“Once a song and dance man, always a song and dance man,” James Cagney famously remarked. That could explain why an actor renowned for playing gangsters earned his only Oscar for… well, just read the quote. Yankee Doodle Dandy, a heavily bowdlerized biography of songwriter George M. Cohan, arrived as a bracing bit of Old Glory for a nation that had just entered World War II. In and of itself, it’s not much: just a lot of happy pablum accompanied by the quiet assurance that we’re about to righteously kick some Axis behind. But with Cagney onscreen, you quite simply can’t keep your eyes off of it. Director Michael Curtiz would go on to direct his masterpiece Casablanca just six months later, but this one belongs to his lead: an inspiring performance from one of the most compulsively watchable movie stars in the history of film. Yankee Doodle Dandy opened today in 1942.
There are good movies, there are great movies, and then there are movies that have become an ingrained part of the culture. The greatest movie ever made? You could make the case very easily. The one and only Casablanca went wide today in 1943.
A few years later, Robert Montgomery attempted a strange — and ultimately unsuccessful — cinematic experiment that now sits as an interesting curiosity. The Lady in the Lake, a film noir detective story attempting to show the entire movie from the PI’s point of view, is ultimately far too frustrating a viewing experience to endure, but as an exercise in pushing the boundaries of what the medium can do, it’s invaluable. It opened today in 1947.
We’ll close with The Stepfather, an ordinary thriller in lots of ways, but bolstered by an amazing performance from the great Terry O’Quinn. He helped the film achieve cult classic status, and if you like your grindhouse fare slightly overheated, it’s a tasty treat. It opened today in 1987.
The word “game changer” gets thrown around a lot with flavor-of-the-month movies that tend to fade with time. But the phrase has rarely applied more aptly than it has to Pulp Fiction, which cemented the rise of indie cinema in the 1990s, altered the face of crime drama forever, and permanently put Quentin Tarantino on the map. It’s perfection incarnate, and on top of everything else, it even featured one of the greatest trailers ever produced. It opened today in 1994.
Twenty years earlier, Martin Scorsese made a similar splash with Mean Streets, a far more serious look at crime and the underworld that (among other things) made stars out of Harvey Keitel and Robert De Niro. Both actors found fertile creative ground with the director in subsequent films, but their turn as small-time punks here never ceases to amaze. (Keitel went on to anchor Tarantino’s debut, Reservoir Dogs, and played a prominent role in Pulp Fiction as well. It’s safe to say the man knows talent when he sees it.) Mean Streets opened today in 1973.
After fleeing the Nazis for greener pastures in Hollywood, Fritz Lang struggled to recapture the creative power that made him such a force in the 1920s. He came very close with The Big Heat, an exquisite piece of film noir setting one tough cop (Glenn Ford) against the local underworld. Lang doesn’t shy away from his protagonist’s uglier side (the man has a temper), and with Gloria Grahame stealing the show as a gun moll for the ages, he had the onscreen wattage to create something truly special. The Big Heat opened today in 1953.
As we’ve noted before, it may seem surprising to open a holiday movie like White Christmas in October, but back in the day, movies stuck around for a long time, and Michael Curtiz’s fluffy adaptation of the Irving Berlin songbook did just that. With Bing Crosby, Danny Kaye and Rosemary Clooney playing a trio of entertainers books in a Vermont Inn over the holidays, it eschews anything pressing or scary in favor lots of pretty music. It opened today in 1954.
We’ll close with another horror movie: Wes Craven’s New Nightmare, which marked the celebrated director’s return to the Nightmare on Elm Street franchise that he started. Craven was never shy about his ambiguity towards Freddy Krueger, a character he created as the ultimate monster only to watch morph into some kind of demented theme-park mascot. New Nightmare was a surprising sophisticated effort to grapple with that legacy, as well as a more thoughtful take on horror movies than the smug Scream franchises which he launched just a few years later. New Nightmare opened today in 1994.
Review by Robert T. Trate
Starring: Lili Berky, Victor Varconi, Mari Jászai
Directed by: Michael Curtiz
Running time: 66 minutes
Year of release: 1914
For those of us that truly love film, we often look back at our favorite directors. This is usually done because it is easier to dive into a director’s filmography instead of patiently waiting for what they will release next. In the case of Kertész Mihály, better known to the world as Michael Curtiz, the director of Casablanca and White Christmas, to name just two, he is no longer with us. Thus meaning, all we can do is look back. Until recently, all of Curtiz’s films have either been released or considered lost for all time.
Enter into the world, The Undesirable (aka A Tolonc), his recently discovered tenth film, silent, and from his native Hungry. The film had been discovered in the Hungarian House cultural center in New York and restored by the Hungarian Filmlab. As fan of Curtiz, I saw this as a chance to witness Steven Spielberg’s Duel for the first time, only now I would be one of the few people on Earth that would actually know it was found and restored. A chance too good to pass up.
The film is based on an 1880 Hungarian play that is broken into four acts. The act breaks still carry over from the play into the silent film cards that help narrate the film The Undesirable. Yet, unlike the works of Charlie Chaplin, who supplied comedy and heart to his moving pictures, Curtiz brings to the screen a dark story about a woman trying to find her place in the world.
The Undesirable, which is really an odd title and may be too literally translated, is the tale of Betty (Lili Berky), who on her father’s death bed discovers her life is a lie. Her father turns out to be her Uncle who raised Betty after her mother, Sarah (Mari Jászai), killed her father in a fit of jealously. With nowhere to turn now, Betty heads out into the world to find a job and make her way. She comes under the employment of the Kontra family and works in the house as their maid. They have a son named Nick (Victor Varconi), who falls for Betty and all it all looks like it will work out until the family jewels go missing. Betty is blamed, Nick doesn’t stand up for her, and she is forced to serve out her sentence in her home town.
As this was originally a play, all our characters meet one another at some point and only the audience knows that the homeless old fortune teller is Betty’s mother, Nick needs to find his manhood to win Betty, and the old vagabond is the key to a happy ending. The story plays out as it should with pit falls and near misses at both revelations and redemptions. However, it is when Betty learns that Sarah is her mother that the films takes a dark turn. A turn that is so simple and oddly strange all because of where cinema was at that time. Moving pictures were to entertain and delight people with their science of capturing an image on screen. Here, we get a tragic tale of a woman that is simply trying to find her happiness in the world. The effect of that moment with her mother, on Betty, was incredibly profound and not what I expected at all. Clearly, Curtiz had the gift all the way back in 1914 as a master storyteller.
The frills on this Blu-ray are nonexistent. Sadly, there are no film historian commentaries, documentaries about the film’s place in history, or even its restoration. Upon seeing The Undesirable, you will realize that the film itself is the greatest frill to your Michael Curtiz collection.