One of the brilliant things about directors like Alfred Hitchcock is how their work evolves over time… and in this case, how his work in England differs from his work in Hollywood. The 39 Steps makes an outstanding example of earlier efforts informing later triumphs. This one follows one of the master’s standard scenarios — the innocent man wrongly accused — into a marvelous chase/romance that helped set the blueprint for subsequent classics like North by Northwest. It opened today in 1935.
Richard Matheson’s I Am Legend has gone though its ups and downs in the adaptation department. One of the better ones is The Omega Man, which takes a number of liberties from the source material, but counters with solid sci-fi concepts. Charlton Heston plays the only survivor of a plague that has wiped out the rest of humanity: doing battle with ghoulish survives in the middle of an abandoned Los Angeles. It opened today in 1971.
Some movies tower so high that simply to mention them is to take the breath away. So it its with 2001: A Space Odyssey. 50 years on — with countless screenings, analyses, critical evaluations, and drug-induced hallucinations in the interim — we’re still pondering the imponderables of Stanley Kubrick’s monumental achievement. An unanswerable mystery and an all-encompassing revelation; a warning against our soullessness and a celebration of our humanity; an unparalleled visual spectacle and an intellectual exercise that will make your head spin for weeks; and a fearsome candidate for not only the best science fiction film of all time, but perhaps the best movie ever… It landed in theaters on this day in 1968, and the medium has never quite recovered.
Oh, that’s not enough for you? How about Planet of the Apes: the original, staggering, take-no-prisoners, 1968 classic that held a mirror up to humanity and dared us to take a long look. It may not quite beat 2001, but it’s certainly in the ranks of the very greatest movies of all time. And it shares the exact same release date with Kubrick. Mind-blowing.
I hesitate even to mention another film in the same column as these two, but hey: it’s Elvis! It Happened at The World’s Fair is an agreeable bit of balderdash that sees the King as an amiable crop-duster who needs to come up with money fast to save his plane after his partner gets them deep in debt. The songs are agreeable, but don’t merit much attention, though there are a few Easter eggs in the cast. Vicky Tiu, the secondary female lead, became the first lady of Hawaii in the 90s (her husband actually divorced his first wife while in office to marry her). And the little kid kicking the King’s shins is Kurt Russell, making his feature film debut. With Russell appearing in both The Fate of the Furious and Guardians of the Galaxy 2 later this year, that makes 54 years in the business for him. It Happened at the World’s Fair opened 55 years ago today in 1963.
It was a good day for epics, starting with Edward Zwick’s classic Civil War tale Glory, which (among other things) gave Denzel Washington his first Oscar. You like your epics big, loud and featuring Charlton Heston? December 14 also saw the release of Anthony Mann’s minor classic El Cid back in 1961.
1984 saw three notable science fiction movies released today… well okay, two notable science fiction movies and Michael Crichton’s Runaway. David Lynch released is long-anticipated version of Dune, to the bafflement and dismay of many fans. The film has since developed a cult following, and while we acknowledge its flaws, we can’t help but admire its ambition. (Plus Patrick Stewart as Gurney Halleck; who doesn’t love that?) Far more successful — to the tune of an Oscar nomination for star Jeff Bridges — was Starman, John Carpenter’s marvelous move out of his horror movie comfort zone and into the realm of sci-fi romance.
But that’s not all! Carl Reiner’s The Jerk opened today in 1979: a film that really shouldn’t work but does thanks to its lead, Steve Martin. Martin scored another success nine years later with Frank Oz’s Dirty Rotten Scoundrels, which remains one of his best films to date.
Finally, there’s Saturday Night Fever, John Badham’s ode to disco and working-class Brooklyn that made a star out of John Travolta. It turns 40 years old today — released in 1977 — and it’s a lot better than you might think.
You’d think they’d release a movie like The Ten Commandments closer to Passover, when it might be more pertinent. But back in the 1950s, release dates worked differently, and films often had months or even years to play in theaters before moving on (and frankly, with the exception of network television, there was nowhere else to move on to). Hence, Cecil B. DeMille’s grand epic opened in the fall, on its way to making the not-at-all-Jewish Charlton Heston the go-to cinematic Moses for all time, and finding the ideal story for the directors dedication to sheer visual scale. I confess that I prefer The Prince of Egypt for humanizing the story, but it’s hard to argue with the powerful punches this one packs in abundance. The Ten Commandments opened today in 1956.
Walt Disney prepared for his classic Snow White by testing techniques in various shorter films, and though animated features became a going concern afterwards, he and his team never abandoned the shorter format. This sometimes led to the release of anthology films, which packaged several shorter stories into a single feature. Among the best of them is The Adventures of Ichabod and Mr. Toad, presenting Disney versions of both The Legend of Sleepy Hollow and The Wind in the Willows for the public’s approval. Neither is perfect, but both have their share of exquisite moments, topped by a terrifying version of Ichabod Crane’s encounter with the Headless Horseman. It opened today in 1949.
Normally, a film like Breakfast at Tiffany’s would be much higher on this list. It’s a perfect film in many ways, aided by an irresistible performance from Audrey Hepburn at the top of her game. Unfortunately, it also contains Mr. Yunoshi (Mickey Rooney), and while we don’t blame the Mickster for an act of systemic racism, his horrific caricature of a character is too ugly to ignore. Not cool guys. Seriously. Breakfast at Tiffany’s opened today in 1961.
We’ll close with Nosferatu the Vampyre, Werner Herzog’s haunting remake of the silent horror classic. Though it can’t match the Murnau original, it still finds some potent, chilling material, with a sense of growing decay and an apocalyptic doom that only Herzog could deliver. And of course, there’s Klaus Kinski’s turn as the vampire: casting so perfect it’s downright creepy. Nosferatu the Vampyre opened today in 1979.
Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire (2005)
“I only hope that we don’t lose sight of one thing,” Walt Disney famously said. “That it was all started by a mouse.” His little buddy Mickey got his start in the motion picture business today in 1928 with the release of Steamboat Willie. 87 years later, the little guy shows no signs of slowing down and the company he started pretty much owns pop culture these days.
And his wasn’t the only notable animated film to hit screens today. Don Bluth’s The Land Before Time started a mini-franchise of its own in 1988, providing cute dinosaurs galore for a whole generation of pre-Jurassic Park kids.
On the non-animated front, William Wyler’s Biblical epic Ben-Hur delivered a race for the ages this day in 1959. (Stay in the chariot Chuck; we guarantee you’re gonna win the damn race.)
Exactly ten years earlier, Spencer Tracy and Katharine Hepburn showed everyone how it was in with the release of Adam’s Rib.
More recently, Spike Lee’s incendiary Malcolm X delivered a biopic of the controversial civil rights leader in 1992, featuring perhaps the greatest performance Denzel Washington ever gave .
And if mediocre Star Trek movies are your thing, the Next Generation crew got off to a shaky start with 1994’s Generations. (Don’t worry. They got better.)