In Our Opinion

READY TO DISMANTLE THE MOVIE ICONS?

By • Jun 23rd, 2011 •

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I wonder, why does almost every reference to vintage Hollywood depict either GONE WITH THE WIND or CASABLANCA? It’s as if we are all forced to worship certain “iconic” films with strong fan-bases, films that have become cultural landmarks. There are better films, similar to these icons, that deserve a closer look. It doesn’t mean I hate these iconic films. I feel these are good, maybe very good, films worth having in a home video collection, worth a repeat viewing, but I don’t see them as being the very pinnacle of their genres.

THE PHANTOM OF THE OPERA (1925) has been referred to in horror movie magazines and books as the definitive silent horror movie. For years, this was almost the only Hollywood silent horror film easily available for revival screenings. Of course, its most famous scene is still brilliant and a chiller – where lovely Christine (Mary Philbin) sneaks up behind her masked captor, The Phantom (Lon Chaney), and unmasks him. The rest of this 107-minute film doesn’t measure up. PHANTOM’s director, Rupert Julian had almost no grasp of making a horror film. Apparently he constantly fought with the cast to the point where romantic lead, Norman Kerry, physically attacked him. When Julian walked off the film, Buster Keaton’s sometimes director Edward Sedgwick worked on it uncredited. For quality silent era chills, go with other Lon Chaney horror films, which only recently became available on DVD, such as THE UNKNOWN, or HE WHO GETS SLAPPED. Universal’s silent horror masterwork THE MAN WHO LAUGHS is a far more compelling, suspenseful horror film than PHANTOM THE MAN WHO LAUGHS was intended for Lon Chaney, but Chaney dropped out and Conrad Viedt took the role (and created wonders with it.)

GONE WITH THE WIND (1939) The first half of this world famous screen adaptation of Margaret Mitchell’s novel about the fall of the old South is Hollywood studio film-making at full tilt! It is bursting with compelling characters, enticing history, scenery and breathtaking Technicolor cinematography (Cinematographer Ernest Haller deserves strong praise here!) But then the second half of the film, after the Civil War ends, where Scarlett (Vivien Leigh) rebuilds Tara, etc, is rather mediocre. Scarlett’s rocky marriage to the guy best suited for her, Rhett Butler (Clark Gable) is tainted by her wanting unattainable Ashley Wilkes (Leslie Howard). This is something straight out of a soap opera. It might as well take place in Long Island in 1939. GONE WITH THE WIND plays like a fireworks show in reverse: the spectacular overload of pomp and awe is all at the beginning, and the smaller introductory booms and pops conclude the show.

CASABLANCA (1942) Many “movie best” books and references to Hollywood’s golden era immediately depict this well-made mix of wartime angst and romance, but I always have a hard time getting drawn into CASABLANCA. I’m sorry, I find Ilsa (Ingrid Bergman) and Rick (Humphrey Bogart) to be uninteresting characters. Everybody involved in this film, cast and crew, did really good work here, but they are all better in other, less iconic titles. Humphrey Bogart will later show what acting is all about once and for all in THE TREASURE OF SIERRA MADRE. Ingrid Bergman will star in a more romantic and suspenseful wartime-valentine film – Alfred Hitchcock’s NOTORIOUS. Director Michael Curtiz did better films (THE ADVENTURES OF ROBIN HOOD and ANGELS WITH DIRTY FACES instantly come to mind), and I have stronger memories of CASABLANCA’S co-stars (Peter Lorre, Claude Rains, Conrad Viedt, etc.) in other films.

RASHOMON (1950) Akira Kurosawa’s brilliant, minimalist study of how the shattering experience of a rape/murder rattles the human spirit was the first Japanese film to make a worldwide splash. That’s because it won, amongst other well-deserved awards, the Golden Lion at the 1951 Venice Film Festival. Those handing the award to Kurosawa didn’t know that this director made a better film one year earlier, which I feel is the film that should have opened the floodgates for Japanese cinema – his 1949 crime thriller STRAY DOG. STRAY DOG, which didn’t work the festival route upon release, has only recently become known amongst stateside Kurosawa fans. In STRAY DOG, rookie detective Murakami (Toshiro Mifune) tracks down the homicidal thief who stole his loaded pistol and is using it in robberies all throughout World War II torn Tokyo. It’s Japan’s BICYCLE THIEVES – a compelling search through a war-ravished city.

