Okay. It’s hot , it’s wet, I’ve biked enough, and so now I get to stay in and watch movies.
It’s the eternal question– you could be sitting in a hot tub, or on line at Publix, or coming out of the Confessional, or vacuuming the living room. No matter what or where, the query arises: “What’s your favorite movie??”
We’ve all been there, right? And how many of us have had the wherewithal to be able to instantly come up with a list of favorites? Certainly not I; when asked that question, I feel as if someone has just said “Jim is so funny, aren’t you? Say something funny!!” In both instances, words fail me and my lips sew themselves together as if I’m about to be laid out: stuff cotton in my nostrils and place a pillow under my head– I’m doomed.
However, when you have some time to actually think about it, THEN the favorites come to mind easily. And they should really be favorites, not just a parroting of “best of” lists in order to impress everyone with the fact that you, too, adore The Bicycle Thief, City Lights, and Citizen Kane. Real favorites are films that you watch over and over again, whether or not they are intellectually uplifting, send a message, or solve the ills of the world. Favorites encourage you to let loose the hot and cold spigots of your emotions.
Here are some of mine, in no particular order…
Night of the Hunter— 1955. Robert Mitchum, Shelley Winters, and Lillian Gish. And a lot of kids, including the excellent and moody Billy Chapin as John Harper and Sally Jane Bruce as his sister Pearl. This is my kind of movie: atmospheric, fantastic in its original sense, and searing. It’s also truly terrifying. Directed by Charles Laughton, it’s fraught with his psychological sensibilities (he was married to the bride of Frankenstein, after all, yet had a yen for the lads). Much of the film is concerned with Mitchum’s pursuit of orphans John and Pearl as they try and stay steps ahead of him: $10,000 had been hidden in Pearl’s doll by their murdered Daddy, and Mitchum– a lying, murdering preacher– is intent on getting it. Gish, with all her Bible-quoting, still needs a gun to shore up her religious convictions, and it comes in handy when Mitchum manages to find the children living with her. (Their widowed Mom, played as mush-mouthed and naive by Shelley Winters, is dispatched early in the film by Mitchum soon after he marries her.) This movie makes you sit up on the couch and really take notice.
The Birds— 1963. Tippi Hedren, Rod Taylor, Suzanne Pleshette, Jessica Tandy and Veronica Cartwright. It’s all well and good watching this movie as a horror film about birds attacking people for no apparent reason, but when you grow up and watch it again, you realize it’s a film about women and the intricate relationships they form around one man: Taylor. Tippi, Suzanne, Jessica and Veronica dance around him and spin the plot as, respectively, new girl, old girl, mother, and sister. They intently watch one another’s every move and, with arched eyebrows or barbed comments, let you know just what they think of Rod. Granted, the young sister has no real stake other than as a catalyst to drive Rod and Tippi together, but still– she’s oddly involved, what with her lovebirds and insistence on having Tippi become a working member of the family. This movie is He Man as center of the caveman universe, and may the strongest woman come out on top. Is it resolved? Nope– those damned birds keep appearing in order to spatter droppings all over the plot, as guilt and conscience always do…
To Kill A Mockingbird— 1962. I read the book in eighth grade about nine thousand times, over and over, practically memorizing long passages, and when I was able to watch the film on television, I thought I’d died and gone to heaven. This is a perfect movie– 99% true to the book, with the other 1% not really mattering at all. It’s photographed in black and white: detailed, mesmerizing and nuanced. The characters come to life as portrayed by Gregory Peck, Mary Badham and Philip Alford. It takes you along and sweeps you quietly into the story until you’re sobbing through the scene where Reverend Sykes says “Miss Jean Louise, stand up… your father’s passin’.” Every minute of this movie is perfection.
Gone with the Wind— 1939. I used to wait anxiously for revivals of this movie so that I could run out to see it. I got to enjoy it at radio City Music Hall, the Alpine Theatre in Bay Ridge, and a couple of other places until it became available on VHS– a special edition from Reader’s Digest, boxed! There was something wrong with the synch, though: sound and scene were about a second out of whack, making for an annoying home theatrical experience because the glitch made all the film’s overdubbing doubly annoying. (Producer Selznick constantly tinkered.) Now I’ve got in on DVD– pristine and restored, which means I can watch GWTW every night of the week if I want, which I don’t. The first time I saw it, at the Alpine, I cried when the giant title letters rolled across the screen, and when Melanie died, and when Scarlett treated Rhett mean. having it wash over you like that elicits an emotional response you don’t feel at home, but that’s okay. You can stop and start the action at will, play things slowly, and scan for details you might miss otherwise. It’s a great film, though the end does seem rushed when everyone starts dying like flies: Mammy complains about miseries in her back; Bonnie Blue Butler breaks her neck jumping a fence with her pony; and Melanie dies after giving her last ounces of love and energy to a woman (Scarlett O’Hara) who doesn’t realize how much she cares about her until it’s too late. Tragedy! Vivien Leigh as Scarlett is unbeatable and perfect, considering how many actresses were considered for the role. She flounces and slaps and bridles and lies until she gets her way, a tour de force of a performance which rarely has her off the screen for almost all four hours of running time. I think everyone over the age of forty has seen this, and I thought it would remain an icon forever, but are younger folks aware of it?
