The Hustler

The Hustler (1961) is one of the best sports film ever made, though it doesn’t feel like a sports film. Gone is the pure exhilaration you feel when the hero succeeds, or the gritty resolve you experience when the hero faces a temporary setback. Director Robert Rossen’s earlier sports movie, Body and Soul (1947), hews closer to the conventions of the genre. Despite an overlay of self-doubt and personal angst, its story plays out as a competitive match where victory is still all important.

With The Hustler, character is the central focus. For pool hustler Fast Eddie (played by Paul Newman in a breakthrough role), winning isn’t just about succeeding in the game, it’s also about succeeding in life. He has the necessary skills to win, but is held back by a lack of character. When Eddie’s manager tells him he has talent, Eddie asks, “So what beat me?” Without hesitation, the manager answers, “Character.” We cheer for Eddie and want him to win, but we also see the tense relationship between an unclear head and a disciplined body, more so in this film than perhaps in any other.

Another strength of this remarkable movie is its ability to focus that same character-defining microscope onto the other strong personalities in the story. This is very much an ensemble piece, which draws equally electrifying performances from George C. Scott (Eddie’s slimy manager), Piper Laurie (Eddie’s troubled girlfriend), and Jackie Gleason (Eddie’s self-assured competitor — Minnesota Fats). The story improves with each viewing, as you pick up the subtle interactions among the characters.

All four actors were nominated for Best Actor Academy Awards (Scott declined his nomination). The Hustler earned nine nominations in all, including Best Picture, but won only for “Best Cinematography, Black-and-White” and “Best Art Direction/Set Decoration, Black-and-White.” Newman won an Oscar for his portrayal of Fast Eddie 25 years later, in Martin Scorsese’s sequel The Color of Money (1986). Was it meant to be a reward for his earlier role? Probably, though we’ll never know for sure.

The Hustler
(1961; directed by Robert Rossen; cable, dvd, & blu-ray)
20th Century Fox
List Price: $29.99 (Blu-ray), $14.98 (DVD)

Sunday, February 4 at 1:00 a.m. eastern (late Sat. night) on Turner Classic Movies

She Wore a Yellow Ribbon

The second film in John Ford’s cavalry trilogy, She Wore a Yellow Ribbon (1949) is best viewed as a companion piece to Fort Apache (1948). Where in Fort Apache, ritual and duty are questioned and even challenged, She Wore a Yellow Ribbon affirms ritual and duty as both necessary and honorable. As a result, Captain Nathan Brittle (played by John Wayne) is a more sympathetic character than Fort Apache’s Colonel Thursday. Where Fort Apache shows how unity can be disastrous when following a misguided leader, She Wore a Yellow Ribbon shows how unity can succeed when a leader understands the long-term goals and doesn’t underestimate the enemy.

She Wore a Yellow Ribbon was well received at the time of its release. Here’s what Bosley Crowther had to say about it in his New York Times review dated November 18, 1949:

For in this big Technicolored Western Mr. Ford has superbly achieved a vast and composite illustration of all the legends of the frontier cavalryman. He has got the bold and dashing courage, the stout masculine sentiment, the grandeur of rear-guard heroism and the brash bravado of the barrack-room brawl. And, best of all, he has got the brilliant color and vivid detail of those legendary troops as they ranged through the silent “Indian country” and across the magnificent Western plains.

The story is set immediately following Custer’s Last Stand (a historical event that was the basis of the fictional confrontation in Fort Apache). Ford emphasizes that both the army and the Indian forces are unified from diverse groups. The narration explains that the uprising consists of many different Indian nations who are emboldened by Custer’s defeat. The story also provides numerous references to the cavalry being strengthened by its absorption of the Confederate soldiers.

Captain Brittle is about to retire, and a key question in the movie is whether the new soldiers will have the experience to understand not only what’s at stake, but also why a conflict isn’t inevitable. When Brittle and Sgt. Tyree (played by Ben Johnson) enter the Indian camp to try to avert a battle, it’s clear the young Indians no longer heed the wisdom of their elders. Ultimately, it’s the willingness of the cavalry to incorporate the experience of its elders (and the willingness of the young recruits to follow that wisdom) that gives the army an advantage over the Indians.

