Tuesday, November 29, 2011

My 100 Favorite Films: From 10 to 1

I began this endeavor last February and now, after counting down 90 of my favorite movies, I’ve arrived at the Top Ten. It’s been grand fun for me—I’ve enjoyed revisiting each of these films and have delighted in reading comments from others who hold them in esteem. Thanks for all the wonderful feedback. Click here to read the complete list from 100-1. And now, without further discourse, here is (as Miss Jean Brodie would say) the crème de la crème.

Bronson as the mysterious Harmonica.
10. Once Upon a Time in the West – "Epic" and "sprawling" are the words critics frequently used to describe this now-revered 1968 Spaghetti Western. Yet, despite its lengthy running time and visually massive backdrop, Once Upon a Time in the West focuses tightly on the relationships among four people over a relatively short period of time. These characters are: Frank (Henry Fonda), a ruthless gunfighter who aspires to be a powerful businessman; Cheyenne (Jason Robards), a rascally outlaw with killer instincts; Jill (Claudia Cardinale), a former prostitute in search of a more meaningful life; and a mysterious revenge-minded stranger whom Cheyenne calls Harmonica (Charles Bronson). It took multiple viewings over the span of several years for me to fully appreciate Sergio Leone’s masterpiece. In the end, I was won over by its fascinating characters, overarching theme, Ennio Morricone’s score, and some marvelous set pieces (especially the opening and climactic showdown between Frank and Harmonica).

Don't you love Doris's hat?
9. Lover Come Back – There aren’t many comedies in my 100 Favorite Movies and only two in the Top 10—there just aren’t that many films that tickle my funny bone. A major exception is this bright 1960s laugh fest with Rock Hudson and Doris Day as advertising rivals. To distract Doris, Rock comes up with a fake product called Vip. He even films commercials for the fake product—which are, unfortunately aired on TV. To avoid criminal charges on fraud, he hires a Nobel scientist to invent something that could be passed off as Vip. Meanwhile, Doris mistakes Rock for the Vip inventor and he plays along. It’s a classic “snowball comedy” played by a cast of pros, including Tony Randall and Edie Adama. But the main attraction here is the pairing of Doris and Rock in their best outing. This is the film that reminded me that Rock Hudson was an exceptional comedian, as evidenced by his expert timing in the delicious scene when he tries to seduce Doris.

Tippi as another Hitchcock blonde heroine.
8. Marnie – When I first saw Marnie as a teenager, it made no impression at all. I thought Tippi Hedren was miscast and Sean Connery dull. The plot--what there was of one--seemed thin and the characters lacked interest. Decades later, I watched it it again and, to my complete surprise, I loved it! Tippi Hedren's subtle detached performance made Marnie a vulnerable, intriguing character. The progressively complex relationship between Marnie and Sean Connery’s character generated suspense--in its own quiet way--worthy of Hitch’s best man-on-the-run films. I was captivated by Hitch's finest use of color (especially during the opening scenes). And finally, there was Bernard Herrmann's incredible score (which, for me, ranks second only to Vertigo among his Hitchcock soundtracks). I've often wondered how I missed all of this the first time around?

Bing and Danny singing "Sisters."
7. White Christmas – There was a time when I grumbled because White Christmas was shown every Yuletide season while Holiday Inn (1942) only made sporadic appearances. Most critics consider the latter film, in which the song “White Christmas” was introduced, to be the superior musical. It was only after my wife and I acquired both films on video that I recognized the virtues of White Christmas. It’s a near-perfect blend of music and comedy, with the cast and crew at, or near, the peak of their careers. The dance numbers are staged energetically, with the highlight being Danny and Vera-Ellen dancing outside a nightclub to the melodic “The Best Things Happen While You’re Dancing.” Crosby and Clooney generate a more subdued, but no less effective, chemistry. Their duet “Count Your Blessings” was the big hit song from the film. The most effective pairing in the film, though, is the one between Crosby and Kaye. They’re a sensational team, whether doing musical numbers or comedy (their version of “Sisters”, done originally as a joke on the set, is hysterically funny).

The quartet on their way to Oz.
6. The Wizard of Oz – When I was growing up, the annual network broadcast of The Wizard of Oz was a big event. I never failed to watch it. It’s so much a part of my movie-watching DNA that it’s hard to describe its appeal other than to say it’s one of the most perfect films ever made. The cast, the characters, the themes, the sets, the costumes, the music—does Oz fail to earn a top grade in any of those categories? But for me, the most amazing aspect of the film is this: Despite the thousands of pop culture products derived from the film over the last 70-plus years—which are more than enough to overwhelm even a dedicated fan—I never tire of watching The Wizard of Oz.

Danny and Basil in their delightful
duel (snap!).
5. The Court Jester – My favorite comedy is a spot-on, delightful spoof of swashbuckling films. In a rare role worthy of his talents, Danny Kaye gets to sing, dance, use funny voices, contort his expressive face, and excel at physical comedy (such as walking in magnetized armor). The supporting players are all at the top of their game, too. Basil Rathbone has a grand time parodying past roles such as Sir Guy of Gisbourne in The Adventures of Robin Hood. Angela Lansbury displays a deft comedic touch, while Cecil Parker steals his scenes as the bored king whose only interest appears to be “wenches.” The Court Jester also includes Danny’s most famous routine—the one that involves the pellet with the poison in the chalice from the palace, the vessel with the pestle has the brew that is true, and (finally) the flagon with the picture of a dragon (which is used for the brew that is true after the vessel with the pestle is broken). And did I mention that Danny and Basil Rathbone engage in the funniest sword duel in the history of cinema?

