Monday, May 31, 2010

The Best Years of Our Lives: Honor Them

Happy Memorial Day, everyone!  I hope you are having a good day off.  Did you get to watch any of the marathon on TCM this weekend?  If so, you might have caught one of my favorite war dramas, the one I'm going to talk about today - "The Best Years of Our Lives."

From 1946, it's the story of three GIs, one family man, one poor man, and one boy next door, as they return home from war.  It's all about how war has effected them, changed them, and the people and loved ones they left behind.  It stars Fedric March as the family man and the wonderful Myrna Loy as his wife, Teresa Wright as their daughter, Dana Andrews as the poor one, Virginia Mayo as the new wife he left behind, and Harold Russell as the boy next door who returns with no hands.

Harold Russell is the greatest story about this movie I think.  A real disabled WWII veteran and not an actor, director William Wyler discovered Russell while watching a training film called "Diary of a Sergeant" about rehabilitating war veterans.  Russell had been training paratroopers at a camp in the US when some TNT accidently went off in his hands, causing him to lose both of them.  They were replaced by hooks.  He became so good at using his hooks, though, he joked he could pick up anything but the dinner check.  When Wyler saw Russell in the training film, he decided to change the character of Homer from a war trauma victim to a double amputee.  Russell did such a good job that he was nominated for an Oscar for Best Supporting Actor.  However, the Academy's Board of Governors thought he would be a long-shot to win, and they wanted to honor him anyway, so they created a special award for him "for bringing hope and courage to his fellow veterans through his appearance."  When he won for Best Supporting Actor that night, not only was everyone there exuberantly happy for him, but he became the only person in Academy Award history to receive two Oscars for the same performance.

This was the first film William Wyler made after WWII.  He had been a major in the Army Air Force during the war, shooting footage for training films and documentaries.  When he got the job to direct "The Best Years of Our Lives," he wanted to make it as realistic as possible, to honor all the veterans he had met.  He made the cast buy their own clothes off the rack and wear them around before filming so that it had that natural lived-in feel.  He had all the sets built life-size (sets were usually built a little bit larger than normal because of the size of the camera).  He even hired only WWII veterans for his film crew (that's props, grips, set builders, lighting, everything) so that every part had a realistic touch to it.

Wyler's dedication to this project paid off.  "Best Years" became a huge success, both critically and commercially.  When it was released, it became the largest box office success since "Gone with the Wind" seven years before.  It is still ranked as the sixth most successful film in UK history (from the UK's Ultimate Film list, which is based on number of tickets sold and not price).  As for Oscars, it won six more to add to Russell's, including Best Director and the ultimate Best Picture.  It also became the first film to win the BAFTA Award for Best Film after the event was established in 1948.  Its acclaim still even reaches to today, ranking #37 on AFI's 100 Years...100 Movies list (both editions).  And it got the great honor to be one of the first films to be chosen to go into the Library of Congress' National Film Registry when it was created in 1989.

I think it's pretty obvious why I love this film.  Not only is it a great movie, but, as I've mentioned before, I am a romantic.  And sad (and maybe a little twisted) as it might be, there is nothing more romantic than WWII dramas to me.  I do not condone war in the slightest, but there is something noble and raw in any story based during that time.  It's war, which brings out human nature at its truest, at its purist.  And I feel "The Best Years of Our Lives" hits those human elements right on the nose.  I guess that's the true meaning of "a romantic," someone who longs for pure human emotion.

So, if you get a chance on your day off, go out and rent "The Best Years of Our Lives" (or click here).  Honor those men and women who gave their lives, their sanity, their humanity for our country.  Whether you believe in what they were fighting for or not, they still deserve our respect.  Have a wonderful rest of your holiday!  Be back Friday.

(Post-tidbit:  Producer Samuel Goldwin ended up sending Harold Russell to acting classes without William Wyler's knowledge.  When Wyler found out, he was furious because it was Russell's untrained acting style he wanted.)

Friday, May 28, 2010

For the Weekend: Memorial Drama

It's Memorial Day weekend, as I'm sure you are all aware, and that means trips, barbecues, fun in the sun.  But it also means, as most guys already know too, war movies.  TCM is having a 72-hour war movie marathon, starting today and going through Sunday, so I've picked out a few for you not to miss.