She Wore a Yellow Ribbon
(1949; directed by John Ford; cable, dvd, & blu-ray)
Warner Archive Collection
List Price: $21.99 (Blu-ray)
Turner Home Entertainment
List Price: $12.98 (DVD)

Saturday, February 3 at 6:00 p.m. eastern on Turner Classic Movies
Tuesday, March 327 at 9:45 p.m. eastern on Turner Classic Movies

Yankee Doodle Dandy

Many people are surprised that James Cagney’s only Oscar was for his role in Yankee Doodle Dandy (1942). One reason is that the Academy doesn’t tend to reward performances in genre films, such as gangster, adventure, or science fiction films. It also doesn’t tend to reward performances in musicals, though Yankee Doodle Dandy was an exception.

If you think of Cagney’s roles in the gangster movies, it was his confidence that won you over. Only 5 feet 6 inches tall (short by Hollywood standards), Cagney could stare down anyone in the room. It’s just that kind of brash confidence that made him the perfect choice to portray George M. Cohan, who was just as cocky and full-of-himself in real life as Cagney was onscreen. Cagney also had the background needed to play the part. He started in Hollywood as a song-and-dance man, but was sidetracked into gangster movies when asked to switch parts at the last minute.

Cagney did get a chance to return to his song-and-dance roots with his role in Footlight Parade (1933). There, as in Yankee Doodle Dandy, he doesn’t come off as a polished singer or dancer. It’s his enthusiasm that wins you over. He becomes a terrific dancer almost be sheer will alone. If you’ve ever been told, “it’s not what you have; it’s what you do with it,” you’ll find all the proof you need in Cagney’s performance in Yankee Doodle Dandy

Of course, it takes more than a single strong performance to make a great film — particularly if that film happens to be a musical. Cohan’s deeply patriotic songs are real crowd pleasers, not just for their sentiment, but also because they’re the kind of songs that linger in the mind long after you first hear them. Though written for World War I era audiences, they were equally appropriate in 1942 when this movie was released — just months after Pearl Harbor. Even from our perspective, the songs and sentiment still ring true. Odds are you already know many of the songs from the film, which include “The Yankee Doodle Boy” (a.k.a. Yankee Doodle Dandy), “Give My Regards to Broadway,” “You’re a Grand Old Flag,” “Harrigan,” “Mary’s a Grand Old Name,” and “Over There.”

A heartfelt movie biography could easily fall on its face without a strong script. Credit here goes to Robert Buckner and Edmund Joseph, who adapted the screenplay from Buckner’s story. Director Michael Curtiz, whose Casablanca was released the same year, keeps the pace brisk with plenty of humor to take off the edge. Here are some snippets of dialogue:

Critic #1: I call it a hit. What’ll your review say?
Critic #2: I like it too, so I guess I’ll pan it.

George M. Cohan: My mother thanks you, my father thanks you, my sister thanks you, and I thank you.

Newspaperman: He’s the whole darned country squeezed into one pair of pants!

Sergeant on parade: What’s the matter, old timer? Don’t you remember this song?
George M. Cohan: Seems to me I do.
Sergeant on parade: Well, I don’t hear anything.

Michael Curtiz was perhaps Hollywood’s hardest working director in the 1930s and 1940s. He turned out an impressive 44 features for Warner Bros. from 1930 through 1939. Curtiz had an extraordinary range across a diverse group of genres. In addition to Yankee Doodle Dandy and Casablanca, he directed Black Fury (1935), Captain Blood (1935), The Charge of the Light Brigade (1936), The Adventures of Robin Hood (1938), Four Daughters (1938), Angels with Dirty Faces (1938), The Sea Hawk (1940), The Sea Wolf (1941), Mildred Pierce (1945), Life with Father (1947), and The Breaking Point (1950).

The new Blu-ray disc released on October 14 looks great — and it’s a big improvement over the previous DVD versions. The generous selection of extras is essentially the same as on the two-disc special edition DVD. Unfortunately, the extras are ported directly over in the same standard-definition video (480i). The exception is the 1943 Looney Tunes cartoon short Yankee Doodle Daffy. Like the movie, it has been upgraded to a very nice 1080p video. This Blu-ray is an excellent way to experience this top-notch musical drama.

