American Classic Movies 2014
The Spotlight Of The Month
It's a Wonderful Life 12/15/14
Although Frank Capra never intended this once forgotten movie "It's a Wonderful Life" (1946) to be a Christmas tradition that's what it turned out to be. This was his personal favorite among the films he directed and the first film he made after returning from World War II. For me watching this film during the holiday season is an annual ritual and I always make sure I see it in its original black and white the colorized version makes me feel sick. Unlike some movies where you know how it's going to turn out which loses its appeal this film improves with familiarity.
In short the message of 'It's a Wonderful Life' at least to me is be content with what you have because it can always get worse. Cast includes James Stewart as George Bailey, Donna Reed as Mary Hatch Bailey, Henry Travers as Clarence Odbody and Lionel Barrymore as Mr. Henry F. Potter. Nominated for five Academy Awards including Best Picture and has been recognized by the American Film Institute as one of the 100 best American films ever made.
Forty-Second Street 11/11/14
The Hollywood musicals came out during the depression between 1929-1939 when twenty-five percent of the country was unemployed nevertheless during the economical hardship 70 million Americans went to the theaters each week and paid their hard earned 15 cents to see a musical which was a means of escape. Musicals at that time boosted morale and restored American values to their audiences. The three biggest money making musicals at that time were "Gold Diggers," "42nd Street," "Footlight Parade" and "Dames" in fact these movies are said to have saved Warner Brothers studios from bankruptcy.
Forty-Second Street (1933) is my favorite musical it has the best catchy songs like "You're Getting To Be A Habit With Me," "Shuffle Off to Buffalo," "Young and Healthy" and "Forty-Second Street." Directed by Lloyd Bacon and Busby Berkeley. The music was written by Harry Warren and Al Dubin wrote the lyrics. The cast is Warner Baxter, Ruby Keeler, Dick Powell, Ginger Rogers.
The Hollywood Broadway musicals of the 30's have been a part of my life since I could remember. My sisters and I would watch reruns of 42nd St over and over again we never seem to get enough of it. This is not a film genre for everyone but if you watch it keep an open mind. Watch Busby Berkeley's astonishing choreography his cinematic and imagery still astonishes me even to this day. I love his sweeping views of geometrically arranged dancers moving in unison that was his trademark. This is a Warner Brothers classic which still has appeal and fun to watch.
Come and meet those dancing feet
The antagonizing tough director's pep talk
Black Orpheus 10/01/14
Orfeu Negro or Black Orpheus (1959) is my favorite Brazilian films it's a retelling of the "Orpheus and Eurydice" Greek myth. According to the legend Orpheus who is a musician and poet had the ability to charm all living things with his divine music. When the angel of death shows up during Carnival to kill his wife Eurydice Orpheus desperately tries to bring her back from the underworld which in this case is the Rio morgue. Some of the footage of the film was shot in "Morro da Babilônia" a slum or "favela" in Rio de Janeiro. Marcel Camus is the French director who based his film on the play "Orfeu da Conceição" by Vinicius de Moraes. The film stars Marpessa Dawn as Eurydice and Breno Mello as Orpheus. Featured in the film are three famous Bossa Nova composition "A Felicidade" by composer Carlos Antonio Jobim, "Samba de Orfeu" and "Manha do Carnaval" with its beautiful haunting melody by Luiz Bonfa. Black Orpheus became a multi-award winner on the international film scene.
To Have And Have Not 09/02/14
With the recent passing of Lauren Bacall I thought it would be fitting to spotlight this month here at SPM "To have and have not" directed by Howard Hawks and based on the novel by Ernest Hemingway. A career that brought her two Tony awards and a special Oscar. Her first movie "To have and have not" was the movie she refereed to as "the film that gave her a life...and the most special of all." Lauren Bacall and her on screen husband Humphrey Bogart went on to star in three more movies together The Big Sleep, Dark Passage and Key Largo. A sassy lady and one of the last classic Hollywood stars to die at the age of 89.
The Wrong Man 08/02/14
The Wrong Man (1956) is one of my favorite Alfred Hitchcock films. Based on a true story about an innocent man Emmanuel Balestrero played by Henry Fonda charged with a crime. The film uses real locations in NYC like my old neighborhood Jackson Heights Queens with the prison scenes shot in a real prison with real convicts. I remember this film not because of the plot but because of the characters and the mood of the film, it's dark and paranoid with a documentary style realism. Bernard Herrmann composed the soundtrack as he had for all of Hitchcock's films. Cast includes Vera Miles as Rose Balestrero and Anthony Quayle as attorney Frank O'Connor. Beautiful location photography, Film-Noir type lighting and great acting by everyday people makes this film a must see.
