Filming location for spaghetti westerns in Almería, Spain

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© 1987-2016
Scott Larson

Building façade in Cannes, France

Mom (1920-2005)

One question I get asked all the time is: “Scott, what inspired you early on to get interested in movies?” Okay, no one has ever actually asked me that. But, if they did, I would have a ready answer.

The fact that I got into loving movies at a relatively young age stems from the fact that, in terms of cultural pursuits, there wasn’t a lot else going on where I lived. Theaters and museums were not out of the question, but they were either far or few. Cinemas, on the other hand, while still a good 20-mile-plus drive away, were more plentiful and accessible. Movies, like television, were a democratic art form, in that they were available to nearly everybody. And, in terms of quality, most movies were a heck of lot better than most television.

But, if I had to identify one person for inspiring an early love of film in me, it would have to be my mom. She too loved movies from an early age and under more adverse conditions. She came to California in 1923 as the second youngest of a German-speaking Mennonite family with six children. The family’s religion was rather strict, and among things that were banned were motion pictures, which were deemed to be “worldly,” which was another way of saying “sinful.” Who knows at what age she would have seen her first film if a school nurse hadn’t intervened and advised her parents to send her to a remote institution called a preventorium.

As strange as it may seem in this day and age, the preventorium existed to fatten up young girls who were too skinny. To hear my mother describe the experience, it sounded like a very grim place, bordering on something out of Charles Dickens or Little Orphan Annie. There was a silver lining, however. Every week the girls got to go to a movie. It was the first time Mom had the chance to see one, and she liked what she saw. Years later, when her own mother spent her golden years watching the soap opera As the World Turns everyday (because when television came along it was, for some reason, not deemed to be worldly), my mother wondered why Grandma’s watching serial adultery on the small screen was okay but her own watching of movies like Rebecca of Sunnybrook Farm in the 1930s was sinful.

Anyway, once Mom saw her first movie, she was hooked, and she continued to watch the flickers, even if it meant sneaking out of the house or being less than candid about what her social activities entailed. She was a devoted movie fan, and as a teenaged aunt, she even got a newborn niece named after the movie star Deanna Durbin.

Mom loved the movies her whole life. I once asked her which was her favorite movie of all time, and she had trouble thinking of one. After some reflection, she said that The Best Years of Our Lives was a good one. She surely must have identified with the characters in that film, since like them, she had to adjust to living with a man she barely knew and who had just spent the previous couple of years going through the traumatic experiences of war. They had known each other a grand total of six months before they got married in 1943, and they were man and wife for no more than six weeks before Dad was sent to Europe and North Africa. In fact, their courtship and wartime experiences would have made a good movie—just like much of Mom’s life. Her family’s migration from Kansas and Oklahoma to California was the stuff of The Grapes of Wrath. Her bantering with the eager young male customers at the local drug store’s soda fountain (she was my hometown’s very first carhop) could have been fodder for a 1930s romantic comedy.

In the 1950s and 1960s, my family’s life was more like a television show than a movie. One childhood friend of mine once noted that I Love Lucy always seemed to be on the television in our house and that he could never tell where Lucille Ball ended and our red-haired mother began. In other ways, our home was like the one in Leave It to Beaver. My dad didn’t wear a suit to work (he was a farmer) and Mom didn’t wear pearls while vacuuming, but they did share Ward and June’s penchant for always trying to do the right thing.

Once she became a mother, Mom didn’t get out to the movies as often as she used to, although she would go when she got the chance. (A decade and a half after I had left home, I was gobsmacked to discover that she had allowed herself to be brought out to see Fatal Attraction. We are talking about a woman who was so squeamish that she had to go to the far end of the house whenever I was watching Dark Shadows on TV.) And we never missed the Academy Awards in our house. In her later years, she spent many hours (mainly on the weekends) watching American Movie Classics on cable. She always insisted that the “old” movies were better than the new ones and that new generations of male actors couldn’t hold a candle to real men like Gary Cooper. Yet she fatally compromised her authority on cinematic taste by regularly watching those wretched Lifetime movies.

Still, I owe her big-time, not only for passing on her love of movies to me but for a whole bunch of other things as well. She touched a heck of a lot of people during her life, especially in her later years. This was clear from the number of people who showed up at her funeral the other day. Of all the movie images that have been going through my mind lately, the one that sticks is the final scene from the 1947 Joseph Mankiewicz film The Ghost and Mrs. Muir. In my imagination, just as the ghostly Rex Harrison welcomed the expired Gene Tierney into the afterlife, I see my dad finally embracing my mom again.

Good-bye, Mom. I love you.

-S.L., 20 January 2005

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