5 Favorite “Classics for Comfort”

With the CMBA Spring Blogathon being themed around classic movie comfort, I busied myself considering the types of movies that act as comfort films.

Here before you, without too much deliberation, are five classics I would gladly share with anyone. They are movies that I own and return to for any number of reasons, perfect for lounging around on a Saturday afternoon.

Also, as it worked out, they all just happen to represent five separate decades of cinema.

Please enjoy!

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Mr. Smith Goes to Washington (1939)

Gawky, wide-eyed Jimmy Stewart reflects all that is good and decent about Classic Hollywood. Frank Capra’s political drama is a time-honored story of the little guy going up against a political juggernaut. It’s full of humor and geniality, romance and patriotism, and heart-wrenching drama. Stewart’s staggering filibuster on the Senate floor, as Harry Carey looks on wryly and Jean Arthur coaches from the cheap seats, is an iconic showcase.

Far from simply giving us the kind of Hollywood catharsis, replete with happy ending and romance, it reaffirms the virtues of humanity in the face of corruption. Love bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things.

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The Best Years of Our Lives (1946)

It’s a sprawling film and yet it never seems lengthy because I always fall into the storyline and the sense of community created within Boone City. William Wyler’s direction with the immaculate photography of Gregg Toland is glorious, and once more, the cast is one of the most amicable.

I’ve long enjoyed Teresa Wright and Dana Andrews. Frederic March and Myrna Loy make a lovely couple. Harold Russell turns in, arguably the most sincere, undoctored performance as the double-amputee. We even get Hoagy Carmichael plonking away on the piano. It gets to the point where relationships are actually being formed with the characters. We care deeply about their happiness and well-being in the wake of WWII.  Even as the world changes and we must come to terms with it, there is still hope in making something out of life, wherever it may lead us.

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Rio Bravo (1959)

Before there was any sort of sub-genre, Howard Hawks feels like the king of buddy movies. John Wayne, Walter Brennan, Dean Martin, Ricky Nelson, and Angie Dickinson are a joy to hang out with. There’s no question this is a western — with a sheriff sticking by his guns — and there’s certainly conflict drummed up.

But for the sake of our discussion, this movie is all about the camaraderie. These very purposeful lulls in the action and even an intermission just so Dino can sing “My Rifle, My Pony, and Me.” It brings all the necessary components together, including action and humor, while instigating a quality time at the movies.

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It’s a Mad Mad Mad Mad World (1963)

There are a couple reasons I have a lasting fondness for Mad, Mad World. This goes beyond the wall-to-wall goofballs squished into the caper comedy. (I’m talking to you Jonathan Winters.) One of the other touchtones involves the iconic palm tree becoming a symbol of Inn-N-Out burger, a favorite watering hole of mine.

Likewise, my dad often tells stories of riding off to summer camp only to see the crew filming the chase sequences up in the mountains. It’s these small anecdotes that make it feel all the more familiar. And so many friends come to the party: Don Knotts, Peter Falk, even Buster Keaton. It’s always a pleasure to see them.

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American Graffiti (1973)

There’s something instantly satisfying about the tableau American Graffiti offers up. It’s one night in 1962. The scenarios are lightweight and life-changing all at once, between cruising cars, fleeting high school romances, and some of the most iconic tunes of yesteryear. For me, very few films evoke a milieu as well as George Lucas’s picture, and it still remains one of the preeminent coming-of-age movies generations later.

For one evening, we get to step back in time and enjoy an evening on the town with a soundtrack supplied by Wolfman Jack. It’s an immersive, totally delightful experience cruising around with the likes of Toad, Milner, and Curt. In the age before JFK’s assassination and the escalation of Vietnam, it somehow spells simpler times for all.

Wishing everyone the best of cinematic comforts!

 

National Classic Movie Day Blogathon: 6 Favorite Films of the 1960s

Thank you to the Classic Film and TV Cafe for having me!

Following-up last year’s ode to the 1950s, I secretly relished the addition of another film to make already tough decisions even a little bit easier. But let’s be honest…

All my intellectual posturing and punditry must go out the window. This is not about the best movies alone. It is about the favorites — the movies we could watch again and again for that certain je ne sais quoi — because they stay with us. They always and forever will be based on highly subjective gut reactions, informed by personal preferences and private affections. As it should be.

Drum roll please as I unfurl my picks. Each choice says as much about me as the decade they come out of. Here we go:

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1. Charade (1963)

Charade has always been a highly accessible film and not simply because it’s fallen into the public domain. Its elements are frothy and light calling on the talents of two of Hollywood’s great romantic charmers: Audrey Hepburn and Cary Grant. Their rapport is lovely, and the spy thrills are surprisingly cogent for a romantic comedy thanks to Peter Stone’s script.

