Classic Movie Beginner’s Guide: Beach Party Movies

In our ongoing series, we’ve turned our focus to a specific person or genre we want to try and shine a light on. Today our topic is summer-themed.

While it’s not exactly a venerated subgenre, the beach party movies are enjoyable nonetheless for evoking the surf craze and the teen beach culture of the 1960s. What they brought together was youth trends of the era from fashion to music and heartthrobs like Frankie Avalon and Annette Funicello.

Although there are too many knockoffs and offshoots even to begin cataloging them all, here are 4 titles to consider if you want to dip your toe in.

Where The Boys Are (1960)

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While there were earlier pictures like Gidget (1959) and there were plenty of copy cat films like Palm Springs Weekend, Where The Boys Are bottles up a lot of the charm that makes these classics a guilty pleasure. The cast is packed with the likes of Dolores Hart, George Hamilton, Paula Prentiss, Jim Hutton, and Frank Gorshin. And with Connie Francis singing the title tune it’s too much fun to refuse.

Ride The Wild Surf (1964)

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It doesn’t get much better than the title track sung by surf sound icons Jan & Dean. The cast is another ensemble of teen idol who’s who, including Tab Hunter, Shelley Fabares, Fabian, and Barbara Eden. The exploits of real-time shredding pro Miki Dora were also featured in the place of corny back projection.

Beach Blanket Bingo (1965)

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There would be no sub-genre without AIP’s series including the likes of Beach Party and the highly original follow-up Muscle Beach Party. While they stuck to much of the same formula (and essentially the same plotline), the charisma of Frankie and Annette, buoyed by hip music, campy antics, and crazy adults, provides more than enough diversions for a summer night shindig.

Don’t Make Waves (1967)

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While it’s not as well-remembered and near the tail-end of the cycle, the cast is quite spectacular. Tony Curtis. Claudia Cardinale. And Sharon Tate appears in her first prominent film role. It’s got more than enough in the form of landslides, bodybuilding, sky diving, and most certainly romantic entanglement to easily fit the bill of a Beach Party movie.

AFI Corner: Villains #30 Travis Bickle

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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.

The first time I ever saw Taxi Driver — owing partially to AFI’s list of heroes and villains and my own naivete at the time — I think I legitimately did think of Travis Bickle as a villain. At least he was a volatile human being I didn’t know what to do with. He unnerved me in a sense. Hence, villainy. It makes it a lot easier to categorize him in such a way because it makes it unnecessary to consider his character in more complicated terms.

However, over subsequent viewings and as I’ve grown as a person, my thoughts on Travis have evolved even a little bit. Sure, there still is the same knee-jerk reaction to his brand of vigilantism that goes to the extreme. And yet I look at him, his genuine desire to clean up the revolting streets, his sense of compulsion to protect Jodie Foster’s character — how do you come to terms with him?

These are not bad desires per se, but they get twisted over the course of the movie. By the time of his dream-like ascension, the angst of this cabbie and Vietnam vet has taken him off the proverbial deep-end.

The final scenes of Taxi Driver — even the ones leading up to the climax — and following thereafter, do not make me angry at Travis. On the contrary, I pity him and question what kind of world we live where someone can come to believe that they are a hero in their little world of self-delusion. And yet it doesn’t end simply there. Something more exists. For even the briefest of moments I think and question: Is there someone or something like Travis Bickle inside myself?

After all, if he started from a place of genuine altruism, what about me?  I can be, at times, petty and self-serving on my worst days (or even some of my better ones). You never set out to be a villain. Sometimes it just happens due to the proclivities of human nature and how we are wired.

So, on a good day is Travis a hero and on a bad day, a villain? I’m not sure if it’s as easy as that. But I would like to slightly push back against the villain title. I think what drew Paul Schrader, Martin Scorsese, and Robert De Niro toward the character was this inherent sense of the everyman ambiguity.

He could be any of us. The character is a barometer of the times and a culture coming to terms with the times. Even as De Niro leers into the mirror gruffly yelling, “You talking to me?” he’s not just calling out to his own reflection. We are all in his place. It’s yet to be known how we respond. That’s what makes it one of the most memorable characterizations of the 1970s. As much as I don’t want to admit it, Travis spells out the best and worst about us.

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?

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? 

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, Wild River, Judgement at Nuremberg, The Misfits, Freud: The Secret Passion.

