In 2010 I saw 100 different movies in 100 different theaters. Here are the details.

Friday, February 5, 2010

24. Rebecca

The Paramount Theatre

The Paramount Theatre in Oakland was designed by local architect Timothy L. Pflueger, who also designed the Alameda and the Castro. Prior to the theater's construction, the stock market had crashed and the nation was in the midst of an economic depression. The Paramount's groundbreaking ceremony in December, 1930, therefore, was intended as much to reassure the community that prosperity would return, as it was meant to celebrate the building of a theater. Ten East Bay mayors were guests at the ceremony; a marching band paraded through the streets; and the crowd, though somber, was large. (Imagine this sort of event today to celebrate the groundbreaking of the latest megaplex). After just one year of construction, the Paramount opened in December, 1931, with a full evening of entertainment: audiences were treated to music by the theater's orchestra, a newsreel, a cartoon, the feature film The False Madonna, and finally, in what would soon be an anachronism, a vaudeville performance.

Unfortunately, the Depression was no fleeting economic dip. Within six months of the theater's opening, it could not match its operating costs and it was closed down. It reopened shortly after, but strictly as a movie house; gone were the orchestra, actors, dancers, and other live performers. The dressing rooms would remain empty for decades to come. But as a motion picture palace, it was an entertaining and decadent retreat from tough times, at an affordable price.

The front of the building is absolutely stunning. Two enormous mosaics, rising on either side of the vertical sign, feature enormous figures puppeteering various characters and performers common to a theater, including dance, music, theatre, circus, and film archetypes. The building's fa├žade is a great reminder that every surfaces is an opportunity for art and beauty.

The marquee is classy; at night, its underside is lit up with nearly three thousand bulbs (almost one bulb per seat in the theater).

After passing through a shallow foyer, patrons enter the Grand Lobby. My photo cannot do it justice. Pflueger had a redwood forest in mind when he designed the lobby. The overhead lights, filtered through an enormous, metal grid, mimic a forest's foliage. Towering pillars on each side are interspersed with columns of light that suggest sunlight coming through tree trunks. The carpet features grass, flower, leaf, and vine motifs, imagery seen throughout the theater. The structure is surprisingly successful in using glass and metal to evoke nature.

Above the foyer doors, which you might not notice until you leave the theater, is an enormous "fountain of light", a beautiful waterfall of gold cascading down from the ceiling and rippling out to the room's edges.

Built in the newly emerging Art Deco style, the Paramount benefits from that movement's vague guiding principles, incorporating an amazing mish-mash of decorative techniques. Zig-zags and swirls are popular shapes. The recent discovery of King Tut's tomb in the 1920s added an Egyptian interest to the movement; Egyptian-themed figures encircle the lobby.

The Paramount was rescued from oblivion in the 1970s when it was painstakingly restored to its original grandeur (1973) and promoted to a national historic landmark (1977). It now serves as the home for the Oakland East Bay Symphony and the Oakland Ballet, is host to concerts and live comedy acts, and shows several seasons of classic movies per year.

When you enter the lobby, you'll be given a ticket for the Deco-Win raffle (more on that later). Food and drink concessions are on the left and right sides of the lobby, respectively. Yes, I bought Red Vines; but before you think I've fallen too far off the wagon, know that I diluted the Red Vines with a new addition to the candy lineup: kettle popcorn. The drink concession serves alcohol, which you may take with you into the auditorium.

At one time, patrons paid only 35¢ to sit in orchestra seating, but shelled out 85¢ for a balcony seat. Today, all tickets are $5.00, and I recommend something in the first twenty rows of orchestra seating.

If you pass beneath the stairway leading to the mezzanine you'll find yourself in the main foyer. This beautiful room curves around the entrances to the five orchestra aisles. There is a coat check to one side, and several long sofas along the walls. The main foyer is the first of many spaces in the theater designed for the comfort and convenience of the patron while they are outside the auditorium. When going to the movies included an entire evening of entertainment, people took lots of breaks (to smoke, talk, freshen up, etc.), so the grand theaters had to accommodate people out of their seats as well as in them. (Modern theaters tend to want us off the premises as soon as the credits roll; arcades and concession cafes might suggest that the theater is intended as a hang out place, but everything else in the structure and atmosphere suggests otherwise.)

From the grand staircase in the lobby you can ascend to the mezzanine. Here you'll find another curving hall, entrances to the lower balcony seats, and the mezzanine lounge. Spend a bit of time in this alcove and you'll soon see that no detail of the theater escaped artistic consideration. Every chair, table, light fixture, mirror, bit of molding or paneling, and even the grates to the air ducts have something interesting about them.

The mezzanine lounge contains a radio that at one time broadcast directly from the theater, so patrons could keep up with the show even while waiting for the restroom. A tiny foyer from the mezzanine lounge leads to the men's restroom on one side. On the other side, a more elegant foyer awaits the ladies. From there one may gain access to the face room, where ladies could sit to reapply their makeup (an air duct grate outside this room cleverly displays the musical notes F-A-C-E). The women's restroom is just off the face room.

