Sunday, November 27, 2011

A Cinematic Thanksgiving

Ah, winter. 'Tis the season for wearing hats, buying cough syrup and lapsing into extended turkey comas. It's also the time to reflect on things that make us happy. In my case, it's movies in which Gary Cooper is in some way connected to Quakerism or where all of the film's conflicts can be tied up neatly in a catchy dance number. To celebrate the oncoming festivities, I decided to make a list (in no particular order) of things and scenes and people and body parts in movies that bring me joy. I hope you enjoy this list and I would like you all to appreciate how hard it was to narrow it down to just these. I'm sure tonight I will wake up at three in the morning and remember something I missed.

So, without further ado:

1. Janus Films
For helping me get that question right in trivia the other night.
2. "Nevertheless," The African Queen
Katharine Hepburn and Humphrey Bogart are at their crusty best in this film, about an odd couple who chug down a river in Africa to blow up a Nazi cruiser. Their mission (spoilers), against incredible odds, sort-of-almost-succeeds and Hepburn finds herself washed up and taken into custody on the cruiser. "But you can't just come down here and blow up the Louisa!" splutters the German captain. Hepburn raises her head, juts out her chin , sticks up her nose and snips in that most Hepburn-y of ways, "Nevah-the-less." It always reminds me of my mum.

3. Cecil B. DeMille's Introduction to the Ten Commandments
 Nothing could have set the tone better for DeMille's epic of all epics than the director himself emerging from an epic fringed curtain, clinging to an epic standup microphone and explaining why the story of Moses is so epic. Also, a fun drinking game to try with this film is take a drink every time they say "Moses." Caution: It's three hours long. 

4. Lauren Bacall's Little Dance at the end of To Have and Have Not
Her little impromptu shimmy at the end of this number always makes me smile. No one can smolder like Bacall. Dance is at 0:33.

5. Paul Newman's Look
 Paul Newman frequently gives this look when women are attempting to resist his advances. 
Often (Suddenly Last Summer, Hud, for example) the look does not succeed. It's the artifice of movies, people. When he pulls this one out I'm just about ready to climb in through the TV.

6. The Dance Scene in The King and I
 Movie magic. 

7. The Jump in The Man From Snowy River
 Another reason why horse chases should count alongside some of the great car scenes. A group of men go after a herd of brumbies, and for it moment it looks like they've gotten away by leaping over the edge of a cliff, but there's one man brave enough to follow. (By the way, this jump is for real; if you look at the trees while the horse is going down the hill you can see that they're growing straight up.) Jump is around 2:10.

8. Your Father's Passing, To Kill a Mockingbird
 To Kill A Mockingbird is one of my favorite books and easily one of my favorite movies. This scene, in which Atticus Finch leaves the courtroom after fighting a losing battle against hatred, ignorance and prejudice in the old South, is still one of the most moving I have ever seen.

9. How Much Francois Truffaut Loved Film
  A big reason why I love Truffaut is because every time I watch his movies I can sense the man who made them. Day for Night was one of his most personal, and is basically a love letter to the movies. In this scene, a film director (Truffaut) completes a recurring dream that has been gradually filled out throughout the film. Did I cry when I watched this? Does Jean-Paul Belmondo have a great nose? Please.

10. Cary Grant's Acrobatics in Holiday
I knew that Cary Grant worked in a traveling circus, but when I saw this scene from Holiday it took me completely by surprise. This is what I love about Cary Grant: you can be dapper, you can be in full evening attire, but no situation is too formal for a back vault. (4:20)

Friday, November 11, 2011

Ring-a-ding ding!

I was talking to my father on the phone last night and in between our commiserations about school (we're both elementary school-age art teachers), thoughts on the weather, reflections about how it's really great my younger sister Piper found such a good group of friends because boy, she is weird sometimes, he told me about how he "scrubbed the kitchen counters and bleached them to the point where even Mom was impressed and had nothing critical to say," which spurred him to "do the other side of the sink, too." It was rather adorable (and the guy on the bus who was listening in on my conversation thought so, too).

