James Werrell

Love of the movies lasted for a lifetime

During the last three years of his life, my dad rekindled his love of the movies. On his last conscious day on Earth, he caught a Neil Simon double-bill of "Barefoot in the Park" and "The Odd Couple."

As I was driving him back to his room, he mentioned how much he had enjoyed "The Odd Couple."

"Yeah," I said, "Walter Matthau and Tony Randall."

"Jack Lemon, not Tony Randall," he corrected me.

The first movie my dad took me to was "Wee Geordie." I was 5 and had recently broken my arm. "Wee Geordie" was the story of a scrawny Scottish boy who sent off for a Charles Atlas course and went on to become a strapping hammer thrower. He won the event at the highland games and then found love and fame at the Olympics.

I was immediately hooked on the movies, on that mysterious, wonderful moment when the lights go down and a different world unfolds before your eyes.

To celebrate having my cast removed a few weeks later, dad took me to "The Silent World," Jacques Cousteau's first undersea documentary. That same year, I distinctly recall, he overruled Mom and let me stay up late to watch "King Kong" on TV. My cinematic education had begun early.

In ensuing years, my parents would take my brothers and me to the Disney movies and all the big popular movies of the time. But we also were introduced to foreign films at an early age with trips to the pretentiously named Art Theater to see movies such as "Monsieur Hulot's Holiday" and "The Cranes are Flying."

Every now and then, I would get dropped off for a Saturday matinee at the Highland Theater in Akron, Ohio. For some reason, "The Charge at Feather River" with Guy Madison sticks in my mind as a favorite feature. But a night at the movies remained largely a family affair. dad took us to the drive-in to see "Dr. No," our introduction to Bond, James Bond. And I saw "A Hard Day's Night" with my parents in the same Highland Theater, surrounded by screaming girls.

Even in the 1960s and 1970s, when my brothers and I were more likely to go to the movies with friends or dates, we still often went as a family. And we always talked about the movies even if we didn't watch them together.

There is an infamous family story that defines my dad's love of the movies and might also help explain mine. Two days before I was born in the sweltering high summer of Washington, D.C., dad dragged my mother and her mother to an un-air-conditioned theater to see "Lives of a Bengal Lancer." Both my mom and grandmother repeatedly had to get up from their seats to go to the lobby for fresh air. When the movie finally ended and they all were standing on the sidewalk, trying to catch a breeze, my dad remarked: "You know, that movie was just as good the third time as the other two times I saw it."

His enthusiasm for movies waned in the 1980s and 1990s. He was not enamored of car chases, blood and guts, elaborate special effects or crude comedy. He often would rail against all things Hollywood.

I thought, at the time, he was being close-minded. I was disappointed that he had not tried harder to sustain his ardor for the movies. But, so be it.

It was not until about three years ago, during a long recovery from quadruple bypass surgery and multiple complications, that his love of movies returned, gradually at first, but ultimately with the old passion. In his final years, he watched movies on TV most of every day.

And he watched all kinds of movies -- old gangster flicks, screwball comedies from the 1930s and 1940s, spaghetti westerns, musicals, horror movies, love stories, war movies, spy movies, silent movies, good movies, great movies and some really bad movies, including many he had refused to watch in the 1980s and 1990s.

This developed into a daily ritual for me, too. "OK, quiz time," dad would announce when I came to visit. He would click on a movie, and I was supposed to guess what it was after watching for a few seconds. I was right about 60 percent of the time, but my father's continuing awe at my prowess was a daily tonic.

The movies, American movies in particular, have been derided as mere escapism, mindless entertainment for the masses. Well, I hope the movies helped dad escape. I hope they offered him a way out of his little room for a while each day.

I hope they helped him recall a happy childhood, and a long and interesting life. I hope they provided tangible benchmarks he could use to look back on that life and remember the good times.

I hope they might even have helped him recall a couple of hours in a darkened theater with his 5-year-old son.