Gort melts a tank...how cool is that?
4. The Day the Earth Stood Still – If there were a Hall of Fame for Timeless Movies, then one of its founding members would be The Day the Earth Stood Still. I've probably watched it at least once every decade since I first saw it on NBC's Saturday Night at the Movies in the 1960s. When I was a youngster, the film's fantastic elements--and Gort, the coolest robot in the history of cinema--appealed to me. When I was a teen, its stern warning about the perils of nuclear war resonated with me. With each subsequent viewing, The Day the Earth Stood Still has revealed something new: presenting itself as a Biblical analogy, an editorial on the influence of media on public opinion, a portrait of fear of the unknown, etc. Its themes never fail to thrill me…making it much more exciting than any action-oriented sci fi film.

3. Anatomy of a Murder – Otto Preminger’s enthralling courtroom drama requires multiple viewings to be fully appreciated. When I first saw it, I focused on the riveting story, which treats the viewer much like the jury. We listen to testimonies, watch the lawyers try to manipulate our emotions, and struggle to make sense of the evidence. When I saw it a second time, I knew the case’s outcome and was able to concentrate on the splendid performances. James Stewart, Arthur O’Connell, and George C. Scott earned Oscar nominations, but the rest of the cast is also exceptionally strong. In subsequent viewings, I’ve come to appreciate the film’s well-preserved details, from the small town upper-Michigan atmosphere to Preminger’s brilliant direction (e.g., in one shot, as Scott cross-examines a witness in close-up, Stewart—the defending lawyer—is framed between them in the background).

Talk about doomed love...
2. Vertigo – This richly-layered masterpiece reveals its big twist when least expected--turning the film on its proverbial head. It causes love to blur with obsession and greed to give way to guilt and perhaps love. What we see at the bell tower is initially false, but ultimately true. I could go on and on…but, hey, whole books have been devoted to this film. I think it’s Hitch’s best job of writing (as usual uncredited) and directing…plus we get superb performances (especially from James Stewart), a marvelous San Francisco setting, an unforgettably disturbing score from Bernard Hermann, and nifty Saul Bass titles. Like all great films, I glean something new from it or appreciate another facet every time I watch it. My latest viewing reminded me just how brilliant James Stewart is in the lead. In a career filled with fine performances, I think Stewart does his finest work as a typical Stewart “nice guy” who evolves into a man obsessed with an illusion. Contrast Scotty’s (Stewart) playful banter early on with Midge with his climactic confrontation with Judy—his eyes ablaze with confusion, hate, and something akin to love. It’s a brilliant and chilling transition.

1. The Adventures of Robin Hood – For many readers, I’m sure it comes as no surprise that Robin Hood occupies the No. 1 spot on my list. For me, it shares many traits with The Wizard of Oz in that, from top to bottom, it’s a flawless film (well, except for one tiny continuity gap). The early Technicolor color is rich. Michael Curtiz, who took over the film from William Keighley, keeps the pacing tight. Errol and Olivia, one of the great screen couples, exude celluloid chemistry. Basil and Claude make for dastardly villains. And the supporting cast, from Alan Hale to Una O’Connor, is incredible. My favorite aspect, though, is that it’s the ultimate “let’s form a team” movie. As discussed in this blog before, I hold a special affection for movies in which one character recruits others to form a team to accomplish a goal (e.g., The Magnificent Seven, The Dirty Dozen). There’s nothing as satisfying as watch Errol assmble his Band of Merry Men. As for that one tiny flaw in Robin Hood, watch where the sword lands when Basil drops it on the staircase and note how it magically moves courtesy of a continuity gaff. Those are the kinds of things one notices when watching a favorite film a few dozen times!

Monday, November 28, 2011

Trivia Time 103

Since all questions were answered last time, we can jump right into TT103! Of course we will first post our Flynn pic of the week:

1. With which of the following gentlemen did Barbara Stanwyck make the greatest number of movies: Gary Cooper, Joel McCrea, or George Brent?

2. Name at least two films featuring Barbara Stanwyck and Margaret Lindsey.

3. How many times did Stanwyck work with Clark Gable? Name the film(s) and the director(s).

4. What was Hedda Hopper's connection to Margaret Lindsey?

5. Name the Olivia de Havilland films in which Ward Bond makes an appearance. Name the leading men in each film.

6. This '60s game show producer liked to use former DJs as hosts for his shows. Name him and his two famous DJ hosts.

7. Which classic game show host is featured in a Weird Al video?

8. Who Said This? "We'll be right back with more stuff!"

9. In which major '60s film did Jim Hutton have a small uncredited part? What was the part? Name the stars of the film.

10. Who was the host of Monster Chiller Horror Theater?

11. Name two different TV shows that featured both Jean Byron and William Schallert. Bonus points for the correct time order, networks, and stars.

12. Name both ABC's and NBC's primetime '60s "Rock" shows.

13. Name the DJ from KRLA in Pasadena, CA and his long-running TV show.

Thursday, November 24, 2011

Holiday Gift Ideas for the Classic Film & TV Fan (2011 Edition)

One of the Cafe's most popular articles each year is a list of holiday gift ideas from our contributors (click here to read previous recommendations). This year, we're proud to present the third post in this series (hey, it's a trilogy now!). Hopefully, you'll find some gift ideas for the classic film and/or TV lover in your family. Our picks run the gamut from a boxed set from the Master of Suspense to Raymond Burr's Perry Mason TV series to creepy horror films from the 1980s.

Alfred Hitchcock: The Masterpiece Collection (recommended by Rick29). Although this boxed set of 14 Hitchcock classics retails for $120, you can buy it online for less than $75. It's a steal at that price, considering it includes Hitchcock favorites such as Shadow of a Doubt, Rear Window, Vertigo, Psycho, and The Birds. Plus, you get some genuine surprises such as the underrated Marnie and The Trouble With Harry (which improves with subsequent viewings for me). The films have been digitally remastered and come with lots of extra goodies: a 360-page booklet, 14 documentaries, and nine featurettes.

The Brigitte Bardot Classic DVD Collection (recommended by Dawn). One of the silver screen's best-known blonde bombshells sizzles in three stories of love, scandal and betrayal: The Night Heaven Fell (1958); Plucking the Daisy (1956);  and Don Juan (1973). Ms. Bardot's stunning looks often overshadowed that she was a fine light comedienne, as evidenced by Plucking the Daisy. The other two films in this collection were directed by her one-time husband, Roger Vadim.

West Side Story: 50th Anniversary Edition (recommended by Paul). A must-have for any West Side Story fan, this new three-disc Blu-ray set includes a book, postcards, tribute CD, and much more. For many fans, watching the film in high definition and listening to the remastered songs will be enough! Russ Tamblyn, who played Riff, said: "Fox has made this Blu-ray rendition that is just beautiful and so clear. You see so many things that you missed in the original."

Make your own Rebecca Gift Basket (recommended by TheLadyEve). My holiday gift recommendation this year springs from an idea that came to me a month or so ago when I started thinking about how best to enjoy chilly evenings at home. I spent a few nights reading Daphne du Maurier’s classic modern gothic, Rebecca and watching the classic 1940 film version starring Joan Fontaine and Laurence Olivier. In the end, I put together a couple of blog posts on the joys of books and the movies made from them – plus warm drink recipe suggestions to accompany…so here’s my 2011 gift idea…A Rebecca gift basket containing: one copy of Daphne du Maurier’s 1938 novel (from $5.98 new on Amazon); one copy of the Oscar-winning Hitchcock/Selznick film (DVD @$14.99 on TCM.com); one 14.5 oz. canister of Godiva Dark Chocolate Hot Cocoa mix (from $13.99 on Amazon); 16 oz. Hot & Spicy Winter Toddy Mix (add ice cream, hot water or spirits) available on Amazon.com for $6.95;  one 50 g. canister of loose leaf tea (black, green white or flavored tea of your choice from the Tea Fountain (from $4.95 at http://www.teafountain.com/). Feel free to add or subtract to your gift basket.

A Free Film! (recommended by ClassicBecky). It may seem mundane, but I would love to receive a gift packet for my favorite movie theatre, good for two shows with popcorn and a Coke for each.  Givers with more pocket money could add more tickets or give enough for prime-time movies.  Those with limited budgets could give a matinee packet.  Considering the high cost of going to the movies, I would be thrilled with such a gift!

Perry Mason (recommended by Rick29). Seasons 1-5 of Raymond Burr's first-rate courtroom TV series are available separately or in a (pricey) boxed set. If you want to go with just one season, I recommend the first, which includes a number of episodes adapted from the Erle Stanley Gardner novels. The mysteries are fun and Burr is fabulous as the clever, sometimes smug super-lawyer. Plus, as you and your friends watch, you can discuss the relationship between Perry and Della...are they more than just co-workers?

Any Horror Fans among your family and friends? (Recommended by Sarkoffagus) This holiday, scare yourself silly and see what terror looks like in high definition. Numerous horror movies have been released on Blu-ray just in time for the festive season. Movies that came out for Halloween but would still make great gifts include the 30th anniversary of the 1981 cult TV movie, Dark Night of the Scarecrow; William Lustig’s Maniac Cop (1988), featuring cinematic icons Bruce Campbell and Richard Roundtree; two impressive outings from famed Italian horror maestro, Lucio Fulci, Zombie (aka Zombi 2/1979) and The House by the Cemetery (1981); and Lon Chaney making horror movie history in the classic 1925 silent version of The Phantom of the Opera. Released this month was the 25th anniversary of Sam Raimi’s horror-comedy sequel, Evil Dead II: Dead by Dawn (1987), which also happens to star Bruce Campbell, and the Spanish/UK produced Horror Express (1972), featuring Christopher Lee, Peter Cushing and Telly Savalas, will make its way onto Blu-ray on Nov. 29th. Tuesday, Dec. 13th, will see two horror gems on hi-def format: The 1989 Intruder, written and directed by Scott Spiegel, who co-wrote Evil Dead II with Sam Raimi, who appears in Spiegel’s film (with appearances from Sam’s brother, actor Ted Raimi, and – one more time – Bruce Campbell); and the popular vampire flick, Fright Night (1985), whose release coincides with the home media debut of its recent 2011 remake. And finally, if you don’t mind dropping an IOU into people’s Christmas stockings, two offbeat classics will sleep through the holidays and sneak onto Blu-ray in late January 2012, The Deadly Spawn (1983) and Night Train Murders (aka L’ultimotrenodellanotte/1975).

Tuesday, November 22, 2011

Keeping a Really, Really Close Eye on the TV

One of the most peculiar movie-watching experiences I’ve had took place when I was in college, somewhere between three to 30 years ago. My very last semester was over, I’d more or less passed my finals, and I was packing my things to move out of my apartment. My apartment was slightly smaller than a hole in the wall, the rooms -- living area, bathroom and bedroom -- only accessible by dancing the grapevine. The offset that was deemed “the kitchen” by the assertive landlord had likely been conceived by an M.C. Escher fan, a convoluted, seemingly impossible design in which opening the refrigerator door would result in your left elbow banging against the right side of your head.