Classic Movie Beginner’s Guide: Alfred Hitchcock

This series is meant to help fledgling classic movie fans grab hold of a few titles they should watch. Instead of trying to be comprehensive, I want to try and make the discovery manageable with only 4 films.

Let’s begin with one of the most universally beloved directors of all time, “The Master of Suspense” himself: Alfred Hitchcock.

He began his career in silent film and made a name himself with a bunch of early British thrillers in the 1930s. After transitioning to Hollywood in 1940, his career took off and by the 1950s he was one of the most widely-known directors in the world.

Here are a few films to get you started!

Notorious (1946)

Classic Movie Beginner's Guide: Alfred Hitchcock

It kills me to leave off so much early Hitchcock. The Lady Vanishes, Rebecca, Foreign Correspondent, Shadow of a Doubt. You should go watch them all. But Notorious, starring Cary Grant and Ingrid Bergman, is arguably one of his finest romantic thrillers. It’s masterful.

Rear Window (1954)

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I know, I know. It’s quite a big jump but this is also the quintessential Hitchcock movie (at least in my humble opinion). James Stewart and Grace Kelly. Limited space and a harrowing murder plot. This film is a textbook example of how to create tension. There’s so much here worth talking about. I’ll leave it at that.

If you like it, check out Vertigo and The Man Who Knew Too Much remake (with Stewart) and Dial M for Murder and To Catch a Thief (with Kelly).

North By Northwest (1959)

It didn’t earn its nickname as the most epic man-on-the-run Hitchcock movie for nothing. Between crop dusters and Mt. Rushmore, Cary Grant and Eva Marie Saint, this one is an absolute blast of thrilling exhilaration. For bonus points, see how it reworks themes of Hitch’s earlier masterwork The 39 Steps.

Psycho (1960)

Here we are. The one everyone will forever associate with Hitchcock and showers everywhere. And Norman Bates. And his mother. Anyway, it’s another technical masterpiece in manipulation. It rewrote the books on modern horror and still packs a psychotic punch. Pun intended.

Worth Watching:

Let’s make this easy and say all of them. And for the record, I realize I left out Vertigo. Go watch it.

Classic Movie Beginner’s Guide: Gregory Peck

We want to try something a bit different at 4 Star Films. Most of what we put out are film reviews. As the years have gone by, they’ve gotten quite hefty. Frankly, they’re what I get the most joy out of writing.

But I thought it would be a welcomed addition to help other nascent film fans out with some Beginner’s Guides to introduce Classic Hollywood actors, directors, etc.

We will introduce 4 films that we enjoyed (both big and small) while referencing others throughout. Hopefully, this combination of titles will provide ample rabbit holes to jump down and be on your way. This week our topic is none other than Gregory Peck!

Keys to The Kingdom (1944)

Gregory Peck was a founding member of The La Jolla Playhouse but he took his stage acting to Hollywood and quickly became a formidable new leading man. Some of his early performances in the likes of Spellbound, Valley of Decision, and The Yearling show the breadth of his talent and the candor that would make him a star for decades. Keys to The Kingdom uses him quite well as a missionary to China who strives to live out a life of loving his neighbor in a world straining with discord.

The Gunfighter (1950)

Due to his commanding presence and imposing voice, Gregory Peck fashioned himself into quite the western hero in his own right. He could play heroes (The Big Country), he could play villains (Duel in the Sun, Yellow Sky), and he could ride somewhere in-between (The Bravados). However, he arguably had no better opportunity than his performance as a jaded gunfighter turned into a sideshow attraction.

Roman Holiday (1953)

Yes, it made Audrey Hepburn a star. Yes, it’s a quintessential romantic comedy. Yes, Rome has never looked better but Gregory Peck also made a valiant go at comedy and did quite well thanks to the chemistry with Hepburn and Eddie Albert. Designing Woman (with Lauren Bacall) nor Arabesque (with Sophia Loren) were quite as spectacular, but the star power is still worth coming out for.

To Kill a Mockingbird (1962)

If there’s one synonymous role for Peck, it’s Atticus Finch from To Kill a Mockingbird. And I’m pretty sure he’d be proud to acknowledge it as one of his finest achievements of integrity. Times have changed. Perceptions of To Kill a Mockingbird‘s narrative are more complicated, but Peck’s performance cannot be understated. The rapport he built with the likes of Mary Badham is undeniable.

Worth Watching:

Twelve O’Clock High, Captain Horatio Hornblower, Moby Dick, On The Beach, Pork Chop Hill, Guns of Navarone, Cape Fear, Mirage, etc.