Two brilliant comedic troupes hit high points today. We’ll start with the boys in Britain who, with a successful TV show behind them and absolutely zero money to back them up, put together a comic take on the Knights of the Round Table that we’re pretty sure you’re familiar with. Monty Python and the Holy Grail opened today in 1975.
The Marx Brothers didn’t need any funding in 1946 when they produced their classic A Night in Casablanca. The brothers play managers of a hotel where an escaped Nazi war criminal has murdered the managers who came before them. The film supposedly earned controversy when Warner Bros tried to sue them for copyright infringement of their film Casablanca. Groucho always claimed that he countersued, arguing that the Marxes used the term “brothers” before Warners did. It’s likely balderdash, but the controversy didn’t stop the film from joining the ranks of Marx Brothers classics.
Finally, we have the middle entry in Sergio Leone’s famous Dollars trilogy, For a Few Dollars More. Though not quite as compulsively watchable as the two films surrounding it, it retains its spaghetti western charm thanks to the pairing of Clint Eastwood’s Man with No Name with Lee Van Cleef’s revenge-driven Colonel Mortimer. It opened today in 1967.
Two big films and three smaller-but-notable ones today. We start with La Dolce Vita, Frederico Fellini’s ode to Rome, the jet set, and sexy girls splashing around in fountains. It took the world by storm when it was initially released, and for my money remains Fellini’s best film. It was released in the United States today in 1961.
For a home-grown classic with Italian roots, there’s High Plains Drifter, Clint Eastwood’s searing indictment of communal cowardice and the genre that made him a star. Hard to watch at times and still controversial to this day, it showed the world that Mr. Eastwood meant it when he said he wanted to direct. It opened today in 1973.
A filmmaker like Neil Jordan isn’t always brilliant, but he is always interesting. Case in point: The Company of Wolves, his strange, surreal and unforgettable retelling of Little Red Riding Hood, complete with sexual awakenings and copious werewolf fu. It opened today in 1985.
For something a little more irreverent, there’s MST 3K: The Movie, a successful transplant of the classic TV show onto the big screen. In essence, it’s no different than the TV show, with only a bigger budget and a bigger film — the 50s sci-fi classic This Island Earth — for Michael J. Nelson and the gang to snark at. It’s a glorious romp, like most of the efforts from this particular gang of lunatics, and it hit screens today in 1996.
Finally, we’d be remiss if we didn’t mention the original My Big Fat Greek Wedding, aka Great Aunt Millie’s Favorite Movie, which opened today in 2002. Initially conceived as a one-woman play, it blossomed into a monster hit and made a star out of actress-screenwriter Nia Vardelos. She stumbled badly after that, but the film itself remains one of the most profitable in terms of cost-to-gross ratio in history. So, um, yay?
Once upon a time, a TV cowboy named Clint got handed a script for a low-budget Italian Western that he immediately recognized as a hastily redressed version of Yojimbo. He took the job, for a free trip to Italy (or so he claims), and in the process helped reinvent an entire genre. A Fistful of Dollars opened today in the U.S. in 1967.
The Coen Brothers have their own take on the American West, no less bloody and equally compelling. They traveled to familiar ground — Texas — for their film debut, Blood Simple, and never looked back. A near-perfect piece of southern-fried noir, it remains on the short list of their very best films… and that’s saying something. It opened today in 1985.
Other, less Clint-tastic movies released today include George Cukor’s 1935 adaptation of David Copperfield — featuring W.C. Fields in one of his most memorable roles as Mr. Micawber — and the Matt Reeves-helmed found-footage giant monster mash-up Cloverfield, released today in 2008.
It was a good day for bad men at the movies, starting with Sergio’s Leone’s legendary The Good, The Bad and The Ugly, released in the U.S. on December 29, 1967. Leone wrapped a strange anti-war message into his farewell to The Man with No Name, as well as providing the great Eli Wallach with his finest role.
Sam Peckinpah had his own thoughts about humanity’s capacity for violence — some good some bad, but always compelling — and perhaps found his most troubling expression of it in Straw Dogs: a story of the limits of pacifism and the sad fact that self-defense remains a necessary right. It opened today in 1971.
If those boys weren’t bad enough, then there’s always the greatest monster in literary history. 1995 saw a fresh new take on William Shakespeare’s Richard III hit theaters today, with England remade as a fascist dictatorship and Ian McKellen delivering perhaps the finest performance of his career as the titular ruler. Annette Bening, Maggie Smith, Jim Broadbent, Nigel Hawthorne and Robert Downey, Jr. also lent their talents to the production.
Finally, there’s Tim Robbins’ Dead Man Walking, an examination of the death penalty that won Susan Sarandon an Oscar and came damn close to scoring one for Sean Penn as well. People who shy away from the film because of the shrill politics of the principals will be surprised to see how even-handed it is: respecting both sides equally and presenting a take on it that ferments fruitful discussion instead of preaching at us until we scream. It opened the same days as Richard III, in 1995.
It was a fairly quiet date as far as releases go, owing to our perennial post-Christmas malaise. Alfred Hitchcock’s Spellbound hit theaters in 1945, a second-tier effort from the master, but still notable thanks mostly to Salvador Dali’s haunting dream sequences. (On the more gossip-y end of things, the production involved a secret tryst between stars Gregory Peck and Ingrid Bergman… who were both married to other people at the time.) Ten years previous, one of the more notable films of swashbuckling legend and noted anti-Semite Errol Flynn first hit theaters: Captain Blood.
Other notable films released today include Ridley Scott’s breathtaking combat picture Black Hawk Down in 2001; Nigel Hawthorne scoring a well-deserved Oscar nomination for the title role in The Madness of King George in 1994 (he lost to Tom Hanks and don’t even get us started on that…); and Clint Eastwood returning to his signature role in Magnum Force in 1973.