Classic Movie Review: Yankee Doodle Dandy (1942)


Title: Yankee Doodle Dandy
Release Date: May 29, 1942
Director: Michael Curtiz
Production Company: Warner Bros.
Summary/Review:

George M. Cohan was an entertainer, playwright, composer, lyricist, actor, singer, dancer and theatrical producer credited with creating the Broadway musical.  When I was a kid, I really liked his song “Give My Regards to Broadway,” and in my second grade class the students got to pick the patriotic song we’d sing each morning and it almost always was “You’re a Grand Old Flag.”  My family even learned that we could sing “S-U-double L-I-V-A-N” to the tune of “Harrigan.” So Cohan’s work has made a mark on my life.  Yankee Doodle Dandy is purportedly the biography of Cohan’s life albeit historical accuracy is overlooked in order to make something that makes audiences feel patriotic during a time of crisis.  Which is fine, I don’t expect to learn my history from a musical, and after all can’t the same thing be said about Hamilton?

The movie is framed by an elderly George M. Cohan (James Cagney) being called to the White House to meet President Franklin D. Roosevelt (Hank Simms).  This was the first time a sitting president was depicted in a movie and Simms performance is awful.  These scenes are also the cheesiest and most over-the-top of the movie and might have been left out had they been thinking of posterity but again they probably appealed to audiences of the time. Cohan tells his version of his life story to FDR in a series of extended flashbacks.

Young Georgie (Henry Blair) gets his start in a vaudeville act with his family called The Four Cohans.  He seems pretty obnoxious and arrogant about his early success, and despite a lesson in humility from his father Jerry (Walter Huston, who is great in this movie), never really seems to change.  Nevertheless, once Cagney takes over the role his winsome charm is able to overpower any feeling that Cohan is kind of a heel.  The plot basically ties together a series of magnificent song and dance numbers including “The Yankee Doodle Boy,” “Mary’s a Grand Old Name,” and “Over There.”  It’s schmaltzy but thoroughly enjoyable.

Yankee Doodle Dandy has some unfortunate “of its time” aspects.  In once short scene The Four Cohans perform in blackface, because of course they do. The only actual Black characters in the movie are the servants at the White House which says something in a movie that’s supposed to represent the American dream.  Finally, Cohan essentially sabotages the career of Mary (Joan Leslie) repeatedly but it’s supposed to be okay because Mary seems to want nothing more than to be his dutiful wife.  That Cagney charm is strong because I almost didn’t even catch that Cohan’s marriage proposal was essentially to cover up giving Mary’s role to another actress.  Leslie, by the way, was only 17 when this movie was filmed and does a great job of “aging-up” to be the older Mary Cohan at the end of the movie.

Yankee Doodle Dandy joins several other movie musicals considered to be all-time greats as being a story about entertainers. Singin’ in the Rain, The Band Wagon, and Cabaret (not to mention The Muppet Movie and La La Land) all fall into this category. On the one hand it makes sense to make a musical about people who sing and dance for a living, but it also jibes against the stereotype of musicals being where ordinary people break out into song and dance.  Personally, I can always use some more song and dance in my life.

Rating: ***1/2

Classic Movie Review: Cabaret (1972)


Title: Cabaret
Release Date: February 13, 1972
Director: Bob Fosse
Production Company: ABC Pictures | Allied Artists
Summary/Review:

Brian Roberts (Michael York) is an English academic who arrives in early 1930s Berlin and plans to teach English lessons while working on his doctorate.  He settles into a boarding house where he meets Sally Bowles (Liza Minnelli), perhaps the ur-Manic Pixie Dream Girl (with emphasis on “manic”), an American who sings and dances at the Kit Kat Klub. Despite Brian believing himself to be homosexual, their friendship grows into a romance.  Then their twosome becomes a threesome as they are both pursued by the playboy Baron Maximilian von Heune (Helmut Griem).  All throughout the film, the decadence of the Weimar Republic transitions to the Nazi regime.

