Tuesday, October 20, 2009

100 Favorite Films, Part V

Part five of my 100 favorite films, presented, as always, in chronological order.

“Meet Me in St. Louis” (1944). One of the greatest family films ever made, and a touching meditation on the family unit. While it’s a musical, there are long stretches, such as the very memorable Halloween sequence, where’s there’s no musical numbers. Judy Garland was never more charming, Vincente Minnelli’s direction is spot-on, and the film gave us not one, not two but three standards: “The Boy Next Door”, “The Trolley Song” and “Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas.” Sublime entertainment from beginning to end.

“Mildred Pierce” (1945). Years ago I loaned this to a group of young female co-workers who normally wouldn’t be caught dead watching a black and white movie, and all of them absolutely loved it with one telling me it was one of the best movies she ever saw. I was very pleased. A woman’s movie, back when a woman’s movie meant well-written melodrama, not some witless romantic comedy like we have today. I mean the previews for “All About Steve” with Sandra Bullock had me praying for death. No, here we have Joan Crawford in her Oscar-winning portrayal in the ultimate saga of a mother’s love and sacrifice. Unfortunately for Mildred it’s for her ungrateful and loathsome daughter Veda (Ann Blyth). Kate Winslet is set to remake this in a mini-series; that should be very interesting. The versatile Michael Curtiz directs with his usual panache. Wonderful support from Eve Arden and Jack Carson.

“Great Expectations” (1946). The great David Lean gives us arguably the best Dickens adaptation ever. The film boasts absolutely beautiful black and white cinematography courtesy of Guy Green. Again, the casting is spot on, and the opening graveyard scene between young Pip and Magwitch the escaped convict gives us one of the greatest boo jumps in movie history, up until the final scene in “Carrie” (1974). Unforgettable characterizations from Martita Hunt as Miss Havisham, Francis L. Sullivan as Mr. Jaggers, Findlay Currie as Magwitch, Bernard Miles and Freda Jackson as the Gargerys and Alec Guinness as Herbert Pocket. Jean Simmons is intoxicating as the young Estella before Valerie Hobson takes over the adult Estella role. John Mills as the adult Pip more than holds his own among such grand character actors. Say, Martita Hunt and Freda Jackson were both in Hammer’s great “The Brides of Dracula” (1960). “Great Expectations” and the Hammer title would make an interesting double feature.

“It’s a Wonderful Life” (1946). Everyone’s favorite holiday movie, and another film I can’t say much about that hasn’t already been said. One year at a party some friends did a reading of the entire script and I played Mr. Potter. I was told I did a pretty good job. There’s a part of me that thinks Pottersville would be a much more enjoyable place to live than Bedford Falls. No, I don’t really mean that. At least, I don’t think so. Yes, I think I do.
“The Ghost and Mrs. Muir” (1947). One of the best love stories ever filmed, between deceased salty sea captain Rex Harrison and Gene Tierney, the recently widowed new owner of his seaside house. Beautifully written and directed by Joseph L. Mankiewicz, the final scenes never fail to move me. Composer Bernard Herrmann gave us many memorable moments, but these beautifully scored scenes towards the end are my favorite. Tierney is especially lovely and George Sanders shows up at his caddiest. (I don’t know if that’s a real word or not, but it should be).

"Miracle on 34th Street” (1947). Another holiday favorite. Sure it’s manipulation, but when it’s done this well I don’t mind. Edmund Gwenn won a supporting Oscar for his Kris Kringle, and that is one deserving Oscar. I love the opening credit music courtesy of Fox staff composer Cyril Mockridge, and always wondered why it wasn’t a staple at holiday music concerts.
“Nightmare Alley” (1947). In one of the his best performances, Tyrone Power stars as a carnival worker determined to make it to the top by passing himself off as a master mind reader on the high society circuit. This was one of Power’s favorite roles; he was fiercely determined to show he could do more than play costume heroes. The carnival life is not romanticized at all. I wish the ending wasn’t a cop out, but this is still a gripping experience. Good work from Colleen Gray, Helen Walker, Joan Blondell, Mike Mazurki and a harrowing performance from Ian Keith as an alcoholic carny worker. Keith was one of the leading contenders for the Dracula role back in 1930 until they gave it to Lugosi. Watching “Nightmare Alley” you realize Keith would have been a very interesting choice to play Dracula. A classic case of “What If” in cinema history.
“Abbott and Costello Meet Frankenstein” (1948). Speaking of Bela Lugosi, it sure is good to see him here back as Dracula. Lon Chaney returns as The Wolf Man, and Glenn Strange shows up as the Frankenstein Monster. As expert a blend of comedy and horror that’s ever been brewed. A real crowd pleaser in the best sense.

"Easter Parade” (1948). One of my favorite musicals and a historic one-time teaming between Fred Astaire and Judy Garland. I won’t even begin to list all the highlights, though Astaire’s “Stepping Out with My Baby” is a classic. Like the Marx Brothers, Fred Astaire will never, ever date.
“Sunset Blvd.” (1950). Billy Wilder’s immortal masterpiece of the dark side of Hollywood, and one of the greatest movies ever made. Silent screen recluse Norma Desmond (Gloria Swanson) takes struggling screenwriter Joe Gillis (William Holden) as her gigolo. Many Hollywood execs hated the film, as it showed Hollywood disposing of its talent after it outlived its purpose. Gloria Swanson is spot-on perfection in her role. Oscar voters that year had to choose between, among others, Swanson and Bette Davis’ Margo Channing in “All About Eve.” I’m sure the vote got split as Judy Holliday won that year for “Born Yesterday.” A good performance to be sure, but not in the league of those two towering portrayals.

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