Today in Movie History: June 29

In these charged times, an ethical media is more important than ever. The key word there being “ethical,” which is where the problems arise. Billy Wilder knew the score long before Fox News and supermarket tabloids. Ace in the Hole, the caustic story of just what one newspaper man will do to sell some papers, hit theaters today in 1951, and in most ways that count, it hasn’t aged a day.

Then there’s The King and I, one of the greatest musicals ever made and the object of eternal gratitude from us bald men for whom Yul Brynner is just the gift that keeps on giving. It opened today in 1956.

Those two are pretty hard to top, but Pixar certainly tried with Ratatouille, Brad Bird’s Oscar-wining masterpiece about a French rat who becomes a chef at a five-star Parisian restaurant. It ranks as one of the studio’s very best, and that’s saying something. It also contains perhaps the most astute observation of criticism in film history, courtesy of Peter O’Toole’s chastened restaurant snob. It opened today in 2007

We’ll close with a couple of interesting if not quite perfect entries. Steven Spielberg’s A.I.: Artificial Intelligence certainly ranks among his most ambitious works and at times it’s as powerful as anything he’s ever done. But without Stanley Kubrick, who helped develop the project and might have directed it were it not for his untimely death, it lacks the clinical cynicism that it really needed to succeed. It opened today in 2001.

Finally there’s Moonraker. Um, yeah. Moonraker. As James Bond films, it’s indisputably one of the worst, bowdlerizing Ian Fleming’s terrific source novel in favor of a quickie cash-in on the Star Wars craze. That said, it’s also an undeniable guilty pleasure, with 007’s 70s-era ridiculousness taken to glorious extremes and Roger Moore’s “what, me worry?” routine at its most disarming. Moonraker opened today in 1979.

 

Today in Movie History: December 1

The first day of the last month of the year starts with one of the first big hits ever created in the medium. The Great Train Robbery, a 12-minute silent movie filmed for the princely sum of $150, opened people’s eyes to the medium’s narrative possibilities and potential for kinetic action. Even today, over a century later, it’s still a lot of fun. It opened today in 1903.

I’m not sure why nuns make a good fit for the movies, but they kind of do… both as heroes and villains. Nowhere is this more apparent than in Black Narcissus, the story of a quintet of nuns in the Himalayas struggling with the environment and each other. The story is a bit of a potboiler — albeit an intriguing one — but the real selling point is the gorgeous Technicolor cinematography from Jack Cardiff. The film opened today in 1947.

 

Today in Movie History: November 24

We’ve got a brief bevy of minor films of note for Black Friday, starting with King Solomon’s Mines, a fine adventure saga based on the 19th century novel of the same name. The film is notable for shooting in authentic African locations, and also for its surprisingly sensitive portrayal of the local Masai tribes, including renditions of their traditional dances and songs. It opened today in 1950.

Elvis has been on the menu a lot this week, and there’s no reason to stop now. Harum Scarum definitely belongs in the WTF File, sending the King to 1960s-era Baghdad to have some fun with a fistful of horrifying Arabian stereotypes. It’s offensive in so many, many ways… and yet in so bizarrely over-the-top that you can’t help but stare at it in wide-eyed fascination. As the trailer says, “in your wildest nightmares, you’ve never imagined such goings-on.” They’re not kidding. Harum Scarum opened today in 1965.

We’ll close with Murder on the Orient Express a rather stodgy adaptation of the Agatha Christa classic that does a solid-though-unexceptional job with a very well-known story. (The recent Kenneth Branagh version is an improvement.) The all-star cast is a genuine plus, though Albert Finney is quite hammy as Hercule Poirot. The film also netted Ingrid Bergman her third and final Oscar. It opened today in 1974.