Four musicals, two cartoon capers, 25 classic films, one Mighty Morton organ and eight weeks of “movie love” at the CAPA Summer Movie Series
Near the end of Peter Bogdanovich's “The Last Picture Show,” a trio of teenagers takes in the classic John Wayne movie “Red River” during the final presentation at the Royal Theater in Archer City, Texas. The scene is rife with melancholy. “Sorry you're closing the show,” says Duane, played by a young Jeff Bridges, to the theater's proprietress. She answers: “Nobody wants to come to shows no more. Baseball in the summer, television all the time.”
In August, I attended my own last picture show. The theater wasn't closing, but it was still a rueful occasion. That month, I saw the last of three showings of the musical “Shall We Dance,” starring Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers, at the Ohio Theatre—the final offering of this year's CAPA Summer Movie Series. Every summer, the series showcases mostly movies from Hollywood's Golden Age.
Since attending my first summer movie series in 1999, when I was 16, I have missed only one season. In that time, I have seen my share of season-finale movies. The series often ends with a bang—sometimes with a big, splashy musical. In 2003, for example, “Gigi” wrapped up the season, and in 2009, it was “South Pacific.” The finale signifies not just the end of an enjoyable annual event, but the waning of summer—shorter days, the return of Buckeyes football and all the rest.
This August, however, saying goodbye was sadder than usual. This summer, I attended one screening of every presentation: Over the course of 25 trips to the Ohio Theatre from June 16 to Aug. 6, I saw 25 feature films (two presented as part of double bills), plus two programs of animated shorts. During one memorable (and long) day, I went to the theater twice—in the morning for the cartoons and in the evening for “Charade,” from Bugs Bunny to Cary Grant in the span of about 10 hours.
Although I am a summer movie series veteran, I never attempted to run the table before. My previous record was 12 movies (attained in 2015 and again in 2016).
When I began attending the CAPA program—the longest-running classic film series in the U.S.—I was already struck with what film critic Pauline Kael called “movie love” (also the title to a collection of her reviews). As a preteen, I began haunting video stores, devouring criticism by Kael, Janet Maslin and Andrew Sarris and planning for a career writing about movies.
Happily, I have more or less achieved that goal: As a full-time freelancer, I have contributed articles about movies to The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal and Sight & Sound, among others, and authored or edited books on directors Peter Bogdanovich and James Bridges.
But back to my youth: I was drawn to the cutting-edge films of the 1970s, but earlier eras of Hollywood were more distant to me. By the time I was 16, I knew that John Ford and Howard Hawks were significant figures, but I wasn't as familiar with their movies as I needed to be. Remember, in the late 1990s, DVDs of classics were still being released at a trickle, and the local Blockbuster only stocked so many fraying VHS tapes.
The CAPA Summer Movie Series helped fill that gap in my cinematic education. During my first season, I saw just four movies—but what a four they were: Hitchcock's “Strangers on a Train” and “The Man Who Knew Too Much” (both far less popular than, say, “Psycho,” which I had seen), Hawks' “Bringing Up Baby” (a screwball comedy that persuaded me that America was a far goofier and funnier nation in the 1930s) and Ford's “Stagecoach” (a Western that turned me into a devotee of the genre).
Without the series, I might not have seen such movies until years later—and certainly not in a theater like the Ohio. The twinkling marquee beckons you to a lush, golden interior—both sumptuous and a little tacky, befitting its origins as a movie palace. Curtains conceal the movie screen. And 30 minutes ahead of each feature, an organ console—dubbed the “Mighty Morton”—emerges from the orchestra pit, usually manned by Clark Wilson. Organ music returns during intermissions and serenades audience members as they exit.
In more recent years, my cinematic education more or less complete, I have frequented the series for a different reason. Despite the digital age, CAPA has continued to round up gloriously textured, marvelously scratchy 35 mm prints for a majority of its series presentations. In 2003, when I first saw “Singin' in the Rain” at the Ohio Theatre, I took it for granted that I was watching a 35 mm print; last year, when I saw the movie again in the same format during the summer series, I thanked my lucky stars.
Screenings are set for Wednesdays through Sundays, but because of the way the series is scheduled, that timespan always encompasses multiple movies. For example, I saw four in a row one week this year: “Thoroughly Modern Millie” on Wednesday, “Shadow of the Thin Man” on Thursday, “The Shining” on Friday and “Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade” on Saturday.
