Holiday Movie Marathon: Christmas in Connecticut (1945)


Title: Christmas in Connecticut
Release Date: August 11, 1945
Director: Peter Godfrey
Production Company: Warner Bros.
Summary/Review:

The movie begins with the travails of WWII sailor Jefferson Jones (Dennis Morgan) who survives 18 days in a life raft and a long recovery in the hospital back home. He becomes obsessed with food and particularly the columns of Elizabeth Lane (Barbara Stanwyck), a mother who writes about cooking and domestic life from her farm in Connecticut. The earnest publisher of her magazine, Alexander Yardley (Sydney Greenstreet) learns that Jones is a fan of Lane, and comes up with a publicity stunt of having the war hero spend Christmas at her farm.

There’s only one problem: Elizabeth is a single “career gal” who lives in New York City and knows nothing about cooking. Luckily, Elizabeth’s long-time suitor John Sloan (Reginald Gardiner) is an architect with an actual farmhouse in Connecticut and is willing to pose at Elizabeth’s husband (and ultimately marry her for real). Elizabeth’s friend Felix Bassenak (S.Z. Sakall) is a restaurateur who agrees to come along and do the cooking. All of this takes way to long to set up in the movie (as it takes too much space for me to summarize) but once all the pieces are set in place, the movie really shines.

When Elizabeth and Jefferson finally meet, it’s love at first site. There are a lot of comic hijinks of Elizabeth trying to keep up with the imagined life of her column, especially for Yardley’s benefit. But the movie is also surprisingly progressive as we learn that Jefferson is actually far more domestic than Elizabeth. This is especially true in a scene where he expertly bathes Elizabeth’s borrowed baby when she has no clue. The babies themselves are in fact left in the care of Sloan’s housekeeper by immigrant women working in war factories. The war has turned traditional gender roles upside down and this movie seems to be saying that they don’t need to go back to them. Stanwyck’s performance is particularly brilliant and she delivers lines that clearly indicate that she’s had it with societal expectations even as she’s forced to go along with them. (For more on the subversive elements of this movie see this recent article from the AV Club).

The slow start to this movie could use some judicious editing, and there are some subplots I’ve left out of my summary that aren’t too interesting, but overall, once this movie gets to Connecticut it’s a great rom-com. By the way, despite the movie taking place over Christmas Eve and Christmas Day, it is not a particularly Christmas-y movie. Also, in an odd bit of trivia, this movie was remade in the 1990s as a tv movie directed by Arnold Schwarzenegger! I’m not going to watch that one.

Rating: ****

Movie Review: It Happened One Night (1934)


Title: It Happened One Night
Release Date: February 22, 1934
Director: Frank Capra
Production Company: Columbia Pictures
Summary/Review:

It Happened One Night is Frank Capra’s first big hit as a director and the first movie to sweep the five most prominent Academy Awards (Best Picture, Best Director, Best Screenplay, Best Actress, and Best Actor). It is credit with making interstate bus travel on Greyhound popular while also making undershirts unpopular with men. It’s the template upon which the romantic comedy genre was built. And apparently Clark Gable only appears in this movie because he was being punished by his production company, and nobody involved in making this film had any fun at all (you wouldn’t know from watching this because they’re good actors).

Ellie Andrews (Claudette Colbert) is an heiress who is being held captive by her millionaire father Alexander (Walter Connolly) on his yacht after she elopes with a con artist. Ellie jumps ship and boards a bus from Florida to New York, finding herself on her own in the world without her fortune for the first time. She is helped by a fellow traveler, the smart-mouthed Peter Warne (Gable), who is hiding that he is a recently-fired newspaper reporter hoping to regain his job with a story about traveling with the famous heiress.  Traveling by bus, hitchhiking, and eventually stealing a car, the pair fight, escape the law, and naturally fall in love. Despite the title, the movie takes place over several nights and days, allowing their relationship to grow.

Gable and Colbert both play characters who are initially odious but over time reveal their humanity. Colbert is especially good at showing Ellie’s adventurous side as she takes several new experiences in stride. The pair have a great on-screen chemistry especially in a scene where Peter pretends they are a married couple and Ellie jumps in to squabble with him so as to fool the police.  Capra also includes some nice non-plot moments that allow the movie to breathe, such as when passengers on the bus take turns in a sing-a-long (no wonder bus travel looked so attractive!).

Despite what I said in The 39 Steps review, I’ve decided that it wasn’t influenced by It Happened One Night, although both movies feature an autogryo!  It Happened One Night is a worthy classic and still full of laughs 86 years after it was released.

