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Sunday, December 21, 2014

Movies of My Life: 1962

One of my greatest joys over the years has been watching movies. I love all kinds of films – from foreign art films to schlocky horror movies, from the Hollywood classics of the 1930s and 40s to today’s latest releases, from big blockbusters to a movie about a couple of guys having dinner. That love of movies led me to teach film classes as an adjunct professor, to lead discussions at public screenings, to host a movie show on cable TV, and to spend countless hours researching and writing about film.

I got curious a few years ago when I realized that a couple of my favorite movies were released in 1962, the year I was born. I started compiling a list of my top ten movies made that year, and it was fun to see what other favorites had come out in ‘62. I then moved on to the next year, and the next. Some years it was hard to come up with 10, and some years it was a struggle to whittle it down. Regardless, it gave me a sense of just how much fun I’d had discovering these films. Of course, I didn’t see most of them until years after they were released, and the truth is these lists are organic, changing as I see new movies or my tastes change. Regardless, I thought that sharing these lists might be a way to tell you about a wide variety of films and give you some suggestions for your own viewing.

So for the next 52 weeks, I’m going to try to give you a list of my top ten movies from each year since I was born. I’ll post a different year, in sequence, each week, with a few comments. I hope you enjoy it.

Let’s start with one of my favorite years, 1962.

(1) To Kill a Mockingbird

This movie is beloved, not just by me, but by every member of my family. Part of the affection comes from the portrayal of a Southern family in a small town during the Depression. Growing up in a small Southern town in the 1960s and 70s, with a mother who lived through the Depression, I see things here that ring true to me personally. Atticus Finch was always one of my heroes, and I was thrilled when AFI selected him as the number one hero on its list of “100 Heroes and Villains.” This movie makes me weep uncontrollably, and the scene that makes me tear up the most is when Atticus leaves the courtroom, and the black preacher in the balcony tells Scout to “stand up. Your father’s passing.” (I’m getting verklempt just writing about it.) When I finally as an adult read the book, I understood even more deeply why this is one of the best American movies ever made. It portrays the best and the worst of our nation.

(2) Lawrence of Arabia
A restored version of this film was released in 1989, and I got the chance to see this 4 hour classic with my wife, not once but twice, at the Cinema 150 in Little Rock, a theater designed for showing wide screen pictures. I’d grown up seeing the faded pan-and-scan version on television, and while you could get the essence of its greatness, you couldn’t really appreciate how absolutely breathtaking it was until seeing it on the big screen, as it was meant to be seen. The best example is the scene at the well as Sherif Ali (Omar Sharif) comes riding from deep in the background while Lawrence (Peter O’Toole) stands stunned in the foreground at the murder of his guide. Even on widescreen DVD versions seen on an HD television, you can’t match that spectacle. I would rate the viewing of this movie at that theater as one of the best moviegoing experiences of my life.    

(3) Advise and Consent
I had a history teacher in high school who would tell us about important movies that were coming up on television and give us extra credit if we watched them and wrote a prĂ©cis about them. Wow! Course credit for watching a movie? Unheard of. One of those films Mr. Offut suggested was Advise and Consent, about the confirmation hearings for a fictional president’s nominee for Secretary of State. The political intrigue and backroom negotiations still inform my opinion of what Washington politics are really like.

(4) The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance
One of only two movies where a couple of Hollywood’s biggest stars, John Wayne and Jimmy Stewart, appeared on screen together. (The other was The Shootist, Wayne’s last picture. Both were in How the West Was Won, but did not appear in any scenes together.) This movie features one of my favorite, oft-quoted lines: “This is the West, sir. When the legend becomes fact, print the legend.”

(5) The Manchurian Candidate
One of those movies I grew up reading about but didn’t see until I was an adult. Angela Lansbury plays one of the most evil women in cinematic history, a mole for the Chinese government who allows her brainwashed son to become an assassin and kill a presidential candidate. Her incestuous scenes with her son are even creepier when you discover that Lansbury is only three years older than Laurence Harvey, who plays her son.

