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12 April 2017

Cinematic genealogy: Popcorn in the family tree

Courtesy: google.com

I have very little interest in scampering out and back on every branch of the family tree to discover if I might be a direct descendant of royalty, a great writer from centuries past or, gasp!, rodents (the name Ratliff, you see).  I'm much more interested in getting to the root of my love and appreciation for movies.

It's deep-seated, but where did it come from?

I only have to look back one generation to find out all I need to know.  My mom and dad both loved movies.  I can remember my dad telling the story (over and over, actually) about falling asleep in the Hico (Texas) Theater and waking up in the dark to two startling discoveries:  The movie had ended some time ago and everyone was long gone and that he was locked in.

Mom and I spent many late evenings watching what are now classic movies on TV's "Late, Late Show" and memorable afternoons sharing them in actual theaters.  My dad often spoke of enjoying triple features with my mom at the Hico movie house, quite likely before they were married.

Their prime movie-going time was probably the early and mid-1940s.  I feel certain they took in all the popular movies of the day, films like Casablanca (1943), The Lady Eve (1941), Dumbo (1941), The Man Who Came to Dinner (1942), etc.

I'm pretty sure they took in the nuanced war comedy To Be or Not to Be in 1942.  Jack Benny had been a huge radio star for 10 years and had even dabbled in films when he teamed up with Carole Lombard and Robert Stack to play a Polish ham stage actor helping to trap a German spy in war-torn Poland.  I caught To Be or Not to Be on Turner Classic Movies channel a couple of weeks back and was very pleasantly surprised.  It's not easy getting audiences to laugh about German occupation and Hitler, even now.

Mom and Dad were huge fans of Benny on TV as well, and even paid retail to go see the master of the long pause when Benny's stage show tour stopped off in Dallas in the early '70s.  Dad was unusually tight-lipped when I asked how he enjoyed the show.  Mom explained to me later that Dad didn't appreciate the fact that Benny used a "bad" word, which was extremely mild, I'm sure, during the show.

Monty Woolley in "The Man Who Came to Dinner" (Courtesy: imdb.com)

In Mom's later years, in the 1990s when I was established as a film critic and meeting and interviewing Hollywood's biggest stars, my mother asked more than once if I had ever heard of Monty Woolley.  I was young, busy and probably a little dismissive back then.  Mom never pushed for an answer or complained that she didn't get one.  To my regret, I never got to properly answer her, or find out why she was so curious in the 1990s about an actor who passed away in 1963.

Honestly, and to my great disappointment, I was too concerned with what was going on with popular celebrities of the day (Madonna, Tom Cruise, Julia Roberts, Woody Allen, etc.) to take the time to do five minutes of research to learn that Woolley was a renowned Broadway star-turned-film actor.  He was an Oscar nominee for his work in the World War II drama The Pied Piper (1942).

In fact, 1942 was a big year for Woolley.  He also recycled one of his famous Broadway performances when he co-starred with Bette Davis and Ann Sheridan in the title role as meddling critic The Man Who Came to Dinner who stayed six months.

Mom, Dad and Woolley are all gone now, but The Man Who Came to Dinner lives on.  If you ever get a chance to catch it on "The Late, Late Show," seize the opportunity and hold on tight.

By the way, Mom, that Monty Woolley was a hell of an actor.

Oops, sorry Dad.


Thank you for the article. I have watched this film a few times before and it's time to watch it again. Best wishes.

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