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Sullivan's Travels (1941)
The comedy all wannabe do-gooders MUST see.
I just saw Sullivan's Travels last week. I wish I had seen it at age 11. Back then, when my mother would take me to New York, I wouldn't photograph the skyscrapers or the Hudson River or Central Park--I would take pictures of abandoned buildings and garbage in the streets. You see, I wanted to capture something "real." I was, in other words, a pretentious little twerp.
To a certain extent, so is John L. Sullivan, though I defy you not to fall in love him by the end of this film (and not just because he was played by the--ahem--not exactly unattractive Joel McCrea). He's a privileged Hollywood director whose past credits mainly include lowbrow comedies, but he yearns to do something more meaningful. So he decides to go on the road disguised as a hobo, though the real rail-riders are able to spot the clueless amateur from a mile away.
Sullivan's journey takes him in gradually expanding concentric circles. At first, even his best efforts land him right back in Hollywood, and he can't seem to shake the coterie of publicists and caretakers that are always trailing two inches behind him. He even finds himself with an additional hanger-on, a failed starlet played with a sharp, worldly-wise sensibility by Veronica Lake. Eventually, though, Sullivan really does find himself far away from home and in deep trouble. It's one thing to sleep in shelters and rail cars when you know you can always return to your cushy home base; it's quite another when there's no way to escape the cruelties faced by the truly destitute. At this point the film suspends its comedic tone, though comedy will end up playing a crucial role at this dark moment in Sully's life.
In the process, he becomes a better man. Sully may have had the best intentions when setting out on his journey, but his utter cluelessness would have made him a pretty unworthy spokesperson for the poor. After getting a taste of what it truly means to suffer, he realizes that the way he can best serve those with nothing is not to wring tears from moviegoers on their behalf, but to lessen their burden a little by making them smile.
I hope I haven't been too ponderous about what really is a fantastically funny film, the definition of G.K. Chesterton's quote "Angels fly because they take themselves lightly." I guess that earnest ponderousness is a habit I still find hard to break. Hopefully a few more viewings of Preston Sturges' masterpiece will set me straight.
You Can't Take It with You (1938)
A Liberal Taxpayer's Defense
Here's the thing about eccentrics: They're not the best people to look to for a coherent ideology.
So it is with the Vanderhoffs and Sycamores, a clan of crazy, loving, and lovable people who have decided to exit the rat race and follow their wandering muses... and boy, do they wander! Grandpa spends his days playing his harmonica and attending the graduation ceremonies of people he doesn't know. His daughter, Penny, decided to become the next George Bernard Shaw after someone dropped a typewriter at the home by mistake. Granddaughter Essie dances very, very badly, and her sister Alice, rebelling against her family of rebels, decides to become a banker's secretary (she still finds time to slide down banisters, though).
Grandpa, it should be known, hasn't paid his taxes, well, ever, and his defense of this fact to the rather dunderheaded IRS agent who comes a'calling has been lauded by Tea Party types and abhorred by modern- day liberals as a polemic in favor of bathtub-sized government. Yet it should be noted that another resident of the house is on government relief and Grandpa seems totally fine with that. He may have thought through his rejection of soulless corporate America, but that doesn't mean he's right or consistent about everything.
What's more, for all his praise of the virtues of friendship over money, he actually betrays his friends pretty epically when he agrees to sell the house to a company trying to take over his neighborhood. While he does this in order to move closer to Alice, it nearly gets all his neighbors evicted. Not very friendly, right?
Does all this mean that Grandpa is a bad person? No. Is he a questionable role model? Yes, and Frank Capra's attempt to make him a populist hero doesn't quite work. But you should watch and enjoy the hell out of You Can't Take It With You--it's touching, hilarious, and does contain genuine insights on how to live a good life. But don't go to it for a ready- to-serve political belief system. Go for the wish fulfillment: the chance to imagine doing exactly what you want with your life without fear of failure or poverty. I've got a good idea about what I'd do (drawing, acting, college classes on film appreciation, etc.), and I suspect you do too.
The More the Merrier (1943)
"There's a war going on, Miss Milligan."
I feel it's important to mention some caveats before I start gushing about this movie: I don't enjoy every single scene of The More the Merrier, the last comedy George Stevens ever directed. Occasionally the film feels dated, and all the casual talk about "Japs" is bound to make other modern-day viewers feel uncomfortable as well (though it's worthwhile to keep the context in mind).
But when The More the Merrier hits its stride, it's funny, sweet, romantic, daffy, and everything a great screwball comedy should be. It's terrifically enjoyable without denying the realities of the time.
We're in Washington in 1942, when the proliferation of war jobs and servicemen passing through resulted in a huge housing problem. Even an elderly retired millionaire like Benjamin Dingle (Charles Coburn), who arrives in the city as a Senate-sponsored consultant two days ahead of schedule, finds that he is not guaranteed a place to stay. The cheerful, gleefully manipulative Mr.Dingle finds a room for rent in the paper, fools a gaggle of other prospective tenants into getting out of his way, and railroads the apartment's occupant, prim government worker Connie Milligan (Jean Arthur), into letting him stay. She wanted to rent to a woman to prevent raised eyebrows among her neighbors (which, given the time, was certainly a risk), but she barely gets a peep in before Dingle's setting up shop.
