Thursday, August 18, 2011

Bogie on the Big Screen

Florida Overseas Highway - JT Lynch photo

A few years ago I drove the Florida Overseas Highway from the mainland out to Key West where Route 1 stops and we could go no further. At this point, Cuba is closer than Miami. A stunning scenic route unlike any other. For the motorist, a sense of freedom mixed with a strange sense of risk taking. I loved it. One of the reasons I always wanted to take this trip was the opening sequence of “Key Largo” (1948) where we see Humphrey Bogart’s bus venture out on a thin ribbon of cement over the immense ocean, the bus growing smaller and more vulnerable in a long shot. It represents escape and adventure at the same time. Freedom and risk taking.

Recently I went to see “Key Largo” on the big screen, and this scene on the highway over the ocean -- seen on the big screen -- seems to take the viewer down the road with the bus, rather than as a distant observer. The big screen embraces us, and we become isolated, too.

I love to read about other bloggers’ experiences seeing classic films in theaters, but this was a first for me. A few impressions:

I had seen “Key Largo” many times on TV, so every bit of dialogue was familiar, and yet I was fascinated by close-ups of Bogart and Edward G. Robinson looming down on me, which expressed power and power struggle that I had not noticed on the small screen. A downward glance from either seemed to fix me in their gaze. Facial flaws magnified, and greatness magnified as well. What was merely ugly became grotesque, and what was merely appealing became heroic.

The final scenes where Bogart is taking the gangsters to Cuba on the fishing vessel, and the fog seems to envelop us as well. We are not watching the boat; we are on the boat.

Claire Trevor’s breakdown, so brittle and yet so resilient, and Lauren Bacall’s open curiosity about the stranger Bogart, her telegraphed attraction. The doomed deputy’s face-off with Robinson, and the sheriff’s face-off with the captive, frustrated Lionel Barrymore over the Seminole fugitives. It seemed like a new movie to me, and, perhaps naively, I found myself thinking, “So, THIS is what John Houston meant.”

Other bloggers who’ve written about watching classic films on the big screen often remark on audiences who are sometimes less than appreciative, or openly ridiculing. The theater I attended was the Amherst Cinema, a small college town venue in rural central Massachusetts. Most of the audience appeared to be middle aged or older, with only a handful of college age kids that I could see. School hasn’t started yet, so I imagine there would have been more younger people were this shown in the fall.

Amherst Cinema, Amherst, Mass. - JT Lynch photo

It was converted from an old livery stable in the 1920s and has served as a movie theater for many decades before closing, and then re-opening after renovation about five years ago. It is not a “restored” period movie house, rather is it a modernized facility housing a couple of theaters in the building, small and modern, stadium seating. (The land upon which the theater was built was once the site of the 19th Century Amherst Academy, where Emily Dickinson attended school in her pre-recluse days, and also young Sylvester Graham, who gave us the Graham cracker.)

There were only a couple of chuckles from the audience over the gangsters, but I’m not sure if it’s because their speech sounded corny, or if the audience was just getting a kick out of film which was as familiar to them as it was to me. A little of both, maybe.

The only moment of audience reaction that really bothered me came from a couple of women sitting behind me, who were older than me, and bust out in guffaws when Lionel Barrymore described a hurricane that devastated the Keys. The gangsters are nervous about the approaching hurricane at this point in the film, and they ask him how bad the storm could get. Lionel describes trains wrecked and bodies tossed out to sea, and for weeks afterwards corpses drifting into the mangrove swamps.

These ladies thought that was an absolute hoot. I admit, I was ready to turn around belt them. It ruined an otherwise intense moment in the film.

Then I realized that because Lionel Barrymore holds the whip hand in this scene, they probably thought he was making it up, telling tales to scare the bad guys, since it was the only power he, an older, frail, wheelchair-bound man, had over them. It makes sense, and if that were really the case, then I agree the scene would be funny.

Islamadora Monument to victims of 1935 Florida hurricane - JT Lynch photo

Except the hurricane he describes really happened. The 1935 Florida hurricane was what we now think might have been a Category 5. Several hundred people were killed, including a trainload of World War I vets who arrived for promised relief work with the WPA during the Depression.

There have been generations of risk taking on this route.

Islamadora Monument to victims of 1935 Florida hurricane - JT Lynch photo

At one time, the only link from the mainland all the way out to Key West was not an overseas highway, but an overseas train route. After this horrific hurricane, what remained of the railroad tracks were paved over for the highway. That thin ribbon of cement we see in the opening and closing scenes of “Key Largo” was built (at least in part) because of the hurricane Lionel Barrymore describes.