At 8pm EST tonight is "Stalag 17," Billy Wilder's dramedy from 1953 about a group of war prisoners in Nazi Germany.  It stars William Holden (in his Oscar winning role) as Sgt. Sefton, a prisioner who has no problem trading with the Germans for a few luxuries.  But when two inmates die in a trap while trying to escape, everything thinks Sefton is spying on the inmates for the Germans.  It's a great thriller as Sefton must find the real spy before it's too late.  The screenplay was actually based on a stage play of the same name, by Donald Bevan and Edmund Trzcinski (who where both prisoners of war together).  Holden was asked to go see the play before filming, but he disliked it and walked out.  He even disliked the screenplay, refusing the lead role.  However, the studio made him take it.  He wasn't the original favorite for the part though.  In the beginning, Charlton Heston was the inspiration for the role.  But as the character grew more cynical in rewrites, Holden was more the type.  Holden hated how selfish his character was though, and begged Wilder to rewrite it some.  Wilder refused, and Holden won an Oscar.  (Stick around after "Stalag 17" for two more great prisoner camp films - "The Great Escape" and "Bridge on the River Kwai.")

Sunday at 12pm EST is "The Dirty Dozen" from 1967 starring Lee Marvin, Ernest Borgnine, Charles Bronson, Jim Brown, and Telly Savalas.  In this WWII story, Marvin stars as Major Reisman, a rebellious soldier who is given the secret task of taking a group of criminals with death sentences or long life sentences on a suicide mission behind enemy lines, to distract the Germans while D-Day happens on the coast.  It's based on the novel by E.M. Nathanson and directed by Robert Aldrich.  Aldrich had tried to acquire the rights to the book himself when it was only in outline form back in 1963, but MGM finally won the rights.  Originally John Wayne was offered the lead role of Major Reisman, but he declined, instead taking his time to make "The Green Berets" (on at 5:30pm EST).  Marvin accepted the role, and though he enjoyed making the film, he didn't like the way it depicted war.  By his own experience (he served in the Marines during WWII), he said it was not an accurate portrayal of real wartime, calling it "crap."  "The Dirty Dozen" still went on to earn four Oscar nominations, winning one of them (Best Sound Effects).

Finally, later on Sunday at 8pm EST is "Mister Roberts."  From 1955, it stars Henry Fonda as the titular character, James Cagney, William Powell, and Jack Lemmon.  This comedy-drama tells the story of Roberts, a Navy Lieutenant who longs to be part of the action in the Pacific during WWII but is stuck on a cargo ship instead thanks to his tyrant of a captain (Cagney).  Directed by John Ford and Mervyn LeRoy, it received three Oscar nominations, including Best Picture.  Jack Lemmon was the only win though, for Best Supporting Actor.  "Mister Roberts" was based on the stage play of the same name, for which Fonda had originated the role and won a Tony for it in 1948.  Even though Fonda had played Roberts for two years on Broadway, he was not the first choice to play the role on film.  The studio felt that Fonda, who was 50 at the time, was too old to play the part.  They offered the role to Marlon Brando and Tyrone Power, but Ford refused to do the film with anyone but Fonda.  Ironically, it was that decision that ultimately caused Ford to leave the production.  Even though Ford and Fonda had made several successful films together before, they did not see eye to eye at all on "Roberts."  Ford even sucker-punched Fonda one time.  Finally, Ford left and LeRoy came in.

Each one of these films will get you in the wartime mood, in good ways.  So sit back, and remember the war stories of the past (and keep today's soldiers in your thoughts as well.)  I hope you all have a wonderful long weekend.  Enjoy the marathon, guys!  Be back Monday.

(Post-tidbit:  "Stalag 17" was shot in sequence, scene to scene, a very rare process in Hollywood.)

Monday, May 24, 2010

Scaramouche: The Wonderful Stewart Granger

O. M. G!  How great was the series finale of "Lost" last night?!  I laughed, I cried...I thought it was a nice ending, even if things still weren't answered.  When Jack finally...  Oh right, wrong topic.  Haha!  Ah well, on to life without that show.  So how about for today, a movie that also has lots of secrets, adventure, an ultimate duel, and most importantly, love - "Scaramouche."

