Amsterdam, Tolerance, and George Stevens’ ‘The Diary of Anne Frank’

In September, I spent a month traveling Europe with my best friend. I’d never been to Europe. Heck, I’d never even been on a plane. Thus, this trip was a little frightening but also terribly, terribly exciting.

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My bestie and I in Dublin, Ireland

I thought that since it’s been a while since I’ve posted, it’d be fun to cover one movie for each of the places I visited. So, of course, I’m starting with the most depressing.

The first is Amsterdam. I was lucky enough a few years back to attend a screening of this film at the TCM Film Fest. Its stars Diane Baker and Millie Perkins were even in attendance to discuss the film afterwards. It’s a film which is not easy to forget. It was only made twenty years after and so, the events were still fresh. The film’s director, Mr. George Stevens, had seen the consequences of the holocaust firsthand.

I, myself, read the book when I was in middle school. I remember the overwhelming nature of the story – I was still in my phase of always wanting a happy ending. I knew before I read it that it did not end happily, but reading it was still a more emotional experience than I expected it to be. I was 13, just as Anne was at the beginning of her diary and it was hard for me to grasp that this wasn’t just a story, that this had really happened, that a girl not dissimilar from me had been murdered.

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Anne in the first class of Jewish Secondary school, 1941

I saw the movie afterwards and remember liking it, though when I saw it on the big screen at the TCM Fest, I was absorbed in a completely different way. The claustrophobia and anxiety was palpable and I was a mess (even through my mother constantly leaning over to ask me how much was left – she’s not good in long movies).

When I sat down to write, this was the first movie which popped into my head, mostly because with recent events like what happened in Charlottesville, Virginia, I have been thinking about Anne’s diary and George Steven’s adaptation a lot. I think, more than ever before, this film and Anne’s outlook on the world is of the utmost importance.

Believe it or not, the actress that director George Stevens first had in mind to play Anne was not an unknown. Instead, it was a little actress by the name of Audrey Hepburn. At the time, Hepburn was twenty-eight, not to mention the fact that she was not Jewish. Hepburn had, however lived through that period in Amsterdam and witnessed the horrors of the Holocaust.

Still, either because of scheduling conflicts or mixed feelings, Hepburn turned down the part and Stevens was forced to do a large casting call where he finally found Millie Perkins, a model from Passaic, New Jersey. Perkins was twenty at the time and completely green, which I think ultimately, made her the perfect actress to play Anne. She was unassuming and tenacious, just like Anne, and she hit every dramatic beat perfectly.

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Love the B&W cinematography

Diane Baker was also a newcomer, playing Anne’s older sister, Margot. She brought a vulnerability and sweetness to the part and obviously, went on to do great things in movies like The Silence of the Lambs and many others.

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The main cast crowded into one photo

Shelley Winters was totally committed to her role of Mrs. Van Daan. She was asked by George Stevens to gain twenty-five pounds for the role. She said she’d gain fifty if necessary. She and Stevens had collaborated once before on A Place in the Sun and she had the utmost respect and confidence for him.

Someone who doesn’t get his due is Richard Beymer, who plays Anne’s love interest, Peter. Though Beymer maybe shouldn’t have been cast as Tony in West Side Story, his charm can’t be discarded. You can totally see why Anne falls for him.

My Amsterdam Experience (Visiting the Anne Frank House)

Amsterdam was my favorite place. I’m not sure if it was the great food, or the friendly people, or the gorgeous canals. Regardless, it was beautiful and fascinating city, even if they do make you press a button to get off the train at your stop (TBH the transportation was so confusing).

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The canals were gorgeous!

Having grown up hearing stories about the Holocaust in Hebrew school as well as reading the diary itself, I thought I was fairly knowledgable about the subject. Still, when the tour guide started taking us through the history, the gravity of the situation hit me. At many points leading up to the Holocaust, many people, including the Franks thought it impossible. No one could imagine such horror would actually take place, that people would give in to hatred and bigotry.

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Anne and Otto Frank

Walking through the Anne Frank house itself was different than what I expected. It was a lot smaller than I imagined it to be, especially Anne and Margot’s room. There was newspaper clippings, all over the walls, movie stars they liked. Funnily enough, there were quite a few photos of Deanna Durbin.

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This, for some reason, got me the most. 

It was an emotional experience, but an important one. Whether or not Anne’s diary was given some help by her father after his death or not, the feelings behind it, what her diary represented is what matters. In such a cynical time, Anne’s optimistic view of humanity is vital.

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The first page of Anne’s diary

Living in a country where we, the people elected Donald Trump doesn’t feel a step in the direction of tolerance. Still, I can either be cynical and rant about how it feels like the world is ending or I can do my part: pay attention, speak out against injustices, promote tolerance, and try my hardest to see the good in people.

This film may not be cheerful, but it’s poignancy can’t be denied. George Stevens was known for his comedic sensibility. He directed Swing Time, the best Fred Astaire/Ginger Rogers film IMHO, and a string of great screwball comedies like Woman of the Year and The More the Merrier. However, when after he came back from being part of a film unit which documented the war, he didn’t make comedies anymore. Instead, he chose to direct important dramas like A Place in the Sun and Giant.

While there have been other adaptations of Anne’s diary, Stevens’ is IMHO the best. I’ve spoken before on this blog about our inability to grasp events that happened before we were born. It’s one of the reasons film is such a powerful medium. We can watch The Diary of Anne Frank and gain a new perspective; understand that these events did take place and that we all need to do our part to make sure they never happen again.

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I love this quote. Words matter. 

Photos property of Twentieth Century Fox.

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The insanity of Kirk Douglas in “Detective Story”

As most of you know, I don’t think of myself as someone who loves film noir. I’m generally turned off by the words as I associate them with films about angry men and murder. There are great movies often put in the category of film noir which subvert these stereotypes. And don’t get me wrong, I know I’m being unfair – some of those gangster, angry men films about murder are really good!