(6) Whatever Happened to Baby Jane?
I loved this movie when I was a kid. It was a modern horror story, with real people rather than supernatural beings as the monsters. Bette Davis and Joan Crawford were both struggling to find good parts for middle aged women during this time, and this disturbing story of two embattled siblings was the perfect vehicle, further empowered by the animosity the two screen legends held for each other off screen. And you’ll never forget seeing what Baby Jane has brought her sister for lunch!

(7) The Exterminating Angel
Another movie I grew up reading about but didn’t see until I got a subscription to Facets Video in the 1990s. Like most Luis Bunuel films, it’s a critique of the bourgeoisie, with a group of party-goers who can’t leave the host’s house and go home. They’re stuck there for days, maybe weeks, taking whatever means are needed to survive, including sacrificing their host because maybe he caused the whole thing. It’s beautifully surreal.

(8) Carnival of Souls
Made on the lowest of budgets, this film was barely even noticed when it first came out. Now it’s a cult classic. Its Twilight Zone-like story is okay, but it’s the creepy atmosphere that makes this movie more than just another low budget exploitation film.

(9) Birdman of Alcatraz
It’s one of my favorite Burt Lancaster performances as Robert Stroud, the convicted murderer who becomes an ornithology expert. What makes the performance so interesting is that you so much want to sympathize with Stroud because of his superior intellect, but Lancaster never lets you forget the emotions that put Stroud in federal prison in the first place.

(10) Ride the High Country
In the first few minutes of this western, Sam Peckinpah introduces the transition from the classic western of the 19th century to the revisionist western of the early 20th century, which would become the standard setting for his later films. We see policemen dressed like English bobbies, a horseless carriage, a popcorn machine, and a race between a horse and a camel. I use this clip to show students how genre films are a mix of “novelty and familiarity” – what you expect and what you don’t expect.

Some of the other great films from 1962: Lolita, Jules and Jim, Cape Fear, Mr. Hobbs Takes a Vacation, The Longest Day, Knife in the Water, How the West Was Won, and The Miracle Worker. (Maybe I should have done a top 20!)

Tuesday, October 28, 2014

Price-Told Tales

Vincent Price is well known for his collaborations with William Castle (The House on Haunted Hill and The Tingler, both in 1959) and Roger Corman (House of Usher, 1960, and Pit and the Pendulum). Two of his lesser-known efforts made with other directors are currently available on Netflix: The Conqueror Worm (aka The Witchfinder General, 1968) and Madhouse (1974).

Price was almost exclusively making horror films in the 1960s and 70s. Many of these were adaptations of works by Edgar Allan Poe. However, calling them "adaptations" is an exaggeration.For the most part, Corman and his cronies at American International would take a Poe title and come up with a mostly unrelated plot that featured Price.When American International agreed to co-finance the British production of The Witchfinder General, they demanded two things. First, the movie would star Price. Director Michael Reeves wanted Donald Pleasance for the role of 17th century "witchfinder" Matthew Hopkins but had to defer to AI, rewriting the script to fit Price's style. Second, AI changed the name of the movie for its U. S. release to The Conqueror Worm, a poem by Poe which bears no resemblance to the film.

The movie follows the exploits of Hopkins and his assistant John Stearne as they accuse, convict and condemn people as witches during the English Civil War. Price is magnificent as the witchfinder, cold and deceitful. The movie has no real supernatural elements to it; rather, it focuses on the torture inflicted by the witchfinders for its horror. The filmmakers had to back off their original script because of the amount of gore and sexual innuendo. The movie seems rather tame by modern standards but still is effective in its fictionalization of this disturbing figure from British history.

