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  • November 29th, 2019

MOVIE MANIA

By Joel M. Vance

 

I was born when sound on film was only a few years old. It was a stunning moment for most ardent moviegoers when Al Jolson in “The Jazz Singer” became audible. But by the time I was old enough to plunk down my quarter or whatever it took to get into the theater, sound was omnipresent in movies and the silent era essentially was ended.

 

Except— I still will watch most or all of “The General” with Buster Keaton in glorious silent black and white if only to see the comic genius and the absolutely incredible and dangerous stunts that Keaton performed himself.

 

I recoiled in delicious terror when Dr. Frankenstein’s monster loomed on the silver screen or Count Dracula batted at the windows in the form of a huge bat. In company with legions of puny adolescents, I subsisted on the soul food of a movie addicted tot—Necco wafers and, especially, (nevermind today’s staple of the moviegoer, popcorn) the greatest of all cinematic junk foods, Milk Duds. All over the nation, dentists were rejoicing and booking their next Caribbean vacation.

 

All this is prelude to listing my 10 favorite movies of all time—those films that I will see time and again. Homage, thanks, and deep appreciation goes to Ted Turner, creator of the TCM channel (Turner classic movies) where we can indulge in nostalgia. And a list of 10 favorites is bound to exclude somebody else’s favorite 10 and possibly even lead to barroom fights.

 

But since I rarely visit barrooms anymore and never was inclined to fisticuffs where I would be rapidly reduced from inclined to reclined, these are mine and feel free to disagree.  There are countless movies that I will watch again either all or part of. Who can resist being lured into any of the “Star Wars” “or “Indiana Jones” movies? And I never miss a rerun of “A Shot in the Dark” with Peter Sellers as the hapless Inspector Clouseau. Monty Python movies are a drug as addictive as heroin.

 

I quickly can name three of my top five movies and all three star Humphrey Bogart, who on the face of it (and him) seems an unlikely Hollywood idol. He wasn’t very good-looking, only in a rough shod way, but he starred in three movies that I will watch every time they appear. In two of the three he was a scrungy character, far removed from a matinee idol. They don’t come any scrungier than Fred T Dobbs in “Treasure of the Sierra Madre” or Charlie Alnutt in “The African Queen.” Only in “Casablanca” did Bogart portray a character with any kind of panache.

 

The pairing of Bogart and Katherine Hepburn in “The African Queen” was a marriage made in Hollywood heaven. Director John Huston was a fan of filming on location and the actors in the movie suffered as a result of the hardships they endured in Africa. Bogart’s revulsion when he surfaced from repairing the Queen covered with leeches was not realistic acting— he was revolted. The leeches were real.

 

Orson Welles movie “Citizen Kane” consistently is voted the best film of all time but I beg to differ. How many people remember any lines from that movie other than Welles whispering “rosebud”, the name of his treasured childhood sled as he eases into eternity. But you can quote lines from “Casablanca” endlessly. Or at least I can. “Of all the gin joints in all the towns in all the world, she walks into mine.” “Here’s looking at you, kid.” “We’ll always have Paris.” “Round up the usual suspects.” “Louie, I think this is the beginning of a beautiful friendship.” And, of course, “you know what I want to hear. You played it for her, you can play it for me!” And he didn’t say “play it again Sam.”

 

That’s one of two lines that most people get wrong, along with Mae West saying to Cary Grant in the 1933 film “She Done Him Wrong”, “why don’t you come up and see me sometime.” (She actually said “why don’t you come up sometime “n see me?” And, in “treasure of the Sierra Madre” the grimy bandit did not say “we don’t need no stinking badges!” There was no “stinking” except for the obviously smelly bandit himself.? What he actually said was “We ain’t got no badges! We don’t need no badges! I don’t have to show you any stinking badges!”

