Classic Movie Beginner’s Guide: Kim Novak

In our ongoing series of guides for up-and-coming classic movie fans, we turn our attention to one of the most alluring and iconic actresses from the Classic Hollywood period.

Kim Novak, who is still alive and well today, started out in her early 20s as an answer to Marilyn Monroe, while soon developing her own image as a husky-voiced, sultry siren. She played opposite some of the biggest stars of her day. Unfortunately, her own talents are often dismissed in light of her looks, and she eventually left Hollywood to live a far more secluded life.

Picnic (1955)

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Kim Novak garnered attention for her self-assured work in the film noir Pushover and a playful bit in Pfft. However, one of her most iconic roles thereafter came with Picnic opposite William Holden. The Kansas heat whips up a passionate romance between a teenage prom queen and an out-of-town drifter. Their dance together to “Moonglow” is one of the movie’s magical moments.

The Man With The Golden Arm (1955)

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There’s no doubt this is Frank Sinatra’s picture and a darn good one too as he plays a relapsing druggie struggling to get the monkey off his back. As all the street graft enable him and his disabled wife nags him, it’s the local waitress in Novak who gives him the tough love he genuinely deserves. They would costar again in Pal Joey with more tepid results.

Vertigo (1958)

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This is the big one. The one that will cement Kim Novak’s legacy for the ages thanks to Alfred Hitchcock’s obsessive vision and Bernard Hermann’s mesmerizing score, turning her into a spectral beauty haunting the streets of San Francisco. Everything from her wardrobe to her posturing makes her dual role as Madeleine and Judy pitch-perfect. If you want something lighter, try Bell, Book, and Candle from the same year, also starring James Stewart

Middle of The Night (1959)

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Kim Novak’s performances are generally overshadowed if not completely neglected. She is, after all, remembered as a glamour girl. However, in a film like Middle of The Night with a heart-wrenching premise and a craftsman like Paddy Chayefsky, she stretches herself opposite Frederic March playing an unorthodox couple trying to weather societal peer pressure. It’s probably her most vulnerable, most devastating performance.

Worth Watching

Strangers When We Meet, Boys Night Out, Kiss Me Stupid, etc.

 

Stranger Than Paradise (1984) and Jim Jarmusch

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One of the most revelatory aspects about becoming more familiar with Jim Jarmusch is how international his films are. At the very least, there’s this sense of them putting a lens to a broader cross-section of society.

He is unequivocally American, but whether it’s because he’s a cineaste or driven to a global perspective through music or other interests, he paints with a canvass broader than simply the American experience. He also seems to understand the American experience is framed and colored by those who come to us. In fact, we are a melting pot, as Alexis de Tocqueville once noted, made up of all nations.

As a storyteller, Jarmusch seems drawn to what I’ve heard termed the “mearcstapa” — the border walkers — people on the outskirts. They could be expatriates, foreigners, or people who simply conceive of the world in a different manner than you and me. Although the term is recontextualized from its Medieval connotations, it does take on renewed meaning. In the case of Stranger Than Paradise, it’s a visitor from Hungary.

But if any of this dialogue runs the risk of making the story sound too rarified, rest assured, it is far from that. It’s a picture content in the simplest of moments. The plot as it were is born out of a statement. Eddie (John Lurie) has a cousin arriving and visiting him from Hungary. That’s it right there.

He feels put upon having her stay with him. He doesn’t show her the town. He doesn’t give her food. He’s the most inhospitable person in the world. But then again look at his life. He subsists off TV dinners and beer.

His only friend is Eddie, a shifty-eyed, flighty fellow who’s half-witted in a lovable kind of way. They spend time watching football, playing cards, drinking beer, or going to the races. That’s just about all they ever do. And it hardly changes with the addition of Eva.

Still, what the movie exudes resolutely is a style and an aesthetic, forming something more substantial than the sum of its modest parts. Because it’s certainly humble, and the antithesis of flamboyant production values, and yet it manages to supersede the simple nature of what is happening onscreen.

