Sometimes I have to chuckle when I see a new film described as a “date movie”, because it seems as if everyone knows the meaning of the term and the importance of careful movie selection in support of budding relationships, but that wasn’t always so — or at least, it wasn’t for me when I was a naïve teenager. Even if we didn’t use the term in those days, the concept was the same – as were the pitfalls – and I can pretty clearly remember at least one time that might charitably be described as a learning experience for me.
It was 1960 and a brand new movie was coming out that I was anxious to see, and since I was also exploring the possibilities regarding a new acquaintance, it seemed like a win-win opportunity to ask her to go to the film with me. She agreed and we made our plans, but when she asked what we were going to see I decided to tease her by keeping it a secret. Every time she asked about it I just kept telling her that she’d love it, and I truly believed that as I continued to throw shovel after shovel of dirt, effectively digging my own grave.
I was still a little new to serious dating, but I felt like I had this whole movie thing pretty well covered. After all, not only did it promise to be a good film, but I’d polished up my old Buick and spent a little time on myself too, and after checking the mirror decided that I might not be Joe Cool but I wasn’t exactly Quasimodo either. I was brimming with confidence — or at least what passed for it in a basically shy and tentative teenager.
Everything seemed to be going well, and the Buick had managed to run well enough to get us to the theater, but then as we walked up to it she spotted the marquee — and even then, I don’t think I caught on to the fact that she’d gone very quiet. There in huge letters was the title of my eagerly anticipated movie event, the film that I’d kept telling her she’d love: North To Alaska – Starring John Wayne.
Boy, I loved that movie. It had everything — the Alaskan gold rush, lots of shooting, brawls in the mud, humor…even lumberjacks and a bordello thrown in for good measure. And then there was the song. When Johnny Horton sang “North To Alaska”, I thought it was just about the best movie theme song I’d ever heard. And his performance had a certain poignancy because Horton had been fatally injured in a auto accident just days before the movie premiere.
Johnny Horton was only 35 when he died in that car crash and it’s been said that he’d had a premonition about it, but that type of story is sometimes more fable than fact. In any case, he’s probably best remembered for his historical story songs, including such hits as “Battle Of New Orleans”, which topped both country and pop charts, and “Sink The Bismarck”. However, he was first and foremost a honky-tonk man (which was also the title of his first hit in 1956) and is still remembered by knowledgeable fans for his seminal recordings.
But to get back to my teenage social life – or lack thereof – I found that the temperature had dropped quite a bit by the time the movie was over, and I’m not talking about the weather. Eventually, even my granite noggin was penetrated by the realization that just maybe my date hadn’t enjoyed the movie quite as much as I had — and it was all downhill from there.
I guess I might have learned something from the experience (even though it took a while to sink in) but I do know one thing — I still love that movie, and its theme song too.