The ushering in of the new millennium marked the end of an era of iconic screen legends who drew audiences to the cinema halls of Calcutta as it then was. In those days under the British, the best of Hollywood films came to the city and set the silver screen on fire. In 1939, Metro cinema now closed to the public, opened it portals with the screening of Gone With The Wind starring Clark Gable, Vivian Leigh and Leslie Howard.
My mother, only 19 at the time, was infatuated by the lead stars, especially Gable. Of course, my maternal aunt Baruna who was seven years older and already married, accompanied her to the premiere show at Metro. My aunt preferred Leslie Howard, the second hero. Gable of course stole the show with his romantic matinee idol screen image.
My aunt, once a brilliant student of the Presidency College, may have preferred Howard because of the British actor’s small eyes which were similar to hers in size. This difference of reaction between my mother and aunt was of course a matter of personal choice.
Another American screen icon my mother admired was the handsome Gary Cooper who looked like a Greek God with his angelic blue eyes. She would never miss a film of his whether it be For Whom The Bell Tolls, High Noon, Beau Geste, Love in the Afternoon and his last film with Deborah Kerr, The Naked Edge screened at the Lighthouse in the early 1960s. She viewed all those Hollywood movies only because of Gary Cooper. Do we have such star value in this new millennium? Are stars of today really worthy of such reverence? Today, no films whether in Hollywood, Bollywood or Tollywood measure up to more than one viewing unlike those of the past which could be seen several times.
Take for instance the 1962 Hollywood blockbuster, Agatha Christie’s murder mystery Witness for the Prosecution, screened at Lighthouse which my elder brother Amit viewed six times when he was still a student of St Xavier’s school aged 16. The film became so popular that block bookings had to be arranged weeks in advance. It was all because of the brilliant performances from Tyrone Power, Marlene Dietrich, Elsa Lancaster and of course Charles Laughton who may be deemed screen icons of yesteryears.
My elder brother was so enamored by Witness for the Prosecution that he quoted one-liners from the film such as “You habitual liar!” by the portly Charles Laughton while addressing the accused in the role of a barrister, and “Want to kiss me ducky” mouthed by Marlene Dietrich, as the wife in disguise doubling up as the blackmailer. The other two films of that iconic age that vied for attention were The Ten Commandments and Ben Hur screened at Lighthouse and the now moribund Metro in the early 60s. Charlton Heston singly carried both the films on his shoulders. Heston’s screen persona was an instant hit and, whose star value remains well ensconced as the American actor who had set the cash registers ringing. Of course who could forget the magnetically handsome Tyrone Power as the plagued husband of Dietrich in Witness for the Prosecution.
Yul Brynner, who replaced him in the lead role of the wise king Solomon in Solomon and Sheba opposite Gina Lollobrigida when he died during the shooting of the film, was no match to Power’s screen persona. I still remember the poster of the film Edi Duchin’s Story showcased at Tiger cinema where Tyrone Power was cast opposite Kim Novak.
Talking about posters while residing in Palace Court in Kyd Street, I would come across cinema posters during my childhood years just in front of GK Sports to publicise Hollywood films screened at Lighthouse cinema.
My elder brother’s passion for western classical music drove us to view Song without End with Dirk Bogard as Franz Lizt screened at Globe cinema. He kept me spellbound with his role as the Hungarian composer-pianist. Elizabeth Taylor lent her presence as the ravishing concert pianist opposite Vittorio Gassman in the film Rhapsody which I viewed with my family and since then she has been my favourite screen icon.
Of course, who could forget Gregory Peck, Rock Hudson, Kirk Douglas, Richard Burton and Cary Grant teamed with screen goddesses like Audrey Hepburn, Sophia Loren, Ava Gardener, Rita Hayworth, Marilyn Monroe, Greta Garbo, Joan Crawford and Jean Harlow. The iconic screen image of stars from both Bollywood and Tollywood such as Ashok Kumar, Dilip Kumar, Raj Kapoor and Dev Anand along with Madhubala, Nutan, Waheeda Rehman, Meena Kumari, Nargis, the Uttam-Suchitra pair, Kanan Devi, Pramathesh Barua, Soumitra Chatterjee and Biswajit, cannot be compared because of the superior packaging of films from Hollywood.
During those days, adult films were out of bounds for minors. My elder sister Dipa who was hardly 15 somehow managed to sneak into Come September with Rock Hudson and Gina Lollobrigida screened during the early 1960s at Metro Cinema. She entered with her elderly uncle, with her head covered in a scarf and a thick layer of red lipstick that escaped the notice of the manager Mr Hafisjee, a strict disciplinarian.
The scenario today with the winding up cinema halls and their replacement by multiplexes with expensive ticket prices marks the end of an era. We are left with DVDs and CDs that we can view at home to revive old memories.