Have you noticed that there’s a new “Jane Eyre” movie at Canal Place now? I’ve probably seen seven or eight versions of the Charlotte Bronte novel — they say there’ve been 18 — but I wouldn’t miss it.
I got a copy of “Jane Eyre” for my 13th birthday, and of course I thought Mr. Rochester had to be dashing and wildly handsome, even though Bronte made it pretty plain that he wasn’t. Orson Welles in that role turned me off , but when Timothy Dalton came along, it was heaven.
Ads for this new film got me thinking about all the performers I’ve seen over the years. My mother took us to the movies every Sunday afternoon, just after we’d gotten home from church and had lunch. Nobody in the little Texas town we lived in thought it was a sin to go to the movies on Sunday; we found out that it was when we moved to another state, but by then we didn’t care much.
Mother’s favorite stars were Joan Crawford (HBO is doing a remake of “Mildred Pierce,” which I had to have seen although I was too young to remember it), Bette Davis and Lana Turner. We’d go to the picture shows — that‘s what everybody called them then — any time of the afternoon we felt like it, and if we arrived in the middle of a movie we’d just watch the second half and the ending and then wait in the theater for the first half to come around. Can you imagine?
When I was 14 or 15, everybody got television sets and my mother got her “picture show” fix by watching the really good hour-long dramas on the tube. These “theaters” spelled financial horror for Hollywood, but teenagers like me were loyal to the big screen. And, of course, the even bigger screen — at the drive-in movie. (Jimmy F. gave me my first kiss at The Beverly on highway 49, but that’s another column.)
Around this time we were seeing Bob Hope and Bing Crosby in their “road” shows, Humphrey Bogart as a private eye and Danny Kaye as a court jester and none of them was dashing and wildly handsome. Neither were Henry Fonda, Cary Grant or Gary Cooper, at least as far as I was concerned. The trouble was, they were just too old for me; I didn’t fall in love until the incomparable Paul Newman arrived.
The other day my brother-in-law e-mailed me a video of Hope and James Cagney dancing on a long table top at some Hollywood event. Probably a celebrity roast. They were absolutely great! Then I watched a YouTube video of Sinatra, Sammy Davis Jr., Dean Martin and an impossibly young Johnny Carson hoofing, singing and kidding with one another in front of a cracked-up orchestra and theater audience.
Why do performers from the past look so fabulous? Current celebrities could learn something here. Of course none of the kids would appreciate it.
Could it possibly be that since I’m now 75 and a golden oldie myself, anything that comes from the era when I was growing up, finding a career, getting married and having kids has that bright glint of the precious metal? Hey, 50 years ago I certainly didn’t think Hope and Cagney were as terrific as I do now. They were old men to me ,and Cooper and Grant weren’t the handsome dudes I see on Turner Classic movies now.
But some of their movies were real duds by today’s standards. Even Robert Osborne would have to admit that — if it fit into his job description. Flimsy and improbable plots and endings, walk-through acting jobs by icons — I’m no Roger Ebert; I can’t begin to tell you.
Yes, I think movie makers tell the stories better today, even though the best of the oldest are sentimental favorites with me. And they skipped over some of the details I’d really rather not see (the recent “Blue Valentine” comes to mind; it’s pretty graphic for an old woman who remembers that “The Moon is Blue“ was banned in Boston because it used the word “virgin.”). Yes, when Gregory Peck and Ingrid Bergman walked down a long hall toward a lighted door, you knew where they were going and why.
I wonder what Jane Eyre and Mr. Rochester will get up to this time around.
Bettye Anding is a former editor of the Living section of The Times Picayune, for which she wrote “Silver Threads” until her retirement. Email comments to her at firstname.lastname@example.org.