It’s a Wonderful Life (1946)

It's a Wonderful Life (1946) movie poster

director Frank Capra
viewed: 12/22/2013 at the Castro Theatre, SF, CA

Unlike most of America, I somehow grew up without Frank Capra’s It’s a Wonderful Life  as a staple of Christmas.    Actually, I don’t even know if I ever even saw it as a kid.  I’m not even totally sure when I finally did see it for the first time, perhaps in the early 1990’s.  So, I don’t have personal associations with the film to further color my experience of the film, at least not those ingrained from childhood.

My kids don’t have television at their home.  Well, not live television to watch, so they are not inundated that way by pop culture.  They get it one day a week when they come to my house and get to watch whatever.  I’ve noted before that those television traditions like The Wizard of Oz (1939) or The Sound of Music (1965) or It’s a Wonderful Life have gone the way of the dodo because those were the days of few television channels (few options) and no home video of any kind.  Really, we’ve entered the era of anything you want whenever you want it.  Forced exposure, for better or worse, is a thing of the past.  Still, there are all of us who grew up in that era and whether we grew up with a particular film or not, have been familiarized with the Hollywood Christmas canon.

The week before, I took the kids to see To Catch a Thief (1955) at the Castro Theatre.  This week it was It’s a Wonderful Life.  They really enjoyed it.

First of all, Jimmy Stewart.  I mean, with Harvey (1950) and this film, you’ve got two of his most definitive films.  This is from a rather broad ranging litany of great movies.  It’s pretty much impossible to think of this film with any other actor.  He’s so perfect as George Bailey, the man whose life comes to a crisis on Christmas Eve, nearly ending his life before his guardian angel shows him the world without him and makes him realize his worth and joy.  It’s a tearjerker.

It’s interesting to watch because the film has come to signify (perhaps with a number of others) a definition of American ideals, particularly with the sentiment of the winter holidays.  It does so very successfully, so successfully that it’s easy to just eat it up, and feel that happy glow.  But coming as it does, in 1946, right at the end of WWII, there is nostalgia and small town idealism, populist stuff, perhaps, but things deeper than that as well.

But I don’t feel like digging into it at the moment, though I do feel like seeing some more Frank Capra movies.  I definitely file this one under “enjoyed by all.”

Vertigo (1958)

Vertigo (1958) movie poster

director Alfred Hitchcock
viewed: 09/01/2013 at the Castro Theatre, SF, CA

Last year, Alfred Hitchcock’s Vertigo was voted by British Film Institute magazine, Sight and Sound, the “greatest film of all time”, ousting long-standing “greatest film of all time” Citizen Kane (1941) from the top spot for the first time in 50 years.  While anybody’s list is just a list, a collective opinion, it made headlines.

Citizen Kane since almost the birth of film criticism has held that place as the critics’ favorite greatest film.  And that has always been one of those weird things because I would certainly say that a casual film viewer would have a harder time appreciating Orson Welles’ masterpiece in part because of context.  His innovations and audacious work happen in the context of the time the film was made and his own age and experience.  I remember first seeing Citizen Kane as a teen and wondering what all the hubbub was about.  It’s taken more years and knowledge for me to appreciate it.  And while I respect it, I certainly wouldn’t vote it the greatest film of all time.

Actually, given the way that things work, with modern audiences much more familiar with modern films, one day, The Dark Knight (2008) might top those lists.  Not because it’s a great film, just because of myopia.  The #1 film on IMDb.com is The Shawshank Redemption (1994) (!?!)  Of course, those aren’t just critics, those are regular people voting.  RottenTomatoes.com, which aggregates critics’ ratings, has Toy Story 2 (1999) as the greatest film of all time (!!??!!)  The American Film Institute still sticks with Citizen Kane.  Vertigo  is #9 there.

Vertigo is often cited as Hitchcock’s best.  And maybe it is.  It’s certainly a great film.

The last time I saw Vertigo was at the Castro Theatre in 1996 when a major restoration of the film was unveiled, and what with this being one of the greatest San Francisco movies of all time, it was quite the splash to see it on the big screen in the same city where much of it was shot.  People oohed, aahed, and cheered at seeing familiar sites or sites long gone, images of the city from forty years before.

I was familiar with Vertigo because it was one of the films that were re-released in 1983, one of five films that I think the family had owned the rights to and had sat on for a while.  And Vertigo was my favorite of those films.

