Don’t get me wrong; double features do still sometimes happen. As a child, I saw Return to Oz and D.A.R.Y.L in a double feature, as I recall. (Look, the eighties were a weird time.) But even when that happens, I don’t think we get the full double feature experience anymore. I can’t imagine that the drive-in down the road from me, which does do double features, does the whole “plus shorts” experience. And it’s not like they even make newsreels anymore.
But when my mother was a child, if she went to the movies, it was with two films plus an array of short features. She’s old enough to have seen a lot of the classic Warners shorts in the theatre alongside movies from Warner Bros., though I’ll admit I don’t actually know if she ever did. I’m not sure my mom and I have ever talked about her movie-going experience as a child. Still. You paid your admission, and you got two movies, a cartoon, a live-action short, and a newsreel. A pretty good deal, and you didn’t even get M&Ms commercials beyond the “Let’s All Go to the Lobby” song.
In all honesty, it’s not the loss of the second movie that bothers me as much, though the Capitol Theatre has stopped letting you choose to sit through both movies, and you have to buy a second ticket now. While I happen to like both of the movies I saw in the one proper double feature I remember, I’m also aware that we had the chance once, when I was a kid, to see Ghostbusters 2 and Troop Beverly Hills in a double feature. I’m aware that the “B-picture” was a thing, and the second movie you saw wasn’t going to be a blockbuster. It was going to be something made to fill out the bill.
Though even there, you sometimes got lucky. There are some great movies that got made to fill out double bills. If you like horror or Westerns or sci-fi or gangster pictures, at least one of your favourite movies of the Golden Age of Hollywood was probably made to fill out the bill. It’s actually something to think about to speculate if the Academy’s antipathy to the genre film stems from the days when genre films were generally made on the cheap in this way. I wouldn’t at all be surprised to discover that there were plenty of cases where the ostensible B-picture has stayed more in the public consciousness than the A-picture.
But no, what I wish we’d bring back is the short. The cartoon sometimes appears before animated movies; Disney and Pixar have had great success with shorts. (When we saw Wreck-It Ralph, I came out of the theatre talking about “Paperman.”) But I’d like it if we got back into the mindset of expecting a short with our movies. Not just trailers, though at some point I may write about some of the more clever trailers of past years. But the Oscar categories that are hardest to see the nominees in if you don’t make it to a special screening are the assorted short subject categories, and there’s no reason not to stick those ahead of a theatrical release. Oh, some of the longer ones, perhaps not. But I’ve been to those screenings now and again, and seen more on DVD, and most of those shorts are still less than fifteen minutes long.
Actually, instead of the newsreel, why not add a documentary short? These are generally the longest, I grant you. But we got something of it when Argo started with a quick history lesson, and things like that would be an interesting social experiment. If you watched a short but well-made film about the history of some current event, might that not help? “This is why our infrastructure has problems, ergo Flint water crisis.” “Here’s how we divided up various regions after colonialism, ergo regional strife.” “Here’s a history of economic bubbles, ergo show caution maybe.”
I know. Movies are a business, and adding content means cycling the theatre less often, so it’s not going to happen. At very least, though, why can’t we get them on DVDs of movies released that way intially? Warners actually does this with some of its better releases, with the “Warners Night at the Movies” feature on their discs, where you get the movie and the cartoon and the live-action short and sometimes even a bit of newsreel. Disney does it now and again, too. Why doesn’t everyone?