Despite the apartment’s miniscule size, packing everything up was a grueling task. I was only there for two years, but I never discarded anything, shoving all my papers and notes into drawers and inside the closet and underneath furniture. I could have been a
participant on a spin-off of the A&E show, Hoarders: The College Years. On my final evening, anticipating a ride the following morning (with a stipulation that everything be ready for stockpiling the car), I realized that I was nowhere close to finishing. I decided to forego sleep and work through the night and early morning hours.

The problem with that plan was my eyesight. I see no greater than 20/400, which means that any person or object in my line of sight is nothing more than a blur. If my vision couldn’t be corrected, I would be legally blind. I’ve worn contact lenses for years, but back then, I didn’t have a pair of glasses for backup, at least nothing with a strong enough prescription. You can wear many contacts overnight, but my contact lenses in college were not the overnight variety, so I had to remove them and keep them out for about four hours. Consequently I worked blindly, in the literal sense. It was all a blur, but by this point, I was perusing stacks of papers and throwing away most of it. I was relatively safe. Walking ou
tside to run up and down dilapidated, somewhat misshapen steps and launch a hefty trash bag over a railing when I could barely see a foot in front of me, now that was fairly stupid.
I had turned on the TV for noise, not because I couldn’t work in quiet but because I was trying to drown out my neighbor’s perpetually thumping bass. Then, at three o’clock in the morning, a station started running Orson Welles’ 1946 movie, The Stranger. Orson behind the camera. Orson in front of the camera. Edward G. Robinson and Loretta Young. That sounded good to me. Unfortunately, even sitting on a park bench with scratchy butt comforters (aka the couch) and leaning close, I was still only seeing an illuminated gray. So I knelt in front of the television, as if in prayer, the TV an altar. I planted my face mere inches away from the screen to watch Edward accuse Orson of being a Nazi and participating in war crimes. My eyes watered frequently, not so much from the dramatic engagement as from my ill-advised proximity to the TV and the cathode ray tube searing my corneas. During commercials, I would stretch my legs with a series of grapvines around the apartment, like a drunken Electric Slide (although, lets be honest, anyone who dances that looks drunk). I also performed some blinking exercises and kept looking at my hands to verify that I could still see something. I think it’s a testament to the movie’s preeminence, that I would willingly suffer through all of that just to watch it.

By the morning, I was fully prepared for my departure with my contact lenses amending my poor vision once again. I loaded my driver’s car with no help and only requested a stop at a gas station, where I proceeded to fill an industrial-sized mug with strong coffee. I’m an avid fan of Orson Welles and his movies. While The Stranger may not be his best, I have fond memories of it, as I will always remember the first time I saw it. My eyes were glued to the TV, or at least they would have been, had I not already packed the glue. I’ve watched The Stranger since then and was happy to see that it was just as good, even when you aren’t in the TV’s personal space.

Sunday, November 20, 2011

Trivia Time 102

Here are the answers to the unanswered and partially answered questions from TT101:

1. Name the two NFL teams playing in the Superbowl in the film Black Sunday.

Answers: Dallas Cowboys and Pittsburgh Steelers.

2. Name the starting quarterbacks for each team in the previous question.

Answers: Roger Staubach and Terry Bradshaw.

3. Name the actor who did not do any of his own driving in the film Grand Prix.

Answer: Brian Bedford

4. Who Said This In Which Film? Person one: "Let's do some reefer! We'll get high and I'll iron the chick's hair!" Person two: "Reefer…whoaaaa!" (Hint: no, it's not Reefer Madness)

Answers: Pia Zadora and Rick Ocasek in Hairspray (1988). You can watch a video of this scene here.

5. Who Said This In Which Film? "Do you realize that Otto spelled backwards is Otto?"

Answer: Pamela Tiffin in One, Two, Three.

9. Name two films that Peter Fonda and Bruce Dern made together.

Answers: The Trip and The Wild Angels.

10. Name two films in which Kirk Douglas' character had a peg leg.

Answers: Both Dawn and Yvette got The Man From Snowy River, and Yvette guessed Treasure Island for the second one. The actual name of the second film is Scalawag…but good try, Yvette!

Well, I've managed to keep my promise to come up with another Henry Hull question...so with no further ado, the questions for Trivia Time #102 start below!

1. Name any films Henry Hull made with Humphrey Bogart or Errol Flynn.

2. In which film did Richard Loo appear with Humphrey Bogart?

3. Who Said This In Which Film? "Besides that, it's all in the reflexes."

4. Name a mid-1950s film that inspired Bruce Springsteen to compose a song with the same title.

5. How did the song title in the previous question became a major part of the plot in a completely different film? Be specific.

6. Name a film featuring both Pamelyn Ferdin and Teri Garr.

7. Name all of the stars of the film in #6.

8. Which classic '60s game show used music from the Tijuana Brass LP "Whipped Cream & Other Delights"?

9. Name the songs from the Tijuana Brass which were used by the show in the previous question.

Ante Meridiem Theatre: Late Night Movie Watching Requires Stealth and Elasticity

Ante Meridiem Theatre is a place to focus on movies that used to crop up on television late at night into the early morning hours. This month, I thought I’d stick with the theme of Movie-Watching Memories and share with you the things that can happen when you stay up past your bedroom for a movie.

