Classics I Haven't Seen In a Long Time

Open, general discussion of classic sound-era films, personalities and history.
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Mike Gebert

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Classics I Haven't Seen In a Long Time

PostThu Jun 22, 2017 9:39 pm

There are classic films that I see at least once a decade-- at least a decade has never gone by that I haven't managed to see Sunrise, Casablanca, All About Eve, The Godfather etc. etc. Films I know well enough to quote from, to recognize this or that from, to have in my repertoire of analogies and examples of film history. These are my movies, the ones I treasure enough to have acquired in multiple formats over the years (I have four Sunrises, three each of Casablanca and All About Eve, and two Godfathers, from laser to blu-ray).

And then... there are classics that I have seen. But have I seen them? I saw them when I was a kid or a teenager, maybe many times—but not since then. I saw them in college. I saw them before I had kids. In any of the cases it means not in 15 years or more, possibly not in 30 years or more. I am not that person, exactly, though we are often close relations. But there's nothing like watching a movie you haven't seen since a very different phase of life to make you realize how much your perceptions change as time goes by.

I thought it might be interesting to make an effort to see some of these things, that I know... but maybe don't really know, now. The classics that maybe I've never loved enough to acquire on laserdisc or DVD or blu-ray, and thus haven't seem in a very long time. Here goes with number one...

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THE HUNCHBACK OF NOTRE DAME (1939)

One of the local TV stations in Wichita had the RKO package from C&C Movietime, so if there's any set of movies I grew up with, it's Kong, Kane, Gunga Din, even Bs like Five Came Back... and the 1939 Hunchback of Notre Dame. I can't remember when I last saw it, so it's entirely possible I haven't seen since I was 12, but I saw it a number of times then and many scenes stick in my memory— Quasimodo kicking the bells, getting whipped on the pillory, the notion of sanctuary in a church being where the law could not touch, and interestingly, the scene where King Louis XI (Harry Davenport) and his valet (Etienne Girardot) discuss whether he should bathe more than twice a year. That stuck in our young heads when many other things sailed over it.

Such as that the Gypsies being persecuted are stand-ins for the Jews in 1939 (also, of course... the Gypsies in 1939). Or that the film is quite mature about portraying Cedric Hardwicke's sexual mania as he's tormented by the thought of gorgeous Maureen O'Hara, all of 19 when it came out (though largely indistinguishable from herself at, say, 33, in The Quiet Man—apparently she was never a teenager). Though the script can sometimes be simplistic (King Louis XI has a speech about the printing press bringing freedom that sounds like one of those speeches Rathbone lays on Nigel Bruce at the end of one WWII-era Sherlock Holmes movies), overall it successfully conveyed the multidimensional narrative of the Hugo novel, with multiple major figures having their own plot lines and philosophical points of view advancing toward the showdown at Notre Dame. It often has the innocence and winking humor of 30s historical films like The Adventures of Robin Hood, yet it also veers into darker territory— historically not shrinking from some of the darker aspects of middle ages life, and psychologically (Cedric Hardwicke, in what could have been a two-dimensional baddie role, really conveys sexual repression and derangement well).

What I'm sure I didn't get on the 25" TV back then is what a handsome production it is—no doubt I got something of the historical setting, but it really conveys medieval Europe as well as any movie of that time, through a mix of sets, models and glass shots. William Dieterle is hit or miss as an auteur, I think, but this shows his strengths as a visual filmmaker with a keen sense of chiaroscuro and gothic detail, which sometimes crowds in just a little too tight, like it wants to be Expressionist and be all angly-jangly. I suppose Dieterle felt challenged by the Lon Chaney film, not that it was exactly a visual masterpiece (mainly, it was good at filming Universal's handsome set) but that the film needed to have something of the visual splendor associated with the silent era. (I wonder if the film he was really comparing it to was The Beloved Rogue, in which Louis XI is also a character.)

What I mainly remember from the film, of course, is Charles Laughton, who is the title character if not quite the main character—like his RKO colleague King Kong, he's kept out of sight for much of the early parts of the picture, and it's not until the plot is good and heated up, like a cauldron of lead, for act 3 that he takes a central role (which, I note, also involves carrying a girl up to the top of the tallest building in town). He's poignant, and an obvious inspiration for John Hurt's Elephant Man, but, well, I guess older me noticed that there's a lot more movie around him than I remembered.

