Today in Movie History: June 3

As Billy Wilder comedies go, The Seven Year Itch never packed the punch of, say, Some Like It Hot or The Apartment. It’s amusing enough, but the Hays Code pulled the teeth from the Broadway play on which it was based, about a married man tempted by… well shit, by Marilyn Freaking Monroe. That leaves it minor Wilder at best, save for that iconic moment when Monroe stands above the subway grate. The Seven Year Itch opened today in 1955.

Back in 1983, the whole “personal computer” thing was at best weird and at worst actively frightening. Naturally, Hollywood happily exploited our fears with a series of “the computer is trying to kill you” movies that today seem almost quaint. One of the best of them was John Badham’s WarGames, in which a dippy high school hacker almost starts World War III by tapping into NORAD’s defense system when all he was looking for was a few video games. It doesn’t hold up as a thriller, but as a nostalgic throwback, it’s well made and surprisingly fun. It opened today in 1983.

Four years later, Brian De Palma made a huge mark on 80s cinema with The Untouchables: a sleek, handsome and heavily fictionalized variation on the fall of Al Capone. David Mamet’s script lent the story some hard-boiled grit, and with the likes of Sean Connery and Robert De Niro sinking their teeth into it, it’s no wonder the film was such a success. Among its other accolades, it made stars out of both Kevin Costner and Andy Garcia, as well as scoring Connery a well-deserved Academy Award. The Untouchables opened today in 1987.

Finally, I hold a soft spot in my heart for X-Men: First Class, which was responsible for revitalizing the X-Men franchise and may still be the best of the lot. I grew up reading the X-Men, and it still seems like a minor miracle that these figures actually made it to the big screen. Director Matthew Vaughn cuts to the heart of the story, what it’s supposed to be about and the amazing characters used to convey it. First Class opened today in 2011.


Today in Movie History: November 3

Stephen King understands bullies as few others before him, which is one of the reasons why his terror tales hold so much power. His first novel, Carrie — inspired by experiences in high school — taps into the fear, alienation and rage of being the constant target of abuse, and in the hands of director Brian De Palma, it became one of the greatest horror films of all time. Sissy Spacek is perfect as the terrified young woman whose burgeoning telekinesis gives her the perfect instrument of revenge, and made the character an icon for anyone who ever got stuffed into a locker or wedgied behind the bleachers. It opened today in 1976.

The original Pete’s Dragon came along at a low point for Walt Disney Pictures, with their founder ten years gone and the company searching for a creative direction. But it holds a great deal of charm in the story of another picked-on child, this time with someone much more positive in his corner. It rambles a bit, and packs a few plot threads too many into its frame, but it also finds some measure of the magic that made the House of Mouse so beloved. It opened 40 years ago today in 1977.

Guys and Dolls decided to make a musical out of the magical subject of compulsive gambling and — let’s face it — preserved some of the less savory aspects of 50s culture. But watching Marlon Brando sing “Luck Be a Lady” is all kinds of awesome, and who if not Frank Sinatra should play the definitive Nathan Detroit? The film opened 60 years ago today in 1957.

Finally, there’s Fiddler on the Roof, an ambitious and uniformly admirable adaptation of the famous stage play. Director Norman Jewison stuck to the basics — letting the marvelous songs and fine performances speak for themselves — and while it was a crime to keep Zero Mostel from the part he was born to play, Topol makes a perfectly serviceable fill-in as the Jewish dairy farmer dealing with life in a changing world. The film also won three Oscars, including the first of many for composer John Williams. It opened today in 1971.



Today in Movie History: October 31

For obvious reasons, few films of note have actually opened on Halloween. Competition from trick-or-treaters, parties and similar celebrations means that theaters are usually empty, with the occasional exception of some quickie horror movie hoping to cash in on the zeitgeist.

The two exceptions both fall into the realm of the very, very weird. The first, Whatever Happened to Baby Jane?, united Bette Davis and Joan Crawford in a pairing that… well, if you haven’t seen it, nothing can quite prepare you for the exercise in camptastic macabre that follows. It opened 45 years ago today in 1962.

If that isn’t strange enough for you, then Brian De Palma has your back with Phantom of the Paradise, a rock opera loosely based on The Phntom of the Opera about at talented musician transformed into a monster by an evil record executive. It’s, um, out there, and if you’re looking for something different this Halloween, you definitely owe it to yourself to check it out. It opened today in 1974.

I’ll close today just by thanking everyone for continuing to read, and I wish you all a Happy Halloween!


Today in Movie History: March 10

For those of you afraid that the Earth will soon become a blasted hellscape and want to take steps to preserve all plant life for future generations, Douglas Trumbull made a really good guidebook for you. It was called Silent Running and it opened today in 1972.

There is something about sticking an outlaw on a train, and while 3:10 to Yuma kind of wrote the book on it, director Tom Gries did all right with Breakheart Pass, a decent little Charles Bronson flick that opened today in 1975. Jerry Goldsmith composed a great score, which helps a lot.

If Charles Bronson isn’t your thing, may we suggest The Little Princess? The Shirley Temple version? It’s got Cesar Romero! No? Your loss. It opened today in 1939.

Finally, we would be remiss without noting any lugubrious overblown Brian De Palma film which creeps onto the radar. In this case, it’s The Fury: a bit of sturm und drang featuring Kirk Douglas in pursuit of psychics the CIA is turning into weapons. Or something. It opened today in 1978. Wait for Scanners. It’s better.