Lost in the Movies (formerly The Dancing Image): Remembering the Movies, Nov. 5 - 11

Friday, November 5, 2010

Remembering the Movies, Nov. 5 - 11

Every Friday, we look back at films released 10-100 years ago this week.

Halloween's over (with one exception), time for...Christmas? Shopping malls aren't the only ones to receive their holiday spirit a little early; this week Remembering the Movies features two Yuletide films right up front, plus a film set in wintry Alaska, just to get you yearning for those chestnuts round an open fire. Several great directors make an appearance below - Luis Bunuel, Tex Avery, David Lean, the ever ubiquitous D.W. Griffith, among others. Yet amongst the classic contenders I chose to highlight Home Alone above. And why not? Though I can't say it "holds up" (based on the reputation established when I was 7) it still fuels my nostalgia for a time when I was just starting to juice my now-defunct moviegoing jones. For more on that era, visit "They Once Were Coming Attractions...", my tribute to childhood cinematic excursions. For the rest, pack up your sleigh, and push it over the precipice (jump) below...



10 years ago...
How the Grinch Stole Christmas; premiered November 8, 2000
starring Jim Carrey, Molly Shannon, Jeffrey Tambor, Taylor Momson
written by Jeffrey Price, Paul S. Seaman (from Dr. Suess' book)
directed by Ron Howard

Story: A green grouch descends upon Whoville and attempts to steal every last scrape of Christmas ornamentation, but he can't steal the Whos' Christmas spirit.

This superproduction, like its hero, had a mind to dominate the holiday season. And so it did, earning over $200 million. The movie pleased a lot of children, but left disappointed parents and critics in its wake; indeed, the film converted most critics into Grinches, Scrooges, Mr. Potters - take your Christmas villain pick. Stephanie Zacharek groused in Salon, "There's a dispiriting cheapness to Ron Howard's Dr. Seuss' How the Grinch Stole Christmas; it's like a Christmas gift that's been dumped on you by someone who obviously couldn't care less." The aggressive pace and slick packaging of the project made many feel that the spirit of Dr. Suess' evergreen book had been betrayed - and a backlash manifested itself in the response to the Mike Myers Cat in the Hat, which bombed and was savaged by critics, notably Manohla Dargis who penned a cutesy Suess-like rhyme to disparage the movie. After consolidating his box-office hold with Grinch, Carrey went on to expand his range in Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind (which will probably outlast the rest of his oeuvre) and then stumbled with a variety of comedies of kiddie entertainments (Horton Hears a Who, the vile-looking CGI Christmas Carol). A couple stars went on to TV success - Tambor in the failed but acclaimed (and rejuvenated on DVD) "Arrested Development," Momson in "Gossip Girl," many miles from Cindy Lou Who.

Watch the trailer.

20 years ago...
Home Alone; November 10, 1990
starring Macauley Culkin, Joe Pesci, Daniel Stern, Catherine O'Hara, John Heard, John Candy
written by John Hughes
directed by Chris Columbus

Story: Kevin McAllister is 8 years old, and with his family accidentally leaving him behind during their trip to Paris, he's got the house to himself - well, himself and the two bungling burglars who've been casing the joint.

Hughes had established his hold on the teen genre throughout the 80s with such hits as The Breakfast Club and Pretty in Pink; now he made a move for kids' entertainment and achieved his greatest success yet, financially speaking. Like Grinch, this was a hit with kids that left many adults out in the cold. In a nonplussed episode of "Siskel & Ebert" Siskel calls Home Alone a "dopey new comedy," and notes "this is the first time Pesci's ever given a bad performance. It's a bad role." Ebert expressed disappointment at the film's approach: "I think I would have liked the movie much more if it had been much more realistic. What would really happen if a little kid was left home alone?" Of course, most kids didn't want realism, they wanted to see Joe Pesci's head lit on fire with a blowtorch and Daniel Stern's face implanted with a red-hot iron. I remember what a hit Home Alone was in the first grade, and remember being particularly intrigued from a structural/conceptual standpoint (though I don't quite think I would have phrased it that way at the time): the way Kevin set up a different trap in each section of the house, planning it all carefully and using common household items to wreak mayhem - familiar domestic objects reconceived as weapons of destruction. I was late to the party, seeing it a few weeks after all the kids had been raving about it (oddly enough, given the marketing campaign, I heard about it not from television but from word-of-mouth) and was surprised that the whole film didn't consist of Kevin's battle against the burglars; it hadn't occurred to me that the screenplay would have to fill out two hours of screen time before the climax. Rewatching the film in recent years, it struck me that it was written, shot, and particularly lit like a glib and glowing TV commercial - but that nifty Angels with Filthy Souls sequence still holds up: "Keep the change...ya filthy animal!"