In my youth, a wide range of movies was not exactly at my disposal. The premium movie channels – HBO, Showtime, Cinemax, The Movie Channel (shockingly, only one of each) – were available to rich folk. Not that my family was poor. Let’s just say that my brother and I’s G.I. Joes didn’t convene at the coveted USS Flagg Aircraft Carrier but instead enga
ged in battle at the Barbie Dream Condo – though its three floors and elevator access made it ideal for snipers. But those guys who had the USS Flagg were the same ones watching HBO every night while I stayed at home and held a tape recorder up to a radio, waiting for the guitar solo before sneezing so I wouldn’t forever wonder what the lead singer was actually saying in the second verse.

Turn to a channel not in your dish package today, and you’ll just see a message telling you to upgrade. With basic cable, you saw snow, but sometimes, just beyond the snow, you could see movement. People. More specifically, actors. Acting out a movie. Crank the volume, and you could hear crackling voices reciting lines. The snow on the HBO channel we didn’t get was unrelenting. Nothing but snow. But on the other channels, all bunched together in sequence, films were often slightly visible and barely audible.

The quality of the movie pushing through the static varied. Cinemax would be nearly perfect one night and unwatchable the next. Sometimes a film on The Movie Channel couldn’t be seen on one TV but was drive-in quality on another. The television in the basement was the best, which was fitting since my mock bedroom was there – “mock” because the b
asement and my bedroom were all one room, separated by a desk and a bureau and a gun cabinet that acted as my closet but turned away from the community side of the room for, you know, privacy and what not. But one fateful night, at around two o’clock in the morning, the movie I was attempting to watch wasn’t very clear. I decided to risk checking the TVs on the first floor.

On the top floor, my stepfather, mother, sister and brother slept. When it was this late, watching anything on the TV in the TV room (my stepfather’s TV) was a little like juggling knives in the dark. You’d have to stand and listen by the stairs for any creaking to allot yourself ample time for fleeing. Fortunately, the stairs to the basement were adjacent to the TV room. On this particular night, however, the TV room TV was no better than the basement one. So I opted for the TV in the dining room, an ironic location as we were never allowed to watch TV while eating. The movie was Stripped to Kill (1987), which, of course, I had to see because I’d already seen Stripped to Kill II (aka Live Girls/1989), and I wanted to see if the first film would help the second film make more sense. As it turns out, they’re only related by title.

It was a cold night, and I was wrapped in a blanket, sitting uncomfortably in a wooden chair and watching a tiny television resting on a countertop, all atop two cabinets, like a faux desk. The good news: The movie looked amazing, like I’d bought a pristine VHS copy. The bad news: The dining room was farther away from the basement stairs than the TV room, and I didn’t realize that I hadn’t mapped out an escape route until I heard someone creaking down the stairs.

I quickly turned off the TV and ducked into the cubbyhole under the countertop. I pulled the chair as closely as I could, sitting with my knees against my chest. My stepfather appeared from around the corner and walked into the dining room, thankfully not turning on any of the lights. He stood next to a huge window and surveyed the backyard. He was maybe five feet away from me, and I could smell his Old Spice. I pulled the blanket up to my nose and held my breath. Finally and mercifully, he walked away, headed for the restroom. I waited patiently, frozen like a derelict statue. He finished his business and headed past the dining room and in the direction of the stairs, but I still couldn’t move, convinced that he’d seen me and was waiting around the corner. When my knees started cramping, I slowly pushed the chair away, crawled out from my nook, and half-jogged to the basement, not a stepfather in sight. I decided to catch the film some other time.

At the time, it was an unsettling experience. It didn’t prevent me from taking first-floor trips for marginally visible movies, but the dining room did become a quarantine zone. Years later, I saw
Stripped to Kill in its entirety, and let me say: It’s no Stripped to Kill II.

Thursday, November 17, 2011

Memories of Anastasia Romanov and "West Side Story"

Our month of movie-watching memories continues with a guest post by classic film blogger Jessica Pickens. You can read more reviews by Jessica at her blog Comet Over Hollywood.

I’ve always had a slightly obsessive nature when it came to movies I really liked. This tendency first surfaced in the third grade when my family went to see the animated film Anastasia. It is a cartoon about what could have happened to Russian princess Anastasia Romanov after the massacre of the royal family in 1918. I was hooked by the mysterious story and remember floating home that day in November 1997.
I listened to my cassette tape soundtrack every day, collected Anastasia memorabilia, became interested in Russian history and somehow thought that I could be the lost princess Anastasia--in short I drove my family crazy.

This Romanov obsession continued on and off until the seventh grade. In high school I introduced the movie to a boyfriend who wanted to watch it nearly every time we hung out. After this I got really tired of watching the movie.

We take this stroll down memory lane to 1997 as a prelude to what happened when I was 14 years old. In the summer of 2002 I had become more interested in classic film and was devouring Doris Day and Audrey Hepburn films.

That spring my dad introduced me to West Side Story, because he thought I would enjoy the musical version of a modern Romeo and Juliet. He later said he created a monster--my West Side Story obsession would rival my previous Anastasia craze.

I remember watching the movie awestruck. I thought the dances were amazing (and even tried to learn some) and the music was better than any other musical I had ever seen, though it bugged me that Natalie Wood's singing voice was very obviously dubbed by vocalist Marnie Nixon.

Richard Beymer as Tony was extremely attractive to me and it was weird seeing Russ Tamblyn playing a rough gang member when I was used to seeing him as sweet Gideon in Seven Brides for Seven Brothers.

Above all, the thing that struck me the most was the ending. I knew it was a story based off Romeo and Juliet but somehow I hoped it had a happy ending, Tony's death was a real shock to me.

When the movie ended that night in March 2003, I wondered why Maria had lived and Tony had died. If she had died, maybe they could've been happy in the after-life. Now Maria has to live with her grief.

