Lost in the Movies (formerly The Dancing Image): 100 Years and Counting: Remembering the Movies, September 10 - 16

Friday, September 10, 2010

100 Years and Counting: Remembering the Movies, September 10 - 16


I have a proposal to make, and one distinctly more amenable (I hope) than the one Jack Nicholson is about to offer above. Every week (or if the project proves too strenuous, once a month, though I like the idea of a weekly basis better), we take a trip through the annals of film history, peeking in at what's playing in multiplexes in 2000, movie palaces in 1940, nickelodeons in 1910. I will present a still, a summary, and a bit of history (when possible) on movies which made their debut this week 10, 20, 30, 40, 50, 60, 70, 80, 90, 100 years in the past. The idea is that you'll offer your own thoughts, reflections, memories, or other miscellaneous musings on the movies presented (hopefully someone whose experience stretches further back than the average blogger's will occasionally make an appearance). And that, beyond that, you'll just enjoy the stroll down memory lane.

The inspiration for this endeavor comes from an NPR show on which our host guides us through a century of music, playing the hit singles from the past in ten-year increments. I can't offer the direct experience of that radio program - films are not as readily available as records. And even if I could, the movies would be too long to render such an exercise feasible. Instead, wherever possible (and, this week at least, it proved surprisingly doable) I'll link to a trailer, clip, or other video artifact, so that it isn't all talk. This way you can get a bit of the flavor of the moment, a snapshot of cinema history so to speak. I will also include a snippet from a contemporaneous critical assessment. In the end, I'd love to hear from anyone who's seen these films - particularly the more obscure ones. I've only caught two of this week's entries so I'm all ears.

Most importantly, right now anyway, I'd like to hear from you on the project itself. Are you interested? Is this something you'd like to see more of? I don't plan on continuing the series unless it seems worthwhile, so if you like the idea, speak up (lurkers included)! Now excuse me while I rev up the DeLorean...


10 years ago...

Almost Famous; released on September 13, 2000
starring Kate Hudson, Patrick Fugit, Billy Crudup, Frances McDormand, Philip Seymour Hoffman, Zooey Deschanel, Jason Lee, Anna Paquin, Fairuza Balk.
written/directed by Cameron Crowe

Story: A teenager bluffs his way into following a 70s rock band on tour, writing about their exploits for Rolling Stone, having the time of his life, and falling love with free-spirited groupie Penny Lane.

A decade on, it's safe to say this is still one of the most popular films of the zeroes. It also seems to be holding up better than Crowe's Jerry Maguire, though maybe that's because it does not have an out-of-proportion pop culture impact or manic Tom Cruise performance to apologize for. It established Hudson as a star - for better or worse - and, along with its popular soundtrack, helped shape an ultra-nostalgic 00s zeitgeist in which 70s and 80s fashion and music became not only kitschy-cool (as the former had been in the 90s) but genuinely appreciated, rehabilitated, and imitated. Certainly, Fugit's shaggy haircut is now ubiquitous among the adolescent set. In the end (while Say Anything... has its boosters) this may become the film Crowe is best remembered for. His post-Famous career, consisting of the divisive Vanilla Sky and the much-derided Elizabethtown has largely been a letdown, but this one's still a hit at video stores. It has and had its detractors (J. Hoberman commented that "Crowe's specialty is the principled sellout" and observed that Hoffman's engaging portrayal of Lester Bangs "should have been the movie"). Nonetheless, the movie unrolls charmingly, and remains a good deal of fun. Incidentally, Almost Famous' actual premiere (at the Toronto Film Festival) occurred ten years ago last week but it received wide release on the 13th. Since I wanted to start the series off with a bang, here it is.

Watch the trailer.

20 years ago...

Postcards from the Edge; September 12, 1990
starring Meryl Streep, Shirley MacLaine, Dennis Quaid, Gene Hackman, Rob Reiner, Annette Bening.
written by Carrie Fisher (from her own book)
directed by Mike Nichols

Story: An actress, recovering from drug addiction, is forced to live with her obnoxious mother, who is a functioning alcoholic and (more) famous movie star.

Given that Carrie Fisher had struggled with drugs and had a strained relationship with her own famous mother (Debbie Reynolds), much of the attention greeting this film focused on its real-life correspondence. Fresh off a supporting turn in the popular When Harry Met Sally, the thirtysomething Fisher began shifting the public's perception of her from actress to writer. Fisher published four more novels, including Surrender the Pink, which was released around the time of this film. Postcards also emerged in a certain Hollywood moment, when consciousness of feminism was rising to the fore and films with female protagonists and perspectives (importantly, written by females) started to become prominent again. Thelma & Louise, the following year, would be a prime example. Siskel and Ebert griped about the movie's conventionality and artificiality but both, oddly enough, gave it a thumbs-up. "You're saying they didn't make the movie you wanted to make, what about the old line, what about the movie they made?" Gene asked Roger. Roger, shrugging: "I like the movie they made - up to a point."