Take, for instance, the sequence where Eva is walking down the streets with her suitcases in hand to the tune of “I Put a Spell on You.” Screamin’ Jay Hawkins rumbles across the pavement, and it’s oddly mesmerizing.

Pairing this with the black and white cinematography, dominating the film with a dreary, dilapidatedness leaves a startling impression. It’s both the prevailing sense of the world and somehow complementary to the budget and resources he’s working with.

I am reminded of the early films of Rainer Werner Fassbinder because there is the sense of almost two-dimensional space in many of the scenes — simple but purposefully done. In the case of Jarmusch, there are hardly any cuts, with the shots put end-to-end and void of any other type of true editing. It’s the simplest form, really, cut together by way of black inserted between the sequences.

You could point out Jarmusch is making a kind of glorified short film, and that’s how the narrative began sticking the footage together in three segments. But the black in-between the visuals also function as a kind of ellipsis.

Because pretty soon Willie and Eddy get up and go from Brooklyn and road trip it out to Cleveland. Why? Because Eva’s there. She is a fellow sojourner, and so they take to the road in order to catch up with her. In one of his typically dorky observations, Eddie tells his buddy, “Before I met your cousin, I didn’t know you were from Hungary or Budapest or any of those places. I thought you were an American.”

Pretty soon they’re staying with the Aunt and back to watching TV and playing card games. Shooting the bull and chewing the fat like they always do wherever they go. Even miles away in the icy tundra of the Midwest they realize, “You come someplace new and everything looks the same.” Restless for some meaningful experience, they head off to sun-soaked Florida to seek something else.

Finally, there’s some action, albeit off-screen and pretty much only alluded to. The boys lose all their dough at the dog races. In her own absurd turn of events, Eva winds up with a mother lode in drugs. That could be a whole rabbit hole all to its own. Instead, they take a trip to the airport to set up another adventure…undoubtedly just as absurd as the last.

It might not seem like much, but that’s the entire charm of Jarmusch’s movie; he’s so very comfortable bending away from Hollywood convention. Where location shooting becomes more of an in-joke than of a particular commodity and characters and story are more likely conduits of style. In fact, to this day, he’s made a career out of it.

Now, Stranger Than Paradise feels a bit like Richard Linklater’s Slacker. They played as important catalysts for subsequent generations of filmmakers because they were unique and of their own time with their own vision. And part of their merit is having done it first — using the world at their disposal and creating something that stays with us however mundane and unadorned.

Part of the paradoxical charm of Stranger Than Paradise is how you could conceivably make a movie like it, and yet you couldn’t ever match its essence because Jim Jarmusch made it just so — distinctly individual and measured to his own personal liking. That’s what it has going for it even to this day. It’s unmistakably him.

3.5/5 Stars

Johnny Eager (1941): Taylor and Turner Spark Dynamite

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“Are you thinking of allowing her to play Roxanne to your Cyrano?” – Van Hefflin to Robert Taylor

Pretty faces don’t always add up to a quality movie and if you want to find where the faults lie, you might look between the players and the script then split the difference. Johnny Eager has all the Classic Hollywood trappings that very well could have made it dead on arrival — especially years later.

Because our protagonist has a name that only exists in the movies (or Hollywood for that matter). He’s a gangster from the old days formerly clad in the finest of threads and raking in the dough. To this day, he’s unrepentant or at least blatantly honest about how he feels; he’s no chump, even despite a stint he did behind bars.

Now he’s on the outside on parole making a go at propriety as a cabby. After this preliminary bit of eye-opening exposition, the story has all but telegraphed its intentions, really no fault of its own. It doesn’t take much imagination to put a reformed Robert Taylor and a curious young sociology debutant like Lana Turner together.

They meet through his parole officer: a white-haired, benevolent picture of authority. He seems to believe every man is capable of reform and human goodness if only given a chance. His secretary, on the other hand, gives Johnny the stink eye. Lisbeth Bard can hardly take her eyes off of him.

Of course, none of this is on the level because Johnny is busy getting into his old rackets, including an ambitious plan to resurrect the Alongonquin dog races to make a killing out of it. Simultaneously, he’s double-dealing, getting his sister and bratty niece to masquerade as his alibi. They’re nicely compensated of course to play up a squeaky clean picture of domesticity.