Last year I acknowledged the loss of Stanley Donen, but this picture reflected his range as a director, taking him beyond the scope of musicals. By this point, it’s positively twee to acknowledge his movie verged on a Hitchcock thriller like To Catch a Thief. I am also always taken by the supporting cast. Walter Matthau, James Coburn, and George Kennedy all had more prominent performances throughout the 1960s, but they supply a lot of color to the story.

Likewise, as amiable as the chemistry is to go with the blissful French streetcorners and Henry Mancini’s scoring, there is a sense Charade represented the dawn of a new age. It came out mere days after John F. Kennedy was assassinated. The happier times were snuffed out, and we could never go back. The decade would be forever changed in its wake.

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2. A Hard Day’s Night (1964)

The Beatles were the first band I could name at 4-years-old. A Hard Day’s Night was probably the first album I could sing along to. So already I have such a significant connection with it, recalling bumpy roads in the British Isles on summer vacations. And that has little to nothing to do with this film. It only serves to evoke what the Germans might aptly call sehnsucht. Warm, wistful longings for the exuberance of youth. At least that’s what I take it to mean. But we must get to “Komm gib mir deine Hand!”

Because, all levity aside, A Hard Day’s Night is the best Beatles “documentary” any fan could ever ask for. Not only does it showcase some of their greatest music, but Richard Lester’s style also keeps the story feeling fresh and free. Even as the schedule and hysteria of Beatlemania look to suffocate the boys in their own stardom, the film is the complete antithesis of this rigid mentality. It goes a long way to showcase their individual personalities, real or mythologized.

What’s more, it’s simply loads of fun, packed with Liverpoolian wit, shenanigans indebted to the Marx Brothers, and a certain lovable cheekiness helping to make the Beatles into international sensations. Again, it’s a film on the cusp of something new. They would kick off the British takeover of American music and usher in a cultural revolution up until the end of the decade. When they disbanded in 1970, the world had changed, and they were arguably 4 of the most influential cultural catalysts.

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3. The Young Girls of Rochefort (1967)

Jacques Demy began as a revelation for me and quickly evolved into one of my most treasured directors. What makes his film’s magical is how they truly are incubated in their own self-contained reality influenced by near-Providential fate and unabashed romanticism. They too can be wistful and heartbreaking, but equally spry and joyful — maintaining a firm, even naive belief in humanity and love.

The Young Girls of Rochefort is no different. In fact, it might be the great summation of all his themes. Umbrellas of Cherbourg shows the tragedy, but Rochefort is merry and light in a way that’s lovely and intoxicating. The palette is a carnival of color, and real-life sisters Catherine Deneuve and Francoise Dorleac are incomparable in their title roles.

As someone who appreciates contextualization, Demy populates his films with footnotes to film history among them Gene Kelly, who was a beloved figure in France, then Michel Piccoli and Danielle Darreux who might as well be considered national institutions for the substantial bodies of work they contributed both domestically and abroad. Even his wife, 21st-century celebrity Agnes Varda, helped choreograph the movie’s action from behind the scenes. It’s a positive delight.

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4. Le Samourai (1967)

If I have a deep affection for Jacques Demy, my affinity for Jean-Pierre Melville runs deep for entirely different reasons. Like his fellow countryman, he had an appreciation for a subset of American culture — in his case, the pulp crime genre — so it’s a fitting act of reciprocation for me to enjoy his filmography.

Le Samourai is without question his magnum opus, at least when his noir-inspired crime pictures are considered. Like Demy, his images are distinct and particular in their look and appeal. Cool grays and blues match the clothes, cars, and demeanors of most of his characters.

Alain Delon (along with Jean-Paul Belmondo) was one of the great conduits of his methodical style, clothed in his iconic hat and trenchcoat. Anything he does immediately feels noteworthy. While it’s never what you would call flashy, there’s a self-assured preoccupation about Le Samourai.

You can’t help but invest in both the world and the story of the characters — in this case a bushido-inspired assassin: Jef Costello. With hitmen, gunmen, and gangsters given a new lease on life in the 1960s, Delon’s characterization still might be one of the most memorable.

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5. The Odd Couple (1968)

Here is one that’s stayed with me since the days of VHS. I’ve watched it countless times and always return to it gladly like time away with old friends. It just happens to be that one friend is fastidious neat freak Felix Ungar (F.U. for short) and the other a slobbish couch potato Oscar Madison.