The first three were one-night-onlys; I couldn't miss a single screening in order to fulfil my goal. On the other hand, “Indiana Jones” was shown three times during Saturday and Sunday. In that case, I chose to see the first screening on Saturday; if something came up that day, I still would have two opportunities on Sunday to catch the movie. Initially, I stuck to this system, but as the season wore on, I found myself going to a movie with a two-day run on the second day—living dangerously, you could say.
But during the first weekend's offering of “All About Eve,” none of that planning was on my mind: I was just glad to begin another edition of the series. And on that opening night, I resumed traditions that had begun 18 years earlier. I always walk into the theater using the aisle parallel to the organ, peeking into the pit to make sure that Clark Wilson (rather than a substitute organist) is in the house, and I always sit in an aisle seat in the third row (unless neighboring rows become too crowded).
Happily, Wilson was present for the first showing of “All About Eve.” “Here we are,” he said. “Another summer movie series.” Before the movie unspooled, he offered a variation of his usual exhortation to the audience: “Settle back into the perfumed twilight once again of this magnificent old pleasure dome.” Who cares if the air conditioning in the Ohio Theatre is not quite perfumed? What a neat way to begin a movie.
With that, I was off to the races. “All About Eve” was the only movie screened during the first weekend, but the following week—the first full week of the series—was a gantlet: I saw “Leave Her to Heaven” on Wednesday, “Jailhouse Rock” Friday, “cartoon capers” Saturday morning and “Suspicion” Sunday afternoon. It had been years since I had seen so many movies theatrically in such close succession. I was worried about getting worn-out by multiple trips Downtown from my home in New Albany, but just as important, I wondered whether the series would sustain my interest.
In recent years, I had begun to see films I knew I liked or those I strongly suspected I would; “Leave Her to Heaven”—a wonderfully malicious film noir from the underrated director John M. Stahl—belonged to the latter category, but “Jailhouse Rock” gave me pause. Not being an Elvis fan, I surely would have skipped the flick any other season. Yet I found myself enjoying the experience, even discreetly tapping my toes, which served as proof that most movies can be made palatable when seen in a place like the Ohio Theatre.
Several screenings took place during stormy evenings—nights I might have otherwise stayed home. But I was glad I forced myself to go. Watching Hitchcock's “I Confess” on such a night, I was reminded of the fun of being insulated from the weather in a cavernous theater. I also likely would have opted out of “The Shining” because the movie—albeit a favorite of mine—would be interrupted with segments featuring Fritz the Nite Owl; I objected to such intrusions, though I have to admit that the evening was kind of fun in a midnight-movie sort of way.
By the fifth full week of the series, I was surprised to find that I had settled into a routine. At the end of a long day of reporting and writing, I looked forward to a night at the movies; though I was spent after three or four shows in a row, I always had the first part of the week off. There were never movies Mondays or Tuesdays.
To my surprise, attendance never felt like an obligation—the movies were too good for that and the experiences too memorable. There was the pleasure of revisiting a staple like “To Kill a Mockingbird” and the joy of discovering a new favorite like “Dark Passage.” I will never forget the spontaneous applause at the first mention of John Glenn in “The Right Stuff” or the interview Clark Wilson conducted with the granddaughter of silent film star Harold Lloyd when “The Freshman” was shown.
Before I knew it, the finish line was in sight. The sixth full week featured the movie I most eagerly anticipated: Stanley Donen's flawless comic thriller “Charade,” with Cary Grant and Audrey Hepburn. The series had reached its climax, but there was another week remaining. Four more movies: the James Bond epic “For Your Eyes Only;” a comedy double bill (Bob Hope and the Marx Brothers) and, of course, “Shall We Dance.” I tried to enjoy all four, but the screenings were a little depressing: The series was about to wrap up, and I didn't want it to end.
Any yearly activity serves to mark the passage of time, and the CAPA Summer Movie Series is no exception. Those of us who attend regularly return each year as slightly different people—a little older, hopefully wiser—but the series stays the same, like those people on that giant screen. Bette Davis stills spits out, “Fasten your seatbelts, it's going to be bumpy night,” and Cary Grant and Audrey Hepburn still have chemistry that cannot be matched. And Fred and Ginger? They can still dance to beat the band.