This 1952 swashbuckler romance stars the yummy Stewart Granger, as well as Eleanor Parker, Janet Leigh and Mel Ferrer.  The story takes place during the French Revolution.  Granger plays Andre Moreau, a gentleman who falls in love with a young lady (Leigh) whom he meets along the road one day.  However, the Queen has insisted she marry the Marquis de Maynes (Ferrer), and when the Marquis kills Andre's best friend, Andre vows revenge.  He hides out with a traveling group of actors (that includes Parker) as he learns to become a master swordsman, plotting his revenge and pining over the love that cannot be.

As I mentioned earlier this year when I talked about "Young Bess," I love Stewart Granger!  Such a huge crush on him as a kid and still swoon over his films to this day.  And "Scaramouche" is definitely one of his best.  He plays a romantic, smooth-talking, cheeky guy, truly British in every way.  (I think he might be the reason I love all things British.)  How can anyone not love to listen to him talk too?  His voice...mmmmm, especially with the accent.  And, AND you get to see him in tights!  Perfect!

When Granger came to Hollywood in 1949, he was already a star in the UK.  He came out to make "King Solomon's Mines" when the film's other star Deborah Kerr referred him to MGM for the lead role.  "Mines" was a huge success, and solidified him as a star in America too.  Dorothy Kilgallen of the New York Journal said of Granger's appeal, "I have never seen anything like the way ladies with high boiling points and high intelligence are falling to pieces over Mr. Granger...He's divine...makes me sick to my stomach...I've dreamed about him every night for six weeks."  The success of "Mines" also prompted MGM to sign Granger to a seven-year contract.  After much negotiation (Granger wasn't so sure about being tied to the studio for that long, but he had some major debt in the UK that needed to paid off), he finally signed.  But, as one of his contract stipulations, he was given the lead to "Scaramouche."

Granger had heard that MGM was planning to remake the 1923 version of "Scaramouche" as a musical for Gene Kelly.  As a kid, that film had been one of his favorites, starring one of his heroes Ramon Novarro, so he jumped at the chance to put the remake in his contract.  He would star, but it would not be a musical.  It would be a thrilling swashbuckling romance to excite new fans, just like the older version did.  However, when producer Cary Wilson came on board trying to make it a comedy without the Revolution part of the story, Granger backed out of the production.  When he needed a loan from MGM to buy a house for his new bride Jean Simmons, though, he agreed to stick with the film.

Directed by George Sidney, the film had many accidents from the start.  Granger almost sliced open a stuntman's eye; Granger himself almost got his eye sliced open as well later.  Two of the biggest accidents, though, were during fight scenes between Ferrer and Granger.  Granger, having taken fencing lessons and being better at it than his double, did most of his own stunts.  One shot involved a giant iron chandelier being cut down, about to crush Granger, but stopping right above his face.  Sidney wanted to get the shot in one take, before the rigging had even been tested.  He insisted that it was safe, that Granger had nothing to worry about.  The stunt rigger was the best in the business.  Granger refused, demanding a test.  So, the rigger dropped the chandelier.  The safety rope snapped instantly and the chandelier went crashing into the floor. 

The other big accident occurred during the grand finale fencing duel.  The longest uncut fencing duel ever filmed (six and a half minutes long) takes place all over a huge theater, from the balcony to the stage.  There were balcony falls and such but the biggest accident occurred when Granger chased Ferrer over the backs of the theater seats.  The set designer had used modern fold-up seats for the audience, so there was a small gab between the back and the seat.  Granger had been warned about it, but with the adrenaline pumping during the actual shoot, he slipped.  His knee twisted, popped off the hinged seat, and his back crashed hard to the floor, hurting even more his already-sore shoulder from a balcony fall earlier.  As he lay semi-conscious, scraped up and in pain, thinking he was dead, Sidney uttered, "What the hell are we going to do?  The film's only half finished."  Only in Hollywood.  Luckily all that pain was not for nothing.  The film was a huge success, another American victory for Granger.

So, if you're in the mood for a good old-fashioned swashbuckler that is true Hollywood fun through and through (as well as a gorgeous leading man, teehee), check out "Scaramouche."  You're sure to enjoy it.  'Til Friday.

(Post-tidbit:  "Scaramouche" is evidently Senator John Kerry's favorite film.  He even named his yacht after the title.)

