Saturday morning movies, actor will never be forgotten
When I was quite young, our local movie theatre back in England (long since demolished, the site is now a gas station) used to open on Saturday mornings for something called ABC Minors. This was a program where only kids between the ages of 8 and 14 were allowed in to watch the movies. We were charged just pennies admission and for that we got to see a movie, a cartoon or two and "the serial," which went on week after week. We also got a free candy bar and drink at Christmas.
The movies we saw were never the latest box office sensations; usually they were "B" movies or worse. Many were old black-and-white films and the serial was almost invariably Sci-Fi with terrible special effects and bad dialogue, but my brother and I never missed a week. We went out in all weathers just to spend our Saturday mornings at the theatre because that was our weekend treat.
It was kid's entertainment in the era when there was not a lot on TV in the mornings in Britain. It was cheaply produced and would not get an airing today. We saw an awful lot of garbage and didn't learn a lot, but it engendered in me a great love of the movies. As I got older of course I grew out of being able to go to the ABC Minors, but I still regularly went to one of the several movie theatres in my city. Sometimes I went with friends, sometimes alone. I didn't really care what I saw and so I got to watch some really bad movies. I saw many good ones, too, though, some of them little-known ones featuring actors who later became quite famous stars.
Of course I had my favorites. These were still the days of the great adventure movies. Errol Flynn, Humphrey Bogart and Henry Fonda were around. The late, great John Wayne, who passed away 35 years ago this month, was at the height of his movie making career and so was Jimmie Stewart, another of my all-time favorites.
There was one other actor who stands out in my memory. Today, June 20, would have been his 90th birthday had he not passed away in an air crash at the young age of 46. He was a good actor but was never renowned as one of the Hollywood greats. He did not win Oscars but he won a lot of other awards long before he became an actor and he stands out from the crowd because of the way he got into the profession.
He was born in Texas, the seventh out of twelve children in a poor sharecropping family. His father abandoned his wife and children when he was in his early teens and he learned to hunt to supplement the family's food supply.
He was just 16 when the Japanese attacked Pearl Harbor and he immediately tried to enlist but the army, navy and marines all turned him down because he was under age and undersized. Six months later his sister signed an affidavit adding a year to his age and saying he was 18 and the army finally accepted him.
Thanks to his hunting prowess he gained a marksman badge in basic training and shipped out to North Africa early in 1943. He proved to be a good soldier, taking part in the invasions of Sicily and Italy and making Staff Sergeant within a year. In March of 1944 he was awarded a bronze star for single handedly destroying an enemy tank with rifle grenades.
It was his first award for courage. It was not to be his last because he was, of course, Audie Murphy and he went on to win every military combat award for valor available to a soldier in the United States Army, including the Congressional Medal of Honor. He also earned a battlefield promotion to second lieutenant and awards from both the French and Belgians for courage under fire.
After the war, Murphy returned to the United States where "Life" magazine did an article on him, describing him as America's most decorated soldier. Jimmy Cagney saw this and asked him to come to Hollywood. Murphy's association with Cagney did not lead anywhere but he started taking acting lessons and began dating the actress Wanda Hendrix. He eventually married and divorced her but their association led to him getting his first bit part in a movie; it was the first of more than 40, including one called "To Hell and Back" based on his life story in which he played himself.
As I said at the beginning of this piece I learned to love the movies when I was very young. It was my dad who introduced my brother and me to the ABC Minors and who subsequently took us to see Audie Murphy movies. He was always a fan of westerns, reading the books and watching the movies whenever possible and the majority of Murphy's movies were westerns but Dad had another reason for liking the actor so well. That reason was when they were both young soldiers who had lied about their ages to fight for their countries, he actually met the man who would become a hero and a star on Anzio beach in Italy.
The memory stayed with him and because of that chance encounter, I got to see some great movies. I'm grateful to them both.
Derek Coleman is a part-time writer who is a native of England and who now lives in Hurricane, W.Va. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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