 

There are two moments in my favorite movies that are guaranteed to make me puddle up. One is when Marian the librarian in “The Music Man” sings “good night my someone, good night my love.” We were fortunate enough to see the musical on Broadway in revival with Craig Bierko as Professor Harold Hill, the role that Robert Preston created and against whom all others will be measured. Bierko was wonderful, but when Marian sang her hopeful ballad to the night sky, I was choked up and wiping my eyes, just as I do every time the movie plays on TCM. Most fans of Meredith Willson’s wonderful musical probably don’t realize that the melody of “good night” actually is the same melody as “76 trombones,” the most upbeat and boisterous tune of the entire musical, drastically slowed down.

 

The other tearjerker for me is at the end of “To Kill a Mockingbird” when Scout, the precocious (and precious) Mary Badham as Scout looks beyond the people who are tending to her after she is rescued from being assaulted by the movie’s villainous Bob Ewell and sees someone behind the door. She says softly, “Hey, Boo” to Robert Duvall as Boo Radley, her reclusive rescuer. Once again, the old softy in me turns me into weepy mush.

 

Ms. Badham spoke at the Columbia public library once and signed my copy of Harper Lee’s book, and talked about her experiences making the movie when she was seven years old. She loved Gregory Peck, who played her character’s father Atticus Finch, and revered him the rest of his life. And she was frightened by James Anderson, Who played Bob Ewell, the evil drunk bad guy. “He stayed in character all the time and I was terrified of him” she said.

 

I will not read “Go Set a Watchman” Harper Lee’s posthumous prequel to “Mockingbird.” Apparently, it portrays Atticus as a racially prejudiced southern white man before his enlightened days as the defender of a black man wrongly accused of rape. I want to remember the Atticus of “Mockingbird” and the saintly Atticus of the movie, so movingly portrayed by Gregory Peck. I had far too much exposure to white middle to upper class southern men with bigoted mindsets when I lived for a time in 1950s Montgomery, Alabama—and, for that matter, in the Missouri of the same time period.

 

Another of my top 10 is “Anatomy of a Murder.” I love it for a variety of reasons. First of all it is, in my mind, the greatest courtroom drama in cinematic history. And it stars Jimmy Stewart, among the greatest actors of all time, invariably involved in fascinating dramas. The dialogue sparkles and it is worth watching if only to see Joseph Welch as the wry, homespun, funny and lovable judge. Welch in real life was famous for destroying the evil Wisconsin Senator Joe McCarthy when he was a counsel for the Army when McCarthy, as insane and destructive as any Congressman in history (until now) accused the Army of being infested with communists. With weary resignation Welch said to the glowering senator and his ferret faced sidekick Roy Cohn, later to become one of Donald Trump’s infamous legal beagles, “Senator, at long last, have you left no sense of decency?” McCarthy shriveled like a slug on a hot sidewalk and soon oozed into history, drunk and disgraced.

 

It’s tough to pick “Anatomy” as my favorite Jimmy Stewart movie because I also have watched “Rear Window” many times and also the movie that Stewart himself listed as his favorite of the many he starred in “Harvey.”  It’s hard not to watch a movie about a gentle, eccentric man whose best friend is an invisible six-foot rabbit. And how can anyone not watch, again and again, “Rear Window” a movie costarring Grace Kelly?  I can offer as a defense the idea of “irresistible impulse” which was the winning defense that Jimmy used to get a not guilty verdict in “Anatomy.”

 

I once had a chance to meet John Voelker, the real name of Robert Traver, a Michigan Supreme Court judge who wrote the book “Anatomy of a Murder.” Like a fool, I didn’t travel to the Upper Peninsula where Voelker lived in a home that he said was “bought and paid for by Anatomy of a Murder.” Voelker was an ardent trout fisherman and maybe we could have gone fishing together, using his favorite fly which he called “a little bitty brown thing.” And we could have shared one of the beers that he would stash in a cold spring hole while he fished, with which to cap off the day.