Yankee Doodle Dandy
(1942; directed by Michael Curtiz; cable, dvd, & blu-ray)
Warner Archive Collection
List Price: $21.99 (Blu-ray)
Warner Home Video
List Price: $26.99 (Two-Disc Special Edition DVD)

Saturday, February 3 at 1:45 a.m. eastern (late Fri. night) on Turner Classic Movies

It Happened One Night

Can one film save a failing movie studio? If the film is It Happened One Night (1934), it can. Columbia Pictures needed a hit in order to survive, and it was a gamble for the studio to spend $325,000 on this project, especially since several bus-related movies had recently failed at the box office. Fortunately, everything clicked, and It Happened One Night became the sleeper hit of 1934. It went on to become the first film to sweep all five major Academy Awards: Best Picture, Best Director, Best Actor, Best Actress, and Best Screenplay. Yet immediately after she had completed filming her scenes, Claudette Colbert had told her friends, “I’ve just finished the worst picture in the world.”

If you know director Frank Capra’s later comedies, such as Mr. Deeds Goes to Town (1936), Mr. Smith Goes to Washington (1939), and It’s a Wonderful Life (1946), you may be surprised by the restrained sentimentality in this one. Part of what makes this comedy so enduring is its in-your-face banter that doesn’t take itself too seriously. Robert Riskin wrote the screenplay, based on the short story “Night Bus” by Samuel Hopkins Adams. The script moves at a quick pace, and its self-deprecating humor resonated with depression-era audiences who were trying to cope with financial pressures.

Here’s a scene between Peter Warne (played by Clark Gable) and Alexander Andrews (played by Walter Connolly):

Alexander Andrews: Oh, er, do you mind if I ask you a question, frankly? Do you love my daughter?
Peter Warne: Any guy that’d fall in love with your daughter ought to have his head examined.
Alexander Andrews: Now that’s an evasion!
Peter Warne: She picked herself a perfect running mate – King Westley – the pill of the century! What she needs is a guy that’d take a sock at her once a day, whether it’s coming to her or not. If you had half the brains you’re supposed to have, you’d done it yourself, long ago.
Alexander Andrews: Do you love her?
Peter Warne: A normal human being couldn’t live under the same roof with her without going nutty! She’s my idea of nothing!
Alexander Andrews: I asked you a simple question! Do you love her?
Peter Warne: YES! But don’t hold that against me, I’m a little screwy myself!

Some film historians cite It Happened One Night as the first screwball comedy. Whether that’s the case depends on how you define a screwball comedy. It opened earlier in the year than Twentieth Century (1934) and The Merry Widow (1934), yet it was released one year after Duck Soup (1933) and two years after Trouble in Paradise (1932). It’s certainly one of the first screwball comedies and easily one of the best.

It Happened One Night
(1934; directed by Frank Capra; cable, dvd, and blu-ray)
The Criterion Collection
List Price: $39.95 (Blu-ray)
Sony Pictures
List Price: $24.95 (DVD)

Monday, January 29 at 10:00 p.m. eastern on Turner Classic Movies
Tuesday, February 27 at 3:45 a.m. eastern (late Mon. night) on Turner Classic Movies

Bringing Up Baby

I had a difficult time compiling my Top 20 Screwball Comedies list. The biggest challenge was where to put Bringing Up Baby (1938). In the end, I gave it the number two spot, right behind Duck Soup (1933). Andrew Sarris referred to Bringing Up Baby as the screwiest of the screwball comedies. In an article titled “The World of Howard Hawks,” which appeared in the July and August 1963 issue of Films and Filming, Sarris wrote:

Even Hawks has never equaled the rocketing pace of this demented farce in which Cary Grant and Katharine Hepburn made Barrymore and Lombard in Twentieth Century seem as feverish as Victoria and Albert. The film passes beyond the customary lunacy of the period into a bestial Walpurgisnacht during which man, dog, and leopard pursue each other over the Connecticut countryside until the behavior patterns of men and animals become indistinguishable.

Sometimes it can be instructive to analyze the structure of a comedy, and this one is ripe for that kind of analysis. The world of Dr. David Huxley (Cary Grant) is dead or dying — dinosaurs, fossils, and museums. Huxley is almost as lifeless. He has no sense that life could be more than it already is. The world of Susan Vance (Katharine Hepburn) is just the opposite. It’s full of possibilities. In her world, the animals are very much alive. Her life is unpredictable because she’s willing to fail. And wouldn’t you know it, she fails a lot. This isn’t just an unlikely couple. This is a clash of world views. Neither world is complete unto itself, hence the need for a happy ending to merge the best qualities of both.

