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Note: silent films are on another list.
The Facts of Life (1960)
Lucille Ball and Bob Hope star in "Brief Encounter with Laughs".
Directed by Melvin Frank and written by Frank with Norman Panama, "The Facts of Life" is an adult love story that will surprise you. Frank & Panama are Bob Hope experts, multiple Oscar nominees and the creators of such classic comedies as "The Court Jester" and "Mr. Blandings Builds His Dream House".
Kitty Weaver and Larry Gilbert are two perfectly nice suburbanites. If Kitty's husband (Don DeFore) seems a little preoccupied with work and his gambling habit, and Larry's wife (Ruth Hussey) a little too caught up with the kids - well, that's life. They have no thought of straying. They certainly have no thought of straying toward each other. However, Fate (in that way of hers) forces these two perfectly nice people to spend time together. Kitty discovers that "the jerk who tells the lousy jokes at the country club" is a genuinely warm and funny fellow. Larry sees a softer side to that stuck up Kitty. Love blossoms with the added complications of vows and conscience.
How Larry and Kitty deal with their feelings, their need to be together and the realities of their lives is played out in a frank, touching and very funny manner. It is wonderful to see two actors who happen to be bona fide comic geniuses working together in such perfect sympathy. The humour of character and situation also involves some gut grabbing slapstick, and some quiet moments that will make you smile or sigh a sentimental sigh for two perfectly nice people.
Nothing But a Man (1964)
An American Classic
A rootless young track worker (Ivan Dixon) finds what he didn't know he needed when he meets a young teacher (Abbey Lincoln). Conflicted by past choices and examples, romance and responsibility begin a period of growth, change and understanding. Life does not play easy with the young couple, especially life in the American south at the beginning of the Civil Rights Movement.
A lovingly crafted film by Michael Roemer and Robert Young with a naturalistic and documentary feel. Specific to its time and place, yet universal in the undeniable truth that humans can but react to how they are treated. Outstanding American classic.
A wonderful ensemble piece
"Quartet" is the filmization of Ronald Harwood's 1999 play with the screenplay by the author. The story is set in a retirement home for musicians named for Sir Thomas Beecham. Plans are underway for the annual concert fundraiser to coincide with Verdi's birthday. Heading the gala committee is Cedric played by Michael Gambon. Kudos to Mr. Gambon for rocking the caftan like no one since George Zucco in "Tarzan and the Mermaids". One of Cedric's committee members is soprano Cissy played by the delightful Pauline Collins. Cissy is a "getting worse" in that her memory is failing. Her old stage partner Wilfred is the resident naughty man of the home played by Billy Connolly in his familiar raucous way. Wilfred delights in flirting outrageously with all the women and needling Cedric. The more sedate Reg played by Tom Courtenay came to the home to check on Wilf who had been admitted after a slight stroke. Here Reg found his niche in caring for his friends and holding classes for young people.
Into this garden spot comes a new resident, a noted opera star played by Maggie Smith. Jean is known to all and her appearance is less than appreciated by her former husband Reg. Her arrival shakes up his whole existence. There is also another "star" in residence brilliantly cast with Dame Gweneth Jones. The dagger-like looks that flash between the two divas, when the term meant more than demanding behavior, is worth the price of admission.
Jean's adjustment to the retirement home and a crisis with the annual gala are the concerns of the present. Reg's torment over the presence of his lost love makes old wounds fresh. Life is definitely not retiring in this home because, as Cissy is fond of quoting Bette Davis' remark, "old age is not for sissies".
Director Hoffman gives us many quiet moments to observe the entire ensemble as life swirls around the preparations for the all-important concert. We get to know the patient piano teacher/accompanist, the old song and dance men, the lifelong choristers, the pit musicians and the staff of the home, along with our "quartet". I laughed, I cried, I laughed again, and I cared. Highly recommended.
The Matinee Idol (1928)
The Capra Touch
"The Matinée Idol" is a silent drama/comedy/romance set with an intriguing backstage setting. The film stars the wonderful Bessie Love as the daughter and leading lady in a family of troupers. A very likable Johnnie Walker co-stars as a successful actor taken with Miss Love. Consequently he takes up with the small town thespians, throwing himself into their sincere, yet corny theatrics.
When the troupe bring their melodrama to the big town and face scorn from the critics and sophisticated audiences, romance is there to ease the sting of rejection. "The Matinée Idol" is a delight, filled with director Frank Capra's insights and affection for all types of people.
The 5,000 Fingers of Dr. T. (1953)
A Dream of a Nightmare
Young Bart Collins (Tommy Rettig) has only one enemy in the world. It is his piano teacher Professor Terwilliker (Hans Conried). The creator of the Terwilliker Method of learning the piano and well-known racketeer obviously has Bart's widowed mother (Mary Healy) buffaloed. Why else would she want Bart chained to the piano for the rest of his days? He can't even get sympathy from his friend Mr. Zbladowski (Peter Lind Hayes), the plumber.
