Movies On My Mind

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“Campy Comedy Matinee Delivers Laughs & Romance, as well as a Wacky Lesson in Film History”

By Arnold Anthony Schmidt

Sometimes, films capture the essence of a particular moment in social and film history, and Joe Dante’s Matinee is just such a film. Set during the 1962 Cuban Missile Crisis, it entertains audiences with a blend of comedy and satire, romance and absurdity.

The film takes place in the early 1960s, when the American film industry faced a perfect storm of creative and economic changes. Until the late 1940s, movie studios produced, distributed, and exhibited films. Vertical integration allowed studios to control all aspects of the film experience, from script development to theatre screening, and everything in between. This resulted in cinema’s Golden Age in the 1930s and 1940s, but also proved anti-competitive. The U.S. Supreme Court’s so-called Paramount decision in 1948 dismantled the studio system, forcing film producers, distributors, and exhibitors to become separate companies. This changed the way people made movies and strengthened the existing trend toward independent producers – people like Lawrence Woolsey in Matinee.

Next, in the wake of the Second World War, the “greatest generation” settled down to an era of prosperity, and their children, growing up in the 1950s, formed the era’s “youth culture,” in which one generation’s ideas and social practices differed significantly from those of their parents. This had happened throughout history, but the trend gained momentum in the mid-twentieth century because of the increasing power of mass media (radio, TV, movies) and popular music (which ultimately evolved into rock ‘n roll). Moreover, many young people had a fair amount of leisure time, as well as the disposable income with which to buy the latest records and fashions, and to patronize drive-ins, which often screened double features of low budget sci-fi/horror films like those referenced in Matinee.

Finally, as if that wasn’t enough, the film industry faced competition from television, as the number of TV sets in American homes increased from about one million in 1949 to more than fifty million by 1960. The situation resembled that which film producers face today: how to get people to leave their homes – and their personal devices – to see movies on the big screen. Then as now, some producers solved the problem with spectacle: big stars, epic stories, and special effects.

The idea was to make movie-going completely different from the home viewing experience, but how? Processes like Smell-O-Vision added synchronized smells to certain moments of Scent of Mystery (1960).

Another idea: bigger is better! The 50s and 60s saw a rise in large screen formats, which increased the size of the projected film image from the until-then common 1.33:1 (a ratio of width to height) to 2.40:1 in Cinemascope’s How the West Was Won (1962), filmed with three lenses and screened with three projectors.

And let’s not forget 3D! Though the idea had been around as long as film itself, 3D came into its own with Bwana Devil (1952), followed by Man in the Dark and House of Wax (both 1953). Studios also experimented with surround sound, starting with Disney’s Fantasia (1940). These innovations in sight, sound, and even smell made movie-going far different from watching on the home television!

All of this sets the scene for Matinee, which follows the antics of impresario Woolsey, played by John Goodman. He arrives in town to promote his latest sci-fi/exploitation film Mant, about a creature who is – you guessed it! – half man and half ant. Matinee riffs off horror movies like Them! (1954) with its giant ants and satirizes the works of producer/director William Castle, famous for his schlocky B movies. To give one typical example, for his first movie Maccabe (1958), Castle gave every person who bought a ticket a $1000 life insurance policy from Lloyds of London in case they died of fright during the movie. He also had nurses in the lobbies and hearses parked outside the theaters. The film became a hit.

Like Castle and similar independent producer/directors, Woolsey uses various stunts to publicize his film. First, he has the Mant himself, there to amaze the audience and town. Then he hires people to protest the film because of its supposed shock value. This in turn creates a controversy and causes free speech advocates to demonstrate against the hired protesters. Then, most important for the plot, Woolsey uses “Rumble Rama,” a process which vibrates theatre seats modeled on “Percepto,” a gimmick which Castle himself used during screenings of The Tingler (1959).

Thus, you can see that Matinee’s plot, which at first glance appears a bit over the top, actually captures its contemporary moment with surprising – if ironic! – accuracy. As for the story itself, mix in angsty teenaged romance, concerned parents, and the Cuban missile crisis threatening the apocalypse, and you’ve got a film in which anything can happen. And as the slam-bang ending of Matinee shows, that can make for some mighty entertaining filmmaking.

Cast & Crew

Matinee was directed by Joe Dante, who also helmed Piranha (1978) and The Howling (1981), though he remains best known for Gremlins (1984).

The cast includes John Goodman, who rose to fame on the ABC-TV show Roseanne. He went on to star in a number of films, including several for the Coen Brothers: Raising Arizona (1987), Barton Fink (1991), The Big Lebowski (1998), Oh, Brother, Where Art Thou (2000), and Inside Lewin Davis (2013).

Cathy Moriarty received a Best Supporting Oscar nomination for her work in Martin Scorsese’s Raging Bull (1980). Simon Fenton has performed in various television shows, and Lisa Jakub appeared in Mrs. Doubtfire (1993) and Independence Day (1996). Jesse White, a familiar face from dozens of films including It’s a Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World (1963), remains perhaps best known from TV commercials as Maytag’s lonely repairman.

Be sure to pay special attention to the film’s intriguing score by Jerry Goldsmith, whose credits include Star Trek, Chinatown, Alien, and L.A. Confidential. Here, the music itself does a particularly good job of evoking both the sci-fi/horror genre and the B-movie/youth culture epoch, using snippets of the scores of various B-movies and horror films, including Son of Dracula (1943), It Came from Outer Space (1953), and The Creature from the Black Lagoon (1954).