Review - Drive-In Movie Memories (DVD-2006)
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Drive-In Movie Memories (DVD-2006)

Janson Media

Reviewed by Larry Jakubecz


Ah, the drive-in: that uniquely American institution which combined three of the country’s biggest interests of the time --cars, food and movies --into something that would provide families (particularly the kids) with cherished memories to last their whole lives. The drive-in movie theater has enjoyed times of phenomenal prosperity and bore the weight of an ignominous decline. Its colorful history is filled with adventure, backseat romances and more than a little good old American ingenuity. The tale has been told in a handful of well-illustrated coffee-table books; one of the best-regarded of these, Drive-In Movie Memories by Don and Susan Sanders, is the basis for a new documentary of the same name.


Drive-In Movie Memories, released on DVD by Janson Films, packs a lot of information into its economical running time (the box lists a total length of 75 minutes, but the actual feature runs just under an hour). The history of the drive-in is divided into three acts, charting its invention, heyday and ultimate diversification. The most fascinating tidbits are in Act I, where we learn that the early drive-ins, owned and operated by ordinary country folk, took off after World War II, when families flush with new money and new cars found themselves starved for entertainment. As the venture got more successful, operators got more creative with ways to provide customers with the most unique experience. Gimmicks ranged from devices to keep vehicles cool or toasty warm (depending on the season) to “monkey villages” and playgrounds for the kiddies. Some of their ideas were more worthy of Caractacus Potts, the crackpot inventor in Chitty Chitty Bang Bang. You’ve gotta hand it to ‘em, though: these folks were thinking.


As the drive-in became a mainstay for amorous teenagers, and television began to take hold, the on-screen stories transitioned to more lurid fare: the “horror beach” pictures gave way to tough action and shocking exploitation. By the time churches began renting the grounds for Sunday services, many drive-ins were showing out-and-out porn in the wee summer hours. It was the best of times, it was the worst of times, depending on your view.


The narrative of Drive-In Movie Memories is intercut with on-camera reminiscences from familiar faces (historian Leonard Maltin, actors Barry Corbin and Ann Robinson) and some of the drive-in owners themselves. Maltin’s bits and the too-brief words from the book’s authors (who also produced the doc) are the most valuable, but I kept hoping for a better range of interviews. Director Joe Dante, for example, doubtless would have had some entertaining things to say. A couple of these people, such as the author of a book on pin-up girls, add absolutely nothing.


Though there is lots of good information here, I found a couple of things annoying, and even inexcusable. Director Kurt Kuenne (who also edited and composed the music) continually overlaps the audio of the testimonial snippets to the point where you can’t understand what’s being said, and don’t know who’s saying it. As the director of several award-winning short films and an excellent feature, Scrapbook, Kuenne should know better. That the film feels as though it was made on a home computer is no excuse. On a lesser note, some great photos of drive-in theaters in their prime go by so fast you’ve got to use your pause button to enjoy them; I wondered why he was rushing through the good stuff. In fact, I found myself continually aware of the tiny snippets that comprise the film, along with the feeling that the whole show needed a bit more “oomph.” (And by the way, there are no chapter stops.)


On the plus side, we get one bonafide bonus feature, and it’s a sweet one: an 18-minute reel of vintage concession stand spots. I’m pretty sure these haven’t appeared in other collections, and they’re a lot of fun (bear in mind most are in pretty ragged shape). Even here, however, I have a minor quibble: I wish Kuenne had included more of the intermission trailers merely glimpsed in his feature.


What Drive-In Movie Memories has in its favor is a nice historical overview of the venue’s rise and fall. It conveys a good sense of what it was like in its prime, and what made the experience great. The film even ends on a cautiously optimistic note, positing that the venerable drive-in theater may be down, but it is not quite out.


2006 Larry Jakubecz/Celluloid Dreams



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