Madhouse is a more typical Price vehicle. He plays an aging horror star who is accused (but never convicted) of killing his fiancee. After spending some time in a mental institution, he is asked to reprise his most famous screen role, Dr. Death, for television, and more deaths follow him. Price is joined in the movie by his horror rival Peter Cushing, who plays Dr. Death's co-creator. It was the third of four collaborations between the two horror superstars. The plot is ridiculous (how many times must a suspect be present at the death of another murder victim before he's arrested?), but it's still fun to see Price playing a parody of himself and to see him wearing the Dr. Death makeup, no doubt an homage to The Abominable Dr. Phibes, in which Price had starred in 1971.

Also available on Netflix now, two of Price's most famous films: The House on Haunted Hill (which will also be featured this Halloween on UALR University Television) and The Fly. Why not make it a marathon of "Price-Told Tales" and watch all four this Halloween?

Friday, October 3, 2014

"Legend of Boggy Creek" is an Arkansas cult classic

I will host a screening of "The Legend of Boggy Creek" at the Old State House Museum in Little Rock on Friday, Oct. 10. 
In 1971, Texarkana advertising executive and and television personality Charles B. Pierce began reading about several strange incidents taking place in the nearby town of Fouke, Ark. Local residents reported seeing a Bigfoot-like creature terrorizing their homes and killing their livestock. Pierce decided to shoot his first movie, a semi-documentary about the so-called "Fouke Monster." The film interviewed local residents but also cast them in re-creations of scenes they described to authorities. Some locals even portrayed their relatives in the film.

The Legend of Boggy Creek reportedly cost $160,000 to make but earned more than $20 million at the box office. The film was a huge hit at drive-in theaters and was one of the top ten highest grossing films of 1972.

The faux-documentary style, combining dramatization with actual interviews, was unusual for the time period, especially for a horror film. Daniel Myrick, one of the creators of The Blair Witch Project (1999), another horror film shot as a faux-documentary, credited The Legend of Boggy Creek as one of their inspirations. The popularity of Blair Witch led to the "found footage" style becoming one of the most popular techniques for horror filmmakers during the past 15 years.

Despite its somewhat amateur production style, The Legend of Boggy Creek became a cult classic and spawned numerous sequels. Pierce went on to produce and direct several more movies, many shot in Arkansas.

Wednesday, February 5, 2014

"Hallelujah" - One of the Earliest Movies Shot in Arkansas

Reprinted from I'm hosting a screening of "Hallelujah" on Feb. 14 at the Old State House Museum.

King Vidor was one of the most successful directors of the silent era. His film The Big Parade (1925) is often cited as the highest-grossing film of the 1920s, and his 1928 picture The Crowd was nominated for "Unique and Artistic Production" and "Best Director" at the first Academy Awards ceremony in 1929. For his first sound picture he chose a subject that was bothersome for the studio heads at MGM - a movie set in the rural south with an all-black cast. He chose to shoot the movie on location in Arkansas and Tennessee.

Hallelujah would become only the second Hollywood movie shot partially in Arkansas. (A scene from the 1927 adaptation of Uncle Tom's Cabin was shot in Helena.) Because MGM was afraid that southern movie theaters would not exhibit the film, Vidor had to waive his usual $100,000 fee for making the picture. The studio only acquiesced because the film would be a musical, which studio heads hoped would appeal to big city audiences like those in New York City who were flocking to Harlem at that time to hear musical performances by African-American performers.

Vidor ran into problems almost immediately when shooting the movie on location. His sound equipment did not arrive on time, and he had to improvise by shooting scenes silently and adding sound later. Vidor used the problem to his advantage by adding sound effects to some scenes. This technique was especially effective in the climax, a chase scene shot in Ten Mile Bayou near West Memphis.

Hallelujah follows the life of Zeke, a sharecropper-turned-preacher who must fight the temptations of a city girl. The cast, composed entirely of African Americans, perform spirituals, field songs, blues numbers and even two songs written by Irving Berlin. The movie's artistry was praised by critics, and many in the African American community saw it as an opening for more black performances in film. Others criticized its images of southern blacks as stereotypical and racist.

