Why ‘West Side Story’ is Still Relevant

I’ve mentioned several times before how much I love living in LA…mostly because of the cool movie events which are held all year round.On Monday, July 18th, The Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences screened a 70mm print of the 1961 movie musical West Side Story. Better yet, there was a panel with Walter Mirisch (the producer), George Chakiris (Bernardo), Russ Tamblyn (Riff), and Maria Jimenez Henley (one of the dancers).

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Walter Mirisch (Producer), George Chakiris (Bernardo), Russ Tamblyn (Riff), and Maria Jimenez Henley (dancer) at the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences on Monday, July 18th 2016

Before we get to the panel, though, let me talk about the film. I was introduced to West Side Story as a little girl and though I don’t remember exactly how old I was, I do remember how affected I was by it. I also remember wanting to sing and dance like they could. At my young age, I didn’t realize how unrealistic a goal that was. The dancing was so intricate, the movie had months of rehearsal and of course, the singing of the main stars was dubbed.

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Man, those JETS. #DanceGoals

On a purely cinematic level, this film falls into the same category as Gone with the Wind. West Side Story is a film made to be seen on the big screen. Don’t get me wrong; it’s still great on a television. But, being in an audience, watching this film is a totally different experience. It’s a shared experience: people cheer, people cry. It’s completely absorbing. The film is, of course, based on the Broadway show of the same name. Walter Mirisch, the producer, saw the show with his wife and knew he had to make it. It may, story-wise, be a musical version of Romeo and Juliet, but at the same time, it’s so much more. The songs are still good, even almost sixty years later.

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This song was EVERYTHING to me.

If you’ve never seen West Side Story, here are just a few reasons you might want to get watch it…LIKE NOW.

The Cast

Natalie Wood was 23 years old when she played Maria. Her latest movie, Elia Kazan’s Splendor in the Grass, caught the attention of producer Walter Mirisch. It is said that Natalie desperately wanted her Splendor co-star, Warren Beatty to get the part of Tony. As such, during filming, there was apparently some resentment towards Richard Beymer who ended up playing Tony. Still, Natalie’s performance sells the film. She had something truly special, some sort of an indescribable “it” factor that made her appealing, truthful and memorable.

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That dress though! #FashionGoals

Truly, Beymer was probably a bit miscast, but looking back on the film, his not being an exact fit doesn’t mar it. Russ Tamblyn is wonderful as Riff, the leader of the Jets. Side note: Russ has a famous daughter, one Amber Tamblyn – she starred in The Sisterhood of the Traveling Pants. George Chakiris won an Oscar for his performance as Bernardo, Maria’s Puerto Rican brother and the leader of the Sharks. Finally, Rita Moreno won on Oscar for her role as Anita, Bernardo’s girlfriend and Maria’s confidante.

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Just look at that color! 

The Romance

True, Maria and Tony only know each other for about five minutes before deciding that their love is FOREVER, but I personally can’t help but swoon. The songs help…

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Aw, first love and all that!

The Songs

The music, to me, is still the best part of West Side Story. The songs are catchy and sweeping and meaningful. Besides Ragtime, West Side Story is my favorite musical – Somewhere, I feel Pretty, Tonight, Maria…THEY’RE ALL AMAZING.

Shout Out to Marni Nixon who just passed away. She was the singing voice for Natalie Wood in the film. She also sung for Audrey Hepburn in My Fair Lady and Debra Kerr in The King and I. The video below illustrates Natalie’s voice versus Marni’s. Natalie wasn’t bad, but Marni was incredible!