In one of my favorite classic western movies Allan Ladd plays the title character Shane (1953) the poster boy cowboy hero and the white hat lone rider helping the new homesteaders on the open range hold onto their land in the face of hired thugs and savagery. There's also an innocent youngster hero-worshiper Joey played by Brandon deWilde who is the fascinated observer of the brutal struggle and tension between homesteaders and cattlemen that prevailed in the old west. Jack Palance better known as Dracula plays Jack Wilson the black hat hired gun villain.
Director George Stevens originally cast Montgomery Clift as Shane and William Holden when they both proved unavailable. Allan ended up getting the lead role although he had an average stature of only five feet one inch tall but Hollywood photographed him to look taller and tough. The movie ends in a shootout where else but in a saloon. Beautifully filmed in Technicolor in the great Wyoming outdoors drenched by the brilliant western sunshine the picture is a visual treat and a pleasure to watch especially for those who still believe in guardian angels.
"You speaking to me?"
"There's no living without killing."
"I've heard you're a low down Yankee lier!"
"Come back, Shane!"
Zorba the Greek 06/13/14
So after visiting Greece and spending some time on the Island of Crete it only seems fitting to choose "Zorba the Greek" (1964) as the spotlight of the month film. I didn't quite understand the movie and its nuances of characters when I first saw it as a kid but it had a powerful emotional impact on me. Zorba the title role is played by Anthony Quinn a man with a lust for life. The movie is about an English writer Alan Bates (the perfect counterpart) who travels to the island of Crete to restore his own values and outlook on life. He meets the flamboyant Zorba a man with a zest for life who determines to educate Bates in the ways of his world.
Based on the novel by Nikos Kazantzakis.
For some people the movie might seem a bit deep for me it's brutally honest and refuses to sugar-coat the hard reality for both men and women in rural Greece at that time the novel was written. I've come to appreciate this movie with age. Zorba the Greek is a reminder of how to live one's own life every single minute and to find meaning and pleasure amidst the vagaries of fate. I love the ending when Alan Bates begs Zorba "Teach me to dance!" After all their colossal failures what else can one do but dance or at least try? The music score is by Mikis Theodorakisis it's exhilarating I always have to get up and dance with them at the end of the movie. Zorba the Greek is considered the quintessential "Greek" film. It's a great movie with great philosophy! If you haven't seen it go watch it and if you've seen it already re-view this true classic.
Here are some of my favorite quotes from the film:
Alexis Zorba: "A man needs a little madness."
Alexis Zorba: "Men like me ought to live a thousand years."
Alexis Zorba: "If a woman sleeps alone, it puts a shame on all men."
Basil: "I don't want any trouble."
Alexis Zorba: "Life is trouble. Only death is not. To be alive is to undo your belt and "look" for trouble."
Alexis Zorba: "You think too much. That is your trouble. Clever people and grocers, they weigh everything."
Alexis Zorba: "All right, we go outside where God can see us better."
05/10/14 The Marx Brothers
While the Marxfest is in full swing this month here in NYC I thought it would be appropriate for the spotlight of the month to be given to the greatest comedy team of the silver screen The Marx Brothers. They started out in Vaudeville on to Broadway and then to Hollywood producing thirteen feature films. There was a total of four brothers in the Marx Brothers films, Groucho called Margaret Dumont "the fifth Marx brother" but the core of the act was Chico (Leonard Marx), Harpo (Arthur Marx), and Groucho (Julius Henry Marx). Both Groucho and Harpo had successful solo careers, Groucho in the quiz game show called "You Bet Your Life"and Harpo as a musician, performer and good will ambassador. Sadly Chico had a lifelong gambling habit. When asked by an interviewer how much money he had lost from gambling Chico answered, "Find out how much money Harpo's got. That's how much I've lost."
When I was a kid I stayed up very late at night to watch their movies. My sister and I would buy Marx Brothers books which had sequential images taken from some of their movies like "A Night at the Opera" and "A Day at the Races" in script format just like a comic books. We would memorize Groucho's great comeback lines and pretend that we were Groucho. My sister was much better at impersonating him than I was:-) To this day I still watch their movies and they continue to make me scream with laughter. I love the way they attacked authority figures and the socially respectable. Poor Margaret Dumont took so much abuse from them even though she never really understood their insults.
Groucho: Oh, uh, I suppose you'll think me a sentimental old fluff, but would you mind giving me a lock of your hair?
Dumont (smitten): A lock of my hair? Why, I had no idea you ...
Groucho: I'm letting you off easy. I was gonna ask for the whole wig!
