14 December 2014

Olivier, Kerr, Chaplin, Groucho, Capra, all Featureed in the First Six Films of My Holiday Season Viewing Binge

According to a noted Christmas Carol, “it’s the most wonderful time of the year.” No argument from me especially in light of me having two weeks off from work and thus many extra hours available for — what else — watching films. My vacation started Friday afternoon though I got a little practice on Thursday as school was closed due to a power outage. With a solid two weeks still to go I’ve watched — thanks to Thursday — six movies. A sluggish start I admit but I’m sure things will pick up as I get into a good groove.

I thought I’d favor readers (both of us) with periodic posts in which I said a few words about the movies that have entertained or inspired or bored or enlightened me this fortnight. And so I begin.

Marathon Man (1976). Laurence Olivier and Dustin Hoffman. That's pretty much all you need right there. The two of them could just be chatting over a game of checkers and you'd have a movie. But Marathon Man is a smart thriller and Olivier plays one of the great cinematic Nazis of all time in Christian Szell, albeit one we meet many years after the Third Reich has crumbled. Hoffman plays a grad student and the eponymous runner who stumbles into international intrigue in large part because his big brother (Roy Scheider, no slouch either when it came to acting) who is a spy. There is a Seventies style sophistication to the story along with a strong dose of paranoia. It's a damn good movie and there's a lot more going on then just admiring Olivier and Hoffman.

Black Narcissus (1947). Who was that idiot that didn't like this film the first time he saw it? The same blockhead who only kind of liked it the second time. That would be yours truly. Anyway after this, my fourth viewing, I finally recognize it as a classic. I know, what took me? It still -- you should excuse the expression -- blows my mind that this was not actually filmed in the Himalayas. Nope, all shot at studios in the UK. The legendary Jack Cardiff was the cinematographer and he is one of the three or four greatest to ever get behind a camera. BN is an absolutely exquisite film to look at. Technicolor has never looked better. Of course there's a story being told and Deborah Kerr is in it and she made every film better for her appearance. But there is also Kathleen Byron as the nun gone wild. My goodness but she is creepy and effecting and even beguiling. I can only wonder that she wasn't a bigger star. I can also only wonder that it took me so long to appreciate this masterpiece from Powell and Pressburger.

The Gold Rush (1925). Charlie Chaplin came as close as anyone could to making a perfect film. And he did it several times. Gold Rush is one such effort. Let's all say it together: Chaplin was a genius. It's long been a cliche which doesn't make it any less true. But the proof is in his films where the comedy is meticulously choreographed. Chaplin took his time between and on film projects and it shows. There's not a wasted screen second. Georgia Hale as the love interest is on the most striking leading ladies in all of Chaplin's films. And this ranks right up there among his five best.

The Small Back Room (1949). I've been working my way though the films of Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger and have found some real gems and only a few clunkers (I'm looking at you Colonel Blimp) but this one falls squarely into the mediocre category. I wanted to like The Small Back Room and ultimately thought it okay but goodness it dragged in parts. Kathleen Byron was in this film too but in nowhere near as juicy a part. David Farrar had the meaty role as the tortured bomb disposal expert, Sammy Rice. He's lost a leg and is hoping not to lose a struggle with drugs or with his love and on and on and its a helluva story idea but not quite pulled off. The film is also known as Hour of Glory but I'm going with the original title.

Duck Soup (1933). When I cranked out the first ever list of my favorite films of all time some 20 plus years ago, I shared it with a co-worker. She scoffed at my inclusion of this, the greatest of the Marx Brothers' films. Let the record show she was -- and likely still is -- an idiot on a number of topics. Truly this is a great film. GREAT. Not just a great Marx Brothers film, not just a great comedy, a great film. It may well be that I've seen Duck Soup more than any other film and I still laugh throughout and I still enjoy every minute of it. The kind of non stop wit that comes from Groucho isn't heard in films anymore.  Three examples: 1) "Remember, you're fighting for this woman's honor, which is probably more than she ever did." 2)"Clear? Huh. Why a four-year-old child could understand this report. Run out and find me a four-year-old child, I can't make head or tail of it." 3) "You're a brave man. Go and break through the lines. And remember, while you're out there risking your life and limb through shot and shell, we'll be in be in here thinking what a sucker you are." And I rest my case. Kudos to Leo McCarey who directed.

Meet John Doe (1941). I like Gary Cooper and am head over heels in love with Barbara Stanwyck.They are the two stars of this very Capraesque Frank Capra film. But if you want to see some scene stealing check out James Gleason. I'm not going to recount the whole movie, after all you've seen it a dozen times or more like I have, right? But as a refresher, Gleason played the editor of the paper where Stanwyck concocted the John Doe stories. He's the stereotypically cynical, tough as nails ,bottom line type of boss that is quite common both on and off screen and were a particular staple of movies of the Thirties and Forties. It's all pretty standard fare though a cut above most characters until a scene in a bar when he drunkenly professes to John Doe (Cooper) his love of country and bitterness at what is being done to it by the likes of the evil D.B. Norton (Edward Arnold). It's a powerful bit of acting and the scene marks a critical turning point late in the film in which Doe realizes that evil and powerful political forces mean to usurp the John Doe love thy neighbor movement. It's one of my favorite film scenes of all time.

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