After my previous unsuccessful attempt to see the Alfred Hitchcock film Rear Window (1954) at a Bay Area theater, I was delighted to learn that the very same movie would be screened in late April at the Paramount Theater, the glorious art deco movie palace in downtown Oakland. The screening began at 8:00pm, but the theater opened at 7:00pm. Believe me, anyone who sees a movie at the Paramount as part of their classic film series will want to get there early as there’s so much to see. People start lining up on the street at about 6:30pm, but the theater seats many thousands of people and the screen is one of the largest anywhere, so those who come later are in no danger of missing out on a good seat.
You will, however, want to enter the theater at 7:00pm so that you can tour the gorgeous, multi-floor structure at your leisure, gape in awe at the sublime and colorful art deco glass ornamentation, and study the beautiful gilt reliefs of gods and goddesses on the walls of the lobby. Also, although I’m sure that passing on the bathroom at any other theater would not constitute losing out on a cultural experience, visitors will feel that they’ve missed out if they do not visit the Paramount restrooms with their upholstered period furniture and (in the ladies’ room) the original 1930s powdering stations. These days, the Paramount offers cocktails (the theater has two well stocked bars) and edible treats (yes, you can now eat food in the theater—this was not the case when I first visited the Paramount back in the late 1990s). There is a fantastic concert starting at 7:30pm on the vintage Wurlitzer organ. When the theater darkens at 8:00pm, the audience is treated to a newsreel, a cartoon (I saw the Bugs Bunny short “The Wild Hare”), and trailers. On the night that Rear Window was screened, the newsreel and trailers were artfully chosen: the newsreel featured Grace Kelly in her role as Princess of Monaco, awarding a trophy to a race car driver (significant as Kelly stars in Rear Window and Jimmy Stewart’s character in the film has been injured while photographing a car race), and one trailer was for another Hitchcock film, Rebecca. As soon as the shorts are over, the lights come up and the house manager leads a game, Dec-O-Win, which involves a gigantic wheel spun by a bejeweled lady wearing an evening gown (always with elbow-length gloves, I’ve noticed), and prizes are dished out to audience members whose ticket numbers match those of the giant wheel. By the time the movie starts, the audience is in a fine mood and well primed for the feature.
One of the reasons to see classic films in public spaces like the Paramount is because watching a movie with a large crowd (the theater was packed by showtime) can change your experience of the film. This audience, for example, found humor in Rear Window where I had not noticed it before. A great crowd of responsive audience members will also react more powerfully to dramatic moments. Consider, for instance, the audience’s response to a key sequence near the end of the movie. Jimmy Stewart’s character is wheelchair-bound during a hot New York summer and spends all of his time staring out the window at his neighbors, who all have their windows open owing to the heat. Stewart suspects his neighbor across the way, played by Raymond Burr, of murder. There is a moment in Rear Window when Stewart’s girlfriend, played by Grace Kelly, is across the courtyard in Burr’s apartment doing some sleuthing. To indict Burr, Kelly attempts to steal his dead wife’s wedding ring. Burr catches her in his apartment and summons the police. Through his window, Stewart watches the police questioning Kelly and Burr in the apartment across the way. Kelly, to indicate to Stewart, whom she knows is watching across the courtyard, that she has successfully stolen the ring, stands with her back to Burr’s open window. Then, so Stewart can see the results of her search, she points with one hand behind her to the other hand, on which she is wearing the ring she has stolen. The camera shows us Kelly’s hand pointing, then pans up to Burr’s face looking at her sly gesture, then shows us Burr shifting his gaze to look directly out through his window, into Stewart’s window and at Stewart. In two small but crucial glances, the dangerous Burr has discovered that Stewart is on to him. In the moment when the murderer makes this connection, several members of the audience actually screamed, and in the Paramount, when someone screams, you really hear it. It is wonderful to see a movie affect people in such a visceral way.
The Paramount is screening other movies in its “Movie Classics” series this season, which lasts through mid-July, although it looks as if the theater uses the term “classic” fairly liberally these days: Rear Window is the oldest film on a roster which also includes Jaws (1975) and Pretty Woman (1990). This is a trifle disappointing to me, as in the past, the classic film series focused on earlier (e.g. 1930s/1940s) cinema. Yet no matter what the theater is showing, the Paramount is an absolute treasure, worthy of the name of movie palace, and the Rear Window screening demonstrated that people will still turn out in droves for public showings of classic films.