It’s a truly clever conceit.  The woman who is obsessed with a “ghost” and then perishes (though not really) leads to a man who was obsessed with the “ghost” of that woman.  Ultimately, the woman, re-made into the “ghost” is frightened of what she thinks is a ghost and falls to her death.  These are all metaphorical interpretations, but a cycle of obsession and death play out in a fascinating way.  Kim Novak is lovely (except those eyebrows!) and Jimmy Stewart is always good, though he becomes creepy and weird by the end of the film.

I agree that it’s great.  It’s not flawless.  But it’s great.  And as a 20 year plus San Franciscan, I do love the glimpse into the past that the location shots offer.  It was truly another world back then.

I took the kids, knowing that it’s not such a kid film, but intriguing them by telling them about the voting of the film as the greatest of all time (my own internal parental marketing).  I was surprised that they both got into it pretty quick.  The opening sequence with the police chasing the guy across the rooftops and then the cop falling to his death actually worked to hook them right away.

They both liked the film quite well.  Even surprisingly well.

Though when I asked them if they thought it was the best movie ever made they shook their heads.  Felix said his vote would go to A Town Called Panic (2009).  So, there you go.

Harvey (1950)

Harvey (1950) movie poster

director Henry Koster
viewed: 12/31/2011

I hadn’t watched a movie on VHS in so long….  I actually had to figure out how to re-hook up my VCR.  And it took some work.

With my kids back from Australia, I wanted to find a good movie for our New Year’s Eve movie night.  I wanted a classic and the movie that I’d ordered from Netflix had not yet come in, so I trundled down to the now nearly anachronistic “Ye Olde Video Shoppe” and browsed to see what they had to offer.  Harvey was actually one of the top ones that I was looking for.   I had an odd feeling for The Poseidon Adventure (1972), which has the New Year’s Eve thing going for it.  Oddly, I recall seeing that film a number of times as I was growing up.  But the pickins was slim but ultimately I found Harvey on VHS.

In the end, Felix had a bit of a migraine so it was just Clara and I that watched it.  Great fun, I must say.

Though as a kid I watched The Poseidon Adventure many times, I had never seen Harvey (not that these films have anything in common, mind you).  Not until a friend enlightened me some 20 or so years ago and I was brought in to the wonder and enjoyment of this classic film.

I have always loved Jimmy Stewart, ever since I recall being first introduced to him via cinema.  Harvey was one of his personal favorite roles and it’s doubtlessly one of his best.  Adapted from a Pulitzer-winning play by Mary Chase, Harvey is the story of Elwood P. Dowd, a man without a care in the world whose best friend is a 6 foot something invisible rabbit.

Of course, everybody thinks he’s crazy.  Especially his older sister Veta (played by the amazing and Academy Award winning Josephine Hull) and his niece, Myrtle Mae (Victoria Horne), both of whom are trying to re-connect in the town’s society and find Myrtle Mae a man.  Embarrassments lead Veta to finally try to have Elwood committed.  Nearly slapstick insanity ensues when Veta gets committed instead.

The whole film plays off of Elwood’s sublime charm, ease, and happiness.  He’s unflappable, blissed-out almost, a model of kindness, gentility.  He’s also a drunk.

Interestingly, the film treats his alcoholism blithely.  He’s never shown to be “drunk”, per se, though he is constantly ordering two martinis, one for him and one for Harvey.  If alcoholism is potentially a cheerful state of being in the film, psychiatry is anything but.  The story is a paean to the mystical, magical world of fantasy to which we all can belong in strict converse to the “reality” that drugs and forced cold baths bring about.  Ultimately, it’s a cab driver who notes how he meets all kinds of wonderful folk on the way to the sanitarium but they always come out as gruff realists, unfriendly and unkind.  This is what ends up saving Elwood.

Surely, psychiatry around 1950 featured probably as many curses as cures, but let’s face it, who’s ever met a perpetually cheery, benign, open, gentlemanly drunk?

In the end, it’s revealed that Harvey is a “pooka”, a Celtic fairy spirit that takes animal form quite often and thanks to a few little effects, it’s made clear that he does exist.  So there is a magical world, after all.  Harvey is a big invisible rabbit, not a pink elephant.  And the kindness and gentility of Edwood P. Dowd is more of a testament to how people would be well-suited to slowing down, showing one another courtesy and interest, and knock back a few martinis while you’re at it.