This is another example of why a classic film will have much more meaning for us if we take the trouble to understand the context of the era. You’re not going to “get it” if you have no concept of what was going on in the real world at the time the film was made.

It’s like driving someplace in the fog. So, these women, surrounded in their own fog of ignorance, laughed.

But, you just can’t stand up in the middle of a movie theater and give a lecture on the 1935 hurricane, can you? Even if you’re struggling to suppress an asinine urge to give a history lesson.

That’s why I blog. I get so much off my chest. And you are the unfortunate victims.

At the end of the movie, however, everybody applauded, which I suppose was why they were there at all -- to share their appreciation with others who felt the same way. Even the ones who laugh at mangrove swamps full of corpses.

For another Big Screen Bogie experience, have a look at this great recent post by The Lady Eve at a stunning and unique presentation of “Casablanca” in her neck of the woods.

Key West, end of Route 1 - JT Lynch photo


Unknown said...

Now this is a favorite of mine, but I've never seen it on the big screen. Loved your description as well as your shots of Florida. I suspect that the laughing women probably misunderstood the intention of the scene, as you suggested.

Jacqueline T. Lynch said...

Hi, John. Yes, I think the ladies just misinterpreted the scene. You'd like the drive across the Keys. Stop for key lime pie at Crabby Dick's in Key West. So good, you want to slap yourself upside the head.

Caftan Woman said...

You make me ache to see "Key Largo" as it was meant to be seen.

And thanks for the history lesson. It will mean a lot on my next small screen viewing of the movie.

Jacqueline T. Lynch said...

Thanks, CW. My first time seeing a classic film on the big screen. The slow camera techniques are so much more powerful. The modern quick cuts of today don't hold half as much punch, no matter how many explosions or CGI you throw in.

Yvette said...

How I wish I'd been able to see this on the big screen too, Jacqueline. I haven't seen a classic film on a huge screen in years.

But I grew up watching what we now call 'classics' up on the big screen. So you could say I saw them the first time around.

Though not, I don't think KEY LARGO I would have been too young.

Thanks for sharing the experience.

Jacqueline T. Lynch said...

Yvette, I envy your experience of seeing lots of these great films on the big screen first time around.

Meredith said...

Great post. I hope I get the chance to see some of Bogie's films on the big screen someday.

Meredith said...

By the way, I just tagged you for the Irresistibly Sweet Blog Award on my blog!

Jacqueline T. Lynch said...

Thanks, Meredith. I hope you get to see Bogie's Big Screen adventures, too. Love your avatar, by the way. Thanks very much for the award, that was Irresistably Sweet of you.

Kendra said...

What a great opportunity! It's so fun to see old films on the big screen the way they were meant to be seen. I love the photos you included, as well!

Jacqueline T. Lynch said...

Thank you, Kendra. I hope I can see more classic films on the big screen in future. "Key Largo" was a great one to start.

ClassicBecky said...

Jacqeline, what a wonderful article. You really told the movie, the history and the locale in such an interesting way. Key Largo is a favorite Bogie of mine. The cast so superb - that's one I would also like to see on the big screen.

I've been lucky enough to see a few wonderful classic films on the big screen. You are so right, it is a whole different experience than on TV or disks. I remember Gone With the Wind, the first one I saw at the theatre, just stunned me. You could see so much of the beauty of the sets and design you just can't see on TV. And Lon Chaney's Phantom of the Opera. A very special experience. Everybody in the theatre had seen his unmasking sequence 100 times, but when it occurred on the big screen, every one of us screamed.

I too wanted to smack some teenagers sitting behind me in a theatre showing West Side Story. I love it so much, and they were giggling through the whole thing. I remember, like you, thinking part of it was the old-style slang and such that teens always think so dumb-sounding. But when they laughed at the rumble scene, I wished I had a toy switchblade that I could just hole up, without turning around, and click open! That would have been such fun!

You can tell I really enjoyed this article!

Jacqueline T. Lynch said...

Thanks so much, Becky. Boy, I wish I'd seen all those movies you've caught on the big screen. You've got quite a resume of classics there.

I like your toy switchblade idea. Trick knives are used in theater a lot. (A community theatre production of "Wait Until Dark" I can recall had several stagehands giddily "stabbing" themselves with a trick knife backstage. Something about a retractable blade just makes you want to gut yourself.)

I had no such prop when watching "Key Largo". I suppose I could have leaned back and clubbed the ladies mercilessly with a half-eaten bag of popcorn. It's just not the same, though.

Small screen and all, there's something to be said for watching a favorite classic film in your own living room by yourself.

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