One has to laugh. The authorities must be idiots and Johnny accordingly plays them for fools. He’s a modern-day Machiavelli and this combination of authority, guile, strength, and charm makes Johnny Eager come off a bit more significant than a walking caricature.

It’s true Taylor had caught ahold of something in his career and whether or not he was considered a negligent actor and merely a pretty face, he brings a definite machismo to the screen more than capable of knocking off everyone else around him. He’s without a doubt the center of the action despite the plethora of scene stealers around him.

But one cannot forget the diffident school girl played by Turner, quoting Cyrano de Bergerac and sporting a hat to beat them all. What overtakes her exactly? Is it some compulsion to flirt to convert a wayward soul? Is it simply yearning passion? Whatever the reason, the film is full of “inamorata” — men and women lovers.

Not least among them is Van Hefflin who’s quite the educated fellow, quick and rich on the prose, especially when he’s soused with liquor. Jeb is Johnny’s most faithful friend for reasons the movie never puts to words. But whereas everyone else is either a hired ally, a paid stooge, or an easy rival, Jeb stays by him because he has no one else.

The film is at its most engaging tracing the lines and mixing its reference points between literate dames and men pontificating with a grandiloquent verbosity while the thugs rattle off their own barb-wire jargon prickling the ears. They tumble around inside the head as the most unrealistic and simultaneously peculiar cocktail of discordant voices.

Hefflin does very little compared to the other forthcoming gruff, garble-mouthed, shifty-eyed types, and yet he doesn’t need to because the words flowing off his lips play like riffs off the rest of the film. He seems to relish every soliloquy he gets to run off, and it definitely leaves an overall impression.

But the real fire is between Taylor and Turner for as long as they get on screen together. Aside from Johnny’s clandestine activity, Lisbeth Bard’s step-father happens to be a crucial man. Edward Arnold aptly plays the domineering and vengeful district attorney, who just so happens to be situated in the most convenient place in the movie. He helped put Eager away in the penitentiary as a service to the public. Now Johnny’s looking to stick it to him with Lisbeth implicated in his own crimes.

Could it be he never loved her at all? It always functioned as business over love? Regardless of his motives, enemies become accomplices as he leverages his new position to open up the long-dormant dog racing track. Everyone across the board has got an angle. What sets Johnny apart is his self-serving shrewdness, never blinded by sentimentalities such as sacrificial love, grace, or a guilty conscience.

Meanwhile, Lisabeth is overtaken by mental frailty and paranoia. She’s not bred for the cutthroat gangster’s life like Johnny. Her tragic hysteria forces him into a type of hero’s choice. It’s what all Hollywood movies ask of their protagonists. Something is required of them in the end.

In its day, Johnny Eager was a stirling success, and if history is any indication, it might have one of the most tragic days in American history to thank. It premiered in Los Angeles on December 9th, 1941. For those keeping tabs, this is two days after Pearl Harbor.

It heightens the dramatics just enough to bring out of the realm of reality and into the spaces of escapism. Where illicit romance can shoot off like fireworks on the screen between two scintillating specimens like Taylor and Turner. They were TNT as the contemporary advertisements so aptly framed it. They were the eye candy; they were the distraction to take the masses away from the tragedy right outside those cinema doors.

In a short time, the movies would be acting as a comment on the world at-large and the war at-large with propaganda machines spinning on all cylinders. For now, they still act as a counterpoint saying something about the state of a nation by not saying anything at all.

The story ends in a somewhat comforting manner, ultimately capping off with a Hollywood moralism that made sense, creating heroes out of gangsters far away from the chaos of sneak attacks and brazen days of infamy. It just goes to show life is more ambiguous and thus more complex than a movie.

3.5/5 Stars

Merrily We Go to Hell (1932): Directed by Dorothy Arzner

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Bubbly is flowing and the gaiety abounds. Alcohol is not an evil, just a tonic to loosen morals, tongues, and dour countenances. When Joan Prentice encounters Jerry Corbett for the first time at a party, she’s immediately taken with him. He’s a few drinks in and has let the merriment overtake him. It comes off charming if a bit dopey.