So The Hunchback of Notre Dame holds up, indeed though it is long (nearly two full hours), it remains an effective production with memorable moments, serious performances, and it looks very handsome indeed on the blu-ray which came out in 2015, though the Amazon complaints that the sound levels are inconsistent are correct. In any case, a film whose acquaintance I am glad to make again.
“Sentimentality is when it doesn't come off—when it does, you get a true expression of life's sorrows.” —Alain-Fournier
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Re: Classics I Haven't Seen In a Long Time

PostSat Aug 05, 2017 7:09 am

LOST HORIZON (1937)

A few years ago my wife and I spent a weekend at a fancy spa in Napa Valley, a rolling wooded place of vaguely Eastern cedar cottages and wind chimes and healthy breakfast buffets and an assortment of hot tubs and massages with which to rejuvenate your spirit, as the brochures for the upscale places call relaxing and laying about.

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The joke about Frank Capra's vaguely Frank Lloyd Wrightish vision of Shangri-La, the mystic hidden paradise of James Hilton's pre-WWII fantasy novel and Capra's 1937 film Lost Horizon. is that it looks like The Fontainebleau or some other fancy resort of the midcentury. But surely this is much backwards as true; our collective vision of the hidden New Age paradise to which we want to escape from the world's cares comes from Hilton and Capra. Lost Horizon may be an influential film (watching it, I suddenly realized exactly where Peter Jackson's inspiration for the various paradises of the Elves in the Lord of the Rings films came from) but it's the travel industry it has shaped the most. It's a dream that has persisted for 80 years, and despite a notoriously awful musical remake in the 1970s.

That's a bit surprising because seeing it today, it is very much a fantasy for its time. I last saw it in the early 80s and I had never seen Robert Gitt's reconstruction, which took the full 132-minute soundtrack and restored all but about 7 minutes of footage cut in various reissues, using still photos to get us through the remaining 7 minutes. Ronald Colman is Robert Conway, "the empire builder," a British popular hero in foreign affairs whose disillusionment will be the driving force of his enchantment with Shangri-La. (I assume T.E. Lawrence is the primary inspiration for his character, perhaps with others mixed in.)

Capra's story is that the movie started with two reels about Conway in China before the current slam bang opening, in which Conway, his brother (fellow Bulldog Drummond player John Howard), a paleontologist (Edward Everett Horton), a cynical businessman (Thomas Mitchell), and a woman of undefined dark past (Isabel Jewell) get out on an airplane just ahead of Chinese warlords. I've always wondered—is there any proof that the two reels before this were actually shot? It is hard to imagine that their presence ever seemed necessary to a plot which would head straight for Tibet.

In fact they've been kidnapped and are flown to the Himalayas, where they are led into a colonialist's dream of paradise— founded by a presumed Jesuit missionary and devoted to preserving western learning, run on benignly authoritarian-socialist principles rooted in plenty, a population of happily working Asians with a steady supply of white female foundlings so there's no question of mixing the races when it comes to romantic interest, the whole tranquil resort managed by Chang, H.B. Warner very good as a mystic proprietor talking in New Age platitudes.

Someone could rip into this fantasy of the White Man's Burden's ultimate benevolence pretty harshly today, but you have to look at the time that the book and the movie come from. The next war was coming, the only way to think otherwise was to be in denial—and at one point Conway spins a fantasy of disarmament solving everything, and then acknowledges that a fantasy is all it is. I don't think 1937 really needed 2017 doctoral students to tell it that the West had some serious failings.

In fact the film itself displays its contradictions pretty obviously and immediately. Not just that Shangri-La is nothing like a democracy, and depends on a contented peasantry completely uninterested in class struggle for its lack of the strife that exists in every human society. But it is hard to see what has seduced Robert Conway so completely, except perhaps that he's simply tired. Well, Lawrence was tired, so he enlisted in the air corps as Ross, to be among other manly men. But why would Conway, at this momentous time in history, disappear to this monastic retreat— just to keep the ideas in books properly shelved? Why disarm himself? Ultimately, it seems unconvincing, maybe even a little cowardly, and it takes Colman's considerable charm to not dislike Conway at this point. In fact Conway makes me think of another figure besides Lawrence— the Foreign Office official Ralph Wigram, who early on began leaking classified information to Winston Churchill to enable him to make his case for the Nazi threat during his "wilderness years." Wigram is thought to have sought his own way out of the coming disaster of the 1930s, committing suicide when he came under suspicion (at least that's one version of events).