"She likes you," I told my dad.
"Yeah," he agreed, with the resignation of a man facing many more years of footrub-giving.

Truth be told I lucked out in the parental department in all the normal areas, but also where films are concerned. Dad saw to it that I was able to quote Eddie Murphy from Saturday Night Live verbatim before the age of twelve. Dad's fairly generous in his film tastes. My sister and I joke that his genre of choice is inspirational black teacher movies, which by this point isn't really a joke (it can't be when you have Remember the Titans, The Great Debaters, Coach Carter and Lean on Me snuggled cozily together on one shelf). Dad's the sort to go to the grocery store and just buy a movie because it's there and has a recognizable face or a "Thumbs Up" printed on the cover. Which is why we now own Little Children. Ooog.

To listen to her talk, you'd assume that my mother despises media in all forms besides the printed and the aural (my sister and I even once played her Lil' Wayne's immortal "Lollipop", bleeping out all the naughty bits, and my mother actually said "Yeah, I can sort of understand it.") Really, though, my mom has fantastic taste in movies and brings an epicurean sensibility to her film selections, which weeds out all the crap and includes all the awesome, like Independence Day and Galaxy Quest. If you really want to get technical about it, she's pretty much responsible for setting me on my life's path. She refused to let me watch TV (except for PBS) when I was younger, so instead I watched old Cary Grant and Errol Flynn movies and, well, there you go. It really brings perspective to one's life when one realizes that a form of rebellion against one's parents is to go and get a PhD in Cinema Studies.

My mother's birthday is on Sunday, so as a bit of a tribute to her (largely because it was she who introduced me to many of the movies on this list) and also to my dad, and to their joint marital greatness, I present the following list:

Because the story doesn't stop once you say, "I do." Take note, chick flicks.

1. Chuck and Glennis Yeager, The Right Stuff (Sam Shepard and Barbara Hershey) 

This was really the first time it occurred to me that marriage could be sexy. The film introduces these two by showing Shepard drinking in a bar and hitting on Hershey before she coyly takes off on horseback. He leaves to follow her and another woman in the bar tries to hone in on him. "Forget it," the bartender says dryly. "She's his wife." Thus follows a breathless horseback chase and some rib-breakage, which isn't quite as sexy as anyone (especially Yeager, I imagine) hoped, but that's sometimes how it goes. As with many of the best cinematic marriages, you get the sense that these two are equals in every sense of the word. Glennis Yeager is portrayed as tough and strong, the only sort of woman with whom it would make sense for Chuck Yeager to be in love, and though neither says very much their mutual adoration and respect is obvious to see. "I'm a fearless man but I'm scared to death of you," Yeager tells her at one point, and for the man that broke the sound barrier that's saying something. 

Below, you can watch the chase scene. Starts at around 6:30:

2. TIE: Nick and Nora Charles, The Thin Man (Myrna Loy and William Powell)/ Mr. and Mrs. Blandings, Mr. Blandings Builds His Dream House (Myrna Loy and Cary Grant)

 It was really difficult for me to choose my favorite Myrna Loy wife role, and I was almost going to go with The Thin Man, but I could already hear my mother's shrill screaming in the back of my head. Nick and Nora Charles, the sleuthing duo behind The Thin Man series are a master's course in classy, alcoholic, witty marital repartee. Both are dry (humor-wise), intelligent, and when it comes down to brass tacks, deeply in love with one another (not that they'd ever admit it). They've also got more than their fair share of awesome lines:

In Mr. Blandings, on the other hand, Myrna Loy works her magic alongside Cary Grant, often providing the sole voice of reason amid all the chaos of building a house. But though she adopts a holier-than-thou, I've-got-this-under-control-completely-what-are-you-looking-at attitude, this is not to say she herself is not a tad bit batty. I personally love this role because I feel that this character, more than almost any other, embodies my mother. Observe the following clip. My mother in a nutshell:

Also hilarious is the scene where she realizes that removing a few stones to make her greenhouse has inadvertently cost them about $2,000. Her rapport with Cary Grant, their all-too-accurate marital bickering, the shifting dynamics and their ultimate coexistence are the heart of one of my favorite movies, and a must-see for any prospective home-builder.