From either end of the mezzanine foyer one can take stairwells either down to the main foyer, or up to the upper foyer. I include below a terrible, blurred picture I took, but I'm including it because it shows all the great seats on this level, most rescued from other local theaters as they were closed or demolished. (When I was growing up my parents remodeled a turn-of-the-century hotel, the Niles Hotel, into an 1800s-era saloon, restaurant, ballroom, and much more. The Paramount's various foyers remind me of many of the parlors of the Niles, and so I feel right at home.) From the upper foyer one can enter the middle balcony, or ascend higher yet to enter at the top of the balcony.

The theater's largest restrooms are in the lower lounge, reached by mirrored staircases descending down from the main foyer. (Those in a wheelchair should note that only the ground floor of the theater is wheelchair accessible, including a small bathroom to one side.) I've seen pictures showing that the lower lounge once sported multi-sided sofas in its center. Currently the room feels a bit empty. From here you can enter the men's lounge, and then the men's restroom, or the women's lounge, a larger face room, the women's restroom, and a famously all-black women's smoking room, where ladies could smoke under a veil of anonymity.

But this is a movie palace, so how about the auditorium? When the theater was first built, it seated 3433. (Clever devices called seat annunciator's once helped a network of ushers to guide patrons to available seats, and monitor capacity.) The 1973 restoration, acknowledging our nation's increased heft, widened the seats by two inches each, reducing the total seating capacity to 2998. To my knowledge, this is the largest capacity for a single surviving auditorium in the entire Bay Area (there are larger venues, such as San Francisco's War Memorial Opera House, but none that were once movie theaters).

The auditorium is gorgeous. The seats are patterned with white vines and leaves on a green background. Golden panels, featuring polynesian and pre-history figures, stretch from floor to ceiling on both side walls. (These panels were damaged during the Loma Prieta earthquake in 1989. The building permits for the theater's original construction were reviewed and authorized within two weeks; the permit to install scaffolding to repair the panels took two years to approve.)

Overhead, a patterned metal grill is illuminated from above, stretching from the back of the auditorium to the front, joining with a scene of Poseidon that stretches from wall to wall, just above the proscenium.

Here are a two shots of the orchestra level seating, one from the front . . .

. . . and one from the rear, with some of the backstage secrets revealed below a partially-raised curtain.

Coming to see a film here is a special event, but there just isn't time to enjoy the entire building (if you try to stick around after the movie ends to explore, you will consistently shooed by the many ushers). Luckily the theater provides tours twice per month, $5.00 per person. Most of my information above was gleaned from this tour, and from a book available for sale after the tour: Susannah Harris Stone's The Oakland Paramount.

If you want to find free street parking, I recommend coming early. The theater is also just a block away from BART, and is accessible by several AC Transit buses.

When you're coming for a movie, the box office opens at 6:00 PM (for movies, the actual box office, in front of the theater, is used; for non-movies and the tour, visit the box office entrance on the side of the building). Lines for ticket holders form on either side of the box office. Doors open at 7:00, the organist begins playing at 7:30, and the curtains rise at 8:00.

This was my fifth visit to the Paramount to see a movie, my first being for a Halloween showing of The Phantom of the Opera (1925), with live organ music throughout. I also saw Alanis Morissette perform, and watched my dear friend Mica dance in Leonard Berstein's Mass (Mica informs me that there are secret passageways leading from the dressing rooms to other parts of the theater). For movies, the theater almost always fills up; quite a feat for such a large venue showing older movies.

There is a wide range of attire; this is the only theater I've visited where at least some of the people seem to be dressed up. Seated next to me were two women in red coats, red feathered hats, red sweatshirts and with red umbrellas. (At The Adventures of Robin Hood, at least one couple came in renaissance costume. At the Halloween showing of The Phantom of the Opera, one man had a giant hammer on top of his head, while his partner had a flattened nail on top of hers.) And with 2000+ people in that room and happily chatting away, the place is loud.


The pre-show begins at 7:30 with the organist. The audience is always quite appreciative, clapping after each piece (one person barked like a sea lion). Often, early comers will put jackets on their seats, then embark to explore the theater. But once the organist starts to play, the seats quickly fill. (I saw Russ, whom I met at the Embarcadero, and so was able to chat with him for a moment.) The extensive pre-show helps transform what would otherwise be just a movie into an evening of entertainment.

When the curtains rise, we are first treated to the News of the Day (the day being 1969; the news, previews, and film are not typically all from the same year, unfortunately). In Indianapolis, a fuel truck has jackknifed on a highway (very similar to an incident on 880 last year), dumping burning fuel on several nearby cars, and gasoline into the sewers, necessitating the evacuation of seven nearby schools. Meanwhile, in San Francisco, "possibly the most charming city in the U.S.", construction on the BART Transbay Tube is underway. At a school in Budapest, students learn to make ornamental glassware. And finally, surfers brave the waves in Oahu for a championship surfing contest.