But again, the fantasy is in a movie, a few hours of relief from hard facts no one would really be able to forget. Most of the other characters find practical use for their time in paradise; only Conway's brother seems to be agitated, frankly to the point of overacted mania, from an early point by being held captive in paradise. That prompts the third act, in which Conway, brother and the Russian foundling Howard loves (played by one-named Margo, long married to Eddie Albert) try to leave Shangri-La and return to the world of the 1930s.

Ultimately the answer would be for democracy to be an arsenal; when Franklin Roosevelt famously referenced Shangri-La in a speech, it was as the place from which the Doolittle Raid took off to show Japan that it could be bombed (even if, at the time, ineffectively, but the psychological point was made). By 1942, the dream of Shangri-La was that it could serve as an airbase, apparently.

The restoration is interesting, though I would rather see a version without stills, few of the reconstructed scenes seem all that essential (where the bits taken from inferior sources, revealing the reissue cuts, often provide important shading on characters). The main exception comes in one of Conway's visits with the High Lama (Sam Jaffe); a number of bits of dialogue about the philosophy behind Shangri-La were apparently removed, which substantially weaken the arguments for the life being practiced there.

For me, I enjoyed the New Agey resort, getting massages and eating fresh fruit and yogurt and sleeping on really nice sheets, but after a few days I wanted to get out and eat tacos and see the messy world, such as it is. A break from it, yes, a permanent escape to peace away from cities and noise, I am not made for that.
“Sentimentality is when it doesn't come off—when it does, you get a true expression of life's sorrows.” —Alain-Fournier
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Re: Classics I Haven't Seen In a Long Time

PostSat Aug 05, 2017 3:37 pm

The original opening of the film, discarded by Capra, was included in the 1940 Lux Radio Theater broadcast.

http://www.chelsearialtostudios.com/los ... on_lux.mp3
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Re: Classics I Haven't Seen In a Long Time

PostThu Aug 17, 2017 4:36 pm

Mike, your review of LOST HORIZON makes me want to see it again. I always tend to skip over it when re-visiting Capra's classic '30s-'40s films.

As for HUNCHBACK, that's still one of my favorites. Absolutely heartbreaking performance by Laughton. Classic Hollywood at its best, as far as I'm concerned.
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Re: Classics I Haven't Seen In a Long Time

PostThu Aug 17, 2017 7:26 pm

There is a new blu-ray of Lost Horizon coming out in October from Sony. It will contain the latest restoration, which may or may not be what Mike saw. I read somewhere that this restoration has been available on a disc from Australia for a while now.

https://www.amazon.com/Lost-Horizon-Blu ... on+blu+ray

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Re: Classics I Haven't Seen In a Long Time

PostThu Aug 17, 2017 7:51 pm

The Amazon listing says:

Now restored in 4K and featuring an additional minute of footage long missing from the film, Lost Horizon is a sumptuous experience for lifelong fans and newcomers alike.


So, down to six minutes of still reconstruction, I guess.
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Re: Classics I Haven't Seen In a Long Time

PostFri Aug 18, 2017 1:58 pm

MattBarry wrote:As for HUNCHBACK, that's still one of my favorites. Absolutely heartbreaking performance by Laughton. Classic Hollywood at its best, as far as I'm concerned.


HUNCHBACK is one of those sound remakes I like as much as the silent version. But then, the source material is so strong I liked a lot of the Disney animated version.

A few months ago, I sat myself down and forced myself to give CITIZEN KANE another chance. I saw it in a film class 30+ years ago. At the time, I appreciated the deep-focus photography and the tricks OW used to make Xanadu and the film as a whole appear to be more sumptuous than the budget allowed. But I didn't care enough for the characters to be emotionally invested in the story.

Turns out my opinion of the film hasn't really changed over time.

Finally, for obvious reasons, I've been thinking a lot of THE GREAT DICTATOR in recent days. I also first experienced that film in that film class of long ago. I've watched it on video since then, but not often, and almost certainly not within the last ten years. Perhaps I'll dig it out of mothballs this weekend.
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Re: Classics I Haven't Seen In a Long Time

PostTue Aug 22, 2017 11:06 am

The Lost Horizon Blu-ray pre-order is now down below $12:

https://www.amazon.com/Lost-Horizon-Blu ... on+blu+ray" target="_blank

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Re: Classics I Haven't Seen In a Long Time

PostFri Sep 15, 2017 8:09 pm

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ALICE'S RESTAURANT

The following review assumes you've heard the song.

I like restaurants, but I don't like a lot of hippie restaurants, a genre that still exists, especially in college towns. They tend to have people working in them who think they can make anything without knowing the fundamentals, so they make Indonesian stir-fries without understanding how Asian flavors are built, which ironically means they're cooking more like 60s housewives than modern chefs who actually educate themselves about other cuisines. And they can be slackly run, 28 minutes for that water refill or the salsa they forgot to bring with the breakfast burrito.