Watch the trailer.

30 years ago...
The Boogeyman; November 7, 1980
starring Suzanna Love, Ron James, John Carradine, Nicholas Love
written by David Herschel, Ulli Lommel, Suzanna Love
directed by Ulli Lommel

Story: The spirited of a murdered man becomes lodged in a mirror, the shards of which wreak havoc on a variety of victims.

That murdered man is not just any murdered man; he was killed by two children who stumbled across him making love to their mother. It is when revisiting the scene of the crime with her shrink that the heroine first sees the dead man in the mirror; breaking it into shards, she only multiplies the damage he can do. Her brother paints all the mirrors in his house black, but it's not enough: children are murdered, teenage couples are impaled, pitchforks are sent flying through the air, and it takes an exorcising priest to set things right. I couldn't find any contemporary reviews; but Keith Phipps in the A.V. Club praises the film with faint damnation: "A relic of a brief era in horror-movie history from just before slasher films nearly overwhelmed the genre, the above-average 1980 quickie The Boogey Man distinguishes itself from its more forgettable counterparts with sheer competence. If you were to prepare a syllabus for a class on how to make a generic but acceptable early-'80s horror movie, a better example would be difficult to come by."

Watch the trailer.

40 years ago...
Ryan's Daughter; November 9, 1970
starring Ryan O'Neal, Trevor Howard, Christopher Jones, John Mills, Leo McKern, Sarah Miles
written by Robert Bolt
directed by David Lean

Story: Rosy Ryan Shaughnessy (can't get much more Irish than that) romances an English officer, but they get caught up in the historical drama surrounding World War I and the Irish rebellion.

This was Lean's third massive epic (if we don't include the somewhat more focused war film Bridge on the River Kwai). If Lawrence of Arabia was an epic of sand, and Doctor Zhivago one of snow, this was an epic of sea. Unfortunately, it was neither as big a hit nor as acclaimed a film as the previous two and some see it as ending Lean's career (though he would eventually return with A Passage to India in his seventies). Lean himself supposedly claimed that Pauline Kael's pan prevented him from working for that long period; this seems a stretch, particularly as the movie ran for several years in Britain. Roger Ebert was a bit more merciful, seeing the film as a rare failure for Lean but noting, "I have a friend who says a new David Lean movie is like a new Picasso. It may not be a great Picasso, he says, but by God it's a Picasso and worth seeing for that reason if for no other. I suppose that's true of Lean and all great directors: Their work is interesting just because they've signed it, and the failures help to illuminate the successes. Maybe you should see Ryan's Daughter for that reason. I imagine it will be around a long time and that it will find an enormous audience of those hungry for True Romances on the epic scale. For the rest of us, Ryan's Daughter remains a disappointing failure of tone, a lush and overblown self-indulgence in which David Lean has given us a great deal less than meets the eye."

Watch the trailer.

50 years ago...
North to Alaska; November 7, 1960
starring John Wayne, Stewart Granger, Ernie Kovacs, Fabian, Capucine
written by John Lee Mahin, Martin Rackin, Claude Binyon, John Kafka, Ben Hecht, Wendell Mayes (from Ladislas Fodor's play "Birthday Gift")
directed by Henry Hathaway

Story: A love triangle unfolds with the Alaskan gold rush as its background.

In 1960, Alaska had only just become the 49th state and this film hoped to capitalize on the newfound fame. Set in Nome, but shot in California (even so, I'll bet the cast and crew wished the producers had chosen the 50th state...), the film is as much comedy as western, and it featured a hit title song by Johnny Horton. That song has inspired some... different interpretations. Either Bosley Crowther or Eugene Archer (the byline credits both, but the prose doesn't sound much like Bosley) enjoyed the film in The New York Times: "Mr. Kovacs is droll as the would-be nemesis and Mickey Shaughnessy brightens a moment or two as his drunken stooge, but the proceedings are easily dominated by the indefatigable Mr. Wayne. Straddling the muddy terrain without benefit of his customary six-gun, he proves that he can carry his tongue in his cheek with the same impregnable aplomb."

Watch a scene.

