Remembering the Movie Theaters through Movies Set in Theaters

As the pandemic and shutdown dragged on – and on and on – and weeks became months, I began to accept the unfortunate fact that I was experiencing withdrawal.

Not from movies themselves – there were still plenty of opportunities to watch things at home, and I was impressed by how much even the small independent theaters and festivals were innovating, reaching out, and adapting to deliver great films directly to my eyeballs at home – but something was still missing: that transformative, shared experience of viewing films together, with strangers, in an actual movie theater.

Despite being something we do in the dark, silently – often even alone – watching a movie can be an extremely public and communal experience, and when done correctly – with reverence and attention – can approach the fulfilling feeling of a religious ritual. This, I realized, was what I was missing, and no wide-screen surround-sound heated-reclining-seat home-theater could hope to come close to the magic found in even the smallest stale-popcorn and sticky-floor neighborhood movie house.

Fortunately, being a movie fan, I knew where to look to meet my craving: to the movies. I hastily assembled a list of classic films set in movie theaters, and started to binge. Just as a film can magically transport an audience to the top of the Empire State Building, the slums of Rio, or the outer-reaches of the galaxy, so too were these flickering celluloid phantoms (or, more honestly, these conjured binary-bits) able to deliver me – at least for these frozen few hours – to the movie palaces I was missing.

Below is an annotated list of the prescription I found to satisfy my cravings:

Sherlock Jr. (Buster Keaton, 1924): First place in this category must go to the inimitable Buster Keaton as the sleepy projectionist who manages to realize the ultimate movie-lover’s dream: donning his iconic pork-pie hat, he charges down the center aisle, leaps clear over the orchestra pit, and steps right into the world of the movie being projected. If it weren’t for a chance to win the real-world hand of the charming Kathryn McGuire, we might wonder why he ever comes back out.

Singin’ in the Rain (Gene Kelly and Stanley Donen, 1952): There could be no more perfect “movie-about-movies” than Singin’ in the Rain, the reigning-now-and-forever champ of feel-good films. Although most audiences focus, understandably, on the singin’ (and dancin’ – in the rain and elsewhere), the film features multiple scenes set in movie theaters, including the advance-screening of The Dueling Cavalier, Lockwood and Lamont’s unintentional comedy – where our heroes sheepishly slink out after a failed premiere – and the magical finale, which so beautifully reminds us that an audience assembled in a theater has more power than a studio, a contract, or even a pushy celebrity star.

Cléo de 5 à 7 (Cléo from 5 to 7, Agnes Varda, 1962): Smack dab in the middle of Varda’s peripatetic exploration of the streets and shops of Paris, our heroine stops in to visit a projectionist friend, providing the perfect opportunity for a fun movie-within-a-movie, as viewed through the window of the projection-booth. The embedded silent short is corny, but – in addition to featuring celebrity cameo appearances by fellow New Wave notables Jean-Luc Godard and Anna Karina – it provides an important moral lens for making sense of the larger surrounding film (which is, of course, “reality” to our dear Cléo…).

The Purple Rose of Cairo (Woody Allen, 1985): Although far from the director’s best, this relative sleeper is the auteur’s love-letter to the old movie houses. Set in the heart of the Depression – when theaters provided much-needed escapism for a world in economic and social free-fall – the film delivers a nice nice twist on the previous-mentioned Buster Keaton classic: here, a celluloid hero manages leave his idealized “reel world,” stepping down from the screen and into our real (and much more complicated) world.

The Blob (Irvin Yeaworth, 1958): Question: What could be scarier than to be sitting in movie theater, watching a horror movie about a hideous monster attacking a people sitting in a movie theater watching a horror movie? Answer: Nothing – it’s surprising that it took until 1958 to make it. (Or perhaps they just needed to wait for the De Luxe color film process to be invented – it so-perfectly captures the blood-red oozing terror as said Blob bursts through from the projection booth to engulf the main auditorium, the lobby, and then the streets beyond the marquee.)

Pee-wee’s Big Adventure (Tim Burton, 1985): There could be no more appropriate ending for Pee-wee’s epic road trip than to have him gathered, with friends and strangers, to watch the film adaptation of his life projected – not just on the big-screen, but at the drive-in. Providing yet another movie-in-a-movie (reminiscent of instant-classic ending to The Muppet Movie, which revealed the myth-making magic of movie-making, only to render it all the more magical), the scene plays a clever – and funny – con on us: viewing the obvious absurdity of this Hollywood fictionalization, we are tricked into accepting the “reality” of Pee Wee’s “actual” story. (The runner-up for best drive-in scene would need to go to John Travolta singing “Sandy” in Grease (Randal Kleiser, 1978), to the backdrop of the projected ads for the concession stand.)

Cinema Paradiso (Nuovo Cinema Paradiso, Giuseppe Tornatore, 1988): Much of the action of Tornatore’s charming and evocative tribute takes place in flashback, set in the golden post-war era. As we watch the interplay of film, theater, and community, we are reminded that a lot of what happens at the movies might not be on screen. (Winner of the Academy Award for Best Foreign Language film.)

The Crowd (King Vidor, 1928): Lastly, although the final scene takes place in pre-cinema Vaudeville Theater and not a movie house, the iconic image of an audience – laughing, as a the camera slowly pulls up and back on a seemingly never-ending crane shot – provides the theater-goer’s ultimate closing argument to the Modern Era’s existential crisis: at the end of the day, what more could there be to the meaning of life than to gather together as an audience and share these stories…?


A Few for the 17+ Crowd…

True to the artistic ethos of the gritty era which they book-end – the mantra was something like, “Depict urban reality, depraved-and-depressive, warts-and-all…”), Midnight Cowboy (John Schlesinger, 1969) and Taxi Driver (Martin Scorsese, 1976) both provide disturbing scenes set in a very different sort of movie theater: the old Porn Palaces of Times Square and other red-light districts scattered about our down-and-out downtowns. Both scenes show simple characters struggling to make sense of a world that has suddenly become more complex than they can manage, a realization made all the more charged when played out in this the gray-area between public and private.

Bonus: the opening scene to Midnight Cowboy includes a slow, meditative pull-back shot of a closed drive-in theater, a subtle and sad cinematic reminder of America at the end of a decade: gone are the old drive-ins and the simple “white hat and gold-star Sheriff” morality of the classic Westerns (which we hear through the soundtrack, but cannot see on screen – a faded, haunting memory); we are witnessing the passage of a nation’s lost innocence.

As a less-gritty but equally disturbing runner-up in this category: Barry Levinson’s nostalgic Diner (1982) includes a “then-funny-but-alas-now-cringeworthy” scene of a young Mickey Rourke on a date, winning a bet with his friends through the creative use of the flap at the bottom of those old popcorn boxes. Sadly, although the film is great, some comic bits really don’t age as well as others…


And one for the kids…

Hare Do (Friz Freleng, 1949): Since the classic movie theaters would always begin with a short, a cartoon, or maybe a newsreel, it seemed only right to include this 7-minute “Merrie Melodies” gem from Warner Bros., in which Bugs Bunny reminds Elmer Fudd (and, of course, all of us) that you can have an awful lot of fun in a theater in the dark.

Upon reflection, it’s interesting how many of these films are set in the golden nostalgia of an earlier era – and also how they many of them were made in the mid-1980s, just when the hey-day of the grand theaters and neighborhood movie houses (and even X-rated peep shows) was starting its slow decline, due to the rise of less-communal alternatives: video, cable, and eventually streaming video.

Ezra Glenn Written by: