Saturday, December 31, 2011

My Man Godfrey (1936)

my man godfrey
There are few films from the 1930s that I like more than My Man Godfrey (1936).  Screwball comedies are a particular favorite of mine, and this is one of the best ever made.  It is a film filled with memorable characters and lines.  In addition, it has a bit of a serious side, touching on the plight of the Forgotten Man during the Depression.  When you combine all of these ingredients, you come up with a deliciously entertaining movie.

my-man-godfrey-title-stillIf you went to see this in 1936 you would have seen William Powell and Carole Lombard’s names on the marquee, but while both give fine performances, they are greatly aided by the stellar supporting performances of Alice Brady, Gail Patrick, Eugene Pallette, and Mischa Auer.  It is the supporting characters that carry this film along its crazy path. 

MyManGodfreyPowell plays Godfrey Smith/Park, a privileged Bostonian who chucks it all after a woman does him wrong. He ends up living in New York City Dump 32 until Cornelia (Patrick) and Irene Bullock (Lombard) find him there while looking for a Forgotten Man as part of a scavenger hunt.  He soon ends up being their 5th Avenue butler.

Both sisters are spoiled and narcissistic, but they are different in that Cornelia has a malicious side and Irene is compassionate incarnate.  I suppose this is what makes Patrick’s character the more interesting of the two.  Cornelia is intelligent and jaded, while Irene is flighty and naïve. I often think director Gregory La Cava and screenwriters Eric Hatch and Morrie Ryskind used Cornelia as their focal point in gaildeveloping their social satire.  Here is a woman who has everything: beauty, class, money, and intelligence. Yet, she seethes with resentment and discontent. A lot of people think Godfrey should have ended up with Cornelia in the end (the whole Taming of the Shrew thing), but what most people forget is Cornelia was the sort of woman Godfrey left back in Boston. For me, Patrick’s is the standout performance.

pallEugene Pallette and Alice Brady also do memorable turns as Alexander and Angelica Bullock, the parents of Cornelia and Irene. Pallette, in particular, does a fine job of presenting his character’s astonishment at the complete insanity of his family.  Perhaps it’s his voice, but he conveys both irritation and apathy extremely well.  Brady’s pixie-seeing Angelica is the epitome of oblivious mothering.  Here is a woman who has a protégé (really her my-man-godfrey-alice-bradyparamour, but the Hays Code was around) in would-be musician Carlo (Auer); drinks too much (hence the pixies); and, supports her daughters’ eccentric behavior.  She is no role model, but her daughters are a lot like her—especially Irene, who decides to make Godfrey her protégé. 

Now, I’m not saying that Powell and Lombard don’t give fine  performances, because both are very good.  Powell plays the calm caretaker of the insane asylum that the Bullocks call home well.  He My Man Godfrey 3is both bemused and detached in his role as Godfrey.  It is quite comical to watch him thwart off Irene’s advances--especially since Powell and Lombard had been previously married. It is said that she was too animated for him; plus, he was sixteen years older.  So, when Godfrey makes the comment in the film that Irene should find someone her own age and class it was a bit like art imitating life.  Lombard, for her part, plays Irene as a theatrical little girl who doesn’t know how to get what she wants without faux fainting or crying.  The “laugh” is what I find most hysterical about Irene.  Anytime she doesn’t understand what is happening, or when she is unsure of herself, she falls back on that childish laugh. 

Besides fine acting, the writing is superb.  The dialogue is rapid-fire and sharp as an axe.  Each character has their own memorable lines, but I’ve always thought that Angelica pixBullock got the best ones—or maybe Alice Brady just delivered hers better than the rest.  My favorite exchange comes between Angelica and Godfrey:

Angelica: My ancestors came over on the boat. Oh, not the Mayflower, but the boat after that. What did your ancestors come over on, Godfrey?
Godfrey: As far as I know, they've always been here.
Angelica: They weren't Indians, I hope.
Godfrey: One can never be sure of one's ancestors.
Angelica: You know, you have rather high cheek bones.

And from that point on there is a running gag about Godfrey being of Indian descent.  Overall, it’s just a pleasure to listen to such clever dialogue (especially if you compare it to some of the dialogue in modern film).  Smart witticisms never age and that’s one of the reasons My Man Godfrey seems timeless.

godfrey_1Finally, what most people forget about My Man Godfrey is that it is a slight social commentary about the difference between the rich and poor during the Depression.  The Forgotten Man, men who served in WWI or lost everything in the Crash, found themselves unemployed and displaced living in places like City Dump 32, while the Bullocks lived the high life on 5th Avenue.  The only time the Bullocks of the world notice the Forgotten Man is when they need him to win a silly game for them.  At one point in the film Godfrey says,  “The only difference between a derelict and a man is a job.” Of course, more could have been fordone with this theme.  If I have one complaint with the film it would be that Godfrey shouldn’t have been pretending to be down on his luck but actually have been down and out.  Still, it is a nice twist when you learn the reason he can handle the Bullocks so well is that he was once afflicted with their disease as well.

One interesting aside about My Man Godfrey is that it was the first film to receive nominations in all four acting categories: Best Actor (Powell), Best Actress (Lombard), Best Supporting Actor (Mischa Auer) and Best Supporting Actress (Alice Brady). While none of the actors won the coveted statue, they should have taken solace in the fact that La Cava was passed over as Best Director and Hatch and Ryskind didn’t win Best Screenplay either.  However, the strangest thing about the whole Oscar situation is this: My Man Godfrey wasn't even nominated for Best Picture. Somehow the math just doesn’t seem right there.  Oh, well…

Thursday, December 29, 2011

ABC's The Movie of the Week

Made-for-TV movies eventually got a bad rap, which explains why they pretty much faded from network television in the 1990s. But I still fondly recall what I call the "Golden Age of the TV Movie": the early 1970s when ABC began broadcasting its Movie of the Week.

Every Tuesday night, ABC introduced a world premiere telefilm in a ninety-minute time slot (about 72 minutes without commercials). The success of the series can be attributed, in part, to the variety of its films: suspense (The Longest Night), horror (The Night Stalker), science fiction (Night Slaves), World War II action (Death Race), comedy (The Daughters of Joshua Cabe), Western (The Hanged Man), serious drama (That Certain Summer), film noir (Goodnight, My Love) and even kung fu (Men of the Dragon). Many of the telefilms were also pilots for TV series--some of which made it as regular series (The Six Million Dollar Man) and some that didn’t (The Monk with George Maharis as a private eye).

Dennis Weaver in Duel.
Several films earned critical plaudits, such as Brian's Song, Duel, That Certain Summer, Tribes, and The Point. Occasionally, one would be released theatrically in either in the U.S. or Europe--often with additional footage--after its TV broadcast. That was the case with Steven Spielberg's suspenseful chase drama Duel and The Sex Symbol with Connie Stevens playing an actress loosely inspired by Marilyn Monroe.

I'm always surprised by how many of the ABC Movie of Week telefilms are fondly remembered by fellow film buffs. For example, people may not remember the title of Trilogy of Terror--but mention the creepy TV movie with Karen Black about the killer doll and a lot of folks will know it.

The original Movie of the Week debuted on Tuesday night in 1969. It was so successful that ABC launched a Movie of the Weekend, which subsequently shifted to mid-week so there were Tuesday and Wednesday Movies of the Week installments. The final Movie of the Week was broadcast in 1976.

The catchy theme to the Movie of the Week opening was written by Burt Bacharach. Its actual title is "Nikki," named after Burt's daughter with Angie Dickinson. Click on the clip below to view the full opening for When Michael Calls, a thriller with Ben Gazzara, Elizabeth Ashley, and Michal Douglas. At the end of the clip is preview for the following week's movie, The Screaming Woman, starring Olivia de Havilland. Unfortunately, the video quality doesn't do justice to the bright, colorful graphics.

In terms of originality, the only network that competed with ABC was CBS, which launched CBS Tuesday Night Movie in 1972. It sent speeding helicopters (Birds of Prey), ancient evil Druids (The Horror at 37,000 Feet), and, most memorably, Gargoyles to battle its TV-movie rival at ABC.

Crosby as Dr. Cook.

Sadly, only a handful of these films are available on DVD (and even then, the prints are usually inferior in quality). I’d love to see TCM get the rights to the Movie of the Week. It’d be great to see Bing Crosby in Dr. Cook’s Garden again and see if the film as good as I remember.

Below is a sampling of the telefilms that played on The Movie of the Week (to include the Tuesday and Wednesay editions and The Movie of the Weekend on Saturday). Note that several movies featured performers from the classic film era:

Seven in Darkness (1969)

Daughter of the Mind (1969) with Gene Tierney & Ray Milland
Gidget Grows Up (1969)
Honeymoon with a Stranger (1969)
The Over-the-Hill Gang (1969) with Walter Brennan & Andy Devine
The Ballad of Andy Crocker (1969)
The Immortal (1969)
Wake Me When the War Is Over (1969)
Along Came a Spider (1970)
Carter's Army (1970)
Crowhaven Farm (1970)
How Awful about Allan (1970) with Anthony Perkins & Julie Harris
Night Slaves (1970)
The Over the Hill Gang Rides Again with Walter Brennan & Fred Astaire
Run, Simon, Run (1970)
The Love War (1970)
Tribes (1970)
Brian's Song (1971)
Do Not Fold, Spindle, or Mutilate (1971) with Helen Hayes, Myrna Loy, Sylvia Sidney
Dr. Cook's Garden (1971)
Duel (1971)
In Broad Daylight (1971)
In Search of America (1971)
Maybe I'll Come Home in the Spring (1971)
The Birdmen (1971)
The Devil and Miss Sarah (1971)
The Feminist and the Fuzz (1971)
The Point! (1971)
The Reluctant Heroes (1971)
A Great American Tragedy (1972)
Goodnight, My Love (1972)
Moon of the Wolf (1972)
That Certain Summer (1972)
The Astronaut (1972)
The Daughters of Joshua Cabe (1972) with Buddy Ebsen & Sandra Dee
The Longest Night (1972)
Madame Sin (1972) with Bette Davis & Robert Wagner
The People (1972)
The Screaming Woman (1972) with Olivia de Havilland
Women in Chains (1972)
A Cold Night's Death (1973)
A Summer Without Boys (1973)
The Cat Creature
Don't Be Afraid of the Dark (1973)
Female Artillery (1973)
Go Ask Alice (1973)
Isn't It Shocking? (1973)
Satan's School for Girls (1973)
Shirts/Skins (1973)
The Girl Most Likely to... (1973)
The Girls of Huntington House (1973)
The Man Without a Country (1973) with Cliff Robertson
The Night Strangler (1973)
The Third Girl from the Left (1973)
Men of the Dragon (1974)
Get Christie Love! (1974)
Hit Lady (1974)
Houston, We've Got a Problem (1974)
Killdozer (1974)
Locusts (1974)
The Mark of Zorro (1974)
The Morning After (1974)
Thursday's Game (1974)
Winter Kill (1974)

Monday, December 26, 2011

Remembering "The CBS Late Movie"

One of my favorite summer memories is watching The CBS Late Movie. Launched on Valentine’s Day in 1972, The CBS Late Movie was a delightful gift for movie-lovers. For four years, it offered an eclectic mix of movies five nights a week.
The only film fan not thrilled by The CBS Late Movie may have been Judith Crist. The famous critic once wrote a weekly column for TV Guide, where she reviewed movies making their network TV debuts. She initially tried to encompass The CBS Late Movie, but the dramatic increase in workload (five more movies every week) may have proved too much, for she eventually focused solely on network movies playing in prime time.
Seven Brides on The CBS Late Movie.
For the rest of us, The CBS Late Movie was a treasure trove that revived classics (Seven Brides for Seven Brothers, Showboat), unearthed movies all but forgotten (Darby’s Rangers, Bunny O’Hare, Mister Buddwing, The World, the Flesh and the Devil), and introduced some films destined for cult movie status (7 Faces of Dr. Lao, The Fearless Vampire Killers).
Vincent Price as Dr. Phibes.
My favorite night was Friday, of course. Even during the school year, I could see the Friday edition. But more importantly, it eventually became “horror film night” for The CBS Late Movie. This was where several long-in-demand Hammer movies made their American television debuts, to include: Curse of Frankenstein, The Two Faces of Dr. Jekyll, The Mummy, and Dracula, Prince of Darkness. Other Friday night fright features were The Valley of Gwangi, Scream and Scream Again, The Creeping Unknown, and The Abominable Dr. Phibes.
Sadly, starting in 1976, CBS began mixing TV series with its movies and gradually shifted to showing just TV shows. Most of these series were repeats of network fodder like Kojak, Banacek, and Kolchak: The Night Stalker (shown on Fridays, naturally). For a bit of originality, CBS offered British import series like The New Avengers and Return of the Saint. Still, I missed the movies! In 1985, CBS changed the title to CBS Late Night, officially signaling the end of The CBS Late Movie.
The opening graphics and theme music to The CBS Late Movie have their admirers. The theme was written by Morton Stevens, whose credits include the popular title theme to Hawaii Five-O The clip below is one of the best available on YouTube. Note that the film's title, The Medusa Touch, is misspelled!
I’d love to read some comments from other fans of The CBS Late Movie. I haven’t found a good list of all the movies broadcast.

Thursday, December 22, 2011

“These Amazing Shadows” on PBS: Preserving the Treasures of Cinema

The Emmy Award-winning PBS series, Independent Lens, will be presenting the film, These Amazing Shadows. The hour-long documentary details the movies that have been selected each year for the National Film Registry. It was directed by Paul Mariano and Kurt Norton and will be premiering on PBS next Thursday, Dec. 29th, at 10:00 pm.

In the 1980s, colorization of black-and-white films was championed publicly by the likes of Ted Turner. The process wa
s condemned by filmmakers and film historians, who believed that colorization diminished the films’ artistic merits. In retaliation, the National Film Preservation Act was passed in 1988, its purpose to identify and register films that are “culturally, historically, or aesthetically significant.”
These Amazing Shadows includes plentiful clips of noteworthy movies that have been listed as part of the Registry. There are interviews with many directors, actors, writers, and others working in films or the study of films, such as director Christopher Nolan, producer Gale Anne Hurd, actress Debbie Reynolds, the Librarian of Congress, Dr. James H. Billington, and members of the National Film Preservation Board. There are also discussions of the importance of particular movies, as well as personal stories and reminiscences, like director Wayne Wang citing Natalie Wood as a key reason for his adoration of West Side Story (1961).

The movies chosen for the Registry are not picked solely for aesthetic value or popularity. They are listed for a variety of reasons, and as such, there is much diversity. Well known classics such as Casablanca (1942), To Kill a Mockingbird (1962) and The Godfather (1972) are there, but so is Mel Brooks’ Wes
tern comedy Blazing Saddles (1974), James Cameron’s sci-fi actioner The Terminator (1984) and John Singleton’s urban drama Boyz n the Hood (1991). The Registry likewise has documentaries, the 1950s propaganda film, The House in the Middle – which shows you that painting your house and cleaning your yard of clutter will protect you from a nuclear detonation – and even that one advertisement that would play between movies, in which anthropomorphized refreshments would sing and dance and convince viewers to “all go to the lobby to get ourselves a treat.”
The documentary additionally highlights the impression of many films, in terms of race, gender, etc. Some of the Registry’s movies may, in retrospect, seem offensive to a particular race or creed, but they are included as they represent America’s history and the cinema’s impact on society and culture.

These Amazing Shadows should appease film buffs with an informative and entertaining presentation. Visit the film’s website to view clips, read details on the documentary, accept a trivia challenge of films in the Registry, and join the “Talkback” section for discussion among fans and enthusiasts. And don’t forget to clear your schedule or set your DVR on Dec. 29th.

PBS provided the Cafe with a preview copy of These Amazing Shadows. Photos courtesy of PBS.

Monday, December 19, 2011

What is Your Favorite Classic Film? Who Are Your Favorite Stars? The 2011 Classic Film Survey Has Answers

Last month, the Cafe surveyed over 125 classic film lovers as part of its first annual Classic Film Survey. The survey's final question proved to be the most difficult for many survey participants: "What is your favorite: film, actress, actor and director?"

Several people stated it was too difficult to pick just one of each category. Others noted: "If you asked me the same question tomorrow, my answers would be different." Still, most of the surveyed film fans listed their favorites and here are the results.

What is your favorite film?

This was the most diverse of the four "favorite" categories, with the results being spread among 61 motion pictures. They ranged from silent films (Sherlock Jr.) to movies from the early 1980s (e.g., Raging Bull). Surprisingly, there were a number of foreign-language films, such as Seven Samurai, Cinema Paradiso, Babette's Feast, and Yojimbo. However, the top vote-getter was no surprise at all, with Casablanca earning the honors. Here are the top six films:

Casablanca (10.8%)
Gone With the Wind (6.5%)
North by Northwest (4.3%)
Philadelphia Story (4.3%)
Citizen Kane (3.2%)
Vertigo (3.2%)

Other films with more than one vote: All About Eve, The Life and Times of Colonel Blimp, It's a Wonderful Life, My Man Godfrey, Notorious, Random Harvest, and The Thin Man.

Who is your favorite actress?

It was a two-person race in this category and, in the end, Bette Davis emerged as the top vote-getter with 14.3% of the total. The only actress to come near that percentage was Katharine Hepburn with 10.9%. What's interesting about Bette's popularity is that only one of her films--All About Eve--garnered any support as favorite film. The implication is that, in some cases, star appeal transcends the films featuring the star.

Thirty-five actresses received at least one vote. There were silent film actresses (Lillian Gish), foreign-language stars (Jeanne Moreau, Claudia Cardinale), and recent screen favorites (Naomi Watts). Here are the top six actresses:

Bette Davis (14.3%)
Katharine Hepburn (10.9%)
Barbara Stanwyck (6.5%)
Audrey Hepburn (6.5%)
Jean Arthur (5.5%)
Myrna Loy (5.5%)

Other actresses with more than one vote: Ingrid Bergman, Deborah Kerr, Vivian Leigh, Carole Lombard, Ginger Rogers, and Natalie Wood.

Who is your favorite actor?

The resounding answer is Cary Grant. Mr. Grant dominated in the actor category, crushing his competitors with 31% of the total votes. What's impressive about his "victory" is that the question was an open-ended one. Thus, with no choices on a form to select from, 31% of the survey participants typed in Cary Grant as their favorite actor.

James Stewart was a distant No. 2 with 12% of the votes. Still, he was a clear second choice, outdistancing the rest of the pack by at least 8%. Furthermore, Stewart's 12% was almost enough to win any other category.

With Grant and Stewart collecting so many votes, it's somewhat surprising that the remaining votes were spread among 47 actors. Several current performers made the list, to include George Clooney, Ewan McGregor, and Alan Rickman. A single vote prevented many Hollywood favorites, such as John Wayne and Ronald Colman, from being shut out totally. Here are the top five actors:

Cary Grant (31%)
James Stewart (12%)
Humphrey Bogart (4%)
Errol Flynn (3%)
James Cagney (3%)

Other actors with more than one vote: Leslie Howard, Robert Mitchum, Paul Newman, and Anton Walbrook.

Who is your favorite director?

The expected winner--Alfred Hitchcock--was the top choice with 28% of the votes. His total more than doubled that of second-place finisher Billy Wilder. Still, it wasn't the landslide that I expected. Once again, classic film fans proved to possess a wide range of tastes. This category, in particular, reflected a fondness for foreign-language cinema with votes being cast for Ingmar Bergman, Akira Kurosawa, Jacques Tati, Erich Von Stroheim, Rene Clair, Federico Fellini, Jean Cocteau, Pedro Almodovar, and even John Woo. The top six directors were:

Alfred Hitchcock (28.4%)
Billy Wilder (13.7%)
Frank Capra (7.4%)
John Ford (4.2%)
Howard Hawks (4.2%)
George Stevens (4.2%)

Other directors with more than one vote: Ingmar Bergman, Charles Chaplin, George Cukor, Stanley Kubrick, Akira Kurosawa, Otto Preminger, Preston Sturges, Orson Welles, and William Wyler.

A Special Thanks

I want to personally thank everyone who voted in the 2011 Classic Film Survey. It's been a lot of fun to analyze and share the results. The feedback has been overwhelmingly positive, especially from the Cafe's fans on Twitter. In fact, we're already thinking up questions for the 2012 survey, which we'll launch next November!

Tuesday, December 13, 2011

Classic Film Fan, Who Are You? Survey says....

Last month, over 125 classic film lovers from across the Internet participated in the Cafe's first annual Classic Film Survey. One of the goals of the survey was to learn more about classic film fans. How did they become fans? How often do they watch classic movies? What's their preferred source of vintage favorites? Here are the results:

How did you become a classic film fan?
The answer to this question yielded no surprises. There was no statistical difference between survey respondents who discovered films on their own (61%) or were influenced by family or friends (57%). Many people selected both responses. In contrast, only 12% became fans as a result of taking a college course. So, you don't need a college degree to love classic films!  (On the other hand, an added bonus to a college education is that it converts some folks into classic movie lovers.)

How many classic films do you watch weekly?
Two-to-five films earned the most responses, accounting for 48% of the total. 27% of the survey's respondents said they viewed 6-10 movies weekly and one person even confessed to watching 26 or more every seven days! Foreign-language films comprised a small portion of the movie-watching experience, with 47% of the survey participants stating that foreign-language films comprised 5% or less of the total classic films seen annually. The decreased availability of foreign-language films--compared to English-language ones--certainly impacted the answers to this question.

What is the main source of films you watch?
No surprise here...55% answered Turner Classic Movies. Still, a healthy 25% of respondents rely on their own video libraries. Video service providers, such as Netflix, earned 16% of the votes. That number is unlikely to grow, given that classic film fans still represent a small portion of the total movie rental audience.

If you enjoy reading about classic films, what is your favorite source?
Three sources were statistically tied: the Internet Movie Database; printed reference books; and classic movie blogs written by individuals not affiliated with a film-oriented company. The popularity of blogs may be skewed because I distributed the survey to members of the Classic Movie Blog Association. On the other hand, the enormous number of active classic movie blogs on the Internet would seem to validate that a significant number of them are being read with regularity.

What is your favorite decade of classic films? What is your favorite genre of classic films?
The 1940s dominated over all other decades with a robust 47% of the total votes. The 1930s came in second with a still impressive 35%. No other decade mustered more than 8%. The conclusion: Classic film fans favor the Golden Days of Hollywood when the major studios dominated in the U.S. As for favorite genre, the votes were dispersed among all the choices, with no single genre separating itself from the pack.

Next week, we'll conclude this series by sharing survey results on favorite films, directors, actresses, and actor. If you missed Part 1 of the 2011 Classic Film Survey results, click here.

Saturday, December 10, 2011

H.G. Wells vs. Jack the Ripper in "Time After Time"

This ingenious concoction of science fiction, thriller, and romance comes from the fertile imagination of Nicholas Meyer. A former publicity agent, Meyer first gained recognition with his best-selling mystery The Seven Per Cent Solution, which teamed up Sherlock Holmes with Dr. Sigmund Freud. After adapting his novel for the screen, Meyer served up a second pairing of real-life figures in Time After Time—only with a double twist. Instead of working together, the pair would be adversaries. And instead of setting the plot in the past, it would take place in the past and the present.

Time After Time opens in fog-enshrouded London in 1893 with the murder of a prostitute by Jack the Ripper (shot in first-person, perhaps an homage to the opening scene in Mamoulian’s Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde). The Ripper then appears at the home of H.G. Wells, who does not know that his friend Dr. John Leslie Stevenson is a serial killer. Stevenson joins the dinner party as Wells is explaining to other skeptical guests about his latest invention: a time machine.

Malcolm McDowell as H.G. Wells.
When a policeman tracking the Ripper shows up at Wells’ house, Stevenson’s bloody murder weapon is discovered in his physician’s bag. However, Stevenson has miraculously escaped from the house. It is only after the police have left that Wells realizes that Jack the Ripper has stolen his time machine and escaped into the future.

Believing that the future will be a perfect world without war and crime, Wells is devastated (“What have I done? I’ve turned that bloody maniac loose upon Utopia.”). When the time machines returns, Wells follows Stevenson into the future—San Francisco in 1979.
Wells and his time machine "land" in a San Francisco museum.

David Warner as Jack the Ripper.
Watching these two turn-of-the-century intellectuals in a contemporary setting is fascinating. Much of the film’s humor is derived from Wells’s attempts to fit in. He eats at a “Scottish restaurant” called McDonald’s. He boldly discusses his ideas on “free love” to bank employee Amy Robbins, who is amused by his old-fashioned values. In contrast, Stevenson adapts to his new environment quickly and smoothly. In an eerie scene, he flips through several TV channels filled with violent images and informs Wells: “I belong here completely and utterly. I’m home. Ninety years ago, I was a freak. Now, I’m an amateur.”

McDowell and Steenburgen as time-challenged lovers.
The film relies strongly on its three leads and they are all in peak form. Malcolm McDowell gives one of his best performances as the wonder-filled Wells. David Warner exudes creepiness as Stevenson. And Mary Steenburgen comes across as both vulnerable and strong. She and McDowell have a wonderful chemistry together. They met on the set of Time After Time and married shortly afterwards (but subsequently divorced).

Writer-director Nicholas Meyer went on to contribute to three of the best Star Trek films: The Wrath of Khan, The Voyage Home (another time travel picture),and The Undiscovered Country. Earlier in his career, he wrote two above-average made-for-TV movies: The Night That Panicked America (about Orson Welles' radio adaptation of The War of the Worlds) and Judge Dee and the Monastery Murders (an engrossing mystery featuring Robert van Gulik's seventh-century Chinese detective).