Friday, May 21, 2010

For the Weekend: If You're Lost Between Lost

Almost time for another weekend.  And if you're like me, this weekend is going to be all about one thing - the series finale of "Lost."  But since that only encompasses about 10 hours of the weekend (give or take a few), I've found some nice movies to occupy the rest of the hours.

First up is "The Natural" from 1984, starring Robert Redford, Glenn Close, Kim Basinger, Wilford Brimley, and Barbara Hershey.  Based on the 1952 novel by Bernard Malamud, it tells the story of a middle-aged baseball player Roy Hobbs (Redford) who gets a second chance at glory.  This great baseball film (considered by many to by one of the greatest sports films ever made) was actually influenced by Homer and the Greek myths, as well as the Arthurian story of Sir Percival.  Hobbs is Odysseus (trying to find his way home), and Pop Fisher (Brimley) is Zeus and The Fisher King (from Sir Percival's story).  Even Close's character, Iris Gaines, resembles Penelope, Odysseus' wife, his true love whom he hadn't seen for 20 years as he was on his journey.  Hobbs, however, was also heavily influenced by real-life baseball players.  Boston Red Sox great Ted Williams had a single career goal, to have people say "There goes the greatest hitter who ever lived."  This is the same sentiment of Hobbs.  Redford even copied Williams' swing for the film.  Roger Angell of the New Yorker said Redford did such a good job playing authentically, "you want to sign him up."  You can catch "The Natural" on TCM Saturday at 1:45pm EST.

Next up is a rare gem - Lucille Ball in a western.  RKO's "Valley of the Sun" from 1942 stars Ball, James Craig, and Sir Cedric Hardwicke. Directed by George Marshall, it is about a government spy who goes after a crooked Indian agent in late-1800s Arizona.  RKO was in desperate times in 1942 mainly because of the lack of success from Orson Welles' "Citizen Kane" (1941) and "The Magnificent Ambersons" (1942).  Under new management, the studio polled the public about Ball's popularity.  She was an expensive star for them, making $3500 a week, and she only polled well in one area, the youth.  So, knowing that westerns did well with younger audiences and RKO had once been very profitable with westerns (RKO's only Best Picture winner was the western "Cimarron" (1931)), the studio decided to put Ball in a western.  However, it did not go over as well as they thought.  The studio marketed the film as being as grand an epic as "Cimarron" but the film never reached that epic stance.  And the critics said Ball and Craig didn't have the star pull to carry such a film.  However, some good things came from this, like Ball's respect for Marshall, leading to them working together again with the western comedy "Fancy Pants" (1950) along with Bob Hope.  "Valley of the Sun" is on TCM this Sunday at 5am EST.

Final treat of the weekend?  "Double Wedding" from 1937, starring William Powell and Myrna Loy, the seventh of fourteen films the two made together.  This screwball comedy finds Loy, a dressmaker, trying to protect her younger sister from marrying a freelance artist, Powell.  Only, in the process, Powell falls for Loy instead.  Sadly during filming of "Double Wedding," Powell's fiancé Jean Harlow suddenly died of uremic poisoning at the age of 26.  Not only was Powell obviously devastated, but so was Loy, for Harlow and Loy were very good friends.  At Powell's request, the production was shut down for several weeks as he grieved.  They finished the film, but Loy said in her autobiography that it was one of the hardest jobs in her life and she hated it.  The film was still a huge success for MGM though, solidifying the star power of the acting duo, and exemplifying the talent of the two professionals.  Check it out this Sunday on TCM at 8:15am EST.

So, if you need some filler this weekend between "Lost" specials, recaps, the pilot and finale, be sure to check out these lovely films.  They are each a delight that is far from the confusion of "Lost," giving your brain a much-needed break.  Have a wonderful weekend, and I'll be back Monday (the post-Lost world).

Monday, May 17, 2010

The Empire Strikes Back: Happy Anniversary!

This is it!  This is the day I finally talk about my favorite Star Wars movie.  (You all knew it was coming.  Come on, admit it.)  And why did I finally choose today, of all days?  Because this upcoming Friday is the 30th anniversary of it's release.  That's right.  On May 21, 1980, the world was finally allowed to see the greatest of the Star Wars films - "The Empire Strikes Back."