All this to say, I wasn’t over-the-moon excited to see Detective Story at this year’s TCM Film Festival. However, this was on my dad’s must list, so it was required viewing for me, just like Bye Bye Birdie was required viewing for him. Surprisingly, I was so mesmerized by Detective Story and Kirk Douglas’s insane performance that I ended up counting it as one of my favorite experiences from this year’s festival.

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He’s a little nutty.

If you’ve never seen Detective Story, (which, y’know, no judgement), it follows Detective Jim McLeod (Kirk Douglas), a hardworking guy in love with his beautiful wife, Mary (Eleanor Parker). We see a day in his life at the police station, where he fights for justice. However, when one of his cases ends up connecting to Mary and a secret in her past, James is not exactly levelheaded. Also at the station that day are a cast of crazy characters including a shoplifter (Lee Grant) and 

Here are just a few reasons you should give Detective Story a watch:

The Cast

Kirk Douglas has been crazy in many of his performances, but Detective Story was when he graduated to straight up CRAY. He also made Billy Wilder’s acclaimed satire, Ace in the Hole, the same year. I almost feel like Kirk’s acting style was ahead of his time. Although the film is basically a filmed play, Kirk’s intense performance makes you feel like he was really trying to “live” his role. He apparently did follow around New York City police detectives to prepare for the role.

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TBH he seems a little more than annoyed…

At the festival, Actress Lee Grant was interviewed about her experience working on the film and how she dealt with being on the Hollywood blacklist for more than a decade. She really is quite the revelation in this film. Lee plays the “shoplifter,” a part she desperately wanted. She was originally offered the part of the ingenue in the stage play, but thought it was a boring part and so fought for this one. She was 24 at the time and just after she was nominated for a best supporting actress Oscar, Grant was blacklisted for speaking at a known Communist’s funeral. She lost several years of her film career, but filled her time working on the stage. Now, she’s an accomplished writer and director who aims to represent the people who can’t speak for themselves.

Lee is so incredibly funny in Detective Story and she literally steals every scene she’s in.

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A totally natural way to leave a police station. Gotta say goodbye. Just good manners…

Eleanor Parker is also wonderful as Kirk’s wife with a secret past. She’s feminist and speaks truth to stupid. #TheFutureIsFemale

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Don’t you love old trailers? SO EPIC.

The supporting players are also wonderful – William Bendix, Cathy O’Donnell, George MacReady, and Horace McHanon.

The Script

Pulitzer prize-winning playwright Sidney Knight wrote the stage play of Detective Story, which was adapted for the screen by Robert Wyler. I love plays so to me, it’s no shocker why this film hit with me. It’s, in my mom’s coined phrase, “talky, talky, shit, shit, shit.” I love it though because it’s all about the character development, about the small moments. Also, as heavy as the film can be, there’s a lot of humor which I always appreciate.

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Seriously, WTF does this even mean? DUMP THIS GUY!

The Direction

William Wyler was no stranger to adapting stage plays for the screen. In fact, one such adaptation, The Heiress, I’ve already discussed on this blog and it’s one of my favorite films. Wyler was wonderful with actors and in a film so dependent on performances, he certainly deserves credit.

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Intense, NO?

The Cinematography

Lee Garmes of Scarface and Duel in the Sun took a filmed play and added new dimensions, using deep focus. He makes it feel cinematic.

The Production Code

This film was obviously made while the production code was in effect and the Breen office had several problems with Kingsley’s play as it was. Most specifically, they took issue with the play having an abortionist character. In the film, the dialogue is vague, but looking at it today, it’s pretty easy to see that’s what they’re talking about. Additionally, they had a problem with any law enforcement officer being killed, but they made an exception for this film.

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My favorite line in the film. Look at his eyes. LOL.

It’s a thought-provoking, emotional, hilarious crime drama

And it’s one-hundred percent worth your time, mostly for the outstanding performances by Kirk Douglas and a very young Lee Grant. Times have changed and there are moments of this film that feel very outdated, but that to me, is the magic of film. It’s a snapshot of a time and a place and specifically, in this film, how the country addressed difficult issues such as abortion.

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CC: my mother

Vintage trailer below:

Photos and Gifs property of Paramount Pictures.

Revelations about and because of James L. Brooks’ ‘Broadcast News’

First things first – so sorry I have been MIA over the last month! The movie watching has not stopped (if it had you know something would have to be SERIOUSLY wrong). I have been watching ’em and making my list of movies to discuss and over the next several weeks, I’m finally going to get to it!

Okay, now that we’ve gotten that out of the way, let’s talk about the brilliant, hilarious and extremely relevant film Broadcast News. This was a movie I had seen several years ago, as a young teenager. Although I remember liking the film a lot, this second viewing at this year’s TCM Classic Film Festival, was surprising. Some films just have to be seen as an older person to be appreciated and I think Broadcast News is definitely one of them.

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TBH…their conversation was straight-up hilarious. 

Prolific producer/writer/director James L. Brooks’ Broadcast News follows Jane Craig (Holly Hunter), a quickly rising tv news producer. She’s smart as a whip and literally thinks twelve steps ahead of everyone else around her. Her best friend is the hilarious, smart and IMHO very cute Aaron Altman (Albert Brooks). He’s one-hundred percent in love with Jane, something you can see five minutes into watching their relationship. A new anchor, Tom Grunick (William Hurt) comes onto the scene, pulling both at Jane’s heartstrings and encroaching on Aaron’s professional territory. In other words…DRAMA ENSUESSSSSSS.

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Burrrrrrrn. Really, though. I told you there’d be some drama. 

Here are just a few reasons Broadcast News is a movie you honestly should’ve put on your rundown (bad news pun)…like years ago!

The Cast

As I’ve said a bajillion times on this blog, casting is so important to how a movie turns out. If you cast people that are fun and relatable and just plain entertaining to watch, the characters can grow beyond just some lines of dialogue on a piece of paper. This film is a classic example of quite honestly, perfect casting.