Despite being one of the great onscreen friendships across a plethora of films, The Odd Couple is Jack Lemmon and Walter Matthau’s most enduring film together from purely a comedic standpoint. They bring out the worst in each other, which subsequently supplies the conflict in Neil Simon’s smartly constructed tale, as well as the laughs.

I must admit I also have a private fascination with cinematic poker games. The Odd Couple has some of the best, bringing a group of buddies around a table, with all their foibles and eccentricities thrown into a room together to coalesce. John Fiedler and Herb Edelman are great favorites of mine and The Odd Couple has a lot to do with it. That Neal Hefti score is also just such an infectious earworm. I can’t get it out of my head, and I hardly mind. What better way to spend an evening than with Felix, Oscar, and oh yes, the Pigeon sisters…

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6. Butch Cassidy and The Sundance Kid

You can tell a lot about a person depending on what western they pick from 1969. There’s True Grit for the traditionalists. Then The Wild Bunch for the revolutionaries. And Butch Cassidy and Sundance for those who want something a bit different.

Because out of all the westerns ever made, it doesn’t quite gel with any of them. William Goldman writes it in such a way that it feels like an anti-western in a sense. His heroes are outlaws, yes, but they are also two of the most likable anti-heroes Hollywood had ever instated. Whether he knew it or not, Goldman probably helped birth the buddy comedy genre while the partnership of Paul Newman and Robert Redford fast became one for the ages.

My analysis of the film has waxed and waned over the years and not everything has aged immaculately. However, at the end of the day, it’s one of the most quotable, rib-tickling good times you can manage with a western. I’ll stand by it, and when we talk about endings, Butch Cassidy and The Sundance Kid is as good a place to end as any: immortalized on tintypes for all posterity. What a way to go.

Thank you for reading and happy national classic movie day!

Classic Movie Beginner’s Guide: Ginger Rogers

As we continue to look at musicals our recent beginner’s guides have been focusing on stars at the center of some of the best films of the era. Today let’s focus on Ginger Rogers.

Aside from being part of the incomparable dance partnership with Fred Astaire, Ginger Rogers was also an accomplished comedienne and a tested dramatic actress who showed surprising elasticity throughout her varied career. Here are just a handful of her best movies.

Gold Diggers of 1933

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Some might forget Busby Berkeley started to choreograph a new syntax for the movie musical and crucial to one of the industry’s most successful Depression_era backstage dramas was Ginger Rogers. Joining forces with Joan Blondell and Aline Macmahon, among others, they build on the success of 42nd Street.

Top Hat (1935)

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For some people, this is the ultimate Astaire and Rogers movie featuring some of the most extravagant sets and career-defining numbers together. The cast is rounded out by old favorites like Edward Everett Horton and Eric Blore. However, of course, the main attraction amid the screwball foibles are our shimmering leads, Rogers sporting her iconic feathery ensemble.

Swing Time (1936)

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Others will say this George Stevens-directed feature is actually the greatest Astaire-Rogers pairing and who would blame them? The dancing is phenomenal and the songs equally amicable including standards like “The Way You Look Tonight.” Surprise, surprise, Ginger and Fred are magical together yet again.

Vivacious Lady (1938)

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So many films could earn this spot but Vivacious Lady is buoyed by the real-life chemistry and friendship of Ginger Rogers and James Stewart. The material is fairly light, but they handle it with ease. In a turning of the tables, Stewart was yet to be a big star and Ginger Rogers vouched for him. Greater things were yet to come for both of them.

Worth Watching

Flying Down to Rio, The Gay Divorcee, Roberta, Follow The Fleet, Shall We Dance, Stage Door, Bachelor Mother, Kitty Foyle, Major and The Minor, I’ll Be Seeing You, Monkey Business, etc.

AFI Corner: Alternative Picks Vol. 1

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The AFI Corner column is in concurrence with #AFIMovieClub and the 10th anniversary of becoming a classic movie fan myself.  Thanks for reading.

I hinted at several things in my Introduction to this column. Namely, the AFI lists are great but hardly comprehensive. There are numerous blind spots. It’s folly to think 100 titles (or even a couple hundred) can encompass every good movie.

However, they triggered so many rabbit holes for me — to different directors, actors even foreign cinema — and I’m glad for these asides. In no particular order, I want to point out some titles you won’t find on the AFI Lists. It’s not in an effort to be contrarian, mind you. On the contrary, I want to shine a light on more great movies!