While it’s facile to say that a musical would not work without the song and dance, the plot of Cabaret is rather slight. The musical numbers performed in the Kit Kat Klub by the Emcee (Joel Grey) and Minnelli are not only outstanding but act as perfect commentaries on the characters and the plot.  I did find the Emcee a bit terrifying, both for his uncanny appearance and his willingness to indulge in anti-semitic humor when it was least expected.  The most terrifying song in this movie is the only one not sung by Grey or Minnelli, but a chorus of people in a beer garden singing the militant Nazi anthem “Tomorrow Belongs to Me.”

Despite the many allusions to Cabaret that are made in popular culture, this movie was not what I expected. It’s definitely a lot weirder than I imagined, and for a musical it is very bleak (which should not be surprising for any story involving the rise of Nazism).  Nevertheless, I liked it, and maybe it’s not an all-time classic, but it’s definitely worth checking out.

Rating: ***1/2

Classic Movie Review: To Kill a Mockingbird (1962)


Title: To Kill a Mockingbird
Release Date: December 25, 1962
Director: Robert Mulligan
Production Company: Brentwood Productions | Pakula-Mulligan
Summary/Review:

I first read Harper Lee’s To Kill a Mockingbird in junior high school, as reading this novel is basically a nationwide requirement of the United States education systems, and immediately fell in love with it.  Then we watched the movie in class and I was disappointed.  At that age, I didn’t like it when movies deviated from the books. As I’ve grown older I’ve come to realize that the best adaptations used the language of cinema to capture the mood and spirit of a book rather than strictly recreating it (which is why Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban is the best of that series of movies).  I also remember feeling that the kids in To Kill a Mockingbird didn’t act like real kids but I felt the same about E.T.: The Extra-Terrestrial as a child while thinking the kids were actually very realistic when revisiting as an adult.

If you have somehow never read To Kill a Mockingbird, it is a story told from the point of view of a young girl living in a small town in Alabama in the 1930s named Jean Louise “Scout” Finch (Mary Badham).  Scout lives with her widowed father Atticus (Gregory Peck) and older brother Jem (Phillip Alford), and often plays with a boy named Dill (John Megna) who stays with his aunt in their neighborhood.  In the book, Scout, Jem, and Dill have many adventures and get into mischief.  Scout also begins to get an understanding of the differences of the adults in her lives through encounters with a cantankerous old woman who turns out to have an addiction to morphine, as well as a mysterious recluse, Arthur “Boo” Radley (portrayed without words by a very young Robert Duvall).  Atticus is a model of good parenting who attempts to instill compassion in his children, treating them with patience and never talking down to them.

The central plot to the book and even more significant in the leaner movie version is the trial of a Black man, Tom Robinson (Brock Peters), who is falsely accused of beating and raping a white teenage girl, Mayella Violet Ewell (Collin Wilcox), by her drunken father Bob Ewell (James Anderson).  Atticus is assigned to defend Tom Robinson in court and demonstrates during the trial that the Ewells’ accusations can’t possibly be true.  But convincing an all-white jury in the Jim Crow South to accept the word of a Black man over white people is the impossible challenge.  In the most famous scene of this movie, Atticus delivers a nine-minute summation to the jury where he explicates his belief in the American justice system that they will find Tom Robinson innocent.

I found that this is a very well-made movie, yet it still feels like something of an appendix to an even better and more complex novel.  Gregory Peck’s performance is excellent, but it’s almost too good and having an actor of his stature portray Atticus Finch feeds into legitimate criticisms that Atticus is a “white savior” character.  I did feel legitimately moved though by the scene where the Black spectators in the courtroom balcony stand to honor Atticus and Reverend Sykes (William “Bill” Walker) says “Miss Jean Louise, stand up. Your father’s passin’.” A scene just before that where Dill is sleeping on Reverend Sykes shoulder is sweet and intimate especially considering the time and place.

As to the acting of the children, I was impressed with Phillip Alford’s performance as Jem.  His facial expressions and gestures say a lot as the older child who understands the significance of what is happening.  Mary Badham can be a bit too precious as Scout, especially in the scene when she talks down the lynch mob.  But she is absolutely perfect in her delivery of my favorite line of all, “Hey, Boo.”

