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Category Archives: Movie Thoughts

When You Don’t Like a Great Classic Film and Introducing Others to Classic Movies

William Powell and Carole Lombard in My Man Godfrey

William Powell and Carole Lombard in My Man Godfrey

I always feel embarrassed and slightly apologetic when I don’t love a great classic movie. My Man Godfrey? When the subject comes up, I smile sheepishly and fidget. Dare I admit it? I didn’t like My Man Godfrey. I couldn’t take it. Carole Lombard drove me up the wall and for years I was convinced that I did not like screwball comedies. If My Man Godfrey was the quintessence of the screwball comedy, then there was no hope for me. But then I saw The Lady Eve and suddenly the screwball comedy genre opened its arms towards me and I embraced it…though I still don’t particularly like My Man Godrey. I love the actors, but not the movie.

My Man Godfrey also put me off from watching Carole Lombard’s movies and it was not until Hands Across the Table that I realized that she was actually very funny.

I suppose the lesson here is that just because you don’t like the banner title of a genre it does not follow that you won’t like the genre (or the actor) and that is why I am always leery of recommending movies. Sometimes the banner movie can actually scare people away from the genre (or actor). If you don’t like the acknowledged best, why would you like any of the others? My Man Godfrey frequently makes lists as a good movie to introduce non-classic movie lovers to classic movies, but because of my experience I wonder. Does it really appeal to non-classic movie lovers and I am just the exception or would another movie be better to recommend generally?

But people are so idiosyncratic in their tastes. Perhaps it would be better to simply suggest a movie you had fun with, regardless of its actual merit or the importance it had in movie history. I have a theory that the list of important classics has been partly predetermined by TV and what was available for the last fifty years: The Wizard of OzIt’s a Wonderful Life, etc. My eye doctor told me that he found classic movie acting to be over-the-top, but I wonder what movies form the basis of that assessment. It’s like when people see Douglas Fairbanks in a silent film and assume all silent acting was like him, when he represents one unique style among many.

The way I actually became interested in classic movies was not by targeting specific recommended films, but by picking an actor I liked and watching all their movies I could find: Myrna Loy and William Powell, Barbara Stanwyck, Fred Astaire. As a result, I saw their best films, mediocre films and even some bad films, but it gave me a  sense of the different genres and eras (pre-code, 1930s, WWII movies, 1940s, 1950s, musicals, melodramas, comedies).

Orson Welles

Orson Welles from Citizen Kane

But I still feel embarrassed when I don’t like a great classic. Another secret shame is the fact that I have not yet seen a film directed by Orson Welles that I have enjoyed: The Magnificent AmbersonsThe StrangerTouch of Evil. It’s almost tantamount to admitting intellectual inferiority to say that I didn’t appreciate Welles’ genius. The movies were interesting, well acted and completely failed to engage me emotionally (I enjoyed The Stranger the most, partially because it had Edward G. Robinson and I love him in anything). I haven’t dared watch Citizen Kane. It’s long been hailed as the greatest American movie ever made and what happens to your credibility when you don’t like the greatest movie ever made? It makes you a cultural philistine.

Though there is a vast difference between liking a movie and appreciating or understanding it.

A movie that I have never read a negative review of but can hardly stand to watch is Only Angels Have Wings. It’s not because it’s a bad movie – it’s a very good movie – but it frustrates me at every turn. A greater bunch of immature boy/men it would be impossible to find. And when Cary Grant gets mad at Rita Hayworth because she does not blindly stand by her disgraced husband (because she does not know he’s disgraced because he has not told her, even though she can tell something is wrong by the way the men are treating him) I couldn’t help wondering what he thinks marriage is, anyway. It is not ignorant trust. Women, apparently, are only good for supporting their men while their men figure out their problems in relation to other men and do their manly things while the women sit at home and worry.

Only Angels Have Wings

Cary Grant and Rita Hayworth in Only Angels Have Wings

Sometimes, movies just hit on a pet peeve for you and it becomes difficult to overlook the peeve to see the merits of rest of the film. And sometimes movies simply fail to engage you emotionally, the cause of which I find unfathomable. And sometimes, I am willing to overlook everything for the sake of an aspect I really enjoy. I have forgiven many a shaky musical plot for the sake of the dancing I love.

