The last double feature I attended was in 1988: back-to-back showings of Good Morning, Vietnam (1987) and D.O.A. (1988).
Both were produced by Buena Vista Pictures, which accounted for what was at the time already becoming a rarity in theaters as well as ballparks. The reasons were partly economic: why let people watch two movies (or two baseball games) for the price of one when you can charge them twice for both? Yet the double feature was also a victim of the video cassette and pay cable television stations like HBO and Showtime—that, and the fact that people were less likely to want to sit in a theater four or five hours.
Growing up in the 1960s and 1970s, I was afforded many interesting film combinations like the above. DOA is a remake of the 1950 Edmond O’Brien classic, which is one of my favorite film noirs. It’s the story of a man who stumbles into a police station to report his own murder. He has been given a slow-acting poison and, in his last hours of life, tells his tragically absurd story (the bulk of the film) and dies. Not unexpectedly, the remake did not live up to the original.
What stuck out in the entire experience that night was the presence of a local celebrity in the audience. The theater was in Bala Cynwood and veteran sportscaster Al Meltzer, was sitting four rows ahead of me. I noticed him because he was tall and had whitish-gray hair. Al left when Good Morning, Vietnam was finished—even if he’d had to do the news that night, I doubt he would have wanted to see D.O.A. A few weeks before, I had seen him at a showing of Broadcast News in Ardmore walking down the aisle with a bag of popcorn.
I remember other double feature experiences for different reasons, too. When my Catholic parents dutifully took me to see the inspiring Lilies of the Field (1963), I was more interested in the second show on the bill: Palm Springs Weekend (1963)—an incongruous pairing if there ever was one. It was a Warner Brothers “contractor” stocked with many of my favorite television stars: Robert Conrad from Hawaiian Eye; Ty Hardin, the star of Bronco, and Troy Donahue, the lead in the best of them all, Surfside Six (I always wanted to live on a houseboat).
Connie Stevens, who played Cricket Blake, was also from Hawaiian Eye. Before Tippi Hedren and other classily outfitted Edith Head mannequin women, well before Honor Blackman and Jackie Bisset, there was Connie Stevens, the woman of my incipient sexual fantasies.
What did I care that Palm Springs Weekend was a rip-off of Where the Boys Are (1960)? In this film, Connie (in the Yvette Mimeau role) wanted to live life in the fast lane with Bob Conrad, spurning good ol’ boy Ty Hardin. Troy Donahue (a blond George Hamilton) was chasing Suzanne Pleshette (the Susan Hart role). Not even the presence of Jerry Van Dyke (the comic relief/Frank Gorshin role) could have ruined this movie for me.
A few times I went to the movies with my father only. Once, we had eaten dinner at a restaurant near the 69th Street theater in Upper Darby, which was playing Father Goose (1964) and Marnie (1964), a pairing internally at odds with itself.
One was a late Cary Grant picture in which he plays a coast watcher off New Guinea saddled with a woman and a troop of young girls. The other was a serious Hitchcock psychological melodrama. I half-expected to be whisked away during the middle of the second feature, Marnie, less for its charged sexual context than for my usual experience of going to doubleheader baseball games with my father and his wanting to leave by the fifth or sixth inning of the second game.
Another time, a mid-summer Tuesday or Wednesday in mid-summer, I was startled to see my Uncle Jerry walking out as the credits of the second movie rolled and light poured in from the back of the theater. I instinctively stayed in my seat so that he wouldn’t see me. Uncle Jerry worked as the chief butcher for the A & P about a mile down the pike. Months later, at a Thanksgiving dinner, I mentioned the near-encounter to him; he laughed and said he had ducked out of work for the afternoon. Nothing like being paid to watch a couple movies.
During my years at Penn State, I usually went to the movies either with a date or people from the dormitory. My first week at school, I hadn’t learned how difficult college was going to be, and took my girlfriend to a Thursday night double bill of The Good, The Bad, and The Ugly (1966) and Hang ‘Em High (1968), despite having classes the next morning. Today when I think about it, I wonder less about the wisdom of spending five hours at the movies when I needed to be studying and more about the fact that I knew a woman who spent so much time watching westerns.
