AFI #41: King Kong

I suppose the best thing I can say about the original King Kong is that it’s pretty impressive for a film made in 1933. Clearly the film can’t hold a candle to today’s epic special effects driven mega movies, but as I was watching it I imagined what it may have been like for an audience member to see this film on the big screen back in the 30s and it was probably pretty darn impressive. I doubt anyone thought the creatures looked real, but the size and scale must have been something to behold.

The plot, however, is flat-out ridiculous and the acting is the scariest thing in the film. I’m sorry if you think this film is some sort of landmark motion picture, but it’s just silly. A giant killer gorilla lives on an island in the Pacific along with dinosaurs and aboriginals who sacrifice young ladies to the beast? As Seth Meyers would say — really? And then after the great ape kills half the crew they capture it and bring it back to New York where it escapes, grabs the girl and climbs up the Empire State Building only to be shot down by bi-planes? Really? And then the moral of the story is that it was beauty that killed the beast. Really?

Truly the most memorable thing about King Kong is actress Faye Wray’s screams. That and the scene where Kong battles a giant T-Rex to the death and wins by snapping the dinosaurs mouth open. Nice. Undoubtedly this film gave the Japanese the inspiration for Godzilla Vs. Mothra!

Next up: The Sound of Music

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AFI #42: Bonnie & Clyde

Bonnie & Clyde tells the supposedly true story of Bonnie Parker and Clyde Barrow, a couple of notorious criminals who stormed across the southwest in the 1930s robbing banks and killing cops. If we are to believe the script, Clyde had just gotten out of jail for armed robbery when he met a bored Texas waitress named Bonnie Parker who was looking for adventure. Well, she got it and a whole lot more. I was struck by several aspects of this story, the first being that they didn’t seem to have any plan or frankly any reason other than the thrill to rob banks. On top of that, they were really reckless and bragged about their exploits to anyone who would listen — almost assuring they’d get caught.

I thought the story was boring and pointless and I didn’t really like the film. I will say though that I thought Faye Dunaway was great (as she seems to be in everything she is in) and Beatty played a whacked out Clyde who if he was really that nuts was a definite sociopath. The film was nominated for tons of Oscars but only won two — one for cinematography and one for best supporting actress for a very annoying Estelle Parsons as Clyde’s sister-in-law Blanche. I actually really liked the performance of Michael Pollard as C.W. Moss and you can still find him in bit roles in tons of Hollywood films today.

If the point was to romanticize the legend of Bonnie & Clyde they did a lousy job. There was nothing romantic about this gang of losers robbing banks and getting shot to death.

Next Up: King Kong

AFI # 43: Midnight Cowboy

Everybody’s talking at me
I don’t hear a word they’re saying
Only the echoes of my mind

Midnight Cowboy is one of those films that people seems to either love or hate. You can count me among those who really like it. It was certainly controversial at the time it came out, earning an “X” rating from the MPAA for sexual content and adult themes, but it’s tame by today’s standards. It is, of course, known for being the only X rated film to win the Academy Award for Best Picture and one of only two ever nominated in any category (ironically, the other, A Clockwork Orange, is also on the AFI Top 100).

The film is the sordid tale of would-be “hustler” Joe Buck (Jon Voight, AKA Angelina’s dad), fresh off the boat from Texas and trying to earn a living in New York by being a gigalo. He quickly finds out that the naked city is no place for a naive cowboy like him, until he runs into a street urchin and scam artist named Ratso Rizzo (Dustin Hoffman). The two fall in together and try to survive on the streets, but things go from bad to worse. Ultimately it’s a tale of starting over despite the circumstances of ones situation.

For me the film is really driven by the characters of Joe Buck and Ratso Rizzo. Voight and Hoffman both earned Oscar nominations for their work, and both characters have become archetypes of sorts and prove that a film can be held together solely on the strength of characters. Ratso is certainly a legendary character that has been spoofed and copied for decades. “I’m walkin’ here!” Truthfully though I think Voight’s Joe Buck is a more compelling and interesting character — we learn from flashbacks about his difficult childhood and perhaps what led him to leave Texas for New York and a chance at the big time. And of course ultimately it’s his story and he is the one who grows and changes by the end. Speaking of the end — spoiler alert — a lot of people complain about the depressing ending of this film but the ending is a new beginning for Joe Buck and the viewer has to think the experiences he had in New York will lead him to a better life…and we see signs of that along the bus ride to Florida and at the end. Joe is a survivor and you feel like he’s going to be OK.

The other thing about Midnight Cowboy that is pretty compelling is the way in which it was shot, with the flashbacks and the 60s psychedelic stuff. It’s the same treatment I hated in other films of this era but it works nicely here and adds to the flavor of the film as a period piece. Finally, a word about the song. That ever-present Everybody’s Talkin’ At Me. It’s hard to think of another song that always brings to mind the film from which it is associated. But to a person if you say the words Midnight Cowboy people start to sing the song and vice verse if you sing the song people will have visions of Ratso Rizzo and Joe Buck. That’s hard to do. Ironically, the song did not win the Oscar — it didn’t even get nominated. That award went to Raindrops Keep Falling on My Head from Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid, which is another song that has become synonymous with a film. And by the way, Butch and Sundance was also nominated for Best Picture that year and lost to Midnight Cowboy, a travesty in my humble opinion.

One last nugget of film lore. In the famous scene in Midnight Cowboy where Joe Buck allows a young man to perform oral sex on him in a theater in exchange for money, that young man was played by a 24-year-old Bob Balaban in his first movie role. Balaban, for film connoisseurs, is of course the brilliant character actor known for his roles in the great Christopher Guest films like A Mighty Wind and Best in Show and…of course…as Russell Dalrymple on Seinfeld!