My policy now is to never recommend a movie, but instead talk enthusiastically about all the movies I have been watching. I talk partially because I love old movies and you talk about what you love and also because it gives friends and family the opportunity to decide if a movie sounds interesting to them or not. When I talk about enough movies, eventually something will pique their interest and they want to see it. And when they chose the movie, it gives them the initiative. I don’t have to urge it on them and they are now predisposed to like the movie.

What classic movies do you dislike, even in the face of universal acclaim? Have you ever had any luck recommending movies to others?

 
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Posted by on June 12, 2015 in Movie Thoughts

 

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Re-watching Vertigo – Questions, Questions

0913Q_VertigoPoster_30pEver since watching Vertigo for the first time several weeks ago (my original review can be found here), I knew I wanted to see it again now that I knew the twist. I was especially curious about the first half of the film. I wanted to see what I could pick up since I knew that Madeleine is really Judy, who is playing Madeleine.

This time I watched it with my grandmother, who first saw it when it was released in 1958, just before my mom was born. She’s always loved Alfred Hitchcock’s movies and each year would see his latest film. Vertigo, though, was not her favorite. She found it a bit slow and rather creepy. We had a great time discussing it, though.

What was most interesting is how the focus of the story seemed to change on a second viewing. The first time, it is all about Scottie (James Stewart). We are seeing things as he is seeing them (at least in the first half) and are as confused as he is. Kim Novak’s Madeleine is an enigma to us, aloof, unknowable, almost not of the world (which I think is partially why Scottie is fascinated by her – he is not as attracted to the more down-to-earth Judy). But on a second viewing it suddenly became about her. Now that I knew it was Judy Barton playing Madeleine Elster, I was wondering what she was thinking.

vertigo-pic-4When did she fall in love (as soon as she met him, in his apartment?), was she really unconscious after jumping into San Francisco Bay (that must have been fun – you’d have to pay me a lot of money to deliberately jump into a bay and hope the man following me doesn’t take his time about rescuing me)? How much is she hewing to a script prepared by Gavin Elster? Was that really what the real Madeleine was like, almost other-worldly? When she drove to Scottie’s house to give him a thank-you-note, was that done with the knowledge of Elster or did she just do that because she liked Scottie and wanted to see him again?

I’m thinking that every move she made had to be planned by Elster. He needed Scottie to be there when Madeleine supposedly jumps off the bell tower. Did Elster really plan for Scottie to fall in love? That doesn’t seem like the kind of thing one could plan. But it also doesn’t seem like there was much that Judy did (as Madeleine) that wasn’t calculated, presumably by Elster. On viewing it again, I can’t really think of any moments in the first half where I thought, “ah, that is really Judy coming through.” Perhaps the moment when she is standing on his doorstep and making eyes at Scottie while he reads her letter has a bit of the real Judy, but she stays in character pretty much the entire time. What is genuinely Judy was the emotion.

And I was wondering, did Elster make up his plan as soon as he heard about Scottie in the paper, and how he had acrophobia? If you really think about it, it’s a ridiculous plan, but that’s is not really the point of the film. Hitchcock film’s don’t always make the most logical sense. Vertigo is telling a psychological and human story; it’s all about the characters, not the minutiae of the plot. Hitchcock would never make a mystery writer.

kim-novak-in-vertigo-1958In shifting my viewpoint from Scottie to Judy, it suddenly became her tragedy more than his. She’s the one who gets trapped, first by Elster and then by her love of Scottie. My grandmother and I were musing that you could create a movie series called “Ten Stupid Things Women Do” and choose ten movies to illustrate. I’m sure Vertigo would fit in there somewhere.

And I wonder, was she Gavin Elster’s mistress? Scottie accuses her of it at the end and asks her what Elster gave her after he ditched her. She says money. Is that a tacit confession to his accusations, or does she just mean that she got money for doing her job? How did she ever get involved with Elster and agree to his plan?  As a curious side-note, there is a twisted Pygmalion element to Vertigo. Elster teaching Judy how to be Madeleine must have looked a bit like a darker version of Shaw’s play…and then Scottie tries his hand at it in the second half of the film.

Elster is the real villain, actually a successful villain, who creates an alternate reality that entraps Judy and Scottie and then leaves on his merry way to Europe, having killed his wife. Maybe after Judy dies, the police will figure everything out, though I doubt they’ll ever catch Elster. The authorities are going to be awfully perplexed when another body shows up on the roof of the same mission, dressed in the same clothes and looking exactly like the other women, with the same man present in the tower.