Rating: ****

Movie Review: Mystic PiZZa (1988) #AtoZChallenge


I’m participating in the Blogging from A to Z Challenge by watching and reviewing some of my favorite movies of all time that I haven’t watched in a long time.  I haven’t seen many movies starting with Z much less any that I want to watch again, so instead I’m reviewing a movie with TWO “Zs” in it! This post contains SPOILERS!

TitleMystic Pizza
Release Date: October 21, 1988
Director: Donald Petrie
Production Company: Night Life Inc. | The Samuel Goldwyn Company |
Virgin Vision
Synopsis:

This movie is a coming-of-age, romantic comedy about three young women living in the village of Mystic, Connecticut: the sisters Kat (Annabeth Gish) and Daisy (Julia Roberts) and their friend Jojo (Lili Taylor).  They all work as waitresses at the titular pizza restaurant, and the movie covers the period of a few months where they each have a challenging relationship with a man.

Kat is intelligent and hardworking and planning to start studying astronomy at Yale in the spring semester.  Daisy considers her a goody two shoes. To make more money Kat is hired to work as a babysitter for Tim (William R. Moses), a young father who wants someone to look after his daughter while his wife is in on an extended business trip in England.  Kat and Tim bond intellectually and physically leading to an extramarital affair that ends in heartbreak for Kat.

Daisy feels that her mother looks down on her for not being bright and ambitious like Kat, as well as being judged in general for being promiscuous.  She meets a handsome preppy Charles (Adam Storke) at a bar.  He proves to be less snobbish and more accepting than his friends and family.  But he also has an ongoing quarrel with his father and puts Daisy in an embarrassing situation when he uses her to show up his family’s elitism.

The movie begins with Jojo getting cold feet at her wedding to the fisherman Bill (Vincent D’Onofrio).  She’s torn by her love for Bill and her sense that she’s too young to commit to marriage, children, and the domestic life.  She’s also frustrated that Bill, a devout Catholic, will not have sex before marriage.  Their relationship has its ups and downs before they reconcile and marry for real at the end of the movie.

An ongoing subplot involves the Mystic Pizza restaurant where the owner Leona (Conchata Ferrell) treats Kat, Daisy, and Jojo like her own daughters.  The restaurant is known for its excellent pizza that features Leona’s secret recipe in the sauce. A famous and stodgy tv critic visits the restaurant and although there are several mishaps serving him, when his review is televised he declares the pizza to be “superb” leading to an uptick in business.

When Did I First See This Movie?:

First and foremost, this movie is set in Connecticut, which when you’re a kid growing up in Connecticut on a steady diet of movies set in California and New York, is a big f’in deal!  Mystic is home to two of the state’s biggest tourist attractions, Mystic Seaport and Mystic Aquarium, so every Connecticut schoolchild went to at least one of those places on a field trip. I also visited several times with my family.  People from the 47 states with more territory than Connecticut will laugh, but as a kid, the journey from our home in the western end of the state to Mystic felt soooooooooooooooo long.

Anyhow, I watched this with my family on cable or VHS sometime in the year or so after it was released.  I remember enjoying the movie greatly and forming a deep celebrity crush on Annabeth Gish even though all the other boys went for Julia Roberts.  In the 1990s, on a visit to Mystic, I dined at the original Mystic Pizza restaurant.  The pizza is – in fact – really good.

What Did I Remember?:

I specifically remember Julia Roberts dumping fish into the preppy’s sports car and Lili Taylor yelling at her boyfriend from the drawbridge.  Otherwise, I just remembered general impressions and plot details.

What Did I Forget?:

I forgot a lot.  Like I didn’t remember that the movie begins and ends with weddings.  I didn’t even remember that Kat and Daisy are sisters.

What Makes This Movie Great?:

This movie does a great job on focusing on relationships – not just man-woman relationships, but also among family and friends.  It also captures the class dynamic in Connecticut of working class, Catholic enclaves (Portuguese-Americans in the movie, but Italian-American where I grew up) competing with the wealthier elites. The men in this movie are all horrible in their own way, but also have good qualities, so it is believable that 2 of the 3 relationships are reconciled by the film’s end.

The movie also has some great set pieces, like when Jojo, Daisy, and Kat steal Bill’s truck and sing along with Aretha Franklin’s “Respect” (another great scene I was surprised I forgot about). The acting is really good in the movie and a lot of the cast went on to stardom.  Roberts, of course, became one of the biggest Hollywood leading ladies within a few years of this movie.  Meanwhile, Taylor became the indie movie queen in the 1990s. Gish’s career isn’t as illustrious but she did star in The X-Files for a few seasons. Even Matt Damon makes his film debut as Charles’ younger brother.