One of the revelations from the TCM fest panel with James L. Brooks and Albert Brooks (no relation, guys, I swear) was that Holly Hunter was cast at the last minute and another unnamed actress almost got the part. Hunter was a virtual unknown at the time. She had just filmed Raising Arizona, a film which was only released a few months before Broadcast News. Hunter is the true anchor of the film, a confusing choice of words because she plays the executive producer of the news show in the film.

As a young woman, I find her portrayal of Jane to be so relatable. She’s so human and so complicated and filled with contradictions and you could never watch her and feel disconnected to her struggles.

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#RealTalk…I cry at least once a day.

Albert Brooks is so completely underrated. In the Q&A between Albert Brooks and James L. Brooks which was helmed by Ben Mankiewicz, Albert said he felt that Jane was never going to ultimately get with Aaron. Watching the film again, which was after the Q&A, I was like outrageously angry at Jane. If you were Jane, WHY WOULDN’T YOU GET WITH AARON? I mean, he’s intelligent, he’s funny, he’s self deprecating. He’s cute and a good person. I mean, come on, really though! I think this really goes to the heart of two arguments for me: one is attraction is about MORE than looks. The other is that I’m tired of movies never letting the actual good guy, the “underdog” get the girl. I mean, this is another Pretty in Pink scenario, guys. She belonged with Duckie, not that rich asshole.

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I flinch every time I watch this scene…

Whew, thanks for letting me get out, y’all. Back to Albert Brooks being awesome. He, separate from his character, is smart and literally hilarious. If you need some proof, just watch this clip from The Tonight Show back in the 70’s.

Now, I know what you’re thinking – I just wrote a literal lovefest about Albert Brooks. How am I possibly going to sing William Hurt’s praises too? Well, you’re about to find out. I do understand Jane’s attraction to Hurt’s Tom Grunick. Grunick is charming and obviously adorable. And, the thing is, Hurt is extremely intelligent so his portrayal of a dunce is actually quite funny. He’s also a fantastic actor who was already an Academy Award winner at the time they filmed Broadcast News.

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He’s a little freaked out…but his hair looks amazing!

The supporting players are also fantastic – Robert Prosky, a wonderful character actor plays the head of the news division. Jack Nicholson plays Bill Rorish, the top news anchor with an ego, quite a stretch for Nicholson! Cough, cough.

The real supporting MVP of the film though is one Joan Cusack. I’ve heard people refer to her as John Cusack’s sister which, is, of course, true but also infuriating. Do you think people refer to John Cusack as Joan Cusack’s brother? I think not! Okay, now I’m getting off topic. The upshot of it is she is a star in her own right and she is fantastic in this film. For real though, she delivers my favorite line in the film which she says to Holly Hunter’s Jane in tears: “Except for socially, you’re my role model.” Laugh-cry are the only words that can describe that moment.

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JOAN CUSACK IS EVERYTHING. 

The Script

Beyond the cast, the other essential piece of this film is the script. It is so wildly funny while also being relatable, relevant and moving. James L. Brooks wrote this as a romantic comedy which kind of cracks me up considering how the film ends.

Still, what movie being made today covers the same ground as Broadcast News? It’s essentially about people, but it’s also about the current (at the time obvi) state of television news, the ethics in telling a story, the moral obligation to be truthful. In this way, it’s an obvious precursor to Sorkin’s The Newsroom. His characters, too, are very preoccupied with the ethics of being a news reporter.

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Hmmm…I don’t know about that. #Rationalization

I especially liked the focus on the three main characters since they were all so different, but still human and likable.

Tom is the handsome idiot, except he isn’t. Tom has a skill set that both Aaron and Jane are missing. He knows how to present information in a trustworthy, confident way.

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Even his hair is trustworthy…lol

Jane is a career girl and I think the real reason she struggles socially is not because she’s incapable, but because she believes the only way to excel in her career is to block out everything else.

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Lesson learned: DO NOT MESS WITH HOLLY HUNTER

Aaron, on the other hand, is intensely smart but also neurotic, which is what ultimately is blocking him. He can’t stop thinking for a minute…which of course, I don’t relate to at all.

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The FUNNIEST scene in the movie, but it’s also a bit hard to watch. 

The Romance

As you all know from reading my movie musings, I’m a fan of the romance. Whether the romance is a fan of me is another story…lol. But, seriously, the romance in this film is wonderful because like some of my other all time favorites, this film covers mature romantic struggles.

With Aaron and Jane, we are presented with one of the most used stereotypes from romcoms: the best friend who’s in love with the main character. I think they both want to love each other in that way, but the timing gets in the way. Jane’s not ready to let someone in while Aaron is more than ready.

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That flinch THO. #RealityBites

 

And then Tom enters their lives and catches Jane’s attention. He’s attractive and confident and interested…and they do actually feel real things for each other. But, again, Jane lets her walls get in the way, because, timing-wise, she’s just not ready.

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He’s so TALL.

I think this is something not generally discussed in romantic films, the idea of not being ready for someone when they come into your life. There’s a reality there, so much so that when you see these three characters meet each other again at the end of the film, it doesn’t feel forced.

Because it’s still relevant, absolutely hilarious, and filled with brilliant dialogue and fantastic performances!

If you’ve never seen Broadcast News, you need to watch ASAP. If you have seen it, I guarantee it warrants another look, if only to realize just how much you relate to Holly Hunter’s character…or maybe that’s just me. I don’t think so…lol.

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Vintage trailer below:

Gifs property of Twentieth Century Fox.

The major momma drama of ‘Mildred Pierce’

One of my biggest pet peeves in talking to my peers about classic film is when they tell me, “How can you like movies without complex female characters?” I’m not sure where this assumption started, but a lot of people believe that there is a lack of strong female characters in classic cinema.

That couldn’t be further from the truth. Especially in the pre-code era, complex women were everywhere! If you don’t believe me, just look up Baby Face or The Divorcee. The movie I want to discuss today, Mildred Pierce, is ALL about complicated women.

