Merced Life

My (not-so) secret obsession with classic film

My husband Matt grew up in a home where it was considered necessary to have a hobby. One could not be an interesting person without a hobby, according to his parents, and Matt, a natural-born people-pleaser, acquired a multitude of hobbies during his formative years, a few of which have stuck with him throughout his life. The stakes for hobbies in his home were high—it was not enough to have a mere interest in something. No, in Matt’s childhood home, one’s hobby must be useful. It must result in evidence—for Matt, this usually meant things made of wood. Sometimes furniture, but more frequently boxes. In Matt’s reasoning, one can never own too many desk-size wooden boxes, and thus our home has been resplendent with such boxes over the years, until they mysteriously disappear—a phenomenon for which I refuse to admit culpability—and are eventually replaced with more boxes. During our recent move, wooden boxes once again went missing, and so now my husband is in a box-generating phase, which will last for approximately one year, if past experience can be counted on as a reference.

I was not burdened with expectations to cultivate interesting hobbies when I was growing up. My parents understood that their children were normal, average in every way, and they believed that if mediocrity was good enough for the masses, then it was good enough for the Bowers family. Their children did not need to produce anything. Indeed, most of my siblings’ activities involved consuming rather than producing—watching cartoons, for example. However, we did on occasion earn trophies, which while not of our own making, were definitely evidence of prowess, or at least participation, in some kind of physical activity. For my brother, his trophies were the result of his considerable talents as a baseball player. For me and my sister, our ribbons and belt buckles were awarded to us because we were able to sit atop a horse’s back and lash it with a whip while it ran around barrels.

But I picked up another, secret hobby in my childhood. I became a classic film buff. I did it right under my parents’ noses, and they never even suspected that I was cultivating an abiding passion for Jimmy Stewart, Bette Davis, and Joel McCrea. They just thought I was watching old movies. My hobby was right in alignment with their own preference for ordinary children. It was completely non-productive. It was quiet and sedentary, and therefore not disruptive. And my film hobby did not even necessitate a ride to a location outside of our home. I could do it right in our own living room.

Like my husband, I have dropped some of my old hobbies. I have not run a horse around barrels since my mid-30s, and I doubt I will ever have occasion for such perilous endeavors again in my lifetime. But I have retained my interest in old movies. I do not admit this with pride. Being a lover of Stagecoach and The Third Man does not make me interesting. Instead, it has the opposite effect. I can see people’s eyes begin to glass over as soon as I mention Joseph Cotten’s name. In my own household, my children flee from the room when I mention that Oklahoma! will be airing on Turner Classic Movies in just a few minutes. My husband, who tries as hard to feign interest in my hobby as I do in his wooden boxes, is apt to watch a few minutes of Ball of Fire before saying something really ignorant.

“Now, refresh my memory. Is that Cary Grant?” he is likely to ask.

“How can you even say that?” I am likely to answer, rolling my eyes in disgust. “That’s Gary Cooper. Cary Grant looks nothing like Gary Cooper. They’re not even remotely alike.”

Such interactions are usually enough for my husband to inch out of the room and head off to the garage to make a box. For a few moments I might get to feel superior because I possess knowledge my husband does not have, until I remember that my knowledge is not useful and is, instead of evidence of a good memory and brilliant understanding of classic film, merely proof of a somewhat creepy obsession with long-dead movie idols.

Thus, I often feel alone, and lonely, as I pursue my hobby. This is the nature of many hobbies, of course. My husband does attend box-making bees and I rarely run across anyone under the age of eighty who knows anything at all about the films I love. In fact, some people I know who are in their eighties care nothing at all about old films, either. “Why would I want to see From Here to Eternity again?” my mother, who is eighty-six, told me not long ago. “I saw it when it first came out. Isn’t there anything newer on?”

In the spirit of full disclosure, I must also admit that I am not even much of a true film aficionado. I can name only a few camera angles, my knowledge of old films comes from lightweight, popular books rather than serious research into classic film, and I rarely watch ground-breaking, intellectually-challenging films. I can tell you that The More the Merrier, starring Joel McCrea and Jean Arthur, has one of the best romantic scenes in all of Hollywood film history, but I’ve only seen The Seventh Seal a few times, and I have no opinion about it other than I don’t really want to see it again.

So, my hobby makes me a little pitiful, really. It marks me as someone stuck in the past, as a woman who will drop everything to watch Doris Day and Rock Hudson in Pillow Talk, not because it is a good film but because I like to see the weird things hairstylists used to do to poor Doris’s hair and because, for the few hours it takes to get through the film, I get to live in a world of CinemaScope and pastel colors.

But recently I have come to realize that, while I might seem to be alone in my infatuation with old films, I am in fact part of a much larger community of old film buffs, and members of that community get together every year to board the Disney Magic and cruise with Ben Mankiewicz, host of Turner Classic Movies, from New York City to King’s Wharf, Bermuda, a trip of five days. This year, they will embark on their adventure at the end of October. The special guests have not yet been announced, but Ben will be the host, which I assume means he will also be onboard, strolling the deck with a glass of TCM-curated wine in hand and smiling at passengers, some of whom might pay as much as $23, 291 (plus a $499 fee for taxes and gratuities) for the privilege of occupying the Deluxe Family Oceanview with Veranda suite. This is, of course, the single occupancy rate, which is what I would have to pay since I know no one, certainly not within my own family, who would like to accompany me on a trip comprised of five nights of watching old movies. The advertisement for the cruise offers few particulars, but it does make one promise—passengers are “bound to make new friends.” I know what this means. This means that, if I were ever to realize my dream of booking this trip, I would be in the company of a lot of other people just like me: slightly socially-awkward loners who wish they could disappear into a made-up Hollywood world of frothy comedy or sexually-charged film noir. I would be with ordinary people who have no desire to produce anything, but who just want to sit and watch movies. Not one interesting person on the whole ship. It sounds delightful, and I have put it on my bucket list.

Brigitte Bowers is a lecturer in the Merritt Writing Program at UC Merced.