In 2018, I started an Instagram fan page in honor of three Old Hollywood megastar actresses: Mae West, Greta Garbo, and Ava Gardner. Why I picked these particular powerhouse ladies is a story for another day, but they are near and dear to my heart in many ways. I quickly discovered, with mixed blessings, a brand new way to waste time on my phone, scrolling through posts upon posts of very glamorous vintage photos and talking with new cyber-friends about this historic era through the comment sections of each other’s pages. At some point, a thought bubble developed: Why do we love these people, most of them long dead, often long before we were even born, and why were they still important to us?

For me, it started in my formative years. When I was a teenager in the 1980s one of my favorite stores in the mall (and the malls today are nothing like the malls of the 80s, kids), was called Imprints. Or was it Inprints? Or maybe just Prints? I can’t remember, but the only thing they sold were posters. Posters of anything and everything. Metallica and Depeche Mode, Heather Locklear and Samantha Fox, babies wearing flower hats, swimsuit models wearing barely anything, modern Ferraris and classic Fords, Mickey Mouse and Holly Hobby, chickens and pigs, martinis and beer, etcetera, etcetera, whatever you wanted a picture of, (within PG-13 perimeters) it was there, blown up to 24 x 36 inches for your gazing pleasure.

The business model of this store went something like this: you, the customer, would browse the many, many bins of the store, flip through the posters encased and bound in plastic (much like flipping through records in a record store, alas another cultural dinosaur), find a poster you liked, write down the number of said poster on the conveniently provided pad of paper, and then give it to the guy at the counter who would track it down for you somewhere in the back, but not before trying to upsell you on getting the poster matted or framed and hopefully both. (Ha! Nice try Poster Store employee of the 80s! Teenagers don’t have more than a few bucks, and lucky for us, thumbtacks worked just fine for pinning crooked pictures to the wall…which is probably why there are no longer any stores called Imprints/Inprints/Prints).

I always headed straight for the Marilyn section. I suppose the lovely and exploited Norma Jean was my gateway drug for what would become a lifelong and sometimes obsessive and expensive hobby. Twenty years after the anniversary of her depressing death, Marilyn had experienced somewhat of a resurgence in popularity and had attracted an entirely new and young demographic of fans wanting to get to know her. Her section was always bloated with both inventory and browsers. I spent as much time as I could flipping through all the pretty Marilyn images; pin-ups, close-up, candids, and portraits of all kinds, some beautiful, some tacky, all great in their own way. I studied her exaggerated brand of feminine beauty characteristic of a time in which I was born too late to participate. Then, I started noticing other faces shuffled in with Marilyn. Faces that looked somewhat familiar from old black-and-white movies that I’d seen snippets of over the years, but I didn’t know their names. I’d later know them as the likes of James Dean, John Wayne, Rita Hayworth, Betty Grable, Humphrey Bogart, and more: Old Hollywood Incorporated. These people were a lot different from the actors of my time with whom I was more familiar. Tom Cruise wore jeans and letterman jackets in his movies. Molly Ringwald looked like the sister of one of my friends. They looked (almost) like, dare I say, normal people, like someone I would bump into at school, or in the mall food court. They were attractive, but not otherworldly. The faces that I saw in the bin in front of me were not merely actors, they were Movie Stars, and even I could tell there was a world of difference between them. I mean, they were in black and white, which makes almost any portrait look cooler, and in the 80s, where everything was bright and in your face with headache-inducing neon lights, these colorless phenomena stood out in subdued and proud contrast to everyone and everything else around them. They were like shadows, like beautiful ghosts clad in fur and smart hats, and in James Dean and Bogey’s case, a cigarette dangling from their mouths like they had grown there. These carefully crafted photos suggested of a time and place when class wasn’t an afterthought, but the whole entire point.

And they were cool as hell.

One Saturday, I came across an old movie poster reprint; not even a great reprint; mass-produced, cheap, a little tacky. But I stopped browsing when I saw it. This one was in color, but it wasn’t modern. And it wasn’t a still photo, not really, but a painted one. It looked almost cartoonish. A guy with a sad mopey face in 3/4 profile stood cheek to cheek with a pretty woman, and they both stared at the camera, the viewer, me. What did they want? I had heard of Humphrey Bogart before but didn’t know much about him other than he was married to Lauren Bacall, and I only knew this because of the Bertie Higgins song. I had no idea who Ingrid Bergman was or where or what Casablanca was but suddenly I wanted to know everything about them both. So with my babysitting cash in hand, I bought that sub-par Casablanca movie poster, brought it home, and rearranged some of my old curated Marilyns to make room for Bogie and Bergman.

