Chinese detective Charlie Chan and the horror films of Boris Karloff. I didn’t remember the names of the directors as well as the names of the actors, except for a few like Frank Capra, Gregory La Cava, and Frank Borzage, who represented the poor rather than the millionaires, usually with Spencer Tracy: they were the good-natured directors from the Roosevelt era; I learned this later; back then I consumed everything without distinguishing between them too much. American cinema in that moment consisted of a collection of actors’ faces without equal before or after (at least it seemed that way to me) and the adventures were simple mechanisms to get these faces together (sweethearts, character actors, extras) in different combinations.

What flavor of a society and an era was in the air around these conventional plots mattered little, but precisely for this reason it reached me without me knowing how to define what it consisted of. It was (as I’d later learn) the misrepresentation of what that society carried inside, but it was a particular misrepresentation, different from our misrepresentation, which engulfed us during the rest of the day. And like how for a psychoanalyst it doesn’t matter if the patient lies or tells the truth because it reveals something to him either way, as part of another system of misrepresentation I the spectator had something to learn both from that little bit of truth and from that whole lot of misrepresentation that the Hollywood products were giving me. Therefore I don’t harbor any hard feelings about that false image of life; now it seems to me that I never took it as true, but only for one among the possible artificial images, even if then I wouldn’t have known how to explain it.

Unlike French cinema, American cinema didn’t have anything to do with literature at the time: perhaps this is the reason why in my experience it stands out from the rest in an isolated prominence: these memories of mine as a spectator are part of the memories from before literature reached me.

What we called “the glittering world of Hollywood” made up a system in itself, with its constants and variables, a human typology. The actors represented models of character and comportment; there was a possible hero for every temperament: for someone who resolved to confront life with action, Clark Gable represented a certain brutality brightened by cockiness, Gary Cooper cold blood filtered by sarcasm; for someone who intended to overcome obstacles by way of humor and savoir faire, there was the aplomb of William Powell and the discretion of Franchot Tone; for the introvert who conquers his timidity there was James Stewart, whereas Spencer Tracy was the model of the sincere, just man who knows how to do things with his own hands; and Leslie Howard even offered a rare example of the intellectual hero.

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MGM Studios/Getty Images
Freddie Bartholomew, Spencer Tracy, and John Carradine in a still from Victor Fleming’s Captains Courageous, 1937

With the actresses the range of physiognomies and dispositions was more limited: the makeup, hairstyles, and expressions tended toward a common stylization divided into two fundamental categories of blondes and brunettes, and within each category it went from the capricious Carole Lombard to the practical Jean Arthur, from Joan Crawford’s wide and languid mouth to Barbara Stanwyck’s thin and pensive one, but there was a range of less distinct figures in between, with a certain margin of interchangeability. You couldn’t establish a connection between the women encountered in American films and the catalogue of women you ran into in your everyday life; I’d say that one ended where the other began. (For the women in French films on the other hand, this connection existed.) From the mischievous, uninhibited nature of Claudette Colbert to the pointed energy of Katherine Hepburn, the most important model that the female characters in American cinema offered was that of the woman rival of the man in terms of resolve, perseverance, wit, and intelligence; Myrna Loy was the one who put forth more intelligence and irony in this clear self-control in the face of the man.

I’m talking about it now with a seriousness which I wouldn’t have known how to associate with the lightheartedness of those modest comedies; but deep down for a society like ours, for Italian custom in those years, especially in the countryside, this autonomy and initiative of American women could serve as a lesson, and it reached me in some way. The result was that I’d made Myrna Loy the prototype for a feminine ideal that might’ve been uxorial or maybe sororal, but at any rate I identified her with a certain taste and style that coexisted alongside the phantoms of carnal assertiveness (Jean Harlow, Viviane Romance) and exhausting and languorous passion (Greta Garbo, Michèle Morgan), and the attraction I felt toward them was tinged with a sense of fear. Ginger Rogers was close by, that image of physical happiness and vital mirth, and even in my daydreams I cultivated an ill-fated love for her right from the start: because I didn’t know how to dance.

You might ask yourself if building an exclusive circle of ideal and for the moment unreachable women was a good thing or a bad thing for a young boy. It certainly had a positive aspect, because it pushed you to not be content with that little or a lot that you encountered and to project your desires further out, into the future or other places or difficult situations. The most negative aspect was that it didn’t teach you to look at real women with an eye ready to discover new forms of beauty that didn’t conform to the canons, to invent new characters with what chance and exploration make us come across on our horizon.

