Tuesday, July 18, 2006

JSB: Summer Movies

Tired of the over loud, over computerized, by-the-numbers, no deeper than Paris Hilton movie offerings this summer? Then get a blast from the past this summer, with family and friends around.
Of course, there are some standards all movie mavens must know, like Casablanca, Citizen Kane, The Wizard of Oz. Here are a few more I'd heartily recommend:

Mr. Smith Goes to Washington (1939)

Starring James Stewart, Jean Arthur and Claude Raines, the film tells the story of Jefferson Smith, a naïve scout leader who is tapped by a political machine to become a puppet U.S. Senator. But when he finds out the real score and tries to stand up against the machine, he's hit with everything they've got.

The movie's theme is summed up in something Jefferson Smith's father once told him. "Sometimes lost causes are the only ones worth fighting for."
Unabashedly American, Smith is the quintessential Frank Capra film, even more so than It's a Wonderful Life.

Twelve Angry Men (1957)

Directed by Sidney Lumet and starring Henry Fonda and eleven other fine actors (most notably Lee J. Cobb and Jack Warden), this classic "one man against the crowd" film is a legal mystery with social themes aplenty. See it for its tremendous acting and ability to tell multiple stories without ever leaving the jury room.

On the Waterfront (1954)

This classic from director Elia Kazan and writer Budd Schulberg has what I think is the greatest performance by an actor ever put on film. Marlon Brando plays Terry Malloy, a pug fighter now working for the mob, and there is not a single false note anywhere. This immensely moving drama of one man's awakening from animal existence through the love of woman, features plenty of fine performances (Lee J. Cobb, Karl Malden, Eva Marie Saint) and has the famous cab scene between Rod Steiger and Marlon Brando. "I coulda had class! I coulda been a contender! I coulda been somebody."

It is also about standing up against evil.

Shane (1953)

I agree with Sam Peckinpah that Shane is the greatest Western ever. But to me, calling Shane a Western is like calling Moby Dick a fish story.

What makes Shane a classic is that you find new things in every viewing. Indeed, I think you need 5 or 6, minimum, to get at the richness of it.

The first time we watch it, naturally, we see the main story--a rather spare tale about homesteaders versus cattle ranchers. That's as it should be. It's a good, timeless story, well told.
But there is so much more going on.

First, appreciate the filmmaking artistry. Every frame is perfect. Watch the way the actors and mountains and props all are framed to obtain specific effects. Director George Stevens used a telephoto lens to achieve that incredible feeling of the Grand Tetons out in the backyard (no Western, and few movies, before or since, has had such striking imagery. The closest is Ford's Monument Valley, but the mountains in Shane are breathtaking).

The film is a Christian allegory (even more explicit in the novel). The devil makes an appearance in the form of Jack Palance, whose stunning portrayal earned him a Best Supporting Actor nomination.

Hail the Conquering Hero (1944)

This, the finest film of director-writer Preston Sturges (who flashed like a comet across the Hollywood heavens in the early 40's) is, on the surface, a simple screwball comedy. Woodrow Lafayette Pershing Truesmith (Eddie Bracken), the son of a World War I hero, has been released by the Marines because of a hay fever problem. Ashamed to go home, he makes the acquaintance of seven Marines on furlough, led by a crusty but benign sergeant (William Demarest). The sergeant was with Woodrow's father when he was killed. He and his buddies hatch a plan to pass Woodrow off as a hero to his small town.

It all unfolds with typical Sturges energy. But underneath it is a story about duty owed to home and family, and the unbreakable bonds of friendship. The last shot in the film is one of the most perfect in movie history, explaining everything that happened with one, simple image.

Duck Soup (1933)

The best of the Marx Brothers films, this also remains a trenchant political satire, timeless in its way. It is also a reminder of how dreadful so many "comedies" are these days. The secret of a Marx film was great writing mixed with perfect timing and delivery.

Watch for the often-imitated mirror scene, in which Harpo, dressed like Groucho, tries to mimic Groucho's every move through an open doorway.

The Best Years of Our Lives (1946)

Classic Americana is on display in the story of three vets returning from World War II. Frederic March earned a Best Actor Oscar, and Harold Russell, a Navy vet who had lost both hands in the war, took home the Best Supporting Actor statuette. Dana Andrews, never better, plays the other role.

In addition, this film has what I consider to be one of the two most perfect film scores ever (the other being To Kill a Mockingbird).

A Few More Not to Miss

Rear Window
Sunset Boulevard
Lilies of the Field
It Happened One Night

James Scott Bell is the bestselling author of Presumed Guilty and Write Great Fiction: Plot & Structure. Visit his website at http://www.jamesscottbell.com/. This post is adapted from the book Behind the Screen: Hollywood Insiders on Faith, Film, And Culture.


At 9:58 AM, Blogger Richard L. Mabry, MD said...

You're right on the mark (as usual). Besides the paucity of decent current films, I get tired of paying for the privilege of hearing cell phone conversations and popcorn crunching underfoot. DVD's and TiVo are wonderful.

At 1:56 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Jimbo, Jimbo, Jimbo...all the above are classics in their own right, true. But what about such timeless gems as Manos, the Hands of Fate? Eegah? High School Big Shot? Monster-A-Go-Go? (all first unleashed on an unsuspecting public on MST3K). And the masterpiece that towers above them all: Gigli. *G*

At 3:52 PM, Blogger Patricia Hickman said...

Yes, Richard, right on. It seems that movie etiquette has been washed away with the deluge of electronic gizmos. I'll add one more film to the list, if that's all right. The Night of the Hunter starring Robert Mitchum.

At 9:09 PM, Blogger Southern-fried Fiction said...

Jim! I'm devastated - you missed my all time favorite movie, but then I guess I've a bit more gauche than you.

Oh, my favorite movie? Young Frankenstein. ;o)

At 10:30 AM, Blogger James Scott Bell said...

Thanks, Doc, for standing up for civility in theaters.

Thanks to you, Patty, for mentioning one of my favorite actors.

John, I don't know what to say. Add "Plan 9 From Outer Space" perhaps.

And Ane, I'm with you. "Put zee candle beck!"


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