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Carnett: Silver screen of old reminds us we are mortal

August 27, 2012|By Jim Carnett

I enjoy classic cinema, particularly Hollywood and British fare of the 1930s, '40s and '50s.

The other night my wife, Hedy, and I settled down on the couch to watch the 1946 film "Gilda," starring one of the most iconic people of the silver screen: Rita Hayworth. Miss Hayworth has to rank as one of the most elegant and beautiful ladies ever to walk the face of the planet.

Oh yeah, actor Glenn Ford and some other notables were also in the film.

As the opening credits dissolved into the movie's first scene, Hedy turned to me.

"Do you realize that every person in this film is dead?"

Well, uh, yeah, now that you mention it. The black-and-white motion picture is 66 years old!

That bit of profundity cast a pall on things. Suddenly, my popcorn — drenched in sodium and fat — seemed less appealing than it had 30 seconds earlier.

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Her observation prompted within my consciousness a recitation of that famous tombstone admonition: "Remember me as you pass by, as you are now so once was I. As I am now, so you must be. Prepare for death and follow me."

It was as though Rita, Glenn and the other cast members were now calling out from the Great Beyond: "Take heed. You'll join us anon!"

What "Gilda" has become to me today, I've decided — besides great theater — is analogous to Thornton Wilder's "Our Town": existential musings in a graveyard.

Quite literally, however, the film is a compilation of routine workdays from 67 years ago (it was shot in 1945 and released in '46), preserved as a thematic "whole" for cinema buffs like me. Those workdays were not unlike workdays we've all put in throughout recent weeks, months and years.

One scene depicts Hayworth, Ford and actor George Macready drinking champagne in a glamorous Buenos Aries casino. That setup actually took place on a Hollywood soundstage on a particular day — or perhaps days — in 1945.

Rita, Glenn and George had lines to memorize and deliver, and screen business to attend to. The tightly scripted episode required that every cast and crew member carry out necessary and specialized tasks.

It was, quite simply, labor.

The screenplay called for the actors to toast one another and sip champagne. Actual carbon dioxide bubbles rose from nucleation points on the walls of those fluted glasses in real time, reached the liquid's surface and burst into the 1945 ether.

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