The Movies in Cambridge: Some Thoughts, Some History

WITH NINE COMMERCIAL movie houses, a dozen or so college film societies, church groups, institute film festivals--old movies, some new movies, experimental shorts, documentaries, visits by directors and stars--Cambridge is in some sense a movie mecca, one of the biggest movie towns in the country. "Not big enough," though, says an official of more than one of the commercial houses. More than 30 years after the most successful business years for Hollywood, the movie business in Cambridge has finally passed its peak.

The golden age for theaters in Cambridge must certainly have been the '60s and the first years of the '70s--years during which even esoteric film festivals would catch on quickly, when fairly large numbers of college kids for the first time began to center their lives around the movies as an art form. Almost paradoxically, movies in Cambridge began to hit their peak at about the same time as student radicalism. Passive movie going merged with active protest. The student movement was gaining steam at the same time that the entrepreneurs who started the Orson Welles were figuring that the Cambridge movie public was large enough to support two new theaters.

The Welles opened its doors officially on April 7, 1969. Sentimental management had selected the day because it came exactly 28 years after a premiere of Citizen Kane; serendipity set the opening two days before the takeover of University Hall. Years earlier, film had been thought of only as an escape, a diversion for a date or an idle afternoon. In time for the '60s, film was already an academic pursuit, a suitable subject for doctoral theses.

But neither diversion nor academics attracted '60s students. The movies showed a world outside the university town, and unlike other forms of literature they were still unburdened by the gospel-like critical judgments of an earlier generation. There was something fresh even in old movies. What the movies represent, Pauline Kael wrote at the end of the '60s, is that "the world doesn't work the way the schoolbooks said it did and we are different from what our parents and teachers expected us to be." Kael felt that way in her youth, and by the '60s the feeling was widespread.

But Kael still felt somehow guilty about moviegoing: "And the theaters frequented by true moviegoers--those perennial displaced persons in each city, the loners and the losers--depress us," she wrote. The true moviegoers were never displaced. Some people spent seemingly all their time at the Brattle or the Welles (the addition of the bar made it possible to live inside the Brattle building for "an indefinite period of time," albeit on a liquid diet, a Crimson critic noted in 1957) but the people lining up for the first Bergman and Bogart festivals led real lives that the movies helped enrich.

"It used to be great," one veteran of both the University Hall occupation and Welles opening told me. "A whole week of some director like Preston Sturges. Fantastic!" Sturges made comic yet sharp and sometimes cynical satires of American life throughout the '50s. Sometimes people in the '60s didn't even realize they were intended as farce but, thinking the movies showed how people in the '40s liked to look at themselves, they laughed all the harder.

Sturges's movies made most sterile American dreams look silly--or both silly and frightening at the same time. When last summer Central II showed Sturges's Hail the Conquering Hero (about a fake wartime hero who runs for mayor of a small town), tiny audiences doubled over in laughter for seven nights. But the commercial loss to the theater wasn't even offset by the full-house receipts from King of Hearts next door. "There are very few theaters now that can show a film like that," says Robert St. George '64, manager of Harvard Square, Central, and Brattle. "A lot of art houses have closed in the last few years."

The patterns of viewing have changed. Emphasis on a director's work is now something to be done in school. The special film festivals are run at Harvard-Epworth Church, or at the Houses, or in class--but no matter how good the programming is there, the effect of a 16-mm print on a portable screen isn't the same as in a real theater. And the audience has a different attitude, too, with none of the spirit that can arise surprisingly often out of a heterogeneous group at the Brattle or the Welles.

The usual explanation is that audiences won't support the old sort of programming any more. Box-office failures over the past couple of years seem to lend some support to this theory. It's hard to show Bresson, or even Godard, these days, according to St. George (who occasionally sneaks a good film that he thinks won't sell onto a double bill at the Brattle). But there's been a change in the attitude of the schedulers, too. Larry Jackson, manager of the Orson Welles, thinks the old schedules at the Welles were "academic," and over the last three years he's tried to move toward programming approaches he thinks will tickle the public's entertainment bones a little more.

At the same time, however, Jackson's most speculative recent projects--I.F. Stone's Weekly Reader and Memories of Underdevelopment--both filled up enough to be held over for weeks. "I.F. Stone wouldn't have made it a year ago," he says. But Jackson probably isn't giving the public enough credit. Cambridge has been in the vanguard of the movie revival business since the early '50s, and while interest may have decreased at times, the audiences has always survived.

WITH A STRONG dedication to the movies, and an equally strong entrepreneurial sense, Cyrus I. Harvey Jr. '47 and Bryant N. Halliday '49 opened the Brattle as a moviehouse on St. Valentine's Day, 1953. The Brattle had just closed as a legitimate stage: Halliday had been general manager of the Brattle Theater Company's final season, and Harvey had been connected with it a few years earlier when it was part of the Harvard Theater Workshop.

Hollywood rarely reissued its movies in 1953, and when it did the distributor usually expected at least $100,000 gross--a figure far beyond the capabilities of the 350-seat Brattle. Most foreign distributors preferred to hold onto their films for years waiting for a showing at some huge art house, rather than rent to a little theater like the Brattle.

An additional problem facing Harvey's and Halliday's revival business was that most old films were printed on a combustible nitrate base, and new Massachusetts laws required the more modern safety prints. For a distributor to release a print of an obscure film to the Brattle, he had to reprint the film on new stock.

In 1955 Cy Harvey went to Europe to personally import films for the Brattle. In Sweden he screened an enormous number of films made between 1935 and 1955, and brought back Smiles of a Summer Night, the first Bergman film shown in the United States and an international favorite that year.