Out of Bart's fear and longing we are plunged into a nightmare that could only have come from the mind of the film's writer, Dr. Seuss. Fantastic and strange sets, incredible eye-filling use of Technicolor, plus fun and moving songs take us on a wild journey. A unique and totally winning movie experience.
Who's Minding the Mint? (1967)
Howard Morris knew funny!
I consider "Who's Minding the Mint?" THE 1960s comedy. Directed by that certifiable genius Howard Morris it's fast and funny with a marvelous premise, witty lines, and sight-gags that are impeccably set-up and pulled off by a director who knows funny and a fine ensemble cast.
Jim Hutton is Treasury worker Harry Lucas, a fellow who knows all the angles. After hours he lives the life of a minor playboy on no budget by scamming department stores. A superior, played with officious glee by David J. Stewart, suspects Harry of criminal methods and Harry is up against it when he accidentally looses $50,000. However, it shouldn't be too difficult to replace the lost bills with the help of retired printer "Pop" played by Walter Brennan, who aches to get his hands on the presses.
Questions arise as to how to get the plates, how to get into the building, how to cut the bills, et cetera, and before he knows what's happening Harry is the leader of a gang with designs on more than replacing $50,000.
Milton Berle oozes larceny out of every pore. Bob Denver is adorable as a would-be ladies man opposite Jackie Joseph as a bohemian who may be more than he can handle. Victor Buono is simply outstanding as an outlandishly accented "ships captain". Joey Bishop is dry and funny as a gambler and Jamie Farr as his non-English speaking cousin. Dorothy Provine, the 60s comedy go-to-gal, is a nice girl who'd do anything for Harry. And what could go wrong when you have a deaf safe cracker played by Jack Gilford?
Adding to the fun is Lalo Schifrin's sprightly score reminiscent of his famous Mission Impossible theme.
Honestly, this is a movie that keeps me chuckling and laughing throughout its tidy 97 minutes. Highly recommended.
True Grit (1969)
The Adventure of a Lifetime
"True Grit" is a movie that has continually entertained me since its 1969 release. Marguerite Roberts' screenplay is filled with delightfully delicious dialogue as she drew heavily on Charles Portis' remarkably fine novel. The tone is one of dramatic authenticity with a dark sense of absurdity at situation and character, particularly Mattie's intractable world view. It is the adventure of a lifetime.
I have always been drawn to the the drama, the action and the morality, sometimes ambiguous, in western stories. Western fans play the game of "measuring up". We would stand up to Ryker. We would not refuse Will Kane's request for help. We would know a skunk when we saw one. In "True Grit", it wasn't the tall man in the hat to whom I had to measure myself, it was a girl. It was 14 year old Mattie Ross, played by Kim Darby, seeking vengeance for the killing of her father. It was Mattie Ross standing up to a world of adults who wanted to brush her aside. It was Mattie dealing with her sorrow and pain, yet determined to have her voice heard. It was the world around her that would have to measure up to Mattie.
The viewers go on a journey with the spunky girl as she deals with the frustrations of bureaucracy and the societal expectations of children. Mattie knows she is capable and she knows what she must do. Her journey leads her to Rooster Cogburn, a marshal of skill and dubious reputation. A Texas Ranger played by Glen Campbell becomes part of the team which is an uneasy alliance. Musician Campbell does well enough considering it is a tyro effort, but how I wish an experienced actor had been cast in the role. I always pictured Doug McClure.
"True Grit" is filled with interesting characters and interesting character actors which gives the film its depth. Jeff Corey ("Little Big Man") is the murderer Tom Chaney. Hank Worden ("The Searchers") is a sympathetic undertaker. Edith Atwater ("The Body Snatcher") is a pretentious boarding house landlady. Alfred Ryder ("T-Men") a bombastic defence attorney. Western & noir veteran John Doucette is a business-like sheriff.
Strother Martin ("Cool Hand Luke") is Colonel Stonehill, a horse trader whose scenes with Kim Darby are one of the highlights of the movie. Jeremy Slate ("The Sons of Katie Elder") and Dennis Hopper ("Hoosiers") are two unfortunate criminals who cross paths with Rooster. Robert Duvall ("The Godfather") is the determined outlaw 'Lucky' Ned Pepper.
John Wayne is Rooster Cogburn, the tough Marshal whom Mattie feels will get the job done for her, but is she ready for the realities in store? How will the violence and hardships to come shape her character? Is it Mattie's determination and her vulnerabilities that will shape her destiny and her relationships? The novel presents the events as a memory, the story of an adventure. The movie's viewpoint is from the young girl that is Mattie Ross. We are swept up in her journey of discovery and her adventure with the force of nature that is Rooster Cogburn.
John Wayne carried a legacy of classic western portrayals of close to 40 years when he played the character of Rooster. The marshal was a man who hadn't just seen much, he had done much. However, his world was turning fast. His previous autonomous ways were becoming accountable to courts and now to a youngster, and not just any youngster, a young lady. A young lady with as keen a sense of self as his own. Their clash of wills would lead to understanding, respect and affection that neither would experience again.