I guess I have mixed feelings on To Kill a Mockingbird as a movie because I can never see it as standing apart from the book.  But it’s a great book, so it can’t help to be a good movie as well.

Rating: ***1/2

Classic Movie Review: The Graduate (1967)


Title: The Graduate
Release Date: December 21, 1967
Director: Mike Nichols
Production Company: Lawrence Turman Productions
Summary/Review:

I first watched The Graduate some time in the mid-90s because, along with Easy Rider, it is said to be an emblematic of the Baby Boomer generation.  Watching it then, I felt that Benjamin Braddock (Dustin Hoffman) seemed more representative of my own generation, at a time when we were being called “The Slacker Generation.”  Watching it now, though, I think there is a feeling of directionless many people experience in their 20s that transcends generations.  My other impression of the movie was that it wasn’t very funny and I didn’t like it.

Watching it now, I realize the problem I had with The Graduate is that it makes me deeply uncomfortable, which is something that a good movie can do.  I wrote in my review of M*A*S*H that there were a lot of positives of the Sexual Revolution of the 60s and 70s, but sometimes there was a push to be transgressive which crossed the line from health to unhealthy sexual expression.  The seduction of Benjamin by Mrs. Robinson (Anne Bancroft) is extremely creepy, almost predatory.  Later in the film, Benjamin becomes a creepy stalker in his pursuit of Elaine Robinson (Katharine Ross).  I’m never convinced that Benjamin actually loves Elaine, he’s just looking for a way to escape the rut he’s captured in, and I think the film actually supports this interpretation.  As for Elaine, watching her respond positively to Benjamin is like watching a camp counselor in a slasher film enter the creepy house where I want to shout at the screen “NO! WHAT ARE YOU DOING?!?!?”

The Graduate is an extremely well-made film.  I particularly like the the montage of Benjamin schlubbing around his house intercut with scenes of his assignations with Mrs. Robinson.  The acting is all around terrific, and Anne Bancroft’s performance in the scene where Benjamin presses Mrs. Robinson about her past is magnificent.  Simon & Garfunkel’s music for the film, while repetitive (although not as repetitive as Midnight Cowboy), is perfectly synched to the movie, and I especially like the part where Simon’s guitar strumming peters out when Benjamin’s car runs out of gas.  The final sequence of the movie is ludicrously unbelievable, but it’s still very funny (and was brilliantly spoofed in Wayne’s World II). Something I didn’t notice or didn’t remember from my previous viewing is that when Benjamin and Elaine get on the bus their smiles and laughter slowly turn to looks of confusion, as if they’re thinking “What now?” I never thought there was a happy future for Benjamin and Elaine and their expressions in the final shot confirm it.

Want to know something weird?  When filming this movie, Anne Bancroft was only 36 years old, joining Vivien Leigh and Gloria Swanson among actresses playing characters who are treated as older than themselves.  Granted, Mrs. Robinson had a teenage pregnancy, so it’s entirely possible that she have a child in college at Bancroft’s age.  But here’s something weirder: Katharine Ross is less than 9 years younger than Bancroft!  Weirder still?  Hoffman is only SIX YEARS younger than Bancroft.  The leads in this intergenerational comedy were all born in the same decade!

So, I think I like The Graduate a lot more than I did on my previous viewing, but I don’t love it.  I guess I’ll check in again in another 25 years, and who knows!

Rating: ***

Classic Movie Review: Easy Rider (1969)


Title: Easy Rider
Release Date:
July 14, 1969
Director:
Dennis Hopper
Production Company:
Pando Company Inc. | Raybert Productions
Summary/Review:

I knew Easy Rider was a movie with two men on motorcycles while “Born to be Wild” plays in the background, but other than that I didn’t know what to expect.  It turns out to be a much quieter movie than I expected, the kind of movie with lots of long conversations by campfires where what’s not being said is as important as what’s actually uttered.  Wyatt (Peter Fonda) and Billy (Dennis Hopper) smuggle cocaine over the border from Mexico and sell it for a profit in Los Angeles.  They then ride east with plans to go to Mardi Gras. Along the way they pick up a hitchhiker (Luke Askew) who takes them to a dysfunctional commune for a few days.  Later they meet an ACLU lawyer, George Hanson (Jack Nicholson), in a Texas jail who joins them for a time.  Finally, in New Orleans they drop acid in a cemetery with two prostitutes (Karen Black and Toni Basil) in a devastatingly trippy sequence.

