The more I embark down the road of my cinema addiction, the more I realise that I have, for too long, been just confining myself to the latest Hollywood blockbusters. Moving to an area with one (now two) good quality arthouse cinemas to complement the multiplexes has helped me no end, and also setting myself the goal of seeing large numbers of films has encouraged me to expand my horizons. For me, the distinction is not that I’m watching the kind of movies I’ve never watched before, but until now I may not have chosen to watch them in a cinema.
I’ve also been guilty until recently of another kind of shameful snobbery – while my broad tastes now take in everything from the broadly experimental to the mainstream, I had held off on catching classic movies at the cinema, for fear that in watching those I would lose the time to watch modern day fare where it should be watched. I had also assembled quite a series of the classics, which sit in my DVD collection and are just waiting for me to find the time. But my ethos is, of course, that any and every film is improved by watching in the cinema, so why would I ignore the golden oldies? (The answer is, of course, because I’m an idiot.)
So yesterday, instead of the possibilities of Angelina and Johnny or any of the other latest releases, I settled down at the British Film Institute for a screening of a film that came out the year my mother was born and while we were last still at war with Germany. Yes, in case you didn’t guess from the picture at the top, I watched The Shop Around The Corner, the classic from 1940 with Margaret Sullavan and James Stewart. It’s what today would be described as high concept – two co-workers are writing letters to each other and are falling in love, but neither knows the other’s real identity and neither can actually stand the other when face to face. It’s such a good story that it’s been remade twice, including a musical and a Tom Hanks vehicle and it even provided the setting for “Are You Being Served?” (Insert your own joke about stroking pussies here.)
Great concept, fantastic leading actors, but I can imagine that this would appeal at face value to a fairly limited audience, which is a shame because there’s so much to admire. Stewart is, unsurprisingly, great in an effortless way that’s made him one of the finest actors ever to grace the screen, but beyond Margaret Sullivan there’s strength in depth. It’s a slightly more theatrical style than modern audiences are used to, but then modern audiences should probably go to the theatre more. However, it’s oddly topical, being concerned with issues of employment that will feel relevant to anyone at the hard end of the current economic crisis, and it’s seasonal, concluding as it does on Christmas Eve. And while it may be not as dark as It’s A Wonderful Life, there’s still real depth here.
What was totally heart-warming for me, though, is that the screening I was at was completely sold out, and it was just the matinee. The packed crowd also had a great time, that modern rarity of good characters and humour developed out of situations proving a winning combination and there was more laughter during the screening than at any other comedy I’ve seen this year. (Yes, even than Hot Tub Time Machine.) As long as movies like this exist, there must be places where like minded people can gather and get the most from the experience of losing themselves in the glare of the big screen, and where the cinema experience and what it can add to a movie is instantly validated. The tragedy is that while I’m lucky to have screens near me with repertory seasons and the ability to be in London in an hour and a bit, there’s too many people for which The Cinema Round The Corner is stuck on a diet of increasingly soulless modern rom-coms. So if this, or any other classic comes to your area, be sure to give it your support.