Tag Archives: charles laughton

For the Love of Old Films: Bill and Home Sweet Country Home

This Memorial Day afternoon, I took a walk in Mountain View Cemetery in Oakland and on my way back along Piedmont Ave, I noticed to my dismay that the shop of my favorite antique dealer had closed. This was a shop that I used to frequent in the days before I worked 9-5, and I had developed a close rapport with the owner, a man named Bill. I wanted to tell his story here.

Bill (I never knew his last name) had owned Home Sweet Country Home for at least 2 decades. He was a 90+-year-old eccentric who smoked like a chimney, had about 5 teeth, and though I used to come in almost every day, he never remembered me from one day to the next.  He originally hailed from Texas, and was proud of it. In the 1940s, he had owned stock in Warner Bros, so he knew all the movie stars and had stories about everyone. Not all his stories were entirely reliable, but I loved listening to him and always came away with brilliant quotes. One of his stories had to do with Leo the Lion escaping MGM wearing dentures, and sitting at the front door of Sears to roar at customers. Another was about how he saw Charles Laughton mowing the lawn with an old lawnmower, and how he ran into Bette Davis on the street smoking a cigarette. When I mentioned Jennifer Jones and what a hard life she had, he memorably answered “Well, she was from Tulsa…”

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The shop itself reflected Bill’s eccentricity. It always smelled like cigarette smoke. Books about Carole Lombard and Jane Fonda were interspersed with southern cooking manuals, presidential biographies, and board games from the 1950s. It was only open from 11 AM to 3 PM. Since he never remembered me, every day I would patiently introduce myself, who I was, what my favorite movies were, and relate some stories so that he would know that I was here to talk about the movies with him. We would frequently spend 3 or more hours chatting about movie trivia, movie songs, and exchanging tidbits about our favorite actors.

Bill didn’t know how to use the internet, so although I told him about Backlots, I’m sure he never visited. Home Sweet Country Home is nowhere to be found on Yelp or any major website, and I was usually his only customer for the day. Sometimes someone would wander in, look around, and then wander out. I never saw anyone else buy anything. I really went in just to talk to him, but I was always sure to buy something when I was in there. He usually had a few magazines, and that’s usually what I got. It makes me sad, but I doubt that many people notice that the store is now gone.

One of my favorite magazines, a 1941 Life Magazine with Gene Tierney on the cover, is from Home Sweet Country Home.

Though I don’t know for sure, my guess is that Bill is now gone, too. He was never in good health, but he kept his shop open anyway–in spite of his ill health, in spite of his lack of customers. He must have bought the building outright ages ago, as he was able to keep Home Sweet Country Home open through the meteoric rise of the Bay Area rental market. It was for the love of movies and antiques that he ran his shop, and I wanted to write this piece to toast to him and to everyone who dedicates themselves to the love of movies–when there are no customers, when there is nothing to gain–the “Bills” of the world persist out of sheer enthusiasm.

After every story, Bill used to brighten and tell me “I just love all those old films!” I was glad to be witness to it, and I will keep the memory of Bill and his shop in my mind always, as evidence of one person’s devotion to what he loves.

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Backlots at Noir City X-Mas–O. HENRY’S FULL HOUSE

Hello, readers! I’m coming to you from Los Angeles International Airport, where I am off to France for a few weeks. But before I go, and given that it’s Christmas tomorrow, I want to give you my report of Noir City X-Mas, which I attended last week at San Francisco’s Castro Theatre.

Noir City is a San Francisco tradition. The main festival attracts film fans nationwide, and has become an integral part of San Francisco film culture. San Francisco itself has a noir feel to it, and has been the setting for many key films of the genre, so it seems fitting that this city has the honor of hosting Noir City every year.

And for the past 5 years, film fans have enjoyed an extension on the main Noir City festival–Noir City X-Mas, in which Christmas-themed noir films (or Christmas-themed films with a noir connection) are shown at the Castro Theatre. This year I attended with a friend of mine, and we enjoyed a showing of a film I have been wanting to see for many years.

O. Henry’s Full House (1952) is not a noir per se (though one sequence certainly is), but, as Noir City founder Eddie Muller pointed out beforehand, the history of the author O. Henry is one right out of the noir playbook. Employed by the First National Bank of Austin in 1891, he was charged with embezzlement in the mid-1890s and spent three years in jail, where he wrote many of his stories. The movie consists of a series of short vignettes, all written by O. Henry and featuring a smattering of the brightest stars in Hollywood. A young Marilyn Monroe appears alongside Charles Laughton, Anne Baxter alongside Jean Peters, Jeanne Crain with Farley Granger, and Fred Allen with Oscar Levant, in a very funny sequence that was originally cut from the film called “The Ransom of Red Chief.”

Fred Allen and Oscar Levant, perhaps two of the dryest comedians ever to exist, seem a match made in cinematic heaven. But for 1952 audiences, their comedic stylings were too much to handle. Described by Eddie Muller as “postmodern” comedians ahead of their time, many of the jokes in “The Ransom of Red Chief” went over the heads of 1952 audiences and hence the sketch was deemed a waste. But today, this sequence is uproariously funny and a supreme example of O. Henry’s legendary ironic wit. The story of two drifters who scheme to kidnap a child for ransom and their choosing of the most ill-behaved child in town, both Allen and Levant are at the top of their game and the little boy looks to be having a ball of a time playing the most obnoxious child on the planet.

The highlight of the movie is perhaps its best-known sequence, “The Gift of the Magi,” in which Jeanne Crain and Farley Granger are a poor couple very much in love with each other, but with little money for Christmas presents. Desperately wanting to give the other a gift, each of them makes a huge sacrifice–Jeanne Crain cuts and sells her hair while Farley Granger pawns his beloved watch. Their presents for each other? A watch holder and a barrette. Though initially rather materialistic in tone, the sketch ends on a humanistic tone, in which each of them realizes that their love is enough.

All sequences feature wonderful twist endings, and each one is introduced by none other than John Steinbeck, who is the perfect accidental curmudgeon with his pipe, raspy voice, and cranky expression. It’s great fun to see Steinbeck on film, in his only film appearance despite so many of his novels turned into movies.

Thank you to the Film Noir Foundation, for giving us Noir City X-Mas for these past few years. I very much look forward to next year!