Today in Movie History: February 23

As we get closer to the Oscars, we come smack dab against one of the comparatively few Best Picture winners that has actually stood the test of time. It Happened One Night, Frank Capra’s romp of a romantic comedy, opened today in 1934. 82 years later, it’s just as fun, charming and utterly irresistible as it’s always been, thanks both to the clever script by Robert Riskin and a pair of delectable leads in Clark Gable and Claudette Colbert. It was also the first film to complete a sweep of the “Big Five” Oscars (Picture, Actor, Actress, Director, Screenplay), and its status as a flat-out comedy once again shames the modern Academy who can’t be bothered to recognize anything that doesn’t fit within a narrow definition of “importance.”

 

 

 

Today in Movie History: December 20

It’s the season for Christmas movies and one of the move beloved of all time hit theaters today. It’s a Wonderful Life, Frank Capra’s surprisingly dark story about a town held together by one man, and what happens when that man starts to doubt himself, opened today in 1946: giving returning G.I.s and a nation weary of war a chance to celebrate.

Is that all? My goodness no! In fact, this is one of the biggest days in the calendar for notable movies. We’ll start the rest of the list with Harold and Maude, the delightfully quirky cult classic about a strange, morbid young man (Bud Cort) who falls in love with a septuagenarian (Ruth Gordon) in love with life. It opened in 1971, the second Hal Ashby film in as many days on our list.

Oliver Stone tends to have the final word when it comes to the Vietnam experience on film, and that includes Born on the 4th of July, his biopic of activist Ron Kovic who lost the use of his legs during the war and became one of its most outspoken critics when he turned home. Stone won his second Best Director Oscar for the effort, and star Tom Cruise earned his first Oscar nomination ever in the lead. The film opened today in 1989.

Two years later, Stone struck again, this time looking at the assassination of John F. Kennedy. As history, JFK is a bad joke, floating conspiracy theories that would make Fox Mulder giggle and achieving the kind of overheated rhetoric that would ultimately sink the filmmakers into a malaise of paranoid self-regard. But as a purely cinematic exercise, its power remains undiminished: a hypnotic dive into the differences between perception and reality that still has the power to shake you to the core. The film opened today in 1991.

Among his other brilliant achievements, Akira Kurosawa had a unique knack for adapting Shakespearean tragedy to the world of feudal Japan. That’s why, at the ripe old age of 75, he pulled an amazing rabbit out of his hat with Ran, a new version of King Lear that still ranks among the master’s finest achievements. It opened in the U.S. today in 1985.

Speaking of masters, the legendary Bob Fosse rarely turned his talents to directing, content instead to deploy his masterful choreography to incredible dance scene after incredible dance scene. But when he did direct, the results were usually spectacular. All That Jazz was perfect for him: a thinly veiled warts-and-all biopic of his own life with Roy Scheider standing in for the dancer himself. it opened today in 1979 and, like Fosse’s Cabaret, demonstrated exactly how far this man could push the boundaries of what a musical was supposed to be.

Then there’s Mysterious Island, a bit for fun from Ray Harryhausen and director Cy Endfield. It concerns a group of Union soldiers who escape a Southern prison camp in a hot air balloon and end up in pitched battle with giant crabs and prehistoric chickens on the titular isle. It opened in 1961 and is awesome.

December seems to be the month of shitty James Bond films, and we’ve got one of the worst today: The Man with the Golden Gun, Roger Moore’s second outing as 007 and easily his shakiest (yes, including Moonraker). Granted, it contains a few moments to relish, including one of the most amazing car stunts you’ll ever see. But when you bring on Christopher Lee as the villain — Christopher freaking LEE — and the results are as turgid as this, something has gone seriously wrong. The film opened today in 1974.

We’ll close with Scream, Wes Craven’s tongue-in-cheek deconstruction of the slasher genre that helped make his fortune. I’ll be honest: I hate the film, with its smug condescension for horror movie fans and its bevvy of winks and nods that come across more as masturbation than genuine commentary. But never let it be said that Craven — a legitimate cinematic genius whose earlier works were far more compelling — didn’t have his finger on the pulse of the zeitgeist. For better or worse, the movie stands as the flagship for the horror genre in that era. It opened today in 1996.

 

Today in Movie History: October 19

In light of the political shitstorm currently eating our country alive, the soothing balm of Mr. Smith Goes to Washington can do a lot of good for your blood pressure. Jimmy Stewart is pitch-perfect as a naïve young man appointed to a U.S. Senate seat, who does pitched battle against the systematic corruption trying to mold him to its whim. Of course, like a lot of Frank Capra movies, it depends on the characters actually having souls and understanding the consequences of their actions. The real world features too many far less introspective people. Mr. Smith Goes to Washington opened today in 1939.

The Klaus Von Bulow case was quite the tabloid hot button back in the day: a wealthy man accused of putting his wife in a coma in order to end their unhappy marriage. But in Reversal of Fortune, the brilliant fictionalized account of the case, director Barbet Schroeder chose to focus on the legal ramifications instead of the soapy shocks. The result was one of the best courtroom dramas ever made and scored a well-deserved Oscar for star Jeremy Irons, whose performance as von Bulow has yet to be matched in his career. The movie opened today in 1990.

There was a time when Kevin Smith was mentioned in the same breath as Quentin Tarantino as filmmakers changing the face of movies. It didn’t happen for Smith, who became more of a personality than a director, and whose work as a writer always eclipsed his skills behind the camera. But with Clerks, his impressive debut, he looked ready to take the cinematic world by storm. Most of his subsequent films don’t hold up nearly as well as this one (though Chasing Amy comes close). It opened today in 1994.

We’ll close with out October horror more of the day: Looking for Mr. Goodbar. Though generally considered a drama, it explores themes of body horror, women’s self-esteem, and the omnipresent threat of violence from men… themes that unfortunately feel more pertinent now than ever. Stephen King always put it in a different genre thanks to those qualities, and who am I to disagree with the master? Looking for Mr. Goodbar opened today in 1977.

 

 

Today in Movie History: September 23

Though well-received critically, The Shawshank Redemption failed to generate much heat at the box office, and was swamped at the Oscars by the competing behemoths of Pulp Fiction and Forrest Gump. Hourly screenings on TNT changed all of that and today, it’s considered one of the greatest movies of the 1990s… as well as cementing director Frank Darabont’s reputation as the go-to adaptor of high-end Stephen King novels. The Shawshank Redemption opened today in 1994.

It’s a big day for David Cronenberg too, featuring two movies of his that supposedly demonstrated his ability to move beyond the horror genre that made him famous. The first, Dead Ringers, charts the slow descent of a pair of identical twin gynecologists (both played by Jeremy Irons) into drug addiction and madness. The second, A History of Violence, entails the hidden past of a seemingly normal coffee-shop owner (Viggo Mortensen) which comes knocking on the door of his idyllic life. Both are exceptional examples of a director at the top of his game. (And to date, he doesn’t have a single Oscar nomination. NOT EVEN A NOMINATION.) Dead Ringers opened today in 1988. A History of Violence opened today in 2005.

Finally, we’ll close with a favorite: Arsenic and Old Lace, Frank Capra’s adaptation of the darkly funny Joseph Kesselring play. It concerns an aristocratic writer (Cary Grant) who fears that he may succumb to his family’s hereditary insanity… as evinced most prominently by his two batty aunts, who periodically off their gentleman callers. It’s a bit stagey, but otherwise a hoot. It opened today in 1944.