I understand now how much more powerful it is that Maria lives rather than dies. I think it makes her character stronger and proves more of a point with the racism theme that the film covers.

My obsession with West Side Story irritated my family--loving a three hour tear jerker can be tiring for your mother--but it opened up a lot of doors in the classic film world. It is why I have seen 432 musicals to date and it encouraged me to start seeing other classic films.

I think part of me was looking for another movie that was as moving as West Side Story--daring all other classic films to have the same impact on me.

While Anastasia was the first movie that I really loved, West Side Story made more of an impression on my life and interests.

Tuesday, November 15, 2011

Feel Free to Spoil the Ending

I’m sure it’s happened to anyone who’s an avid fan of movies. You’re watching something, and then suddenly you’re not. An hour or so into the movie, and it ends, but much earlier than intended. Maybe you’re at the theatre, and the film falls off the reel. Or you’re at home, and a thunderstorm knocks out the dish. Or you’ve rented a DVD, and the previous renter got his grubby hands all over the playing side and thought the best thing to do would be to clean it with his raggedy shirt, and the movie’s final thirty minutes are pixelated garbage because the disc looks as if it’s been scrubbed with sandpaper.

These days, it’s easier to find another copy of a movie, and if you’re desperate, you can peruse the full synopsis on Wikipedia. But way back whenever, it took a little more effort. You’d have to find someone who’d seen the entire film and beg them for a breakdown of the parts you’d missed. But chances are that person would be another movie buff and would refuse to reveal anything, not wanting to “ruin” it for you, regardless of how many times you screamed, “Ruin it! Ruin it!” in their face. The only remaining option would be to wait for a return trip to the theatre, wait for your local video store to replace its dreadful copy, wait for the movie to crop up on TV someday. A whole bunch of waiting. And then maybe some dinner, followed by more waiting.

The first time I can remember missing a rather significant chunk of a movie was when my siblings and I stayed with our aunt and uncle. My uncle pushed a VHS copy of George A. Romero’s Night of the Living Dead (1968) into a VCR. I was only 10 years old and had never seen it. The movie opens with a spooky drive to the cemetery as Johnny and Barbra visit their father’s grave. My sister wondered aloud why Johnny was putting on black leather gloves, and the potential reasons seemed feverishly endless. Johnny deliberately scares his sister: “They’re coming to get you, Barbra!” And suddenly a man appears, but he’s really a ghoul, and he attacks Johnny, and Johnny hits his head on a tombstone, and is he dead? No time to check, as Barbra runs to the car, locks herself inside, but oh, no! She doesn’t have the keys, Johnny does, and seriously, is he dead? The ghoul smashes the car window, and Barbra shifts into neutral, and the car starts rolling to prospective safety, and it looks as if she’s made her escape, but the car hits a tree, and she has to jump out, and --

Snow. My uncle had stopped the movie. For the longest time, I thought he’d cut it off because it was terrifying my sister, but I learned much later that he feared my mother’s reaction if he’d shown us a zombie movie. But I’m not sure he realized what he’d actually done. I didn’t see Night of the Living Dead until I was in my teens, so for years, my curiosity was relentless: What happened to Barbra? Did she get away? Was she turned into a ghoul? And seriously! Is Johnny dead?!

I was most affected by a premature ending with Alfred Hitchcock’s Marnie (1964). I’d recently discovered the British auteur and was on a massive run of Hitch films. I saw that Marnie was going to be on TV, and for whatever reason, I had to ask my sister to set the VCR for me. There I sat, following along with Marnie’s thievery and the wavering relationship between Marnie and James Bond… or, well, Sean Connery’s character. Then Marnie’s riding horseback, and her horse is wild, and it hurdles a stone wall, collapsing from an injury. Marnie is horrified, and she retrieves a pistol and returns to her fallen steed. Hitch’s camera is aimed at her hand as she lifts the revolver, hammer cocked and --

Static, image clearing, two ladies on a talk show. My sister, unaware of the film’s running time (about 130 minutes, probably two and a half hours on TV), set the VCR for only two hours. I shuffled through a few choice words but had no way of learning how the movie ended. Years later, my uncle, perhaps to redeem himself for the Night of the Living Dead incident, showed me the last 30 minutes or so. And here’s the clincher: the image of Marnie holding the gun is the image that’s been seared onto my brain, and, worst of all, I’ve forgotten the ending.

Instances like that have happened since and will likely happen again. But every shoddy DVD can be replaced by another. Every disappearing dish signal can be vetoed by a few YouTube clips. Every busy schedule can be ridiculed by a DVR full of things to watch at your own convenience. So now if you miss a movie’s ending, you need not worry. You’ll find the ending somewhere. You may have to wait, but only for a few hours or days, not years. It’s a persistent speculation, running the possibilities through your head: What was the ending like? I mean, just imagine. You’re totally invested, you don’t know how everything will wind up, and then suddenly --

Sunday, November 13, 2011

Trivia Time 101

Here are the answers to the unanswered questions from TT100:

1. Mike Post said that this singer, who later turned actor, had a real problem singing on key. Who is he talking about?

Answer: Kenny Rogers

2. In the late '70's this composer scored a scene that many (myself included) consider to be one of the greatest "G-rated" love scenes ever filmed. Name the composer, the film, and the director.

Answer: Jerry Goldsmith, Star Trek: The Motion Picture, Robert Wise

3. Regarding #2, did the composer work with that director before the film in question? If so, name the previous film.

Answer: Yes, they worked together during the making of The Sand Pebbles.

6. Name two Jerry Lewis films featuring music by Count Basie.

Answer: The Errand Boy and Cinderfella.

