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 2

We have two movies about the night, and what happens in them on this date. We’ll start with In the Heat of the Night Hollywood’s always-late-to-the-party attempt to discuss the changing face of race relations in America. Though straightforward and by-the-numbers in many ways, Norman Jewison’s murder mystery plot — in which a black Philadelphia detective (Sidney Poitier) is tasked to solve a murder in a small Mississippi town where (as you may have guessed) folks don’t much like his kind — remains darkly compelling, and the long hard road to respect between Poitier’s Virgil Tibbs and Rod Steiger’s local police chief is a treat to watch. In the Heat of the Night opened today in 1967.

18 years later, an entirely different kind of evening befell audiences. There weren’t a whole lot of vampire movies on the landscape in 1985, and those that were generally sucked in ways that had nothing to do with blood. Director Tom Holland came up with a nifty variation on Rear Window in which a teen snoop (William Ragsdale) comes to believe that his new next-door neighbor is a vampire. It had a refreshing vibe that set it apart from other fangers — including a subtle nod to the grievances of the LGBTQ community that helped earn it a slew of fans there — but the real juice came with Chris Sarandon’s menacing-yet-tragic monster and the late, great Roddy McDowell as the host of the local TV creature feature reluctantly tasked with taking him down. Fright Night opened today in 1985, and spawned a quiet renaissance in vampire movies in the ensuing years.