"The Empire Strikes Back" stars, as you probably all know already, Mark Hamill, Carrie Fisher, and Harrison Ford, all reprising their roles from the first "Star Wars" film.  We pick up with the band of rebels as they continue their fight against the evil Empire.  Only thing is this time, things don't go quite as well as before.  Alec Guinness also returns for this sequel, as well as James Earl Jones as the voice of Darth Vader.  And we get the new (and wonderfully funny) addition of two characters, Lando Calrissian (Billy Dee Williams) and Yoda (voiced and puppeteer-ed by the great Frank Oz).

"Empire" was the first sequel to "Star Wars." ("Star Wars Episode IV - A New Hope" is the official new title for that, but I refuse to say that.  It's true and correct title will always be simply "Star Wars.")  "Star Wars" had been such a sleeper hit that no one thought George Lucas could match the first.  Because of the huge success of "Star Wars" though, Lucas was able to finance "Empire" all by himself, through profits from the first film and loans.  That way he would have completely control over the production.

For "Empire Strike Back," Lucas decided to hire a director and screenwriters, instead of doing it all himself this time.  (Something he should have done for the prequels too, but they don't exist for this discussion, so we'll overlook that for now.)  For director, he hired his old USC professor Irvin Kershner.  Originally, Kershner said no, thinking there was no way the sequel could match the original in quality.  However, after he told his agent about this, his agent insisted he take the job.  For screenwriters, Lucas first hired Leigh Brackett to write the script.  She completed her first draft in February 1978, but sadly died of cancer the next month.  Lucas then hired Lawrence Kasdan, whom Lucas liked from his draft of "Raiders of the Lost Ark," to finish the script.

Lucas used his time to focus mainly on the finances and the special effects with his growing company Industrial Light & Magic (ILM).  He wanted to make sure the effects surpassed those of "Star Wars" so he insisted on a battle scene on Hoth, stating that with a white background (versus the black background of space), it would be more difficult to hide mistakes.  Thus, the stop-motion animation of the AT-ATs was created, using painted backgrounds instead of bluescreens, and imitation of elephants to get the walk more realistic.  Lucas also wanted to put the credits at the end of the film again, so it wouldn't take away from the opening action.  Unlike its wide use today, this was a huge no-no in the eyes of the Writer's Guild and Director's Guild back then.  They had agreed to Lucas' request to put the credits at the end of "Star Wars" only because they thought it would be a flop.  However, the guilds fined Lucas this time, and director Kershner.  So Lucas paid all the fines out of his own pocket, including Kershner's, then cancelled his membership in both guilds and the Motion Picture Association.

Principle photography for "Empire" took place in England and Norway (for the Hoth scenes).  While in Norway, one of the worst blizzards in fifty years hit the town of Finse, where the production was staying.  Unable to leave the hotel, Kershner decided he could still take advantage of the weather conditions.  So, he pushed Mark Hamill out into the cold by himself as the crew stayed warm inside and shot the scene of Luke running away from the Wampa cave.  Hamill had a bad car accident between "Star Wars" and "Empire," which caused some damage to his face.  Contrary to popular belief, though, the Wampa sequence was not created to explain his scars. It had always been part of the original script, but Lucas did say that it did help with a satisfactory explanation.

While filming in England, Carrie Fisher rented Eric Idle's house.  (The Python boys were off shooting "Life of Brian" at the time.)  However, while he was there, Idle did through a party, attended by Harrison Ford as well.  They had such a good time drinking an alcohol Idle called "Tunisian table cleaner" into the middle of the night that during the next day's shooting scenes (their arrival at Cloud City), they could not help looking relaxed and happy.  And Idle evidently was very pleased to hear he had a little impact on "Empire."

**SPOILER ALERT for next paragraph only**

Now, one of the reasons Han Solo was frozen in carbonite was the fact that Lucas wasn't sure if Harrison Ford would return for "Return of the Jedi."  Even though Lucas assured him that his character still had a heroic part to play in final film, Ford could only see his character as intricate to "Star Wars."  He, therefore, was the only one of the three leads to not sign a contract for three films at the beginning.  Luckily, he did come back (even if his "heroic" part is a bit weak in "Jedi").  Another interesting turn about the filming of "Empire" was that Lucas kept hearing rumors of leaks to the story.  So determined to keep the final big surprise of the film a secret, Lucas gave David Prowse, the actor who played the physical presence of Vader, false lines for the scene, saying "Obi-Wan killed your father" instead.  Only Hamill, Kershner, Lucas and Kasdan knew the truth while filming that scene.  Only one other person would learn the truth before the film was released - James Earl Jones.  However, his initial reaction was "He's lying."