3. Percival and Marguerite Blakeney, The Scarlet Pimpernel (Merle Oberon and Leslie Howard)

Unlike the rest of the couples on this list, Lord and Lady Blakeney spend most of their film in marital discord, but rightfully deserve a place here because (largely thanks to the chemistry between the two actors) you can totally tell that they're still completely infatuated with one another. He believes she heartlessly betrayed her friends to the guillotine, she thinks he's a lazy fop, but they still cannot find a way not to be in love. In reality the elegant, wealthy Percy moonlights as "The Scarlet Pimpernel", a mysterious hero who ferrets the doomed nobility out of France to the safety of England and puts on the useless, idiotic act to cover up his real identity--even from his wife. Marguerite, unbeknownst to Percy, was betrayed herself by those she sent to the guillotine. And so the fun ensues: Leslie Howard is absolutely hilarious in his spot-on imitation of an impotent upper-class fop:

and Marguerite barely conceals her disgust for what he has become. "I shall love her till the day I die," Percy ruminates ruefully at one point. "That's the tragedy." 

Watch the following scene, where Percy confronts Marguerite about her love for the Pimpernel. It's sexy, funny and tragic all at once. The fun starts around 4:12:
But those crazy kids just have to stick it out and work out their differences--all of which culminate in the terrific scene (above) where Marguerite, alone in her house, works out her husband's true identity and then realizes that he's gone to France and is therefore in terrible danger. "Percy!" she cries and rushes off to save him. Gorgeous, intelligent, brave wife and heroic, dashing husband? A rekindling of feelings? A marriage pitted against terrible danger? Yes, please. I'll take this over Mr. and Mrs. Smith any day.

4. Mr. and Mrs. Penderghast, Easy A (Stanley Tucci and Patricia Clarkson)
One of the most common things I hear when I mention Easy A is that people found that it was, "A lot better than I thought it would be." This is due greatly to the presence of the genuinely hilarious and refreshingly un-nauseating Emma Stone but also because of her parents, played by Stanley Tucci and Patricia Clarkson. While they aren't the central part of the story by any means, every scene that features them elevates the entire movie a bit higher. These characters are everything that parents usually aren't in this kind of movie: loving, devoted, irreverent, who (gasp!) actually trust their kid and are arguably weirder than their teenager. Clarkson and Tucci have a wonderful easygoing chemistry and look as though they're having a fantastic time playing the roles. This is also about as close as the movies have come to portraying my parents.


 Cinematic gold. Would that there were more of this kind of thing in movies today.

5. Mr. and Mrs. Birdwell, Friendly Persuasion (Gary Cooper and Dorothy McGuire)
Friendly Persuasion holds a number of special distinctions in my estimation: it's one of the few movies I've seen about Quakers (represent! Woo!), one of the best films I've seen that deals with the complex issue of pacifism during wartime and the movie that made me be not afraid of Anthony Perkins in Psycho. Cooper and McGuire play the heads of a family of Quakers at the onset of the Civil War. The war is held on the fringes of the story for the majority of the film, then the last act shows how each member of the family deals with the issue of whether or not to join the fight. The mother, Mrs. Birdwell, is a Quaker minister and is clearly the boss of the operation. She is no-nonsense and is a pious woman of deeply held beliefs (who also happens to have an extreme soft spot for her pet goose, Samantha). Mr. Birdwell is tall and quiet in the classic Cooper fashion, and whose adherence to the Quaker set of morals is slightly more loose. The little headbutts he has with his wife on these issues are funny and read as deeply true to life. When finally he puts his foot down and asserts his right to have an organ in the house (something which goes against the Quaker rule of no music), Mrs. Birdwell goes out to sleep in the barn and eventually Jess goes out to do a little offscreen coaxing. Their walk back to the house from the barn the next morning is sweet and tender and played with youthful earnestness by both the actors. The relationship the two establish in the first half of the movie makes the second half, when those bonds are tested almost to the breaking point, all the more poignant.

That's all she wrote! (She being me). If you have any other thoughts or suggestions, I'd love to read them in the comments below.