Time After Time tops my list of the best time travel movies. It explores the usual time travel conumdrums with aplomb, but never lets them get in the way of a delightful love story and clever social satire.

Wednesday, December 7, 2011

Five Favorite Classic Movie Villains

I must apologize in advance for the skimpiness of detail in discussing my villains.  Computer problems are preventing me from pulling up sites that I use to refresh memory and find information.  If you are reading this at all, it means that I got lucky.  Instead of a more comprehensive look at the actors, I offer this pictorial with the information I have in my memory.  I have many favorite villains in movies, and I have picked five to share with you. I have chosen pictures of the actors in their roles, as well as the same actors as just themselves.  It would be fun to hear from you about your favorites:

#1  Henry Daniell as Lord Wolfingham in The Sea Hawk (1940).  As a slimy, deceitful Englishmen who spies for Spain, Daniell incurs the wrath of one of England's Sea Hawks (Errol Flynn).  Daniell's wonderfully clipped, nasal British accent makes him a perfect villain who believes he will win in the end.  He doesn't...

Daniell could not swing a sword at all, and was doubled
in all fencing shots -- but who cares?  He was a great villain!

I'm not sure if he smiled much, but
he is distinguished and very proper!
#2  Richard Widmark as Tommy Udo in Kiss of Death (1947).  Widmark became a star with his portrayal of the disgusting, giggling psychopath member of a crime mob.  He would stop at nothing, and enjoyed his job.

Yes, Tommy Udo gleefully pushed the crippled lady down the stairs...
Widmark ... handsome and well-liked by colleagues.

#3  Jane Greer as Kathie in Out of the Past (1947).  Beautiful, slinky, a dame who epitomized female sociopaths in classic film noir, Jane Greer worked her deadly wiles on Robert Mitchum and Kirk Douglas.  She almost got away with it ... almost...

Kathie is ready to do anything to get what she wants...
Jane washing her hair like any other woman...

#4  Steve Cochran as "Big Ed" in White Heat (1949).  Scheming and cocky, Big Ed plans to take over crime operations led by the insane gangster Cody Jarrett (James Cagney).  He also plans to take over Cody's wife Verna (Virginia Mayo).  Big Ed gets his in the end...

Big Ed with Verna.
Love the way he spits out his gum before he kisses her...

Steve Cochran looking handsome and friendly in real life...

#5  Claude Rains as Victor Grandison in The Unsuspected (1947).  Rains can play anything, and he does a tour de force performance in a rather flawed movie.  He plays Victor Grandison, a smooth-voiced, gentle and smiling radio writer and performer.  In reality, he is a killer who plans to knock off his loving ward and anybody else who gets in the way. 

Dear, sweet "Grandy" comforts his ward as he plots
to kill her for her money...

Rains ... a great actor respected by all...

Tuesday, December 6, 2011

What Is a Classic Film? Survey says....

Ask the average person on the street to define "classic film" and your answer is likely to be: "An old black and white movie." Ask the same question to a classic film fan and you will get a myriad of responses. As I tried to craft my own definition, I decided to gather input from the experts and thus published the Cafe's first annual Classic Film Survey. Over 125 classic film enthusiasts from across the internet participated. My thanks to each of them, especially the many who took extra time to leave thought-provoking comments at the end of the survey.

Age Does Matter
One question that intrigued me was whether age played a significant role in defining "classic" (an issue that certainly applies to other forms of art as well). The answer is a resounding "yes" from two-thirds of the respondents. So then, how old does a film have to be before it's considered a classic? Survey respondents identified the 1960s and 1970s as the decades which formed the start points for classic status. Each of those decades received about 30% of the total votes, with the 1950s, 1980s, and 1990s sharing the rest (each earning between 12% and 15%).

West Side Story: A classic within a decade?
Think of the responses in another way: The survey's findings indicate that a film must be over 30 years old before it's considered a classic! Certainly, that hasn't always been true. When I took film courses in college in the last 1970s, West Side Story and To Kill a Mockingbird were already considered classics--and they had been made a scant 16 years earlier (of course, both were based on earlier works, which may have impacted their classic status). Still, I can think of numerous 1960s films that were considered classics by the following decade. So why is the overwhelming perception now that a film must be at least three decades old to be classic?

