Sunday, 28 August 2011

Cool Off With The Classics - A Go See Talk Blogathon

After last month's infectiously fun 'Double Feature' blogathon by Marc of Go See Talk, this month Marc brings yet another marvellous theme, Cool Off With The Classics. Excited to be doing this one! The rules are simple - Top 10 favourite golden oldies. Must be in black and white, and not by choice like Clerks, but due to era. Stick as much as possible to the 30's, 40's and 50's.

Damn good blogathon - if it didn't have to be black and white I'd probably end up with a massive list of things like Blithe Spirit and then go on a tangent waxing lyrical about how awesome Margaret Rutherford is (and about if I ever had the chance to speak to Tony Benn I'd have to ask him if he likes being related to her, etc etc). And if it didn't have to be classic golden age cinema I'd probably get lost wanting to include La Haine and all sorts of things.

Either way, you end up with a big list, and get lost. Still, sticking to only ten is pretty hard, even for someone like me - I'm a novice when it comes to old movies, and you can see that in my favourites. I'd love to write something insightful about the universal power of films like Seventh Seal or 400 Blows, or maybe try to prove that you can gain a deeper meaning from that episode of Buffy where she thinks she might still be in an asylum if you pay attention to the floor throughout The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari. But it's simple films with fun, snappy stories, good dialogue and great actors speaking it that I lean towards... a lot more than I thought I would.

Sticking to one or two lines was also a challenge since I love my digital voice so much... for the sake of those of you who'll be yawning I've split my comments into two parts - a swift summary or what I like, and a total ramble about memories, or facts, or opinion. Step over the ramble if you start to hear birdsong in your head :D

So here's my fluffier than intended, longer than intended, list... in no particular order:

Summary: One of the funniest musings on truth and perception ever made, and beautifully shot.

Total Ramble: Seven Samurai probably ranks equally and I Live In Fear is a hidden gem but for it's sheer personality Rashomon is my favourite.
Rashomon is the product of splicing two of Ryunosuke Akutagawa's marvellously satirical stories together, as well as adding a fourth view of the events at the heart of the story to great comedic impact, which apparently isn't in the books. As wtih Kubrick, one of Akira Kurosawa's skills was knowing how to make the best film possible regardless of loyalty to the source material. What makes the film such a timeless classic is how identifiable the characters were then and still are regardless of historical period, culture, principles or profession. It's no surprise that Rashomon is claimed by many to one of the first if not the first Japanese film to gain huge international attention and bring Japanese Cinema to the attention of the world.

Summary: I love a woman who sweeps in with a brilliant business plan, incorporates pure love into it economically and then flips the bird at her own father.

Total Ramble: I wouldn't call myself a David Lean fan, but I must be because this is one of my favourite films of all time. I have an irrational love of films that prefer radically progressive characters to simple stereotypes. Along with Mae West's She Done Him Wrong, I love Hobson's choice for that

Laughton - always brilliant - gets the most praise, but here he is not better than his supporting cast. De Banzie and Mills don't support him but complement him - their pitch perfect relationship is as delightful as Laughton's crass and sparky Hobson is amusing. And
an adorably yound Prunella Scales plays a sister so any diehard Fawlty Towers fans should give it a look.

3 Sweet Smell of Success (1957)

Summary: Many, if not most, people would claim Citizen Kane as their favourite film out of the small group of unofficial biopics of real and infamous people with questionably flawed personalities and dramatic lives. And with good reason, but for some reason I just prefer the sourness of The Sweet Smell of Success.

Total Ramble:

"I'd hate to take a bite outta you. You're a cookie full of arsenic"

One of the most quotable films of all time, The Sweet Smell Of Success is said to have been a huge flop, a fact that may explain why Burt Lancaster wanted to punch the hell out of the main writer. It's not hard to understand why - at the time some fans of both stars weren't very interested in seeing the beloved leading men playing such horrible people in a horrible world, and it is only one of many excellent noiry films out there. Despite all that, the film is intense in
every sense, and one of my favourites for that reason - beautifully photographed, the syncopation of the soundtrack mirrors the similar movement between scenes, and Lancaster and Tony Curtis, both relishing the uncharacteristically acidic leads, resonate with degrees of cruelty, arrogance and desperation. Lancaster's performance is exquisitely arresting, and Curtis somehow manages to have you caring about him even as you embrace disagreeing with everything he does. Even the flaws only make me love it more.

4 Kind Hearts And Coronets (1949)

Summary: A masterwork comedy of manners and a subversion of it, who can resist all those playful murders and Alec Guinness?