Next comes the 1941 Merrie Melodies Hiawatha's Rabbit Hunt, in which an Elmer Fudd-like Native American tries to cook up Bugs Bunny in his rabbit stew.

The Prevues follow (see below), then, finally, Deco-Win! A giant spinning wheel rises from the orchestra pit. The host, who is always standing in for someone away on assignment, introduces himself, the woman spinning the wheel, the organist, and several ushers spread throughout the audience. Through several spins of the wheel, audience members holding lucky tickets can win such prizes as free dinners to local restaurants, admission to the Pacific Pinball Museum in Alameda, and even a 4-disc Alfred Hitchcock DVD collection. The crowd goes wild.


I Am a Fugitive from a Chain Gang

This movie looks so bad, if it weren't from 1932, I'd think it were a spoof. A man escapes from a chain gang and falls in love with a woman. When she learns his secret, she demands that he "choose between her and the living hell from which he escaped". Is that a loaded question or what? And he already escaped from the chain gang, so what's left to choose? The trailer (aka prevue) suggests that he will serve multiple stints on the gang. By the end, we will have served our time too. Here's the thing about old movies: they're always good. Even if they weren't well received by their contemporary audiences (though apparently this one was, with three Oscar nominations), old movies give us a window into a bygone time, when people dressed well, spoke quickly, and were nothing if not melodramatic. But by modern standards, this trailer is barely comprehensible.

No one likes being the other woman, but least of all to one's own husband. A young woman (Joan Fontaine), while in Monte Carlo as the paid companion of an obnoxious socialite, meets broody and rich Maxim de Winter (Laurence Olivier). Maxim is still grieving the loss of his wife, Rebecca, who drowned just over a year ago. He oscillates between rudeness, indifference, and condescending affection toward Fontaine; but Maxim is won over by the young lady's charm, asks her to marry him (she gladly accepts), and they immediately embark on a blissful honeymoon.

But eventually they come to live at Maxim's estate, Manderley, where the new Mrs. de Winter is set upon by remembrances of Rebecca. First, there is the rigid head of the household, Mrs. Danvers (Judith Anderson), who wastes no opportunity to praise Rebecca's perfection. Rebecca's initial is monogramed on every object in sight, her wing of the mansion is preserved just as Rebecca left it, and even the dog seems to have preferred its former mistress.

Maxim is no help; his broodiness returns in full force once back at Manderley. Mrs. de Winter's most naive mistake begins to incur severe reprimands from her husband. She feels pressured to fill the void left by Rebecca, but also to pretend as if Rebecca had never existed. Maxim is content to leave Mrs. Danvers in charge of the household, but isn't witness to the manipulative schemes Mrs. Danvers enacts to undermine Mrs. de Winter's confidence and, hopefully, drive her toward madness. From the moment we arrive at Manderley, every scene is tense.

Unfortunately, Mrs. de Winter serves as the punching bag for everyone who misses Rebecca, including for Maxim. Applying my modern values to the film, I find the relationship between Mrs. de Winter and Maxim intolerable. Maxim is secretive, moody, and perpetually condescending to his wife's youth; he's neither interesting himself, nor does he seem to take an interest in his wife's opinions; simply, he's a jerk. Among her many other recommendable qualities, Rebecca's chief virtue was being able to endure Maxim's personality. Joan Fontaine is excellent as Mrs. de Winter, expressing all the uneasiness of being alone in a new, hostile environment, where her husband becomes as much a wolf as the Mrs. Danvers. Am I rooting for the relationship to succeed? There comes a time when Maxim broaches the topic of annulment, and I wanted Mrs. de Winter to seize on the opportunity and get out while she still could. The movie is either prudish, or unsupportive of the union, because we have no hint that the two have consummated their marriage or even share the same bed. Back in Monte Carlo, the soon-to-be Mrs. de Winter, in revealing her feelings for Maxim, declares that she loves him "dreadfully". I couldn't have picked a better word. (I was not alone in this; many in the audience hissed at Olivier's Maxim.)

Everything changes halfway through the movie. Maxim reveals a secret that makes us reconsider everything we have seen and understood thus far. The idea of the great reveal goes back at least as far as Oedipus Rex, but Olivier's revelation manifests in a deliciously incisive outburst that, when I first saw this film years ago, caught me by complete surprise. In a brilliant tracking shot during the same scene, the camera follows Rebecca as she walks across the room; we don't actually see Rebecca (the shot is just of an empty room), but her presence is none-the-less believable and chilling. Following the revelation, Maxim becomes more sympathetic, and the film transforms into a different sort of story. There are conspiracies, black-mails, double-crosses, and a greatly entertaining inquisition in the back room of a bar.

Alfred Hitchcock employs superb lighting throughout the movie (of the film's eleven Oscar nominations, it won for Best Picture and Best Cinematography). In addition to the above-mentioned tracking shot, there are many wide shots that demonstrate the hollowness of Manderley, and melodramatic close-ups of our villains that elicited hissing from the audience.

The film is entertaining, but also discomforting. I pitied Mrs. de Winter's position, and even at the film's end wished a better life for her.

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