I think that’s partially what I liked about Vertigo. There’s so much scope for imagination. So many films are complete unto themselves, but I like a movie that leaves room for speculation and imagination about the past or future or motivations of the characters. And Vertigo is practically bursting with scope for speculation.

 
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Posted by on April 17, 2015 in Drama, Movie Thoughts, Romance

 

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The First Movie You Saw in Theaters and Reap the Wild Wind (1942)

download (1)Do you remember the first movie you saw in theaters? Mine was The Secret Garden in 1993. I had already seen the 1949 version with Margaret O’Brien and that was my preferred version, so I recall discussing the new film with my sister and deciding that we didn’t like the new version as much. Unfortunately, I recall this discussion more than I recall the movie. My brother’s first movie was The Jungle Book. It was re-released in theaters in 1990 at the same time that it was released on VHS. Supposedly, I was there, too, but I have no memory of it. My cousin tells me his first memory is when he was two years old, which is very impressive. He saw Toy Story 2 and ate Smartie and we were wondering if they still sale Smarties in theaters. I can’t recall seeing any.

When I asked my Nana what movie she first remembers, she said Lassie Come Home in 1944. However, she’s also told me the story of another movie that she didn’t remember the name of. She thought it was a Cecil B. DeMille film and starred Paulette Goddard. But that was more of a side-memory. What she always remembered was one specific scene, that stood out like technicolor. There was a ship with sails and a woman stows aboard it and hides in a trunk, but her scarf partially hangs out. There’s a storm or a wreck and the ship goes down and she remembered seeing the trunk underwater with the scarf floating in the water and thinking “Oh!” and realizing that the woman was dead. She never forgot that moment. She also recalled a squid.

downloadSo I thought it would be really fun if I could find out what the name of the movie was so we could watch it together. I looked up Paulette Goddard’s filmography and found that she made three movies with Cecil B. DeMille, but only one had ships in it: Reap the Wild Wind, released in 1942. In watching the trailer, there also appeared to be a squid attack.

The cast is impressive, as all DeMille’s cast are impressive: Paulette Goddard, John Wayne, Ray Milland, Raymond Massey, Lynn Overman, Robert Preston, Charles Bickford, Susan Hayward. When I read the cast list to Nana, she was quite impressed at how many names were in there, because as far as her memory of the movie goes, the men were quite negligible. It was all about Paulette Goddard, the squid and the lady drowning in the trunk.

And when we watched the movie together, we agreed with her early assessment. It is Paulette Goddard, the squid and the lady in the trunk that you recall. And the moment when Milland tries to spank Goddard. Golden Age Hollywood had the unfortunate quirk of thinking that it is amusing for a man to spank a women, but in this case it kind of was. I’d never seen anyone try to spank somebody in a hoop skirt before and it’s quite the visual. The skirt poofs out and I couldn’t help thinking he must be hitting more hoop than her. I also couldn’t help thinking that with a little imagination, a woman could really make a hoop skirt excellent protection, or even a weapon against men: perhaps with a few well-placed pins or some spiky whale-bone. If a man gets too close, you could always skewer him.

wild_wind

John Wayne, Paulette Goddard, Ray Milland

The plot occurs in the 1840s in the Key West area and concerns Paulette Goddard as Loxi Clairborne. She runs a salvaging business. When ships get stuck on a reef, salvagers come out in their boats and rescue them, getting paid for their efforts. But in competition with her is King Cutler (Raymond Massey), more pirate than salvager. He helps to arrange wrecks, as well as rescue people, and takes an exorbitant sum for his efforts. Fighting for Loxi’s affections are two men, rugged sea captain Jack Stuart (John Wayne) and dandy lawyer Steven Tolliver (Ray Milland), though Tolliver does turn out to be tougher and more wily than he initially appears. The lady of the trunk is Susan Hayward. She plays Goddard’s cousin and is in love with Cutler’s brother, played by Robert Preston.

Reap the Wild Wind is not a movie to be watched seriously, though it was made seriously. Perhaps that is why it was entertaining. Nana and I enjoyed ourselves immensely. All the stuff that Nana recalls occurs in the last twenty minutes of the film, which must speak volumes for DeMille’s capacity to craft an unforgettable finale. We’ve now determined that as a 1942 movie, it is indeed the earliest film that Nana saw.

 
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Posted by on March 2, 2015 in Movie Thoughts

 

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