Winchester 73 (1950): James Stewart The Western Antihero

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Winchester 73 has the initially dubious reputation of being a portmanteau western. Whether or not this is a one-of-a-kind distinction, any number of popular culture vehicles have employed the device in often gimmicky fashion. It makes for a La Ronde-esque sitcom episode in a pinch.

However, this James Stewart-Anthony Mann collaboration succumbs to no such fate. It’s positively stuffed with quality talent and vignettes woven quite closely together. There is a compounding weight to them even as characters both minor and substantial all but stand on their own two feet.

Equally compelling is Anthony Mann’s usual dynamism — continued from his film noir days — and also the very specific mise-en-scene he develops. The opening shot behind the credit is an exquisite first impression with a pair of silhouettes trodding along the ridge in a perfect arc off into the distance. It’s a type of instant exposition in the most primal sense: two men riding toward their unseen destination.

The two strangers sidle into town, the hard-bitten gentleman Linn McAdams (Stewart) and his trusty sidekick (Millard Mitchell), who takes a calculated stance on just about everything. We know they’ve seen a lot of the world together and all sorts of people…

One of them just happens to be Dutch Henry Brown (Stephan McNally, who they happen on in the local watering hole. In another western, guns at the ready, they would have obliterated each other on the spot. However, in this picture, where a fairly obstinate rein of law and order rules, they are forced to bide their time outside the watchful eye of the city limits.

Will Geer does surprisingly well as a wry and affable Wyatt Earp. His characterization is just personal enough to take some of the mystique out of the legend and make him into a real human being we can appreciate in relatable terms.

But these scenes are a mere setup for a whole slew of encounters. It’s as if we lose our characters for a time as McAdams and High-Spade ride along the trail. However, Mann has a lot of fertile material to work with.

It transcends the simple conceit and builds into a genuine story rife with conflict, both personal and circumstantial. The story obliges by rolling over on itself as it continues to introduce new players at its own leisure.

In one roadside establishment, an insouciant horse trader (John McIntire) sits at the table playing solitaire. He sits by ready to play middle man to the Indians emboldened by Crazy Horse’s victory at the Little Bighorn, while gladly supplying Dutch Henry and his cronies desperately-needed weapons of their own.

It just so happens a Winchester becomes a fine bargaining piece. And yet even a secondary character like him is provided subtext. A man like him — a purported half breed — is deemed as an outsider by two nations.

Certainly, the Indians always carry the subjugated and degraded station in the western. Winchester 73 has its own issues assuredly, starting with Rock Hudson playing a Native American. However, the one equalizer is the universal avarice for the Winchester Rifle. Everyone wants it; some even to the point of death.

Other involved parties are a couple fleeing for their lives — a forthright woman with a gleam in her eye (Shelley Winters) and her craven man (Charles Drake). Alongside our heroes, they find some shelter in the company of a cavalry unit pinned down by the same Indians (a youthful Tony Curtis among them). Their leader, a crusty old vet (Jay C. Flippen), is astute enough to take advice from the men around him, and they make a valiant defense of their position to live another day.

It’s about this point in time where a viewer might realize we still have yet to see that perennial sleazy scene-stealer Dan Duryea and he makes his auspicious entrance as his usually snide gunman, the left-handed Waco Johnnie Dean pinned down in a farmhouse with his gang. There’s more hell to pay.

The glorious fact is how the film peaks at so many points. We have the battle over the rifle’s rightful owner in town, first, through competition then treachery. What follows is a Custer-like resistance with far better results, a homestead hostage standoff against authorities, the makings of a bank robbery, and, of course, the ultimate showdown on a craggy rock face.

These moments are easy to acknowledge because they are so prolific but what makes these exclamation points are the very fact the script knocked out by Borden Chase and Robert L. Richards and as executed by the actors and its director, finds the time for conversation, lulls, and lit cigarettes.

By no means does it search out the utterly stylized extremes of Sergio Leone, but it understands the same dramatic gradient. Action means so much more if we have time and space to truly appreciate its impact.

What also matters are the stakes at play. Thankfully, Winchester ’73 makes itself about more than just a gun. A gun is a stand-in and indication of any number of grievances and human vices. It brings out all the issues already in play.

