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: August 21

The top spot today belongs to An American Werewolf in London: John Landis’s groundbreaking horror-comedy that deftly redefined the genre. Aided by Rick Baker’s Oscar-winning make-up effects (and a transformation scene that may never be topped), it routinely dukes it out with the immortal The Wolfman for the greatest werewolf movie ever made. It opened today in 1981, and please people: whatever you do, stay off the moors.

Look, I don’t get Dirty Dancing. I just don’t. I’ve looked at it maybe three times in the course of my life, and while Patrick Swayze can, in fact, lay it down, the rest of the movie just doesn’t speak to me. It does, however, speak to a LOT of people out there, helping to make it a beloved 80s cult classic. I don’t share your love, Dirty Dancing fans, but I will acknowledge and celebrate it. It’s part of what makes the movies so wonderful. Dirty Dancing  opened today in 1987.

Quentin Tarantino has reached the stage where he doesn’t need to cut a single frame of his films if he doesn’t want to. That indulgence has turned his later efforts into bloated curiosities more than effective films, and nowhere is this more apparent than Inglourious Basterds, a fascinating wreck of a film that stretched a 100-minute masterpiece into 153 completely unnecessary minutes. I contains Tarantino’s usual signature of sharp dialog and unforgettable characters — topped by Christoph Waltz’s Oscar-winning turn as a surprisingly conversation Nazi — but they do an awful lot of wandering through an awful lot of dead space before getting to the point. Inglourious Basterds opened today in 2009.

The Coen Brothers have produced their share of shaggy dogs too, but they tend to stick to task better than Tarantino does, and their cleverness is employed for reasons other than reminding us how cool they are. Barton Fink remains one of their better efforts: an examination of the horrors of writer’s block and how creative neurosis crashes hard against the needs of a paying gig. Coen favorites John Turturro and John Goodman headline a cast of favorites, and if nothing else, it demonstrates just how hard the simple act of writing can be sometimes. It opened today in 1991.

We’ll close with Blade, the Wesley-Snipes-kills-vampires outing that turned into a minor hit when it opened despite being no damn good. We included it for the strange and simple reason that it’s the first Marvel character to achieve mainstream success — predating the first X-Men movie by two years — and yet was neither a traditional superhero film nor a figure that anyone could generate a lot of passion for. (The sequels, it must be said, are a marked improvement.) Blade first opened in 1998.

Today in Movie History: June 20

In 1974, Universal Pictures handed the adaptation of a dreadful little potboiler to an untested director with just a couple of films under his belt. The production was plagued by accidents, delays and cost overruns. The script was a mess, the cast cantankerous, and the main selling point depended on special effects that just didn’t work. It looked for all the world like a disaster from the get-go.

And then it hit theaters.

The movie was Jaws, the director was Steven Spielberg, and every summer blockbuster since then — every single one — owes its very existence to it. It opened today in 1975, and we’re betting that the merest mention of its name is enough to make you want to pop it in and watch it all over again. Like right now.

Moving only slightly down the classics scale, we find The Blues Brothers, a jumped-up Saturday Night Live sketch that somehow morphed into one of the funniest movies of all time. Its secret lies in a strange kind of sweetness, carefully hidden beneath smart-aleck snark and heightened by the singular chemistry between stars Dan Aykroyd and John Belushi. If you strip away the irreverence, the cynicism, the spectacular car wrecks and the Illinois Nazis, this is a movie about singing and dancing: giving people who hate musicals a musical they can truly love. All that and Ray Charles too? (And James Brown and Aretha Franklin and Cab Calloway and…) How can you not love this movie? The Blues Brothers opened today in 1980.

Oh and Batman and Robin opened today in 1997. We won’t speak of it further because OH MY GOD.

 

Today in Movie History: June 8

We’ve been getting our 80s on recently, and today is a red letter date for that. We’ll start with the earliest: Trading Places, John Landis’s Wall Street retake on The Prince and the Pauper, remains a doggedly entertaining comedy provided you can accept that its heroes emerge triumphant via insider trading. Buoyed by Dan Aykroyd’s fantastic blue-blood buffoon and Eddie Murphy just hitting his stride as a fast-talking con man, it rides their chemistry all the way to the bank. It doesn’t hurt to have greats like Don Ameche, Ralph Bellamy and Denholm Elliott strutting this stuff, or Jamie Lee Curtis definitively breaking out of her scream queen typecasting as a deliciously self-assured leading lady. Trading Places opened 35 years ago today in 1983.

Just one year later, the #1 and #3 movie at the box office both opened on the same day. We doubt that will ever happen again, but what’s doubly interesting is how well both of them held up. At the top of the list, of course is Ghostbusters, another Dan Aykroyd flick that has justly earned its place as a comedy classic. Beyond the way he provides an 80s update to the old fashioned monster comedies like Abbott and Costello Meet Frankenstein, director Ivan Reitman actually touches on some reasonably scary conceits — almost Lovecraftian at times — and never sacrifices the core of the scenario for the sake of cheap laughs.

That same day, another film in a similar vein opened, slightly closer to the horror end of the scale than the comedy end, but touching some of the same emotions nonetheless. Joe Dante’s Gremlins not only found a dark heart beneath a façade of Normal Rockwell America, but let us buy into the sheer anachronistic glee of watching it all burn down. Its old-school effects hold up quite well, and it even managed a sequel that people think is pretty awesome too.

And here’s the catcher: a third movie opened that same day in 1984, and while it didn’t make nearly as much money as the other two, and it may never escape the shadow of its iconic predecessor Airplane!, Top Secret! may be the best film the trio of David Zucker, Jerry Zucker and Jim Abrahams ever produced. So before we sign off, ask yourself: how do we know he’s not Mel Torme?

 

 

Today in Movie History: July 28

Three big movies today, and I’m choosing to start with Animal House, the seminal frat-house comedy that unleashed a torrent of raunchy imitators, none of which had one-tenth of its iconoclasm, wit or gut-busting ability to make us laugh over and over again. Its credentials are unimpeachable, from director John Landis to writers Harold Ramis and Ivan Reitman to a fantastic ensemble cast topped by a star-making turn from John Belushi. (Also, as a former member of a high school marching band, I’m always filled with subversive glee at the final scene.) It opened today in 1978.

The subtext of On the Waterfront always bothered me a bit. It celebrates a snitch, after all, and the tarnished legacy of director Eli Kazan — who ruined lives when he testified before the House Un-American Activities Committee and never expressed remorse for it — makes that uncomfortable. Divorced from the queasy political subtext, however, it’s brilliant storytelling, topped by Marlon Brando’s justly celebrated (and Oscar-winning) turn in the lead. On the Waterfront was released today in 1954.

We’ll close with Walt Disney’s Alice in Wonderland, one of the (*ahem*) curiouser entries in Uncle Walt’s canon. The animation is second to none and the character design reflect the strengths of Disney at its best. But the source material is just too subversive for a company like The Mouse’s to truly grasp (Disney had a similar problem with Peter Pan), and the film’s willingness to rest on happy nonsense misses what makes Lewis Carroll such an indispensable classic. It opened today in 1951.