Total Ramble: What needs to be explained about Kind Hearts and Coronets? Brilliant cast. Deep seated working class bitterness against the self indulgent upper class and a 'so obvious it hurts' knowledge of intellectual superiority. Alec Guinness doing a Peter Sellers before Peter Sellers. Revelling in creative murder. That's it. Cast, Classist, Guinness, Funny Murders. A tantalisingly enjoyable film, possibly near perfect. Though I guess that is questionable depending on whether we're talking about the British or American versions with their minor ending changes.

5 Rome, Open City (1945)

Summary: I admire the balls of a film where making it could lead to the same sort of trouble that the characters in the story are afraid of. The very essence of practising what you preach.

Total Ramble: Roberto Rossellini's Rome Open City was instantly hailed as a masterpiece of neorealism of it's time, and for some considered it the flagship of the Italian neorealism movement. Some claim that stylistically and narratively it has become paradoxic that it would be heralded as the emblem of neorealism as a filmmaking choice. Some claim it should have it's status as a classic revoked because it hasn't stood the test of time and remained timelessly relatable.

Personally I don't give a shit about any of that - it is in some ways outside of the typical definition of neorealism as its age defined it, but I think of that as a strength not a flaw, since it is its integrity that separates it from so many other films. I'm a fan not only of the moving story being told but of the filmmaking ethos. Simply put, it was fucking dangerous making this film. The possibility of getting shot if they were found doing certain scenes or arrested possessing certain film stock was still very real. Waiting a few years for a safer time to make this story was not considered an option - relevance demanded immediacy. I get that some people might think it doesn't hold up as a masterpiece without its historical context, I get that some people think it's aged so much it's overwhelmingly boring. I don't agree but I get it. I wouldn't get anyone who couldn't agree that these people had some massive cojones.

6 Witness For The Prosecution (1957)

Summary: All the right elements come together in a fantastic addition to all the other films that faithfully or loosely have their roots in Agatha Christie.

Total Ramble: I'm a fan of Dietrich. I'm a fan of Wilder. I'm a fan of Laughton (see above). I'm even more of a fan of Laughton's wife Elsa (goddamn, wasn't she hot when she was young?) and anytime she's playing
opposite her husband as a harmlessly manipulative woman pretending to not be as on the ball as she really is until they become super friends and tenderly share advice (see also their Henry VIII movie where she steals the whole film in a matter of minutes). Here we have all, in one of the best twist films that contributed to paving the way for twisty films of all kinds. If this wasn't a top ten I could wax lyrical about several other Elsa performances from her homage in Murder By Death, her cuteness in Bell, Book and Candle, but of course her most renowned is The Bride, which no doubt other bloggers will cover better than I can.

7 Metropolis (1927)

Summary: Metropolis incorporated comprehensively so many things that are naturally and logically at the very core of Science Fiction that if you like the genre by proxy you like Metropolis - whether you like it or not. You have to admire that.

Total Ramble: The film that keeps on giving - you could spend a lifetime not just researching and appreciating this film, the context of how it was made, but as a bonus you could happily continue for eons researching why Lang hated his finished film and the connotations of its popularity with the Nazi party, and the
political allegiances that some of the production team were to take, the journey from butchered film to suddenly finding the lost footage, and a variety of criticism for its social statement from the likes of H.G. Wells who apparently wrote plenty on his opinion that it had no one single new idea and that some of its ideas might have been directly lifted from some of his stories.

Regardless, any sci-fi fan of any kind cannot call themselves such unless they have seen this film - it deserves its own Scouts badge as a fundamental education in science fiction film production.

8 Limelight (1952)

Summary: Such a tender, poignant little film, it made a Chaplin fan out of me despite having never paid any attention to anything he'd ever done before.

Total Ramble: An old chestnut opinion is that comedy actors don't have the chops to handle drama. A belief that completely ignores the extent that pathos plays a role in comedy and a masterful use of it is essential in a great performance. There are many examples that pop up to show this, such as Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind. But for me
Limelight will always be the best example that pops in my head. Whether you've seen all his work or none, the elegant beauty of the touching, semi autobiographical (and humbly, respectfully 'there but for the grace of god') story is easy to empathise with, and hard to forget. And the delicate restraint Chaplin employs amplifies the heartbreakingly subtle reflections within. Even if you never see anything else by Chaplin (although I'm a satire obsessive so I'd say you should) this film showcases his thoughtful and compassionate genius.

9 Ace In The Hole (1951)

Summary: I love Satire, even before I knew what it was. I love films that piss loads of people off by saying something that goes just that little bit too far out of the realm of funny for their liking. So Ace In The Hole is a must.