James Stewart was still fairly fresh off WWII. He was a different man from the gee-shucks everyman — more complicated and torn than he had ever been before. The films he made upon his return had yet to truly catch fire until Winchester ’73. It was a portent and signaled a true resurgence for the actor. Joining with the likes of Mann and Hitchcock, he very effectively redefined his image in a fundamentally intriguing way.

He became a man of vengeance with goodness soured by hate and desires tainted by darkness. When you look into his eyes in any of the number of pictures he made with Mann and Hitch, you begin to recognize something else. It’s not unadulterated innocence or even indignance. His eyes now burn with fury and genuine malice. His hands are calloused, comfortable cramming bullets into the stock of his gun. Because he’s not afraid of using it.

Reconsidering the mise-en-scene, it’s a joy to watch how Mann handles shots in such a blistering manner. But there is also a closeness and with it a violent intimacy to his direction. One scene might have a sleepy-eyed cowboy all but stretched out in the foreground as the camera peers over him into a cabin as two men converse.

Then, we have a bar room mauling in the most claustrophobic manner. Foreheads sweating, bodies writhing in palpable pain, and blood-vessels bulging with rage. It’s astounding how the man’s films almost inevitably feature such images and yet, despite their prevalence, I never grow tired of them.

They put many more technical or cashed-out sequences to shame because what is not scrimped on is the very transparent humanity in its most righteous and ugly iterations. Mann understands that there is not only primacy in the images of the West — we often think rolling plains and panoramas — but the western would mean nothing without morality. Hard unyielding codes, or a lack thereof, warring against each other. Where do these originate from if not the hearts and souls of men?

What Winchester ’73 hints at is how even a man like James Stewart can be consumed by demons. Over the course of a film, a story of a mere rifle, repeatedly develops character until it settles on something splitting right to his core identity. The beauty is in how swatches of dialogue, interweaving character arcs, and splashes of light and dark help in illustrating his singular journey.

This was the first in a thoroughly distinguished partnership between the western’s newfound antihero, Stewart, and one of the genres unsung mavericks in Mann. It just might be the best of the batch, which is saying something.

4.5/5 Stars

Operation Petticoat (1959): Blake Edward’s Cheeky Service Sit-Com

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“On a sub you have to operate in close quarters.”

Operation Petticoat positions itself as an easy film to enjoy and a difficult one to love. It’s true Blake Edwards was capable of stirring up breezy even wacky entertainment, from Breakfast at Tiffany’s to The Pink Panther to The Great Race. Even this is only acknowledging a very small subset of his filmography without consideration of the several exemplary dramas he directed.

He was usually aided by fine casts, who could carry the material smartly, and it’s little different here. Cary Grant was hardly ever ruffled nor stretched in his later career, and Operation Petticoat could hardly be considered more than a lark for him. He plays his quietly bemused self — this time a submarine Lt. Commander, who must make the most of a wonky situation following the attack on Pearl Harbor. 

For his part, Tony Curtis is all but at ease as the wheeler-dealer with a touch of sleazy class. Let’s just say he’s got an affinity for the finer things in life and the ladies who can give it to him. It’s generally a delight to see Cary Grant return to a sub after Destination Tokyo, this time joined by Curtis, who looks to be relishing going toe-to-toe and rustling the feathers of his boyhood idol.

Forgiving the shameless pun, without its two stars, the movie would be sunk by mediocrity. If we want to give a slightly backhanded compliment, Operation Petticoat is a fitting precursor to some of the popular sitcoms of the ’60s.

Helping the argument are the presence of Gavin MacLeod, Marian Ross, and Dick Sargent representing, of all things, McHale’s Navy, Happy Days, and Bewitched. And of course, although it transposed the action of a submarine crew to a rural locale, one cannot forget Petticoat Junction.

Like McHale’s Navy, it would be all but impossible to pull off the wartime comedy set in the aftermath of Pearl Harbor if we hadn’t at least won the war. This gives freedom for some creative license and a bit of zaniness sprinkled in with the typical military fare. One must only remember one gag recycled in the TV show, namely, sinking a truck with a torpedo.