Richard Widmark and Wayne--still stars
in the 1960s.
One possibility suggested by a handful of survey respondents is that the Hollywood studio system of the 1930s and 1940s created stars that were still dominant through most of the 1960s. Perhaps their box office popularity was fading, but stars like Doris Day, Henry Fonda, and John Wayne were at the top of their game in 1960s classics such as Lover Come Back, Fail-Safe, and The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance. By the latter part of the decade, the "new stars" weren't graduates of the studio system--they gained their experiences in television (e.g., Robert Redford) and independent films (e.g., Jack Nicholson). They made fewer films and often took roles in small pictures like The Passenger (with Nicholson). Thus, this hypothesis proposes that the cutoff point for "classic" status is when the majority of stars from Hollywood's "Golden Age" retired from acting--in the 1960s and 1970s.

A Film's Enduring Appeal
However, the survey results also indicate that a film's enduring appeal is significantly more important than its stars or age. When asked what criterion was most important in defining a classic film, 57% said it was the film's enduring appeal. A distant second was "when a film was made" (25%), followed by "a film's impact on culture and the industry" (12%) and and the "iconic appeal of a film's stars or director" (5%).

Of course, it's hard to discuss a film's overall appeal without focusing, in part, on the contributions of the actors in it and the film's age. We also can't forget that nostalgia--a partial by-product of age--plays a role in the "timeless" quality of some films. Thus, there's overlap between the different criteria...let's just call that a survey design flaw.

To avoid getting mired in analysis, we'll look at "enduring appeal" from a holistic viewpoint. Aside from nostalgia, why do some classic films maintain--or even increase--their appeal through the years? One potential reason is that films from the 1930s through the 1960s spanned so many genres. Lavish musicals? Check. Westerns? Hundreds were made. Gangster films, film noir, war movies, historical adventure? Yes to all!

Cabaret: A rare 1970s musical.
Yet, by the 1970s, almost all those genres were dead, on life support, or buoyed by a couple of hits. Quick, can you name a significant musical other than Cabaret or Grease from the 1970s? I suspect films like A Matter of Time, Funny Lady, and All That Jazz have their admirers, but none of them is considered a classic. How about a rousing pirate action film from the 70s? I think Scalawag and Swashbuckler are best forgotten.

Another contributing factor to enduring appeal, related to the variety of genres, is the number of films with non-contemporary settings. Simply put, historical films and Westerns--which were plentiful in the 1930s through 1950s--don't date as quickly as most contemporary-set dramas. Admittedly, I'm generalizing to a degree, because Gene Autrey's Westerns seem very dated! But Shane, Winchester '73, Dodge City? Their settings give them a timeless quality that keeps these films fresh over the years.

Finally, I suppose some classic film fans may argue that "movies were just better in the old days" and that's why their appeal has endured over the last 70 years. Personally, I don't buy that. There are fine films made every year and, in time, the definition of classic film is bound to evolve.

But for now, we'll stick with the definition provided by our survey results. What is a classic film? A movie made prior to the 1980s that possesses enduring appeal. That's short and sweet...but the supporting reasons are what make for intriguing discussion. I've listed my thoughts. What are yours?

Stay tuned for Part 2, in which we'll examine more survey results to define the prototypical classic film fan.

Sunday, December 4, 2011

Trivia Time 104

Here are the leftovers from last week. Not a bad week overall…there were more questions answered than not! Thanks to all who participated!

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

Answers: Gone With The Wind (Clark Gable), Dodge City (Errol Flynn), Santa Fe Trail (Errol Flynn).

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

Answers: Jerome took a shot at this one and got half credit for doing so; I was looking for Chuck Barris (as the producer), Jim Lang, and Bob Eubanks.

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

Answer: Art Fleming (the original host of Jeopardy).

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

Answers: Sunday in New York; Hutton played a guy in a rowboat with a radio; Jane Fonda, Rod Taylor, Cliff Robertson, and Robert Culp.

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

Answers: Bob Eubanks, The Newlywed Game.

And here is Trivia Time 104; no worries, it's short and sweet...enjoy!

1. Name at least two well-known character actors who worked with both Tyrone Power and Errol Flynn, and name the films in question.

2. In which James Stewart film is Richard Loo featured?

3. Name three James Stewart films directed by Anthony Mann which are NOT Westerns.

4. Name James Stewart's female co-stars in the films in #3.

5. Name a film with a score by Miles Davis.

6. While making The Brady Bunch, which other TV show did Robert Reed work on simultaneously?

7. Who Said This in Which Film? "Who's the pale copper Apollo?"

8. Name the actor who played the "pale copper Apollo" in the above movie.