Wednesday, July 18, 2018

Ten Surf-Stopping Movies

John Fraissinet recently challenged me on Facebook to come up with "Films That Made an Impact on You the First Time You Saw Them and Remain on Your Watch List to This Day." I have shortened the title to the one above. The idea is that if I am surfing the channels on television and come upon it, I'll stop and watch it at least for a while. They are, of course, older films. There are plenty of new ones I like too, but these have been part of my life for a while.

It's also a chance to go into depth with stories about movies and me that in some cases you never heard. The first two are from my childhood, and the rest are presented in chronological order of release. Here goes:

1. Good Neighbor Sam (1964) - Jack Lemmon, Romy Schneider. Like most kids in my generation, some of my first movies were seen at drive-ins. Mom and Dad were in the front seat, while sister Jane and I were in the back. My parents were hoping the kids would fall asleep during the first motion picture, so they'd have peace and quiet in the second. (Note: when they started falling asleep before the kids did, we knew it was time to end this sort of family outing.)

Anyway, this was a simple comedy in which Lemmon had to pretend he was married to the woman next door so that she could inherit a fortune. There was lots of silly chase scenes and other obvious laughs, which we all - emphasis on all - enjoyed. You really do feel like a family when you are laughing at the same thing.

By the way, the flip side was shown when we went to see "The Ugly American," starring Marlon Brando. This was made in 1963 about an ambassador going to a Southeast Asian country and realizing that unrest there was more complicated that capitalism vs. communism. Do you really want to take your 11- and 7-year-old kids to that? Probably not. Jane and I made fun of how boring it was for months. But in hindsight, considering what we know about Vietnam now, it might be interesting to see at this point.

Movie Quote: "Good, clean-living, family type men, don't go around making love with their next door neighbors on the street corners."

2. A Hard Day's Night (1964) - The Beatles. This was supposed to be a quick movie based on the Beatles' incredible and quick rise to fame - a sort of "day in the life" format. The songs are great, naturally, and the boys are in full charm. It's hard to resist all that.

Remarkably, director Richard Lester did something more with it. He used the quick-cutting techniques that had just become popular, and adapted it to movies for the first time. It was a perfect match for the subject, and the movie became significant in an historical sense.

My sister and I saw this at the Brockton (Mass.) Theater during a visit to our grandparents. We were dropped off a few minutes late, and were both thoroughly charmed in moments. My sister was at a great age for those Beatles, and no doubt would have done some serious screaming at the Ed Sullivan Show if given a chance. We watched the movie once, and convinced ourselves that we should stay for the start of the next showing. We did that, and kept watching ... until it was over the second time. My mother even came in to the theater and walked the aisles looking for us - unsuccessfully. "Oh, I thought someone looked familiar," my sister said later. I don't recall any punishment involved.

If you like your filmed music in concerts instead of actual stories, it's tough to do better than "Stop Making Sense." It instantly made me a Talking Heads fan.

Movie Quote: "Are you a mod or a rocker?""Um, no. I'm a mocker."

3. Duck Soup (1933) - The Marx Brothers. I had never watched a Marx Brothers' movie until I went to college. When I finally saw one - I believe "Animal Crackers" was finally released after being held up in legal limbo for years - my immediate reaction was, "Where has this been?" I think Jim Cummings, who was on my sophomore floor at Syracuse, was responsible for this discovery, and I thank him to this day.

I caught up with the rest of the films eventually. Almost all of them hold up well, as the New York City boys attacked almost all of our institutions with vigor for the rest of their days. While I took to Groucho immediately because of his word play and because I was more familiar with his work than the others ("You Bet Your Life"), I came to appreciate Harpo's work overtime. As Groucho once said after Harpo's passing, you can hear his sweetness in his voice.

While some prefer "A Night at the Opera," "Duck Soup" was always my favorite. Director Leo McCarey compressed everything into 70 minutes, making it race along and thus matching the mood. This was Zeppo's last movie, as he became an agent. Oddly, future Marx Brothers movies always had a Zeppo-like character in it, even thought it was played by actors like Allen Jones.

Any sighting of Groucho, Chico and Harpo on television these days is worth celebrating. 

Movie Quote: "As chairman of the reception committee, I welcome you with open arms." "Is that so? How late do you stay open? "

4. Mr. Smith Goes to Washington (1939) - Jimmy Stewart, Jean Arthur. It's at heart a "stranger in a strange land" story. An Eagle Scout finds himself appointed to the United States Senate. Stewart is nicely cast as the Scout leader in question, but the real star is Frank Capra's story and direction. It's impressive how Capra stacks up the cards against good old Jeff Smith, one by one, only to see those cards tumble and crush the bad guys.