Make Way for Tomorrow (1937)

Leo McCarey is represented on 100 Laughs with The Awful Truth, but it is Make Way for Tomorrow that remains his other often unsung masterpiece. Among many other accolades, it served as the inspiration for Yasujiro Ozu’s Tokyo Story focusing on an elderly couple slowly forgotten by their grown children. It’s a surprising sensitive picture for the day and age. Beulah Bondi and Victor Moore couldn’t be better.

Shadow of a Doubt (1943)

Hitchcock obviously gets a lot of visibility on the AFI lists and rightly so. However, if we want to toss out another film that he often considered his personal favorite (featuring one of my personal favorites: Teresa Wright), Shadow of a Doubt is a worthy thriller to include. Having spent time in Santa Rosa, California, I’m equally fascinated by its portrait of idyllic Americana in the face of a merry widow murderer (Joseph Cotten).

Out of The Past (1947)

It’s hard to believe there wasn’t much love for Out of The Past on the AFI lists. After all, it’s prime Robert Mitchum (#23 on AFI Stars) an up-and-coming Kirk Douglas (#17), and an inscrutable Jane Greer. However, from my own explorations, its director Jacques Tourneur is one of the unsung masters of genre pictures in Hollywood ranging from Cat People to Joel McCrea westerns.

Only Angels Have Wings (1939)

Howard Hawks is another fairly well-represented figure across AFI’s filmography. This aviation-adventure picture is one of the missing treasures featuring a bountiful cast headed by Cary Grant (#2 Stars), Jean Arthur, and Rita Hayworth (#19). It exemplifies Hawks’s wonderful sense of atmosphere and rowdy, fun-loving camaraderie.

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Likewise, Preston Sturges is no slouch when it comes to AFI, whether by merit of Sullivan’s Travels, The Lady Eve, or The Palm Beach Story. However, one of my personal favorites is Hail The Conquering Hero. I find it to be such a pointed war picture, taking hilarious aim at a genre that was quick to lean on schmaltz and propaganda, especially during an event as cataclysmic as WWII.

What are some other alternative movies to add to AFI’s lists?

AFI Corner 100 Songs: #4 Moon River

In this column, I go back to my roots with The American Film Institute’s Top 100 Lists, a good place to start for those interested in Classic Hollywood films. It’s in concurrence with #AFIMovieClub and the 10th anniversary of becoming a classic movie fan myself.  Thanks for reading.

Let me be clear about this. “Moon River” was love at first sight. The genesis is a bit unclear. Certainly, I saw Breakfast at Tiffany’s first. That must be it. Although my Grandparents had Andy Williams on record. That could have been it. I’m not sure.

The bottom line is the mellifluous tune, with its wafting nostalgic melancholy and quietly evocative tune is beautiful in all its many forms. Mancini’s composition, tailored to Audrey’s own voice, is perfectly understated for her. The lyrics of Johnny Mercer are beyond compare. Simple yet perfectly measured.

I often jest that it’s the kind of song I would want to play at my wedding, but there’s some truth to that as it touches on something that I think is wonderful. For me, it’s the embodiment of love and longing indicative of both the past and future. Huckleberry friends we’ve left behind and those at the rainbow’s end we’ve still yet to meet.

What’s more, it a melody plucked out of time. Yes, it’s the track in the opening scenes of the movie. Yes, Audrey Hepburn sings it so tenderly. But it has a life of its own.

This is part of what makes it one of the most memorable tracks on The American Film Institute’s Top 100 songs. There might be better songs, but nothing can fill the same void in me like “Moon River.” It warms the cockles of my heart.

 

Classic Movie Beginner’s Guide: John Ford

In our ongoing series, we try to illuminate a person in film history we believe newcomers to classic film should get to know.

This week we thought it would be a nice challenge to try and acknowledge the irrefutable career of John Ford, one of the towering giants of 20th-century cinema. Not only did his images and stories become synonymous with the myth of American West, you could take it a step further and say his films made up the fabric of America itself.

His collaborations with the likes of John Wayne and Henry Fonda boasted some of the greatest achievements in movies of all-time while his beloved Monument Valley has to be one of the most iconic filming locales there ever was. Without further ado, let’s focus in on the irascible maestro Pappy Ford.

Stagecoach (1939)

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To be quite honest, John Ford had a vibrant career well before Stagecoach including numerous well-regarded silents and critical successes influenced by his Irish roots like The Informer (1935). However, Stagecoach galvanized his partnership with John Wayne and it stands as a marker of his vast imprint on the Western genre.

My Darling Clementine (1946)

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Before I get ahead of myself, you should sit down right this minute and watch Ford’s Grapes of Wrath, also starring Henry Fonda and adapted from John Steinbeck’s famed novel. The images are unforgettable. Of course, the same might be said of My Darling Clementine a western that canonizes the legends of Wyatt Earp and the Gunfight at the O.K. Corral.