 

There is one other musical among my top 10. “Singing in the Rain” is absolutely stuffed with charming dance routines, topped off by Gene Kelly dancing his way down a rainsoaked street, while singing the title song. Costar Debbie Reynolds said Kelly was so demanding in their rehearsals that her feet bled. Add in Donald O’Connor’s show stopping “make ‘em laugh!” frenzy and who could ask for anything more?

 

The biggest trouble with Alfred Hitchcock movies is picking out which one you like the best and, for purposes of this list, which one you would watch over and over. It’s a tossup for me between “Rear Window” and “North by Northwest.” Some opt for “Psycho” and others for “Vertigo.” And then there’s “the Man Who Knew Too Much” with the assassin waiting for the cymbal clap to fire the fatal bullet. Hitchcock knew how to draw out the suspense to the point where you want to scream “for God’s sake, watch out!” As many times as I’ve seen it, the scene where Grace Kelly is in the killer’s apartment and you see the burly killer Raymond Burr walking toward the door into his apartment, the tension is like an over tightened guitar string—will it snap or not, even though you know it won’t. But who can resist Cary Grant and Eva Marie Saint capering over Washington’s nose (or was it Lincoln’s nose?) on Mount Rushmore, pursued by the killer Martin Landau?

 

As a nearly lifelong ardent canoeist, not to mention a nearly lifelong guitar player, I can’t resist revisiting “Deliverance” every time it broadcasts. I figure that Ronny Cox, taking a pristine Martin guitar unprotected on a canoe trip down a wild, rapid filled river, deserved to get shot. And there is an unavoidable quiver of recognition when the four canoeists run afoul of a pair of depraved backwoods types, remembering my own encounter on the Niangua River with a guy that came out of the bushes wearing a pistol. As it turned out, he was harmless, in a weird way, but I was extremely happy to see the rest of our canoeing party show up, even though none of them was packing a bow and arrow.

 

George Lucas wasn’t thinking of my generation when he made “American Graffiti” but there is no film ever that captured the spirit of the 1950s as thoroughly as did that film—even though the timeframe supposedly was the 1960s. We didn’t cruise the strip in Keytesville because there was no strip (main street was about two blocks long), but the songs were the songs of my teenagerhood, as were the tentative tiptoes into adulthood experienced by the picture perfect cast. No other movie comes close to capturing that era, except for “The Last Picture Show,” where the grimy small, failing Texas town is far closer to the reality of Keytesville than was “Graffiti’s” more urban setting.

 

There is one other movie involving kids that has to be on the list because almost everyone on earth has seen it at least once and most at least twice and many others countless times, including me— it also has a memorable line which every boy over 70 years old is able to quote: ”you’ll shoot your eye out kid!”The movie, of course, is “A Christmas Story.” Ralphie’s lust for a Red Ryder BB gun was universal when I was Ralphie’s age and though the red spot has faded with time, I once suffered a pellet wound about a quarter inch below my right eye when a fellow adolescent plinked me during a session of wargames that would have resulted in the confiscation of my Red Ryder, had my mother known about it.

 

Merry Christmas and, God willing, you won’t get bunny slippers from Aunt What’sherface.

 

I gave some thought to leaving my number 10 favorite movie blank so you could fill in your own choice but then I thought of the ideal movie to wind it up. Those who have seen the movie will know what I mean and those who haven’t are in for a wonderful treat. As the unlikely hero of “The Big Lebowski” says:

 

The dude abides…..

 

 

 

 

 

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2 Comments

  1. Shawn Cramer

    December 10th, 2019 at 10:25 am

    Reply

    I’m glad to see I’m not the only one who questioned taking that Martin on a whitewater trip.
    Shawn

    • joelvance

      December 12th, 2019 at 12:21 pm

      Reply

      I detasseled seed corn one summer to make enough (sixty dollars)to buy a Martin 0017 guitar which I still have. It has gone on many trips with me–but never on a float trip.



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