Today in Movie History: June 19

People have called The Music Man an ode to small town Americana, which is ironic since the movie — and the stage musical on which it was based — clearly hates small towns with every fiber of its being. Nevertheless, it’s a terrific musical, full of just enough snark to keep the sugar coating from getting too sweet and featuring a fantastic pair of leads in Robert Preston and Shirley Jones. It opened today in 1962 and feels just as fresh today as it did over 50 years ago.

In a much different school of filmmaking, we find I Was a Teenage Werewolf, a marvelous bit of drive-in schlock featuring a VERY young Michael Landon sprouting fur and fangs in a varsity jacket. The camptastic qualities can’t be denied (Mystery Science Theater 3000 did quite a number on it) and it won’t do anything to threaten Lon Chaney’s spot at the top of the lycanthrope heap, but it remains a strange little classic in its own way. It opened 60 years ago today in 1957.

Today in Movie History: June 18

There aren’t a whole lot of great Part 3s out there — the third movie tends to be the point where the wheels come off the franchise in question — but of those that earn mention, Toy Story 3 has earned a place among them. Pixar’s banner property finds an entirely new dilemma for its cast of sentient playthings, as Andy prepares for college and the remaining toys in his collection have to grapple with the prospect of becoming owner-less. Smart, funny, touching and surprisingly scary at times, it remains one of the very best films in the studio’s absurdly impressive canon. It opened today in 2010.

Further back, we find Sam Peckinpah’s The Wild  Bunch, another story of characters grappling with their own mortality. William Holden leads an aging band of outlaws in the final days of the Old West, looking for one last robbery before retiring. Its violence was considered shocking at the time and still has the power to shake you, as does the nihilism creeping quietly beneath the protagonists’ dilemma. It opened today in 1969.

We’ll close with Batman Returns, Tim Burton’s second foray to Gotham City and one of the more fascinating entries in superhero adaptations. Most of it is a dreadful mess, with an incoherent plot, too many villains and Burton’s familiar bugaboo of out-of-control production design confounding it at every turn. But it does feature the delicious Michelle Pfeiffer as a most unique Catwoman, as well as Burton’s unique Gothic sensibilities shading her adversarial romance with the Caped Crusader. And it’s developed a cult following among those who appreciate the bizarre. Batman Returns opened today in 1992.

 

 

 

Today in Movie History: June 15

It’s a big day today, and we’ll start with the most recent. Amid all the hubbub over 2008’s The Dark Knight, it’s easy to forget just what an amazing job its predecessor, Batman Begins, did after Tim Burton’s singular-but-flawed vision and the depressing crassness of the Joel Schumacher Batman films. Bat-fans were hungry for the kind of lean, grounded tale that Christopher Nolan unleashed with deceptive ease, and the stellar cast combined with a keen understanding of the character to create one of the best incarnations of the Dark Knight in any medium. Oh yeah, and it set up a sequel of some note too… Batman Begins opened today in 2005.

15 years earlier, another comic book adaptation stuck closer to the Tim Burton model, and is still regarded as an ambitious failure. But the sheer joy of Warren Beatty’s Dick Tracy has helped it age exceptionally well, and today stands as a breath of fresh air amid the gloom and doom of modern superhero sagas. The Stephen Sondheim songs are a knockout, and Al Pacino’s spot-on Al Pacino impersonation may be the greatest of all time. It opened today in 1990.

In far earlier era, but belonging to the same Boys’ Own tradition of those later films, there’s The Dirty Dozen: Robert Aldrich’s gleeful excuse to righteously kick some Nazi behind. It exists as pure popcorn entertainment and nothing more, but who doesn’t love watching Lee Marvin and his squad of misfits stick it to der Fuhrer good? It opened today in 1967.

Want more? We’ve got it. I thought about starting with Billy Wilder’s The Apartment, a good film that I never quite cottoned to and which thus took a step down in my estimation. Nonetheless, the story of a man (Jack Lemmon) who lends his apartment to his employers so they can canoodle with women who are not their wives holds some subversive charm, and its five Oscars (including Best Picture and Best Director for Wilder) speak to its reputation as a classic. It opened today in 1960.