In the end — no matter the structure — either the dialogue, gags, and characters are funny, or they aren’t. Bringing Up Baby excels in all three. Hawks had a gift for drawing relaxed, seemingly improvised performances from his actors, especially in the comedies. Everything feels effortless and natural, even though almost all of it was carefully planned. Along with the fast pacing, there’s a rhythm to the dialogue that’s both realistic and engaging. Here’s an example:

Susan: You mean you want me to go home?
David: Yes.
Susan: You mean you don’t want me to help you any more?
David: No.
Susan: After all the fun we’ve had?
David: Yes.
Susan: And after all the things I’ve done for you?
David: That’s what I mean.

The two-disc special edition DVD of Bringing Up Baby features a digitally remastered print, as well as a commentary by filmmaker Peter Bogdanovich, whose comedy What’s Up, Doc? (1972) was inspired by the film. The second disc includes The Men Who Made the Movies: Howard Hawks (1973), a first-rate documentary from Richard Schickel that mixes relevant clips from Hawks’ films with an extended interview with the director.

Bringing Up Baby
(1938; directed by Howard Hawks; cable & dvd)
Turner Home Entertainment
List Price: $26.95

Saturday, January 27 at 10:00 a.m. eastern on Turner Classic Movies

Footlight Parade

How do you top the untoppable? That was the problem facing Busby Berkeley and the Warner Bros. Studio back in 1933. Following the success that same year of 42nd Street and Gold Diggers of 1933, how could they make the script funnier, the pacing faster, and — most importantly — the spectacular musical numbers even more spectacular? The answer was Footlight Parade (1933), which is funnier, faster, and more spectacular than its two predecessors.

Footlight Parade may surprise you if you haven’t seen many classic films. You may be aware of Busby Berkeley’s campy musical numbers, but you may not realize how strong the comedic elements are in the earlier (and superior) Berkeley films. Just as Top Hat (1935) is just as good a romantic comedy as it is showcase for great dancing, the first two-thirds of Footlight Parade holds its own against most comedies. The last third of the movie consists almost entirely of the three musical numbers — each one bigger (and more improbable) than the last.

If you haven’t watched Yankee Doodle Dandy (1942), you may also be surprised to see James Cagney dance in this film. In fact, he started out as a dancer and was cast as a gangster in The Public Enemy (1931) only after switching roles.

And if you haven’t seen many pre-code Hollywood films from the early 1930s, you may be amazed by how modern they feel, especially in their verbal and sexual frankness. It isn’t anything you couldn’t hear on network television today, but it may be a shock to hear this coming from your grandmother’s or great-grandmother’s generation. One of the musical numbers revolves around a honeymoon hotel where all the guests go by the name of Mr. and Mrs. Smith.

Here are a few highlights from the movie’s dialogue, which have a refreshing depression-era we’re all in this together attitude:

Chester Kent: Hello, Vivian. This is Miss Rich. My secretary, Miss Prescott.
Nan Prescott: I know Miss Bi… Rich, if you remember.

Nan Prescott: [to Vivian] As long as there are sidewalks, you’ve got a job.

Charlie Bowers: Is there anything I can do?
Chester Kent: Yeah. See that window over there?
Charlie Bowers: Yeah.
Chester Kent: Take a running jump and I think you can make it.

In my college days, we used to run Footlight Parade regularly during final exams. Just as depression-era audiences craved an escape from their daily trials and tribulations, the exam-weary students responded positively to the film’s snappy comebacks, flawless comic timing, and — yes — glorious excesses contained in the musical numbers. Granted, it’s all a bit silly, but who doesn’t need a bit of silly every now and then?

Footlight Parade
(1933; directed by Lloyd Bacon, musical numbers by Busby Berkeley; cable & dvd)
Warner Home Video
List Price : $19.95

Thursday, January 25 at 4:15 p.m. eastern on Turner Classic Movies

The Merry Widow

Ernst Lubitsch had no equal when it came to crafting sophisticated comedies. One of the first sound-era Hollywood directors known and revered by the public, his “Lubitsch touch” represented the pinnacle of intelligent humor. His version of The Merry Widow (1934) still towers over other comedies.

As Herman G. Weinberg pointed out in his book The Lubitsch Touch, “This time the first ‘Lubitsch touch’ came right under the credit titles as a magnifying glass sought in vain to find the tiny mythical kingdom where the action takes place.”

