Classic film fans can be found all over the world. Each fan has a beloved star, genre, performance, and more, that he or she holds dear. Though individuals may identify themselves as fans of classic cinema, how one becomes a devotee is worth exploring.
As I read through Jennifer Churchill’s Movies Are Magic: A Kid’s History of the Moving Image From the Dawn of Time to About 1939, I could not help but ponder the question of how one becomes a classic film fan. I think it is safe to say that everyone’s introduction to classic cinema is a bit different. However, in many cases, people become classic film fans because of someone else who shared this love of cinema with them.
As a child, I grew up eagerly anticipating the annual broadcasts of The Wizard of Oz (1939) and practically wore out the VHS tape. While my dad would usually watch this with me, he would also rent out Our Gang shorts for me from our local Blockbuster. I loved the humor and the adventures that the gang would encounter, in addition to finding Pete the Pup an adorable comrade. I also watched loads of Laurel and Hardy films from the local library. Laurel and Hardy was a bit of a re-discovery for my mother, who grew up in Poland and recognized the duo by their Polish names, “Flip” and “Flop.” I enjoyed watching their shorts and films with my parents, quickly learning that good comedy communicates across languages with ease. Being trilingual (English, Polish, Spanish), I have loved watching classic films translated into many different languages and have especially enjoyed studying slapstick comedy across cultures.
My grandfather is also responsible for my love of classic cinema. My memories of watching classic films with him are a bit vague, as he passed away 20 years ago, but it is thanks to him that I began to enjoy classic films out of my own volition. I once caught Stage Door (1937) on TCM but was unable to finish the film. It turns out that the film was quite difficult to track down, so I was remorseful that I had missed the opportunity to see it in full. Thankfully, my grandfather enjoyed classic films and kept a big suitcase full of VHS copies of them, with many of the films being recorded from television. As fate would have it, I skimmed through the tapes in the suitcase (which I had inherited after his passing) and my eyes stopped at a tape plainly labeled “Stage Door” in pencil.
TCM, too, is responsible for continuing to inspire me to watch more classic films that are new to me. When my family got cable television and I encountered TCM for the first time, it baffled my nine-year-old mind that Judy Garland was in films beyond Oz. I quickly went to the nearest library and gradually checked out every film in which she appeared, thereby being introduced to so many other show business greats with whom she performed.
Churchill’s book is written with the intent of encouraging individuals to share their love for classic cinema with others–particularly future generations–and acts as a guide for doing so. To quote the description on the back of the book, Churchill believes that “in our fast-moving, media-drenched world, classic movies connect us to the past and help us understand history, the world around us, and ourselves.” Prefaced by a heartfelt dedication from Ben Mankiewicz and his reflection on sharing classic films with his daughter, the story takes readers through an overview of key moments in early film history. Along the way, the story is enhanced by charming illustrations crafted by Howell Edwards.
The story features a young boy named Weston (named after the author’s son) and his dog, Oscar. The boy and his canine companion advance through early film history, with the story offering glimpses of why these moments in early film are special. Each film history milestone is distilled to a reason as to why movies are magic, totaling up to 12 thoughtful reasons in all.
While the story is targeted towards children, adult classic film fans are sure to be pleased by the book and its ability to communicate what is so special about classic cinema in a way that a child can understand. Young readers are sure to be amused by the lovely characters and illustrations, in addition to the explanations and examples of the feats that early films accomplished. Not only can this book be a nice means of offering context to classic films, but it can also be a wonderful conversation-starter. Each of the 12 reasons that Churchill offers can easily be addressed to a child and can lead to discussion. For example, one of Churchill’s reasons for why movies are magic is that they are fun and part of our daily lives. One can easily ask a child, “Do you think movies are fun? What makes them fun? Which movies do you think are fun?” and can surely strike up a conversation in which a child will be engaged and eager to share his or her perspective.
The book also opens the door to allowing a child to participate in events relating to classic film or at the very least encouraging their curiosity in relation to films. One of Churchill’s reasons for movie magic is that they can be seen with a live orchestra. Just as many early films were accompanied by live music, so are some classic films today. I reside in the Chicago area, where we have many opportunities to see classic films enjoyed with live accompaniment. However, Chicago is one of many possible cities that offers this opportunity.
Larger events aside, the book offers information about different moments in film-making history. Starting with an open-ended discussion of films and what they can mean, the story progresses through depictions of live performance, silent stars and groundbreaking moments in silent film, early film shorts, the advent of sound, international influences, key performers, and the influence of color. In addition to offering interesting factual tidbits relating to the reason at hand, the book also points readers to films that are exemplary of the topic being covered. Churchill’s book directly references The Gold Rush (1925), A Trip to the Moon (1902), Safety Last (1923), The General (1926), Top Hat (1935), and Stormy Weather (1943), in addition to discussing many other pertinent areas.
Movies are magic for the many reasons that Churchill discusses. At the heart of this book is the mission to share one’s love of classic cinema with others. Exposure to classic film and a little guidance can go a long way. While I do not think that one can become a classic film fan all of a sudden by reading this book, this book is an excellent way of opening the door to a child’s appreciation for early cinema and perhaps a nostalgic look back for adult classic film fans. Though movies will remain magical, the magic lies in sharing them with others. Churchill’s book is like a magic wand that can begin to strike up some of that enchantment in generations to come.