In my bio blurb, there on the side, I claim to watch more than 500 pictures each year, but that’s only a vague hint at the truth. I refrain from the real number in order to avoid being thought too weird. Between you and me, I watched 114 films in May alone, and I’ll pass that figure in June and July, and I only count films that I’ve never seen. The 2002 documentary Cinemania follows five folks who do essentially nothing but go to the movies all day, seeing from 600 – 2,000 films per year for each, at the expense of normalcy in the other areas of their lives. I’m not like that — they go to the theater, I don’t. However I’m too close to them for comfort — maybe Belloq’s ‘just a nudge’ would have me wide-eyed in the sequel. While I have a great job that I love and do very well (I’m ‘off the hook,’ as the students say, on ratemyprofessor.com) and a great family, I’m a hardcore lifelong insomniac, and when everyone else is sleeping I’m watching movies, from roughly 10 PM – 4 AM every day. It’s been that way with me for the last 25 years. Two to three movies a day, every day, for 25 years. You do the math. (In case you’re wondering, I get up around nine and come home at six. I’m fortunate to live just a mile from work.)
Back to the magic. When I first began watching old films as a teenager, I was enthralled in some difficult to describe way by the images on my television screen all those late summer nights. I loved these films, loved them. That’s the magic I’m talking about. Back in those days I could fall into an old movie, be transported by it to some wonderful place — far beyond my personal experiences or memory, but one comfortable and familiar. I began to make lists of the films I’d seen or wanted to see, something I still do. I’d make charts of Joan Crawford or Carole Lombard movies, of Oscar nominees and winners, of movies with the word ‘big’ in the title, of film noir (what a revelation!) and neo-noir, and of crimes films that aren’t considered noir. I’d seek out the movies and check them off my lists. I’d make more lists to replace those I completed. I’d make copies of my lists so I’d be able to access them from home or the office, then more copies so I’d have a set in the living room and the basement. Eventually I realized it wasn’t about having lists close at hand, it was about the ritual of crossing a movie off with a sharpie, highlighting a viewed title in Leonard Maltin’s Classic Movie Guide, or deleting a title from a list saved as a Word document. My current watching habits are dictated by one list in particular that I’ve been pursuing for more than a decade. I’m frantic about it these days, but thankfully, I think I’m only a year or so away. One of my best friends and colleagues has been yammering at me for years to turn the whole thing into a book project (hmm, thinking about it). That I was and continue to be an obsessive compulsive is undeniable. Movies, lists, and insomnia gave me a way to have a ritualized life that doesn’t get in the way of being ‘normal.’ There’s something wickedly Faustian about all of this, but I’ve been able to make it work for the vast majority of my adult life. Probably because I like rules and parameters and consequently I respect the lines I draw in the sand of my life. If I have to work late, I work late. When my kids are sick I sit up with them so my wife can sleep. And most importantly, movies are off limits from 6 – 10 PM every day.
But as I said, I’ve lost that mojo, and I ache for it — I’m nostalgic for nostalgia. It brings me some happiness to see so many young people authoring classic film blogs (I wish there were a few more guys though). I’m jealous, I can sense in their writing the presence of these same feelings that I’m missing. And I’m coming to grips with that most middle-aged of lessons: it’s awfully hard for one to go back in time, to recapture that sense of wonder — if it’s even possible at all. Every now and then I get a fleeting moment of that purple Mia Farrow-esque swept away feeling, but such moments grow rare. The problem is twofold. First, like most classic film fans I started with the greats and worked my way backwards. These days I watch B grade and obscure or forgotten films almost exclusively. I’ll toss a prestige picture into the mix in order to break the monotony, but I never include a film in my total count if I’ve seen it before — and sometimes I care about the numbers more than the monotony. Heck, one of the main reasons I began blogging in 2008 was to slow myself down a little and allow for some sort of outlet for my obsession that didn’t necessarily involve watching movies. (I also thought that as a college professor, I needed to jazz up my writing.) Second, Hollywood has always been in the formula business — find something that works and go with it. Beat the dead horse until the box office receipts tell you to put the stick away and find another horse. I’m going to start writing about Deanna Durbin in a moment or two, and let me assure you that I adore her films as much as anyone, but if you’ve seen one picture from Universal’s Durbin unit, you’ve pretty much seen them all. The irony for me is that I never seem to tire of her pictures, but such can’t be said regarding other stars. When you’ve seen as many movies as I have, even the narrative devices of first-rate movies become a little predictable. But here’s the thing: Deanna Durbin still gets me. I can still watch a Durbin movie without getting bored, staring at the little electronic counter, or feeling the urge to check my laptop for new email. It may not be that sense of wonder that I enjoyed before I stopped being a ‘movie’ guy and became a ‘film’ guy, but it comes awfully close, and it satisfies. (By the way, thank heavens I haven’t become a ‘cinema’ guy yet — or even worse, someone who refers to movies as ‘the cinema.’ To each his own, but if that ever happens and I start tossing that stuff around, I hope someone plugs me.)
So that brings me back to Durbin, who I’ve been watching a great deal of lately. I’m thinking about a scholarly article that really digs into the elements that comprised the Durbin formula, and the way they were applied throughout her years at Universal. I wrote about her once before at Where Danger Lives, and I got nostalgic in that piece too. She does that to me. My first Durbin picture was one of my first old movies, Three Smart Girls, and in all likelihood I connected with her because our ages were similar— hers on-screen, mine in real-life. And I was smitten. I still am. To me, she’s one of the most thoroughly attractive female stars ever to grace the screen. She was spectacularly and unglamorously pretty. To say she was the all-American girl next door is so droll, but there’s hardly a better way to put it. Her screen persona, in one film after the next, is reliably charming and charmingly reliable. Her handlers at Universal, producer Joe Pasternak and director Henry Koster (along with Joe Valentine, her cameraman), understood her appeal, which is more uncommon than you might imagine in the movie business — Deanna was able to transition for juvenile to adult stardom not by reinventing herself, but by staying exactly the same. Her films reinforce the power of Hollywood formula; they are all essentially alike. She never mugs for the camera, never tries to be glamorous, urbane, or chic — as a matter of fact, she convinces you on some deep down level that the girl on the screen is just being her real-life self. Effortlessly graceful, particularly when she wants you to laugh at her, and always a little self-conscious, Durbin’s screen image is either totally authentic or the best example of studio hocus pocus in movie history.
And in spite of the fact that she was the biggest star at Universal for nearly her entire fifteen years there, and her films were more or less all hits, it’s almost easy to understand Deanna’s reluctance to keep cranking them out as it is to understand the studio’s desire to maintain the status quo. The details of her retirement from the business have been exhaustively written about elsewhere, so I won’t rehash them here, but I’ll add that while it is easy to make Universal the bad guy when it comes to Durbin, it has to be mentioned that audiences refused to accept her in roles that didn’t involve comedy, singing, and romance — and even as far as those efforts are concerned, we have to consider Durbin as a star of both the thirties and of the forties — of the pre- and post-war periods. If her appeal declined in the years leading up to her retirement, it was because while she stayed the same, the world war had made the audiences who used to flock to her pictures a great deal less innocent. It was a paradox that couldn’t stand: ticket-buyers wanted her to forever remain that pretty little girl with the beautiful voice, yet they now needed their movies to reflect a more complicated and rapidly changing world — Lady on a Train wasn’t what they had in mind.
Durbin is still out there, living a happy and ‘secluded’ — as all the articles say — life in France. Wherever and however she is, I say thanks for the memories, and the magic.