Ostensibly based on the operetta of the same name (which Erich von Stroheim used as the basis for his 1925 silent film), Lubitsch and screenwriters Ernest Vajda and Samson Raphaelson essentially threw out the plot and started from scratch.

Jeanette MacDonald is the wealthy widow who owns 52 percent of every cow in the small country of Marshovia. Maurice Chevalier is the playboy prince who is given the task of wooing her back from Paris, so her riches will remain in the kingdom.

Supported by an outstanding cast of character actors — including Edward Everett Horton, Una Merkel, Sterling Holloway, and Hermann Bing — The Merry Widow is guaranteed to bring a smile to your face and a feeling of nostalgia for a golden age of screen comedy.

I’m happy to report that this movie is finally available on DVD, though it’s available only as a Manufactured on Demand (MOD) disc. That’s a DVD-R format. As a result, it may not play properly on some PC-based DVD drives or DVD recorders. I had no problems playing it on my PC-based DVD and Blu-ray drives, though your results may vary. This MOD disc should be issue-free with most standalone DVD and Blu-ray players (the kind you connect to a home TV).

The video and audio quality on this disc is first rate. Warner has done an excellent job of transferring this film at a suitably high bit rate (8000 kbps for the video and 192 kbps for the audio). The image had plenty of contrast and detail, and the sound (especially important for the musical numbers) was clear and never shrill. It looked great projected onto a 100-inch screen. Highly recommended.

The Merry Widow
(1934; directed by Ernst Lubitsch; cable & dvd)
Warner Archive Collection
List Price: $21.99

Wednesday, January 24 at 7:30 a.m. eastern on Turner Classic Movies

Wings of Desire

Wim Wender’s Wings of Desire (1987) is an unusual film. It’s the story of the guardian angels who watch over the citizens of Berlin. One angel (named Damiel) yearns to become mortal, so he can experience firsthand what humans see and feel. On one level, this film explores universal themes: the loneliness of being human, the walls (both real and psychological) that prevent us from communicating, and the power of love to break down those barriers. On another level, this film can be an emotional challenge as it immerses the viewer into the often distressed thoughts of others.

It’s a fascinating idea for a film that’s beautifully photographed by Henri Alekan, best known for creating the fairytale-like imagery from Jean Cocteau’s Beauty and the Beast (1946). The shots from the angels’ point of view are rendered in a luminous and tinted black-and-white, while the shots from the human point of view are rendered in color, adding an extra dimension to represent the additional qualities Damiel is seeking. There’s a terrific sequence in a library where a team of angels gently move from person to person hearing their thoughts and attempting to sooth their troubled souls. In another scene, an angel tries to dissuade a man from committing suicide. In several scenes, young children can sometimes see the angels, or at least sense their presence.

Peter Falk portrays himself in the film, as the actor known for playing the television detective Columbo. He is visiting Berlin to act in a film. Wisely, Wenders doesn’t overplay the film-within-a-film aspects of Falk’s role, but rather gives him a crucial part in the larger film that helps to bring many of the plot elements together.

This movie isn’t for everyone. The first half can be confusing as you maneuver your way through the fleeting human thoughts and sometimes swirling imagery. Director Wim Wenders and writer Peter Handke created much of the script on the fly, which gives the story an ethereal quality but can also make it hard to navigate. Let it wash over you, and don’t worry about connecting the dots. As the film progresses, you’ll soon find solid ground under your feet.

Wings of Desire
(1987; directed by Wim Wenders; cable, dvd, & blu-ray)
MGM Home Entertainment
List Price: $39.95 (Blu-ray), $39.95 (DVD)

Monday, January 22 at 10:15 p.m. eastern on Turner Classic Movies

The Magnificent Ambersons

Is Ambersons better than Kane? If you’re talking about the first part of the film, then the answer is yes. The problem with The Magnificent Ambersons (1942), which Orson Welles directed just a year after Citizen Kane, is it was re-edited and given a happier ending. In his book Orson Welles, Joseph McBride quotes Welles as saying:

About forty-five minutes were cut out — the whole heart of the picture really — for which the first part had been a preparation . . . The film has a silly ending . . . just ridiculous . . . It bears no relation to my script.

Welles didn’t exaggerate about the missing 45 minutes. At its sneak preview in the spring of 1942, the film ran 132 minutes. After a re-edit, second preview, second re-edit, and third preview, the studio released it at 88 minutes — on a double bill with a Lupe Velez film. Welles was filming in South America at the time, presumably unaware of the extent of the changes. Almost all of the last part of the film was scrapped, a new ending was shot, and some earlier scenes were trimmed, including what had been a long and intricately conceived dolly-shot of the party at the mansion.