Watch the trailer.

30 years ago...

The Exterminator; September 10, 1980
starring Christopher George, Robert Ginty, Samantha Eggar, Steve James
written & directed by James Glickenhaus

Story: After his war buddy is paralyzed by a street gang, John Eastland becomes a one-man vigilante wrecking crew, dispatching various creeps and hoodlums with sadistic aplomb.

"Someday a real rain will come and wash all this scum off the streets," quoth Travis Bickle, 1976. What Schrader, Scorsese, and Taxi Driver observed with some irony was already well in its way to becoming a vicarious, visceral phenomenon. Since at least Dirty Harry in 1971, the vigilante genre had been an outlet for audiences in an era increasingly doused in real-life crime, corruption, decadence and disillusionment. At the time of its release, at the tail end of the Death Wish era, The Exterminator was seen by critics as bringing this sort of film to new depths of depravity. Variety snarked, "Christopher George's walkthrough as a policeman is regrettable, while Samantha Eggar as both the buddy's doctor and George's girlfriend must have calculated that this travesty would never be released." Audience popularity, however, warranted a sequel in 1984 which grossed even more than the original.

Watch the trailer.

40 years ago...

Five Easy Pieces; September 11, 1970
starring Jack Nicholson, Karen Black
written by Bob Rafelson, Carole Eastman
directed by Bob Rafelson

Story: Robert Eroica Dupea, a child prodigy who has given up the piano to play working-class hero in the oil fields of Texas, returns to his childhood home as his father is dying. Ditzy girlfriend in tow, he confronts his past and his own bitterness but cannot see - or does not want to see - a way out of his own frustration.

A classic of New Hollywood, Five Easy Pieces is a pivotal film of its era. It solidified Jack Nicholson's reputation as a dynamic new lead and it cultivated the gritty, brooding tone which characterized the breakthrough films of this era. Naturalistic, intense performances, adult subject matter, a style keen on verite aesthetics, a raw feel for the "unhinged", all fused into a Molotov cocktail hurled at the rampants of the industry Establishment (or what remained of it after the onslaught of Bonnie and Clyde, Midnight Cowboy, Easy Rider, and the like). Ironically, the film's rebellion is far more in the macho/roughneck 50s vein than the more politicized and/or countercultural upheavel of the time; in this it's similar to M*A*S*H and The Wild Bunch (consider that even the youngest filmmakers and most of the actors of this period were far older than the baby boomers and drawing on different cultural tropes and touchstones). A young Roger Ebert loved the film, and raved: "The movie is joyously alive to the road life of its hero. We follow him through bars and bowling alleys, motels and mobile homes, and we find him rebelling against lower-middle-class values even as he embraces them."

Watch the trailer.

50 years ago...

High Time; September 16, 1960
starring Bing Crosby, Fabian, Tuesday Weld
written by Tom Waldman, Frank Waldman (based on Garson Kanin's story)
directed by Blake Edwards

The Story: A middle-aged man studies, parties - and sings -his way through college, following his wife's death and success in the hamburger business. He falls in love with his French teacher and debates remarrying.

A healthy helping of Bing for the older folks, a touch of Tuesday and Fabian for the youngsters, and you've fun for the whole family - at least that's the idea. Blake Edwards knocked this one off between the more well-remembered Operation Petticoat and (particularly) Breakfast at Tiffany's. Yet the reminiscences scattered across IMDb seem fond enough. Even the decidedly old-fashioned Bosley Crowther found it "about 15 years out of date" in 1960, while conceding that it was "brightly directed by Blake Edwards." (In 1970, hoping to capitalize on the radical changes in college life over since the original, Edwards and Crosby returned for a sequel, Now-I'm-Really-High Time in which, as a 60-year-old grad student, Bing burns his grandson's draft card and soft-shoes while crooning the catchy lullaby, "That's My Mao." Just kidding.)

The whole film is online, beginning here.

60 years ago...

Devil's Doorway; September 15, 1950
starring Robert Taylor
written by Tom Waldman, Frank Waldman (based on Garson Kanin's story)
directed by Anthony Mann

The Story: A Native American veteran of Gettysburg returns to his tribal home to settle down as a rancher - only to find himself confronting the greed and prejudice of local whites.