My FAVORITE Song:

The Message

During the panel, Walter Mirisch was asked about what he’s most proud of with the film. This was his brilliant response:

“I thought this was an extraordinary opportunity to say something about racial relations in America and to say it in a way that would bring audiences in to see it, and perhaps benefit from the lesson of West Side Story. As you see it now, and connect it with what is happening every week now, it is more topical I think, even than it was at that time. My efforts in this direction also included my film In The Heat Of The Night, which I hoped would also reach people with the necessity for the races to come together and stop this senseless warfare. It is discouraging that this lesson still not has been learned and I hope others will continue to fight that battle.” – Walter Mirisch, Producer

 Watching the film in a theater, I found that certain lines had a new connotation. For instance, when Lieutenant Schrank, breaks up the Jets and the Sharks’ war council. He tells Bernardo and the Sharks to get out and says, “Oh, I know. It’s a free country and I ain’t got the right. But I got a badge. What’ve you got?” The audience audibly gasped when he said that, no doubt thinking of recent events and the #BlackLivesMatter movement.

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When Anita goes to give Tony a message at Doc’s store and is harassed, the audience also responded, disgusted.

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One of the most powerful scenes in the film.
In these past few months of crazy violence and the horrific Orlando shooting, West Side Story is more relevant than its ever been. The film’s true message is tolerance and unfortunately, that’s a lesson that still desperately needs to be taught today.
You can sub in any race, ethnicity, sexual orientation…and the story still works. To me, that’s the mark of a true classic film. Yes, it’s rooted in the time it was made, of course. But, young people can still watch the movie today and relate and that’s pretty special.
The film’s last scene always gets me, especially Natalie Wood’s performance. I can’t NOT cry. 😭
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An illustration of how destructive hate is…
What I Learned from the Panel
  • George Chikiras (aka Bernardo) actually played Riff originally in the musical’s London production. For the film, he auditioned for both, but they felt he was more right for Bernardo.
  • Similarly, Russ Tamblyn (aka Riff) originally auditioned for Tony. It was down to Richard Beymer and himself for the part. When Beymer got it, they offered Russ the role of Riff.
  • Maria  Jimenez Henley (one of the dancers) gave the audience an amazing treat when she told her story. She was a young dancer, just 17, somehow got in to audition for West Side Story. After months of auditions, she got the part. That night, her appendix burst and she was rushed into surgery. Her mom told her she needed time to recover, but Maria knew that if she lost this opportunity, she would regret it. So, that Monday, she went to the first rehearsal and danced so hard that at the end of the day, she noticed blood on the floor. She had ripped all her stitches. They let her stay in it and she said it was the biggest blessing for her – she grew up with her West Side family, went through marriages, divorces, kids, death, all of it. She also told the audience never to give up on your dreams or think you can’t accomplish something. It’s fair to say everyone was moved by her story.
  • Jerome Robbins, the film’s choreographer, wanted to shoot the film completely on a stage. Theater was his medium and that’s where he felt most comfortable. However, Mirisch knew that the film would have more impact if it was shot on real streets. So, he told Jerome that if he wasn’t satisfied with the way the scenes turned out, they would pay to go back and shoot them on a stage. Mirisch added – little did Jerome know, they didn’t have the money for that!

I’ve loved this movie since I was a child. It is a true example of what film can do and its messages are just as relevant today as they ever were. If you’ve never seen it, I highly urge you to give it a try. I swear, you won’t be disappointed. Seriously, if you are disappointed…take it up with me!  Ha.

Vintage trailer below:

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If only gangs were like this, just snapping their fingers, singing a song…

 

 

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Breaking Away: A Forgotten Classic

I can’t quite remember when I first saw 1979’s Breaking Away, though I do have specific memories of my dad and brother reenacting lines from the movie – specifically Daniel Stern chirping “What’s your major?” and Paul Dooley ranting “Refund! Refund!”

The film always resonated with me, even as a child. But, re-watching the movie as an adult turned out to be a totally different experience. I related so heavily to the characters, even though you could make the case that the film is very much from a male point of view. The female roles in the film are very limited and not really very important. But, great stories and likable characters transcend gender and this film has both.

In case you haven’t seen it, Breaking Away, directed by Peter Yates and written by Steve Tesich, follows a group of four boys just out of high school in Bloomington, Indiana. They’re not in college and they’re not working. They’re sort of just bumming around – swimming in the quarry, making fun of the college kids, and generally trying to figure out what they want to do next.