So watching Alice's Restaurant, Arthur Penn's 1969 film of the hit song (which honestly is no classic film, and was something of a letdown after Bonnie & Clyde), I'm having issues with the logistics of the business in the movie, like the guy who goes to Death of a Salesman and comes out saying "That New England territory never was any damn good." The hippies wander in and out of the kitchen and taste food then put the spoon back in it and Ray tries to get Alice to go swimming with the hippies when she's got tickets backed up from diners sitting in there. This is no way to run a restaurant. (Not to mention, speaking of 60s housewives, the Thanksgiving feast on which the plot sort of hangs includes, prominently, a ham with pineapple slices on it.)

The reality of 1960s restaurants— including that one started by another Alice— is that whatever slack kind of hippie cooks walked in there, they quickly learned to run by something resembling the dictatorial French brigade system, because otherwise you close. So for me, Alice's Restaurant is a movie, like all hippie movies, about people who want to live by a new, looser and freer mode of life than all the squares. But what's honest about it is that it acknowledges that it's not that easy; there's a restaurant to run, and responsibilities to be maintained, and you can't entirely be a lovable drunken Irish flake (as Ray, partner to Alice and played by James Broderick channeling Thomas Mitchell, can be at times). The squares aren't wrong about everything.

The best thing about it, in fact, is that while the kids' struggles are fairly routine and seen with bemused innocence (a good choice since none of them can actually act, though Guthrie has a likable presence), and the squares are caricatured (including, in what must be the Good Sport Performance of all time, Officer Obie himself acting out his role in the song, fake-crying when he realizes the judge can't see the 8x10 color glossies), the portrait of the adults is considerably more serious, fraught with moral choices and consequences and the awareness that after a certain age, in fact your whole life is not ahead of you and your choices are not infinite. If this slack, sloppy movie survives as a watchable enough picture of its time, it's because Penn sees that the 60s are going that way— not the heavy-handed apocalypse of Easy Rider, but a point where some people make something out of their choices and keep the restaurant running, and other people remain screwups, a little less likably so with the passing years. And that women are usually the ones who wind up doing the hard work.

I saw it in college. Did I get any of that then? Honestly, I remember nothing about it that isn't also in the song, though I do remember the scenes with Woody Guthrie (that is, Arlo acting opposite an impostor dad, reenacting his own father's death just two years before). So maybe even then, the grownup stuff stuck with me more than the stuff about the kids my own age.

Curious fact about the film: it is hard to think of a movie from the 60s or 70s where so few people involved with it went on to do anything. The star, of course, never really starred in anything again (he has a couple of bit parts in things like Bob Dylan's Renaldo and Clara and some TV appearances*), Pat Quinn doesn't seem to have had a boost from playing Alice (she has lots of TV roles in the 70s), and most of the other kids had short or no further acting careers. The screenwriter went off to teach, the cinematographer has only three credits, one of them an apparently unreleased film he directed, the guy who plays Woody Guthrie was dead within a year, and so on. It's a surprise when a familiar face shows up in the draft office—M. Emmet Walsh, looking exactly as he will a decade later in Ordinary People, Blade Runner and Blood Simple.

* Wikipedia reminds me that Guthrie was in another big hit the next year: the concert documentary Woodstock.
“Sentimentality is when it doesn't come off—when it does, you get a true expression of life's sorrows.” —Alain-Fournier
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Re: Classics I Haven't Seen In a Long Time

PostSat Sep 16, 2017 9:41 am

Yar. Just the other day I asked a friend of 44 years what he wanted to be when he grew up. He thought for a few seconds and said "Alive."

I think I saw Guthrie Junior once after this movie. It was at a show he gave at Carnegie Hall, for which I got talked into buying tickets by a young woman. I could not hear or see much, 'cause some other woman just in front of me kept standing up to hold a personal conversation with Arlo.

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Re: Classics I Haven't Seen In a Long Time

PostMon Sep 18, 2017 12:16 pm

Interested to read a reasonably friendly write-up of ALICE, which I first saw on the big screen circa 1977, paired with BOUND FOR GLORY. Two friends who were twenty years older than me positively loathed the film, with what seemed to me extreme hostility. And, I would agree it's not a great film by any means, but it came across as genial and likable at the time.
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Re: Classics I Haven't Seen In a Long Time

PostMon Sep 18, 2017 12:55 pm

By an odd coinkidink, last night I turned to PBS and it was showing Isn't This A Time!, the last classic folk concert, held at Carnegie Hall, with an unrecognizably old Arlo as the host. The guests were The Weavers, a barely-recognizable Peter Paul and Mary, and an always-recognizable Pete Seeger.

