Today in Movie History: July 25

We’ll start with the greatest golf movie ever made, the greatest movie featuring a gopher puppet ever made, and the 34th greatest stick-it-to-the-Man comedy ever made. We’re talking about Caddyshack and it opened today in 1980.

I used to marvel at how Stephen King could crank out 10,000 words a day without breaking a sweat. Turns out, he was loopy on cocaine the whole time, and if you’ve seen his directorial debut, Maximum Overdrive, you can see its effects at work. King adapted his own short story, about the hapless occupants at a truck stop where the rigs outside have come to life, and it’s exactly, precisely as goofy as it sounds (though it did produce a kick-ass AC/DC song). The director is clean and sober now, and even he looks back on it with a mixture of regret and gape-jawed disbelief. It opened today in 1986.

 

Today in Movie History: May 31

What can one say about Fletch, arguably the best film Chevy Chase ever made with a deep and abiding cult following to back it up? It’s as funny as it always was… though it does highlight a tendency of 80s cinema to present some frankly repugnant characters as heroes. Chase’s Irwin Fletcher is self-important, obnoxious, exploitative and sometimes downright cruel. Luckily for the film, that doesn’t preclude him from making us laugh, and frankly, the movie character is nothing compared to the same guy in the original novel. The film opened today in 1985.

 

Today in Movie History: December 12

The topper today is a classic from the Golden Age of Universal Horror: The Wolf Man, George Waggner’s quintessential werewolf story featuring Lon Chaney, Jr. as a good man attacked by something out of legend and transformed into a creature of the night. Bela Lugosi and Ralph Bellamy tag along for the ride, and the results are one of the unquestioned high points of the Universal monster cycle. It opened today in 1941.

I came very close to putting The Last Detail in the pole position. Hal Ashby’s story of a kelptomaniac sailor (Randy Quaid) being taken to the brig boasts one of Jack Nicholson’s best performances ever. He plays the Shore Patrol officer charged with delivering the young man to the brig, and before that happens vows to take him out for the greatest time of his life. It opened today in 1973, and is an absolute must-see for Nicholson fans.

We’d be remiss if we went any further without mentioning Bicycle Thieves, the almost unconscionably downbeat neorealist classic about a man in postwar Rome who depends on his bicycle to secure a job, only to hunt fruitlessly for it when it’s stolen. It’s exactly as bleak as it sounds and that’s kind of the point: an attempted snapshot of life as it actually happens instead of the business-as-usual notion of obeying the necessities of a compelling story (i.e., a happy ending). Bicycle Thieves opened today in the United States in 1949.

Back on the domestic front, we have A Man for All Seasons, Fred Zinneman’s adaptation of the celebrated stage play. It concerns Thomas More (Paul Scofield), Henry VIII’s Lord Chancellor who refused to go along with his plan to divorce Catherine of Aragon and paid the ultimate price for it. It’s a fantastic film that earned every inch of its massive financial success (oh yeah, and six Oscars, including Best Picture, Best Director, and Best Actor for Scofield). And its insight into the political process carries important lessons to this day. It opened today in 1966.

Speaking of Oscar winners, Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner? is exactly the kind of mealy mouth excuse for “important” filmmaking that the Academy loves showering with praise. It reduces the issue of race relations in America to a liberal couple who may be uncomfortable that their daughter wants to marry a black man, and ends with smiles and hugs so we can all feel good about what enlightened white people we are. (Four months later, Martin Luther King was assassinated, so… yeah. Way to hit them where it hurts, movie.) Having said that, it’s a decent effort in and of itself, with fine performances from a great ensemble that includes Spencer Tracy’s last onscreen appearance. (Watching Katherine Hepburn listen to his final speech is priceless.) Just don’t mistake it for anything more important than a fun couple of hours. It opened 50 years ago today in 1967.

I’m going to close with a pair of favorites, both very light. First up is Popeye, Robert Altman’s live-action take on the famous sailor man, widely regarded as a bomb upon first released. The director clearly chaffed under the studio system that produced it, star Robin Williams was reportedly very unhappy with the experience, and it’s less-than-sterling 59% on Rotten Tomatoes suggests critical indifference at best. But if you know the character — particularly the iconic cartoons from the Fleischer Bros and the improvisational style that defined them — you can see the mad genius behind it all. (It also did much better at the box office than its reputation suggests.) Today it’s attained the status of a cult classic, and a reminder that not all comic book stories need to involve superheroes. It opened today in 1980.

Finally, there’s Three Amigos, one of those movies that you don’t think much of when you first see it, but which slowly gets funnier upon subsequent viewings until it becomes an indispensable part of your movie rotation. Fluffy and silly, yes… but I’ll bet real money you have a quote or two running through your head right now. It opened today in 1986.

 

Today in Movie History: July 29

Chevy Chase movies aren’t exactly the stuff of cinematic legend, but if one focuses on the high points, then it’s hard to ignore National Lampoon’s Vacation, the surprisingly dark comedy about an overbearing father who drags his family on a hellish cross-country road trip in the name of fun. Chase holds it all together with maybe the best performance of his career: playing a man so committed to making the best of a bad time, he just might be going insane. Vacation opened today in 1983.

While we’re on the subject of funnymen, we should also mention The Mask: one of the breakout films that made Jim Carrey (and Cameron Diaz, for that matter) a big star. The two are absolutely on fire in an oddball comic book adaptation based on the Dark Horse line, about a mask that turns whoever wears it into an id-driven Tex Avery cartoon. It opened today in 1994, and if you need a break from traditional superhero movies, we can’t recommend it more.