7. Who did a commercial for "Shower In A Briefcase"?

Answer: Martin Short on SCTV

8. In The "Gunslinger" episode of The Dick Van Dyke Show (final episode), name the song that Laura sang.

Answer: "I Don't Care"

10. Beginning in December 1942, Judith Anderson and Ruth Gordon appeared together in a Broadway show. They starred with Katharine Cornell in the Chekhov play, The Three Sisters. Can you name a film featuring both Judith Anderson and Ruth Gordon?

Answer: Edge of Darkness (1943)

11. Name the stars and the director of the film in #10.

Answer: Errol Flynn, Ann Sheridan and Walter Huston starred in Edge of Darkness; the director was Lewis Milestone.

TT101 begins below… have fun!

1. Name the two NFL teams playing in the Superbowl in the film Black Sunday.

2. Name the starting quarterbacks for each team in the previous question.

3. Name the actor who did not do any of his own driving in the film Grand Prix.

4. Who Said This In Which Film? Person one: "Let's do some reefer! We'll get high and I'll iron the chick's hair!" Person two: "Reefer…whoaaaa!" (Hint: no, it's not Reefer Madness)

5. Who Said This In Which Film? "Do you realize that Otto spelled backwards is Otto?"

6. Name two films in which Henry Hull played the same character. Who were the stars of the aforementioned films?

7. Who were the directors of the two films in the previous question?

8. Name at least four films that Henry Fonda made with John Carradine.

9. Name two films that Peter Fonda and Bruce Dern made together.

10. Name two films in which Kirk Douglas' character had a peg leg.

Saturday, November 12, 2011

Hayley Mills Times Two in "The Parent Trap"

Following the delightful Pollyanna (1960), Hayley Mills and writer-director David Swift teamed up again for The Parent Trap, Disney’s best live-action comedy. The gimmick of having Hayley play twins was achieved through then-innovative use of traveling mattes and split screens. It works amazingly well, but the film’s enduring appeal has nothing to do with its clever special effects. The Parent Trap retains its popularity because if its ability to function as a smart, romantic comedy (for adults) and an enjoyable children’s film (in which the teen protagonists outwit their elders).  

The story begins at Camp Inch with 13-years-olds Susan Evers and Sharon McKendrick discovering they’re twins separated at an early age when their parents divorced. Determined to reunite their mother (Maureen O’Hara) and father (Brian Keith), the girls trade places. Their scheme encounters a major obstacle, however, when Sharon learns that Dad plans to marry a young, gold-digging socialite (Joanna Barnes). 

Brian Keith and Maureen O'Hara.
It’s a simple framework that allows the winning performances and sharply written script to shine. Brian Keith unselfishly plays straight man while Hayley and Maureen O’Hara get most of the funny scenes. Still, they’re almost upstaged by supporting players Joanna Barnes and Leo G. Carroll, who each deliver some of the film’s best lines. After talking sweetly about Sharon in front of her father, Joanna Barnes’ character confides to her mother: “First change I make in that household is off she goes to a boarding school in Switzerland.” As a whimsical priest charmed by Maureen O’Hara’s ex-wife, Leo G. Carroll absentmindedly remarks to the new fiancée and her mother: “Delightful, charming woman…it’s amazing how he let her slip away from him.”

The film’s breezy nature and charm mask two major flaws in its premise. First, how could any parents be so cruel as to separate twin sisters—and never even tell them about one another? Secondly, it’s obvious that the parents are still very much in love, so why did they split up in the first place? Since any answers would be unsatisfactory, writer-director Swift wisely chooses to ignore them altogether. 

Joanna Barnes in the original.
The Disney studio produced a pleasant remake of The Parent Trap in 1998 with Lindsay Lohan as the twins (and Joanna Barnes as the mother of the fiancee she played in the original). In the 1980s, Hayley Mills reprised her roles as grown-up versions of Susan and Sharon in three made-for-cable sequels. Interestingly, Eric Kastner’s book was filmed previously as the seldom-shown British comedy Twice Upon a Time

Trivia fans, take note: The duet that Hayley sings with herself, “Let’s Get Together,” peaked at No. 8 on the Billboard Top 40 chart in 1961. Annette Funicello and Tommy Sands recorded the title song for The Parent Trap between takes on their movie Babes in Toyland. Finally, the uncredited Susan Henning-Schutte played the other twin in the scenes where it wasn’t necessary to show Hayley’s face.

Speaking to Scarlett O’Hara

Why, Ms. Scarlett (Vivien Leigh), I do declare that you are one of the greatest female characters, both in film and prose, in American history.  You might be calculating but oddly still stupid at times, but I still like you and your 18 inch waist (pre Bonnie, rest her dear soul). Perhaps I often found myself hoping that Ms. Melly (Olivia de Havilland) would slap you or that a Yankee soldier would defile you—both to teach you a lesson—but I still hoped beyond hope that you would triumph in the end.  Alas, your god and creator, Margaret Mitchell, got it right in the end—let the reader/viewer decide how  your tomorrow turned out.  Of course, had Mitchell known that her money-grubbing descendants would allow Alexandra Ripley to write a trashy sequel (I won’t name the title, but the title is the most creative thing about it…and that’s all you need to know, Ms. Scarlett), perhaps she would have relented about writing the end of your story.  So, what makes you and your film merit a four-star rating, Ms. Scarlett? 