I first saw this movie back in high school. I didn’t know anything about it and so, each melodramatic twist hit me hard! What surprised me the most was that the film didn’t shy away from making the characters unlikable. Even the titular Mildred is far from being a perfect person!

If you’re not familiar, Mildred Pierce, made in 1945, follows Mildred (Joan Crawford), a mother blinded by the love for her two daughters, Veda (Ann Blyth) and Kay (Jo Ann Marlowe). When she splits with her husband, Bert (Bruce Bennett), Mildred works to give her daughters the life she believes they deserve. She becomes a successful businesswoman and even finds a new man, Monte Beragon (Zachary Scott), but is it enough to win her daughters’ respect and love? Let’s just say, lots of momma drama ensues!

Here are just a few reasons you need to watch Mildred Pierce NOW:

The Cast

Joan Crawford won an Oscar for her career-defining performance as Mildred, but she was not the original choice for the role. In fact, they offered the role to three other actresses including Bette Davis and Barbara Stanwyck before finally offering it to Joan. Michael Curtiz, the film’s director thought Stanwyck a has-been and apparently really didn’t like her shoulder pads. She surprised them all by giving a truly Oscar-worthy, nuanced performance as Mildred.

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And her fashion is on point too, no?

I had the pleasure of seeing this film at the TCM Film Festival a few years back with Ann Blyth in attendance for a Q&A afterwards. Blyth was just seventeen years old when she played Veda, Mildred’s vapid, beautiful daughter. She’s deliciously evil and obnoxious. Apparently, the Academy thought so as well since they gave her an Oscar nod for Best Supporting Actress.

Of working with Crawford, Blyth “…remembered her as “the kindest, most helpful human being I’ve ever worked with. We remained friends for many years after the film. I never knew that other Joan Crawford that people wrote about (Blyth, TCM Article).”

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THAT FAMOUS SLAP.

Also, this is a fascinating piece TCM put together a few years ago. Lots of interesting tidbits! Ann talks about THE SLAP. It’s great.

Eve Arden is also wonderful as Ida, Mildred’s business party and best friend. She takes snark to a whole new level.

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Mildred doesn’t look too happy about this toast.

Jack Carson, Zachary Scott, Bruce Bennett, and Jo Ann Marlowe also give great performances.

The Script

The script was based on a James M. Cain novel. He also wrote Double Indemnity and The Postman Always Rings Twice. Mildred Pierce wasn’t one of his bestselling novels, but nevertheless, it caught the attention of producer Jerry Wald, who took charge of the project.

There’s much debate about whether the film is really a film noir or a women’s melodrama. Certainly, the subject matter seems more female oriented than most film noirs. But, still, the main plot surrounds a murder (very film noir). Certainly, this film is more a character drama than anything else. Mildred is fascinating. She’s not a bad person. But, she does do bad things for her daughter. She has blinders on, only seeing the goal of trying to provide for her daughter.

Blyth’s Veda is similarly complex. We wonder how she became this way, this self centered, money hungry young girl. She will, like Mildred, go to any lengths to achieve her goal, even if that means spurning her mother. But, there are moments when she seems human and child-like, and that makes her difficult to hate completely.

To me, the film feels like it’s partially about not seeing what’s really there. To an extent, we see what we want to see, in our family members especially. When Mildred really does see Veda, it’s devastating.

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Just a mother trying to provide for her daughter…

The Direction

Michael Curtiz’s name is not as well known as it should be. After all, he directed such classics as Casablanca and Yankee Doodle Dandy. He apparently did not see eye to eye with Crawford, “…referring to her as “Phony Joanie” and “the rotten bitch,” laying into her mercilessly in front of cast and crew (Rob Nixon and Stephanie Thames, TCM Article).” They apparently did build a respect as the film went on, but Jerry Wald often acted as referee between them. Despite the feeling behind the scenes, the film Curtiz made is nuanced and masterfully directed. Given the fact that it was so female-oriented, I thought he did a great job portraying their struggles without belittling them.

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Bills, bills, bills. I feel you, Mildred.

The Score

Max Steiner is most well known for scoring Gone with the Wind, which makes complete sense when you listen to Mildred Pierce‘s score. It has an epic quality to it. There are moments of the film which may have benefited from a lack of score, but still, Steiner’s score is pretty hard to hate. It lends a dramatic quality to literally every line.

The Cinematography

Like the score, Mildred Pierce also borrowed Gone with the Wind DP Ernest Haller. Haller also shot Rebel Without a Cause and Whatever Happened to Baby Jane in his long career. Film noir, despite the way it’s discussed now, is really a style. Haller helps create that style, the shadowy darkness. The black and white is gorgeous and haunting.

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Just look at the water…HAUNTING, amiright?

It’s a bombastic, affecting, female-driven film noir.

You watch this movie now and you can’t not be amazed – that they got the story and dialogue past the censors, that Crawford and Blyth are SO good, and that it is completely female driven. It was a true game-changer. It revitalized Crawford’s career and started Blyth’s. Is it melodramatic? Yes, of course. But, that’s the fun of it.

The book was remade into a miniseries by HBO in 2011 and although I love Kate Winslet and Evan Rachel Wood, the movie still reigns supreme. If you’ve never seen Mildred Pierce, you’re in for a treat and some really fun momma drama!

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Is it wrong that I’m distracted by how cute her dress is?

Vintage trailer below:

BONUS: I came across this wonderful parody of Mildred Pierce, which was done on the Carol Burnett show in the 1970’s. Carol as Joan is ON POINT. 

Images and gifs property of Warner Bros. Pictures.

The Weight of ‘A Place in the Sun’

I didn’t always like A Place in the Sun. In fact, I pretty adamantly hated it. I still remember the first time I saw it. I turned to my dad after the film ended and said, “That’s it?” He nodded, “Yep, that’s it.” I was LIVID. What was the point?