By the way, I distinctly remember my first viewing of this. It was in the basement auditorium of the HBC building at Syracuse University, as Ben Walker (who is headed for the Baseball Hall of Fame as a writer for AP), his friend Mary Gianchetti, and I saw it one Friday night in 1976-77. It was a double feature with "The Great McGinty," which isn't bad either as political movies go but was something of a letdown after seeing the first film.

You could slip "It's a Wonderful Life" onto this list here too. Same Stewart and Capra, same house of cards, same happy ending.

Movie Quote: "Yield? Oh, no. I feel fine! The Constitution of the United States!"

5. Pillow Talk (1959) - Rock Hudson, Doris Day. Hudson and Day did a few movies together back then, and they all seemed to be pretty much variations of the same theme. Hudson and Day meet, and they have to overcome impossible odds to get back together again. And they do. "Lover Come Back" is the best of the others.

The dialogue is always snappy in these movies, and the supporting characters are usually in great form - particularly Tony Randall. There are even some unintentional laughs along the way, as some of the lines are a little dated at this point due to changing times.

This one hit me unexpectedly. I never heard of it when it was part of a "Film Forum" class I took at Syracuse, in which we watched a movie every Tuesday night. The audience and I laughed a lot. By the way, "Creature from the Black Lagoon" was also part of that series in Gifford Auditorium, which I took as a pass/fail course.

"What did you today in college, son?" "Oh, watched a movie."

Movie Quote: "Cry? I never knew a woman that size had that much water in her."

6. Blazing Saddles (1974) - Cleavon Little, Gene Wilder, Harvey Korman. Yeah, like I could ever turn the channel after seeing this one. It's an all-out assault until the last handful of minutes, where the writers probably had a little trouble figuring out how to end it.

I'd group this movie with "Airplane," "Slapshot" and "Animal House." Every generation has those rites of passage when it comes to comedy movies. Those were mine, and "Blazing Saddles" came first and so gets listed here.

After watching "Blazing Saddles," I couldn't wait to tell Kevin Chase about it. So the next time I saw him, I launched into a 20-minute recap of it - including many of the lines. (In hindsight, I probably was imitating Carol Burnett, who as a child used to act out movie scenes for her grandmother.) I think after my performance, he probably didn't need to go see it, but did anyway if only to know what I was talking about. Later, I was talking to college friend Joe Flack about it - and he said he had entered the theater thinking it was a standard Western. Imagine his surprise at the sung words, "I get no kick from champagne." He never got up to speed.

I should mention that I once rode a bus with the Sabres from Hartford to Boston, and I brought a copy of "Slap Shot" for viewing. Every player knew every line of the movie. They made fun of Donald Audette's accent when the goalie described a trip to the penalty box - "And then you go free."

Movie Quote: "Mongo only pawn in the game of life."

7. Network (1976) - William Holden, Faye Dunaway, Peter Finch, Robert Duvall, and many others. OK, the real star of this movie is Paddy Chayefsky, who wrote the screenplay (and won an Oscar for it). It's one of the best pieces of writing in cinematic history. Chayefsky did plenty of work in television in the 1950s, including "Marty" - which was soon turned into an Academy Award-winning film with Ernest Borgnine. The writer was frustrated as how television had evolved by the mid-1970s, and a comedy script turned into something bigger and with more anger. Watch it now, and see how on target Chayefsky was.

Meanwhile, the cast is all terrific. You'll never forget Finch's "I'm mad as hell and I won't take it any more" speech. Dunaway's character is believed to be based on Lin Bolen, who was in NBC programming department in the 1970s. Bolen, who died in 2018, supposedly was the person who brought "The Magnificent Marble Machine" to daytime television. I'm not sure if veteran game-show host Art James ever put that one on his resume.

To learn more about the movie, read "Mad as Hell." There's lots of great information there about how the cast and story came together.

Movie quote: "Television is not the truth. Television is a goddamned amusement park."

8. Close Encounters of the Third Kind (1977) - Richard Dreyfuss, Melinda Dillon. Richard Dreyfuss, Melinda Dillon. I know I like this movie more than most, even though it's generally listed in the list of top 100 movies of all time. The most memorable person associated with this one is Steven Spielberg. He had announced his arrival as a first-tier director with "Jaws," and then solidified his spot with this movie of how would we react if aliens turned up on the front door of our planet. Luckily, we bring curiosity, intelligence and kindness to the meeting instead of guns. 

The run-up to the final 45 minutes does its job nicely, but the end of the story is particularly good. Spielberg once said if people come out of this film looking for their car keys instead of looking up, he'd be in trouble. He need not have worried. The director has had quite a career since then on a wide variety of films - and I've seen just about all of them (with the exception of 1941, which even Spielberg admits didn't work well).

On a personal level, I loved this one from the start. I first saw it in the theater. Then when Karen Sacks was looking for company to see it, I quickly volunteered to go again for the special edition. And when it popped up on HBO, I brought my VCR to Mark Derringer's apartmente to record it. (Who could afford an actual copy back then?)

