When Movies Mattered — and Dialogue Reigned Supreme

My day gig at the American Film Institute plugged me in to the early days of Hollywood writing — where conversation sizzled

I once had a job at the American Film Institute movie theater in Washington, D.C., inside the Kennedy Center, selling tickets in the one-man box office.

It was a late afternoon shift, and the pay in those days was about $1.85 per hour. Sure the pay was low, but the perks were great: I was able to see as many films as I wanted during my off-days and in between shifts, and I think I saw almost every black-and-white movie ever made during my AFI gig.

Movies aren't just the same anymore. Well, of course not, and we all know that. But one thing that has changed much more than the movie technology or the digitalization wizardry or the special effects is the way movies were written.

Repeat: written.

In the old movies, dialog reigned supreme. Words mattered. Sure, plot was important, and character development and story arc and act three and the denouement, but what stood out in almost every old movie I saw at the AFI in those days was the writing, the dialog.

The conversations always sizzled. Whoever the writers were — and some were famous novelists, others unknowns that toiled in the early days of Hollywood — they knew how to create movie dialog.

The dialogs soared even higher when name stars were behind them: Bogart, Hepburn, Cary Grant, James Stewart, Claudette Colbert. (Note: Jon Stewart? Steve Colbert? Is someone re-releasing old names on us?)

"It Happened One Night," "It's a Wonderful World," "My Home Town." I saw them all at during my AFI gig in Washington, and it more than made up for my miserable salary and cramped box office work space. But this wonderful odd job in a lifetime of odd jobs was one of the best I ever had because of the movies.

Talk about "Cinema Paradiso"! I had my own private cinema paradise down there in the lobby of the Kennedy Center, just a hop skip and a jump from the not-yet-famous Watergate complex along the Potomac River.

I lived in a rooming house on Capitol Hill, just four blocks from the Supreme Court, and I used my AFI job to land part-time cartooning jobs at the Washington Star and the Washington Post. Like I said, the pay was low, but I was in high spirits most of the time because of the free movies I was able to see — day and night, and to my young heart's
delight!

Then there was the night I almost got fired: George Stevens was hosting some kind of VIP screening for Washington bigwigs, and my special job that night was to "bicycle" the huge reels of rolled celluloid from the main screening room on the first floor to the smaller VIP
room on the 5th floor.

Stevens would start a the film in the main theater with a 20-minute or so delay for the same film to be shown upstairs, and I had to "bicycle" up each reel as soon as the first one ended.

And the VIPS were waiting, and they weren't just anybodies. No, they were Henry Kissinger, Teddy Kennedy, Sally Quinn, Ben Bradlee, Art Buchwald, Diana McClellan, the creme de la creme of Washington high society — and here was little Danny Bloom working as a bicycle boy for George Stevens, Junior.

To make a long story short: As I was going up the elevator for my first bicycle run, who should get in the crowded lift with me than Dr. Kissinger himself.

This was during the Viet Nam War days, or just after, and so Henry was not my favorite man and I had no desire to get his autograph or even talk to him — other than to say something like "Nice war, Henry!"

But I kept my cool and said nothing. I wrote everything down in my memory and watched as the heavy elevator lifted slowly … to the fifth floor of the US Embassy roof in Saigon … snap … back to reality, Danny!

Well, given the crowded conditions of the VIP elevator, I was a bit late bicycling the starting reel of the movie to the projection room on time, and George Stevens was about to have my head on a plate right then and there, and I do remember him screaming something or other at me for being such "a slow lazy (expletives deleted) bicycle boy."

I didn't mind. I had seen the enemy up close and personal, and I had stood my ground. Henry Kissinger was no friend of mine. That was then, this is now.

But let's go back to the movies: the writers, the wordsmiths, the poets, the playwrights, the dialog masters, and my day job at the AFI box office. Movies from the 1940s and 1950s were a writer's minefield.

Words winged off the screen! Conversations conversed! Wit reigned! Movies mattered.

I'm almost 100 years old now. It's getting late, and it's getting dark outside.

Sure, I'm kidding, but in a way, I'm not. Movies once mattered, and they still do, sure, but now they have other considerations. It's a different ballgame now, and the writers have
long retired to the clubhouse to gloat and to gripe.

Cinema paradise has been replaced by movie muggles. Am I getting old or did the world just pass me by?