Today in Movie History: March 2

You want big movies? They don’t get any bigger than the original King Kong which set a giant stop-motion monkey loose in the jungles of our imagination and hasn’t left since. A pair of “meh” remakes — one helmed by Peter Jackson, no less — aptly demonstrates that some things just can’t be duplicated. It opened at Radio City Music Hall today in 1933.

If giant monsters aren’t your thing, you can always take a trip down Salzburg way for a little sing-along with the von Trapps. The Sound of Music opened today in 1965, on its way to shattering box office records (it was the highest grossing film of all time for five years), winning the Best Picture Oscar and securing a spot in the hearts of anyone who needs some Do-Re-Mi every now and again. Admit it: you’re singing that song in your head right now, aren’t you?

Need more? We got it! How about Norma Rae, Martin Ritts’ ode to the power of organized labor that won Sally Field her first Oscar and opened today in 1979? Or Eyes Without a Face, Georges Franju’s supremely unsettling horror movie about a young woman scarred in an accident and her plastic surgeon father desperately hunting beautiful young women for a replacement face? (It opened in the director’s native France today in 1960). Or The Hunt for Red October, John McTiernan’s crackerjack adaptation of the Tom Clancy novel about a Soviet submarine commander who goes AWOL, featuring grand turns by Sean Connery, Alec Baldwin, Sam Neill and Scott Glenn among others? (It opened today in 1990.) If you can’t find something to love in a list like that, you need to consider another hobby.

 

Today in Movie History: October 18

Musicals don’t come any better than West Side Story, a brilliant re-imagining of William Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet that freed the genre from the opulent event pictures that had dominated it in the 1950s. Robert Wise kept a steady hand on the tiller during a deeply troubled production — co-director Jerome Robbins suffered a breakdown midway through, though his stunning choreography remains intact — and for once, the tsunami of Oscars it collected was richly deserved. It opened today in 1961.

Disney’s animated classic The Jungle Book has suddenly found some stiff competition with the marvelous live-action version released earlier this year, and I confess that the older take earns more on nostalgia than quality of its own. But that doesn’t tarnish is status as one of Disney’s more enduring features — with fantastic voice work and some terrific songs to boot — and it remains the last movie that Walt Disney himself oversaw before his death. It opened today in 1967.

I’m closing these columns with a horror movie whenever possible this month to celebrate Halloween. We’ve got a doozy for today: Re-Animator, Brian Yuzna’s take on the H.P. Lovecraft short story. It was never considered one of the author’s best — even Lovecraft himself derided it as a pulp rip-off of Frankenstein — but in Yuzna’s hands, it became a dementedly unapologetic horror-comedy that gorehounds ate up with a spoon. Much of the credit goes to character actor Jeffrey Combs as the unhinged scientist in the middle of it all. If you liked his work in things like Star Trek and The Frighteners, you owe it to yourself to watch him tear it up here. Re-Animator opened today in 1985.

 

Today in Movie History: September 28

The 1950s were a Golden Age for science fiction, and few films in that era attained the resonance — both as entertainment and as a movie with something to say — that The Day The Earth Stood Still did. Robert Wise’s pitch-perfect fable of a man from outer space with a message we’re just not capable of hearing is definitely a product of its time, but the dated qualities actually add to its assets… and the lessons haven’t been lost to the ages just yet. The Day the Earth Stood Still opened today in 1951.

On a more modern front, I’d be remiss if I didn’t mention Looper, Rian Johnson’s futuristic mind-bender that may stand as one of the best time-travel movies yet made. It was largely ignored at the box office, but if you’re looking for an elegant puzzle to occupy your brain, few science fiction films stand taller. Looper opened today in 2012.

Finally, there’s Ben Stiller’s Zoolander, a film that initially suffered from exquisitely bad timing (it opened a few weeks after 9/11 and inadvertently touched on some very raw wounds) but has since rebounded to become a comedy classic. It opened today in 2001 and forever gave us the gift of Blue Steel.