**END of Spoiler Alert**

I could talk about "The Empire Strikes Back" forever.  Not only is it truly one of my all-time favorite films (I'm a sci-fi nerd, what can I say).  But I also love learning about the making of the "Star Wars" films because it took place during a time in Hollywood that will never come again.  Nothing like "Star Wars" had ever happened before, so even the sequels were a first-time, learn-as-you-go experience.  Everyone was new to creating this kind of mega-pop culture phenomenon.  To have been a fly on those walls, what an experience to remember for the rest of your life.  These are the things about movie history that really make me love this business.  So, get out those VHS tapes or DVDs, jump back to a time long gone, and rewatch "The Empire Strikes Back."  Have a wonderful week, everyone.  See you Friday.

(Post-tidbit: "Family Guy" will finally be airing their parody of "Empire" this Sunday (5/23).  It's called "Something, Something, Something Dark Side" and is the long-awaited follow-up to their "Star Wars" parody "Blue Harvest."  Even though it was already released on DVD last December, this will be the first airing of it on television, just in time for the anniversary.)

Friday, May 14, 2010

For the Weekend: Hulu's a Lulu

I love Hulu!  It's such a great website.  I don't know how I'd live without it.  (I'd actually have to get cable again.)  And it's been awhile since I've mentioned any of the many films you can watch for free on Hulu, so I thought I'd pick a few greats out for you this weekend.

First up, from 1964 - "Dr. Strangelove or: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb," Stanley Kubrick's classic dark comedy about nuclear war.  Starring Peter Sellers (in three roles), this is one of the great films of the 60s, and of cinema.  America was in the middle of such a crisis at the time, that the country just needed to laugh about it.  However, the first scheduled screening of the film was November 22, 1963, the day Kennedy was shot.  So, knowing the country couldn't laugh about itself right then, the premiere was pushed to late January 1964.  The studio only agreed to make this film because of Sellers.  They believed that Sellers was the only reason Kubrick's "Lolita" (1962) was such a success.  Sellers was paid $1 million for "Strangelove," which was 55% of the film's budget.  Kubrick even moved the production to England instead of Los Angeles, because Sellers could not leave England due to his pending divorce.  Click here to watch this classic film.

Next is "Chaplin" from 1992.  Robert Downey Jr. stars as Charlie Chaplin, the famous comedian of the beginning years of Hollywood.  If you like classic Hollywood and all the stories that go with it, you'll love this film.  It has a great cast along with Downey portraying all the real characters of his life, including Anthony Hopkins, Dan Aykroyd, Marisa Tomei, Diane Lane, Kevin Kline, Moira Kelly, and Milla Jovovich.  The cast even includes Geraldine Chapin, Charlie Chaplin's real daughter, playing her own grandmother.  Directed by the great Richard Attenborough, he shot over 200 hours of film, causing the first cut of the movie to be over four hours long.  He managed to dwindle it down to 147 minutes, but the studio still felt that was too long and cut an additional 12 minutes from the film - 12 minutes that Attenborough said hurt the movie a lot.  I still remembering loving this movie though, and as a kid adoring the soundtrack.  I used to listen to it over and over, including the version of "Smile" sung by Robert Downey Jr himself.  So if you feel like watching Downey before he became Iron Man, click here.

My final selection for you - "Jerry Maguire" from 1996, Cameron Crowe's film that brought us the lines "Show me the money" and "You had me at hello."  It stars Tom Cruise, Cuba Gooding Jr in his Oscar winning role, and Renee Zellweger.  Crowe originally wrote the parts of Jerry and Dorothy (Cruise and Zellweger's roles) for Tom Hanks and Winona Ryder.  Hanks couldn't do the part though because he was working on "That Thing You Do" at the time.  And after Cruise was cast, Ryder did some screen tests him.  Unfortunately, Ryder and Cruise looked more like brother and sister standing next to each other, so Crowe searched for a new Dorothy.  Every starlet in Hollywood was considered for the role, from Cameron Diaz to Janeane Garofalo to Courtney Love.  Crowe, being a huge fan of Billy Wilder and "The Apartment" (good taste, I must say), used Shirley MacLaine from "Apartment" as a role model for the type of woman he was looking for.  Finally he found Zellweger, and a new star was born.  Click here to watch this 90s favorite.

