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 night 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 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 its 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: December 19

It’s another big day for notable movies: December gets very crowded with event films in an effort to either rake in the box office while the kids are on break or make a play for an Oscar nod or two. One notable movie managed to do both. The Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Ring was Peter Jackson’s opening foray into what became an indisputable cinematic masterpiece. It’s easy to forget how unprecedented his efforts to bring J.R.R. Tolkien’s celebrated fantasy novels to life, and how much was riding on its success. The prospect had a lot of old-school fantasy fans breathing into a paper bag before it opened. Turns out, we needn’t have worried. Jackson had the right touch, the film became a phenomenon, and along with the Harry Potter franchise, it finally gave the fantasy genre some long-overdue respect. The Fellowship of the Ring opened today in 2001.

Speaking of Oscar winners, Oliver Stone had already scored an Academy Award for penning Midnight Express when he helmed Platoon, a fictionalized account of his experiences in Vietnam. Not only did it walk away with four Oscars (including Best Picture and Best Director for Stone), but it became the final cinematic word on Vietnam, and represented a national catharsis on that war after years of denial and evasion. It opened today in 1986.

I’m still not sure what I think of James Cameron’s Titanic, which became the biggest moneymaker in the world for a time and an absolute Oscar behemoth, with 11 wins under its belt (including Best Picture and Best Director for Cameron). It looks a lot creakier 20 years on, with the beloved romance between Kate Winslet’s rich girl and Leonardo DiCaprio’s poor boy feeling far more threadbare than it did at the time and Cameron’s turgid script bogging the film down at every turn. That said, it still finds moments of real magic to appreciate, and if nothing else, the film presents a chillingly plausible sense of what it might have felt like on the deck of that ship that fateful night. Titanic opened two decades ago today in 1997.

Peter Sellers was best known for his role as Inspector Clouseau, and his best performance (or performances) likely came from Strangelove, but his late-inning turn in Hal Ashby’s Being There deserves a prominent spot among them both. It tells the story of a simple-minded gardener mistaken for a genius when he leaves his long-time employer’s home, a sort of reverse Forrest Gump that finds the wisdom and dark insight into human nature that Zemeckis’s movie lacked. It opened today in 1979.

Moving away from Oscar contenders, we find Frank Oz’s Little Shop of Horrors, based on the off-Broadway musical about a schlubby flower shop employee (Rick Moranis) who seems to find the answer to all his problems in a carnivorous plant from outer space. It attains the properly camp tone quite well, aided by some fantastic songs from the legendary Alan Menken and Howard Ashman and puppet-work from one of the masters of the medium. It opened in 1986, and is as much fun today as it was 30 years ago.

Oh, hey, a Bond film opened today too! Okay, it was Tomorrow Never Dies, a badly dated relic from the less-than-immortal Pierce Brosnan era of 007, but still features a few highlights. Chief among them is Michelle Yeoh knocking it out of the park as a Chinese agent who joins forces with Bond, and Judi Dench’s always agreeable presence as M. The film opened 20 years ago today in 1997.