I felt like the time I had put in to watching the film was a waste. I was young, maybe twelve or so. I think, at that point, I still believed that every story needed to have a happy ending. Since A Place in the Sun did not, I dismissed it. It wasn’t until a few years after that when I decided to watch the film again, that I realized everything I had been missing.

A Place in the Sun, made in 1951, follows George Eastman (Montgomery Clift), a poor young man who moves to the big city just looking for a job. His uncle gives him a job at his factory. There, George meets and starts a relationship with Alice Tripp (Shelley Winters), a quiet young woman who works at the factory. Feeling obligated, George’s uncle invites George to a party at his house. There, everything changes because he meets Angela Vickers (Elizabeth Taylor), a gorgeous, young socialite. They quickly fall in love. Only problem is Alice becomes pregnant. Let’s just say DRAMA ENSUES.

Since TCM is honoring Montgomery Clift this month, I decided this would be a perfect time to discuss this film and my introduction to him as an actor. I’ve spoken about him on this blog before, when I discussed The Heiress. He made that film a few years earlier, in 1949.

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Just look at that boyish smile…

If you’ve never seen the film, here are just a few reasons A Place in the Sun still affects me:

The Cast

I don’t think there have ever been two parts more perfectly cast than George Eastman and Angela Vickers. Elizabeth Taylor was a child star, known for the Lassie films and National Velvet. She credited Clift with teaching her what acting was, for he, of course, was one of the first method actors. Their chemistry is palpable and really is the major reason the film works. Both of them seem so genuinely in love with each other. Taylor was in love with Clift, even though he was gay. Their friendship is legendary and Taylor was fierce about protecting Clift.

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That dress though…#FashionGoals

Shelley Winters had the unfortunate circumstance of being cast as Alice Tripp, aka the only thing that stands in the way of George and Angela’s great love. The audience feels contentious towards her which she doesn’t deserve. Funnily enough, I found in my research that she campaigned for the part and only got it when she agreed to play the part sans makeup with an unflattering hairstyle.

Looking back at it, Winters playing her part so well is a huge reason the film works. She’s not evil, but she certainly can manipulate and is fierce about staking her claim on George. She has a way of making her human, complex, more than one thing – the mark of a great performance!

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Isn’t this just heartbreaking? 

The Direction

I’ve already discussed a George Stevens movie already on this blog, although it was very different tonally. The More the Merrier was a light screwball comedy. As I discussed in that post, Stevens was changed after witnessing the horrors of World War 2. He didn’t see the point in making comedies anymore – he wanted to make films that meant something.

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George Stevens on set with Elizabeth Taylor and Montgomery Clift

Stevens was meticulous and precise. He spent two years making A Place in the Sun. Years later, Shelley Winters recalled working with Stevens in her autobiography, saying, “He was the greatest director I’ve ever worked for. He made me understand that acting, especially film acting, is not emotion, but thinking. He had been a famous cameraman since the Keystone Kops days, and he showed me how the camera photographs your thoughts and sometimes your soul.” (Shelley Winters).

Stevens won an Academy Award for his direction of the film, but lost out on Best Picture to An American in Paris.

The Score

Franz Waxman won an Academy Award for composing the score of A Place in the Sun and it was well deserved. It’s melancholy and full of jazzy emotion. Don’t believe me: just take a listen!

The Screenplay

The screenplay was written by Michael Wilson and Harry Brown, but was adapted from a novel called An American Tragedy which was written by Theodore Dreiser. Dreiser based his novel on a real trial from 1906. A young woman’s body was found in a lake, having been overturned by a boat. The man she was with stood trial for killing her, even though he insisted she committed suicide. He was executed by electric chair in 1908.

The novel had already been adapted for the screen once in 1931 when it was directed Josef von Sternberg. Apparently, Dreiser did not like how it was adapted. Wilson and Brown treated the story with delicacy. The film was revolutionary in that it dealt with complex human beings. The characters weren’t simply the good guy or the bad guy. They were shades of grey. This is especially true with Clift’s character. We go through everything with him and so, at the end, when he’s pleading for his life, we don’t know how to feel.

Michael Wilson and Harry Brown won the Academy Award that year for Best Screenplay.

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Awwww. 

The Legendary Friendship

Elizabeth Taylor and Montgomery Clift met on this film and became lifelong friends. They both give wonderful performances and obviously brought out the best in one another. A few years back, before Elizabeth Taylor passed away, TCM made a tribute video for Clift narrated by Taylor. It’s a great view into their relationship.

Critical Reception

Charlie Chaplin went to an advanced screening of the film in Hollywood and told director George Stevens that “This is the greatest movie ever made about America.” Only, now, looking back on it, do I understand what he meant. It certainly made an impression on me. I was lucky enough to see it on the big screen at The TCM Film Festival a few years back, just after Elizabeth Taylor passed away.

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I’m not crying. YOU’RE CRYING.

It’s a powerful film and one that takes maturity to appreciate. You’ll laugh, you’ll cry, you’ll wish you could go back in time and steal all of Elizabeth Taylor’s outfits. I sure did.

Vintage trailer is below:

 

#FeministClassics: ‘The Heiress’

Olivia de Havilland, who you might know as Melanie from Gone with the Wind, recently celebrated her 100th birthday. The occasion reminded me of a movie I saw a few years back at The TCM Classic Film Festival – William Wyler’s 1949 classic The Heiress. 

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Black & White + Rain + Love Scene = Perfection

Turner Classic Movies, celebrating Olivia as their star of the month this July, had the film on their digital counterpart, available to stream. I expected to be able to get other things done while the movie was on, but that proved impossible. I was too caught up in the drama and the emotions.

If you’re unfamiliar with the film, The Heiress follows Catherine Sloper (Olivia de Havilland), a young, introverted heiress lacking proper social skills by 19th century societal standards. At a party, she meets Morris Townsend (Montgomery Clift), a poor, but handsome man who woos Catherine with great tenacity. Catherine falls for him easily, having not been paid attention to very often, if at all. Catherine’s father (Ralph Richardson) disapproves of the union because he believes Morris’s intentions dishonorable. Simply put, her father believes Morris only wants her for her money. Catherine wishes to give up her inheritance if it means Morris and her can be together. So I don’t ruin its ending, let’s just say, drama ensues!