If High Time seemed about 15 years behind the time, this one nailed its genre zeitgeist and may have even preceded it by a few years. A revisitionist Western par excellence, this film also appeared right at the onset of Anthony Mann's immersion in the genre (following a long stint with noirs). Though apparently overlooked at the time, the film's reputation has grown since 1950, keeping pace with that of its auteur. Unfortunately, it's still not on DVD (except by special order from Warner Brothers) - while other '50 Mann Westerns like Winchester '73 and The Furies have already made their digital splash. Back in the fifties, across the Atlantic, Andre Bazin recommended the film to "anyone who wants to know what a real Western is." (see also: recaps from John Greco and Sam Juliano)

A clip from the film is here.

70 years ago...

No Time for Comedy; September 14, 1940
starring James Stewart, Rosalind Russell
written by Julius & Philip Epstein (based on S.N. Behrman's play)
directed by William Keighley

The Story: A happy marriage between a playwright and an actress is disrupted by the interference of a socialite - who wants the playwright to abandon comedies and write only "serious" plays.

Taking up a similar theme to Sullivan's Travels a year later - to much less acclaim - both films could be read as indicative of America's uncertain mood post-Poland, pre-Pearl Harbor. To commit oneself, or to laugh off the problems of the world? Or to commit oneself while laughing (see Lubitsch & Chaplin)? Within two years time, the Epsteins themselves would famously make their stand in a sultry Moroccan metropolis, but for now their flag was still planted on the hill of beans. The preview for this movie looks rather dopey, but I did a double-take when Stewart banters with a taxi driver - it's none other than Frank Faylen, good old Ernie the cabbie in Stewart's infamous 1946 It's a Wonderful Life! By 1941, America had chosen international commitment, leaping into the thick of world conflict - but it's nice to know that even after the Big One, some things hadn't changed.

Watch the trailer here.

80 years ago...
What a Widow!; September 13, 1930
starring Gloria Swanson
written by James Gleason, Josephine Lovett, James Seymour
directed by Allan Dwan

The Story: Collecting her lavish inheritance from a dead doddering husband, a young widow makes a splash on the Parisian social scene.

In this film, believed lost, Swanson takes one last swig from the dregs of the twenties' "Lost Generation," already on its way to becoming the thirties' "Forgotten M[e]n." And of course, she herself would become the Forgotten Woman etc etc, cue De Mille, Stroheim, Wilder. Unfortunatley there's not much else to say about this one; as we move further into the mists of time information becomes scarcer. I like the way the poster sets up a fall from grace by intoning "With millions and millions she starts on a gay trip to Paris..." and then follows through with "and finds millions and millions, clothes, and beaux!" How's that for dramatic tension...

No trailer or clip exists online. Apparently it is discussed in an episode of Hollywood Hist-O-Rama devoted to Ms. Swanson, but that seems to be unavailable as well.

90 years ago...

The Restless Sex.; September 12, 1920
starring Marion Davies
written by Francis Marion (from Robert Chambers' novel)
directed by Leon d'Usseau, Robert Z. Leonard

The Story: Torn between two men, a young woman settles on an art student when her indecisive long-time love interest goes to Paris to write. When he returns, he tries to win her back.

There is little to say about this film except that the main character's name is - rather incredibly - Mike Jill. No wonder her boyfriends are confused.

100 years ago...
Buffalo Bill's Wild West and Pawnee Bill's Far East; September 15, 1910
starring Buffalo Bill, Pawnee Bill
directed by William J. Craft

As the title suggests, this was a document of the famed western shows of the two Bills (Pawnee's included Arab jugglers as well as Mexicans, American cowboys, and Indians). The poster, cool as it is, does not seem to have anything to do with the two headliners nor, presumably, with the film that was made about them.



Finally - here's a film which we will not be seeing in this series simply because it was just missed in the chronology (it came out 100 years ago last month). Nonetheless, we close on this 1910 gem:

11 comments:

Troy Olson said...

If you can find the time to do this every week, then by all means, do it! Highly informative and a great way to read about a diverse set of movies in one post.

Of all these movies, it's funny that the only one I've seen is THE EXTERMINATOR. I remember it had very cool poster/box art, a guy with a flamethrower and motorcycle helmet on a flat black background. It's not a good movie though, which is all I can really remember about it.

Joseph said...

Great idea! I'll definitely be watching for more. I need to watch "5 Easy Pieces"

Shubhajit said...

Great Idea!!! Yeah, if this could be turned into a weekly affair, this series will surely become one of THE things on the blogosphere. I'm all for it.

I haven't watched all the movies that you've covered, but among the ones I've watched, Five Easy Pieces ranks, without any doubts whatsoever, the best in the lot for me. In fact, it ranks as one my favourite films too, and had Jack Nicholson at his most nuanced.

We've come to associate Nicholson with explosive/volatile angst-ridden characters. However, here instead his strings with the society around him have been snapped, making him a drifter of sorts. Yet Nicholson managed to come out of his comfort zone and deliver a truly outstanding performance against his type.