Compared with Kane, Ambersons has a more seamless visual and narrative flow. Speaking of Ambersons’ fluid style, Françoise Truffaut wrote, “This film was made in violent contrast to Citizen Kane, almost as if by another filmmaker who detested the first and wanted to give him a lesson in modesty.” The two films do have a lot in common including deep-focus photography, overlapping dialogue, and a tightly integrated musical score by Bernard Herrmann.

In its present form, The Magnificent Ambersons is a flawed masterpiece. Up until the last few minutes, it holds up well. The ending is abrupt and inconsistent with the rest of the story, but on the whole, Ambersons is a very satisfying film. Look for the sleigh ride scene, which is an unparalleled mix of dialogue, movement, and music. It may be the finest piece of nostalgic fictional film ever recorded.

The Magnificent Ambersons
(1942; directed by Orson Welles; cable & dvd)
Warner Home Video
List Price: $14.96 (DVD)

Wednesday, January 17 at 12:45 a.m. eastern (late Tue. night) on Turner Classic Movies
Monday, February 26 at 8:15 a.m. eastern on Turner Classic Movies

Ninotchka

In a letter to film historian Herman G. Weinberg, director Ernst Lubitsch cited Ninotchka (1939) as one of his three best films. Lubitsch wrote, “As to satire, I believe I probably was never sharper than in Ninotchka, and I feel that I succeeded in the very difficult task of blending a political satire with a romantic story.” The letter was written on July 10, 1947 — just months before Lubitsch’s death.

Greta Garbo plays the part of Ninotchka, a stern, no-nonsense Russian envoy sent to Paris to check up on three representatives of the Soviet Board of Trade. She believes they are unduly influenced by capitalistic luxuries. Melvyn Douglas plays the part of Leon, a sophisticated bachelor who seems to have little more to do than experience the sights and sounds of Paris.

This time around, Lubitsch teamed with writers Charles Brackett, Billy Wilder, and Walter Reisch to adapt a story by Melchior Lengyel. As you might expect from the talent involved, the script is full of comic gems. Here are some examples:

Buljanoff: How are things in Moscow?
Ninotchka: Very good. The last mass trials were a great success. There are going to be fewer but better Russians.

Iranoff: Can you imagine what the beds would be in a hotel like that?
Kopalski: They tell me when you ring once the valet comes in; when you ring twice you get the waiter; and do you know what happens when you ring three times? A maid comes in — a French maid
Iranoff (with a gleam in his eye): Comrades, if we ring nine times . . .

Ninotchka: I am interested only in the shortest distance between these two points. Must you flirt?
Leon: I don’t have to but I find it natural.
Ninotchka: Suppress it.
Leon: I’ll try.

MGM publicized the film with the tagline, “Garbo laughs,” ignoring the fact that Garbo had laughed in a previous MGM film, Queen Christina (1933). Ninotchka was a box office success and was later remade into the musical Silk Stockings (1957). After she retired from her film career, Garbo acknowledged that Lubitsch was the only truly great film director she had worked with.

Ninotchka
(1939; directed by Ernst Lubitsch; cable, dvd, & blu-ray)
Turner Classic Movies
List Price: $19.98 (Blu-ray)
Warner Home Video
List Price: $19.98 (DVD)

Tuesday, January 16 at 2:00 p.m. eastern on Turner Classic Movies
Wednesday, January 24 at 9:15 a.m. eastern on Turner Classic Movies
Wednesday, February 28 at 11:30 a.m. eastern on Turner Classic Movies

2001: A Space Odyssey

If the measure of a classic film is its ability to withstand the erosions of time, 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968) would have to be regarded as the best science fiction film of all time. Though we have moved beyond it chronologically, its predictive value still seems valid.

The decades-old special effects also hold up well. By comparison, George Lukas felt the need to repeatedly update the special effects and storyline in Star Wars (1977), despite the fact it was released nine years later. Science fiction films are especially prone to becoming dated. Both Woman on the Moon (1929) and Things to Come (1936) boldly depict a future that now seems forever bound to a distant past.