Our protagonist is Dave (Dennis Christopher), an idealistic young man obsessed with Italian culture and their cycling team. His parents, played by the wonderful Paul Dooley and Barbara Barrie, are starting to wonder what he’s doing. Side note: Apparently, Barbara Barrie was essential to getting the film made. At the time, she was the biggest name in the cast. Anyway, Dave is in love with Katherine, a college girl. Intimidated by her, he pretends to be Italian and names himself Enrico. No doubt, it catches up to him.

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His friends are Mike (a young Dennis Quaid), Moocher (Jackie Earle Haley), and Cyril (Daniel Stern). Mike was the high school quarterback. He’s always looking for a fight, something to prove he’s worth just as much as college kids. Moocher is in love with Nancy, although he lies to his friends constantly, telling them, “He’s not seeing her anymore.” Cyril is sort of the one left out to dry, so to speak. He doesn’t really get much of his own story. But, the story he has Daniel Stern makes the most of.

 

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There’s so much to discuss about the narrative of the film. What I connected to when I recently re-watched it was Dave’s journey and loss of innocence. Dave idolizes this Italian cycling team, but when he finally meets them, they’re assholes – further backing up the old adage “you should never meet your heroes.” His idealism is so intensely relatable and its dissolution is heartbreaking.

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What this film also comments on is the distinction between the classes. Dave’s family is nowhere near rich and Dave’s group of friends are dubbed the cutters by the college kids, not because they cut themselves. In this, cutters is just another word for townies, locals, outcasts. Dave’s dad (Paul Dooley) was working at Dave’s age and never had the option of college, so there’s some resentment there, but at heart, he wants his son to be happy.

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At its heart, the film is about friendship. As confused as these boys are, they have each other to back each other up, to figure their lives out.

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They all get a little hope for the future by the end – Dave tells Katherine the truth, Mike makes up with his brother and Moocher gets married. But, Cyril…well, Cyril gets nothing! I’m sure he does get something – there just wasn’t enough time in the movie for it.

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The end of the film shows the boys in the little 500 bike race in Indiana and I dare you to not cheer for them! The elation of the film’s conclusion is infectious.

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If you’ve never seen Breaking Away, I highly recommend giving it a watch. It’ll make you laugh and cry and cheer – everything a movie is supposed to do! Also, the film won the Academy Award for best screenplay, so…

Vintage trailer below:

 

The Genius of “Crazy Ex-Girlfriend”

Okay, so I know I’ve made this blog almost exclusively about movies, but I feel compelled to talk about one of the most original, creative, and fun shows on television currently. As you know if you’ve read my previous posts, I’m a huge fan of old school musicals.

In the past few years, there’s been a slew of shows with singing, most notably Fox’s Glee and NBC’s Smash. However, there’s something different about The CW’s Crazy-Ex Girlfriend. Rachel Bloom’s totally original and creative show doesn’t surround a world with a built in reason for musicality. Glee was about a high school acapella group and Smash took us behind the scenes the making of a broadway show. Crazy Ex-Girlfriend has no reason, like the best old school musicals.

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When the show began back in October, many critics believed it couldn’t sustain itself over the course of several episodes – Rachel had said there would be at least two original songs in each episode. Funnily enough, it sustained itself and then some. With Aline Brosh-McKenna (the screenwriter behind The Devil Wears Prada), the show has commented on something real and relatable – the delusions we all have surrounding romance and how a person can “complete” us.

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Rachel’s Rebecca Bunch moves across the country to follow an old high school camp boyfriend she runs into in NYC. She thinks it’s a sign that they’re supposed to be together. The fact that he already has a girlfriend – just a small obstacle. Never mind that Greg, the hunky bartender, likes her despite the fact that he knows she’s in love with Josh. Side note: Greg is played by Santino Fontana – aka Prince Charming in Broadway’s original cast of Roger and Hammerstein’s Cinderella. 

The songs in the show are different because many times, they’re ironic and dark. They’re also extremely catchy. This carries over from the music videos Rachel created before Crazy Ex-Girlfriend – which, incidentally are how she got noticed in the first place. One of her best ones is “Fuck Me Ray Bradbury.”

