This Is Where We Came In

October 1, 2019
Posted by Jay Livingston

Here’s a bit of cultural history — movie history — that you’re probably not aware of, even if you’re a cineaste (unless, perhaps, if you’re a cineaste who’s eligible to collect Social Security). It’s about what a movie is, or more accurately, it’s about the place movies occupy in our social and cultural lives.

When you go to the movies, it’s annoying when people arrive after the film has started. They crabwalk to their seats as everyone else in that row knee-twists to one side to let them by without spilling the popcorn. Even if you’re not in that row, your focus is unavoidably drawn away from what’s happening on the screen and toward the latecomers. It doesn’t happen often, what with the twenty minutes of trailers, and besides nobody wants miss any of the film.

But it hasn’t always been that way. It wasn’t until the mid- to late-1950s (just a guess, I have no actual historical data) that things began to change. Before that, it was not unusual for moviegoers to arrive well into the picture. In his memoir Let Me Finish, Roger Angell, who was born in 1920 and grew up in New York City, writes that when he was twelve or so, he started regularly ditching his after-school recreation program and sneaking off to the movies.

Mostly, I would turn up at the Orpheum or the 86th Street Garden while the second feature was in progress . . . Walking into the middle of movies was the common American thing during the double-feature era, and if one stayed the course, only minimal mental splicing was required to reconnect the characters and the plot of the initial feature when it rolled around again. The absence of the double bill has done away with this knack and has also expunged “I think this is where we came in” from the language — a better phrase, all in all, than “déjà vu,” and easier to pronounce.

I had forgotten. But reading that paragraph opened a childhood memory — not detailed and Proustian, just a moment in the dark theater with my family, hearing my mother or father whisper, “This is where we came in, isn’t it?” and all of us getting up and making our way out.

Why did things change? Angell blames it on the demise of the double-feature, and he implies that latecoming occurred mostly in the B-movie,* usually an uninspired genre picture. But I would guess that the norm of tolerating latecoming spanned the entire program, even when only one picture was on the bill (though that bill also included one or two previews, a newsreel, and a cartoon).

Here’s another guess for why mid-movie arrival was common: television, or rather the absence of television. Today, movies are special. They have had to keep one step ahead of TV. When TV was black-and-white, movies had color. Even today, movies have sex, violence, and language not allowed on broadcast TV. And even cable can’t produce the sound and screen size of the movies or, until very recently, the special effects and high-priced actors.

Before the mid-1950s, movies occupied some of the space now taken by television — everyday, ordinary entertainment. Today, in our homes we might turn on the TV to “see what’s on television,” not to see a particular show at a particular time. If it’s ten past the hour and we turn on the TV mid-program, that’s OK. (This was even more the case in the years before on-demand and the DVR.)

The movies were like that in the pre-television decades. People were less picky about what they saw. They often went “to the movies” rather than to a particular movie, especially if there was only one theater nearby.  And if they didn’t get to the theater exactly on time, that was OK.

It’s not that television allowed movies to become Art rather than Entertainment. Most people at the tenplex today aren’t thinking of what they’re seeing in terms of artistic categories. But even if movies are still entertainment, they fit into people’s lives in a way that’s different from that of the 1930s and 40s. And different as well are are the norms of going to the movies.


* I once asked my students if they’d seen or heard of Jerry Seinfeld’s “Bee Movie.” Several people raised their hands. Then I asked them if they understood the double meaning in the title. Nobody raised a hand.

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