Legends of Myself 59

Posted on January 29, 2013

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Hanging Tree59. Prince Rupert, 1959: Totem and Capitol

Gary Cooper at the Capitol.  Although my return to Prince Rupert brought me to a different part of town, I still regularly climbed the ridge at the back of downtown and over the hill to 8th Avenue where Old Pop lived.  My grandfather had relocated from the left side of the building to the right, into a single rather than a double room, but he still lived on the same floor in the same old unpainted building.

If any of my former friends and acquaintances were still around from my stay with Pop the year before, I have no recollection of reconnecting with them.  Perhaps at nine years old, and in an era before everybody had telephones, it was just too difficult to maintain regular playmates in an unconnected neighbourhood, even if only half a mile or so away.  Only my friend David appears in my memory as a companion from that period.

David, of course, as the son of one the owners of the Grand Café, had the run of the place.  I sometimes followed him behind the counter or into the kitchen, but the restaurant itself was hardly an important hangout for us.  I more often remember us kicking around upstairs or out back.  Behind the building, or actually, directly behind Eddie’s Newsstand next door, was a large rock outcropping.  Its existence contributed to the cramped feeling of that newsstand, I suppose, since there wasn’t much space between the rock and 2nd Avenue for the building to fit into.  David and I used to clamber on that rock once in a while.  Standing on the top of it you could see some of Prince Rupert’s harbour and look down on Eddie’s roof, since the building it was in was only a single story and our perch was higher.  That large outcropping has since been adapted to a minipark, I understand.

David and I shared an interest in comic books and movies.  I still remember going to the Capitol Theatre, but only one movie from the period remains in my mind, “The Hanging Tree.”  It featured a theme song of that title by Marty Robbins, which I suppose was my introduction to that artist, although another movie—which I am unable to name or date but was from around the same era—featured “A White Sports Coat (And a Pink Carnation),” which I only recall, I suspect, because I thought it was an odd song to introduce the Western shoot-‘em-up that I’d paid admission to see.  Country music wasn’t necessarily western music in my mind.

The movie “The Hanging Tree,” starring Gary Cooper, has as its setting a raw gold mining camp in hill country and tells the story of a doctor who assists a young fugitive, only to hold him in virtual bondage.

Because of the racial attitudes that underlie the genre I can hardly bear to watch any western movie anymore.  The attitudes tend to enter even stories where Aboriginal people are peripheral.  “The Hanging Tree” is such a one.  It tries to take itself seriously, as far as it goes, attempting characters of depth, addressing themes of control and human bondage.  The only Aboriginal representative, however, a chubby round-faced woman with pigtails and a pack on her back who is not given a speaking part, walks on-walks off a scene that more-or-less contradicts the movie’s argument.  The Gary Cooper character buys a house, and the seller offers to throw in the woman for an additional $5 gold coin.  Human bondage, buying and selling and control over other human beings, is fodder for drama when it involves Whites, but is tossed in for amusement and local colour when it involves Aboriginal women.

the-charlie-chaplin-revueOf course, I hardly noticed the moment in 1959 when I saw the movie then.  But what you see and don’t notice, you don’t question.  And what you don’t question, you believe.  That’s how cultural propaganda works.

The Little Tramp and Gershwin at the Totem.  That summer I also remember going to movies with my father at the Totem Theatre, further north along 3rd Avenue than the Capitol.  The theater was built and opened in 1950.  The building still stands, a little dilapidated, but it has long since stopped being used as a movie theatre.  When last I passed by, it was producing Bingo memories, and even that was a while ago.  My fondest memory of it as a movie theatre is discovering Chaplin there with my father.

I’m sure my father didn’t need to be introduced to the Little Tramp, not really, because he had a chance to remember him from the first time around.  He was of an age to catch the tail end of Chaplin’s silent period.  “Modern Times” was released in 1936 when my father was 16.  But Charlie Chaplin had been out of favour and out of view in North America for some time by 1959, having been virtually driven from the continent by the paranoid excesses of McCarthy era red-baiting.  But with Senator McCarthy in political purgatory and the Hollywood commie witch hunt subsiding, Charlie was ready to return from exile.  To reintroduce himself to North American audiences, he packaged up three of his silents, “Shoulder Arms,” “A Dog’s Life” and “The Pilgrim,” added a soundtrack and released them as “A Chaplin Revue.”

Nowadays Chaplin is readily available and much of what he has done is familiar to anybody who takes the time to go and look.  In 1959, his material must have been fresh and surprising again.  I remember sitting next to my father as he leaned in his seat holding his sides, slapping his knees, both of us helpless with laughter.

As an introduction, it worked.  In my family at least, Chaplin has never again been forgotten.

porgy-and-bess-posterThe other movie I remember seeing at the Totem with my father was “Porgy and Bess.”  It’s essentially a filmed stage musical, with theatrical sets which merely seemed fey to me at age nine, and with a theatrical rather than cinematic way of telling a story—that is, with sudden transitions of story from act to act with explanatory dialogue if you caught it but without the connecting scenes usual in a movie script, and with all the action taking place in set pieces as on a stage.  The missing transitions tended to confuse me, the stagy set pieces tended to feel confining, and the fact that it was a musical—not my favourite genre—tended to bore me.

I wasn’t the only one bored.  The movie was a flop, disliked by the African-American community for promoting negative racial stereotypes, and so disliked by the Gershwin estate that it was fundamentally withdrawn from circulation soon after release.  As an adult I might have advised a jazzier take on the music, instead of the swing-free, operatic version of Gershwin featured in the film.  But at nine years old jazz was not yet a selling point, so I don’t know whether that would have helped me enjoy it more back then.

However, I’m fairly sure the movie did have another consequence for me.  Its all Black cast, Dorothy Dandridge as Bess, Sidney Poitier as Porgy, Sammy Davis Jr. as Sporting Life, must have been the occasion for a discussion about anti-Black racism by my father.  I suppose this not because I actually remember the discussion but because of something that happened a little while later.

I saw a black child, a boy with dark African skin and features, about my age or a little younger, which was a rare sight in Prince Rupert at the time.  I remember upon seeing him feeling a little pleasure inside, and the sense that, hey, I’m on your side whoever you are.

I think that response was the result of a lesson given and learned, although, at that point of my life, I hadn’t quite worked out the theory yet.  I just knew that if people were going to be unkind to people who looked like that little boy, for whatever reason they might have, and I can’t say I understood it, I wasn’t going to be one of them.

Posted in: autobiography