What Doesn’t Hold Up?:

Younger viewers may laugh at the 80s hairstyles and fashions, but they still look pretty good to me.

Is It a Classic?:

I’m gonna go out on a limb and say yes.  It holds a special place in my heart at least.

Rating: ****

Classic Movie Review: The Apartment (1960)


Title: The Apartment
Release Date: June 30, 1960
Director: Billy Wilder
Production Company: The Mirisch Company
Summary/Review:

C. C. “Bud” Baxter is an insurance clerk in a giant New York City corporation whose Upper West side apartment has become a trysting place for senior executives and their extramarital partners.  Unable to return home, Bud stays late at work and wonders the street at night in hopes that he’ll gain favor and a promotion.

At last he’s called to the office of personnel director, Jeff D. Sheldrake (Fred MacMurray, seeming even slimier than the murderer he played in Double Indemnity), and given a promotion and a private office. The catch is that Sheldrake wants in on using the apartment for his own affair.  Despite having a reputation as a Lothario with his neighbors, Bud doesn’t have a dating life of his own, but does have a crush on the elevator operator Fran Kubelik (Shirley MacLaine).  In a sad twist, Bud learns that Fran is Sheldrake’s mistress.

There’s a shocking incident about halfway through this film that makes it darker than the pure comedy it appears to be.  But it ends up being a transformative event for the lead characters. This movie must’ve been risque in 1960 since Bud’s neighbors all but say “the nonstop fucking in your apartment is too loud!” Today, the movie is shocking in the casual sexism on display as women employees of the company are treated as targets for sexual conquest by the male executives.

Of course, Bud is presented as the “good guy” in contrast to the sleezeball executives.  Nevertheless, he helps prop up the system by covering for their infidelities and even Sheldrake’s lies to Fran.  Thus the conclusion of this movie is terrific when Bud finally chooses to be a mensch. And the final scene – “Shut up and deal!” – is perfect.

Rating: ****

Classic Movie Review: Funny Face (1957)


Title: Funny Face
Release Date: February 13, 1957
Director: Stanley Donen
Production Company: Paramount Pictures
Summary/Review:

The challenge for me with musicals is setting aside my logical brain and just enjoying the song and dance. Funny Face, for example, asks me to believe that Audrey Hepburn has a funny face when she is widely regarded as one of the most beautiful people of all time.  The movie is an odd one, with some startlingly feminist tones for 1957, although these are often undercut. Similarly it recognizes an emerging counterculture but mostly to make it a butt of jokes.

Funny Face can’t be faulted for its great sense of style. The movie uses bold colors and dramatic film techniques to great effect, and incorporates mid-century design into the background of its New York scenes versus the old world charms of its Paris settings. The music is entertaining, largely George and Ira Gershwin tunes composed for a 1927 Broadway musical called Funny Face that had an entirely different plot. Hepburn draws on her dance training performing several numbers, including a Bohemian dance in a Paris cafe, and we even get to hear her sing (unlike My Fair Lady, which was unfair to Hepburn’s lovely voice).

Kay Thompson, the author of the Eloise books, steals the show as the bombastic fashion magazine publisher Maggie Prescott. The trope of the domineering fashion magazine publisher followed by a gaggle of women editors is very familiar, did it start with this movie? On a photoshoot to a Greenwich Village philosophy book shop, Maggie and her crew harass the book seller Jo Stockton (Hepburn) and trash the store. Photographer Dick Avery (Fred Astaire) takes a liking to Jo and stays to help her clean up. (He also kisses her without consent because apparently Fred Astaire always has to be creepy).

Avery convinces Maggie that Jo would be the perfect fresh face for their magazine’s new campaign,  since she has “character, spirit, and “intelligence.”  He convinces Jo to take the job since it would give her the opportunity to go to Paris and hear the lectures of the philosopher Professor Emile Flostre (Michel Auclair).  And so they go to Paris where there is singing, dancing, high fashion, and comic hi-jinks abound.  And, of course, romance flourishes because Hepburn must always be paired with men 30 years her senior for some reason.

Again, the logical brain must be disconnected, but once that’s done, there’s a lot to enjoy in this cheerful fluff of a film.