One of the reasons 2001 endures is Kubrick’s obsession with getting it right. When there’s an explosion in space, you don’t hear the sound of the explosion. That’s less dramatic, but completely accurate — there’s no air in space to carry the sound. Kubrick and writer Arthur C. Clarke even poke fun at their quest for authenticity. One scene shows the lengthy instructions needed to successfully operate a zero-gravity toilet.

Kubrick did find a technical flaw just before the film was released. It would have been too costly to correct, so the mistake remains. During the flight to the moon, Dr. Floyd drinks food through a straw, in what we understand to be a weightless environment. If you look closely, you can see the food drop when he stops sucking on the straw. Since there’s no gravity, the food shouldn’t be falling back.

Another reason this movie seems contemporary is the remarkably detailed spacecraft and docking facilities. This is the first modern science fiction film in terms of the care and expense devoted to making space travel appear as lifelike as possible. It also didn’t hurt that the movie was shot in 65mm (Super Panavision 70), which provides nearly four times the resolution of a standard 35mm film.

A third contributing factor is the open-ended plot. The conclusion of the film is open to so many different interpretations, you’ll find a variety of websites claiming to “explain 2001.” Even if you accept the most plausible plotline (aliens monitor our technological advances and then help mankind to take the next evolutionary step), there is still a strong element of mystery.

The film combines an obsessive attention to detail with a poetic sense of greater possibilities. That the two can coexist is a testament to Kubrick and Clarke’s creative talents and their willingness to take a great leap of faith in the power of this extraordinary medium.

2001: A Space Odyssey
(1968; directed by Stanley Kubrick; cable, dvd, and blu-ray)
Warner Home Video
List Price: $19.95 (DVD), $29.99 (Blu-ray)

Saturday, January 6 at 8:00 p.m. eastern on Turner Classic Movies
Wednesday, February 7 at 8:00 p.m. eastern on Turner Classic Movies

La Jetée

When I think of classic short films, I usually recall the silent comedies of Charlie Chaplin, Buster Keaton, or Harold Lloyd. Or I might remember my favorite cartoons from Walt Disney, Dave Fleischer, or Chuck Jones. Of course, there are many other fine short films that span the decades.

One of the best shorts from the 1960s is Chris Marker’s La Jetée (1962). It’s remarkable for several reasons. First, it tells an absorbing story that builds to a never-to-be-forgotten climax. Second, it’s technically innovative in a way that’s perfectly in keeping with the subject matter. And third, it shows you don’t have to spend a lot of money on a film production — if you have the imagination to transform the technical deficiencies into creative assets.

I’ve never encountered anyone who wasn’t impressed by this superb 26-minute film, yet strictly speaking, it may not quality as a motion picture. With the exception of a few seconds in the middle, the story is told entirely through still images. That had to save a ton of money, yet Marker was able to create the illusion of movement by panning, fading, cross-fading, and sequencing the images to match the narration, emotionally charged music, and occasional sound effects.

The story, which involves time travel and the persistence of memory, is an ideal fit for this approach. The protagonist is selected for the time travel experiments because he retains fragmentary images from the past and may be able to fill in the gaps (similar to the audience having to mentally fill in the missing film frames).

This short will appeal to a broader audience than just science fiction fans. It has a wistful romanticism that’s as vital to the story as any of the more fantastic elements. Though Marker is an American, he filmed La Jetée in France. As a result, it’s much closer in tone to Françoise Truffaut than to Hollywood sci-fi.

A newer version of this short replaces the French narrator — and English subtitles — with an American narrator, who I assume is Chris Marker. The out-of-print DVD titled Short 2: Dreams had this version, which was Marker’s “preferred cut.” I prefer the original version, though either would qualify as one of the best shorts made during the second half of the twentieth century. The Criterion DVD and Blu-ray have what are essentially both versions. You can run it with either a French or English narrator, and add in English subtitles to supplement the French narration.

You may have read about La Jetée because of its connection with Terry Gilliam’s 12 Monkeys (1995). Gilliam explains in his La Jetée DVD commentary that 12 Monkeys was “inspired by” rather than “based on” the short. The screenwriters used it to generate ideas for their script. Gilliam, however, chose not to see it until 12 Monkeys was completed. After finally viewing La Jetée, Gilliam proclaimed Marker to be a genius.