One of my favorite moments in the show is in episode four, when Rebecca is being courted by Greg. Greg sings to Rebecca, “Settle for Me,” a song reminiscent of all the old Hollywood musicals I love – most notably Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers. The black and white was a nice touch.

The show does all kinds of music. The opposite of an ode to Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers, “A Boy Band Made Up of Four Joshes” stars the object of Rebecca’s affection, Josh Chan (Vincent Rodriguez III) singing like NSYNC or The Backstreet Boys. It’s a song any girl born in the 90s will understand.

“You’re a Stupid Bitch” might just be the most poignant song Crazy Ex-Girlfriend has tackled. Rebecca sings it right after she gets caught in a lie by Josh and she feels horrible about herself.

Greg (Santino Fontana) has become one of my favorite characters.This song is everything. Greg’s ode is so, so relatable. Watch “I Could If I Wanted To” and tell me you don’t agree.

Later in the season, Rebecca starts dating Greg, which led to one of the best numbers the show has had: “Oh my god, I think I like you!” I literally can’t stop listening.

One of the things that has separated Crazy Ex-Girlfriend from other television, especially from other CW shows, is that every character looks like a real person. No one is a stick thin, perfect looking model. The cast is diverse, talented and relatable. It all comes back to Rachel Bloom who despite playing a character who makes a lot of bad choices, is intensely likable.

Bloom worked extremely hard to get where she is and her Golden Globes award speech reveals her to be humble and appreciative of the opportunities she’s been given.

Her original pilot of the show which was made for Showtime was not picked up. Brosh-McKenna and Bloom thought it was over, but The CW swooped in and gave the show a home, embracing all its quirkiness. It’s truly an accident that something this original and different got made and I just hope it continues to get renewed. Bloom is an inspiration to me because she knew what she wanted to make and she didn’t conform. The show is all her – we need more original voices like hers!

The CW is starting to rebrand itself. So, don’t be put off by the fact that it’s on the same network responsible for things like The Vampire Diaries and 90210. Crazy Ex-Girlfriend is THAT GOOD and if you give it a chance, I think you’ll be pleasantly surprised.

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Reality Bites and the Struggle of #Adulting

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Two years ago, just after I had graduated college, I started my first full-time job. To say I had no idea what I was getting into was a ginormous understatement. I was nervous and filled with expectations: from teachers, parents, mentors. The stress of this time caught me off guard. I had always been so sure of my decisions and for the first time, was truly confused. It’s strange. You’re an adult by all the normative standards, but you still feel like a kid and that dichotomy can be extremely overwhelming.

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I’ve had a lot of these moments in my working life.

Much has been done about this time in a young person’s life. Most recently, the best example has been the HBO series Girls. However, it was another film which comforted me. I had seen Reality Bites in passing in Netflix, but never really thought much of it. I didn’t think it was very highly regarded. But, one Saturday night, when I felt too depressed to go anywhere, I decided to give it a shot. That experience of watching a great movie for the first time is an amazing high; but one that touches you, makes you rethink something in you life or comforts you, that’s on another level. Watching this film made me understand that what I was going through was not specific to me and that was immensely reassuring. And it wasn’t just because Ethan Hawke was dreamy…though I’m not debating the issue.

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Reality Bites, made in 1994, follows Lelaina Pierce (Winona Ryder), a recent college graduate trying to get her foot in the door as a PA on a local Houston talk show while also making a documentary about her friends: Troy Dyer (Ethan Hawke), Vickie Miner (Janeane Garofalo), and Sammy Gray (Steve Zahn). She also meets Michael Grates (Ben Stiller) along the way, a young television executive who believes in Lelaina and her talent. Lelaina’s relationship with Grates obviously complicates her relationship with Troy. But, the film is more about a young person accepting that they don’t have it all figured out – which is probably why I connected to it so much.