Before they can even get afloat, they have to put their belching sub back into working order. The man up for the task is their latest addition Lt. Holden. Though the commander doesn’t relish the idea, he turns the other way and lets his junkman get to work pilfering everything he can get his grubby hands on. He’s able to do what no one else could, securing all the parts (by dubious means) to get them back in commission.

If we want to point out the film’s flaws, it takes about an hour to really churn up some steam by entering the waters of a 50s era rom-com afloat in awkward waters. Because once they get past the fear that the Sea Tiger will fall apart around them, they find their newest conundrum. They are being tasked with accommodating a batch of stranded nurses. It just isn’t done. It isn’t decent. And yet somehow in this film it happens and, subsequently, becomes the source for most of the comedy.

Quite mysteriously, all the shipmen aboard fall ill and need medical attention from the nursing staff. Their commanding officer all but scares them back to perfect health. Holden is all but smitten by bodacious blonde, Dina Merrill, who has the ill-fortune for always falling in love with Mr. Wrong. He’s not exactly the prototypical image of the upstanding, clean-cut boy next door.

Major Heywood (Virginia Gregg) strikes up a boiler room romance with the local fix-it man (Arthur O’Connell) because she proves just as resourceful as he is. He’s forced to mince every small-minded word he ever said about women and washing in his workspace. Commander Sherman is hardly on the lookout for such flings, simply trying to navigate their highly irregular and awkward situation and the perpetual clumsiness of Nurse Crandall (Joan O’Brien).

Between designated shower times for the ladies, the sharing of pajamas between co-eds, and allowing for Lt. Crandall’s curvaceous figure in the tight quarters of the submarine, he gets more than he bargained for, all played for wry comic effect, of course. It’s these later interludes milking the sheer awkwardness that exhibit touches of redolence on par with Pillow Talk or any such brethren. It’s a reason to miss the films of old. Cheeky and more brazen than expected, but mostly good-natured, especially compared to the hypersexualized culture we now live in.

operation petticoat 2.pngVarious scenarios spring to mind of farcical hijinks worthy of McHale’s band of Eight Balls. Prime examples are Holden setting up a supply depot casino to wrangle parts and even resorting to pig-napping to augment their New Year’s festivities. Seaman Hornsby causes quite the stir and in order to hold onto the plump porker, Commander Sherman generously opens up his subordinate’s quarters so a disgruntled native can raid them in recompense. He comes away with a golf bag, tennis rackets, and all the doodads you can imagine.

In another stroke of brilliance, some Einstein has the foresight to mix white paint with the red so they have enough for a new coat. For any of those who passed preschool, that makes — not gray — but pink. When they’re not picking up more passengers and wayward goats, babies are being born in the makeshift ward.

 The most cringe-worthy moment comes when they get caught in the crosshairs of a friendly battleship looking to sink the unidentified, highly irregular submarine. As one last resort, they signal their allies with a trail of women’s undergarments. Surely the Japanese would not resort to the same tactics. 

The resolution to the story is fit for the crowd-pleasing, sunshiny rom-com we’ve been offered. Cary and Tony say a cheering goodbye to their old friend The Sea Tiger, and we get some novel if unsurprising exposition about their love lives. In case you didn’t guess as much, a movie about a pink co-ed submarine is not going to push your brain or the envelope. For the generous viewer, it’s intermittently mirthful and relatively harmless amusement not to be taken too seriously.

3/5 Stars

What I Learned About Peggy Dow

Peggy Dow Helmerich hasn’t been a Hollywood starlet for about 70 years. However, she still delights fans years later in her movies including Harvey, starring Jimmy Stewart in one of his incomparable performances.

I recently took a look back at some of her other movies that saw her starring alongside generational talents like Ida Lupino, Dick Powell, and Arthur Kennedy.

Here are just a few of the fascinating things I picked up along the way. I hope you find them as interesting as I did.

