My fear of giants dates from 1952, when my mother took my brother and me to see Jack and the Beanstalk with Bud Abbott and Lou Costello. I was five years old and did not see all of the film, because every time the giant could be heard approaching, I ducked out of sight. We did not have a television at home; I was unfamiliar with the notion of someone who seemed real, but who was not really real.
I don’t think the next movie helped. In 1953, we saw The Charge at Feather River with Guy Madison and what seemed like thousands of angry Indians. The film was in 3D so scary stuff really did seem to be coming out after me. No giant this time, but lots of flying arrows, knives, spears and tomahawks. I probably screamed, and in a room full of people wearing 3D glasses for the first time, I was probably not alone.
Unwittingly, I was an ear-witness to an interesting piece of cinematic history. The Charge at Feather River featured an early appearance of the “Wilhelm scream,” named for a “Private Wilhelm” in the movie who took an arrow to the thigh and let out a scream that was first heard in the 1951 movie Distant Drums when a man was bitten by an alligator. The scream, a stock sound effect in the Warner Brothers library, was recorded by actor Sheb Wooley. Much-loved by filmmakers, it’s been used in more than 200 movies since 1951, including all of the Star Wars and Indiana Jones films.
And another interesting sidelight: In Distant Drums, the heroes are rescuing white women taken by the Seminole Indians, while in The Charge at Feather River, the heroes are rescuing white women taken by the Cheyenne Indians, one of whom has gone native and is set to wed Chief Thunder Hawk. But I digress.
The following year, we saw The Naked Jungle – no giants, no arrows, just millions of voracious army ants, the dread marabunta, devouring South American foliage and slow-footed humans, with nothing but Charlton Heston standing between me and their frenzied mandibles. That movie still creeps me out.
Fortunately, my fourth movie, which I saw in 1955 with my Aunt Rhea and cousins Daryl and Snookie, had no giants, arrows or ants, just guns. How to Be Very, Very Popular is a story about two “hoochie koochie” dancers, played by Betty Grable and Sheree North, who witness a shooting at a club in San Francisco’s Chinatown and flee to a college campus. Reviewers found it anemic, tepid, shrill, desperate and dull, with terrible acting, ugly decor, poor cinematography and the spectacle of Grable pretending to be 15 years younger. At the time, I thought it was delightful, but then, I was eight years old, and my critical faculties had not yet reached the level of refinement they enjoy today.
At the age of nine (I did not get out very much), it was Lady and the Tramp with my mother, and nobody died. What a relief. The next year, we continued our swing to the right with a viewing of The Ten Commandments. While many Jewish slaves and Egyptian charioteers died, we almost saw God.
In 1958, I hit puberty and saw South Pacific. My mother loved musicals, and the “Bali Hai” number revealed to me that there was more to life than winter in Buffalo. In 1959, I saw North by Northwest, my first Alfred Hitchcock film, the beginning of a lifelong love affair with Hitch’s films and that one in particular. And that same year, a miracle, a second film. My mother and I were shopping downtown, and as we approached the Lafayette Theater, she said, “How would you like to see a movie?” The movie was The Mummy, the Hammer Films version with Peter Cushing and Christopher Lee, and I almost swooned with happiness.
And then in 1960, although I was not allowed to see Hitchcock’s Psycho, I was allowed to go downtown with my friends, on the bus, without an adult (!), and we saw Ocean’s Eleven. To a 13-year-old boy, the Rat Pack was the very essence of cool, and it didn’t strike me as odd that Sammy Davis Jr. would sing about his army unit to an audience of garbage collectors.
After that, the movies started coming at me once a week, not once a year, and there was no going back.