After unilaterally deciding that what his pretty, somewhat tightly wound roommate needs is a "high-type, clean-cut, nice young fella" (and epically failing at sticking to Connie's baffling morning schedule) Mr. Dingle proceeds to rent half of his room to another prospective tenant. He finds one in Sgt. Joe Carter (Joel McCrea), a soldier set to ship out to the front in a week. Dingle initially tries to keep Joe and Connie from noticing the other's existence, but that can only last so long. Connie is unable to kick out either of her new roomies and so attempts to adjust, though she makes it clear that she's engaged to her boss and so off the market. But Dingle, a self-appointed cupid, has other ideas--he senses that this Mr. Charles J. Pendergast is a stuffy bore (he's right), and slyly maneuvers Connie and Joe toward each other. It doesn't hurt that the two seem to operate on the same wavelength (an adorable early scene has them both doing the rumba by themselves in separate rooms). Eventually they cannot hide their attraction to each other, though the war inevitably gets in the way.
The performances are what make The More the Merrier irresistible. Coburn, delightfully cheeky, won an Oscar for his turn as the benevolently Machiavellian matchmaker. But the chemistry between Arthur and McCrea deserves special mention. It's a wonder that their scene on Connie's front stoop got past the censors--while there's nothing R-rated, things get a little "tactile"--but it's breathtakingly sexy. The next scene, where the thin wall that separates their bedrooms allows them to talk to each other, is equally powerful in a more poignant, understated way. I think this movie has made me a lifelong fan of both actors.
The film has some flaws--some slightly unconvincing crying, and the aforementioned "Japs" issue--but don't let that deter you. There's a reason the term "underrated classic" so often follows the mention of The More The Merrier. In some ways it's a product of its time, but its emotional grace notes about love, lust, and taking risks haven't aged a bit.
The Apartment (1960)
Comedy? Drama? Sublime.
The Apartment is not terribly funny. While some of the banter is sufficiently witty , some of the jokes and gags feel forced and awkward, especially in the second half of the movie.
And that's exactly what gives the movie its power. For much of the second half takes place after a near suicide. As many people who've witnessed such a situation know, one way people deal with this is through awkward attempts at humor to lift the spirits of the person affected. Such mild and playful comedy in The Apartment, such as straining spaghetti through a tennis racket and a story of being shot in the knee, may not make for side-splitting laughs. But it does resonate with anyone who's had to cope with this sort of emergency.
The crisis is thrust upon meek, agreeable C.C. "Bud" Baxter (Jack Lemmon), an ordinary premium accountant working at Consolidated Life insurance company (a not-too-subtle jab at Met Life). He is eager to leave his mind-numbing job amid a sea of desks and move up the ranks of the company. To this end, he lends out his flat to married executives who want a little on the side but don't wish to sign a hotel register.
This eventually includes Baxter's boss, Mr. Sheldrake. This part is played by Fred MacMurray, who was at that time known for playing smiling suburban fathers. That's how the character might seem in the beginning, but over the course of the movie Mr. Sheldrake reveals himself to be a breathtakingly manipulative, domineering villain.
Baxter also wants very much to win the heart of Fran Kubelik (Shirley MacLaine), a pixie-like elevator operator who is friendly, cheeky, but ultimately vulnerable. She likes Baxter in passing, but is focused on getting over a relationship that she tries in vain to keep in the past.
After the crisis, Baxter has to face his own complicity in the situation and must make a difficult decision. One choice is to continue to appease his superiors, which he knows would cement his position as a doormat and make him give up the woman he loves. The other is to stand up for himself and lose everything he's worked for.
The atmosphere, the writing, the soundtrack and the acting all fit together to make The Apartment near ecstasy on celluloid. The parts are all played well, but the standout has to be Shirley MacLaine. Those who were unimpressed by her somewhat over-the-top performances in "Sweet Charity" and "Terms of Endearment" would be amazed. She plays Fran Kubelik with such subtlety and authenticity that it makes her plight enormously compelling.
Several critics, looking back at classic films, have labeled The Apartment dated. I find it hard to agree with them. Yes, the ideas of elevator girls, punch card IBM machines and house calls from doctors are all dated. But the story is about trying to succeed without losing your humanity. And that's timeless.
Fiddler on the Roof (1971)
How did this tradition get started? I'll tell you... I don't know.
This movie was required viewing for my family. I remember seeing it at my grandparents' house when I was not yet three. My father said when my grandmother saw the play, she was moved to tears. With the movie, she only had one standard complaint - no Zero Mostel. I can see now what she meant. Don't get me wrong, Topol is great as Tevye, but I can hardly imagine what Zero Mostel must've brought to the role. Besides that one small thing, I am also in love with Fiddler. How many young people even know what a shtetl is nowadays? Probably not many. And the sad truth is, unlike many other European immigrants who can go back to explore the villages of their ancestors, Jews cannot. Of course, Fiddler is heavily romanticized, but it gives us a small picture of the "old country". Without this movie, the idea of the shtetl might've been lost to future generations. The fact that it was superbly directed (by aptly named Norman Jewison - who by the way wasn't Jewish), acted, choreographed, and adapted to the screen, is just non-dairy icing on the cake.