Rating: ***

Movie Review: 10 Things I Hate About You (1999)


Title: 10 Things I Hate About You
Release Date: March 31, 1999
Director: Gil Junger
Production Company: Touchstone Pictures
Summary/Review:

This 1999 teen movie reinvents William Shakespeare’s The Taming of the Shrew as a romantic comedy set at Padua High School in Seattle.  Obstetrician and single dad Walter Stratford has strict rules against his daughters dating in high school but modifies them so that his younger, sociable daughter, Bianca (Larisa Oleynik) cannot date until his older, rebellious daughter, Kat (Julia Stiles) goes on a date first.  He does this knowing that Kat wants no part of high school social conventions.

A new student at the school, Cameron (Joseph Gordon-Levitt), is smitten by Bianca and works out a plan with his nerdy new friend, Michael (David Krumholtz), to find someone willing to date Kat.  Realizing that they need money to bribe a potential suitor, they call in the obnoxious BMOC, Joey (Andrew Keegan), who also has interest in Bianca. They decide the fearless meathead with a notorious bad boy reputation, Patrick (Heath Ledger), is the best man for the job.

I realize that it’s taken me two paragraphs just to describe the complex, and somewhat silly, machinations behind this movie’s plot.  But once the pieces are set into motion, the movie really soars with some hilarious moments and quotable dialogue.  Curiously, the movie starts with Cameron, Michael, & Bianca as the A plot and Kat and Patrick as the B plot, but part way through the movie these switch places, to the movie’s benefit. Probably the best part of the movie is how it allows the main characters to emerge as more complex than their originally established stereotypes (well, except Joey, who remains a vain bully).

This movie is screamingly Nineties, and yet, for the most part, doesn’t have the cringe factor of revisiting many things from that decade. The dad, Walter Stratford, and his creepy, controlling attitude toward his daughters is deeply uncomfortable, but at least that is called out in the movie.  Prominent appearances by the bands Letters to Cleo and Save Ferris add some 90s charm, and the soundtrack holds up well, although apparently 90s kids partied to more music from the 70s than I remembered.

Rating: ****

Classic Movie Review: Sabrina (1954)


Title: Sabrina
Release Date: October 15, 1954
Director: Billy Wilder
Production Company: Paramount Pictures
Summary/Review:

This romantic comedy focuses on the title character, Sabrina Fairchild (Audrey Hepburn), a young woman who grew up on a Long Island estate of the Larrabbee family as the daughter of the chauffeur (John Williams).  Growing up alongside the Larrabee sons, she forms a lifelong crush on the carefree, playboy older brother, David (William Holden, in a very different role from Sunset Boulevard).

Sabrina goes to Paris for two years to study cooking, and returns feeling more confident and stylish.  She’s also able to attract David’s attention for the first time, although unfortunately he is engaged to marry another woman. David’s brother Linus (Humphrey Bogart, playing against type as a workaholic business man) has arranged a merger with the company owned by David’s fiancee’s family.  He arranges to put David out of commission, and begins seeing Sabrina himself, with the ultimate goal of shipping her off to Paris again.

It is not a spoiler to note that Sabrina and Linus end up having feelings for one another.  Romcom conventions typically have a couple fall in love and commit to one another over short time and expect the audience to be happy about that.  But Sabrina otherwise defies formula and offers a lot of humor and charming performances along the way.

Rating: ***1/2

Classic Movie Review: Singin’ in the Rain (1952)


Title: Singin’ in the Rain
Release Date: April 11, 1952
Director: Gene Kelly & Stanley Donen
Production Company: Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer
Summary/Review:

Following-up on Sunset Boulevard, Singin’ in the Rain continues the early-50s trend of Hollywood grappling with its own history.  Set in the late 1920s, the movie is a comedy musical based on the problems faced by the transition from silent movies to talkies.  Gene Kelly stars as Don Lockwood, an experienced vaudeville performer who becomes one of the top leading men of 1920s silents, paired with the vapid Lina Lamont (Jean Hagen).  The Hollywood publicity machine has convinced most people, including Lina, that their romance extends into real life as well.

On the night of a movie premier, Don escapes Lina and fawning fans and meets Kathy Selden (Debbie Reynolds), who expresses her disfavor for movies compared with theatre. Although it’s soon revealed that Kathy’s theatrical experience is as a chorus girl and that she is fan of Don’s movies, Don is attracted to Kathy’s independent mind (it doesn’t hurt that Debbie Reynolds is cute as a button too).

Don and Lina are set to make their first talkie, but their silent movie formula of success doesn’t translate to talkies, especially because Lina’s New York accent is inappropriate to historical romances.  To avoid becoming a laughingstock, Don works on a plan to make the movie into a musical with Kathy and his long-time friend and partner, Cosmo (Donald O’Connor).  Kathy will secretly overdub Lina’s voice.