Probably because of the tie between Peter Fonda and his father Henry Fonda, I couldn’t help thinking of this movie as being a generational follow-up to The Grapes of Wrath. Wyatt and Billy even cross the same bridge in Arizona that the Joads crossed, just heading in the opposite direction. A farmer they eat with along the way could’ve been a Dust Bowl refugee as a child.  And just as the Okies were hassled by small-minded locals and cops, the longhairs suffer similar discrimination.  Nicholson’s George sums up the attitude best when he notes that the typical American talks a lot about individual freedom, but are scared when they see someone actually living it:

“I mean, it’s real hard to be free when you are bought and sold in the marketplace. Of course, don’t ever tell anybody that they’re not free, ’cause then they’re gonna get real busy killin’ and maimin’ to prove to you that they are. Oh, yeah, they’re gonna talk to you, and talk to you, and talk to you about individual freedom. But they see a free individual, it’s gonna scare ’em.”

The movie is said to be representative of the Baby Boomer generation at its counterculture peak.  But there is no “flower power” here. This is a portrait of a hopeless and directionless time, which lacks the optimism of a Tom Joad willing to fight for the people. It’s interesting that as this generation grew older, many (but far from all) affiliated themself with Tea Party and MAGA movements that would look down on longhairs like Wyatt and Billy rather than see them as representatives of their generation.  But they do share the same sense of cynicism over losing “their” America.

The conclusion of the movie is shocking in much the same way as Bonnie and Clyde.  In fact, I’d say it’s more of a shock since it depicts an act of completely senseless violence against people who had not been violent themselves.  It’s a weird and unsettling finish to a movie that never seems certain about what kind of story it’s trying to tell and being totally okay with that too.  I wouldn’t put Easy Rider in my greatest movies of all time list but it is an interesting time capsule for an era in American history as well as the evolution of American filmmaking.

Rating: ***1/2

Classic Movie Review: Nashville (1975)


Title: Nashville
Release Date: June 11, 1975
Director: Robert Altman
Production Company: ABC Motion Pictures
Summary/Review:

I can’t say that I’ve ever seen a movie quite like Nashville.  Even with the trademarks of a Robert Altman film – large ensemble casts and overlapping dialogue – there’s still something ineffable about this film I haven’t seen before.  The general story involves the lives of several musicians, aspiring musicians, music biz people, political campaigners, and hangers-on on Nashville over a period of several days.  The movie isn’t exactly plotless, as it does have a story to tell, but the plot is slow and messy not unlike real life.

Nashville is more of a character study of the 24 people in the movie with an underlying focus on celebrity culture.  I’m glad this movie was made in Nashville instead of Los Angeles or New York.  As a country music hub, Nashville is probably unique in that it has a strong celebrity culture while also being small enough where everyone keeps ending up in the same places.  Or at least it was in the 1970s, as Nashville has grown in population in the intervening decades.

The film is full of musical performances, and interestingly the actors were tasked with writing their own songs and filming them in live concert settings.  I don’t know much about country music, but honestly a lot of these songs sound like they could’ve been standards, so the soundtrack is worth seeking out.  The movie also has political undertones in that a third-party candidate,  Hal Phillip Walker (voiced by Thomas Hal Phillips) is campaigning in Nashville with a car traveling around the city reading his platform promises as a throughline through the film. The final scene is also set at a political rally (more on that below with a huge spoiler warning).