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Reality Bites was, among other things, Ben Stiller’s directorial debut. Having known him as Derek Zoolander, it was interesting to see another side to him, especially as I watched the special features and heard him talk about how scared he was to take this on. I love the story of the film’s inception, which started with producer Michael Shamberg who wanted to make The Big Chill for Generation X. Shamberg took a general meeting Helen Childress, a young screenwriter fresh out of USC. Liking her writing, Shamberg became intrigued when she talked about what she saw in her friends lives and her own at the time. She spent about a year hashing the idea out with Shamberg, really figuring it out what story they wanted to tell. Then, they brought on producer Stacey Sher and tried to figure out to get the film made.

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Michael Shamberg, Helen Childress, Stacey Sher and Ben Stiller celebrating the film’s 20th anniversary at Sundance

At the time, Winona Ryder was the biggest young actress in Hollywood. She was wanted by everyone and by her own account, Reality Bites just happened to come along at the right time. The script was expressive of her age and her generation. She is the reason the film got made. Without her, their financing would have been gone.

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Ryder liked and pushed for Ethan Hawke as the film’s romantic lead, even though she didn’t know him that well. While much can be said about whether Hawke’s character is the ideal “bad boy” or just an asshole, his chemistry with Winona is a big reason the film works.

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To me, the film is also special because of the way it really captured the early ’90s. Obviously, there were no cell phones and the boys wore baggier jeans, but beyond that, it really is a snapshot of a point in history. Years from now, people can look back at this film and get a feeling for the fashion, the music, how people lived before the world wide web. And at the same time, it’s amazing that I can watch the film and relate to the characters and their feelings so much. We think we’re the first to experience these emotions, but they have been repeating themselves I’m sure in every generation.

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What I love most about the film is that the characters are truly imperfect. They feel real and I think it’s really because Helen was that age. She didn’t have to think about young people sounded. She was one. Having now been out of school a couple years, I think Reality Bites is even more poignant. I’m interested to see how my opinion changes over the years. Helen Childress now says she watches the film, relating to Michael who’s older and more practical than the other characters.

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The film commented on what it was like to work, pay bills and have your ideals torn down. One of my favorite lines in the film is Sammy’s: “My goal is …I’d like a career or something.” The idea of a career still seems funny at 23, unreal.

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Still, for me, it is one of those films that I will carry with me. I think it’s a modern classic, not just for its wonderful (and mostly full of newcomers, at the time) cast, but because it was coming from a real place and you can see the heart in the characters and their feelings. Plus, it’s dialogue is on point and its soundtrack is appropriately and wonderfully 90s.

If you haven’t seen it, I recommend giving it a chance. If for no other reason than this scene…

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Vintage trailer below.

Why I Now Appreciate Mike Nichol’s “Working Girl”

Now, this is not a joke. I grew up making fun of Mike Nichol’s 1988 film, Working Girl. As I’ve mentioned before in this blog, my mom and I don’t always see eye to eye, movie taste-wise. And as a kid, I saw this film over and over and over again. My brothers and dad routinely poked fun at the film, much to my mom’s chagrin.

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I didn’t understand why my mom would keep coming back to it. She knew what was going to happen. She knew where the bony ass line was…even though she could never correctly quote it. When I was in my last semester of college, I came across the film while searching for something to watch – procrastination at its finest. I almost went past it, but, looking for something I could watch while pretending to study, I thought Working Girl would be just innocuous enough to work.

I. WAS. WRONG. I got absolutely no studying done that day – not even pretend studying. I was too busy watching Working Girl, really watching it for the first time and I found myself relating to it….A LOT. That semester, I had been interning at a company and essentially been an assistant to the assistants working there. I know it’s not the only reason I saw the film in a new light, but it certainly helped. I was Melanie Griffith’s character Tess McGill, ultra driven and a little bit naive. I don’t think I’d ever have the gumption to go where she goes in the film, but I could certainly see why she made the choices she made.

