15 September 2009

What a Great Start! My Favorite Opening Movie Scenes (Part Two)




Last week I brought you the first of a three part look at some of my favorite opening scenes. As I said then a great opening is no guarantee of a great film and some of the best of movies develop slowly. (See that post for the full introduction.) The opening sequence of a film should not only capture our immediate attention but set the tone and mood for what is to come. Here are four more of my favorite opening scenes.

The Searchers (1956). Not without justification it is the closing scene of this John Ford film that has been widely celebrated throughout the years. But the opening bookends it perfectly. From complete darkness a door opens and the figure of a woman stands in silhouette. Slowly she moves forward looking out onto the bright colors of a rugged and picturesque countryside. She's looking at something though we can't see for sure what. Now the camera focuses on her from the front and we see that she is a handsome woman of middle age. Next, in the distance, we see what she's been looking at it. It's a man on horseback. The horse is meandering towards the house. She is joined on the porch by another man who asks "Ethan?" and walks past her to meet the horseman.
It's a beautiful opening and has us immediately curious about the man on the horse. Surely he is of great importance to these people. The movement from darkness to wide open spacious color sets the stage for the story about to be told. This is the scene to watch for students of any class entitled "John Ford Appreciation 101."

Gold Diggers of 1933 (1933). We open with a lavish musical number. Right smack in the depths of the Depression a huge stage production fully costumed of "We're in the money." A Busby Berkley extravaganza all the way. The lead singer is no less than Ginger Rogers. The spell is momentarily broken by a shot of the audience section where we see but one man (Ned Sparks). He's looking on with interest but seems a wee bit glum. A huge cigar is clenched between his teeth. All this is a rehearsal. But then its back on stage where there are girls, girls and more girls in elaborate costumes. Then its just Ginger again and what's this? She's singing the song in Pig Latin! Back to standard English and a very non standard lavish production number. Another shot of the audience. This time we see a few more people in the audience and the orchestra. But the real downer comes when a man with a badge leads a group into the theater to "collect." Everything must go. The creditors are closing the show! The set and costumes are being taken lock stock and barrel, sometimes for laughs.
So what is this anyway? A musical? A story about the Depression? A comedy? Yes on all counts. This first and best of the Gold Diggers film from director Mervin LeRoy wastes no time introducing us to all three of its aspects. We can't wait for what happens next. Will it be in Pig Latin?


To Be Or Not To Be (1942). As we watch placid street scenes in what is clearly a large city, a narrator tells us we are in Warsaw. He adds that it is August 1939 and Europe is still at peace. We know that the following month war would break out and Poland would be the first country to truly suffer, Warsaw included. This adds pathos to the scene. But our narrator's voice suddenly quickens with excitement and alarm as we see strolling citizens stop in their tracks and look in wonder. At what? We see cars stop, as the narrator says, "Are those Poles seeing a ghost? Why does this car suddenly top? Everybody seems to be staring in one direction. People seem to be frightened, even terrified, some flabbergasted. Can it be true? It must be true, no doubt. The man with the little moustache. Adolph Hitler." And yes, there he is, Der Fuhrer. All by himself in Warsaw. What the....? The narrator now explains that it all started in the Gestapo's Berlin headquarters and that's where the scene shifts. There ensues a rather odd scene with Jack Benny playing a Gestapo officer. Eventually Hitler enters the room and receives the obligatory "Heil Hitlers" answering with a "heil myself." At this farcical moment we see a man in a suit rise from a table and realize that we've just been watching a play rehearsal. We further realize that the Hitler in Warsaw was an actor.
Maybe they didn't have us going but they sure had us wondering. Part of the charm of this opening is that the film was made in 1942, as war raged throughout Europe and the world. To Be or Not to Be, from director Ernest Lubitsch and starring Carole Lombard along with Benny, manages to be funny about Nazis and the war while both are very much a going concern, so to speak. A seemingly impossible feat. The opening establishes this and prepares us for a wonderful satire.


Annie Hall (1976). The opening credits end and there's Woody Allen from the chest up looking right at us and he's just starting in on an old joke. It's a classic one too about an old lady complaining about bad food at a resort and her friend agreeing saying "and in such small portions." Allen explains that that's life. Full of misery and heartache and all over too quickly. Another couple of jokes and then Allen veers course by telling of his break up with Annie; it has clearly effected him deeply. He also talks about aging then segues into his childhood. As he talks about growing up in Brooklyn during World War II the scene shifts there. We see a young Allen and his mother.
At the time of its release Annie Hall was a revolutionary film in many ways not the least for the opening. Imagine the chutzpah of a star/writer/director to start a film by talking directly to the audience. It worked in large part because the star in question was a well known figure, initially famous for his work as a stand up comic. Allen's daring gambit succeeded wonderfully. We had met a funny and engaging character who obviously had a love story to relate, one we knew had ended. The story would further be full of humorous asides and nostalgic looks back. We were immediately interested and had a sense of what we were in for -- a classic film.


(Part three next week.)

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