Merrily We Go to Hell feels like a provocative title, and it’s true this alcohol-drenched drama is a predecessor to the likes of The Lost Weekend and Days of Wine and Roses.

Sylvia Sidney is about as winsomely sweet as she ever was and ever could be playing a socialite at a party. Frederic March has momentary glimpses of warmth and allure, though it’s hardly his finest hour on the screen. However, it is a testament to how phenomenal his career was at points, and even a picture like this seems to suggest how often he is an underappreciated star of Classic Holldywood.

There’s also a third far more surprising presence in the movie filling what might be considered a minor bit part. Cary Grant is all there, but it’s a bit like seeing John Wayne in Baby Face or James Stewart in Wife vs. Secretary. We’re there but not quite there when it comes to their career trajectory. He still needed to meet Mae West and then Leo McCarey to really get the wheels rolling, thus entering the stratosphere of quintessential screwball suavity.

As it settles in, Dorothy Arzner’s picture is all for hitting the journalistic beats contemporary to the day and age. It’s a perfect arena for modern, capitalistic America. An arena of vocation, class, and in this case, alcohol. One easily recalls Platinum Blonde though March, despite all his able acting prowess somehow cannot muster the same fitting charisma Robert Williams managed as a newshound. The former performer lent almost a screwball sensibility to Frank Capra’s picture.

It’s the same kind of affable charm that made Jack Lemmon so effective even as he dipped into similar depths of hell in Days of Wine and Roses. But back to Platinum Blonde. It’s hard not to see the earlier movie’s imprint being reworked within this material (even unconsciously) with less handsome results. Because some of the same dynamics are present. We have a lead infatuated by a platinum blonde (Adrienne Allen) and then opposite him is the endearing “other girl” we know full well will actually win out his heart. At least, in theory.

And if that isn’t enough, both newsmen dabble in playwriting, suggesting the menial pavement-pounding, all for the sake of making a buck, giving way to a higher calling of art and patronage. It handily reflects rungs in the social ladder to mirror contemporary society, as the film’s of the Depression-era all have a habit of doing. Obviously, they can’t help it. This is their world.

However, in Merrily We Go To Hell, playwriting holds a more substantial role aside from being a narrative device for the sake of parallelism. It brings Jerry Corbett the highs and lows of such a career while throwing him back together with his former flame, the glamorous thespian Claire Hempstead. The scenario feels rudimentary and mediocre going through these typical dramatic progressions.

Before it becomes complicated, the film is a basic love story of the lowly working stiff smitten with the heiress, although not for money’s sake. As it predictably dips into drunken stupors, strained relations, and infidelity, the film actually loses some ground. Corbett rounds up his chums, partakes of some merriment, and resigns himself to the platinum blonde rival. In an act of preservation more than rebellion, his wife deflects by digging up her own beau (hence Cary Grant) in an attempt to be equally “modern.”

What resonates most fundamentally are some of the more curious shot selections by Arzner. She certainly manipulates the camera and the images in such a way we are aware of them as an audience, whether through early forms of product placement or a curious rear-view of two men sauntering through a mansion. It feels sporadically alive with invention and a very particular vision, even as it spirals toward an unimaginative soap opera denouement. The accompanying  Pre-Code elements are there, but the picture doesn’t entirely douse itself and drown in the melodrama.

This proves to be a key because any such digression could have been its final death. Instead, the sense of restraint and understatement proves a far more powerful tool of storytelling. It subtly undermines stock Pre-Code sordidness for something nominally more intriguing. This nor the actors, totally save the movie, but they keep it from completely sinking. More people are finally starting to talk about Arzner, and Merry We Go to Hell feels like a worthy touchstone in her career.

3/5 Stars

Classic Movie Beginner’s Guide: 60s Spy Spoofs

As part of our efforts to cater to up-and-coming classic movie fans, here’s our latest installment to our classic movie beginner’s guides.