Years after seeing the movie for the first time, when possible vacation spots were discussed, I argued successfully for passing by Devil's Tower in Wyoming - the setting for the ending - on a trip to that part of the world. I had never even heard of it until seeking the movie. It was great. They even show the movie on Friday nights in the campground next to the mountain.

In the sci-fi category, "2001 - A Space Odyssey" usually makes me stop and watch too, and not just because it was the first movie I ever saw with a girl (trust me, no one would call it a date). "Them!" usually lures me in. The 1954 movie is about giant ants that invade the Los Angeles sewer system. It has B-movie production values, but it is done extremely well.

Movie Quote: "If everything's ready here on the Dark Side of the Moon... play the five tones."

9. The Natural (1984) - Robert Redford, Glenn Close, Kevin Lester, etc. This is a baseball fable, with a happy ending surgically attached to a rather dark novel. I never bothered with the book, because this worked out just fine for me. Redford is quite believable as Roy Hobbs; he wore No. 9 in tribute to his boyhood idol, Ted Williams. The cast is absolutely full of good actors.

Even so, War Memorial Stadium is the star of the show for me. I spent a lot of time watching baseball in that building, and the movie crew received permission to fix it up to look like it was 1939. It made for a magical summer. Besides, Glenn Locke, Pete Weber, Mark Derringer and I turned up at 1 a.m. of an all-night shoot, and watched Redford round third a few times in the climatic scene of the movie. (I believe there was alcohol involved that night).

And now, when I work at Bisons' games, I sit next to one of the stars of the film. Lester was the baseball advisor of the movie, and was promised a key role even if he wasn't allowed to get a speaking part. Remember when a note arrives in the dugout, and Hobbs finds out that he has a son? Lester passes him the note. The former Williamsville South athletic director sure can act. He has a roomful of stories about that movie that I should get down on paper some time.

I tend to like baseball movies, any baseball movie. Heck, the original "Babe Ruth Story" can still get me to watch. (Pete Weber and I still laugh at the scene where Ruth staggers into a hospital, obviously very ill, and a fan says, "Had one too many, Babe?') "Bull Durham" is terrific, and "Field of Dreams" always makes it dusty in my room. I'll even watch "Fear Strikes Out" - if only to see the scene where there are palm streets behind a short fence in what was supposed to be Fenway Park.

Movie Quote: "Pick me out a winner, Bobby."

10. Dave (1993) - Kevin Kline and Sigourney Weaver. The motion picture just hit a chord with me. Kevin Kline is Everyman who makes a few bucks on the side because he looks a great deal like the current President of the United States. When a stroke leaves the real President close to death, Dave is brought in to follow orders and continue the President's work. Ever think about what you might do if you were President, even for a little while?

Kline is really good in the title role, and you couldn't ask for a better First Lady than Weaver. Charles Grodin adds a lot along the way too. It's something of a romantic comedy in the Capra tradition, and everyone - including some fun cameos - helps make the story more believable. It's not a great movie, but it still makes me stop and watch it go by.

That last sentence could be applied to a slightly earlier movie, "War Games." I like the way the story builds to the climax. Besides, as an original owner of "Pong," I went for the idea that a video game could threaten the world.

If you like Presidents in your movie, here are two otheer personal favorites. "Fail Safe" was overlooked because it came out just after "Dr. Strangelove" (which you need to see too),  but it was well done and believable. I really should read the novel of "Seven Days in May," which is about a military takeover of the United States. The movie version, though, works quite well.

Movie Quote: "What is with President Mitchell lately? I mean has this guy been having too many "Happy Meals"?

Others: I hated to leave Citizen Kane off the list, because it's one of my favorite movies, but it didn't come with any great personal stories. Still, I own a DVD copy. It's entertaining in so many ways. Next time you watch it, think about how the life of Charles Foster Kane parallels the life of Orson Welles (and not just William Randolph Hearst). ... Two English Girls from Francois Truffaut blindsided me. It's the story of a romantic triangle that blows up and shatters everyone. As my wife said about the plot, "How Truffaut!" ... The Rocky movies sometime make me stop and watch, although I don't sit and watch all six of them at a time. As they progressed from one to five, they became less entertaining - which meant we forgot that the original had all sorts of charm. ... Bill Murray Division: Stripes and Groundhog Day can sweep me along, but oddly Caddyshack is on almost everyone else's list but mine (liked it, didn't love it). ...  Titanic and Nashville can keep you riveted in their epic stories rather easily. Speaking of Robert Altman (Nashville), M*A*S*H's holds up very well today too.... Juvenile Division: I would watch Dumbo and Babe again the next time I had the chance. I was unprepared the first time I saw Dumbo (only a couple of years ago) about how touching it is, and Babe remains one of my wife's all-time favorites.

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