Among the cast, the standout performances include:

  • Lily Tomlin as Linnea Reese, a singer in a gospel choir who is raising two deaf children and is in an unhappy marriage with Delbert Reese (Ned Beatty) a lawyer in the music business and organizer for the Walker campaign.  Linnea is by far the most fully-realized character and surprisingly this is Tomlin’s first movie role after years in television.
  • Ronee Blakely as Barbara Jean, who is kind of the “sweetheart” star of country music who is in and out of hospitals with mental health issues.
  • Karen Black as Connie White, another top female vocalist in the country scene who is set up as the rival to Barbara Jean.
  • Henry Gibson as Haven Hamilton, a male country star who represents the Nashville old guard.
  • Keith Carradine, a younger folk rock star who is party of a trio with a married couple, Bill and Mary (Allan F. Nichols and Cristina Raines) but wants to go solo.  He also is Lothario who tries to use his charm and vulnerable persona to coax women into bed with him, including Linnea.
  • Gwen Welles as Sueleen Gay, a young woman eager to get into the music business despite the fact that she sings off-key. Men take advantage of her ambition to give her opportunities to perform where she’s objectified for her beauty.
  • Geraldine Chaplin (Charlie’s daughter) as a BBC radio reporter who is doing a story on Nashville who inserts herself into many scenes and blurts out the most loathsome things.
  • The movie also features a baby-faced Scott Glenn in a small role as a Vietnam vet who is a big fan of Barbara Jean and the equally youthful Jeff Goldblum in a part where he never speaks but frequently appears around town on a motorized tricycle.

Even though I read a summary of the movie and knew what was coming, the end of the movie is still quite a shocker. (HERE COME THE SPOILERS) A disturbed loner we see throughout the movie (David Hayward) shoots and presumably kills Barbara Jean when she’s performing before a political rally. What happens next, beggars belief.  Instead of people clearing the area, they stay together and sing.  This is for a big twist in the film because a straggly aspiring singer named Albuquerque (Barbara Harris) is able to take the mic and prove that she’s actually talented despite appearances. But I also recalled that after the University of Texas tower massacre in 1966 that the school never canceled any classes. So the idea that people would want to go on with what they’re doing despite the violent attack seems true to the time.

Nashville is a long movie, and at times slow-going and just a bit too much.  Nevertheless, it is artfully crafted and undeniably a great film.  I’m glad I had the time to watch it.

Rating: ****

Classic Movie Review: A Streetcar Named Desire (1951)


Title: A Streetcar Named Desire 
Release Date: September 18, 1951
Director: Elia Kazan
Production Company: Warner Bros.
Summary/Review:

A Streetcar Named Desire is a Tennessee Williams play adapted to film by director Elia Kazan.  Vivien Leigh stars as Blanche DuBois, a woman who invested in the ideals of Southern culture regarding proper behavior and femininity.  Falling on desperate times, she arrives in New Orleans to stay at the home of her sister Stella (Kim Hunter) and her brother-in-law Stanley (Marlon Brando).  The film largely depicts the battle of wills between Blanche’s snobbery and propriety and Stanley’s raw masculinity and violent temperament. Karl Malden also appears as Mitch, a man that Blanch hopes to marry after they form a romance.

The different acting styles of the two leads is quite striking.  Brando famously practiced the Method which serves him well in inhabiting Stanley.  But Leigh’s more classical British theater training works really well for Blanche who is always “acting” the role she believes she needs to play as a proper Southern belle.  Blanche, and just about everyone else, weirdly obsess about how old she is (Leigh was only in her mid-30s when this was filmed), but that is also sadly true to societal beauty myths.

Directorially, the film retains some of its stage play origins but is really pulled in to hustle and bustle of the French Quarter with the doors and windows open to a constantly active street scene.  I was surprised at how frank this movie was about matters of sexuality and violence for a movie made in 1951, although I was watching a 1993 restoration of the film that included scenes that had been cut by censors.  There’s a lot that has been said about A Streetcar Named Desire, so I won’t add anything more to it other than to say it is deservedly an all-time classic and I’m glad I had the opportunity to revisit it.

Rating: ****

Classic Movie Review: 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968)


Title: 2001: A Space Odyssey
Release Date: April 3, 1968
Director: Stanley Kubrick
Production Company: Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer
Summary/Review:

I remember watching 2001: A Space Odyssey as a kid, excited to see a science fiction classic.  I was not at all prepared to watch a slow-moving film with limited dialogue that touched upon themes of evolution and existentialism.  It left me feeling a way I couldn’t describe with words, somewhere between disturbed and confused.  Upon repeated viewings I was still confounded.