Friday, January 10, 2014

Broncho Billy Anderson

Reprinted from I am hosting a screening of Broncho Billy movies on Jan. 10, 2014, at Arkansas's Old State House Museum. 

Gilbert M. "Broncho Billy" Anderson was born Max Aronson in Little Rock, Ark., in 1880. His family moved to St. Louis when he was a boy, but Max returned to Arkansas as a young man to work with his brother-in-law as a cotton buyer in Pine Bluff. Max, however, had caught the acting bug and soon moved to New York City, where he changed his name to Gilbert M. Anderson.

Like most young actors in that day, Anderson sought to hone his craft on the stage. Instead, he found work with the Edison motion picture company working for director Edwin S. Porter. One of his first pictures was a one-minute film called "What Happened in the Tunnel" about a young man flirting with a pretty girl on a train who gets a surprise when the train goes through a tunnel.

The same year he made a movie that would change his life and change motion picture history. Porter's The Great Train Robbery (1903) is often credited as the movie that changed the way filmmakers would put together their movies. Anderson played three different parts in this movie - a bandit, a tenderfoot, and a man who tries to escape the robbers but is shot. After finishing the movie and seeing how audiences reacted to it, Anderson decided the movie business was for him.

Broncho Billy Anderson in the Great Train Robbery
Anderson as the tenderfoot in "The Great Train Robbery" (1903).

Anderson did not only want to act in movies, he wanted to write and direct them as well. Based on what he learned from Porter, Anderson had ideas about what would make a good movie and how the audience would respond. After a couple of false starts, he convinced businessman George Spoor to partner with him and formed the Essanay (S and A) motion picture studio. Essanay would make hundreds of one-reel westerns and comedies between 1907 and 1918, many of them written by, directed by and starring Anderson.

Early on, Anderson developed a persona for himself in his western films that he called Broncho Billy. The character of Broncho Billy was often an outlaw who turns good or sometimes just a cowboy defending the weak. Titles of the films often told the whole story: Broncho Billy and the Escaped Convict, Broncho Billy's Indian Romance, Broncho Billy and the Baby. The character of Broncho Billy became so closely associated with Anderson that for the rest of his life he would be called Broncho Billy Anderson. He  became Hollywood's first western star, ahead of Tom Mix, William S. Hart and Harry Carey. Anderson received an Honorary Academy Award in 1958 for his "contributions to the development of motion pictures as entertainment."

Tuesday, December 31, 2013

Hell House, Hill House, What the...?

I recently discovered a movie called The Haunting of Hell House (1999). The title alone was enough to get my attention. Was it related to the 1973 film The Legend of Hell House, which was based on the Richard Matheson novel Hell House? Or was it a derivation of The Haunting of Hill House, a novel by Shirley Jackson, which was adapted as The Haunting in 1963 and 1999?

The answer is no. It turns out The Haunting of Hell House was based on a short story by Henry James called the "The Ghostly Rental." James, of course, wrote one of the most famous ghost stories of all time, The Turn of the Screw, which was adapted as a feature film in 1961 as The Innocents, and which has been produced for television numerous times and even adapted as an opera by Benjamin Britten. "The Ghostly Rental" is about an old man who kills his daughter and must rent her ghost the family home for the rest of his life. The Haunting of Hell House stars Michael York as the old man, but makes the main character a college student haunted by his girlfriend, who dies following a botched abortion the college student paid for.

So why is this ghostly rental property called "Hell House" in the movie's title? I don't remember anyone using that term in the movie itself, so my guess it that it's just another attempt to confuse us about Hill Houses, Hell Houses and Haunted Hills.