The Searchers (1956)

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The Searchers is unquestionably John Ford’s magnum opus. The visuals are gorgeous with his usual painterly eye. Monument Valley practically leaps off the screen. John Wayne provides one of the most stunning performances of his career. And he’s surrounded by Ford’s typically robust stock company. It’s the kind of film where long passages stay with you.

The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance (1962)

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It would be so easy for this gritty black & white western to rely solely on star power headlined as it is by John Wayne and James Stewart. However, Lee Marvin is equally important as sadistic outlaw Liberty Valance. Ford adds another stunning entry to his Western landscape this time tackling larger-than-life men and the myths that surround them. When the legend becomes fact, print the legend.

Worth Watching:

The Iron Horse, 3 Bad Men, The Whole Town’s Talking, Young Mr. Lincoln, The Long Voyage Home, How Green Was My Valley, They Were Expendable, Fort Apache, She Wore a Yellow Ribbon, 3 Godfathers, Wagon Master, Rio Grande, The Quiet Man, The Long Gray Line, Mogambo, The Horse Soldiers, How The West Was Won, 7 Women, and more.

AFI Corner: 2010 My Film Odyssey

This is the Introduction to a new column called AFI Corner for film fans who want to get to know The American Film Institute’s 100 Films lists. It’s in concurrence with #AFIMovieClub and the 10th anniversary of becoming a classic movie fan myself.  Thanks for reading.

Always in the back of my mind, I had the idea of trying to write a book or compendium on how I got into movies. If you couldn’t guess already, the highly original title of said book was to be 2010: My Film Odyssey (or some derivative).

Well, it’s never gotten off the ground and probably for good reason. The world rejoices. Who would want to read a poorly edited monolith like that? After all, I’m hardly the Stanley Kubrick of the written word. However, in the same breath, 4 Star Films would have never existed without that year and these lists.

It was in 2010 where I began to take a genuine interest in classic cinema. It really was an odyssey born out of curiosity and my own ignorance about movies. I wasn’t exactly an avid moviegoer in those days.

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But a family vacation introduced me to TCM (my family never had cable), and I got to see a handful of respected classics. 12 Angry Men (#87), To Kill a Mockingbird (#25), and It’s a Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World (#40 Laughs) among them. Seeing Mt. Rushmore and Devil’s Monument in the flesh, meant I rushed to my local library when I got home, so I could see North by Northwest (#55) and Close Encounters of The Third Kind (#64 Original).

From there, the details are a bit murky. Somehow I came across the American Film Institute’s lists online, the two flagship editions being released in 1998 and 2007 respectively. I was too ignorant to know how much dialogue (and controversy) came with the unveiling of these lists.

All I had was my curiosity and a desire to see more. When I started, I did my due diligence and checked off a whopping 12 out of 100 back in 2010! And if you’ll notice, almost half of the movies were ones I watched that very same summer for the first time.

So I built up some steam and started taking to the list. I took numerous more trips to the library. Had family members and acquaintances all check their progress on the well-worn paper copies I had so I could match their progress. It was evident I was still a movie novice. But I was learning.

Before I get ahead of myself, I should point out this blog came out of the handwritten notebooks of “reviews” I used to keep. After almost every movie I watched, I had a desire to try and write something down, not only as a record of what I had viewed but also to give it some meaning. I didn’t want it to be a mindless endeavor. I wanted to be invested.

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Looking back, I laugh. The writing is stunted and formulaic. It’s more plot summary, and there are very few original ideas, but, again, I was learning — growing as a movie lover and a writer.

I’m not sure how this column will evolve, but I would love to share some of those reviews, many of them buried somewhere on this very blog, and then provide some commentary on them based on the movies and my own personal experiences with them.

Because while my life stage and location have changed quite a lot in the last decade, the movies have remained a constant. What I bring to them anew is what’s so enjoyable with every rewatch.

If I was a true raconteur I would have spun a better tale about my film odyssey. That’s part of the reason my magnum opus never materialized. Instead, I’ll leave you with this. I never actually completed any of the AFI lists outright. As of last year, I have seen 99 of 100 titles from AFI’s 100 Years…100 Movies (10th Anniversary Edition)!

Yeah, in 10 years I went from 12 to 99 (The one title I haven’t seen is The Deer Hunter, I know, I know). It doesn’t sound that amazing. However, this fails to count all the countless digressions and sidetracks carrying me through all the nooks and crannies of cinema. And while I might get around to watching #100 someday, I’m actually fine not having finished.