Next Up: Bonnie & Clyde

AFI #44: The Philadelphia Story

We should begin this review with a caveat: The Philadelphia Story is one of my favorite films of all time. For me, it has everything you want in a great film. First and foremost, the dialogue is superb. In fact, given it was written in 1940 I would argue the screenplay is ahead of its time for its wit, innuendo and double entendre. The story is based on the Broadway play by Philip Barry but the adaptation work by Donald Ogden Stewart and the delivery by the first-rate cast makes it stand out.

The story itself is witty and interesting. For those of you who have not seen it, the story revolves around a socialite family from Philadelphia. The upper crust Tracy Lord (Katherine Hepburn) is about to be married to the hard working and virtuous George Kittredge. However, Tracy’s first husband, C.K. Dexter Haven (Cary Grant) shows up at the family estate the day before the wedding with a couple of undercover reporters from Spy Magazine (think TMZ) (Macaulay Connor played by James Stewart and Liz Imbrie played by Ruth Hussey) who think they are there to cover the social event of the season but are in fact there at Haven’s bidding in trade for the magazine not publishing a salacious story about the family’s patriarch. The Lord family catches wind of the plot and decides to play it up for the reporters, but of course nothing goes as planned and a drunken wedding eve leads to unexpected resolutions, declarations of love and ultimately a happy Hollywood ending.

The film appeals to me on so many levels. To begin, Hepburn has never been more beautiful and funny. Tracy is a woman who has always been thought of as cold and aloof, a “trophy” to be admired and put on a pedestal. But all she really wants is to be loved for who she is. Marrying George is obviously the wrong thing to do, but it takes her ex husband and a romantic writer to help her see how to get what she really wants. Grant is dry and sarcastic as Dexter, who is still in love with Tracy and is there not so much to win her back from George but to protect the Lord family from the ruthless media because he doesn’t want any of them to be hurt. And then there is Jimmy Stewart’s Connor, for which he won an Oscar for Best Actor. Mike Connor hates his job at the magazine because he is a “real” writer but he needs to pay the bills. He goes to the wedding thinking it will be a typical snooty society event but he finds the Lord family is down to earth and of course Tracy is both intelligent and loving and he falls head over heels for her. The scenes in which Stewart and Hepburn are drunk are some of the funniest scenes ever filmed.

As a former journalist I love the character of Macaulay Connor. In fact, he is one of my favorite movie characters ever and one of the reasons for my son’s name (don’t tell Leslie our boy is named after this character because she’ll deny it but it was definitely in my mind as we decided on the name Connor). Stewart is remembered for other great roles including Harvey, Mr. Smith Goes to Washington, It’s a Wonderful Life and Rear Window, but he only won one Academy Award and it was for playing Macaulay Connor!

The smaller roles also make this film so wonderful. Tracy’s little sister Dinah, played by 14-year-old Virginia Weidler is hysterical, as is Roland Young’s Uncle Willie. Tracy’s mother Margaret, played deadpan by Mary Nash, is clueless to the goings on and delivers some of the films most memorable lines.

I have seen The Philadelphia Story perhaps a dozen times or more and whenever it’s on TV I stop to watch. It’s truly one of Hollywood’s greatest romantic comedies.

Next on the list: Midnight Cowboy

AFI #45: Shane

“A man has to be what he is, Joey. You can’t break the mold.”

Shane is a 1953 western starring Alan Ladd, a film about a “retired” gunslinger who moseys into a town in need of a hero. The film is a classic western with a story as old as time. Shane shows up in a beautiful Wyoming valley where homesteaders are being run off their land by a bully of a rancher. The bully is even willing to resort to violence to clear the land of the “sodbusters,” but he doesn’t know that Shane is quick on the draw and not afraid of anyone. Of course the film leads up to the ultimate confrontation when Shane has to decide if he’s truly done gunslinging or whether he should use his skills to free the homesteaders from the tyranny of the rancher.

As you might guess from the quote above, Shane finds out that a man’s nature isn’t easy to change. And that is the lesson of the film, that and folks need to stand up for themselves against a bully. The western is the perfect genre for this message and I bet this theme can be found in a great many westerns. The old west is where people are independent and can make their own way through hard work and determination. In fact, the western is a truly American genre because America itself stands for this kind of rugged independence. In this story its man against a bully, but you can find similar stories of man versus nature or man versus himself.

I love a good western and Shane certainly qualifies. It was nominated for a Best Picture Oscar and several of the stars were nominated for acting including Jack Palance and 11-year-old Brandon De Wilde who plays young Joey who looks up to Shane as a hero. de Wilde is actually a terrible actor in the film, so much so that you want to slap his for his over-the-top portrayal. But this was 1953 and I suppose it was rare back then for a kid to have such a meaningful role in a film. But the kid drove me crazy with his constant questioning of Shane and of course his famous cried for Shane to “come back” at the end. Yes, it’s another one of those movie moments that left an indelible stain on our collective movie-going psyche.

The other major flaw of the film is that Ladd as a tough guy is just silly. Ladd is a skinny little five-foot-six-inch tall guy and there’s no way he could beat the rough and tumble cowboys in fights, yet he does so with ease in the film. Please! But at least he didn’t take himself too seriously. He was quoted as saying: “I have the face of an aging choirboy and the build of an undernourished featherweight. If you can figure out my success on the screen you’re a better man than I.”

Next up: One of my all-time favorite films: The Philadelphia Story