Today in Movie History: November 21

Hollywood loves its monsters and we’ve seen our share of great ones over the years. At the end of the day, however, they all fall in line behind one indisputable champion. The one and only Frankenstein opened today in 1931.

I doubt the Hunger Games will expand beyond the three books and four films that have already been made. The universe doesn’t seem right for development they way Star Wars and the Potterverse have. And yet that’s not a criticism, for the saga remained as strong and pertinent as either of those larger universe. The brilliant first half of the second chapter — Mockingjy, Part 1 — opened today in 2014.

Kevin Costner spent a lot of years wandering in the wilderness: he drank the Kool-Aid, and it was tough to watch that fall from grade. But his directorial triumph Dances with Wolves remains a powerful and affecting motion picture regardless of the ego behind it. I’d still give the Best Picture Oscar to Goodfellas that year,  but I’m not inclined to complain about this one walking off with the top prize. It opened today in 1990.

Speaking of Best Picture winners, The Best Years of Our Lives stands as one of those efforts that felt quite profound at the time, but gradually lost its luster as the years rolled by. It was quite cathartic for its era, however: an examination of the cost of victory in World War II and a please for understanding about the men and women who paid it. It opened today in 1946.

The new Westworld TV show has been making waves. (My wife and I are riveted, and if you haven’t seen it yet, it’s well worth a few hours of your time.) One of the best things about it is its subtle, sly references to the original film — written and directed by Michael Crichton as a kind of protean variation on his later triumph Jurassic Park — which is worth a look if you’d like a little trip down memory lane. The scenario is overly familiar (kudos to the TV show for finding a number of other different ways to explore it), but loads of fun thanks largely to Yul Brynner’s implacable robot gunslinger (which itself predated another sci-fi masterpiece: Arnold Schwarzenegger’s performance in The Terminator). Westworld opened today in 1973.

We’ve going to close with Elvis, because we all need a little Elvis these days. Girls! Girls! Girls! is typical fluff, featuring the King as a Hawaiian fisherman trying to earn back his father’s boat, and a typical good girl/bad girl love triangle for him to resolve. It doesn’t quite rank with his best, but the Hawaiian setting is a natural fit and some of the songs — including the great  “Return to Sender” — are quite the toe-tappers. The film opened today in 1962.


Today in Movie History: October 5

You’d think they’d release a movie like The Ten Commandments closer to Passover, when it might be more pertinent. But back in the 1950s, release dates worked differently, and films often had months or even years to play in theaters before moving on (and frankly, with the exception of network television, there was nowhere else to move on to). Hence, Cecil B. DeMille’s grand epic opened in the fall, on its way to making the not-at-all-Jewish Charlton Heston the go-to cinematic Moses for all time, and finding the ideal story for the directors dedication to sheer visual scale. I confess that I prefer The Prince of Egypt for humanizing the story, but it’s hard to argue with the powerful punches this one packs in abundance. The Ten Commandments opened today in 1956.

Walt Disney prepared for his classic Snow White by testing techniques in various shorter films, and though animated features became a going concern afterwards, he and his team never abandoned the shorter format. This sometimes led to the release of anthology films, which packaged several shorter stories into a single feature. Among the best of them is The Adventures of Ichabod and Mr. Toad, presenting Disney versions of both The Legend of Sleepy Hollow and The Wind in the Willows for the public’s approval. Neither is perfect, but both have their share of exquisite moments, topped by a terrifying version of Ichabod Crane’s encounter with the Headless Horseman. It opened today in 1949.

Normally, a film like Breakfast at Tiffany’s would be much higher on this list. It’s a perfect film in many ways, aided by an irresistible performance from Audrey Hepburn at the top of her game. Unfortunately, it also contains Mr. Yunoshi (Mickey Rooney), and while we don’t blame the Mickster for an act of systemic racism, his horrific caricature of a character is too ugly to ignore. Not cool guys. Seriously. Breakfast at Tiffany’s opened today in 1961.

We’ll close with Nosferatu the Vampyre, Werner Herzog’s haunting remake of the silent horror classic. Though it can’t match the Murnau original, it still finds some potent, chilling material, with a sense of growing decay and an apocalyptic doom that only Herzog could deliver. And of course, there’s Klaus Kinski’s turn as the vampire: casting so perfect it’s downright creepy. Nosferatu the Vampyre opened today in 1979.