Andrew Tudor samples this summer's holiday blockbusters
Once upon a time there were Saturday Morning Picture Shows. These were Very Special Occasions, when all the best behaved little boys and girls were rewarded by their grateful parents with an exciting trip to the cinema. There, they were educated by Look at Life documentaries, informed by children's newsreels, made to laugh by The Three Stooges, thrilled by Superman, and, after a deliciously nutritious ice-cream, pinned to their seats by a wonderful Children's Film Foundation feature.
Well, maybe not. Cinema-goers of a certain age will recall the Saturday morning movie experience a little differently. Parentally financed certainly, but more from a desire to get the little buggers out of the house than anything else. The Look at Life series were almost uniformly dumb, children's newsreels were patronising, the idiotic antics of The Three Stooges never raised a laugh from me and my mates, and Superman ... that "it's a bird; it's a plane" routine drew forth nothing but highly vocal derision. As for the 'morally responsible' CFF, the sight of their logo on the credits was enough to promote scoffing cynicism from those of us who read Picturegoer and already fancied ourselves as movie aficionados.
Even so, those Saturday mornings were enthusiastically anticipated, largely because in the absence of adults the whole thing frequently turned into a rumbustious celebration of childhood anarchy. Running battles between rival gangs were fought in the aisles, often precipitated by wilfully ignored shouts of "Siddown!" at the least sign of movement in the rows in front. After half-an-hour or so, the whole cinema seemed to transmute into a single giant life-form as squirming bodies found their way over, under, and sometimes even through the backs of the tip-up seats.
Only once did I see a Saturday morning audience completely silenced. This was at the now defunct Edinburgh cinema to which I was regularly consigned. There had been the usual array of entertaining shorts accompanied by the invariably more entertaining audience contributions. Then came the feature. I suppose what happened was that a print had gone astray and the cinema's manager, faced with 1,000 potentially riotous kids, simply showed what he had in the projection box. Anyway, it terrified most of us into submission, not least at the end when amidst a magnificent storm the villain was strangled by a billowing curtain in which, briefly, we saw the shape of his murdered wife's face. Only years later did I realise that what we had been treated to was Fritz Lang's House by the River (1950), an atmospherically dark thriller eminently unsuited to our tender sensibilities.
Sadly, such Saturday morning surrealism barely survived the 1950s, displaced by changing tastes and the irresistible spread of television. As the movie industry suffered crisis upon crisis, they pursued niche audiences with ever increasing vigour. One of those desirable niches, inevitably, was still to be filled with children, and thus was born the school holiday movie.
It must have looked perfect to desperate distributors. Cash in on the same old parental desire for child relief, but do it right through the summer holidays. Every day a Saturday morning. The only problem was where to get enough films to fill all those hours. The answer proved to be from anywhere and everywhere, and back in 1976, when I spent six weeks attending every children's summer film show in York (the things one does for research - I'd probably get arrested now, a solitary middle-aged man among all those children) even I was astonished by the appalling quality. Badly dubbed Japanese monster movies, excruciatingly sentimental animal stories, and improbable Italian/Spanish westerns were stirred into a crass mixture designed only to separate parents from their money and their children.
Today that too has changed. While the school holidays do still bring mixed kids' programming, now the focus is on the huge seasonal blockbusters which, given saturation distribution, can generate more income in a month or two than everything else in the multiplex put together. This year the summer half-term taster has been Star Wars: Episode 3 - Revenge of the Sith, a lead-in to Batman Begins and Spielberg's War of the Worlds.
Its failings are symptomatic of the whole holiday blockbuster phenomenon. They generate enormous expectations among the children at whom massive publicity is directed, expectations which are all too often disappointed. They block up the distribution system for weeks on end while other, probably better, films languish in their cans. And when, as so often today, they turn into franchises, they are subject to a law of diminishing returns. The Star Wars series, for example, has increasingly sacrificed character and coherence to its special effects. As Harrison Ford once famously remonstrated with George Lucas: "You can write these lines George, but you can't say them."
Much the same might be said of numerous blockbuster sequels to sequels, and their young audience deserves better. After all, they too know a bad line when they hear one, and I like to think that my Saturday morning compatriots would have treated some of today's holiday movies with precisely the respect that they deserve: a little less than The Three Stooges perhaps, but marginally more than Look at Life.