The musical contains several notable song and dance numbers including Kelly’s famed performance of the title song, O’Connor’s “Make ‘Em Laugh,” and the trio’s “Good Morning.”  The biggest number of all is “Broadway Melody” which has nothing to do with the rest of the movie nor does it make much sense in the movie they’re filming, but it is quite the spectacle, so who cares. If I have one criticism of this movie is that the jokes at the expense of Lina are too many and too harsh.  But, Jean Hagen was (deservedly) nominated for the Academy Award for Best Supporting Actress while none of the other cast received nominations, so I guess she got the last laugh.

Rating: ****

Classic Movie Review: Meet Me in St. Louis (1944)


Title: Meet Me in St. Louis
Release Date: November 22, 1944
Director: Vincente Minnelli
Production Company: Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer
Summary/Review:

A romantic comedy musical in vivid Technicolor, Meet Me in St. Louis is set in 1903-1904.  The movie is a series of vignettes for each season leading up Louisiana Purchase Exposition focused on the Smith family of St. Louis.  The oldest daughter Rose (Lucille Bremer) is concerned about getting a marriage proposal from her beau, while Esther (Judy Garland with an unfortunate hairstyle) has a crush on the boy next door, John (Tom Drake).  The younger girls Agnes (Joan Carroll) and Tootie (Margaret O’Brien) are more interested in mischief.  The focus on sisters hosting parties, attending dances, and concerned about marital prospects is reminiscent of the Bennet sisters of Pride and Prejudice, but these sisters have a brother, Lon Jr. (Henry H. Daniels Jr).  The family is rounded out with their mother Mrs. Anna Smith (Mary Astor), Grandpa (Harry Davenport), and the maid Katie (Marjorie Main).  Their workaholic father, Mr. Alonzo Smith (Leon Ames), presents the major plot twist to the story when he informs the family they will be moving to New York.

The movie is full of song and dance from the period, including several renditions of the title song.  It also introduces several new songs that would become standards: “The Boy Next Door,” “The Trolley Song,” and “Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas.”  Garland is clearly the star, but O’Brien steals every scene she is in.  In fact, the Halloween segment where Agnes and Tootie go out to participate in basically widespread vandalism and violence may be one of the best things ever put on film.

The film is light and fluffy but its fun and the songs are joyous.  Watch it with your favorite misanthrope and see what happens.

Rating: ***

Classic Movie Review: Stormy Weather (1943)


Title: Stormy Weather
Release Date: July 21, 1943
Director: Andrew L. Stone
Production Company: 20th Century Fox
Summary/Review:

Back when I reviewed Swing Time I noted that it would’ve been better if Fred Astaire include African American artists in his tribute to Bill Robinson.  Then I realized I was a hypocrite since my list of classic movies had no Bill Robinson films.  So I had Stormy Weather, a musical-dance-romance movie featuring the top African American performers of the era.

The movie is a loose biography of Bill Robinson’s career.  How loose?  The movie begins with Robinson’s character Bill Williamson returning from the First World War.  In reality, Robinson fought in the Spanish American War, and entertained the troops in WWI.  So we just ignore that the 64-year-old Robinson is playing a much younger character, especially when he strikes up a romance with 25-year-old Lena Horne’s character Selina Rogers.

The film is essentially a tribute to a quarter century of African American entertainment and follows Bill Williamson through a film packed with with song and dance numbers.  I was actually surprised that the plot actually holds together based on the standard of movie musical plots.  The movie begins with Bill going to a Harlem nightclub with his army buddy Gabe (Dooley Wilson) where he meets Selina and her manager/band leader Chick Bailey (Emmett ‘Babe’ Wallace) who becomes Bill’s romantic rival.

Bill returns home to Memphis, stopping to scat on a riverboat, and taking up a job as dancer/waiter in a night club where Ada Brown and Fats Waller sing the blues.  They’re all hired to join Chick’s touring act and eventually Bill outshines Chick and leaves to start his own company.  Bill and Selina split up but get back together in a night club scene featuring Cab Calloway (the generational difference between the two performers is acknowledged in a humorous scene where Robinson can’t understand Calloway’s jive talk).  Lena Horne sings the stunning “Stormy Weather” and the brothers Fayard and Harold Nicholas perform a remarkable dance where they leap down steps and land in splits and don’t suffer groin injuries!

It’s an amazingly entertaining film, and I’m leaving out a lot of the great performers and numbers.  There are times where the movie leans into the stereotypes of African Americans that Hollywood audiences expected (for example, a comedy duo perform in blackface).  But there’s also a sense of these artists reclaiming something from these stereotypes and showing how hard they strive toward excellence.

Rating: ****