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Re: Classics I Haven't Seen In a Long Time

PostMon Sep 18, 2017 3:36 pm

I think a taut, tough movie about hippies would be a misrepresentation of the era (see Coogan's Bluff for an example); a hippie movie needs to be a little shaggy to be true to the time. That said, a little shaggy quickly becomes too shaggy.

Speaking of hippie restaurants and that other Alice, there's an interesting documentary called Jeremiah Tower: The Last Magnificent, which is about the hippie restaurant Chez Panisse, and how Tower— a splendidly tall and handsome gay man who had basically grown up like Eloise in hotels— came in and taught them fine French cooking, which in turn led to the American food revolution of the 70s. Although I don't entirely agree with the movie's point of view (he went on to have a glitzy celebrity restaurant called Stars, which I think is more of a sellout than a glittering pinnacle; then vanished to Mexico, where I suspect life is not as ascetic as the movie claims), it's pretty interesting as a picture of that period and of the charismatic and mysterious Tower, who is sort of like Ralph Lauren crossed with Edward Gorey.
“Sentimentality is when it doesn't come off—when it does, you get a true expression of life's sorrows.” —Alain-Fournier
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Re: Classics I Haven't Seen In a Long Time

PostTue Sep 19, 2017 5:55 am

Mike Gebert wrote:I think a taut, tough movie about hippies would be a misrepresentation of the era (see Coogan's Bluff for an example); a hippie movie needs to be a little shaggy to be true to the time. That said, a little shaggy quickly becomes too shaggy.


Dirty Harry.

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Re: Classics I Haven't Seen In a Long Time

PostTue Sep 19, 2017 6:38 am

A good picture from the hippy era might be Andy Warhol's 8 hour epic just featuring a camera staring at the Empire State building. One presumes it was watched by an audience who were stoned out of their minds and therefore thought it was simply spiffing. Supposedly we were all "turned on" in the sixties.
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Re: Classics I Haven't Seen In a Long Time

PostTue Sep 19, 2017 6:49 am

Donald Binks wrote:A good picture from the hippy era might be Andy Warhol's 8 hour epic just featuring a camera staring at the Empire State building. One presumes it was watched by an audience who were stoned out of their minds and therefore thought it was simply spiffing. Supposedly we were all "turned on" in the sixties.


As the saying goes, "if you remember the '60s, you weren't there."

Bob
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Re: Classics I Haven't Seen In a Long Time

PostTue Sep 19, 2017 8:44 am

Mike Gebert wrote:it's pretty interesting as a picture of that period and of the charismatic and mysterious Tower, who is sort of like Ralph Lauren crossed with Edward Gorey.


Not even Tower could tame Tavern on the Green.
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Re: Classics I Haven't Seen In a Long Time

PostWed Sep 20, 2017 5:30 am

boblipton wrote:
Donald Binks wrote:A good picture from the hippy era might be Andy Warhol's 8 hour epic just featuring a camera staring at the Empire State building. One presumes it was watched by an audience who were stoned out of their minds and therefore thought it was simply spiffing. Supposedly we were all "turned on" in the sixties.


As the saying goes, "if you remember the '60s, you weren't there."

Bob


Some of us who were there just prefer to forget.

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Re: Classics I Haven't Seen In a Long Time

PostWed Sep 20, 2017 5:35 am

Donald Binks wrote:A good picture from the hippy era might be Andy Warhol's 8 hour epic just featuring a camera staring at the Empire State building. One presumes it was watched by an audience who were stoned out of their minds and therefore thought it was simply spiffing. Supposedly we were all "turned on" in the sixties.


Oh, Donald, stop pretending you didn't enjoy it!

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Re: Classics I Haven't Seen In a Long Time

PostWed Sep 20, 2017 5:46 am

Jim Roots wrote:
Donald Binks wrote:A good picture from the hippy era might be Andy Warhol's 8 hour epic just featuring a camera staring at the Empire State building. One presumes it was watched by an audience who were stoned out of their minds and therefore thought it was simply spiffing. Supposedly we were all "turned on" in the sixties.


Oh, Donald, stop pretending you didn't enjoy it!

Jim


How would I know? I was out of it, Man!
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