1939 is considered by many film fans to be the greatest in film history.
When you take a look at the movies of that particular year, it’s no wonder ’39 has that reputation.
Gone With the Wind…The Wizard of Oz…Mr. Smith Goes to Washington…Gunga Din…Ninotchka…Stagecoach…Dark Victory…The Rules of the Game…Of Mice and Men…The Women…and the list goes on.
There’s no doubt that 1939 was indeed a great one—perhaps the finest in movie history.
But being born in the baby boomer year of 1957, one year sticks out to me while growing up. And it was 1963. That was when an impressionable seven-year-old became totally absorbed and utterly fascinated by movies.
In fact, as I peruse the offerings of 1963, I am astonished how many of these I saw in the theaters, whether they be neighborhood bijous, drive-in theaters or the grand movie palaces of downtown Philadelphia.
If you go by awards and chitchat, 1963 was the year of the randy Oscar-winner Tom Jones with Albert Finney and Liz and Dick in the elephantine epic Cleopatra, a film that, to this day, I have not seen in its entirety.
But if you go by a movie-obsessed kid growing up in Northeast Philly, other movies released back then made even bigger impacts.
What a year! Alfred Hitchcock scared the bejesus out of us with The Birds, turning our fine, feathery friends into our flesh-plucking enemies. What youngster isn’t traumatized by the infamous “schoolyard” scene in which the flying monsters attack the kids? Or the haunting, up-in-air ending? Did they get out…or not?
Speaking of birds—of a different feather—there’s Bye Bye Birdie, the energetic film version of the Broadway hit with Dick Van Dyke, Janet Leigh, Maureen Stapleton and Paul Lynde, putting on a happy face amidst the music, and 22-year-old Ann-Margret’s kittenish teenager Kim making sure that certain members of the audience put on a happy face, no matter what age.
Another entry from the animal factory: Flipper, with rugged Rifleman Chuck Connors as the fisherman who learns to love and trust his son’s highly intelligent pet dolphin. Everyone loved the king of the sea–especially me!
Sean Connery returned in the guise of James Bond in From Russia with Love, a film that I couldn’t follow at the time, but still appreciated the villainy of Robert Shaw and Lotta Lenya (but not “old Lucy Brown”) nonetheless. Down the road, my older self got the storyline, and admired the early series entry’s stab at going for a more serious, espionage-oriented approach.
Epics came in no short supply in 1963 and, when shown on the gigantic single screen of Northeast Philadelphia’s recently opened Orleans Theater (“Parking for thousands!”), they truly were something special and often spectacular.
There was How the West Was Won, a sonic boom of a movie, with interlocking sequences depicting cattle drives, Civil War battles, the building of the railroad, runaway white water rafting, an incredible all-star cast, and expansive visuals painting the spectacle of American history. While the Orleans was not equipped to present the film in true Cinerama, it was nonetheless incredibly impressive.
Also in the historical mold is 55 Days in Peking, a look at the Boxer Rebellion in 1900 China, a spectacle with no shortage of star power: Charlton Heston, Ava Gardner, David Niven and a host of great British character actors. It’s the sort of movie that can enthrall you and teach you something about the past at the same time, courtesy of producer Samuel Bronston, who specialized in this sort of thing (El Cid, The Fall of the Roman Empire).
Meanwhile, The Great Escape was the sort of war spectacle that made the boys in the audience feel like men. After all, it boasted “Cooler King” Steve McQueen’s iconic motorcycle leap, meta-male actors James Coburn, Charles Bronson and James Garner as POWS trying to dig their way out of a Nazi camp with help from Brits Richard Attenborough and Donald Pleasance, and Elmer Bernstein’s triumphant march-oriented score.
Even the comedies were being grown big in ’63. Witness the biggest comedy of them all—Stanley Kramer’s It’s a Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World, a massive chase film with loads of stars (Sid Caesar! Milton Berle! Spencer Tracy! Ethel Merman! Dick Shawn! Phil Silvers! Dorothy Provine! Buddy Hackett! Mickey Rooney! Edie Adams!). Of course, I wanted to see more of the Three Stooges and Jerry Lewis. But the rest of the amazing, cameo-heavy cast—Arnold Stang, Jesse White, Joe E. Brown—was akin to a Friar’s Club meeting on the big, big, big screen.
Not all comedies were filmed on such a grand scale. Some of the others which still resonate: Come Blow Your Horn, with Frank Sinatra showing brother Tony Bill how to be cool; Jerry Lewis teaching himself how to be cool in his masterpiece, The Nutty Professor, and playing a dog walker who takes on various jobs at a department store—badly—in Who’s Minding the Store; Danny Kaye played The Man from the Diner’s Club; and Frankie and Annette and motorcycle gang leader Eric Von Zipper (SNAP!) got sand in their feet during their Beach Party.
Countless matinees at the Orleans, as well as Castor Avenue’s Castor, Tyson and Benner Theaters, brought me up close to horror, sci-fi and fantasy for the first time.
My first impressions:
Black Sabbath: Boris Karloff in “The Wudrulak” freaked me out.
The Haunted Palace: Karloff + Lon Chaney, Jr.+ Edgar Allan Poe + Roger Corman=Awesome!
The Haunting: Still one of the scariest films ever made. Now I get the lesbian subtext.
Jason and the Argonauts: Must’ve seen it at least seven times in theaters, and still watch whenever it’s shown on TV. Those damn harpies!
The Raven: Vincent Price + Peter Lorre + Boris Karloff+ Edgar Allan Poe + Roger Corman=Awesome.
X: The Man with the X-Ray Eyes: Ray Milland is the scientist with the peek-a-boo powers, looking through women’s dresses, cheating at gambling and working at a circus. With Don Rickles and the great Dick Miller, directed by Roger Corman. Tremendous.
As I go through the list of 1963 releases, I see plenty more, from classic westerns to groundbreaking foreign films, from Elvis romps to Doris Day rom-coms.
Let us know your favorite films from 50 years ago– 1963 to be precise.