Today in Movie History: January 19

We start off today with Katharine Hepburn and Spencer Tracy, who appeared in one of their very best collaborations, Woman of the Year on this date in 1942. Director George Stevens knew how to bring their incomparable comic chemistry to life, and though this was only their first movie together, it proved to be the spark that lit the flame. They were a couple for 26 years and made a total of nine films. (The last, Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner, was finished just two weeks before Tracy’s death.)

If forgotten gems are your thing, check out The Pledge, released today in 2001. I’m no fan of Sean Penn for many, many, many reasons, but his stint in the director’s chair here is quite impressive, and elicited a brilliant late-inning performance from Jack Nicholson as a retired cop who vows to catch the killer of a small child.

Onto something a little pulpier. Tremors, the Ron Underwood joint that pitted Kevin Bacon and Fred Ward against giant carnivorous worms in the Nevada desert (and gave Michael Gross a reliable paycheck for decades’ worth of sequels) first burst its way onto screens this day in 1990.

The other notable genre film released today is the 2005 remake of Assault on Precinct 13. While nowhere near the level of the John Carpenter original, it carries its share of grindhouse charms, and earned some visual distinctiveness by moving from Carpenter’s summer in LA to the dead of winter in the bowels of Detroit. Any port in a storm with modern January releases, and this one held its hand out with a resounding “you could do worse.”

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 time 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 50 years ago 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 it’s 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: November 18

Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire (2005)

“I only hope that we don’t lose sight of one thing,” Walt Disney famously said. “That it was all started by a mouse.” His little buddy Mickey got his start in the motion picture business today in 1928 with the release of Steamboat Willie. 87 years later, the little guy shows no signs of slowing down and the company he started pretty much owns pop culture these days.

And his wasn’t the only notable animated film to hit screens today. Don Bluth’s The Land Before Time started a mini-franchise of its own in 1988, providing cute dinosaurs galore for a whole generation of pre-Jurassic Park kids.

On the non-animated front, William Wyler’s Biblical epic Ben-Hur delivered a race for the ages this day in 1959. (Stay in the chariot Chuck; we guarantee you’re gonna win the damn race.)

Exactly ten years earlier, Spencer Tracy and Katharine Hepburn showed everyone how it was in with the release of Adam’s Rib.

More recently, Spike Lee’s incendiary Malcolm X delivered a biopic of the controversial civil rights leader in 1992, featuring perhaps the greatest performance Denzel Washington ever gave .

And if mediocre Star Trek movies are your thing, the Next Generation crew got off to a shaky start with 1994’s Generations. (Don’t worry. They got better.)


















Today in Movie History: January 7

And then came that moment when we found ourselves staring eyeball to eyeball with the Nicolas-Cage-needs-money turd Season of the Witch — released today in 2011 — and said “what the heck, we’ll start the column with it!” We’re not proud, but there it is. (Incidentally, today is also Cage’s birthday. We hope he celebrates by watching one of his many many many better films.) If crappy movies are your thing, today also saw the release of Michael Winner’s ridiculous supernatural thriller The Sentinel in 1977, and Michael Keaton trudging his way through a career low point in White Noise released in 2005.

Better movies? Okay we got one…. and luckily, it’s a doozy. The John Sturges classic Bad Day at Black Rock, released today in 1955, featured a brilliant western/crime thriller story and terrific performances from the likes of Spencer Tracy, Lee Marvin, Ernest Borgnine and Anne Francis.