Harvey formed Janus Films, without a doubt the most important force in establishing foreign film as an art form in this country. Janus and Harvey brought over all the remaining Bergmans, the first Truffaut, Renoir's two best films--in fact, for a decade or so almost all the important foreign films to come to this country. Harvey, Truffaut, Bergman and most of the others have no part in the Janus operations any more, but the company still has close ties to Harvey's Harvard-Central-Brattle chain, as the Brattle programming and the periodic Janus festivals at the Square suggest.

The phrase "Banned in Boston" had little to do with movies in Massachusetts--except on Sundays. Even D.W. Griffith's notorious Birth of a Nation--banned in Chicago--was only edited in Boston. But on Sundays the Massachusetts censor held a firm hand. Two early Brattle movies, Miss Julie (from the Strindberg play) and Desires (a German film about morphine addiction) were officially barred from Sunday exhibition. On the second case Brattle went to court, and on July 6, 1955, in the case of Brattle Films v. Otis M. Whitney et. al., the Massachusetts Sunday Censorship Law was declared unconstitutional.

A glance at an old Brattle program reveals that it still shows many of the same movies. Over 21 years, the little theater has rarely shown a movie that is not extraordinary in some way; very few theaters anywhere can match its record. At times its prints are terrible--some of the Bogart festival prints have huge gaps where some of my favorite lines should be ("Rick? He's the kind of man who, if I were a woman, and I were not around, I should be in love with Rick.")--but its consistently good, if repetitious, choice of films seems never to have varied throughout its existence.

The Brattle was firmly enough established by 1960 that it was time for Harvey the businessman to expand his holdings in Cambridge. The old University Theater was beginning to decay; Harvey bought it and had it slightly remodelled--the new "two-speed" chairs were installed, reducing the capacity from 1889 to 1689, the premises were cleaned, and prices were raised substantially. Manager Clarence "Bud" Kramer '56 explained the new philosophy (same as the old): "It will be your Hollywood films with some good foreign films spotted in."

There have been persistent rumors in recent years, though, that this time-honored formula at the Harvard Square is no longer profitable enough to suit Harvey, or sometimes just that the land under the building could be more profitably employed in another venture--perhaps in a taller building of offices or apartments. But the demise of the Harvard Square Theater, seen as imminent by some for the past three years, does not seem likely in the immediate future.

DESPITE THE EXCELLENCE of the Brattle, the American film was still slighted in Cambridge. The Brattle showed Bogart--and a few other period films--but it never went in for American retrospectives, while Harvard Square rarely looked to the past at all. So the coming of the Orson Welles meant an important expansion of coverage and not (as some thought at the time) a duplication of facilities that would divide the movie business and destroy all three theaters.

There were disputes at the beginning, partly because the Welles management seemed confused about what they wanted to do. The original plan, as publicized, was to divide time roughly equally between "such new productions as are seldom seen outside New York" and a program of "repertory revivals." The "new productions" hardly came in droves, nor have they since. Former actor/producer Dean Gitter '56, who founded the theater, always said he wanted to emphasize "American film as art" but he also wanted to show lots of foreign films to round out the program.

Which of course led to duplication with the Brattle. At one point both theaters were running a Jean Renoir film festival at the same time. Eventually Peter Jaszi '68, a student at Harvard Law School who programmed for Gitter, began to restrict the Welles mainly to American films, in keeping with Gitter's original theory. At this point Jaszi began the laudable Welles format of keeping a directorial retrospective going on in at least one of the theaters--the practice that has disappeared today. Jaszi, now a lawyer for the American Film Institute, also began the film appreciation class that grew into The Film School, another Welles project that has since been abandoned.

IN THE BEGINNING, movies in Cambridge were just like movies anywhere else. When movies first appeared, and until the University Theater opened in the middle '20s, the movies weren't in Cambridge at all, so people travelled to Boston to see the latest show.

Like most of the grand theaters across the country, the U.T. combined movies with vaudeville acts to relieve the monotony of watching a flat screen. In the '30s--in Hollywood's golden age--lines used to stretch regularly for blocks. All through the '40s, even into the '50s, the U.T. would sell out completely every Sunday afternoon.

Everyone went to the movies in those days, and by all accounts most people went unselfconsciously and without critical pretense. The movie mania died out all across the country: most people say because of T.V., but there were other reasons as well.

But the movies became more and more important in Cambridge, and became important in different ways. The Brattle and the Welles brought us old movies and, even more importantly, they helped make it seem natural to see old movies. Nostalgic movies like those Peter Bogdanovich makes can be cute and sentimental, but with black and white plastered-on period clothes and period expressions in the color era his movies don't give a true sense of anything but nostalgia.

But when the Welles shows a good movie from the '30s that's set in an earlier era, it helps us appreciate more honest modern period films that aren't covert about their modern sensibilities, such as Thieves Like Us or The Conformist. People can read old books without having to feel nostalgic; showing old movies helps people understand them without recourse to nonsensical critical praise about being "nostalgic" or "camp."

If movies were only an escape--as the old claim went--then when people in Cambridge retreated from political activism they should have gone to the movies more. But the reverse is true, and true because almost without exception the best movies stem from a realistic base that may be transformed, fantasized, or abstracted--they weep in one eye, they may cry in the other, but they are grounded in reality. The Welles's Larry Jackson thinks that the Nixon administration hurt people's interest in good films just as he thinks it crushed the student movement "just after the first moratorium." Since then, he says, "films that accentuate political problems have simply increased frustration over whether conditions can be changed."

Jackson sees the huge success of The Harder They Come as a pivotal point, however, because it pleases people "who want pure entertainment" as well as people who want "substantial political content about third-world nations." Yet there are plenty of other films that manage the same combination. With more students realizing the importance of politics and life outside academia, theaters in Cambridge should soon begin to program adventurously once again