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For those who don’t know the film, Working Girl follows Tess McGill (Melanie Griffith), a driven secretary who thinks she’s found the perfect position. Her boss is a woman, Katherine Parker (Sigourney Weaver) who says she wants Tess’s ideas and that she wants to help her get where she wants to go. However, when Katherine breaks her leg in a skiing accident, Tess finds out that Katherine intends to purport one of Tess’s ideas as her own. As such, Tess takes matters into her own hands, pretending to have her boss’s job. She meets Jack Trainer (Harrison Ford) who helps her start to make the deal and also maybe falls in love with her…

The film is interesting in the lens of the current discussion of feminism in this country, of the wage gap and truly equal rights for women. Tess McGill’s predicament is still relevant today, sadly. The film is really about her empowerment and her realization that if you want something, you sometimes have to take it without being asked. She has to work to be taken seriously and her boyfriend at the beginning of the film, played by Alec Baldwin, doesn’t seem to understand that.

There are many reasons I love this film as just pure entertainment. The performances are wonderful. Whoever got Harrison Ford involved, kudos to you! He is truly at his swoon worthiest – equal parts tough and lovably vulnerable. If you need evidence…

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I was never Melanie Griffith’s biggest fan, but I’ve since come around to her in this film. As Tess McGill, she is all of us.

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Sigourney Weaver should really get an award for being such a lovable bitch in this film. She makes you laugh and pisses you off at the same time. Quite a feat.

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And not many people mention her, but Joan Cusack is also fabulous. She plays Tess’s friend and though she wears WAY TOO MUCH makeup, she’s still the Joan we all know and love!

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Side note – Kevin Spacey is in one scene as a coke addled wall street guy trying to take advantage of Tess. Let’s just say he makes the most of it.

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Additionally, I love the music of this film. I used to be turned off by how 80’s it all was, but now I can’t help feeling elated, listening to “Let the River Run” by Carly Simon. I don’t want to give away the end of the film if you’ve never seen it, but let me just say, you’ll feel good. Check out Carly’s music video for the film:

If you’ve never seen this film or you’ve just discounted it as I did for many years, I’d consider giving it another chance. I think this film does require some experience and maturity to fully appreciate. It’s become a favorite of mine and now, years later, I can apologize to my mom and finally say, I understand why you watched it to death. And now, we can watch it together.

The only criticism I might make of the film is that they made Jack Trainor way too perfect. He set unrealistic standards for all men everywhere. Not that I didn’t love it…

Vintage trailer below:

 

Well, hello, blogosphere!

Hello interweb. Welcome to THE GIRL WHO KNEW TOO MUCH. My name is Lindsay Grossman and I’m 23 years old. That’s right, everyone. I’m a millennial.

You could say I had a very rough childhood. From a very young age, I was repeatedly sat down on a couch and forced to…..watch classic movies. Okay, so maybe it’s not the definition of torture, but because of it, I have all this knowledge of classic movies: when they were made, who directed them, who were the stars….also known as useless information to…pretty much everyone in the world. So, what happened to me? What effect did this have on my life?

Well, I grew up and now have a constant need to show others the classic films that were forced upon me. I’m serious. My friends…they don’t want to hear about it anymore. That’s why I started this blog, so that I can finally use all this “useless info” and have an outlet for it, because god knows, if I don’t, I may just start a classic film fan club. Cringe.

I love meeting people who have never seen a black & white movie because I can show them what they’re missing. If you’re coming to this site and you’re a classic film newbie, don’t be afraid or turned off by the lack of color or shoddy sound. Your classic film journey is about to begin and your life will be richer for it, I promise.

Here, you can read my weekly reviews of my favorite classic films and occasionally some, well, fangirling about current pop culture. Just so you know where I’m coming from (sensibility-wise), I love musicals, romances, dramas, and comedies. Wow, that’s general. Let’s get a little more specific. I love 30’s films, particularly ones of the pre-code persuasion. I love Abbott and Costello and The Marx Brothers. I love screwball comedies, particularly ones with Cary Grant or William Powell. My movie taste is varied and vast. Although, what I would emphasize is that the movies I love, I feel that modern movie connoisseurs would not have trouble loving either.

In my opinion, the best films are the timeless ones, the ones that feel fresh because they’re ultimately about human beings, relationships: aka things that never go out of style…STAY TUNED.

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