60 years ago...
Los Olvidados; November 9, 1950
starring Estela Inda, Miguel Inclán, Alfonso Mejía
written by Luis Alcoriza, Max Aub, Luis Buñuel, Juan Larrea, Pedro de Urdimalas
directed by Luis Buñuel

Story: A group of impoverished young thugs roam around the streets of a slum.

A few weeks ago, we mentioned how Buñuel eventually re-emerged many years after L'Age d'Or - this Mexican film, as much as any other picture, marks his re-emergence. He won the Best Director prize at Cannes in 1951, and while it would be another ten years before Viridiana re-launched him as a filmmaker in Europe, this could be considered his international comeback. It's also been taken as a kickoff to Latin American cinema leading eventually, perhaps, to the Third Cinema manifestos and movies of the 60s and 70s. Taking a pause from bashing A Clockwork Orange in 1971, Pauline Kael favorably contrasted Buñuel to Stanley Kubrick: "In Los Olvidados, Bunuel showed teen-agers committing horrible brutalities, and even though you had no illusions about their victims - one in particular, was a foul old lecher - you were appalled. Bunuel makes you understand the pornography of brutality: the pornography is in what human beings are capable of doing to other human beings."

Watch a sequence.

70 years ago...
Wacky Wildlife; November 9, 1940
starring Mel Blanc
written by Dave Monahan
directed by Tex Avery

Story: A series of gags, revolving around "unobserved" animals in their natural habitat, all of whom eventually serve up absurd one-liners, addressed directly to the viewer.

A popular form for Warner Bros., and for Avery, but both would do it better at other times (I love some of the bits in the fairy tale send-up Avery did). Most of the punchlines here fall flat, unfortunately. There also seems to be an underlying ecological message here; the film ends with the narrator asking a mad dog why he's mad and he points offscreen - pan to reveal lumberjacks cutting down all the trees in the forest. The running theme throughout is the irony and freshness of seeing initially "proper" scenarios subverted by thoroughly modern wit, a perspective which would achieve its apotheosis in Red Hot Riding Hood three years later. The cartoon also enjoys poking fun at the increasing naturalism of Disney; while Bambi was still around the corner, they'd already been studying animal movements for Snow White. Opinions on the piece are hard to come by, but the Big Cartoon Database calls it "A truly twisted nature short showing nature out of kilter" which is about as close as I can get to a pullquote. The best part of this cartoon is the most perverse: the narrator tells us that a certain mouse will always replace the object he steals with another object. So we see an OCD rodent switching out an acorn with a rock, then switching the rock out for the acorn, then back and forth over and over, tiptoeing back and forth with nonchalant commitment.

Watch the cartoon.

80 years ago...
Feet First; November 8, 1930
starring Harold Lloyd
written by John Grey, Al Cohn, Clyde Bruckman, Felix Adler, Lex Neal, Paul Girard Smith
directed by Clyde Bruckman

Story: A shoe salesman tries to convince the boss' daughter he's millionaire; sooner or later he ends up hanging from a building.

An early Harold Lloyd talkie in which, to compensate for the lack of sound, he returns to his favorite device (see above). The stunts echo Safety Last! and Never Weaken - nobody could do agoraphobia better than Lloyd. Commentators seem mixed on the film's effectiveness; even those who praise it can't help comparing it to his past triumphs. (It should be noted that not only the high-jinx hijinks echo Safety Last, so does the made-it-good hoax Lloyd pulls on his lover.) While dismissing the majority of the film's plot, Jay Seaver of eFilm Critic finds the climax more rewarding than anything in Lloyd's silent output: "Many of the same tricks are used as were used in Safety Last, but the camera pulls further back and the background changes more often, giving the appearance, at least, of a more "real" shoot. It's impressive stuntwork and great editing, with things paced very well indeed."

Watch a scene.

90 years ago...
Erotikon; November 10, 1920
starring Anders de Wahl, Tora Teje and Karin Molander
written by Gustaf Molander, Arthur Nedron, Mauritz Stiller (from Ferenc Herczeg's play)
directed by Mauritz Stiller

Story: An entomologist explores the sexual lives of insect - and people - as relationships monogamous, bigamous, and polygamous intersect and unwind.