La Jetée
(1962; directed by Chris Marker; cable, dvd, and blu-ray)
Criterion Collection
List Price: $39.95 (Blu-ray), $39.95 (DVD) [both discs includes Marker's Sans Soleil]

Thursday, January 4 at 5:30 a.m. eastern (late Wed. night) on Turner Classic Movies

The Thing

Just who was responsible for The Thing from Another World (1951)? If you look at the credits, you can see it was directed by Christian Nyby. But if you ask any Howard Hawks fan, you’ll probably be told it’s pure Hawks. The promotional materials of the time have Hawks’ name in big letters above the title and Nyby’s name below in small print. This ambiguity poses a problem for anyone compiling a Hawks filmography. Some writers include The Thing along with the films Hawks directed, while others — playing it safe — leave it out.

In a discussion with the audience at the 1970 Chicago Film Festival, Hawks was asked if he had directed parts of The Thing. This was his response:

Christian Nyby was my cutter, one of the finest cutters in the business, and I thought he deserved a chance to direct. After he directed a few days, he said, ‘Look, it’s an awful lot different cutting a film somebody gives you and making a film to cut. Will you come down and give me some help?’ I helped him some, but I didn’t come in and direct part of it. I just would say, ‘I think you’re attacking this scene wrong.’

Why are we so sure this is a Hawks film? After all, he didn’t direct or produce any other science fiction films. For Hawks, one-of-a-kind projects were not unusual. Gentleman Prefer Blondes was his only musical, and Scarface was his only gangster film. Hawks liked to work in a wide range of genres, yet his films are remarkably similar in theme and structure. In this case, the isolated group is a collection of military men and scientists stationed in the Arctic region. The external threat is an alien. And the Hawksian woman, who can hold her own with the men without losing her femininity, is a secretary to one of the scientists. There’s also the usual camaraderie, group banter, and overlapping dialogue that make a Hawks film so enjoyable.

While it may be a minor Hawks film, The Thing is one of the better science fiction films of the 1950s. Like The Day the Earth Stood Still (1951), Invasion of the Body Snatchers (1956), Forbidden Planet (1956), and The Incredible Shrinking Man (1957), it deals with larger issues than whether we can survive an alien invasion. Each of these films also explores what it means to be a human being.

The Thing from Another World
(1951; directed by Christian Nyby; produced by Howard Hawks; cable & dvd)
Turner Home Entertainment
List Price: $19.95

Wednesday, January 3 at 6:00 a.m. eastern on Turner Classic Movies

David Copperfield

The novels of Charles Dickens should be ripe for film adaptation. The plucky heroes, sentimental plots, and rich background characters would be instantly recognizable if translated to the screen properly. That’s the problem. What film could possibly live up to the novels, which often run a thousand pages or more? (Dickens was usually paid according to the number of words published.)

After decades of mixed results, three film adaptations stand out from the rest: David Copperfield (1935; directed by George Cukor), Great Expectations (1946; directed by David Lean), and Oliver Twist (1948; directed by David Lean). While the two Lean films stress the darker side of Dickens, the Cukor effort is pure Hollywood — in the good sense of the phrase. It’s impossible now to re-read the novel without imagining Edna May Oliver as the irrepressible Betsey Trotwood, Roland Young as the slimy Uriah Heep, Lennox Pawle as the off-in-a-cloud Mr. Dick, and Freddie Bartholomew as the stalwart young David Copperfield.

Most inspired of all was the casting of W.C. Fields as Mr. Micawber. Cukor recounts his impression of Fields to interviewer Gavin Lambert:

He was charming to work with, his suggestions and adlibs were always in character. There was a scene in which he had to sit at a desk writing, and he asked me if he could have a cup of tea on the desk. When he got agitated, he dipped his pen into the teacup instead of the inkwell. Another time he was sitting on a high stool and asked for a wastepaper basket so he could get his feet stuck in it. Physically he wasn’t quite right, wasn’t bald as Dickens describes Micawber — but his spirit was perfect.

Some critics have complained that Cukor’s David Copperfield is less than the sum of its parts — that the film doesn’t rise above its carefully conceived set pieces and vignettes. I disagree. While the film loses some momentum once the main character becomes a man (Frank Lawton was less than optimally cast as the adult David), that’s equally true of the novel and other film or television adaptations of the book. Dickens was better at portraying childhood hopes and fears than the mature aspirations of those same children as adults.

David Copperfield
(1935; directed by George Cukor; cable & dvd)
Warner Home Video
List Price: $19.98

Wednesday, January 3 at 2:45 a.m. eastern (late Tue. night) on Turner Classic Movies

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