Total Ramble: Like I said, I'm a Wilder fan. Who isn't? I was going to go with The Manchurian Candidate here, but I just can't resist Wilder.

The hook of Ace In The Hole is strong and simple, but within it caustic and aggressive: it's about the poisonous sting of personal greed and self interest of all kinds, a nasty indictment of the media and a genuinely claustrophobic, disquietening film, literally for the guy trapped in a mountain and figuratively regarding our protagonist and every other corrupt jerk in the film. The biting, abrasive confidence of the film touches on numerous things at the time that brought massive criticism to it, with detractors arguing that it fails by putting forward the preposterous claim that journalists would sabotage matters of public safety for their own careers (I'm sure any fellow Brits out there will snigger along with me at that) and disgust at the depiction of public awareness of human interest stories as anything other than wholesome and pure. The film of course gains more and more relevance as the years go on and the media become more and more mental. And the opening is one of my all time favourites.

Last choice. Tough One.

10 You Can't Take It With You (1938)

Summary: It won awards so it's not like it's criminally overlooked, but nowadays it doesn't seem as loved as Capra's Wonderful Life. Personally I prefer this because it's more fun, it comments on things that wouldn't become popular for years (sometimes decades) and it's Barrymore being adorable instead of evil and grumpy.

Total Ramble: No doubt like everyone else, there's loads of other films I'd want to include. Some of them to look less vapid like The Defiant Ones, some to break the rules (that'd be 8½
and Dr. Strangelove :p), some just because they are so adorable, like Harvey, Sullivan's Travels or naturally the Rutherford Miss Marples'. But it has to be You Can't Take It With You because it's probably the first time that I ever saw a golden oldie as a kid and actually twigged 'Wow - people in old movies were interested in stuff that we think about today, and sometimes today think is fresh and new and radical, and they thought that ages ago!'
The impetus for me to watch this film was when my older brother wouldn't stop saying 'It/She Stinks!' over and over again in a Russian accent, in reference to the Russian ballet teacher who comes to the house even though the daughter on pointe is a useless dancer. My brother thought the Russian's constant habit of criticising ballet troupes and ballerinas while stealing food was Fried Gold, and eventually I had to watch to see what the hell he was quoting and cackling about.

Personally I can watch it over and over because of all the other fabulous touches - an open family, anyone can join and anyone can do anything they want, the patriach has a healthy, liberated attitude towards people telling him he must do (must believe he should do even) things the government tells him to just because they tell him. The fascination with photosynthesis as a preferable career to Banking - if they could have written in that black characters are also entirely liberated members of the household instead of working for them it would have been the coolest, brassiest film ever made. Technically you're supposed to care more about the conventional love story of the two youngsters but give me kittens used as paperweights and fireworks shooting out of the basement any day.

So that's my list - that was hard but awesome! Some of those films, I haven't watched or thought about in so many years, rediscovering them feels just as novel and enlightening and unexpected as reading about everyone else's faves will no doubt be! Well done Marc on a brilliant idea and thanks for letting me take part.

P.S. Like some of these but for radically different reasons? Is my opinion not just stale but totally wrong? Have I got my facts wrong? Are some of them your all-time faves too? Or do you prefer entirely different bits and bobs of the golden age?

P.P.S. Would you have loved to take part but think it's too late to ask? Go say hi to Marc at Go See Talk - Cool Off With The Classics


  1. where ya been hels? i thought you were debutting the new site with this post? things still not set?

    nice picks. as you will no doubt see, Rashomon is on my list also. i knew there was a rashomon book but something inside me dismissed it as a novelisation or something similar. perhaps i will have to check them out now.

    im not exactly a 'fan' of chaplin. i never really cared for that style of humour but yeah theres no doubting how important he was.

    i did find your selection of rome, open city over other neorealist pieces to be interesting.

  2. An eclectic mix of some truly remarkable films. As a fan of the Ealing comedies it is great to see Kind Hearts and Coronets make the grade.

  3. Hey Man, sorry for the delay. Actually quite taken aback that I have seen none of these except for Rashamon (which I commend you for finding that fantastically candid cast photo!!) Geeze I've got my work cut out for me to check these all out...and yes its a travesty I haven't seen Metropolis *hangs head in shame*

    Though for as simply awesome as it looks, I'm going to start with Kind Hearts and Coronets. 8 Alec Guniesses?? That's awesome!!!!

  4. I must admit that I saw only one of these movies, but Metropolis has been on my to watch list for a very long time. The length of it has put me off watching it, but I guess I just have to dive in!

  5. Thanks all for the comments, sorry for the crappy lack of response.


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