Stiller was one of the great directors of the silent era - his Saga of Gosta Berling was an early Garbo vehicle with a sweeping story, and it rated as one of my favorite films of the twenties. Though Erotikon is available on Netflix, no clips of exist online so I've included a clip from Gosta Berling below instead. In Slant, Eric Henderson observes that Erotikon "isn't among Stiller's preeminent work (nor does it compare to genuine silent cinema raunch)" though others disagree: it placed just outside the top 150 on Allan Fish's "nearlies" list for the silent era. Yet Henderson does praise the film's "pervasive atmosphere of deferred coitus, in which psychic pelvic thrust end up physically manifesting the hump elsewhere, including—in the film's outré centerpiece—an extended balletic performance in which Preben's misgivings about daydreaming about the shape of his best friend's wife's ass cheeks chasse their way right in front of his box-seat binoculars."

Watch a clip from another Stiller film, The Saga of Gosta Berling.

100 years ago...
The Fugitive; November 7, 1910
starring Kate Bruce, Edward Dillon, Clara T. Bracy
written by John McDonagh
directed by D.W. Griffith

Story: A Northern soldier must hide in the home of a Southern woman - mother of the Confederate he shot on the battlefield!

Clever bit of plotting, though modern perspectives on its effectiveness are mixed. In the IMDb comments, wes-conners finds its "a nice idea, but rather slightly told," while aimless-46 finds it "surprisingly moving." The film is available in its entirety online, so make up your own mind. I found it as effective as aimless suggests. What's compelling here is how the storytelling is not particularly economical; Griffith lets the human moments draw themselves out - already he's thinking like a director of features. Curiously, the scenes outside the Northern homestead are composed and blocked much more strongly than their Southern correspondents; I wonder if this is because the "Northern" location was more limited, forcing the camera into a fixed perspective which ends up inadvertently enriching the scene and playing into the emotional depth. The Fugitive is also interesting as an early exercise in Civil War parallelism, which would play such a major role in Birth of a Nation. Incidentally, the film's author, McDonaugh, was six years shy of participating in the Irish uprising of 1916, leading us right back to Ryan's Daughter - how's that for a connection!

Watch the film.

6 comments:

Jaime Grijalba said...

"The Grinch" was a movie I didn't love, but didn't exactly hate. Being unfamiliar with the original Seuss's story, I just watched it as a kid's comedy (thing I still was, 10 years old) and later catching pieces of it on TV realizing that much of the humor is quite... ehm... adult for a kid's movie.
"Home Alone" was probably my favorite movie for a long time when I was a kid, but I couldn't really decide which was since I confused it with the second one. I agree that it doesn't really hold up, but it really activates nostalgia.

MovieMan0283 said...

Yes it does! I'd watch it again in a second if it was on TV. Grinch I don't think I've seen in its entirety.

J.D. said...

I remember thinking HOME ALONE was "Okay" when I first say it back in the day. It's popped up on cable recently and I watched it again and realized that Kevin's parents are the worst ever! Just awful in their neglect of the poor kid. I actually enjoyed the film a lot more and it has aged surprisingly well. I think it works best if you engage it as basically a live-action cartoon with Culkin running around bopping Pesci and Stern over the head repeatedly. Nice to see John Candy in a small role. I really miss him and it reminds me that I need to watch UNCLE BUCK again.

Joe Thompson said...

I saw a glimpse of "Grinch" on TV and changed channels. I loved the book and the Chuck Jones animated version with Boris Karloff.

"Home Alone" was sadistic, but not fun sadistic. John Candy was my favorite part.

"North to Alaska" was fun, but I always feel sad that Ernie Kovacs died soon after. He was good.

Walter Kerr's theory in "The Silent Clowns" was that "Feet First" was not as good as "Safety Last," even though it recycled a lot of the same material, because it wasn't as much fun listening to a guy yelling "Help!" so much. Also, the silent movie was undercranked so the characters moved quicker.

Thanks for including the link to "The Fugitive." It would have been more effective with a suitable score, but it was good. Good observation about the Northern scenes being more constrained. Nice print.

Sam Juliano said...

This was a big favorite in my hourse years ago, but what with the sequels saturation this idea, it morphed into a hack franchise. As Jaime says here it does activate some nostalgia though.

MovieMan0283 said...

Joe & Sam,

Joe,

I tend to just shut off silent movie music at this point, more immersive and yeah, the music's usually not very good! Candy may very well be the best part of HA, RIP. I love the Kerr quote - I may use that in the future.

Sam,

I certainly never bothered with Home Alone 3 or, was there a 4?! Belonged to a different generation altogether, and I'm not sure they want them either, haha.

Sorry for delay in posting comments, all. Thanks for dropping by.