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Catherine, I feel you! #AwkwardGirlProblems

A little background on the film itself – the film was adapted from a stage play which was adapted from a Henry James novel called Washington Square. De Havilland saw the play and knew she had to play Catherine in a film adaptation. She approached director William Wyler and then sought the film rights.

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De Havilland and Clift on set with Director William Wyler

Clift was originally not wanted for the role of Morris as it was thought that he would appear too modern to be a 19th century gentleman. Clift and de Havilland apparently didn’t see eye to eye on their acting techniques either. Clift believed Olivia came to set knowing her lines and nothing else. He believed she put everything into the direction she was given which he didn’t believe to be “real acting.” Olivia respected Clift, but thought that everything he did acting-wise was for himself. Still, she said it helped her give the best possible performance as Catherine is supposed to feel isolated.

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Montgomery Clift, DON’T COME ANY CLOSER!

I remember seeing this film at the festival at the end of a very long day. I was ready for bed and honestly thought I might fall asleep in it. As it turned out though, the film was so mesmerizing I was overcome by a second wind. Much of that was due to Olivia’s performance – she was so incredibly understated and nuanced. A less talented actress could have made Catherine seem wooden or boring. Olivia makes you feel for her – you can see the thoughts behind her expressive face. The scenes between Clift and De Havilland at the party are some of my favorites because they so remind me of how I feel at parties.

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I would’ve probably kicked him a few times too. #AwkwardGirlProblems

Taking place in the late 19th century, it’s fascinating to examine the gender roles. This film almost feels like the anti-Pride and Prejudice. In Pride and Prejudice, you have a poor, but intelligent woman rejecting the concept of marriage without love, even if it means security. Whereas, in The Heiress, you have a wealthy, but naive girl rejecting the idea of a life without love, even if the person doesn’t necessarily want her for her.

The most gut-wrenching bit of the film for me is when Catherine’s father and aunt tell her they believe Morris only wants her for her money. Moreover, her father tells her she has nothing else that anyone could love her for. I was so angry on Catherine’s behalf. Just because a girl is introverted and slightly awkward and can’t play the piano, she’s not worthy of love? Absolutely ridiculous! But the idea that the two people Catherine is closest to see her as nothing is emotionally terrifying. It made me think about how much of our sense of self is built on the validation of the people around us.

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Catherine’s father = Father of the Year #NOT

The film is absolutely beautiful – the cinematography, the music, the costumes. However, at its core, the film is a classic because it is still relevant. It questions societal norms, especially in regards to an unmarried woman. Olivia’s performance is stunning and by the end, unsettling. She won her second Academy Award for the role. Her speech captures her essence – it doesn’t seem that Gone with the Wind‘s ‘Melanie’ is far from who the real Olivia is.

Also, small BTS story – When Catherine climbs the stairs, dejected in the second half of the movie, Wyler began to get frustrated. Olivia, who was known for her professionalism, ended up throwing the suitcase she had been carrying at Wyler. Wyler, seeing it was empty, told the crew to fill it up so that when she walked up the stairs, she’d feel the full weight of Catherine’s despair. And I’ve got to say, it kind of worked!

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Just an independent woman doing her thing!

The film was apparently going to be remade in 1993 by Director Mike Nichols and Tom Cruise. However, after screening the film, they didn’t believe it could be improved upon. A remake was finally made in 1997 with Jennifer Jason Leigh, though, of course, it didn’t surpass the success and critical acclaim of the original.

The vintage trailer for The Heiress is below.

WARNING: do not plan to get anything done while watching this film. IT WON’T HAPPEN.

The Genius of James Cagney and ‘Yankee Doodle Dandy’

I was not enthusiastic when my dad suggested we see Michael Curtiz’s Yankee Doodle Dandy. We were at the TCM Film Festival and I was pushing to see something else. I was finally convinced when my dad mentioned that actor Malcolm McDowell would be introducing the film.

I can’t remember exactly what he said, but I know McDowell spoke a lot about the genius of James Cagney. In a 2011 interview with The Guardian, McDowell discussed Cagney’s influence on his life and career.

“He influences me all the time. If you love somebody that much, if you admire somebody that much, it’s sort of woven into your DNA. I don’t really have to think about it. Cagney’s just there” (McDowell).

Cagney was known for his roles as tough criminals and all around jerks.

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James Cagney in The Public Enemy (1931)

That’s why Yankee Doodle Dandy was such a revelation. It was a completely different part for him. If you’re not familiar, Yankee Doodle Dandy (1942) follows the life of George M. Cohan, the composer, actor and producer known for patriotic songs such as “Over There” and “You’re a Grand, Old Flag.” Cohan’s family was a famous vaudeville act during the late 1800’s and early 20th century. They were called The Four Cohans. The film follows them behind the scenes in the theatre.

Here are just a few reasons watching Yankee Doodle Dandy should be on your fourth of july to-do list.

JAMES CAGNEY

The first, and most important reason to watch this film is James Cagney’s performance. He’s energetic, sincere and absolutely brilliant. As much as I love Fred Astaire (who was also offered the role), Cagney was the only man for the part. He shined, in both the dramatic moments and the musical numbers.

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THE SUPPORTING CAST

In addition to Cagney, Yankee Doodle Dandy is filled with wonderful character actors including Joan Leslie as Mary (George’s sweetheart), Walter Huston as Jerry Cohan (George’s father) and Jeanne Cagney as Josie Cohan (George’s sister). Of course, Jeanne was actually James’s sister.