Baseball movies come and go, but none are quite so wonderfully, perfectly accurate as Bull Durham. Its tale of a veteran minor league catcher (Kevin Costner), a hotshot pitcher on his way up (Tim Robbins) and the hardcore booster (Susan Sarandon) engaging in a romantic tryst with them both provide tons of romantic heat. As for the baseball, this is one of the few films that understands the sport isn’t about winning the pennant. It’s about what happens while you’re trying to win the pennant. Bull Durham opened today in 1988.

I’m not a huge fan of Abbott and Costello, but I am a huge fan of the Universal monsters, and their farce Abbott and Costello Meet Frankenstein uses the ghoulish old gang to nearly perfect effect. The secret is taking the monsters seriously: letting Bud and Lou run around like idiots and keeping the source of their fear as pure. The high point is Bela Lugosi — 20 years from the original Dracula and showing every mile of it — putting the moves on a hapless young lady and causing all those years to vanish in an instant. The role still belongs to him. The movie belongs to Bud and Lou, and they’ve never been better. It opened 70 years ago today in 1948.

Finally, there’s The Lion King: the single most inexplicable classic in Disney’s canon. Its widely regarded status as an animation masterpiece covers up for the fact that:

1) It liberally cribbed from a Japanese cartoon called Kimba the White Lion.

2) Its story embraces the ethically dodgy principle that everything will be fine as long as you shut up and know your place.

3) Its animation is mind-bogglingly shoddy for an A-list picture at the heart of the Disney Renaissance.

Nevertheless, it is almost universally beloved…. and if you push me under duress, I admit that the Elton John songs are pretty boss. The Lion King opened today in 1994.

 

 

Today in Movie History: June 14

When talking about underrated franchises, the Jason Bourne films might be at the top of the list. They don’t have the profile of James Bond or the MCU, but with five movies in the can, they established a reasonably high standard of quality that belies their airport paperback originals. Credit for that goes both to directors like Doug Liman and Paul Greengrass, and to star Matt Damon, who is clearly indispensable to the entire affair. Liman’s inaugural effort, The Bourne Identity, opened today in 2002.

Similarly, John Huston’s Prizzi’s Honor never quite seems to find a place in the ranks of the greatest gangster films of all time. But it remains a grand effort from one of Hollywood’s true masters, aided by amazing turns from Jack Nicholson, Kathleen Turner and Anjelica Huston, John’s daughter, who won a richly deserved Oscar for her work here. It opened today in 1985.

Finally, if you’re in the mood for black comedies, take a gander at Kind Hearts and Coronets, one of Britain’s famous Ealing comedies and possibly their very best. Decades before Eddie Murphy, Alec Guinness dazzled audiences by playing eight separate members of a noble family who stand between one scheming young man and the inheritance he feels he’s entitled to. What’s one to do except to start bumping off Alecs? Kind Hearts and Coronets opened in the U.S. today in 1950.

 

Today in Movie History: June 13

Stanley Kubrick still hadn’t quite established himself as, you know, Stanley Kubrick, when he tackled the supposedly unfilmable Lolita from a screenplay by Nabokov himself. The results were imperfect at best, but demonstrated a filmmaker willing to work on the high wire without a net, and set the stage for the breathtaking string of masterpieces that followed. Lolita was released today in 1962.

The giant monster craze of the 1950s is not, by and large, a noble one, but every now and then they hit upon a winner. One of them was The Beast from 20,000 Fathoms, about a dinosaur reawakened by (bet you’ll never guess) atomic testing and running amuck in the streets of New York. Director Eugene Lourie did quite well, but the real star of the show was the stop-motion effects from the legendary Ray Harryhausen. The film opened today in 1953.

We’ll close with You Only Live Twice, Sean Connery’s fifth outing as 007, and the one where he clearly lost interest in continuing the franchise. Ironically, the film is one of Bond’s better entries — even phoning-it-in Connery can be irresistible, and Donald Pleasance delivered the definitive portrayal of perennial baddie Ernst Stavro Blofeld — provided you accept the virulent racism of the premise, and the ninja-based nonsense that goes with it. It opened today in 1967.