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.