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A Shout From The Attic: Youth And Confusion - 2

...Long live Laurel and Hardy! Long live all those who recognise the sorry condition of the common people, and take a little time to make it better, or else to help us to laugh at our own suffering...

Ronnie Bray tells of his love affair with films.

It Ain’t Love, But It Ain’t Bad

The first stirrings of love in my young heart were felt during the screening of National Velvet at the Picture House in Ramsden Street. Cheap seat tickets were bought at the back entrance, as they were at the Picture Drome. I paid my few coppers and settled down to see the film. Everything about it was perfect. I thrilled at the excitement that young Velvet Brown felt when she got her horse, The Pie, and I was caught up in her dream.

Few films entertained me so thoroughly as this one did. One Christmas, I bought the video with book tokens from Joanne. The magic had not faded. Elizabeth Taylor held first place in my heart for distant and unobtainable love until I saw Brigitte Bardot in Doctor at Sea. After that I was doubly damned, which lasted until Shirley McLaine trebled it.

Young boys visiting cinemas alone were liable to the unwelcome attentions predatory men. These raincoat carrying-fellows would move next to a young boy and start their insidious, silent molestation. The problem had a simple solution: asking in a loud voice, “What are you doing?” would cause the pervert to scuttle off somewhere else. Most boys considered this a normal part of life, that such men existed, and were to be Stoically tolerated. Parents were not to be told.

What stars of my boyhood do I still love? Top of the bill has to be Laurel and Hardy. Abbott and Costello have faded, because there is too much hubris in the relationship. The Marx Brothers I still rate highly because of the cutting observation of human behaviour combined with the propensity of the peasant, in the persona of Groucho, to confront the aristocrat with his or her behaviour, reduced to its incongruity. The television series, M.A.S.H. employs the same mechanism through the mind of the acerbic Hawkeye. Chaplin is terrific until he speaks, and then, for me, he loses his charm and his impact.

Laurel and Hardy have retained their exalted position. The relationship between two inadequates, is explored constantly to develop humorous themes in their relationships with the major institutions of modern life – not the least of which is marriage. Their films could be catalogued into a reference book on how to muddle through. They never knew when they were beaten, and often ended up defeated but unbowed. Disaster attended their simple occupations, which meant that the majority of their audience could relate their experiences to their own.

If nothing was done to make humanity better prepared to live among devouring authority and unfeeling others, at least it could laugh en masse at their follies and tragedies being acted out by two men who remain dearly loved to this day. Long live Laurel and Hardy! Long live all those who recognise the sorry condition of the common people, and take a little time to make it better, or else to help us to laugh at our own suffering.

The heroes and heroines of my childhood were mainly cast by Hollywood. It took many years of reading books to replace some of them with heroes from the written word. Film has such a direct path to the mind of the viewer. Reading demands much more participation from the reader: what is read has to be visualised and pondered, then judgements have to be made, opinions formed, and the information collated, cross-referenced, indexed and stored, to be called into play either to support our prejudices, or to banish them. What a responsibility rests with the reader, whereas the film director and editors do most of the work for the audience. All that remains for the mind to do is to quietly absorb the information in the context in which it is presented, or else to note disagreement with the message and tone of the movie, and to consider, briefly, for the film rolls on, whether it is nobler in the mind to suffer the disagreement or to swallow it whole. Books may be re-read, tasted, rolled around on the tongue, compared, read again, laid aside and returned to: all which are not possible when watching a film.

The videotape recorder has solved some of the practical difficulties involved in chewing over visually presented materials, but very few will avail themselves of these benefits. The power of visual imagery is overwhelming to the young, unsophisticated person who seeks, not to be educated or informed, but only to be amused. I sought only amusement, yet by submitting myself to the process I was unwittingly being moulded and forged into a form from which it would be difficult to emerge.

Hollywood was mine - but I was also Hollywood’s.

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