Have you ever gone back to a work and found out that there was a major element or theme that you completely missed the first time? The most common for me are romantic or racy themes in movies I saw when I was really young, for instance the semi-tragic “Violet Bick likes every boy” arc in It’sA Wonderful Life. But it also includes things I first saw when I was relatively grown up but wasn’t paying the right kind of attention, for instance that the bugs in Starship Troopers didn’t start the war. How about you? —Bob K
I couldn’t tell you how many times I watched The Sound Of Music as a kid. It was a staple in our household; we saw it on the big screen, we watched it on TV, we went to see it on the stage, we could all sing all the songs, and frequently did. And then one Thanksgiving a few years ago, it occurred to me that the 40th-anniversary edition was out, and I probably hadn’t watched the thing in at least 20 of those years. So I sat down with it… and man, is that a different story when you’re old enough to have some idea who the Nazis are, besides mean-looking guys in dark coats, and when you can understand Captain Von Trapp’s mixed feelings of patriotism and loss as he sees his country sliding away. But more than that, I’d never really grasped the business with Eleanor Parker as the Baroness who has designs on Von Trapp, and sees this upstart governess getting in her way, and works to undermine her and scare her off. I vaguely remembered in childhood, parsing all that as a bunch of boring grown-up talk between the good parts where the kids sing and dance and the nuns sabotage a car, but there’s a whole world of adult story in there, with implied sex, violence, politicking, and manipulation that it took an adult eye to see.
As a kid, I loved Paul Lynde’s funny voice and fey mannerisms without really getting what they signified. I hadn’t thought of Lynde in years until I saw a stage production of Charlotte’s Web in Madison during a short stint as a third- or fourth-string theater critic for the fine local alt-weekly The Isthmus. The actor playing Templeton essentially did an impression of Lynde’s performance in the 1973 Hanna-Barbera version. A lot clicked into place about Lynde’s persona that I never caught as a child.
Basically, Grease was entirely about sex, but when we were watching it at slumber parties when I was growing up, we had no idea. We didn’t catch what “all the girls will cream” meant in “Greased Lightning,” or what Marti meant when she said “You know, like cherry?” to Vince Fontaine, nor the fact that Sandy was essentially blueballing Danny at the drive-in. We just liked the fun songs and costumes and dreamy John Travolta. (Although I always preferred Kinickie.) If you want to get really academic about it, there’s also something to explore in the fact that Sandy decides to dress like a slut in order to get Danny at the end, but mostly at the time, we just liked her Candies shoes. I was always told that the original musical version of Grease was much raunchier than the movie, so I wonder what other sexual innuendos we would have been missing had we seen those.
As a child, I adored Madeline L’Engle’s A Wrinkle In Time and its various sequels without ever realizing that the book is an elaborate pro-Christian/anti-Communist allegory. In hindsight, the novel’s allegorical elements are pretty obvious, even ham-fisted, especially its treatment of the contemporary poison of Marxism, but as a kid, I just thought it was a super-cool fantasy novel with gripping characters and a fantastical made-up world.
I paid more attention to TV than anything else when I was in elementary school in the ’70s, so it only makes sense that, by age 6 or so, I already knew the name Norman Lear. But even though I watched hundreds of episodes of Lear’s groundbreaking sitcoms—especially All In The Family, The Jeffersons, and Good Times—by the time I graduated Cub Scouts, I didn’t necessarily get them. I mean, I grew up witnessing plenty of racial and economic friction, but it was central to Lear’s genius that he was able to humanize (and humorize) these complex issues in a way that could make a precocious second-grader giggle. At that age, I wasn’t entirely oblivious to Archie Bunker’s bigotry or George Jefferson’s uneasy upward mobility. But it wasn’t until I watched these shows as an adult—with a little more cognizance of the social strife of the ’70s—that I truly appreciated them beyond the level of “Meathead!” and “Dy-no-mite!” Not that that there’s anything wrong with “Meathead!” and “Dy-no-mite!”
Even though I went to Sunday School and weekly Mass my whole childhood, I didn’t get the ending of the Narnia series until I was a teenager. The version of the Bible we had didn’t include the book of Revelation, but I doubt I’d have caught on even if I’d been steeped in Rapture culture my whole life. I didn’t even notice how on-the-nose even the most obvious allegory is until I caught The Lion, The Witch And The Wardrobe movie at age 25—I mean, sure, Aslan sacrificed himself for the world’s sins and then rose from the dead, but the only thing I needed to know as a kid was that Aslan was an awesome talking lion. The first few books were at least allegories of plot-friendlier stuff than Revelation, which reads like Fear And Loathing In Patmos. But the final Narnia book, The Last Battle, is Revelation-for-kids with a few familiar characters from the other books. At the time, false Aslans, lying apes, creepy foreign gods, and giant lizards eating Narnia while everybody good goes off to Aslan’s Country seemed like a disappointing, nonsensical jumble of a crappy ending; I probably would have yelled “Bullshit!” if I hadn’t been 8.
I missed most of the pop-culture references in Looney Tunes cartoons when I was a lad, only picking them up later once I’d seen more movies, read more books, and absorbed more history. And sometimes getting the joke changed my impression of the cartoons, as with the many times that the Warner Bros. animators quoted John Steinbeck’s Of Mice And Men by having big dumb characters tell wily smaller characters that they want a pet to “hug and squeeze.” After reading the scenes in Steinbeck’s book where Lennie accidentally kills a puppy and a lady, those Looney Tunes jokes come off as much, much weirder.
Like so many other kids watching the show in reruns, I had absolutely no clue about the whole “Jack is pretending to be gay” premise of Three’s Company. As far as I was concerned, the landlord, be it Mr. Roper or Mr. Furley, was nosy—and wore loud suits, for that matter—because he just wanted to be cool and hang out with the young people upstairs. It certainly wasn’t because of his old-fashioned values. Besides, why wouldn’t it be cool for men and women to live together in a swinging bachelor pad?
I was a superfan of Robert Heinlein (and yes, I know this makes me a giant, irredeemable nerd) growing up, so my first viewing of Paul Verhoeven’s Starship Troopers adaptation filled me with incoherent nerd rage. Where was the powered armor? Why was everyone so bland and white? What the hell was going on, and why did this Dutch bastard ruin my second-favorite book ever!?! Years later, I came back to the movie after several friends recommended I give it another shot, and I found, much to my surprise and delight, that it was a brilliant deconstruction of the fascist ideology that existed just under the surface of the novel (and modern society…), full of sly, winking humor and cutting social commentary, not to mention some great action setpieces and kick-ass CGI bugs. The fact that it can also now be seen as a darkly prophetic look at the mentality behind the war on terror is just the cherry on top. (Oh, and the book? Not nearly as good as I thought as a kid.)