It’s been decades since the last time I watched 2001, yet it’s a movie I still think about a lot. So I was glad to revisit it as an adult with an appreciation for the the film’s cinematic innovations.  I am also in a place where I’m much more comfortable with watching something and not having to know what it “means.” The film is impressive from the very beginning with the shot of the earth from the moon, released to cinemas before astronauts got the same view for the first time on Apollo 8 later the same year. The effects used to create weightlessness are also terrific and I particularly like the scene in the airlock.

The opening segment, “The Dawn of Man,” which particularly bored me as a child went by quicker than I remembered.  It still feels like dioramas in the natural history museum have come to life, particularly since Kubrick shot it against backdrops rather than on location in Africa.  The “Star Gate” segment, however, goes on for far longer than I remembered.  Did hippies really even need to take hallucinogens before watching this?

The core of the movie is aboard the spacecraft Discovery One on a mission to Jupiter with astronauts David Bowman (Keir Dullea) and Frank Poole (Gary Lockwood).  They grow increasingly mistrustful of the intelligent computer HAL (voiced by Douglas Rain) which leads to horror and tragedy.  The scene where Dave disconnects HAL’s circuits leading to HAL’s “death” is one of the most heartbreaking in film history even though it’s for a murderous computer.

In summation, 2001 is still a slow and “boring” film, but in a good way.  It’s predictions of the future seem way off since humans have not left low-earth orbit since 1972.  On the other hand, the corporate branding we see on everything seems spot on even if Pan-Am, Bell Telephone, and Howard Johnson’s restaurants didn’t make it to 2001.  The movie is stunning visually, and it will make you think about important topics even if you can never figure out the right answers.  This is definitely a movie I’d like to see on a big screen when I get the opportunity.

Rating: *****

 

Classic Movie Review: M*A*S*H (1970)


Title: M*A*S*H
Release Date: January 25, 1970
Director: Robert Altman
Production Company: Aspen Productions | Ingo Preminger Productions
Summary/Review:

My mom was a fan of the tv series M*A*S*H so watching M*A*S*H was a big part of my childhood.  We could watch two old reruns every weeknight, while the new episodes on Monday night were the first show I was allowed to stay up past 9pm to watch. After the last episode of M*A*S*H was broadcast, one of our local stations showed the original movie.  As a 9-year-old, I wasn’t impressed with the movie. I liked Alan Alda and Mike Farrell a lot better than these guys I’d never heard of in the movie. I also found the movie to be very mean-spirited and was bored that so much of it took place at really stupid football game.

Revisiting the movie now as an adult, with an appreciation for Robert Altman as a director and the acting of Donald Sutherland and Elliott Gould, and knowing the context of the Vietnam War the movie was responding to, I figured I might like it better.  I did not.  The movie is angry and mean-spirited and really none of the jokes land for me.  And the whole football plot lasts for about 30 minutes, so it is 1/4th of the movie’s runtime.

In the context of the counterculture/antiwar movement, I guess the anti-authoritarian antics of Hawkeye Pierce (Sutherland), Duke Forrest (Tom Skerritt), and Trapper John McIntyre (Gould) may have been appealing. But they’re not resisting the system so much as doing whatever they want and letting other people clean up their messes (and rushing through surgery in order to play golf is the antithesis of counterculture). M*A*S*H  is described as an anti-war film but I don’t see it actually opposing war.  Instead it falls more into the tradition going back to at least to World War II of veterans creating popular entertainment that lampoons the ineptitude of the military, but not questioning the nation’s militaristic goals (this tradition includes Hiester Richard Hornberger Jr., the politically conservative veteran who authored the book MASH: A Novel About Three Army Doctors under the name Richard Hooker).