This was the one. “Casablanca,” 1942. Warner Bros.

So is that it? Was the profound reason that I, a fourteen-year-old girl with next to no life experience was drawn to the serious and dramatic characters of my grandparents’ time because I thought their posters would look dope in my room? That might have been what hooked me on the line, but that’s not what kept me there.

I would wager that many of us Old Hollywoodphiles have an interest in history, as this is the most common answer to the why do you like those old black-and-white movies question. It makes sense. Movies make time periods that have long passed come alive in a way that is not possible through only books and photographs. And while documentaries will always be the wheelhouse of most media-seeking history lovers, watching a movie, a walking and talking piece of creative art, that was written, directed, acted, sung, and danced by people who lived through a specific period of time gives us a different prism through which we can look to try to understand what it was like to live through it. We can read academic accounts from very knowledgeable historians on the social commentary of the depression era of the 1930s, and we certainly should, but it’s something like a magic trick to watch Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers gliding over a dance floor in coattails and evening dress to help a desolate population take their mind off their very real troubles. You know there is a sleight of hand going on, but the mesmerization is a ticket worth the small price.

As an adult, my love of history is very much a reason why I love Old Hollywood, but as a fourteen-year-old? No way. History wasn’t something I was particularly interested in, and my grades in social studies reflected that. So what was it then?

The main reason I fell in love with the past is because I didn’t fit into the present.

I’m not narcissistic enough to believe that my adolescence was more awkward than any other human newly minted into puberty. Still, memories of middle school come with bittersweet chaffing. I was a teenage girl with few friends and loads of insecurities and contradictions. I was shy and obnoxious at the same time. I was an athletically anemic, socially and physically awkward girl of only average intelligence who talked faster than she could think. My hours at school were spent in a Newton-like Third Law of Motion confusion: terrified that no one would ever notice me then equally panicked when someone eventually did.

At home though, everything was different. A TV, with cable and all the premium channels, was an easy route to escapism. My older siblings were long gone, and both my parents worked, often late hours, so there was no competition or jockeying for the remote. I was the prototypical latchkey kid, and though it may sound like and probably was a lonely and not altogether healthy existence, it was the only place in the world where I was happy. The outside world was unreliable and scary. The inside world, while maybe not stimulating, was safe and predictable and what could be safer and more predictable than the past? My thoughts turned from the Brat Pack to the Rat Pack, from slasher flicks at Camp Crystal Lake to rainy noir in New York City, time-traveling back to another era that was as set in stone much like the handprints at Grauman’s Chinese Theatre.

Thirty-plus years later, I have now watched Casablanca dozens of times and have become very familiar with Ingrid Bergman’s work (incoming unpopular opinion: her role as Ilsa was not her best movie, but that’s a post for another day). My adult self can appreciate more than just the aesthetics and style of the old black and whites. As a humanities major, I’ve taken more than my fair share of history courses. But having even a passing knowledge of early twentieth-century geopolitics gives viewing Casablanca a tense backdrop that elevates the movie to an entirely different level. Rick’s war-weary apathy, Ilsa’s desperation to live in safety at all costs, and even Captain Renault’s capitalist spirit suddenly make a lot more sense.

The movies from my teenage years are now considered…old movies, or at least my kids think so. And as much as I tried to turn away from them then, how could any teenager from that decade escape any if not all of the John Hughes catalog? Even now it’s hard not to be sucked into the 80s zeitgeist when you recognize the opening credits of one of his movies coming on TV on a Sunday afternoon. While not all aged well, some did and were pretty damn good, but that’s true of every decade. And the ones that didn’t, I look at them as a receipt for how far we’ve come as a society since the film was made. We may not be perfect, in fact far from it, but at least we’ve all come to a fairly unanimous conclusion that date rape as a punchline isn’t a good movie plot point anymore.

I admit though, I’m stumped on the 2010s. That was the decade when my kids were young so my knowledge is pretty limited to Disney and Pixar. I can recite any princess song by heart, but I have next to no idea what the top-grossing movies were or what won Best Picture at the Oscars and why. When I do research on the most popular movies from this time I don’t recognize or even remember seeing advertisements for a good portion of them. I’m sure there are some gems in there somewhere, I just hope I don’t have to wait another thirty years to learn about and appreciate them.