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The Four Cohans: Rosemarie DeCamp, Cagney’s IRL sister Jeanne Cagney and Walter Huston

THE SONGS

The music, written by George M. Cohan is incredible. Featuring songs like “Yankee Doodle Dandy,” “Mary’s A Grand Old Name,” and “Over There,” you can’t help but tap your foot and sing along. George M. Cohan received the Gongressional Gold Medal by President Franklin D. Roosevelt for his composition of patriotic songs.

Here’s one of my favorite numbers, a song Cohan wrote for his wife, Mary:

THE ROMANCE

The film definitely shouldn’t be categorized as a romance, but the scenes between Cagney and Joan Leslie are particularly fun. My favorite scene might be the scene when Cohan first meets Mary. Mary thinks he’s an old man (since he’s dressed like one) and he’s going along with it. To watch the scene: Being Eighteen is Very Wise

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#SWOON

IT WON SOME OSCARS

I say it’s great, but don’t take my word for it. It also won three Oscars, including Best Score and Best Actor for James Cagney. In 1974, Cagney was awarded the Lifetime Achievement Award. His speech is pretty great.

IT’S IDEALISTIC AND PATRIOTIC

This is why it’s perfect viewing for Independence Day. It promotes patriotic values and is really, at its heart, about the love of a family. The scene where Cagney is at his father’s death bed is said to have been so powerful that director Michael Curtiz started balling and ruined a take.

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Also, Cagney improvised one of the best moments of the film where he comes down the stairs at the White House dancing.

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I’m telling you this is a good one. It’s pure fun and will make you sing the lyrics to Yankee Doodle Dandy even if you don’t want to. It’s that powerful.

Vintage trailer below:

 

Charlie Chaplin and “The Kid”

It’s national classic movie day so I thought I’d continue telling you about my adventures at the TCM Film Fest by talking about Charlie Chaplin’s 1921 film The KidThe Kid is a great example for why the TCM Film Festival is so important. It was on my list of must see films as soon as it was announced. Still, as excited as I was, I felt hesitant. Silent films require a concentration different from sound films. Everything is visual. If you look down or nod off, you miss something.

I’m happy to say that concentration was not at all a problem during The Kid. Rounding out at only 68 minutes, The Kid follows “the woman” played by Edna Purviance who leaves her baby in the backseat of a car, only to regret it a few minutes later. Eventually, the kid falls into Chaplin’s hands and he decides to raise the child as his own. At five, the kid is played by Jackie Coogan who is probably cuter than any kid in any film ever made. I know. That’s a big statement, but he really is THAT CUTE. He helps Chaplin steal and they get into fun antics together.

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I DARE YOU TO FIND A CUTER GIF 😭

Funnily enough, the parallel I saw was to another film, made twelve years later called The Torch Singer. That film starred Claudette Colbert and was about a woman (Colbert) who had a child out of wedlock and gave up the child, only to become a famous singer/entertainer years later. The same happens in The Kid. The woman becomes a successful actress and wants to find her child.

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Before the film, the presenters pointed out something I had already heard, but forgotten. Jackie Coogan is the reason for the Coogan act. He made boatloads of money as a child actor (literal millions), but his mother and step-father spent it all. He sued them once he was of age, but only got pennies compared to what he earned. But, because of him, there are now laws in place so that child performers receive their money.

I’ve seen a number of Chaplin films but know I still haven’t touched the bulk of his work. However, The Kid is really the best example of why Chaplin’s films were so popular. The energy is frenetic, the comedy gags are on point, and the emotion is palpable (I was crying!). I had so much fun watching it that I honestly forgot it was a silent film. I think if more people saw it they would understand that not all silent films are scary (boring).

Chaplin understood something other auteurs now could take a page from. For instance, 68 minutes is more than enough time for a feature film. Why are all films 2+ hours now? And it’s wasted time, most of the time. Also, Chaplin understood that the visuals are paramount. Obviously, Chaplin started in silent films so all he had was visuals in the beginning, but something’s gotten lost today. There are far too many films in which the visuals serve little to no purpose – which, in film, is kinda a waste! Okay, RANT OVER. 😬

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Sitting with a full audience around me laughing and reacting was an amazing experience. It was hard to believe this film was made 95 years ago. It kind of gives you a warm and happy feeling though. Good films are timeless. 😍

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Oh, and uh, you can watch the whole film on Youtube. So, what are you waiting for??

Damn the Torpedoes!

If you read my blog, you’ll know that last weekend, I attended the TCM Film Festival in Hollywood, California. While I saw a good many films this year, there were a few bright standouts. One of them I had seen years ago, but didn’t really remember. I had such a good time watching it, I knew I was gonna have to write about it. That film is 1943’s The More the Merrier.

The More the Merrier was one of director George Stevens’ last comedies. When the war started, Stevens joined the U.S. Army Signal Corps and headed a film crew, shooting footage of D-Day as well as concentration camps. Consequently, after seeing the horrors of the holocaust, Stevens was only interested in making dramatic films. After the war, he made such classics as A Place in the Sun, Shane, and The Diary of Anne Frank.

While it makes sense that Stevens would have little interest in comedies after the war, it’s easy to see in watching The More the Merrier that he had great talent in that arena. The More the Merrier follows Connie Milligan (Jean Arthur) who, in trying to be a good samaritan, decides to rent out half her apartment given the Washington D.C. housing shortage. Benjamin Dingle (Charles Coburn), an older gentleman, talks her into renting to him even though she initially wanted a female roommate. Dingle decides Milligan needs a man. Dingle rents half his room to Joe Carter (Joel McCrea) in the hopes that sparks will fly. But, Milligan has a fiance….DRAMA. CONFLICT. COMEDY, ETC.

This film does so many things right, but the main reason it succeeds is  because of the actors. Jean Arthur, Joel McCrea, and Charles Coburn are superb, their comic timing exact.

