Today in Movie History: February 20

A very quiet day is marked by a single notable western: How The West Was Won, following a family of settlers over the course of several generations as they journey from New York to California. It’s sumptuous and grand, as you’d expect from MGM, and was rewarded both with immense box office success and a trio of Academy Awards. The soundtrack is a high point, but the strength of the cast (including Jimmy Stewart, John Wayne, Gregory Peck and Debbie Reynolds) and gorgeous cinematography make up for some of the “rah rah white people” vibe that periodically crops up. How The West Was Won opened 55 years ago today in 1963.

 

Today in Movie History: February 19

Sometimes, it takes a royal jackass to stare the gibbering maw of evil in the eye and send it back to the howling pit from whence it came… even if said jackass is a barely employable stock boy with a chainsaw for a hand. Sam Raimi’s immortal Army of Darkness opened 25 years ago today in 1993.

Today in Movie History: February 16

I confess a soft spot for Clive Barker’s Nightbreed, a strange and marvelous little horror film that puts Barker’s talents for the weird and unusual on full display. A tale of beautiful monsters and evil men, it features (among other things) a surprisingly good performance from fellow horror director David Cronenberg as (what else?) a crazed serial killer. It opened today in 1990.

It seems like we always pair a horror movie with a kids’ movie, and in honor of that trend, we present Muppet Treasure Island. Jim Henson’s creations have had their ups and downs, but this one proved a winner, with the gang having great fun with various pirate clichés and the great Tim Curry — one of the few actors who could share the screen with Henson’s beloved creations and not get blown off the stage — playing Long John Silver. Muppet Treasure Island opened today in 1996.

 

Today in Movie History: February 15

Stagecoach is one of those movies whose influence kind of creeps up on you. Not only did it cement a number of Western conventions that later went on to become clichés (Monument Valley settings, cavalry arriving at the last minute, etc.), but it made a star out of John Wayne and turned director John Ford into Hollywood legend. It also featured the innovative stunt work of Yakima Canutt, who practically invented the field. (His spectacular drop beneath a team of moving horses still has to be seen to be believed; it’s on the clip below at about the one-minute mark) Stagecoach first opened on this day in 1939.

On a lighter note, Walt Disney scored a big hit with its catchy adaptation of Cinderella, which premiered today in 1950. Frankly, I don’t count it among Disney’s best, but it help launch their impressive run in the 1950s and remains one of their most beloved films to this day. And who am I to argue with that?

Teenage dramas come and go, and every generation has their favorite. At the risk of sounding immodest, however, I’d say that Generation X owns this turf, thanks in no small part to The Breakfast Club: John Hughes’s tale of one memorable day in Saturday detention and the representatives of high school’s perennial cliques who somehow find a way to understand each other. It opened today in 1985.

Finally, we should quietly mention that today saw the release of one of the most miserable exercises in cinematic excess ever. We’re talking about Tinto Brass’s Caligula: a chance to revel in the grotesqueries of the Roman Empire in the most incompetent and ruthlessly exploitative ways imaginable. Producer Bob Guccione of Penthouse fame was trying to match the legitimacy rival Hugh Hefner found by supporting Polanski’s Macbeth, among other projects. But he lacked the instincts, the temperament and the taste to repeat the trick, and he and Brass fought endlessly during the production. Screenwriter Gore Vidal disowned the whole unseemly mess, while a fistful of slumming actors — including Malcolm McDowell, Helen Mirren, John Gielgud, and Peter O’Toole — wisely kept their heads down and ran for the hills the minute the project was done. It opened today in 1980, and we admonish you to watch it at your own risk.

Today in Movie History: February 13

We’ve got a terrific pair of musicals on this Valentine’s Eve, starting with Bob Fosse’s triumphant Cabaret. Besides proving a monstrous hit and going toe to toe with The Godfather itself at the Oscars that year, its depiction of Germany in the waning days of the Weimar Republic feels more pertinent than ever. It opened today in 1972, and remains on the short list of greatest musicals ever made.

Ralph Bakshi’s American Pop doesn’t approach Cabaret in terms of artistry and influence. But it stands as a high point of Bakshi’s strange and fascinating career: a sprawling attempt to chart popular music in the 20th Century as seen through multiple generations of a Jewish immigrant family. It opened today in 1981, and is worth a look for any cinephile or animation fan who hasn’t yet seen it.