If cinema for me consisted primarily of actors and actresses, I also have to remember that for me, like for all Italian spectators, only half of each actor and each actress existed, in other words just the form and not the voice, substituted by the abstraction of the dubbing, by a conventional, foreign, and bland diction, not any less anodyne than the printed writing that in other countries (or at least in those where the spectators are considered to have quicker minds) shapes what mouths communicate with all of the delicate power of a personal pronunciation, a phonetic feature made up of lips, teeth, and saliva, and especially by geographic origins that differ from the American melting pot, in a language that reveals expressive nuances for those who understand it and for those who don’t it possesses a musical power (like what we hear today in Japanese or even Swedish films). The conventionality of American cinema was therefore doubled by the dubbing when it arrived (please forgive me for the tongue-twister), but to our ears it became part of the film’s charm, inseparable from those images. I remember that the power of cinema was born silent, and the spoken words—at least for Italian spectators—always sounded like a superimposition, a subtitle in capital letters. (Besides, if the Italian movies made back then weren’t dubbed, it seemed like they were. If I don’t talk about them, even though I saw almost all of them and remember them, it’s because they weren’t very important, for better or for worse, and I really couldn’t make them fit into this discussion about cinema as another dimension of the world.)

A collector’s determination entered into my regular attendance of American films, and for this reason all of my interpretations of an actor or an actress were like a set of stamps that I pasted into the album of my memory, filling the gaps little by little. So far I’ve mentioned famous stars, but my hobby extended to the multitude of bit part actors who were an indispensable ingredient in each film at the time, especially in comic roles, like Everett Horton or Frank Morgan, or in “evil” roles, like John Carradine or Joseph Calleja. It was a little like the stock characters in theatrical comedy, in which each role is predictable, and by reading the names of the cast I already knew that Billie Burke would be the woman who was rather absentminded, Aubrey Smith the gruff colonel, Mischa Auer the penniless freeloader, Eugene Pallette the millionaire; but I also expected a little surprise, to recognize a familiar face in an unexpected role, perhaps made up in a different way. I knew the names of almost all of them, even the one who was always the touchy hotel doorman (Hugh Pagborne), and even the one who was always the barista with a cold (Armetta). And I remember the faces of the others I’ve forgotten or didn’t ever find out the names of; for example, the various butlers, who were an important category in cinema at the time, maybe because people were already starting to realize that the age of butlers was over.

It must be said that all of this history occurred in only a few years: I had just enough time to recognize my passion and break free from family repression, and then it was suddenly suffocated by state repression. All of a sudden (in 1938 I think), in order to extend its autarchy to the domain of cinema, Italy decreed an embargo on American films. It wasn’t a question of censorship: as usual the censors granted or denied permission to individual films, and nobody saw the ones that didn’t get it and that was it. In spite of the awkward anti-Hollywood propaganda campaign that accompanied the measure (right around that time the regime began to conform to Hitler’s racism), the true reason for the embargo was supposed to be commercial protectionism, in order to make room in the market for Italian (and German) productions. For this reason the four largest American production and distribution companies—Metro, Fox, Paramount, Warner—(I’m still relying on memory, trusting the accuracy of the registration of my trauma), whereas films by other American companies like RKO, Columbia, Universal, United Artists (which had also been distributed before then by Italian companies) continued to arrive until 1941, that is until Italy found itself at war with the United States. I was still granted some sporadic satisfaction (in fact, one of the greatest: Stagecoach [John Ford, 1939]) but my collector’s voracity suffered a fatal blow.

Compared to all of the prohibitions and obligations that fascism had imposed on us, and to the even more severe ones that it continued to enforce in those years before and then during the war, the veto on American films was certainly a minor or small loss, and I wasn’t foolish enough not to know it. Yet it was the first to affect me directly, and I hadn’t known any years other than those of fascism nor had I felt any needs other than those that the environment in which I lived could suggest and satisfy. It was the first time a right I enjoyed had been taken from me: more than a right, a dimension, a world, a space in my mind; and I felt this loss as cruel oppression which embodied all the forms of oppression that I’d heard about or seen other people suffer. If I can still talk about it today like a lost privilege it’s because something disappeared like that from my life, never to return again. So many things had changed after the war was over: I’d changed, cinema had become something else, something different in itself and in relation to me. My biography as a spectator resumed, but it was that of another spectator who wasn’t just a spectator anymore.

Adapted from “A Spectator’s Autobiography,” in Federico Fellini: Making a Film, translated by Christopher Burton White, published by Contra Mundum Press.

Part of a continuing NYR Daily series on life-changing films.