Friday, April 09, 2010

Ode to Old Movies

On a whim, I decided to post an "ode to old movies." By "old movie" I mean one that's old enough that I was too young to remember its original theatrical run. Arbitrary, I know, but there you have it. The watershed movie was 1977's Star Wars; not only was that a game-changer in the way cinema was done, but it's also the first movie that I actually remember seeing in theaters.

Of course, very little of the late 60s to mid 70s output counts either; mostly because that's a period of film that I'm just less familiar with than possibly some others. While Carter's famous "malaise speech" may not have been delivered until 1979, the roots of it were evident in Hollywood long before that. Star Wars itself was a reaction against the heavy-handed, cynical and dark nature of most films that came out in the 70s, reflecting a national mood of mounting frustration in America with issues like Vietnam, Watergate, and others. Rather, I watch "old movies" that are "fun", and that generally means skipping past that period, looking at the earlier 60s and earlier. This isn't completely true of course; an all-star cast version of The Three Musketeers from this era is one of my favorite movies, but it mostly is. I've since discovered that this same broad era that I consider "old movies" are considered by many film critics and historians as "classic Hollywood cinema" characterized by continuity editing filming technique, and other cues.

I've selected three "old movies" as among my favorite of the bunch. Chronologically, they are The Adventures of Robin Hood from 1938, Singin' In the Rain from 1952 and Hatari! from 1962. Of course, there's others I could choose, but I have to be selective here, right?

Erroll Flynn, who amazingly was not the first choice to play Robin Hood, established probably his most iconic role as the dashing, swashbuckling outlaw. Robin Hood reunites the director and much of the cast of Flynn's first starring role in Captain Blood (Michael Curtiz, with actors Flynn, Olivia De Haviland, Basil Rathbone and more. Alan Hale plays Little John, for the second of three times in his acting career). They manage to do a credible job of turning southern California into medieval England. The reason this movie succeeds so well is because its just so dang fun. For an outlaw fighting for the justice of a cruelly oppressed people (in this case, the Saxons, chafing under Norman misrule), Erroll Flynn is a disarmingly charming, light-hearted, and lusty guy, going about his adventures with a hearty laugh and a witty joke.

Despite that, the action is fast and frequent, and despite being many, many decades before we got jaded by Hong Kong martial arts, convincing and thrilling. The final swordfight with Basil Rathbone (as Sir Guy of Gisbourne) across the castle is still one of the best classic Hollywood swordfights ever filmed. I actually miss classic Hollywood swordfights; even with generally better choreography and stuntwork in movies these days, modern movie swordfights just somehow aren't the same.

Olivia de Haviland is, of course, completely charming and lovely as the smug Norman lady who develops instant sympathy for the Saxon plight once she witnesses it first-hand. Supporting cast Patric Knowles, Alan Hale, Eugene Pallette, and Herbert Mundin have altogether too much fun for a bunch of oppressed people on the run hiding in the woods, while Basil Rathbone, Claude Rains, Montagu Love and Melville Cooper have altogether too much fun chewing up the scenery as over-the-top villains. All in all, everything about the movie is melodramatic and over-the-top, but they manage to never make this a liability by keeping it light-hearted and fun. It never descends into dreary pretentiousness like new(er) movies that mine this same territory; at all points it's simply a delight to watch, even today over 60 years after its first release.

Fourteen years later, we come to Singin' in the Rain, which is today viewed by many critics and Hollywood historians as one of the best musicals ever made. Part of the reason for this is that it's also a mock documentary of sorts of Hollywood itself from an earlier era; the late twenties when the Silent Age of Hollywood was ending and the talkies were rapidly becoming big business. With a lot of esoteric in-jokes to real personalities and events from the time, Singin' is a movie that can be appreciated on multiple levels.

Ironically, for being one of the most famous musicals of all time, Singin' had very few original songs, including even the title song, which was originally from Hollywood Revue of 1929. That said, the performances were what really made this movie stand-out; Debbie Reynolds (and even Jean Hagen, who's voice in a twist of funny irony, stands in for Debbie Reynolds when Reynolds' character in the movie is standing in for Hagen's) sing incredibly well, and Gene Kelly and Donald O'Conner are just amazing performers all 'round. Even Cyd Charisse gets to make an impressive cameo performance. Even if you have absolutely no interest in dancing, its impossible not to admire the sheer athleticism involved in some of these performances; check out youtube clips of Donald O'Connor's "Make 'Em Laugh" routine, Gene Kelly's "Singin' in the Rain" dance routine, or the two of them together in "Fit As a Fiddle (And Ready For Love)" or "Moses Supposes" which was always my personal favorite.

But the movie doesn't just work as a musical; it's great comedy, great romance, and even great drama. It's really got it all. Although it was popular in 1952, when it was released, its true worth has only emerged and been recognized in the years since then, frankly, where its become one of the true and most recognized classics ever to have come out of the Hollywood system.

The final "old movie" that I'll talk about today is Hatari! This movie perhaps doesn't have the same recognition as the others, which are true classics recognized by anyone familiar with Hollywood, while Hatari! is a rather obscure Howard Hawkes and John Wayne piece with an unusual theme. It's also notable as a Leigh Brackett script, for what that's worth (I still have a Leigh Brackett novel on my What I'm Reading list right now as I type this.)

Many critics, even favorable ones today, remark that the movie is too long and starts to drag in the middle. I've never thought so. It's true that the film actually has very little plot; it's a simple ensemble piece that shows a number of interesting characters just interacting, often in regular, day-to-day (well, if you have a very bizarre and adventurous career, anyway) ways, interspersed by scenes of the whole group of them hopping in old trucks and jeeps and chasing down wild animals on the African savannah.

This meandering movie could be a mess in lesser hands, but for me, its combination of light-hearted comedy, rousing adventure, inter-character chemistry, witty dialogue, and just overall charm makes it one of my favorite "old movies." It's also fun to see Bruce Cabot as an older man, showing he's got much more acting chops than he demonstrated in 1933's King Kong by a long shot. Although he's, of course, only one member of an ensemble here. Even John Wayne himself often fades into the background, letting some of the other characters get their time in the spotlight.

I so enjoy this "Golden Age of Hollywood" as it's sometimes called, that of the Disney parks, in many ways MGM Studios (now called Hollywood Studios), which recreates the atmosphere of it, is one of my favorites. A number of other movies get nods as almost worthy of inclusion in this brief list: Some Like it Hot from 1959, Blake Edwards' The Great Race from 1965, which also features Tony Curtis and Jack Lemmon. Blake Edwards admits that this movie was his attempt to film "the greatest comedy ever" and he comes awfully close. He also manages to film both the most memorable saloon fight ever put to film, and the most memorable pie fight ever put to film while at it, and make an homage to all kinds of things throughout, most noticably the Ruritanian romance. In 1952, Stewart Grainger headlines a movie version of Scaramouche, which has one of the best swordfights ever filmed, and certainly one of the longest and most involved. 1935 was Errol Flynn and Olivia de Haviland's first starring roles together in Captain Blood. Both of the last two are also based on Rafael Sabatini novels, who happens to be one of my favorite, and oft-forgotten today, once hugely popular novelists. Danny Kaye in The Court Jester is another perennial favorite. Oh, so many!

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