Many boomers recall that in their early movie-going days, theaters presented two movies for the price of one — a double feature. During the intermission between films, there was usually a couple of cartoons along with coming attractions tossed into the mix, too. While some theaters began to discontinue this practice in the 1960s, others continued into the seventies, and it was a staple of drive-in theaters throughout the boomer years.
The idea of showing two movies for the price of one began long before the boomer age. It was, in fact, an invention of the Hollywood studios during the Great Depression. Since so many people did not have extra money for movie-going, the concept was to entice people into the theaters by telling them they were getting two movies for the price of one. Up until that time, an evening at the movies consisted of one film, live acts and comedians, newsreels and shorts.
Unfortunately for theater owners, however, the studios dictated what movies could be shown as double features since they sold them as a package. If a theater wanted movie A, they would also have to take movie B. Therefore, the introduction of the double feature was also the dawn of the B movie. Like the B side of a 45 RPM record, the second movie feature was often of lesser quality, with little or no star power, and definitely made with a smaller budget.
In 1948 a landmark court case was brought against Paramount Pictures challenged the way Hollywood studios controlled which theaters would show what movies. Studios often reserved their own films to be shown exclusively in the theaters that they owned outright or in which they were in partnership. That meant that studios, in addition to having all the actors and staff on contract necessary for making films, also wrote, produced, directed, distributed and showed their own films. By 1945 the studios owned 17 percent of the theaters in the country, which accounted for 45 percent of their film rental revenue. A group of independent theater owners decided to challenge the Hollywood studios for the practice and the case went all the way to the Supreme Court. The Court ruled that the studios were in violation of U.S. antitrust laws, thus marking the beginning of the end of the Hollywood studio system.
Theater owners continued to show two movies for the price of one in the 1950s. Whether they felt patrons expected a double feature, or it was an incentive to make more people go to the movies, because of the court ruling they could pick and choose what movies they would show on a double bill. The result was the B movie was elevated to high art with the first-run science fiction thrillers we all know and love, along with films of the horror genre and re-runs of classic monster movies.
Mister Boomer recalls attending many double features in his early days. Sometimes the whole family would take in a double feature. Those family outings often meant going to the drive-in to see Disney films like Bambi, Dumbo, Pinocchio and Snow White, though Mister B can’t recall which of them were the A or B film. By the time Mister B reached the age of nine, he would go to Saturday matinees with his siblings and neighborhood friends.
Drive-in theaters offered double features and often had a children’s playground situated up by the base of the screen. Families could attend with the kids, and let them play until sunset, when the movies would get underway. Half-way through, you’d get a reminder such as this trailer that the concession stand was open for business. Can you guess who sponsored this groovy clip?
Mister B’s city’s one theater (there was a drive-in theater in the next town over) was about a mile-and-a-half walk via the neighborhood shortcut. This shortcut that all the kids would take entailed walking the railroad tracks across town. The tracks cut a diagonal path across the gridded streets, shortening the route. It also bypassed the busiest intersections with overpasses, so there was no break in the stride due to waiting for traffic signals. Instead, a leisurely, uninterrupted stroll was the order of the day, where rocks could be tossed, sticks picked up and stories traded. They only had to stop if a train was coming. Inevitably, someone would lean down and place their ear to the track in order to ascertain if a train was on the way. When one was visible, someone in the neighborhood group would usually want to set a penny on the track while the remaining travelers waited a safe distance away. Once the train passed, a hot, squished Lincoln was always worth a chuckle.
A typical movie matinee Saturday went like this: Mister B’s father would give him and his siblings 75 cents each. At around noon, anybody in the neighborhood that was going that day would gather and the group would get underway. A few blocks down, right before the area where the railroad tracks were readily accessible, there was a convenience store that sold penny candy. The group would enter the store and, one by one, tell the counter person what they wanted. Mister Boomer and his siblings would allot 25 cents for candy, reserving the other 50 cents for the price of admission. Mister B allowed himself one large candy purchase, like a Snickers bar, Chunky, Mallo Cup, Turkish Taffy or Almond Joy, and the rest was divided among candies that gave him the maximum amount for the least cost. Root beer barrels, candy dots on paper, licorice whips, caramels with a white swirl in them and any candy that gave more than one quick bite for a penny was selected and dropped into a small paper bag. By the time each member of the group had finished, they all held a brown paper lunch bag brimming with candy. It would offer quick sustenance for the track trek ahead, with enough left over to carry them well into the double feature.
Arriving at the “show,” as Mister B’s mother used to call it, what was on the bill was never a consideration. The group would go inside with the hordes of other children out on a Saturday. Once the lights went down and the flickering of the projector could be heard, Mister B was hooked. Pictures he saw in those outings included some old-time classics like Frankenstein (1931), Dracula (1931), The Wolf Man (1941) and The Mummy (1932), along with more contemporary fare like House of Wax (1953), Invasion of the Body Snatchers (1956), I was a Teenage Werewolf (1957), The Blob (1958), Abbott and Costello Meet the Mummy (1955), Creature from the Black Lagoon (1954) and The Screaming Skull (1958).
This clip is a classic that a good portion of Mister Boomer readers are going to remember! Goobers and Red Hots, anyone?
In Mister B’s neighborhood, the double feature was alive and well throughout the 1960s and into the 1970s. Whether at the neighborhood theater or drive-in, the double feature was an inherent part of the boomer movie experience. What memories do double features bring to mind for you?