Today in Movie History: March 13

If we’re talking Westerns, the line forms behind John Ford, who not only made John Wayne a star, but set the visual lexicon for the entire genre. And if you want to see Ford at his best, look no further than The Searchers, a masterpiece in a career full of them and still widely considered the greatest Western of all time. Wayne plays a bigoted Civil War veteran who spends long years on the hunt for his niece (Natalie Wood) captured by Indians. Despite the horrendous Native American stereotyping, it has the courage to examine the bigotry of Wayne’s anti-hero, and to suggest that he might not be on the side of the angels after all. The film opened today in 1956.

If you’re looking for lighter fare, try The Love Bug Disney’s ubiquitous live-action comedy about a sentient Volkswagen Beetle, and the zany mayhem that ensues when he joins the racing circuit. It opened in 1969, and earned points back in the day for being partially filmed in my hometown of Riverside, CA.

Finally, we have Evil Dead II,  the sequel to Sam Raimi’s cult hit The Evil Dead. Raimi and his team were reluctant to revisit the first movie and did so only after subsequent projects failed to provide the opportunities they’d hoped for. Faced with what he thought was the end of his career as a director, he went absolutely bananas… and allowed the sequel to outstrip its predecessor for sheer Looney Toons dementia. The film now stands as an incontrovertible horror classic, and Raimi? Yeah, he’s done okay for himself. Evil Dead II opened today in 1987.


Today in Movie History: February 15

Stagecoach is one of those movies whose influence kind of creeps up on you. Not only did it cement a number of Western conventions that later went on to become clichés (Monument Valley settings, cavalry arriving at the last minute, etc.), but it made a star out of John Wayne and turned director John Ford into Hollywood legend. It also featured the innovative stunt work of Yakima Canutt, who practically invented the field. (His spectacular drop beneath a team of moving horses still has to be seen to be believed; it’s on the clip below at about the one-minute mark) Stagecoach first opened on this day in 1939.

On a lighter note, Walt Disney scored a big hit with its catchy adaptation of Cinderella, which premiered today in 1950. Frankly, I don’t count it among Disney’s best, but it help launch their impressive run in the 1950s and remains one of their most beloved films to this day. And who am I to argue with that?

Teenage dramas come and go, and every generation has their favorite. At the risk of sounding immodest, however, I’d say that Generation X owns this turf, thanks in no small part to The Breakfast Club: John Hughes’s tale of one memorable day in Saturday detention and the representatives of high school’s perennial cliques who somehow find a way to understand each other. It opened today in 1985.

Finally, we should quietly mention that today saw the release of one of the most miserable exercises in cinematic excess ever. We’re talking about Tinto Brass’s Caligula: a chance to revel in the grotesqueries of the Roman Empire in the most incompetent and ruthlessly exploitative ways imaginable. Producer Bob Guccione of Penthouse fame was trying to match the legitimacy rival Hugh Hefner found by supporting Polanski’s Macbeth, among other projects. But he lacked the instincts, the temperament and the taste to repeat the trick, and he and Brass fought endlessly during the production. Screenwriter Gore Vidal disowned the whole unseemly mess, while a fistful of slumming actors — including Malcolm McDowell, Helen Mirren, John Gielgud, and Peter O’Toole — wisely kept their heads down and ran for the hills the minute the project was done. It opened today in 1980, and we admonish you to watch it at your own risk.

Today in Movie History: October 28

John Ford is a great filmmaker and yet — in typical Academy fashion — the film of his that won Best Picture was second-tier at best. How Green Was My Valley lack the artistry of his great westerns, content instead to deliver turgid melodrama surrounding the plight of a family of Welsh coal miners. It’s not a bad film in and of itself, but today it’s remembered largely as the movie that beat Citizen Kane for Best Picture… and comparing the two just makes you want to punch the wall in frustration. It opened today in 1941.