Clara enjoyed the film quite a bit.  As did I.  And it is indeed one of the best Jimmy Stewart films there is.  And there are a lot.

The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance

The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance (1962) movie poster

(1962) dir. John Ford
viewed: 06/16/03

Another journey to the realm of the classic Western for me, yet another John Ford film that I had not before seen. With John Wayne, no less!

I, like many people I would guess, have a somewhat prejudiced impression of John Wayne, the macho, drawling image of stereotypical American maleness, tough guy who solves problems by shooting people. Interestingly, this film seems to comment on that very stereotype considerably. And I have to say that the only other John Wayne film with which I am familiar, the brilliant John Ford film, The Searchers (1956), also seems to play Wayne against the types and ideals that from the outside seem to be what he represents.

As the film opens, Jimmy Stewart, a U.S. senator, arrives at the town of Shinbone (love that name) on the train, returning to the now civilized almost modern Western community, which boasts churches and schools and even looks very 1950’s. The bulk of film is told in flashback, as Stewart recounts the tale of how the town was settled, how law and order took over and ousted the wild criminal element embodied by Liberty Valance (played by Lee Marvin, who is totally excellent). It’s an interesting perspective for this film and filmmaker, in the latter days of the studio system and the a late classic-era Western from the greatest of the genre’s directors, looking back at the latter days of the “Old West”.

Wayne represents the classic Western hero, whose tough guy confidence, street-wise smarts, and ability to sling a gun prove to be just the skills that make a man a man in the order of things. Stewart is a lawyer and a pacifist who wants to tame the West with law and justice and shuns the fighting and killing that he perceives makes Wayne’s character just as bad as the villan. Though the story is told from Stewart’s perspective, and presumably the audience is meant to side largely with him, the tension between the two ideologies drives the narrative. In the end, Stewart gets the girl (the usual determinate of who wins in these types of stories), but by compromising his ideals. And ultimately, I am not sure exactly what Ford was saying here, but perhaps it’s that the West needed and authority of violence to instill arepresentative authority of law?

I don’t know exactly, but it’s a very good film, with a well-developed narrative and excellent performances by some truly classic Hollywood stars. If you haven’t seen it, you should add it to your list.

Winchester ’73

Winchester '73 (1950) movie poster

(1950) dir. Anthony Mann
viewed: 05/14/03

I grew up in the South, in Florida to be exact, despising many things that I associated with Southern culture: rednecks, blue jeans, chewing tobacco, country music and Westerns. The litany of those things detailed shows how ill-informed and indiscriminate I was in consigning things to my list of dislikes. Though I still dislike rednecks and tobacco products, I have come to appreciate many other things that I associated rather blindly with one another, some more readily than others.

I came upon the Western in England, of all places. On the “telly” on BBC and Channel Four, frequently in the afternoons the films that would be played would be the great symbols of America, the Westerns of the Golden Age of Hollywood. I got quite into them and saw quite a few, but never came close to having seen even all of the interesting or important films. I want to say that I did see a good Anthony Mann Western among the viewings, but I can’t recall it. Winchester ’73 was recommended to me by a former film school chum, who credited it as being his primary influence into converting him into a fan of the Western.

It’s an interesting film with a surprisingly notable cast. Jimmy Stewart stars, Shelley Winters is the love interest, and also features an interesting performance by Dan Duryea, Rock Hudson as an indian chief (amusingly bad Hollywood casting and depiction of Native Americans — though Hudson is a notably young, strapping buck), and Tony Curtis in a bit part. The film’s Monument Valley setting is as beautifully rendered as in a John Ford Western, and the narrative is cleverly structured and literate yarn that follows a stolen Winchester rifle as it passes through several hands, leaving each usurper dead as it passes on.

When I asked my film school chum what the nature of the discussion was of this film in his classes, he said that it was the “gun as phallus,” a classically Freudian reading, the thing that every man must have and is willing to die in trying to procure. It’s interestingly lethal to those who fail to maintain it. And the landscape is rife with phallic cacti surrounding the players in the desert. It’s an amusing reading, and that is why I share it with you.

After seeing The Magnificent Seven in the theater a couple of weeks ago, I had been a-hankerin’ to see some more Westerns, so don’t be surprised to see some more classics showing up here in the DVD section, pardner.