What movies tell us about ourselves

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  • John DiLeo at his recent book signing (Photo by Linda Fields)

By Linda Fields

— Listen to John DiLeo talk about classic Hollywood movies, and you hear the passion in his voice.

DiLeo, a Milford resident, is a film historian and critic whose new book, his sixth, on the Golden Age of movies, promises to enlighten even the most astute film scholar. "Ten Movies at a Time" covers the period from 1930 to 1970, referencing 350 movies — identifying trends, genres, and sub-genres, and how they reflect or were influenced by the American historical and cultural landscape at the time they were made.

“It's my alternative, idiosyncratic history of the glory days of Hollywood,” said DiLeo, who focused on 350 representative movies. "In the process, I tell the parallel story of America itself.... It's certainly my most ambitious project.”

Most Milford residents know DiLeo for the Q&A sessions he’s conducted at the Black Bear Film Festival, coming next weekend. He’s had the pleasure of talking to Farley Granger, Arlene Dahl, Marge Champion, Maria Cooper Janis, Keir Dullea, Jane Powell, and Rex Reed, and this year he’ll interview Tab Hunter.

Highlights from these sessions?

“Everyone was great," DiLeo said. But he especially enjoyed getting to hold Gary Cooper’s Oscar, listening to Farley Granger do a Hitchcock imitation, and — his dream come true — talking to and spending time with the inimitable Jane Powell.

The categoriesAt last weekend’s book signing, DiLeo had a rapt audience as he highlighted sections of the book. Each chapter deals with ten movies within a stretch of time. The movies are examined in terms of what was happening in the industry and in the country at that time, and how they influenced each other. DiLeo pointed to World War II as an example,

“World War II influenced Hollywood where they thought it was their mission to provide moral boosting, or to be instructive on how to behave on the home front," he said.

The ten movies in that chapter illustrate this trend. After the war, said DiLeo, there was a new maturity in America. He found movies dealing with big subjects like racism, alcoholism, rape, and mental illness. A different chapter focuses on a spate of fantasy movies that DiLeo says were “for people who couldn’t deal with the loss from the war and wanted ghosts and angels and Santa Claus." Such films included "Miracle on 34th Street," "The Ghost and Mrs. Muir," and "The Bishop’s Wife."

Another group of ten illustrates a time in the 1950s, when the rise of television prompted Hollywood to remake popular movies of the 1930s. But not all of the movies are success stories, especially in the early 1960s, DiLeo said,

“We know the sexual revolution is coming," he said, "but there were really bad sex comedies in the early '60s which almost seems like foreplay. It’s building, building, but we’re still too sophomoric, and we have movies like 'Sex and the Single Girl,' 'Boys Night Out' — the titles kind of say it — 'Under the Yum Yum Tree,' terrible, embarrassing and infantile.”

In contrast, said DiLeo, are ten examples he provides of great films of the '60s, in the dying days of black and white movies.

An enduring passionThe research for this book says something about DiLeo’s zeal for the subject. He has compiled 4,500 detailed index cards that remind him of every movie he’s seen in the last 17 years.

This sixth book amarks DiLeo’s 20th year as a published author. "Ten Movies at a Time: A 350-Film Journey through Hollywood and America 1930-1970" (Hansen Publishing Group) is available at Amazon.

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