The Women— 1939. This picture has become part of the lore and fabric in certain circles, and it’s a lot of fun to watch. It’s a major ego trip for MGM and its reigning female stars, many of whom were seriously (or not) considered for the part of Scarlett O’Hara. And do they ever shine! Each actress (there are no men in the entire film) gets her share of close-ups, clever lines, and costumery– even the peripheral figures manage to steal scenes. As a result, while many chapters impart very little information regarding the plot, these exist purely to showcase the charms of these favorites: among many memorable moments, Norma romps with her daughter, Roz exercises, brawls, and bitches, and Joan takes a bath. And the crackling script carries it all along effortlessly. Especially memorable is the dressing room scene between Norma and Joan. Legend tells us that they couldn’t stand one another, but it was mainly Joan who resented Norma for the latter’s lofty position at MGM. (Norma helped build the studio with a series of popular box-office hits starting in the early 1920s, well before Joan arrived.) There’s something bitingly real about the way Joan directs her lines at Norma… when you know the history between them, you can sense that they’re based in her personal feelings. Joan made lots of wisecracks about Norma, yet Norma never retaliated. When she was once asked to respond, she decorously replied “I don’t think I have anything to add… Joan’s said it all.” Class! The movie is long– over two hours– and has that color fashion show insert that can be really annoying when you’re not in the mood for it. There’s lots of vocal overdubbing, and some of the sets look cheap, but hey– you’re watching it to see the girls!
The Thrill of It All— 1963. I first saw this in the Fortway Theater in Brooklyn the year it came out, and the whole block was talking about it. Doris Day was BIG in those days. Entire families made excursions to radio City Music Hall every time one of her movies came out, and she was just about the biggest star around. The Thrill Of It All captures and preserves the innocence that was 1963– America’s last whiff of it, actually– with Doris playing a doctor’s wife who becomes the TV spokeswoman for Happy Soap. She’s zany and appealing and very funny, the perfect foil to hunky husband James Garner. In fact, the chemistry between them is smoking; they spend most of the movie trying to jump into bed, but her budding new career thwarts their efforts. There’s a great cameo by Lucy landau as Mrs. Goethe the hefty German housekeeper– “doctor nicht IN!” Adding to the lunacy is Arlene Francis who, as an older wife, is expecting a baby. She’s 56 in real life and gives birth in a limousine stalled in traffic as James Garner races on horseback to help attend the birth. Doris pitches in and realizes, weepily, that she doesn’t want to be a TV star– she wants to be a doctor’s wife. (Very 1963.) All ends happily, with Doris and Jim strolling upstairs to the bedroom to create Child Number Three.
The Stepford Wives (the original, 1975)– Horrifying: wives and mommies Katharine Ross and Paula Prentiss as Connecticut housewives who have no idea what their husband shave in store for them.
Whatever Happened to Baby Jane? (1962) Bette Davis and Joan Crawford eat the scenery and all their co-stars in this camp melodrama that you can’t tear your eyes from. Also fun is Hush… Hush, Sweet Charlotte, from 1964, this time with Olivia de Havilland giving Bette tit for tat. Adding to the craziness are Mary Astor– MARY ASTOR!!– and Agnes Moorehead.
Stage Door (1937) Kate Hepburn, Ginger Rogers, Constance Collier, Andrea Leeds, Lucille Ball, Eve Arden, Gail Patrick, Ann Miller… .they’re all hear, talking a mile a minute and cracking wise in the Footlights Club, a residence for aspiring actresses. Excellent!
Three Women (1977) Robert Altman weaves the stories of his three leads– Sissy Spacek, Shelley Duvall and Janice Rule– into a strange, disturbing film resembling a dream. there’s no real plot, just a trio of personalities feeding off of and then ultimately mirroring one another. Shelley Duvall is especially affecting.
Cinema Paradiso (1988) An Italian filmmaker looks back on his childhood, most of it spent assisting (and antagonizing) his little village’s projectionist. Lots of scenes of excited moviegoers causing riots in the theatre when the film breaks; smoking; eating; talking; making out… just like Brooklyn! A really beautiful picture.
The Bicycle Thief (1948) Yes, a favorite. Conditions for the Italian population after the war were appalling, thank sto a number of factors. People did anything for work, including sacrificing their honor and dignity, and this film portrays it all. The scene with the bed sheets is especially devastating.
And so many, many more… but these are the ones that spring directly to mind. Enjoy… that’s what Netflix is for!