For anyone reading this, with aspirations of going through this list or something similar, I think it’s a reminder that the journey is not just about completion. There’s something to be said for setting goals (even a dubious one like watching more movies) and then going out and enjoying the experience. I can say resolutely this hobby has given me a great deal of joy, and it continues to do so even as it increases in leaps and bounds.

I hope you join me in the AFI Corner to explore more of these lists. I also hope it’s a reminder that something like these compilations is innately flawed, but they are not an end; instead, they’re a beginning. At least that’s what they were for me, and they can be for all of us. A beginning of community, conversation, and connection. Please join me!

How many movies have you seen from AFI’s 100 Years…100 Movies (10th Anniversary Edition)?

How did you get started watching classic movies? 

Two-Lane Blacktop (1971): Monte Hellman’s Road Movie

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There’s always a certain relish in seeing non-actors given a stake in a film, but whether it’s mere fallacy or not, there’s this sense that they are more like us — there aren’t as many techniques to get in the way of our joint experience. In other words, what they are giving us has a chance of being utterly authentic.

Monte Hellman is a modest maverick of a certain era and because of his content and his approach to it, there’s little question why he has become a cult icon. The Shooting reimagined the West for a Hippie-infused generation that had a bleaker outlook on post-war American. Exceptionalism, as it were, had come and gone leaving a disillusioned remnant behind in the progeny of the WWII or “Greatest” Generation.

These are the young men and women who listened to 93 KHJ on the airwaves in Los Angeles and not only forged Easy Rider but had their very experience catalyzed by the film. It is the same movement that Hellman’s Two-Lane Blacktop captures so seamlessly. It exhibits the gritty, no-frills portraiture of American highways and byways.

Admittedly, the soundtrack of Easy Rider is one for the ages and supremely difficult to even consider surpassing. However, this subsequent road picture might fill in for a fine companion piece, although, for a film featuring two prominent musicians at its center — it is not devoted to its songs.

In other words, it does not function as a soundtrack movie nor a hit parade for a generation. Still, one could argue its images are just as relevant and the malaise captured here pervades many analogous explorations from the era like Easy Rider or even Model Shop.

Two-Lane Blacktop also carries some of the same mythos of an American Graffiti, albeit set up against a contemporary rather than a nostalgic backdrop. Likewise, this is a sprawling road movie, as opposed to a contained small-town vignette.

With it, the characters — the aforementioned non-actors — James Taylor and Dennis Wilson, head East in the never-ending search for a race and some dough to keep them going until they find their next competition.

To his credit, Hellman doesn’t make much of a knowing nod to his stars as world-renowned musicians. They’re just car guys pure and simple, and he leaves it at that. It’s simultaneously blessed by the on-location, sequential shooting and the lack of makeup or other thrills. It maintains this illusion of pure authenticity even as it drifts further and further toward the outskirts of reality.

I didn’t think of it immediately but while this film starts in California, it definitely functions to go other places. Two-lane roads are nothing if not a sign of the vast rolling expanses of Middle America. They crop up a long way away from the 405 freeway.

It’s in spaces where you can really make a nuisance of yourself by either dawdling and holding up everyone behind you or being so revved up you just about blow everyone off the road.

However, it’s also on such adventures you interact not only with all sorts of people but unique places as well that are imbued with a character you cannot fabricate. Gas stations out in the boonies and hitchhikers on the side of the road — when such a custom was still in vogue.

In the case of the driver (James Taylor) and his buddy, the mechanic (Dennis Wilson), they end up toting along a Girl (Laurie Bird) on Route 66, who all but stows away in their car after they make a pit stop at a diner.

Her presence would have been a shock to other more apprehensive characters. They take the minor revelation with nary a blink, much less a long-winded altercation. Because they are the definition of laconic. Casually taking life as it comes and maintaining their greatest passions, which seem to be cars and living life on the road.

They know nothing else. They care about little else. Their life is being lived in the here and now without outside responsibilities or ambitions that reach beyond their current reality. There are hints of the implicit loneliness of the lifestyle, tensions, all the human emotions, but they are never fully realized. They are not necessarily meant to be. Still, it becomes obvious enough a girl can get between men and their passions.

On multiple occasions, the movie is filmed with the backseat camera setups reminiscent of the famed heist scene from Gun Crazy. Of course, this film has little to do with small-time crime but there is a similar intimacy to the space and our relation to these characters. I would stop short of saying we get to know them well, all their inner workings remain obscured, but we do get to spend a lot of time in close proximity. You cannot help but appreciate someone in such circumstances.