GWTW_3lgStar one: your theme music.  Dramatic and memorable—just like you Ms. Scarlett. Whenever I hear it I immediately think of the lush green gardens of Tara (and the burning of Atlanta, too—damn those Yankess, Miss Scarlett, damn them!),  Ah, and just like you were robbed by those damn Yankees, composer Max Steiner was robbed by the Academy when he lost the Oscar to some silly guy named The Wizard of Oz—now you know that’s not a decent, Southern gentleman’s name, Ms. Scarlett. Of course, it only makes sense that you would have one of the most memorable film scores ever, Ms. Scarlett, as you are the most memorable female film character in history.  Every badass needs a badass theme song, Ms. Scarlett, and rest assured, when your overpriced barouche is cruising the streets of Charleston (or Savannah, Atlanta, etc.) people know what badass is coming. 

Star two: your clothes.  With a figure like yours, Scarlet-OHaraMs. Scarlett, you would look good in anything.  While I don’t know how wise it is to wear a green and white dress to a BBQ, I still think you make it work—and that green ribbon that attaches your hat to the rest of you could be used as a napkin if need be. What I’m saying is, you know how to make any dress work.  Take for example the white ruffle dress—some people would look like a roll of toilet paper gone wrong, but somehow it looks flouncy on you.  Another example is the red garnet gown that you look ultra-fierce in.  Some people just couldn’t work those feathers and the gauze-veil thingy, but you rock it. And, who but you could make a dress out of green velvet drapes seem stylish (sort of)?  Granted, it was because of those damn Yankees that you had to rip those curtains down and wear the tassels as an accessory belt, but we can’t blame the dress for the circumstances into which it was born. 

gone_with_the_wind_movie-11469Star three: your crew. Rhett Butler (Clark Gable) may have left you in the end, but while he was with you he was the man in charge.  Your scenes together alone could have burned down Atlanta—damn Yankees.  I have to admit, I just couldn’t understand why you were always after that loser Ashley Wilkes (Leslie Howard) when you had a man like Rhett around. Was it that he rejected you, Ms. Scarlett?  You were just too much woman for that weak man!  He needed a calm woman like your cousin Ms. Melly, so he could continue the cycle of inbreeding. Melly, now there was a woman who knew how to endure, Ms. Scarlett.  Just think of all the insufferable things Aunt Pittypat (Laura Hope Crews) said over the years to that poor girl!  And you thought listening to Prissy (Butterfly McQueen) and Mammy (Hattie McDaniel) all the time was almost too much to bare.

Star four: your attitude.  There’s one thing that makes a person memorable, and that’s their attitude.  Sometimes things don’t go the way you want, but that doesn’t mean you give up. And, Lord knows, Ms. Scarlett you never give up.  Ashley married Melanie, so you married Charles (he was better looking anyway, plus he died and ScarletonStaircaseleft you some worthless Confederate money—damn Yankees!). When you didn’t have the money to pay the taxes on Tara you and your drape dress found Frank Kennedy.  When the damn Yankees came calling you shot one dead. To me, this is a can-do attitude.  Plus, you always know you are the most interesting woman in the room.  Of course, you do have a touch of willfullness and a rather nasty temper, but Irish blood runs hot!  Now, if I had to make one constructive suggestion to you it would be this: get over your procrastination issue. Tomorrow might be another day, but sometimes that day can turn out to be really crummy. Still, I like the can-do attitude about getting your man back. 

And, that, Ms. Scarlett, is why you and your film are so memorable.

Thursday, November 10, 2011

In the Summer of '79: Hot Nights in a Cool Theater with Friends

Terry B.--film buff, celebrity autograph collector, and one of the BEMAD guys--shares a memory from his college days. 

Movie patrons want to escape. They fortify themselves with popcorn, sodas, and candy. They settle in their seats waiting to be entertained and to watch a story unfold. Or, they might also just be trying to exchange a hot summer night for a cool, dark place to hang out without breaking the bank.

The Princess Theatre in downtown Bloomington, Indiana, was the place for all this in the summer of 1979.

It was when I spent my first summer at school, sharing an apartment with three other guys, and trying to find a job. If you’ve ever spent a summer in central Indiana, you know how hot and humid the weather can be. Being poor, we couldn’t afford to run the air conditioner in the apartment so nights spent in the University library were more to stay comfortable than to read and study.

But at least one evening a week, I made a trip to the Princess with my best friend. For $1, you got admission for movies that change every week. For $1 more, you could get popcorn and a soda. Favorite seat: main section, second row, second seat in. Be enveloped by that screen for two hours, kicked back in your chair, legs up over the row in front of you. Totally engrossed.


The movie fare that summer was intense. The moments I remember best included first marveling, then being bored, by the long shots of the redesigned USS Enterprise in beginning of Star Trek: The Motion Picture. Samantha Eggar licking clean one of her “children” in David Cronenberg’s The Brood. David Warner fighting killer bats in Nightwing. And Season Hubley helping a confused George C. Scott search for his runaway daughter in Paul Schrader’s dark Hardcore.

Of course, it wasn’t necessarily the movie that mattered. It was great to stay cool, forget a job search for a while, and enjoy some time in the company of cinematic friends. And, of course, visit my favorite movie palace, one of thousands across the country, each with patrons who love them.

The Princess Theatre was built in 1892 and was often renovated to compete with newer theatres. It competed with several local opera and vaudeville houses before becoming a fulltime movie theatre in 1936. The exotic glazed relief terra cotta tile façade of the Princess Theatre was redesigned in 1923 and the auditorium doubled in size, in the hope of making it competitive with the recently built Indiana Theatre, a few blocks away. My favorite movie theater is now gone, killed in 1985 by the falling roof of its extended auditorium. The façade remains. So do my memories.

That was the summer of 1979 in Bloomington, Indiana.