How to choose a good film

Skipper had a surefire test for movies: check the hairstylist.

When I served with an air squadron on board the aircraft carrier USS Constellation in the South China Sea in the early 1970s, the primary (and often the only) way to relax after days filled with the heaviness of war was by watching movies in the squadron ready room.

Our skipper, Cmdr. Dan O'Connell, held the key to our evening viewing – he alone approved the selection of a movie from the ship's library of 16-mm films. Easing the strain of battle was a serious responsibility, which he took seriously. So every day, when a yeoman brought a movie to him for approval, there was one and only one question he would ask: "Who's the hairstylist?"

Before I explain, here's a little context: The ship was an armored, floating community with everything an isolated (war fighting) town of 5,000 needed for months at sea. And war fighting meant flight operations, around the clock. Rotating shifts of sailors and officers operated at all hours. While on station off the coast of Vietnam, "Connie" (as we called the ship) launched and recovered aircraft of all types, from fighters and bombers to electronic warfare and re-fueling planes. Rescue helicopters, too.

The day was broken into 90-minute cycles. During each very noisy and hazardous cycle, about 16 airplanes were serviced, loaded with weapons and volatile liquids, checked, manned, started, positioned, launched, and later recovered. It was dangerous work for everyone – pilots especially. Relaxation at the end of a day was not a luxury; it was a basic need.

We found many ways to relax, but we shared one primary way: watching movies. In those days before the Internet, DVDs, or even VCRs, visual entertainment consisted of films shown via projector in the ready room. The ship's stock of movies was refreshed monthly with movies long past their prime – so past their prime, in fact, that most of us had never heard of them, much less the actors in them. How could we be reasonably sure a film was going to be worthwhile? Skipper O'Connell had a surefire way: Check the credits for the name of the hairstylist.

Why the hairstylist? Did good hair mean great performances? I don't know, and I don't know how he knew. But of this the skipper was certain: If Larry Germain did the hairstyles, it was bound to be a good movie.

I recently researched Mr. Germain (sometimes spelled Germaine): He enjoyed a stellar career as a hairstylist. From 1943 until 1981, he worked on an astounding 212 motion pictures, including "A Farewell to Arms," "Inherit the Wind," "Spartacus," and "To Kill a Mockingbird." He was also a hairstylist for 23 made-for-TV movies (one of which, "The Miracle Worker," won him an Emmy in 1980). Not only that, but he worked on 1,222 episodes of 39 TV series, including "Little House on the Prairie," "Ironside," "Adam-12," "Dragnet," and "The Alfred Hitchcock Hour." He was no lightweight. The skipper somehow knew that. And we were grateful.

So we'd settle into our seats to watch a movie and momentarily forget the war above deck and on the beach. And as the credits rolled at the beginning of the film, if we saw the name Larry Germain as the hairstylist, we'd break into raucous hoots and wahoos because we knew it was going to be good. Our skipper never steered us wrong.

To this day, I still cheer when I see Germain's name when I'm watching an old movie. I think of the ready room, my shipmates, and our skipper – and get ready to enjoy a good movie.

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