See, isn't Hulu great?!  So for the weekend, get out your computers, and enjoy some great films online.  Have a wonderful weekend, everyone!  Be back Monday.

(Post-tidbit: "Chaplin" was released on the 15th anniversary of Charlie Chaplin's death.)

Monday, May 10, 2010

Robin Hood: Golly, What a Day

Sorry for the late post today, everyone.  Those pesky day jobs, always getting in the way of what you really want to do.  Oh well, to the subject at hand.  This up-coming Friday a new version of the Robin Hood story comes out, directed by Ridley Scott and starring Russell Crowe and Cate Blanchett.  So, since that is one of my favorite classic stories, I thought I'd write about one of my favorite movie versions of it (and I believe my brother's too), Disney's "Robin Hood" from 1973.

Disney's 21st animated feature follows the adventures of Robin Hood and Little John as they steal from the rich (including Prince John) and give to the poor, as well as Hood's romance with Maid Marian.  Yet, in a twist very understandably Disney, all the characters are animals instead of humans.  Robin and Marian are foxes, Prince John is a lion (yet much less domineering than older brother lion King Richard - you know, the Lionhearted), Little John is a bear, the Sherriff of Nottingham is a wolf, etc.  Disney came up with this idea after the studio had originally planned to adapt an European fable by the name of "Reynard the Fox" into a feature film.  However, after deciding that Reynard might not be the best hero for a Disney feature, writer Ken Anderson used the animal characteristics of that fable for "Robin Hood" instead.

I remember watching this as a kid and loving the music from this film the most, mainly the songs sung by Alan-a-Dale, the minstrel rooster narrating the film.  Voiced by country singer Roger Miller, he also wrote the songs he sung, including "Not in Nottingham" and my favorite "Oo-de-lally" (see video below).  He was not the only songwriter to contribute though.  Legendary songwriter Johnny Mercer - of "Moon River," "Hooray for Hollywood," and "Ac-Cent-Tchu-Ate The Positive" fame, to name a few - contributed a little with the song "The Phony King of England."  And the love theme of "Robin Hood," appropriately titled "Love" (written by Floyd Huddleston and George Bruns), was nominated for an Academy Award that year, but lost out to "The Way We Were."  An album of just the film's songs was never released though.  Instead, Disney released a full recording of the film in 1973, which included the songs, score, narration and dialogue (like listening to the movie on the radio.)  If I'm not mistaken, I believe a very worn, repeatedly listened to, copy of that record is still in my parents' house somewhere.

The budget for "Robin Hood" was small, unfortunately, so the artists had to reference previous Disney animated films to cut down on costs.  That's why you may have noticed that some sequences, even characters, look very similar to previous films.  Except for the color of the fur, Little John resembles Baloo from "The Jungle Book" perfectly.  He's even voiced by the same actor, Phil Harris.  And the dance he does with Lady Kluck is taken from the dance Baloo does with King Louie.  Also resembling a character from "The Jungle Book" is Sir Hiss' similarity to Kaa the python, even down to the hypnotic eyes.  However, the animators did incorporate a special trait into Sir Hiss not found in Kaa - the gap in his teeth.  It is a trait of the gentleman who voiced Sir Hiss, character actor Terry-Thomas.

Some of my other favorite memories of this film come from the great Peter Ustinov.  Ustinov not only voiced Prince John wonderfully, but also King Richard.  He even did his own dubbing for the film's German version as Prince John.  That "Ah-hah, AH-hah" laugh he did as Prince John makes me giggle every time I hear it.  So memorable.  Also, his portrayal of Prince John whenever someone mentions his mother is priceless.  It is a comedic reference to the real Prince John's jealousy of his brother Richard, whom his mother Eleanor of Aquitaine favored above him.  (His father, on the other hand, King Henry II, favored John more.)