  • She attended Northwestern and was classmates with the likes of Paul Lynde and then Charlton Heston, Patricia Neal, and Cloris Leachman, who were a couple years older.
  • Her name was shortened for the screen from Peggy Josephine Varnadow to Peggy Dow.
  • She was a part of Universal’s class of young players including Tony Curtis, Rock Hudson, and Piper Laurie.
  • When she was in Hollywood she lived in the Hollywood Studio Club, which was created by Mrs. Cecil B. DeMille to help young actresses. Other tenants included Marilyn Monroe and Barbara Rush. 
  • The first car she bought in California was a green Chevrolet hatchback.
  • She was an acquaintance, from her Hollywood days, of Colleen Townsend Evans.
  • She was on the cover of Life Magazine in August of 1950.
  • Along with Joanne Dru, she presented Edith Head with her Oscar at the 1950 Academy Awards.
  • She initially wasn’t too keen on playing a nurse in Harvey since she was slated to play an Indian princess in a western opposite Van Heflin (It was probably Tomahawk).
  • She received an award from Harry S. Truman in Washington D.C. on behalf of the film Bright Victory.
  • She was asked to come back to Hollywood in 1956 to star opposite William Holden in Toward The Unknown where he was set to play a test pilot. She ultimately declined the part.

Until next week, here are some stills from Peggy Dow Helmerich’s films:

Charles Drake and Dow in Harvey

Jesse White, Dow, and Drake in Harvey

Dow with Jimmy Stewart

Dow with Dick Powell in You Can Never Tell

Dow with Arthur Kennedy in Bright Victory

Farley Granger and Dow in I Want You

The best in-depth interview with Mrs. Helmerich can be found in the Voices of Oklahoma from 2009. There are a lot of great details featured if you’re interested.

She also did a lovely telephone interview for the Jimmy Stewart Museum.

For more contemporary newspaper columns, check out the following:

Scott, J. L. (1949, Oct 02). Peggy dow, who scored that way, sees TV as surest gateway to motion picture success. Los Angeles Times (1923-1995) 

HEDDA HOPPER: CONTE AND PEGGY DOW ‘WEB OF CITY’ STARS. (1949, Oct 21). Los Angeles Times (1923-1995) 

REBA AND, B. C. (1950, Jun 08). Peggy dow’s small fry party stresses fun and participation. Los Angeles Times (1923-1995)

Hopper, H. (1950, Dec 10). Peggy dow endows roles with zest and impact. Los Angeles Times (1923-1995)

Schallert, E. (1951, Nov 18). Peggy dow sketches future as she quits hollywood to wed. Los Angeles Times (1923-1995) 

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 copycat 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)

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)

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.

4 Star Films’ Favorite Movies: 21-25

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One of the reasons film is so engaging and fascinating is the discussion that it evokes from all people. Every person, no matter their age or knowledge, can have their own subjective opinion on a film and why they liked it, or better yet why they hated it so much that they wanted to throw up.

But I’m going to cut the discussion short and put my cinematic life on the line by being completely vulnerable with some of my admittedly subjective picks for my favorite movies. Any agreement is highly encouraged. All dissenting opinions will be disregarded without a thought. Enjoy #21-#25 in this ongoing series:

21. It’s a Mad Mad Mad Mad World (1963)

This first title was love at first sight. All the things I love about a great comedy. Completely lacking sophistication and full of hilarious insanity. Also, Mad…World has arguably the greatest ensemble every assembled for one film. Everyone shows up for the party and it’s wonderful. Jonathan Winters was my favorite discovery from this film because he truly was a comic gem of a man.

22. Some Like it Hot (1959)

Jack Lemmon will always and forever be one of my favorite actors. Maybe it’s because he reminds me of my Grandpa because my Grandpa is a funny man. But that’s neither here nor there. Some Like it Hot stems from the genius of Billy Wilder, always ready with a funny storyline (two cross-dressing musicians fleeing Chicago gangsters) and a rapier wit. Of course, there’s Tony Curtis and Marilyn Monroe too, and the Hotel Del Coronado makes a memorable appearance filling in for Florida. Boy, oh boy, am I a boy!