A year later, I went with two friends on a Saturday afternoon to see Beyond the Valley of the Dolls (1970) and Valley of the Dolls (1967). Maybe the Beyond the Valley’s promo, “This is not a sequel,” was taken too literally when the theater decided to show it first! Or they may have reasoned that they were showing the “better” of the two first. Yes, Valley had sex and sex kittens (Sharon Tate and Patty Duke) but Beyond the Valley had vixens (Dolly Reed and Edy Williams) and Roger Ebert’s screenplay credit.
Thumbs up for being beyond camp, providing improbable laughs like “You’re not only an ugly woman, you were an ugly man” Or was it the opposite? If Jackie Susann had had a sense of humor about her work, she might have embraced Beyond the Valley as a comic cinematic doppelganger to her sudsy stuff and not tried to sue Russ Meyer.
The most reasonable billing had two James Bond films: From Russia With Love (1963) and Dr. No (1962), shown in that order. Except that Dr. No had started the Bond series—why not show it first? Seemingly in revenge, perhaps on orders from SPECTRE, in the middle of From Russia With Love, as the third reel started, a scene from Dr. No’s third reel appeared on the screen. I retired to the lobby with a friend to smoke a cigarette while it was replaced.
The best double feature I have ever attended was a back-to-back showing of Bullitt (1968) and Bonnie and Clyde (1967); Dirty Harry (1971) and The Detective (1968). The former two summed up the 1960s, a great decade of moviemaking: fast, brash, sexy, cool, defiant. Steve McQueen’s high-speed car chase and the ultra-violent deaths of Bonnie and Clyde, bullet-ridden beyond our comprehension mark the signature scenes of each. Each film has compelling acting from its leads and strong, quirky parts for future heavyweights like Robert Duvall, Jacqueline Bisset, Gene Hackman, and Gene Wilder.
Another smart pairing: Dirty Harry and The Detective. Harry Callahan defined his era as a bulwark against the straitjacket of political correctness and paralysis, but his mystique would be dampened were he not playing against Andy Robinson, the Scorpio killer, one of the greatest psychopaths on the screen. When Harry disregards orders to stay out of the final hostage situation and stands on the overpass, waiting for Scorpio to pass beneath, we knew a new era in American movie mythology had begun.
What made the Frank Sinatra-starring The Detective a great pairing with Dirty Harry was that both leading characters, police detectives, discard their badges in the last scenes (Harry retrieved his in order to do Magnum Force), disgusted with the police departments that had put them in impossible situations.
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My last (however impromptu) double feature came 12 years after my first, and it was Man on the Moon (1999) and The Talented Mr. Ripley (1999). As Kaufman pranks the public with his “happenings,” Ripley performs flawlessly for the upper class. Their respective successes, however, draw them more closely to the dangers of exposure.
At that juncture, they switch career roles: Ripley discards bodies while Kaufman changes routines. They lose themselves in becoming their creations. Ripley murders in order to disguise his own uninteresting personality; when Kaufman learns he has cancer, his friends believe it’s part of his routine. Kaufman’s “final” routine, alas, was d.o.a.
I watched these on a British Airways flight to Spain. The novelty of having my own private screening on the back of the seat above my fold-out tray was nearly lost on me—my inclination had been to dismiss any movie shown on a screen smaller than that of a laptop. Yet the little screen wasn’t going away, and I was unable to sleep or to read. Today, people are far more compromising on the size of their display, but no less hungry for entertainment, and probably even more pressed for the time that a double feature demands.
Collingswood resident Bob Castle is an author, teacher, film critic, and playwright. In town, he is also the founder of the Collingswood Movie Club, which meets monthly in the public library for film showings and discussion.
Castle's writing has appeared in Bright Lights Film Journal, Film Comment, and The Film Journal. His plays have been performed during the Philadelphia New Play Festival, the Philadelphia Fringe Festival, and at the the Gone in 60 Seconds and "In a New York Minute" festivals.