In appreciation of the James Bond franchise and the newest installment that will hopefully still be released early next year, we thought it would be fitting to highlight four spy spoofs that had as much fun with the genre as their inspiration, if not more so!

While we’re partial to Don Adams’ Get Smart on the small screen (or The Man from U.N.C.L.E), here are four franchises to consider if you’re interested in the spy fad of the 1960s. Here we go!

Fantomas (1964)

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France’s answer to the Bond craze came with retrofitting a national comic book hero and supervillain for the ’60s. The blue-faced mastermind Fantomas (Jean Marais) is constantly avoiding capture by the bumbling Inspector (played by comedy’s best-kept secret Louis De Funes). Thankfully, he has the help of an intrepid journalist (also played by Marais). Two more installments would follow.

Our Man Flint (1966)

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Not to be outdone by his compatriots, James Coburn also got his chance to be a top-class secret agent named Derek Flint, who fits all the parameters of a world-renowned spy, including playmates, gadgetry, and continual globetrotting. His travels bring him in contact with a deadly adversary (Gila Golan) and the nefarious Galaxy! One more Flint film with Coburn would follow.

The Silencers (1966)

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Dean Martin is no one’s idea of a James Bond (a drunk one maybe), but his good-natured persona and womanizing ways make him the best off-beat answer to Bond as impregnable agent Matt Helm, also based off some serialized literature. It’s campy, low-grade spy spoofing at its best (or worst?). A bevy of sequels came out in rapid succession.

Casino Royale (1967)

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Definitely not to be confused with Eva Green and Daniel Craig’s iteration, this is the most unwieldy and extravagant of all the spoofs. The cast is absolutely stuffed with big names, and it really is an excuse to roll out the talent. Everyone from David Niven, Peter Sellers, and Ursula Andress masquerade as the incomparable Bond. The best thing to come out of the movie might be “The Look of Love,” but there are lots of memorable cameos.

What other classic Bond or spy spoofs would you recommend?

Classic Movie Beginner’s Guide: Gene Kelly

As the site takes a look at some of Classic Hollywood’s most prominent musicals, it seemed like an auspicious occasion to focus on some of the most well-regarded performers of the era.

For our latest beginner’s guide, we look at Gene Kelly, the man who combined his muscular athleticism with graceful hoofing to transform the movie musical like never before. He would become the greatest hoofer since Fred Astaire and then ultimately enter movie immortality alongside his idol. Here are some of his greatest films well-worth checking out.

On The Town (1949)

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While Gene Kelly isn’t quite calling the shots, he’s front and center in this MGM extravaganza alongside the likes of Frank Sinatra, Vera-Ellen, and Ann Miller, just to name a few. Regardless, it’s an exuberant offering showcasing much of the magic and music that made the studio’s musicals so popular.

An American in Paris (1951)

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Paired with the glorious mise en scene of Vincente Minnelli, Gene Kelly tapped his affections for France and showcased the waifish talents of Leslie Caron to envision one of the finest achievements of his career. Between the music of the Gershwins and his top-class dancing, he makes the dreamy final third of An American in Paris into pure cinema.

Singin in The Rain (1952)

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If there was ever a benchmark for what the Hollywood movie musical could be, it’s encapsulated by Singin’ in the Rain. It boasts so much quality from Debbie Reynolds and Donald O’Connor to commentary on the silent era to sterling direction by Stanley Donen. All you need is Kelly’s tour de force in the rain to understand what makes this movie transcendent. It’s emotion personified.

Always Fair Weather (1955)

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This one is a bit of an oddity reflecting signs of the changing film landscape. Yet Gene Kelly still shows his prowess with a particularly thrilling dance on roller skates. Likewise, the story blends a post-war commentary with a satire of modern media which proves surprisingly lucid. Regardless, it was the beginning of the end of the musical’s golden years.

Worth Watching

For Me and My Gal, Cover Girl, Anchors Aweigh, The Three Musketeers, Take Me Out To The Ballgame, Summer Stock, Brigadoon, Les Girls, Inherit The Wind, The Young Girls of Rochefort, and more.

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…

butch cassidy and sundance

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.

Hail The Conquering Hero (1944)

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?