23. The Young Girls of Rochefort (1967)

Now this one might seem kind of random. But I quickly fell in love with the fateful whimsy of Jacques Demy. His love of American musicals is evident with the casting of both Gene Kelly and George Chakiris, but this is also undeniably a French production starring sisters Catherine Deneuve and Francoise Dorleac. Michel Legrand’s music is surprisingly catchy and the fact that the film’s exposition is all given through song intrigued me from the beginning.

24. Laura

Film-Noir became a favorite genre, movement, style (whatever you want to call it) early on and Laura was one of the reasons why. I think I was smitten with Laura (Gene Tierney) much like our protagonists, and the film’s core mystery was gripping in more ways than one. David Raksin’s haunting score adds yet another layer to the drama as does Otto Preminger’s direction through the film’s interiors.

25. To Kill a Mockingbird

By now Harper Lee’s novel and Gregory Peck’s portrayal of Atticus Finch are almost intertwined in my mind, so much so, it becomes difficult to separate the two. And since I loved the book growing up, it’s only fitting that the film adaption would also hold a special place. Its set of sentiment and moral uprightness is hard for me to disregard, even when I’m at my most cynical. Mary Badham does a wonderful job as does Brock Peters — the perfect foils for Peck’s monumental portrayal.

Review: Some Like it Hot (1959)

somelikeithot1Only Billy Wilder would dare to make such a film. Somewhere amidst the St. Valentine’s Day Massacre and men dressed in drag, he could find the inspiration for one of the most high-powered, zaniest, even subversive comedies of all times. There’s very little overstatement in that assertion because Some Like it Hot is all that and most importantly it’s just good unadulterated fun.

It finds its genesis in the Jazz Age of Chicago circa 1929 where gangsters like Spats Colombo (George Raft) are running the streets, the crash hasn’t quite hit yet, and the Dodgers are a long way away from leaving Brooklyn. George Raft takes on a parody role hearkening back to the days of Scarface, but this time, there are a lot of laughs in the wake of his destruction.

Small-time musicians, Joe and Jerry, are living paycheck to paycheck and things aren’t going so hot for them when the authorities raid a not so legitimate establishment. Immediately they high tail it, but they’re not safe for long when they unwittingly stumble upon the St. Valentine’s Day Massacre. They frantically flee the scene of the crime knowing the mobsters will soon be after them and to make matters worse they have no money. What to do? What any desperate pair of musicians would do, dress up as women and join an all-girl ensemble for three glorious weeks in sunny Florida. Sounds ludicrous when Jerry (Jack Lemmon) first drops the idea half-serious, but after the hot water they find themselves in, Jerry (Tony Curtis) takes him up on the masquerade.

somelikeithot2So they pack their bags, do up their faces, and change their voices an octave or so higher. They wobble to the train station on top of their heels as Josephine and Daphne, just what the band leader Sweet Sue ordered and our two effeminate fugitives get aboard for a wild ride indeed.

They soon meet the other gals including the vivaciously scatterbrained Sugar Kane (Marilyn Monroe), who already has a strike against her for getting caught drinking. It looks like bad news for her during a bouncy rendition of the 20s tune “Runnin’ Wild.” Amid the toot-tooting of Josephine’s sax and the bass twirling of Daphne, Daphne also finds time to bail Sugar out. She’s quick to make friends too during an after-hours get-together in her compartment. It’s one of the uproarious moments where Jerry/Daphne must go through the battle of the sexes. He’s so giddy to have so much female company and yet he must maintain his facade. What’s brilliant about Lemmon is he actually seem to genuinely relish his part. Whether it’s his character or not I’m not sure, but he buys into his role especially when it comes to his budding romance, but that comes later.

All things are bright and cheery when they arrive in Florida with palm trees and bachelors galore, all ready and waiting for a little tete-a-tete. One such bachelor is Osgood Fielding (Joe E. Brown), who immediately has his eyes on Daphne. And let the comedic irony and romantic entanglements begin. What follows are two absolutely preposterous tales of romance that crank up the absurdity.

somelikeithot4Joe swipes a sailor’s cap and a pair of glasses while donning his best/worst Cary Grant impression to woo Sugar as an aloof magnate complete with oil fields and a yacht. It’s all part of his plan to win her love, and Daphne views the whole thing disapprovingly, hoping to catch his buddy in the lie. Thus, now Joe has committed himself to two roles and somehow he’s able to keep the plates spinning by borrowing Osgood’s boat for a romantic night with Sugar and using a bicycle to rush back to the hotel and put on the whole Josephine act.

Meanwhile, Jerry gets more and more invested in the whole Daphne performance dodging Osgood’s playful advances, while finally dancing the night away to a killer tango. It’s the diversion Joe needs in his plan to get with Sugar, and he’s succeeding. But Jerry, or should we say Daphne, isn’t doing so bad either. With a flower between her teeth and when she’s not trying to lead, they make quite the couple. Could there be wedding bells?

All that hilarity goes on halt when Spats Colombo and his gang come to town for a conference and the girls avoid suspicion at first, but their nervousness tips the mobsters off. The chase continues and the boys must finally drop the act if they want to get out alive. But Joe delivers one final gesture to Sugar not wanting to ditch her completely. They plan to catch a ride with Osgood who will elope with Daphne. But in a last-ditch effort, Joe finally lets everything drop and breaks all pretenses. It makes for an awkward situation when he gives Sugar a big kiss in front of a full audience, still dressed in drag.

As they get away in the little motorboat, Joe pleads with Sugar not to stick by him, because he really is a bum. But she doesn’t care, does she? He’s Tony Curtis, a Cary Grant type. Now it’s Jerry’s turns as he tries to cook up excuse after excuse why he cannot marry Osgood, and of course every time he’s rebuffed. Finally, in exasperation, he pulls off the wig, loses the voice, and yells, “I’m a man!” Without missing a beat, his beau shoots back, “Well, Nobody’s Perfect.” The look on Lemmon’s face is priceless and this moment is the perfect capstone on one of the wildest films you could ever imagine.

somelikeithot5It’s absolutely astounding that despite all the headaches and troubles Marilyn Monroe brought to the set, including constantly flubbing lines and being generally difficult, her performance bubbles over with a playfully ditsy sensuality that captivates the screen. I for one can hardly ever see the turmoil going on underneath because the role of Sugar is so vibrantly joyful, innocent, and genuinely funny put up next to her great co-stars. Her numbers like “I Wanna Be Loved by You” exude the friskiness that she was known for and there’s no question that Monroe has a magnetism on the screen that was unequivocally her.

Joe E. Brown plays the giddy playboy with devilish hilarity, the perfect comic companion for Lemmon. While Tony Curtis is great, he plays the straight man in the sense, that it feels like he’s just doing this out of necessity. Lemmon is an absolute riot, taking on this role willingly and bubbling over with enthusiasm that is palpable. He has that cackling laugh that adds an exclamation point too many of his conversations and when he starts dancing around with those maracas, shaking his hips, it’s hard not to crack a big goofy smile.

Billy Wilder always had a gift for films with wonderfully entertaining characters and plot lines that poke holes and find humor in modern sensibilities. He gets away with so much by dancing the fine line of what is acceptable for the 1950s and yet he puts it together in such an engaging and uproarious way that it remains a classic. Not just of comedy but of film in general. I’m not ashamed to say that I do like it hot. Although air conditioning is nice every once and awhile.

5/5 Stars

The Defiant Ones (1958)

2672e-defiant_ones_posterStarring Tony Curtis and Sidney Poitier with director Stanley Kramer, the film opens in the pouring rain with a truck full of convicts. It goes off road and no one is hurt except two men escape.  A Sheriff an state policemen begin tracking them on foot. However, this pair is unique since one is the white “Joker” Jackson and the other is a black man named Noah Cullen. Their racial prejudice and conflict of interests causes sparks to fly. Through it all they are forced to work together just to survive, whether it be wading through rapids, climbing out of a ditch, or trying to break their chains.  Along the way they narrowly escape a hanging and they meet a lonely white woman. Jackson is forced to make a decision about his newfound comrade and Cullen in turn also makes a sacrifice of his own. This is such an extraordinary story about racial conflict. Ultimately, they are no longer so much black or white as much as they are fellow men. In an era full of racial tensions, this film was extremely relevant and it is still powerful to this day.