The movie also forms a terrific zeitgeist of the times, not just in the US but the world over. This was a time when anti-estabhishmentarianism was the dominant mood of the era, with protests going hand-on-hand with disillusionment. Consequently, if The Easy Rider showed one extreme of the rebellious times, Five Easy Pieces took a middle ground.

MovieMan0283 said...

Well, 3 yes's - and on a slow Friday to boot! That's the answer I was hoping for or secretly fearing, ha ha.

Troy, even reading the bad reviews Exterminator had gotten on its release (it's one of the ones I haven't seen) somewhere in my head was the impression that it's become a beloved cult favorite. Perhaps that's not the case after all!

Joseph, I say this all the time - and rarely get taken up on it - but once you see Five Easy Pieces (or any of the movies on this list) come back and share your thoughts. I don't like to think of old posts as irrelevant, and always want to hear from people on the film in question even if it's way after the fact.

Shubhajit, I would love for it to be a weekly series and my idea is to get a pace going and do a bunch of them ahead of time. That way it could eventually take care of itself while I focus on other posts. I even had in my head that, within the space of a year or two, I could do 10 years' worth and then let it chug along. We'll see - at any rate, it should be fun (if at times taxing).

Re: Five Easy Pieces, interesting how it manages to reflect the mood yet hearken back to an earlier era as well. In fact, Nicholson's character in Easy Rider could be said to do the same thing - on the surface he's a square: a cracker lawyer who boozes instead of getting high. But in fact, as I think Pauline Kael pointed out, he's the most rebellious character in the movie, and the only one to articulate a utopian philosophy (the other two, despite their posturing, are essentially just out for their advantage).

Joe Thompson said...

My grandfather, a retired chef, saw the "Five Easy Pieces" clip with the waitress on the Academy Awards and became outraged. Not at the behavior of Nicholson's character, but at the restaurant's no substitutions policy.

This series is a great idea.

MovieMan0283 said...

They've just gotten more clever over the years - today the waitress would smile, tell Jack sure we've got toast and then charge an extra $3 on the bill.

Wouldn't make for quite as dynamic a scene I suppose.

Thanks for the encouragement and the story. Funny how those excerpted scenes stay in your head; I've seen movies 10-20 years after I show the Oscar show in which they were nominated, and had this weird sense of deja vu kick in halfway through a scene, only to realize this is the clip they excerpted so long ago. Now I think they stopped doing that, which is just more evidence of the Academy jumping the shark (not that they weren't midair over the fin from the get-go...)

Just Another Film Buff said...

Phew! This is gonna be exhaustive and exhausting, I guess. I'm sure it's going to be a lot of effort for you, but if this inaugural post is anything to go by, we have a winner in our hands already, MM.

All the best!

Gordon Pasha said...

Move Man: I have mentioned elsewhere that I have a friend in Wokingham, Berkshire, England, a retired colonel who married late in life. He told me once that he kept holding out -- hoping that Jeanne Crain might turn up. She did not.

But this is on another matter, which your Buffalo Bill poster brought to mind. My wife and I visit our Wokingham friend each year and he takes us around and tells us tales of yesterdays in his region. He told us once that the Buffalo Bill Wild West Show visited his town around the turn of the century. It struck me as odd – it is rather a small place for a road show. But sure enough “Four Years in Europe with Buffalo Bill,” by Charles Eldridge Griffin and Chris Dixon lists the Wokingham show as being on September 19, 1904. Apparently they did one show every day in a different town. The logistics in that time and age must have been challenging. Given England's infrastructure it would be difficult in these times. Best Gerald.

MovieMan0283 said...

Gerald, glad you could drop by! Hope we'll see more of you in this series, given your enviable range of movie-viewing. Re: Buffalo Bill, no kidding. I'd have loved to be on that transatlantic crossing! Buffalo Bill was an interesting guy - bison hunter turned preservationist, Indian fighter who later advocated for their rights and humanity. Years ago I visited the museum in Cody, Wyoming and found it fascinating.

Judy said...

This is a great idea and I thoroughly enjoyed reading the first posting. The only ones of these I've seen are the most recent two - I loved 'Almost Famous', but my memories of 'Postcards from the Edge' have faded a lot.

MovieMan0283 said...

Thanks, Judy. Given the autobiographical/Hollywood connection I've always been a bit intrigued by Postcards. I've seen bits of it on TV but that's it.

I always thought it was pretty widely acclaimed but the reviews I checked out while writing this seemed pretty ambivalent...agreeing that it was funny and entertaining, but disappointed that its approach to drug addiction was so shallow. At the time, they seemed to feel, not enough celebrities were being open about their addiction and struggles. How times have changed!!!