Jean Arthur doesn’t get talked about enough. She paved the way for so many female comedians. She was beautiful in a simple way. She was smart. She had heart. She gave countless Oscar worthy performances and was Frank Capra’s favorite leading lady. It’s also worth noting that Arthur was in her early forties when she starred in this film and that her age didn’t matter…at all! Oh, how the industry has changed…

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Coburn almost outshines the whole group as Benjamin Dingle. He’s bumbling and conniving, but at heart, a very sweet old man. Coburn had great success as a character actor, having noteworthy roles in Gentlemen Prefer Blondes and Bachelor Mother. But, he ended up taking home the Oscar in 1943 for Best Supporting Actor in The More the Merrier. And believe me, it was well deserved!

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Joel McCrea…I don’t even know how to express my feelings about. He had such a natural charm. He was just automatically likable. Cari Beauchamp introduced the film at the festival Saturday morning, saying, “It’s never too early for Joel McCrea.” I heartily agree!

The scene on the porch stoop is said to be one of the best love scenes in American cinema. Like many films of that era, it’s all suggestion. The sensuality and eroticism are all implied, but never directly dealt with. If you can watch this scene without having the hots for Joel McCrea, well, I’ll be honest, I don’t understand you. Just look at that face…

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This film could have easily been a stage play. Most of the action takes place inside the apartment and the dialogue is, like most screwball comedies, fast and superbly quippy. The laughs are countless and even 73 years later, it’s a joy to watch.

Just a warning: After watching this film, you will, one, want to make “Damn the torpedoes!” your new catch phrase and two, be filled with sadness that Joel McCrea is not a possible suitor…or maybe that’s just me. 😍

Trailer (sort of – more just an elongated clip) below:

I leave you with this gif. If it doesn’t convince you to watch this film, I don’t know what will…

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Field of Dreams: A Modern Classic

This last Monday, TCM finally released their lineup for this year’s TCM Classic Film Festival, which is set for the end of this month. Excitedly, I looked over the film descriptions and saw there was a screening of 1989’s Field of Dreams planned. Growing up, I watched this movie many times – mostly with my dad. And even though I had no interest in baseball, this movie meant a lot to me.

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So, you can imagine my surprise when I brought up the screening to my dad and he said, “Pass. Do you know how many times I’ve seen that movie?” I, of course, was outraged, “It doesn’t matter how many times you’ve seen it. It’s a great movie. Plus, it’s being shown at Grauman’s Chinese Theater!” But, unfortunately, he could not be moved. No, he has to see the vitaphone classics (I’m sure it’s great) which is playing at the same time. I’m not bitter…okay maybe I’m a little bit bitter.

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So, even though I’ll be attending the screening without my dad (cause he’s a Jerk – Jk. He’s my dad so I love him anyway), I wanted to write this post and explain why this film is important – both to me personally and in the context of film history.

Field of Dreams follows Ray Kinsella (Kevin Costner), an Iowa corn farmer who hears a voice while out in the fields one day. The voice tells him ominously, “If you build it, he will come.” He thinks he figures out what it means and for some reason, his wife, Annie (Amy Madigan) goes along with it. Cue Ray building a baseball field on his farm in the hopes that the ghost of “Shoeless” Joe Jackson will come and get to play ball again after being thrown out of baseball for his part in the 1919 Black Box Scandal. Sound crazy? I know. Just go with it. Essentially, Ray goes on this journey to have closure with his father.

If you’ve never seen the film, here are just a few of the reasons I can watch it a million times over:

THE PREMISE.

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It’s nuts, I’ll give you that. But, I like it because it’s original. It’s different. It’s idealistic. It’s about characters. If you think it’s crazy, you’re not alone. 20th Century Fox passed on the project for years, thinking it just could never be commercially successful. In fact, most of the actors in the film didn’t quite “get it” at first. Burt Lancaster had to be convinced. Liotta apparently thought it was “silly.” Costner wasn’t initially wanted for the film because he had just done another baseball movie, Bull Durham. However, an exec gave him the script anyway. After reading it, Costner was convinced, seeing the film as another incarnation of the Holiday and Capra classic, It’s a Wonderful Life.

THE SCORE.

Okay, so once or twice on this blog I’ve discussed my love for old school, amazing movie scores. And my love of Field of Dreams weighs heavily on its brilliant score by the late James Horner. If you’re not familiar, James Horner also composed the scores for Titanic (Hello! GREATEST SCORE), Bravehart, Glory, Aliens, Apollo 13…the list goes on. His score for Field of Dreams gives you all the feels in the best way and its clear in listening to it, how much his score inspired other film composers. Plus, it’s just plain pleasant to listen to…

THE CAST. 

The cast is what sells this film. It could be really silly and stupid, but Kevin Costner’s performance as Ray Kinsella makes us buy it. James Earl Jones is also fantastic as the J.D. Salinger-esque Terrence Mann – he provides much of the comic relief. However, as a kid, it was actually Amy Madigan’s performance as Annie Kinsella which stood out for me. She’s not the star by any means, but her scene in the school, arguing about why Terrence Mann’s book shouldn’t be banned, is one of my favorites (below). Ray Liotta and Burt Lancaster are also great! Little tidbit: this film also marked the film debut for actress Gaby Hoffman who you may know from Amazon’s hit show, Transparent. The film also has some interesting extras – Matt Damon and Ben Affleck.

IT’S ABOUT SOMETHING.

On the surface, it may be a movie about baseball player ghosts, but the underlying themes of the story reach far beyond that. It’s about nostalgia for our childhoods, understanding of our parents, and about the effect that we have on one another’s lives. As I mentioned before, my dad claims that it’s a father-son movie and while I understand him saying that, I disagree. I think it’s about more than gender. It’s about more than baseball. It’s a story about the choices we make and the small moments that make up our lives. To me, it’s an example of what cinema should do – make you feel and leave you with something to think about..

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In Roger Ebert’s review of the film, he said it was “the kind of movie Frank Capra might have directed and James Stewart might have starred in.” That makes more sense to me than anything since I love all things Capra (as you know if you’ve read any of my reviews). It is a true modern classic and I look forward to seeing it at this year’s TCM Classic Film Festival, even if it means I’ll be going stag!

Vintage trailer below: