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:

 

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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:

 

 

 

 

The #1 Feel Good Movie of Cinema’s First Century

If I’m ever having a bad day, there is one movie that no matter why I’m down, will always cheer me up. I don’t care if you’re not into musicals. Well, actually, that’s a lie. I do care. But, putting that aside, I believe that even if you’re not typically into musicals, you can’t NOT appreciate 1952’s Singin’ in the Rain.

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I can’t remember when I saw this movie for the first time. I’ve seen it so many times at this point, I truly know it by heart. But, that’s one of the things I love most about it: you can be any age and enjoy this movie. Recently, when I saw it at the Aero, I happened to sit next to a 3 year-old girl and her father. The little girl turned to me periodically, exclaiming “This is a funny movie.” She was completely engaged and her enthusiasm made me fall in love with the film all over again.

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If you’ve never seen Singin’ in the Rain, here’s a little synopsis to catch you up. The film takes place in the late 1920’s, right before the film industry was changed forever with the advent of talkies. Gene Kelly and Jean Hagen play Don Lockwood and Lina Lamont, a pair of silent film stars who just completed their latest effort, The Dueling Cavalier. Lockwood meets Kathy Seldon (Debbie Reynolds), an aspiring actress, and falls in love with her. When The Jazz Singer hits the scene, the executives decide to make Dueling Cavalier a talkie.

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That fails altogether when they realize at a test screening that the silent acting techniques don’t work in a sound picture. Kathy has a brilliant idea – make Dueling Cavalier into a musical, The Dancing Cavalier. There’s one problem though; Lina’s voice. Kathy volunteers to dub Lina’s talking and singing, and thus The Dancing Cavalier is a success. But what does this mean for Kathy going forward? DRAAAMA.

I’ve seen the movie many times in a movie theater and it really is just one of those all around entertaining, funny, feel good experiences. While apparently Gene Kelly didn’t regard it as highly as his other musical film, On the Town, Singin’ in the Rain is the film that has taken on a life of its own. It’s just one of those movies where everything came together, from the casting to the musical numbers to the satirical plot.

I was lucky enough to see Debbie Reynolds introduce the film at The TCM Film Festival a few years ago. Little tidbit: my dad routinely brags that when he saw the film in the 1980’s, Gene Kelly walked out after the film, holding an umbrella. It should also be noted that I yell Jerk! every time he mentions this. Not my fault I wasn’t born yet…

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If you’ve never seen the film, here are just a few reasons to put Singin’ in the Rain on your must watch list.

THE MUSIC. 

Can I make this ten reasons? The music in this film is so good, I guarantee it will be playing in your head for weeks. Below is one of my favorite numbers:

THE SATIRE.

This movie is smart, entertaining satire. The way they portray not only the film industry of the 1920s, but the transition from silent pictures to sound, is both hilarious and true. If this clip doesn’t convince you, I don’t know what will.

DONALD O’CONNOR.

Donald O’Connor was a true talent and he’s exceedingly charming in this film. Just watch Make ‘Em Laugh. I dare you not to laugh. For seriously.

 

GENE KELLY AND DEBBIE REYNOLDS.

Yeah, he’s a bit older than her. Who cares? Their chemistry in this film is fun and alight with energy. They have all the tropes: the meet-cute, the banter…you’ll swoon. Especially when Gene sings this song:

JEAN HAGEN.

Jean Hagen is severely underrated in this film. She’s a bulk of the comic relief, putting on a hilarious fake voice. In reality, she actually had a lovely singing voice and little trivia: when Debbie Reynolds’ character is supposed to be dubbing Hagen’s voice, you’re actually hearing Hagen’s real voice.

IT’S VERITABLE HAPPINESS.

We desperately need movies that lift our spirits, inspire us, and make us laugh. Singin’ in the Rain surely fits the bill. This is one film that I’ve shown to many friends, many of whom swore to me up and down that they could never love a musical. But, somehow, they ended up liking it anyway. IMHO this movie requires frequent viewings and if you have the chance to see it in a movie theater, please GO! The film is veritable happiness and to prove my point, try not to smile at the Gifs below!

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Vintage trailer below:

 

Atticus Finch and #FatherDaughterGoals

In the wake of Harper Lee’s death this morning, I thought it’d be a good time to talk about a film that’s pretty up there on my list of favorites.

Now, I know what you’re thinking. Why is this girl talking about that book/movie I was forced to read/watch multiple times throughout my educational career? Well, that’s how I used to feel too. I read To Kill a Mockingbird for the first time in middle school and I remember mostly skimming the book and then looking it up on sparks notes – C’mon, we all did it at one time or another! A few years later, when I was in high school, I was assigned to read the book again. This time, I decided to actually read it and promptly, fell in love.

I had seen the movie before I had heard anything about the book. I didn’t remember too much about it, but having fallen in love with the book, I felt like the film required a second viewing. I watched it with my dad and I’m not ashamed to say that by the end, I was tearing up a little. Well, I mean if we’re being honest, I was balling. It instantly became one of my favorite movies. It had all the things I love: great acting, coming of age fun and a story that really meant something.

So, here is my plea to you if you’re not in love with it. Give it another chance. Just because it’s a staple, we seem to discount it and forget just how powerful and poignant it  still is. And, of course, sadly, many of the racial tensions it comments on are still alive and well in our country today.

Here are just a few things you’ll miss by not watching To Kill a Mockingbird:

GREGORY PECK GIVES AN OSCAR WORTHY PERFORMANCE

I love Gregory Peck and before I really became obsessed with To Kill a Mockingbird, I knew him mostly from Roman Holiday in which he is fantastic. But Mockingbird introduced me to a different Gregory Peck, a more resolute, calm, and infinitely wise one. The scenes between him and his on-screen daughter, Scout (Mary Badham) should be required viewing for…well, everyone.

Here’s a little throwback to his 1963 Oscar Speech:

 

THE FILM’S SCORE IS ONE OF THE BEST EVER WRITTEN

As I’ve said before, music can have an enormous impact on a film. If it’s the right score, the music almost acts as another character. In To Kill a Mockingbird, Elmer Bernstein’s score is inextricable from the film’s themes and characters. When I saw the film in theaters a few years ago at the TCM Film Festival, the open sequence almost made me tear up — mostly because of the music. Watch and I think you’ll agree:

 

IT’S ONE OF THE BEST COURTROOM DRAMAS EVER MADE

The courtroom scenes in this film have major tension. And the performances of Brock Peters and Collin Wilcox Paxton are a huge part of that. They’re understated and intense. Gripping and thought provoking. And the film certainly inspired all the courtroom dramas that came after.

 

IT’S ABOUT SOMETHING

This seems almost ridiculous to say because all films should be about something. But, this film in particular just comments on so many things so beautifully. It’s about growing up, it’s about the south, it’s about the depression, it’s about civil rights, it’s about humanity.

 

AND IT ACHIEVES MAJOR #FatherDaughterGoals

This movie will always hold a special place in my heart if only because I shared it with my dad. The film is about a father and his children, but I, of course, always related to Scout, being a girl. I’m lucky that my dad has a lot in common with Atticus Finch.

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If you haven’t seen it or if you have, but were too young to appreciate it, then I urge you to give it another shot. If you have any problems with it, you can take it up with me!!

Vintage trailer below…

The Merits of “Gone With the Wind”

Fiddle Dee-dee!

This last weekend, I attended the American Cinematheque’s annual screening of Gone With the Wind. Before the film, James Curtis, the author of William Cameron Menzies: The Shape of Things to Come, congratulated us. Why? He told us that although there’s been a lot of talk about Star Wars: The Force Awakens taking the #1 box office success crown, that is not in any way accurate, when you factor in inflation. With inflation, The Force Awakens is #14 and #1 is still Gone With the Wind. And we who attended the Aero Theatre on Saturday night were the most recent people to contribute to that figure.

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I was so happy to see that Gone With the Wind attracted such a large crowd. The theater was almost completely full and that made the experience so much more enjoyable. Gone with the Wind isn’t just meant to be seen on the big screen; it’s meant to be experienced with a full audience. I first saw the film a few years ago when it was shown at the TCM Film Festival. I remember that I didn’t want to go. It was between Gone with the Wind and something else I can’t recall. My dad and I argued, but he ultimately convinced me that I should give it a chance.

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I saw it in Grauman’s Chinese theater with a completely full audience and had the time of my life. It was one of the most fun experiences I’ve had in a theater. I was genuinely surprised at the depth of the characters and the grey moral area they were treading. And funnily enough, I loved the script. The reason I say it’s funny is that the project went through many writers – so many writers that it’s a miracle the film is coherent. Somehow, despite all the obstacles, everything came together on this film.

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There are many moments in Gone with the Wind that are controversial. Before I even attended this last weekend’s screening, a friend had commented on my Facebook post, calling the film racist. She wasn’t wrong. The portrayals of the slaves in the film are very stereotypical and not very nuanced – they were “happy slaves.” However, I do believe that you need to look at films in the context of when they were made. While the roles for these African American actors could have and should have been better, at least Gone with the Wind was giving them roles. And of course, Hattie McDaniel, who played Mammy, was the first African American woman to win an Academy Award.

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Additionally, there are many moments in the film that are morally ambiguous. Rhett basically raping Scarlett is one of those moments. There are uncomfortable moments in the film and I’m astonished that they got past the censors of the day. However, moral ambiguity makes for interesting characters because people are complex. They don’t just do things for one reason.

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Scarlett, though she’s a horrible person for much of the film, is very complex. I actually find her a very tragic character because she’s so passionate about what she wants and will do anything she can to get it, but she’s ultimately reaching for something that doesn’t exist. When she finally realizes what she does want, which is Rhett, it’s too late. There’s a scene in the film where she tells Rhett all the reasons why she’s going to hell. It makes you see Scarlett in a different light. She understands on some level that she’s done wrong, but not enough to put someone else’s needs in front of her own.

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The cast really makes the movie. Vivien Leigh, Clark Gable and Olivia De Havilland sell the story. Clark Gable did not even want to be in the film though, calling it a “woman’s picture.” It would be very hard to imagine it without him. Vivien Leigh beat out every young actress of the time for this role. She put everything she had into this part and her performance is enough reason to watch the film. Olivia de Havilland is also wonderful in the film, the only character who is completely sympathetic (although Melanie, her character, did marry her cousin. Ew!).

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My dad told me one of the things he thought didn’t work in the film was the casting of Leslie Howard as Ashley. Leslie Howard actually hated the part; he thought he was too old for Ashley. I actually don’t mind him though because I think it makes Scarlett’s wanting of him even more hilarious. She’s so blind to her own feelings and of what would make her most happy.

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Also, the music of the film is pretty incredible. Max Steiner wrote an unbelievably beautiful and sweeping score. It’s intrinsically connected to the film. You can’t have one without the other.

There are so many stories behind this film and I really recommend watching the documentaries included on the Special Edition DVD. Honestly, the making of this film is probably more interesting than the film itself. It was a true epic; the last of its kind made is probably Titanic. It appealed to audiences because it had a little something for everyone. How many films can you say that about today?

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If you have the chance to see this film in a theater, I would urge you to do so! It’s a totally different experience and you can’t fully appreciate the film on a television or god forbid, a computer screen.

75th Anniversary Trailer below…

Why “Guys and Dolls” is not just another 50’s musical

I was fifteen or so when I first became introduced to Guys and Dolls. I saw the play at my high school and remember sitting in the audience, bored out of my mind. I was much more preoccupied at the time with the boy I had a crush on and the fact that he’d brought a different girl to the play.

As such, I always had a negative impression of Guys and Dolls. I associated it with that high school experience and as a result, didn’t really have much interest in watching the film. However, in my late teens, I was introduced to Brando – not old Brando, but instead, the Brando of On the Waterfront and A Streetcar Named Desire. Around the same time, I also saw a small film called So Long at the Fair which starred a young Jean Simmons.

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When I happened to see the cover for Guys and Dolls with Brando, Simmons, and Sinatra, I decided it was worth a chance. I did not expect to fall in love with the film though. I’ve always loved musicals, but was somehow convinced that Guys and Dolls didn’t have a lot of depth. Turns out I was half right. Samuel Goldwyn worked with director and writer Joseph L. Mankiewicz to create more of a backstory and add a little more depth to the characters than originally existed in the stage musical.

A little background first: Guys and Dolls, made in 1955, follows a gambler, Nathan Detroit (Frank Sinatra) who desperately makes a bet that Sky Masterson (Marlon Brando) cannot take out Sergeant Sarah Brown (Jean Simmons). Detroit is also trying to make it work with his fiance, Adelaide (Vivian Blaine).

There was a lot that went into this film, but it wasn’t the easiest film to make, partly because of the hostility that existed between Sinatra and Brando. Long story short, Sinatra believed he should be playing Sky Masterson as he was the more musically adept. However, Brando had just won the Oscar for On the Waterfront and was very in demand. Brando knew of Sinatra’s jealousy and loved annoying him, messing up takes on purpose just to piss Sinatra off.

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When Brando sang “Luck be a Lady”, Sinatra apparently went around set, telling people, “It’s going to sound a lot better when I sing it tonight!” Sinatra did shows almost every night in Vegas and “Luck be a Lady” was apart of his set. Looking back, it is hard to believe that Sinatra didn’t sing the song in the film, as it became one of his signature songs.

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Now, on to the important part. Why do I love this film? There are so many reasons, but probably the biggest one is the incredible actors. Brando, while not a great singer, adds a credibility to the film that it just wouldn’t have without him. Simmons is absolutely lovely as Sarah Brown. She has poise, a great voice, and great comedic sensibilities. Sinatra, while not wanting the role he was given, also gives a great performance. They even added a few songs for him that were not in the original musical.

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Musicals are by their very nature unrealistic. And while this film had a set akin to a theater stage, there was something that made you suspend your disbelief. Joseph L. Mankiewicz accomplished something very specific. He gave the audience a taste of what seeing the broadway show was like while also creating characters that had depth. Outside of all of that, the movie boasts wonderful songs and is just plain fun. I think you’ll agree.

Vintage trailer below.

 

Oh Claudette, you old so and so…

The two holiday weeks are equal parts stressful and fun. There’s family and hordes of food, but there’s also time for movies.

My favorite part of the holiday season here in Los Angeles is the schedule at the American Cinematheque. For those outside of the Los Angeles bubble, the American Cinematheque is a screening organization which shows classic or “alternative” films. They show films at the historic Egyptian Theatre in Hollywood and also at the Aero in Santa Monica.

During the holidays, they tend to show popular films, the ones that will sell out when people are off work and actually have the time to go to the movies. Die Hard and It’s a Wonderful Life are the christmas staples, but what I look forward to most is those first few screenings in the new year when they highlight 30s and 40s screwball comedies.

This year, on the second night of their screwball comedy tribute, they showed a double feature of Midnight (1939) and Remember the Night (1940). I had seen Midnight before, but it had been a while. I knew I liked it, but couldn’t remember the particulars. In this second viewing, I was blown away at how modern and hilarious it was. The audience was totally connected to the story and the characters.

For a little background, Midnight stars Claudette Colbert as Eve Peabody, a nightclub singer who arrives in Paris without a cent to her name. Straight off the train, she meets Tibor Chemny (Don Ameche), a taxi driver who falls in love with her at first sight.

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However, Eve, scared of her feelings for Tibor, runs away, right into a high class soiree happening nearby where she meets Georges Flammarion (John Barrymore…Yes, he’s Drew’s great-grandfather)….

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Georges sets his eyes on Eve when he sees that his wife’s (Mary Astor) lover, Jacques Piqot, played by Frances Lederer is interested in Eve. Georges tells Eve he’ll foot all her bills if she pretends to be a baroness and steals away Jacques from his wife. As if there is not enough problems, the taxi driver then comes back in and Eve does everything to protect her story, piling lie upon lie.

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Billy Wilder and Charles Brackett penned the script while Mitchell Leisen directed. It really was a dream team in a lot of respects, especially considering that Barrymore died only two short years later. However, the making of the film was slightly tumultuous as Leisen apparently liked to change dialogue. This enraged Wilder and led him to direct his own scripts from then on.

Midnight is light and tremendously fun. Ameche’s role is very much something Gable would have done. He’s gruffly lovable and we all watch hoping Eve and Tibor can make it work. But, Barrymore really steals the show, taking advantage of every moment he’s on screen.

It’s the perfect movie for those lazy winter days, especially when rain attacks Los Angeles and all you want to do is watch old movies and drink hot cocoa….or maybe that’s just me. Either way, I think you’ll enjoy it.

Vintage trailer below:

 

 

Coachella for Shut-Ins: What you’re Missing at the TCM Film Festival

At a screening of the cult classic Eraserhead, comedian Patton Oswalt described the TCM Film Festival as “Coachella for Shut-ins.” He wasn’t far off. While every year, young twenty-somethings descend on Indio, California for the Coachella Music Festival, I (and many others) take Hollywood by storm, attending the annual Turner Classic Movies Film Festival.

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Norman Lloyd and TCM host, Ben Mankiewicz

For those who are not familiar, The TCM Film Festival is a four day classic film festival which includes little time for sleep or food. By the end, you feel wasted (probably similar to how Coachella attendees feel-but for different reasons). When I first attended the festival I was 17, just a senior in high school. I had no idea what I wanted to do, only that I probably would land somewhere in entertainment.

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2010: My brothers and I with Ben Mankiewicz

My connection to Turner Classic Movies started in the early 2000’s. My dad, a self-made ultra film buff, started watching the channel. He was hooked, having himself grown up watching these films on television. However, it had been years since he had seen them and he was eager to share them with myself, and my two brothers (I have one older, one younger. Yes, I’m the glorious middle child).

At the time, my two siblings and I were young, at ages where we could easily be melded into little film buffs ourselves. My dad showed us popular films, things he thought we’d appreciate (The Marx Brothers, Abbott and Costello, Capra). However, he also showed us the small ones, the ones that maybe he and only a select group of people remembered and/or cared about. My dad and I bonded over genres my brothers weren’t interested in: romantic comedies and musicals. Movies were never just for entertainment. They were an inextricable part of our lives.

In 2009, Turner Classic Movies announced that they would be holding a film festival in Hollywood. The tickets were expensive, around the same price of Coachella. It was an experiment really. It could have been a complete failure for the company.

Nevertheless, my dad took a chance and took my brothers and I out to Hollywood for a week in April of 2010. It was a whirlwind four days. We watched about five movies (yes, really!) a day. At each one, there was a special guest; an actor or producer, a film historian.

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Grauman’s Chinese Theater: one of the TCM Film Festivals Venues

I’ll be honest. At that first festival, we were kind of an anomaly. My brother even made a joke (maybe a little in bad taste) that the average age of the festival-goers was deceased. We were really the only family and because of that, we stood out. We got to speak to actors and producers one-on-one because it was a small group and let’s be honest, my little brother was cute. People always are willing to talk to you if you have a cute kid around.

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#Squadgoals: My brothers and dad en route to the next film

That year we saw screenings of some major classics, but strangely the ones that stick in my memory are the small ones. We saw a film called Sunnyside Up, one of the first sound musicals. Made in 1929, we were told before we saw the film, that we were seeing it in better quality than audiences did when it was originally shown. I remember watching a scene where a girl (Janet Gaynor) writes in her diary, smitten and hopeful. It was kind of shocking actually. I think, for some reason, it struck a cord with me in establishing that whether or not this girl was living in the 1920s, she was still accessible and relatable.

I also saw a film that year called Leave Her to Heaven. Made in 1945, the film is a fantastic film noir (fancy film speak for a film which had a, “…style marked by a mood of pessimism, fatalism, and menace”….Yes I did copy that from Google) The only living cast member, Darryl Hickman, was there to give insight into what Gene Tierney was like and how they shot a crucial scene in the film.

One of the most interesting things I experienced during the festival was the constant shock from fellow attendees that my brothers and I were interested in classic films, let alone an awe that we had attended the festival. I’m surprised they aren’t more young people (there’s obviously many out there that love classic films). I’ve had the joy over the past five years of seeing the festival expand and grow.

A lot of people underestimate the importance of classic films. To me, they  are our visual history, or as my dad likes to say, “a living museum.” Many of the guests who have come to the festival throughout the years have since passed away. I got to hear Eli Wallach talk about The Good, the Bad and the Ugly and had the opportunity to listen to Mickey Rooney talk about It’s a Mad, Mad, Mad World. These experiences were truly once-in-a-lifetime. Moreover though, they established for me that though these stars, directors, writers, editors, etc. may pass away, their films will live forever if audiences continue to appreciate them.

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TCM Host, Robert Osbourne and Eli Wallach

I have gone back to the festival every year, despite the fact that I’m now footing the bill. It awakened my love not just for classic films, but for seeing films the way they were meant to be seen: in a theater where there aren’t distractions (Cell phones, Facebook, C’mon people!). It’s just you and the movie and it’s true magic. In 2014, I graduated from school and began working in the industry. There have been moments during my working life where I’ve felt disheartened and had my ideals torn down, but The TCM Festival has become something of a marker for me. It’s not just something I share with my dad. It’s a gathering of like-minded souls. I’ve met people there who have become great friends. It’s impossible not to feel inspired in that environment.

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Myself and Michelle Matiskiel, a close friend I met at the 2011 festival

I just bought my 2016 pass this morning. It’s expensive, but in my opinion, well worth it. I look forward to those four days all year long.

Extra Bonus: My brother and dad are in this old promo. Can you find them?