Everybody knows that movies are an art, but few acknowledge that going to the movies is also an art, the development of which takes years of practice. I've been going to movies since the age of 5. My first film was "A Night at the Opera" - a fact that my friends feel explains much of my subsequent life. Since that time I have fallen into certain habits of moviegoing that gradually evolved into rules. I'm happy to share these here, along with occasional autobiographical notes on how the rules were formulated.
1. Where to sit. There are only four good seats from which to see a movie: five rows back from the screen, on either aisle in the center section, or on the oother side of the same aisle in the side section. Aisle seats allow you to swing your legs to the side instead of standing when someone wants to get by, of course, and they make it easier to go get sonething to eat (see below). But the advantages of these particular seats are angle and distance. From them you actually see more of the screen than from the center, because your eyes are not straining toward opposite peripheries simultaneously. And the distance is just right for allowing you to lose yourself in a picture without being overwhelmed by it. Naturally, sitting so near the screen is bad for the eyes, but that's why those seats are usually available.
2. How to sit. You have little choice in this matter, since sitting up close requires a reverse crouch, even in those theaters that have carpets on the walls and soft sliding chairs. Just brace your legs on the chair in front you and shift your trunk forward until most of your weight is concentrated on your coccyx. I perfected this position as a kid in New York when trying to avoid being sent back to the children's section. All the New York theaters had such a section, in which every kid but I was named Tony, and which was patrolled by a 200-pound "matron" whose job it was to confiscate cigarettes, break up fights and scream, "Shut up!" After a couple of years in the children's section, I learned to sneak into the adult zone, where I developed my crouch. Even so, I was usually caught. Once I claimed I had a deadly disease, and did not wish to contaminate the other children. The matron smiled eagerly, and sent me back.
3. What to eat. This is a question of personal preference, but my advice is to stay clear of Jujubes, Starbursts, Milk Duds, Dots, Sno-Caps, Twizzlers, Goobers and Necco wafers. Some theaters nowadays specialize in packets of health foods - seeds and nuts - which are okay if you like that stuff, but which always suggest a cultural message to me. I prefer Chunkie, Raisinettes, popcorn (buttered), and best of all, Reese's peanut-butter cups - which I believe got their start in movie houses before going national. Try to get the large size Reese's. The small goes down in one bite, and you barely taste the chocolate.
4. When to go. Without exception, the best time to go to the movies is between 5 and 6 p.m. on weekdays; the next best being the same hour on Sundays. That's when you find the least crowds, the most serious moviegoers, and the fewest kids. Avoid Saturdays if possible, because kids will go to the movies at all times on Saturdays, and unfortunately there no longer are children's section to contain them. (If you must go on Saturday, wear old pants and shoes without ridged soles.) Under no circumstances take your children to special children's shows. If they insist on seeing something like "The Shaggy D.A.," find a theater where it's playing with "Misty Beethoven."
5. What theater to pick (important). Usually you're not forced to choose between a theater and a movie, because the best houses show the best films. But the best houses are going fast. All the best places in New York are either going or gone: Loew's Lexington on 51st, where there was a pool of giant goldfish in the lobby and balconies piled to the roof; Loew's Paradise in the Bronx, with flickering lights in the domed ceiling; the Academy of Music, a converted opera house on East 14th, with its boxes reserved for kings.
Choose an old theater if you can find one - one that was built when they still worried about movies being low culture. Lacking that, choose places like the Biograph, the K-B MacArthur, the Uptown or the Circle theaters in Washington, where the owners show some feeling for moviegoing. The purpose of a movie, at least a good one> is to bring you close to the truth, which usually requires an excursion into the past. To watch a movie in an insistently modern setting goes against the grain.
6. How many at once. Nowadays seeing one movie is preferable to a double feature. That's mainly because double features today mean reruns, which usually mean two good, sometimes excellent, movies; and the excellences compete. In the old days a double feature meant one good movie accompanied by a lousy one, which allowed you to luxuriate in the art of moviegoing, more than in the movies themselves. Of course, the best thing was a "countinuous performance? consisting of short features such as Pete Smith specials, newsreels, cartoon (five of six), and two long adventure movies, at least one starring Sabu. I sat through "Kim" four times, and walked home cockeyed. but that was when they made movies like Kim - which brings us to . . .
7. What to see. There's a finite number of movies worth seeing, and the rest aren't; so I'll just present a list:
All Alfred Hitchcock movies, except "Mountain Eagle," "Topaz" and "Torn Curtain"; "The Asphalt Jungel"; "Some like it hot"; all Alec Guinness movies except "the Swan"; "Singin' in the Rain"; "The Wizard of Oz"; "Humoresque"; "Stairway to Heaven"; no Gregory Peck movies (except those made for Hitchcock); all Marx Brothers pictures; all movies made of Dickens novels except the abominable "Quilp"; all Tracy-Hepburns except "Guess Who's Coming to Dinner?; all Ernest Lubitsch except "That Lady in Ermine"; all W. C. Fields;" "It Happened One Night"; "Twenty-three Paces to Baker Street"; "Nightmare Alley"; "The Third Man"; "Double Indemnity"; all Basil Rathbone Sherlock Holmes movies; all William Powell-Myrna Loy "Thin Man" movies; all Peter Lorre movies before and including "Silk Stockings"; most of the movies of Jean Arthur, James Stewart, Hope and Crosby, Jean Harlow, Ronald Coleman, Herbert Marshall, Bette Davis, Charles Laughton, Barbara Stanwick, Leslie Howard, Robert Donat, James Mason, Edward G. Robinson, George Arliss, Madeleine Carroll, Cecil Parker, Alastair Sim, Claude Rains, and the Barrymores; all the movies of Fred Astaire up to and including "Notorious Landlady"; all of Orson Welles up to and including "Touch of Evil"; no Rod Steiger, especially "The Pawnbroker"; and all of Carole Lombard, including stills.
Finally: How to leave. Leaving a theater after a movie is like ascending from the underworld, so you must move carefully, and take the incline as if you were walking in a procession. You are about to re-enter reality, which is no joke, and you must try to hold it off as long as possible. Look neither to the right nor left, but straight ahead or a little down. Above all, speak to no one. You have nothing to say you wish to hear.