But the worst part of the movie is its mistreatment of women. In one of the film’s most harrowing scenes, the Swamp men make a bet regarding whether Major Margaret Houlihan (Sally Kellerman) is a natural blonde.  They set up chairs around the shower tent and watch as the canvas is lifted to expose her naked body. Kellerman’s performance captures rage, terror, and humiliation and I can’t imagine how anyone can watch it and not be on her side.  One could argue that Altman was simply reflecting an accurate depiction of how women were (and continue to be) abused in the military. But everything in the context of the film says that Houlihan is a regular Army stuffed shirt and a “bitch” who deserves her punishment and we should be laughing at her.

The Sexual Revolution that was occuring at the time this film was released brought many positive changes.  But within patriarchal thinking, sexual liberation was interpreted that women should always be sexually available to men. This attitude is prevalent in this movie which served as a progenitor to the raunchy comedies of the 70s and 80s. From Animal House to Caddyshack to Revenge of the Nerds, we see again and again that “sticking it to the Man” is accomplished by humiliating and sexually abusing women.

My feeling is that in 1970, M*A*S*H was one of the first Hollywood films to caustically lampoon the military, mock religious devotion, drop an f-bomb, and talk openly about sex. It must’ve seemed refreshing for audiences at the time to see something they’ve never seen before.  Over 50 years later, we’ve had films that addressed all of these issues in ways that are far less problematic and often in ways that actually make me laugh. M*A*S*H  will be remembered for launching the careers of Altman, Sutherland, and Gould, as well as spawning one of the most beloved tv comedy series of all-time.  But the film itself doesn’t deserve its spot on the AFI 100 or any great movies list.

Rating: **

Classic Movie Review: On the Waterfront (1954)


Title: On the Waterfront
Release Date: July 28, 1954
Director: Elia Kazan
Production Company: Horizon Pictures
Summary/Review:

Today’s classic film is too fancy for Hoboken and too hot for church. On the Waterfront introduced a new style of naturalistic acting and pioneered a filmmaking style that inspired the New Hollywood movement a generation later.  It’s most famous for an oft-quoted monologue, but I don’t think that scene is quite so great without the context of the film around it.

Marlon Brando stars in this film as Terry Malloy, a former prizefighter who now works as a longshoreman in Hoboken, New Jersey and sometimes serves as “muscle” for the mob-connected union boss, Johnny Friendly (Lee J. Cobb, once again being George C. Scott’s doppelgänger).  Terry’s brother Charley (Rod Steiger) is Friendly’s right-hand man, so Terry gets special treatment in assignments.

Terry begins to be aware that his good life is built on lies and must make difficult decisions after inadvertently playing a part in the murder of a longshoreman who was willing to talk to the police.  The victim’s sister, Edie (Eva Marie Saint) is outraged by everyone willing to be “deaf and dumb” about the crime and inspires the parish priest Father Barry (Karl Malden) to take action. Edie and Terry also grow close which affects his changing heart.

The romance between Edie and Terry is the one thing I don’t really buy about this movie because Terry gives off a million red flags that someone like Edie would see right away.  Other than that this film is a compelling drama with terrific acting by all the leads and interesting staging and camera angles that take advantage of the gritty Hoboken locations.  Not only is this a great movie that realistically depicts the issues of working class people but it also reminds me of how Catholic social justice activists like Dorothy Day and Daniel Berrigan stood with the people like Father Barry in the mid-20th century.

The movie is great drama, but it also metaphorical.  There are all too many real life examples of organizations, even ones that should have positive uses like unions, falling victim to corruption. In more recent years things like the push for Iraq War, the rise of Trump, and the current efforts of the Republican party to suppress voting rights are all built on the ability of people in power to use fear, greed, and indifference to manipulate people into going along with something that they know is wrong. Unfortunately, director Elia Kazan also made this film to justify his testifying before the House Un-American Activities Committee, ruining the lives and careers of  several people who ended up being blacklisted for being labeled “Communists.” Comparing so-called “Communists,” usually people who tried advocating for economic equality and against racial discrimination to the murderous mobsters who were American capitalists at heart is just wrong.

On the Waterfront is a case where the art is greater than the artist, but it remains a spectacular film.

Rating: ****1/2