Henry Hathaway directed True Grit on location in Colorado instead of the novel's actual setting of Arkansas. The scenery is magnificent and was breathtakingly captured by award winning cinematographer Lucien Ballard, making it another character in the story. Elmer Bernstein's score is one of his "rousing" variety and pushes all the right buttons.
When I think of great female performances of the 1960s it is not the Academy Award winners or the glamour queens of the era that come to mind. It is Kim Darby's valiant, heartbreaking and inspiring Mattie Ross.
Twentieth Century (1934)
A definite must-see
Director Howard Hawks and writers Hecht and MacArthur show no mercy in this fast-paced, hysterical send-up of theatrical types. John Barrymore is breathtakingly funny as Oscar Jaffe - self-proclaimed genius. Carole Lombard is a whirlwind of verbal and physical energy as Lily Garland - star. Theirs is a match made in Heaven until Jaffe's possessiveness causes Lily to rebel in a big way. She leaves him and the "Theatah" for (gasp) Hollywood! Oscar's fortunes take a drastic downturn without his Lily and finding they are both traveling on the famous Twentieth Century provides him with his one chance to get back his career and his girl. And this is a man who'll stop at nothing to get what he wants. A great cast of scene-stealers including Roscoe Karns, Walter Connolly, Charles Lane and Etienne Girardot are every inch the equal of our leads in this very funny classic.
Here Come the Waves (1944)
Acc-Cen-Tu-Ate the Positive
Do you recall the brouhaha when Elvis was drafted? Well, that's nothing compared to what happens when the Navy lowers their physical requirements and the bobbysoxer's idol Johnny Cabot (Bing Crosby) enlists. Bing is quite funny spoofing that Hoboken lad as he ca-roons into the microphone for legions of swooning gals. His biggest fan is entertainer turned WAVE Susie Allison (Betty Hutton) who goes ga-ga in a big way. Susie's twin sister Rosemary (Betty Hutton) is the more sensible and reserved type so, naturally, Johnny falls for her. Sonny Tufts is appealing as a sailor pal with his own agenda. Lots of laughs and Harold Arlen/Johnny Mercer tunes make this wartime morale booster a pleasant way to spend an evening. Look for Ann Doran and Noel Neil in uniform.
Time capsule alert: The Arlen/Mercer standard "Acc-Cen-Tu-Ate the Positive" is introduced in this feature. Georgia boy Johnny Mercer wrote the tune to a specific cadence that fans of his recordings recognize and enjoy. I'm certain no offence was meant (even at such as late date as 1944) by introducing the song in blackface, but oh my, that sort of thing can be hard to take in 2007. On the plus side the performance of the song is straight-forward and attached to a delightful ensemble dance routine.
The Emperor Waltz (1948)
The Mystery of "The Emperor Waltz"
The mystery is that it took me so long to succumb to the charms of this musical. There are few writer/directors I admire more than Billy Wilder and few entertainers I enjoy more than Bing Crosby. I don't know what I expected when they got together, but I guess it wasn't "The Emperor Waltz". Initial disappointment was erased on a recent viewing.
Our story is set in the long ago Austria of Emperor Franz Josef and concerns the love affair between a haughty widowed countess (Joan Fontaine) and a brash American salesman (Crosby). Ditto her purebred poodle and his mutt. There is a lot of talk about class differences and bloodlines and, through the years, this has been my major gripe with the script. Perhaps at the time in the late 40s Bracket and Wilder felt the need to make some sort of a statement, but it's a tad heavy handed and detracts from the fun - and there is fun.
The musical numbers are presented wittily. For "In Dreams I Kiss Your Hand" Bing sings, then brings in a piano, then two policemen pick up violins and then the domestic staff starts to dance. When our countess swoons after a few boo-boo-boo's, you know it's all in fun. The uninspired humorist often remarks when watching a musical "where did the orchestra come from?". In the enchanting "The Kiss in Your Eyes", there is no need to ask as an entire village puts bow to string to accompany this most stirring of love songs.
The Technicolor filming is sumptuous and truly befitting the operetta-like sensibility of the movie.
Joan Fontaine is every inch the royal lady, looking lovely in her costumes and easily handling the comic and dramatic portions of the script. A nice transition from her young, vulnerable characterizations to the more confident females she portrayed in the 50s.
Early in the film Bing Crosby tends to shout his way through Virgil, but his character is a lone fish out of water with no kibitzing pal such as a Hope or Fitzgerald. Once he starts to sing - well, like the Countess, it is easy to fall for the go-getting salesman.
Lucile Watson is a delight as a dowager princess with a penchant for storytelling and for our Countess' profligate father played in fine style by Roland Culver.
The top performance comes from Richard Hadyn as Emperor F-J himself. Unrecognizable under the whiskers and make-up, and foregoing his famous nasally precise delivery, Mr. Hadyn gives us a very interesting Franz-Josef. A petulant, funny, irritating, thoughtful and memorable character. You will pinch yourself to remind you of who you are watching.
I heartily recommend this musical of much charm. Mystery solved.