A STREETCAR NAMED DESIRE (1951) This must have been 1951’s big shocker!. The film’s leading man is Marlon Brando’s Stanley Kowalski, a morally vacant control freak in dirty clothing with the violent temperament of a badly behaved six year old. Brando’s performance is so strong, your blood boils whenever he’s on the screen. My problem with STREETCAR is that it takes itself so seriously. Director Elia Kazan knew he was making something different, and dealing with such adult subject matter, that the film becomes painfully self-conscious. I feel Kazan was a breathe away from slapping a pulsating “See folks, this is just like real life…” subtitle whenever Brando misbehaves, or whenever the ready-to-boil living conditions are shown. Kazan would repeat this so-serious-it’s-deathly preachy approach with ON THE WATERFRONT (1954). His later film, A FACE IN THE CROWD (1957), about the rags-to-riches tale of a megalomaniac TV personality (Andy Griffith at his very best!) is a much better slice-of-real-life film. Unlike STREETCAR, A FACE IN THE CROWD delivers a strong message and doesn’t mind becoming satirical.

GIANT (1956) I feel horrible adding an Elizabeth Taylor film to my “iconic films that ain’t that great” list so soon after this wonderful lady’s passing. George Stevens’ film version of Edna Ferber’s novel about the rise of Texas as an empire is majestic, with great scenery and larger-than-life characters that need to be seen on a large screen. When James Dean’s bad-boy Jett Rink strikes it rich with his struggling oil well, the screen and our senses are full of life, but this segment is surrounded by endless drawn out material about the Benedicts (Rock Hudson and Elizabeth Taylor) adjusting to life in an awfully big house. GIANT gains energy again towards the end with the introduction of Rock Hudson’s modernized and emotional son, played with brooding gusto by newcomer Dennis Hopper. Apparently Dean was needed for post–production re-shoots but his untimely death caused Stevens to live with already-filmed mediocre material, for which he hired rising star Nick Adams to re-dub some of Dean’s dialogue.

MY FAIR LADY (1964) Jack L. Warner pulled Hollywood’s top drawer (Director George Cukor, costume designer Cecil Beaton, cinematographer Harry Stradling Sr. and musician Andre Previn) to create this colorful musical version of PGYMALION, George Bernard Shaw’s wonderful satirical spin on how the English should be spoken in much gooder and correcter ways. This film is gorgeous eye candy, and Audrey Hepburn is a delight here, but its 170-minute length is a killer. I prefer Anthony Asquith and Leslie Howard’s 1938 PYGMALION instead. That earlier film is not a musical, but Howard’s Professor Higgins is such a perfectionist-lunatic, you’re amused and intimidated by him at the same time. MY FAIR LADY took home that year’s Academy Award for Best Picture. Instead of being traditional and giving the Oscar to an expensive old-fashioned musical behemoth, why didn’t they give the award to the much funnier and more inventive musical, that same year’s A HARD DAYS NIGHT?

A CLOCKWORK ORANGE (1971) Stanley Kubrick’s film adaptation of Anthony Burgess’ in-your-face morality fable is blasted with such immoral and shocking imagery that it rivets you to your seat in the first act. This famous film starts off following a vicious young street gang in a futuristic, cheerless society. But, as soon as “your humble narrator”, Alex, is told by police “Your latest victim had died! You’re now a murderer!” the film falls apart all at once. Sophomoric humor is slipped in everywhere, as if during production a naughty fourteen-year old kid demonically possessed Kubrick. You’re trying to watch the film, get into the story, and every other second, it’s “here’s a line of dialog with dirty innuendo,” “here’s a man blowing kisses to Alex,” “another naked lady,” “another overdone reaction by star Malcolm MacDowell.” This almost X-Rated material resulted in CLOCKWORK getting copious amounts of press. CLOCKWORK was rushed into production after Kubrick’s failed NAPOLEON film, and it feels rushed, sandwiched between vastly superior Kubrick films – DR. STRANGELOVE, 2001: A SPACE ODYSSEY, and BARRY LYNDON and THE SHINING.

THE GODFATHER (1972) Living within hollering distance of Brooklyn and Queens, “Godfather” imagery, tributes and satires are everywhere for me. Francis Coppola’s film, on first viewing in 1972 showed audiences, weary of political corruption, a society that made no-bones about it, a society that earned money by stealing and strong-arming. This society protects it’s own, and sometimes, allows for the growth of honest enterprises within it’s system. Corruption and savage violence are the elements that keeps “the lights on” in this society. I really enjoy THE GODFATHER, but it drags in spots, and it’s segments become predictable. Scorsese’s GOODFELLAS did Cine-Mafia much better. For me, Marlon Brando, in the title role, has little to do here, but it’s the individual stories about his varied sons that keep THE GODFATHER a grabber (Al Pacino, James Caan, Robert Duvall and John Cazale should have received a group Oscar). Coppola would return two years later with the much more compelling and better paced GODFATHER PART TWO. PART TWO gives the audience a clear cut “history” of the Mafia, forming in old Italy and becoming the other great power in 20th century America.

Again, I feel these are all very good films, but not great. Calling most of these films iconic is like calling a well-made tuna sandwich a five star delicacy. These films came at the right time, striking a mass audience nerve. However, circumstances have prevented better films, sometimes with the same cast, director or subject, from getting the proper release, or the well deserved critical response they deserved.

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