Furthermore, while I’m by no means an automobile authority, Two-Lane Blacktop just might be one of the preeminent car movies of all-time with a select company. There is a certain chivalry projected on the art of racing even when it all comes down to burned rubber and who has the most dexterity and guts on the road. There’s also this constant tension between longevity and the inevitable. Things break down and fall apart. Both those things of steel and those of flesh and bone.

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The shaggy-haired driver eventually goads an affluent out-of-towner in a shiny GTO (Warren Oates as an impeccable foil) into a little cross country competition, and he’s prepared to blow these punks out of the water in their souped-up 1955 Chevrolet 150.

What forms is this oddly symbiotic relationship, initially antagonistic, and then somehow morphing into a laid-back camaraderie. Soon they’re helping their adversary along even after momentarily hitching him up with the police.

Some of the best films are capable of literally transporting the viewer to a time or place. There is almost a tactile, visceral quality that puts us right in the moment on the cusp of a new decade and simultaneously still riding the tailpipes of the 60s counterculture.

Haircuts, music, gas stations, Coca-Cola, even the actors do it for us, and the beauty of it all is how unintentional it feels. Hellman may or may not have had the prescience to know people would be watching his film decades later. Regardless, his stripped-down aesthetic is perfectly paired with the era he came to prominence in. It doesn’t feel like there’s so much artifice or smokescreens getting in the way — only exhaust.

Such an experience might take getting used to for some. Although Two-Lane Blacktop has a central driving force, it’s a road movie about cars after all; in commonly attributed cinematic terms it feels lax, observational, and loose in its progressions.

To this day, it’s this very quality helping to solidify it as one of the great road pictures. The trick is allowing for the verisimilitude and space for things to happen. We feel the nomadic yearnings and the deep-seated restlessness present in every frame.

It gives glimpses of something with the hint of reality and yet without pretentiousness or an attempt at verbose commentary. It simply exists and unfurls a story and a world for us to imbibe as an audience. Consequently, it also makes me want to dust off some Beach Boy and James Taylor records. They are the sounds of a generation just as this is a film for a generation.

4/5 Stars

Claire Trevor School of The Arts

Thank you Wonderful World of Cinema and In The Good Old Days of Classic Hollywood for having me in The Claire Trevor Blogathon!

Just this past year I’ve entered a transition period in my life. Often transitions are hard because they signal changes for each and every one of us. For me, that change came with moving back to my home country and finding a new job.

One of the perks of finally settling in and looking around was realizing how classic film lore can follow us wherever we end up. Because it’s true the institution I work at now has quite personal ties with our venerated star Claire Trevor. In fact, due to her patronage and involvement later in life, she has a whole building, nay, a whole department named after her!
That’s some impact. Where to begin?

Thankfully, the Claire Trevor School of The Arts’ website has already done a great deal of the heavy lifting for me when it comes to summarizing her illustrious career. She had quite the remarkable run as a multifaceted entertainer. Many of the names mentioned I’m sure will bring warm feelings of acknowledgment from my fellow classic movie aficionados.
Here is an excerpt from their home page:

Claire Trevor’s acting career spanned more than seven decades and included successes in stage, radio, television and film. She appeared in more than 60 motion pictures with Hollywood’s top leading men, including John Wayne, Humphrey Bogart, Spencer Tracy, Clark Gable, Edward G. Robinson, William Powell and William Holden. Known as the queen of film noir, she often played the hardboiled “blonde” and every conceivable type of “bad girl” role.

A three-time Academy Award nominee, Claire Trevor won the Best Supporting Actress award for her 1948 performance in Key Largo, co-starring with Humphrey Bogart, Edward G. Robinson and Lauren Bacall. In 1956, she won an Emmy Award for Best Live Television Performance by an Actress for Dodsworth, which also starred Fredric March as part of NBC’s Producer’s Showcase. Both awards are prominently displayed at the Claire Trevor Theatre in the School’s Arts Plaza.

In 1948 Ms. Trevor married Hollywood producer Milton Bren and soon after moved to Newport Beach. She retired from acting in 1987. In her last years she spent her time traveling, painting and pursuing philanthropic endeavors. To the School of the Arts, she was a star on-screen and in-person.

In fact, I made a pilgrimage to the Arts school to see if I could find anything else with her footprint. As students milled about going off to their next classes, I broke off and headed toward the theater bearing her name.

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It’s true the two artifacts are very prominently and proudly displayed behind glass for the viewing public. And yet you could walk past them without even knowing they are there (or caring). But this fan was certainly intrigued. I was a foot away from living history.

