December 10, 2009

The Big Grand Theory of Everything (or how "Who Framed Roger Rabbit?" started me on the road to Retroville)

How did I become a RetroHead? This is my theory:

See, when I was a kid, there was a bit of a retro phase going on in Hollywood. From about 1988 to 1994, there were several movies released that were either aimed at young audiences or were at least appropriate for young audiences and they all dealt in one way or another with retro culture and a retro world. Many were set "back in the day" (1930s/40s/50s); many often had ties to retro culture or made reference to retro things or had a retro sensibility (kids TV shows in particular were filled with retro references). And most importantly, even though these movies and TV shows were set forty, fifty, sixty years in the past, they were meant to entertain children. In other words, when I was a kid, the world of the past (the world my grandparents grew up in) was a perfectly appropriate world in which to tell a story. There was nothing weird or highfalutin' or eccentric about telling stories to kids and setting those stories in the Depression era, or the WWII era, or the Eisenhower '50s.

Not that I've done a scientific study of the thing, but I don't believe this is really the case anymore. Most (if not all) of the current entertainment for kids is set in the present day, or the future, or if they're going to go back in time at all, (God help us) the 1970s. In other words, for kids today, the era of the "Greatest Generation" is simply not on their radar in terms of popular culture. Whereas, when I was a young gal of ten I was watching the 1990 "Dick Tracy" movie, the one set in a primary-colored 1930s world of gangsters and dames, or "Tiny Toon Adventures" with their references to "Citizen Kane" and "Invasion of the Body Snatchers." Those eras of the past were alive to me in a way I just don't think they are for kids who grew up in the late 90s and the 2000s.

And it's weird, because it really was just a little pocket of movies and shows that came along at just the right time -- my formative years, from age seven to age fourteen -- that I feel contributed to my fascination with and love of the America of my grandparents and the "Golden Age" of Hollywood. It seemed like from 1988 to 1994 there was at least one movie each year that was set in the first half of the 20th century and, if it wasn't directly aimed at kids, it was at least rated PG or PG-13 so a kid could see it. I'm talking about "Who Framed Roger Rabbit?", "Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade," "Dick Tracy," "A League of Their Own," "The Rocketeer," "The Babe," "Swing Kids," "Radioland Murders," Back to the Future Part II," "The Shadow," Bette Midler's version of "Gypsy" on television, "The Hudsucker Proxy," etc. And let me tell you, I was obsessed with "Dick Tracy" and "The Rocketeer." I had action figures, comic books, I used to practice drawing the characters in my sketch pad (these were in the days when I wanted to be a cartoonist) -- instead of playing "cops and robbers" with my friends, I was always trying to get them to play "Dick Tracy vs. Flat Top."

Also, the retro look of "Batman: The Animated Series" cannot be overestimated here. That show was like after-school crack for me back in the day -- and believe me, I noticed the 1930s cars and the art deco buildings even if the show wasn't specifically set in the past. It was all part of the swirl of retro that was going on at the time -- everything, it seemed, was coated in a style and a sensibility that said "Old Time Americana," "World War II Generation," "Fedoras and Tommy Guns," "Jitterbugging and Zoot Suits." It was part of the culture I grew up in and for whatever reason I was tuned into all this stuff when it came out -- I fell in love with the retro worlds depicted in these movies and shows, long before I ever watched any old movies besides the usual kids-stuff of "The Wizard of Oz."

Anyway, that's my theory as to why I got into old movies and old retro culture and history. The tracks were laid, the way was prepared by the movies and TV shows I watched as a child -- new, popular movies and TV shows that nevertheless were set in older times and had a retro sensibility. It was easy to make the jump from the 1990 "Dick Tracy" to the 1930s Warner Bros gangster pictures -- I'd been softened up by Warren Beatty's version of the past, pretty soon I was ready for the real, 100% pure, authentic stuff. Because of the new movies and shows I was watching at the time, it wasn't hard to find my way into the old movies and shows. I might have been eleven years old, a Reagan baby with a side pony tail who'd never seen a real fedora hat except in the movies -- but it was because of those movies that I was able to feel comfortable in a world where men wore fedoras all the time and women wore their 1940s hair piled high in improbable shapes. Those retro movies of the late 80s/early 90s made the past seem enticing, interesting, wonderful, strange -- they made that past a place I wanted to return to again and again. It was easy to see where the next retro fix would come from: When it seemed like Hollywood had stopped making movies like "The Rocketeer" for a young imaginative girl like me, all I needed to do was find some old black and white adventure movie with Errol Flynn or Bogie and it was just the same -- in fact, it was better.

For a kid growing up today, these kinds of movie experiences are practically gone. Hollywood doesn't make any movies aimed at kids that are set in the 20s, 30s, or 40s. Heck, I can't think of the last time they set a movie in the 50s that was aimed at kids either (and if they do set it in the 50s, you can bet your bottom dollar it will be to show how "unenlightened" and "repressive" that era was, blech!). I think my little bubble, from '88 to '94, was an anomaly, but it was an amazing anomaly. I think without it, without those movies, I wouldn't have become the retrohead that I am today.

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