Sunday, October 14, 2012

Give Me Happywood!

When I was growing up, the little I knew about the movies was gleaned from the first books my parents passed down to me: several copies of F Maurice Speed’s Film Review. The red ones had gold lettering on their covers; the royal blue had pale blue.

I labeled the well-thumbed chronicles 9/- (for some strange reason, I priced everything I ever owned) and, in the one book that had no page numbers, I added those, too.
The cinema did not feature strongly in our lives, but these picture books brought alive worlds that seemed breathtakingly glamorous.

Deanna Durbin, Universal star, with Tarantula eyelashes, and lips matching the red roses pinned to her lace dress.

Six year old Margaret O’Brien, star of MGM’s Lost Angel, and who was a role model to those of us the same age who could only dream of stardom.

Bette Davis, posing gracefully, yet still sinister in her white fur, the caption billing her as a Warner star, whose 1947 releases included A Stolen Life and Deception.

Dozens of handsome men, who to me looked 70 but were probably no more than 25.

I feared for Ingrid Bergman, poisoned by Nazi spies and hoping that Cary Grant, leaning over her in the black and white photo, would rescue her.

And, most terrifying of all, Betty Hutton as Pearl White, tied to the railway track with the train inches away in Paramount’s The Perils of Pauline.

The book pointed out, “for the nervous reader”, that the train stopped “in the nick of time”. I remember the feeling of relief. And excitement.

This was another world, far away from Cardiff, the capital of Wales, where I was born.

A world fraught with danger, tears and laughter, the promise of a kiss.

And always, always, the happy ending.

A man who would rescue you, protect you and keep you safe from all the evils of the world that lurked beyond the hills of Hollywood. Those nine letters, high in the hills, that I felt I could touch in the red and blue, scuffed edged books and glossy pictures; the single word that told me no matter what, everything would be all right in the end.
And it was - at least, until I started to go to the movies for real.

My parents had always protected from the idea of death, especially when it came to animals. My mother protected me from the death of George the budgerigar by telling me that “He flew away to a hot country” and it took me months to get over the death of Horace the goldfish, who drowned (it’s a long, complicated story). So Ring of Bright Water was never going to be a walk in the park.

I had recently had my tenth birthday when the film opened in the Odeon in Newport, and it was my first cinema visit since Dad had taken me to see the Beatles in Help! when I was six. Five months before that, we had gone as a family to see The Sound of Music in Bournemouth. Then, we were staying in a Bed and Breakfast, where my brother had managed to open a bottle of junior aspirin and devour the sweet, orange tablets. He was rushed to hospital and, as a reward for his swift recovery, we were taken to the cinema.

I was not a naughty child and had too great a terror of authority to deviate, but two days later, back at home, I cut my bedroom curtains, just like Julie Andrews had done to make clothes for the von Trapp children (well, not “just like”; I did a two inch snip and felt like a child of the devil). I then got into trouble for playing the LP of the film eight times when left alone in the house one Saturday. By the time my parents returned, Auntie Muriel next door was at screaming point. My mother still reels with shock at the naughtiness of a child who hardly dared breathe without asking permission.

It says something about our times that (1) a child of ten could be left alone for the length of time it takes to listen to a musical eight times; and (2) that so innocent a film could induce such acts of rebelliousness in a child. After all, Pulp Fiction it was not.
Mum took me to see Ring of Bright Water on a wet Saturday afternoon, and it was a jolly enough tale until Mij very foolishly got himself in the way of some workmen who chopped him in two with an axe. I cried. I sobbed. So distressed was I, that Mum decided I was still not ready for the realities of rigor mortis.

So she comforted me by saying that it wasn’t Mij who died in the movie, but another otter: a cousin of Mij. A very, very distant cousin who had not even appeared in the movie. I stopped crying, smiled and ate my sherbet lemons.

In school the next day, Carol Lane said: “No, it was Mij who died.”
"Mum," I said, returning home from school, sobbing once more. "Did Mij really die?"
Mum thought it was time to come clean. "Yes, I'm afraid he did."
"So it wasn't Mij's cousin?"
"No, it was Mij."

Mij was dead. It came as a terrible shock.

I grieved not only for Mij but otters everywhere. With careless workmen like that around, the same plight probably awaited every poor creature who ventured out of the Ring of Bright Water for longer than ten seconds a day.

But how could it happen? This was the cinema, the place where everything turned out all right – wasn’t it?

I decided that I preferred a world in which Mij lived on and budgies had a knack of slipping locks. I didn’t want mysteriously vanishing birds and Carol Lane’s world, in which axes had a strange habit of chopping otters in half.

Now, as then, I want the perils of Pauline – but I need the assurance at the end of the movie that the train will stop, the axe will not fall.

I want the happy ending.

In movies, as in life.

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