Shirley Jackson's The Haunting of Hill House was published in 1959. It's about a group of paranormal enthusiasts brought together to investigate the haunted house of the title. As I said, it spawned The Haunting, one of my favorite movies about ghosts, made in 1963. (I would have guessed that William Castle's similarly titled The House on Haunted Hill  was a rip-off of Jackson's novel, since it also includes a group of people spending the night in a haunted house, but Castle's film was apparently released just months before Jackson's book hit the stands, so I guess it's just a weird coincidence that further confuses the titling.)

Matheson's book Hell House was published in 1971 and has a similar story about a group of people brought together to investigate the world's most haunted place. The Legend of Hell House was brought to the screen in 1973.

Everything got real confusing in 1999 when remakes of The Haunting and The House on Haunted Hill were released. Even the filmmakers themselves got confused as this blogger points out that the director of the 1999 version of The Haunting must have pulled as much inspiration from Matheson's book as he did from Jackson's: . And within this swirling milieu of haunted hills and hill houses comes The Haunting of Hell House, released the same year. Sadly, none of the more recent movies are close to having the same eerie atmosphere or ghostly production values as their older counterparts.

To lay it out for you, with four fries representing the best a movie gets:

The Haunting (1963) - 4 fries (Possibly THE masterpiece of the haunted horror movie subgenre.)
The Innocents (1961) - 3.5 fries (No Hills or Hells, but worth mentioning anyway.)
The House on Haunted Hill (1959) - 3 fries (A little corny but still fun - featured on Home Fry-ed Movies)
The Legend of Hell House (1973) - 2.5 fries (The movie starts well, but gets laborious as it goes on.)
The House on Haunted Hill (1999) - 2 fries (The house is the real star of this movie. It's hard to trust any film that features both Geoffrey Rush AND Chris Kattan.)
The Haunting (1999) - 2 fries (Special effects are no replacement for good ol' fashioned creepiness.)
The Haunting of Hell House (1999) - 1.5 fries (Besides not being at all what I expected, it just wasn't that interesting.)

Wednesday, December 25, 2013

Saving Mr. Disney

Tom Hanks as Walt Disney
Emma Thompson seems to be getting all the attention for her performance as P. L. Travers, the persnickety author of Mary Poppins, in Saving Mr. Banks, about Walt Disney's decades-long attempt to adapt her book to the screen. Thompson has already been nominated for a Golden Globe for her performance and will probably get an Oscar nod, and rightly so. Pretty much anything she does is Oscar-worthy. However, I was excited to see the movie mostly because of the idea of Tom Hanks portraying Walt Disney. The casting seemed so natural. Hanks is almost the same age Disney was in 1961 and looks a little like the filmmaker. But it's more than that. Both men have a level of intelligence and whimsy that transcends their immense popularity.

Hanks has received no nominations for his performance as Walt Disney and probably won't. He gave a bravura performance as the title character in Captain Phillips, and that movie will generate most of the accolades he will receive for 2013. However, I love watching Tom Hanks bring Walt Disney to life. If you're a fan of Disney movies and Disney theme parks, like me, Walt is bigger than life. Seeing him as a real man, troubled by a difficult woman who unlike everyone else around him won't give in to his overwhelming desire to have his way, provides a clearer image of the master storyteller.

I'm also glad to see the very brief scene where Travers (excuse me, Mrs. Travers) catches him putting out a cigarette. Hanks fought to keep the scene in the picture. The Disney company has a general ban on showing smoking in its pictures, so instead we see Walt stubbing out an apparently unlit cigarette. It made me wince when I saw it, knowing that Disney died from complications associated with lung cancer. Walt himself avoided letting the public, especially children, see him smoking so it seems appropriate that the scene would only briefly allude to it, but it adds another level of verisimilitude to the portrayal. 

Hanks' Disney feels authentic to me. Apparently, others agree. During a panel discussion about the movie at a Disney fan club meeting, former imagineers that worked with Walt said that the movie touched them with its portrayal of their boss. I think it will touch you, too. (3 fries)