I tried to snap a picture but sadly the photo evidence just did not do the award justice. The same goes for the other piece of hardware — Ms. Trevor’s Emmy for the production she did of Dodsworth in 1956.

To me, it’s extraordinary these monuments of film history are sitting there right out in the open under our very noses. I’m led to wonder how many people from this current generation have any idea who Claire Trevor is/was? She might just be a donor on a building even as she means so much more to many of us.

Whether it’s because of Key Largo or her other so-called “bad girl” roles in Murder My Sweet or Raw Deal. Maybe you have a fond memory of her playing opposite another fellow Newport Beach local, John Wayne, in Stagecoach, who coincidentally, has an airport named after him.

I must admit I wasn’t able to dig into her involvement with the school much more or figure out if there is any other memorabilia on campus. That might have to be an investigation for another post.

However, if nothing else, I do feel inspired to ask students I may meet — especially art students — if they have any idea who Claire Trevor is. If the answer is no, my response wouldn’t be one of derision but education. Maybe I can help them learn a little bit about this woman who, even in classic film circles is often slightly unheralded.

I’ll finish with this fitting blurb again from the Claire Trevor School of the Arts because they speak to her personal investment in the arts as well as education. Here it is:

She was a passionate advocate of the Arts and Arts education. During the later years of her life – she retired from professional acting in 1987 – Ms. Trevor became involved with the School of the Arts and its students, who came to cherish her attendance at their performances and value the wisdom and professional advice she shared so generously with them.

Ms. Trevor was a frequent visitor to the School, sitting in on rehearsals and interacting with student actors and faculty. She liked getting to know the drama students and seeing their work, according to those who knew her at that time. She often spoke of the important role the Arts had played in her life, and she believed that using one’s imagination to its fullest is necessary in order to live a happy life. She was thrilled to be able to help the School’s students achieve their goals and assist them, in some small way, according to her friends.

According to her stepson Donald Bren, “She was also very impressed with the quality of the students and faculty here, so [her] gift is an appropriate reflection of both her own artistic legacy and her commitment to the artists and performers of the future.”

So if you were ever curious whether or not there was a monument to Claire Trevor, now you know. It’s literally the foundation for generations of new artists and creatives who have been blessed through her own dedication and passion for culture. And that’s regardless of whether they realize it or not. Her legacy is quite an extraordinary one going well beyond her iconic screen career. What’s even more amazing is how it’s still alive and well to this day!

Classic Movie Beginner’s Guide: Montgomery Clift

In our ongoing series, we continue shining a light on classic actors we think more people should get to know. This week our focus is none other than Montgomery Clift!

Monty Clift was one of the unsung champions of a new brand of acting that bridged the gap between the New York stage and the soundstages of Hollywood. Before Marlon Brando, James Dean, and others, Montgomery Clift introduced moviegoing audiences to a new form of intense masculinity paired with a striking vulnerability.

His life was marred by tragedy but instead of dwelling on that let’s celebrate the extraordinary career he forged for himself with some of the great directors of his generation. Here are 4 of his greatest movies with performances to match. 

Red River (1948)

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What’s immediately apparent about Monty Clift is how particular he was about his roles. Because his film debut was nothing short of an instant classic. In this iconic sagebrusher from Howard Hawks, Clift went toe-to-toe with a vengeful John Wayne, playing an adopted son and his father who vie for control of the family herd with startling outcomes. 

The Search (1948)

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Once more Clift aligned himself with an esteemed director — this time Fred Zinnemann — and invested himself in a story with real-world urgency. He plays an American soldier who takes in a young boy orphaned by the war. They strike up a relationship while racing against the clock to reunite him with his kin. The chemistry between the two is beautiful to watch.

A Place in The Sun (1951)

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This is the film that will forever define Clift’s career slotting him opposite a dazzling Elizabeth Taylor in one of her first adult roles. The adaptation of Theodore Dreiser’s An American Tragedy, directed by George Stevens, captures the emotional weight Clift was able to channel into many of his greatest roles. It’s one of the most devastating romances of American film thanks in part to Clift and Taylor.

From Here to Eternity (1953)

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Although I’m led to believe the film is slightly overrated, there’s nothing wrong with Monty who brings his continual range as a troubled soldier on the eve of Pearl Harbor. Though it’s easy for him to get overshadowed by kisses in the waves between Burt Lancaster and Deborah Kerr or the gutsy performance of Frank Sinatra, there’s no question Clift is front and center playing opposite Donna Reed.

Worth Watching

The Heiress, I Confess, The Young Lions, Suddenly Last Summer, Wild River, Judgement at Nuremberg, The Misfits