Old movies and new TV

As I write this, the current episode of The Incomparable podcast is a special “Old Movies” show that covers two “heist” films from the 50s: The Lavender Hill Mob and The Killing. It’s a fun show, one that I—uncharacteristically—listened to live as it was recorded a few days ago, but I want to talk less about the show proper and more about a throwaway comment Jason Snell made.

He said that, apart from some obvious classics like 2001, he doesn’t know much about movies before the 80s. This seemed weird to me at first. I’m ten years older than Jason, but I know a decent amount about movies before the 70s, and I don’t think I’m half the movie buff Jason is. Why would I know more about “old” movies—movies made before I was ten years old—than he does?

The answer, I think, has to do with when and where I grew up and the state of television at that time and place. Television is important because that’s generally how we watch old movies.

I grew up in the Chicago suburbs, and the programming on the primary local independent TV station, WGN, consisted of syndicated reruns of old TV shows and old movies. This was common programming for stations of this type because it was cheap, plentiful, and popular. There were only 5 VHF stations in Chicago (reception on UHF stations was dicey at best), so if you weren’t interested in what was on the three networks, you watched either WGN or the public station, WTTW.

When it wasn’t broadcasting a Cubs away game,1 WGN showed mostly movies during prime time. Lots of Jimmy Cagney (not just Public Enemy and its gangster kin; I must’ve seen Yankee Doodle Dandy a dozen times), Jimmy Stewart, Henry Fonda, Bette Davis, etc. And, of course, lots of crap, too. “John Wayne Week” and “Jerry Lewis Week” were unfortunately common occurrences. On Saturday nights, there was Creature Features, which is how I saw the classic Universal monster movies; and on Sunday afternoons there was Family Classics, which was kind of sappy, but sometimes had cool stuff like Mysterious Island.2

WTTW also showed movies, but they seemed to get the stuff WGN left behind. As a public station, they didn’t want to air crap, so they often showed Bergman, which didn’t interest me, and silent movies, which did. Now, these silent movies were no more hifalutin than what WGN showed, but because they were silent they could be presented as “classics.” This was where I saw Chaplin, Laurel & Hardy, and Lon Chaney, Sr.

I don’t want to suggest Chicago was unique in having stations like these. I’m sure every large market had its own WGN and WTTW. And even the network affiliates ran more movies back in the 60s and 70s.

A couple of things happened in the 80s that changed the TV landscape. Cable and satellite TV took off, even in urban/suburban areas where reception was decent. Cable stations like AMC arose to focus entirely on older movies. Most important, of course, was the VCR and the ready availability of movies on tape.

You might think this would’ve led to an explosion of interest in old movies—a sort of pre-internet “long tail.” But it didn’t. Now I’m sure there are many people who love old movies and can point to AMC, TCM, and their personal video libraries as the catalysts for their enthusiasm. But cable and home video didn’t just bring old movies, it brought new movies, too, and most people, when given the choice, choose new.

Had I been a kid in the 80s, I probably would’ve chosen new, too. If I’m 15 years old and looking for a movie, am I going to choose Ghostbusters or The Gold Rush? A Nightmare on Elm Street or A Night at the Opera?

Ten years earlier, when I actually was 15, there were no such choices. I couldn’t rent Freebie and the Bean; I had to watch The Treasure of the Sierra Madre.

Poor me.

  1. Home games were, of course, played during the day, as God and P.K. Wrigley intended. 

  2. “Photographed on land! in the air! and under the sea! Truly a first in motion pictures!”