 
4/5 Stars

Winchester ’73 (1950)

2604e-winchester_73_-_1950-_posterStarring James Stewart and directed by Anthony Mann, this western follows the journey a special rifle takes in the old west. Stewart wins it in a competition but it gets stolen soon after. An Indian trader wins it in a card game only to have an Indian take it. Stewart, his pal, get pinned down with some cavalry by the Indians. They survive and the rifle is given to a young man with a girlfriend after Stewart is gone. A treacherous gunslinger coolly kills for it but then gives it up to the original bandit who claims it as his. In a final mountaintop showdown, Stewart faces off with his estranged brother who killed their father. He wins back his rifle and rides back into town to his friends. This is a good western with an interesting storytelling device. It was a surprise to see Will Geer, Rock Hudson, and Tony Curtis as unknowns.

4.5/5 Stars

Some Like it Hot (1959)

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Often considered one of the greatest comedies of all time, this film is certainly hilarious and special. This was one of Marilyn Monroe’s best performances, and her costars were absolutely brilliant. As far as humor goes it cannot get much zanier and crazier than this.

*May Contain Spoilers

In this Billy Wilder directed comedy, Tony Curtis, Jack Lemmon, and of course, Marilyn Monroe teamed up in making a great movie. In the era of Chicago gangsters, two male musicians witness a shooting that they wish they had not. In order to escape, they join a traveling band. The only catch is that it’s an all-women group, and so they get dressed up to win the job.

The rest of the film follows their crazy cross-dressing antics with the band as they spend their time at a beach resort in Florida. It includes two tremendous love stories on completely different ends of the spectrum! One involving a wealthy young yacht owner and Sugar. The other involving Daphne and well…The movie was filmed in black and white to camouflage all the makeup but as you will find out no movie’s perfect! However, the script from Billy Wilder as well as Lemmon’s performance are the real attraction to keep an eye out for.

Watching this film certainly gave me tremendous respect for the writing. The double talk between Josephine and Daphne is great. There is tremendous comedic irony, and some of the sequences are downright hilarious. First and foremost, I think Jack Lemmon is a wonderfully funny man, but he plays so well off of Tony Curtis, Marilyn Monroe, and Joe E. Brown. The basic concept of male musicians masquerading as women was a good idea, but I think these actors with Wilder’s directing really made it work well.

The juxtaposition of the two love stories is important too because you could call Some Like it Hot a romance or even a crime-drama initially, but above all, it is unabashedly a comedy. All you need to see is Jack Lemmon with maracas or hear the last line of the film and that remains completely evident.

It was fun to finally see the  Hotel Del Coronado, as I thought to myself that this is where some of the film was shot. Tony Curtis even spoke those four eponymous words on the same beach over 50 years ago now. It may be over 50 years later, but in my mind this film is timeless. I could not help but think of Jack Lemmon’s line as I reclined on the beach, “I’m a boy. I’m a boy. I wish I were dead. I’m a boy. Boy, oh boy, am I a boy.” Hopefully, I never run into the same problems they did.

“Syncopators. Does that mean you play that very fast music…jazz?”
“Yeah. Real hot.”
“I guess some like it hot. I personally prefer classical music.”
~Tony Curtis to Marilyn Monroe

5/5 Stars

Spartacus (1960)

91a01-spartacus_sheetaIn this epic film starring Kirk Douglas and directed by Stanley Kubrick, a slave turned gladiator leads a revolt against the Roman empire. Spartacus leads his fellow plebeians in a sacking and burning of the countryside while slowly gaining followers. Along the way he is reunited with his love (Jean Simmons). However, soon all hope of triumph or escape is gone and Spartacus must face the Roman legions in one final battle. Utterly overwhelmed by the other forces, his followers are slaughtered and taken prisoner. With all hope gone he must kill his friend (Tony Curtis) and then face death himself by crucifixion. But all is not lost because his wife and child do get away allowing his legacy to remain. Overall this film is good but it does have flaws, one of them being the casting of Tony Curtis with his New York accent. Laurence Olivier, Charles Laughton, and Peter Ustinov all have important roles in this film as well.

5/5 Stars