The Marx brothers also had musical talent they were mostly self taught musicians. I love the way Chico would play the notes on his piano by shooting the keys with his hands like a gun and the way Harpo played classical, jazz or boogie music on his harp. I don't have a favorite Marx Brother film they were all hilarious so for this month I'll only put up a snippet of one of their comedy routines for anyone who has never watched one of their films along with a wonderful documentary. There were many comedy acts during the early years of Hollywood but in my opinion nobody could touch the Marx Brothers they were a comedy team way ahead of its time.
Midred Pierce 04/02/14
Midred Pierce (1945) directed by Michael Curtiz and starring Joan Crawford is based on the James M. Cain novel. The movie opens in the typical Film Noir fashion with a flash back voice-over narration by Joan. It's the story about an unemployed mother and wife who works her way up to financial security while providing a good future for her two daughters. During her climb she gets involved with the wrong men and eventually enters into a loveless marriage with a playboy leech played by Zachary Scott. BTW this guy plays a really good freeloader he should have gotten an Oscar for it.
So the story goes that Joan Crawford was not wanted for this film because she was considered washed up at the box office and had the reputation of being difficult to work with and so it was offered to Betty Davis and Barbara Stanwyck. Don't know if any of this is true but in the end the role went with Crawford who ended winning an Oscar for her performance.
Instead of highlighting the official movie trailer I decided to add my favorite clip of the film where Joan gets pimp slapped by her ungrateful bratty daughter. Cast includes Jack Carson as Wally Fay, Zachary Scott as Monte Beragon, Bruce Bennett as Albert "Bert" Pierce. The dames are Ann Blyth as Veda Pierce, Eve Arden as Ida Corwin and Butterfly McQueen as Lottie. This is two hours of pure Hollywood film drama. I won't give the ending away so go watch the movie.
"Mother, you're a scream"
The Hustler 03/01/14
Bert: You got talent.
Eddie: So I got talent? So what beat me?
"The Hustler" (1961) is one of the most compelling character-based films to emerge from the 60's. In this movie Paul Newman plays a pool shark by the name of "Fast Eddie" Felson who challenges a long time legendary champion by the name of "Minnesota Fats" played by Jackie Gleason in one long high stakes match. But the movie isn't about the game or beating Minnesota Fats it's about 'character,' and his love for Sarah Packard the alcoholic played by Piper Laurie. Much of the film action takes place in the sunless smoky pool halls of NYC.
The Hustler comes with a solid script and flawless acting, based on a novel by Walter Tevis and directed by Robert Rossen. Supporting actors include George C. Scott as Bert Gordon the vicious gambler and manager, Myron McCormick as Charlie, Murray Hamilton as Findley, Stefan Gierasch as Preacher. There's also a cameo appearance by Jake LaMotta as the bartender. The Hustler received Oscars for art direction and cinematography, plus seven more nominations for Newman, Gleason, Laurie, Scott and Best Director (Robert Rossen), Best Picture and Best Screenplay.
The climactic match between Fast Eddie and Minossota Fats leads to the perfect coda:
"Fat Man, you shoot a great game of pool.
So do you, Fast Eddie."
BTW keep a sharp ear to the edgy jazz score of Kenyon Hopkins.
This is one of my favorite Alfred Hitchcock dark romance and suspense films "Rebecca" adapted from Daphne du Maurier’s popular novel. It's about a young woman (Joan Fontaine) who falls for the dashing Maxim de Winter played by Laurence Olivia. Soon after they get married she realizes that the first Mrs. Winters haunts the Winter Mansion Manderley where they live. In order for her to have some future with Maxim she must break the spell of his ex-wife as well as unravel the mystery of her violet death.
This was the first collaboration between producer David O. Selznick and Hitchcock. Winner of the 1940 Academy Award for Best Picture and Cinematography. Expertly cast with the wonderful Judith Anderson as the the malevolent housekeeper Mrs. Danvers. In short this is a wonderful Hitchcock classic, full of suspense beautiful cinematography that's guaranteed to immerse you.
Waterloo Bridge 01/14/14
The 1940 version of Waterloo Bridge directed by Mervyn LeRoy was a remake of the 1930 Broadway drama by Robert E Sherwood's, the original 1931 film was censored due to the portrayal of prostitution. There's a wonderful chemistry between Vivien Leigh and Robert Taylor which I really like in this film and as dazzling as Viven Leigh was as Scarlett O'Hara in Gone with the Wind to me she was never as beautifully photographed as she was in the 1940 version of Waterloo Bridge. Everything is first rate in this film from cinematographer, script to direction and music. The film was a big success at the box office and nominated for two Academy Awards Best Music for Herbert Stothart and Best Cinematography for Joseph Ruttenberg. The cast also features an exceptional performance by Lucile Watson as Lady Margaret and Maria Ouspenskaya, C. Aubrey Smith, and a host of others. This is one of my favorite tragic romance and one of MGM best tearjerkers so get out your handkerchief.