Tuesday, August 5, 2014

I Saw What I Saw When I Saw It, By Frank Dello Stritto

We had so much fun reading books by Baby Boomers Bill Bryson and Stephen King that we decided to have one more summer lark, I Saw What I Saw When I Saw It: Growing Up in the 1950s and 1960s With Television Reruns and Old Movies, the new book by film historian Frank Dello Stritto. 

Dello Stritto has written two excellent books of film history, Vampire Over London and A Quaint and Curious Volume of Forgotten Lore.  The first was the only in-depth examination of actor Bela Lugosi’s time in the UK and was essential reading for Lugosi completists; the second was a series of essays on the mythology of classic horror films.  Forgotten Lore was one of the most interesting and thought-provoking tomes on the meanings behind many of the classic horror films I had ever read, and it comes highly recommended.

So clearly, Dello Stritto has a deep affection for the classic monster films that were such an integral part of the Baby Boomer experience.  Fortunately, he takes a different track in I Saw What I Saw When I Saw It, writing, instead, about how a member of the first television generation learned about the world around him by watching television, and how those images became the template by which he judged everything else.  For anyone with an interest in Pop Culture and the influence of television, this book is a must.

Talking about television viewing is always, to one degree or another, an exercise in self-flagellation, and Dello Stritto spares himself nothing.  It seems that every Pop touchstone of the 1950s is here, from Howdy Doody and The Twilight Zone, to his love of Abbott and Costello.  (The title is a line from one of Dello Stritto’s formative experiences, viewing Abbott and Costello Meet Frankenstein.  His lengthy dissection of this film, which could be dismissed as a simple comedy from two clowns at the beginning of their decline, is nothing short of masterful.)

And while he manages to put a great deal of the era’s television into historical context, I Saw What I Saw When I Saw It is a surprisingly personal and appealing narrative.  We cannot understand or appreciate what television meant to young Dello Stritto unless we understand the boy himself, and the author provides an in-depth look at his growing up, his family, and his friends.  It is all curiously affecting because any Baby Boomer, interested in television or not, can pick up this book and nod, yes, this was me, too.

Here is a brief excerpt from the Preface:

This book is about growing up in America—in New Jersey to be exact—in the 1950s and 1960s. It is a personal history, but one which, with some variations, is shared by many Americans of my age. It is a marginal history, and might be a trivial history but for a coincidence of timing. The postwar baby-boom generation and television—two of the pivotal components of 20th-century American culture—came of age together, and each helped shape the other. Watching television, and later going to the movies, certainly shaped me.

Much of a young person’s life is … an ongoing struggle simply trying to figure things out. We tend to imitate what we see, by watching our parents, family and friends, or by watching television.

Imitation starts early, and we have no memory of learning the most basic skills. I have vague recollections of learning to read and write, none at all of learning to talk or walk. I have no memory of first crawling to our old television set and turning its channel dial. On most 1950s televisions, the dials and knobs stand maybe two feet above the floor and pose some challenge to a very small child. Perhaps the need to reach up accelerates my ability to stand erect.

Among the early tasks that I have no memory of first learning is reciting the Lord’s Prayer. At the start of every school day, I and my classmates, like millions of children across America, struggle through the King James phrases. We learn the prayer long before we can read, and never think much about what we are saying. Only years later do I come to understand “hallowed be thy name,” or “forgive us our trespasses.” Reciting the phrases is a daily ritual, something that I do each day. The prayer always ends with a phrase I do not understand, “lead us not into temptation.”

There once was a boy—maybe an urban legend, but I believe in him—who like the rest of us recited The Lord’s Prayer every day. He always said “lead us not into Penn Station.” He never knew his daily error. I believe in him because asking protection from such places makes more sense to a child than fending off whatever “temptation” is. When I am a very young boy, my parents take me through the old Pennsylvania Station in New York City. Awesome and scary place; huge beyond belief; alternately chaotic and hauntingly empty; noisy, then silent. Strange sounds echo from far off. I think of that day whenever I see the 1931 Dracula. Doomed Renfield, looking like a beleaguered commuter who has missed the last train home, enters the cavernous halls of Castle Dracula, wondering what to do next.

I believe in the Penn Station boy because I see someone like him every day. He takes various forms. The two most common incarnations through most of my early years are Stan Laurel in airings of his 1930s comedy shorts and Lou Costello in reruns of his television series. They try to imitate the world as best they can, never really figuring it out, never quite getting it right. In every show, they do something akin to confusing “temptation” with “Penn Station.” Hilarious but spot on. As a child, and now often enough as an adult, I have exactly the same experience every day.

The Lord’s Prayer, via a Supreme Court ruling on prayer in public schools, and the old Penn Station, via relentless urban development, disappear from my life at about the same time. By then, both had done their job, exposing me to old world eloquence and elegance, to the power of words and image, of sight and sound. I may not have appreciated what I was saying or what I was seeing, but the memories are still with me.

One of the many fascinating things, to this reader, is Dello Stritto’s tacit recognition that pop cultural currency was a very fluid thing to the Baby Boomers.  Thanks to television’s new-found need for content, classic movies were broadcast almost incessantly.  To many of us, Laurel and Hardy, for example, were as famous in the 1960s as they were in the 1930s.  That kind of pop catholicism is missing in contemporary culture, and it saddens me to see generations share so few cultural touchstones.  A child of the 1970s myself, we were as interested in the Marx Brothers as we were in the television show Happy Days.  I’m no longer sure that such a thing would be possible in these days of Balkanized cultural consumption.

To be sure, I Saw What I Saw When I Saw It is not without some piddling problems: it is, perhaps, just a hair too long, and Dello Stritto may linger a little too long on the origin of his obsession with actor Bela Lugosi.  But these are quibbles.  I Saw is a book of tremendous resonance and sweetness, and it does something no other book of film history has done:  it made me feel young again. 

I Saw What I Saw When I Saw It can be ordered directly from the publisher, Cult Movies Press, at: http://www.cultmoviespress.com/.  You will not regret it.

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