So, before you head to the theaters this weekend to see the new, grittier "Robin Hood," take a look at the much more lighthearted and fun-loving "Robin Hood."  It will surely get you pumped for the new version to come, and you get some nice music thrown in there too.  Until Friday.  Have a wonderful week!

(Post-tidbit:  Originally Friar Tuck was to be a pig, but when the studio decided that might possibly offend religious groups, he was changed to a badger instead.)

Friday, May 7, 2010

For the Weekend: Mothers of All Kinds

As I said on Monday, it's Mother's Day in two days.  So, as another helpful reminder so you don't forget to show your mom how much you love her, this weekend's selection of films for you is all about, you guessed it - mothers!

The first mom up is Ginger Rogers in 1939's "Bachelor Mother."  In this lighthearted romantic comedy, Rogers plays a single shop girl who finds an abandoned baby on a doorstep and is mistaken for the child's mother, unable to convince anyone otherwise.  While stuck with her sudden motherhood, though, David Niven, the son of the owner of the store she works at, tries to help her out.  And, of course, this only leads to love between the two.  "Bachelor Mother" was the beginning of Rogers focus on a movie career outside of the Fred-and-Ginger pairing.  In only six years, Rogers and Astaire had made 11 films together, the last one being "The Story of Vernon and Irene Castle" (also in 1939).  They both had wanted to venture into separate careers for awhile.  After "Castle," they were finally granted their wish.  (They would team up only one more time for "The Barkleys of Broadway" (1949).)  Rogers was a little bit nervous about starting out with a story about child abandonment, having understandable reservations.  But luckily, the producer convinced her that no one would be presented as a monster, only truly warm and humane, something her fans would love.  And it worked, I must say.  You can watch this delight on TCM Sunday at 6:30am EST.

The next mother of the day - Bette Davis in "The Catered Affair" (1956).  Based on a television play by Paddy Chayefsky, Davis stars as a poor Brooklyn mom who, after her daughter (Debbie Reynolds) gets engaged, tries to plan the elaborate wedding Davis never got to have, despite the fact that they (her and hubby Ernest Borgnine) can't afford it and her daughter doesn't want it.  Davis does a wonderful job "slumming down" to a working-class mother of two.  She wanted to get the character so right that she spent time in Brooklyn with real Irish-American mothers to catch their mannerisms.  Davis was such a pro that she even took time to mentor Ray Stricklyn, the young actor playing her son, teaching him the ins and outs of show business.  When director Richard Brooks became frustrated with Reynolds (she had been the studio's choice, not his), she used her downtime to rehearse with Reynolds, who was only a musical actor at that point.  It paid off because Reynolds received wonderful reviews and won the National Board of Review's award for Best Supporting Actress.  And when Borgnine won his Oscar for "Marty" during filming, she was especially delighted with her costar, more than she already had been.  You can catch "The Catered Affair" on TCM Sunday at 11:30am EST.

And our final mother of the day, infamous Mama Rose (Rosalind Russell) in "Gypsy" from 1962.  This musical tells the story of real-life stripping star Gypsy Rose Lee and her life with the ultimate stage mother, Rose.  Based on the 1959 stage musical "Gypsy: A Musical Fable," it stars Russell as Rose and Natalie Wood as Gypsy.  The stage producers had originally been hoping to get Judy Garland to star as Rose and Ann-Margret to play Gypsy, but Russell, her husband, theatre producer Frederick Brisson, screenwriter Leonard Spigelgass, and director Mervyn LeRoy were already coming together to make "Gypsy" and have Russell star.  Like always in those Hollywood days, there was some dubbing needed for singing.  Russell just couldn't master the film's music.  So LeRoy hired Lisa Kirk to dub for Russell.  Kirk's talent at mimicking the gravelly sound of Russell's voice allowed for some amazing blending though.  Rose's final song "Rose's Turn" is actually a blend of both Russell's real voice and Kirk's.  However, even though Wood had been dubbed the previous year in "West Side Story," she was able to use her real singing voice for "Gypsy."  This wonderful musical is on TCM Sunday at 10pm EST.

So, be sure to tell your mother you love her this weekend, and maybe sit down together to watch a little mother-based movie marathon.  Have a wonderful weekend, moms!  And I'll be back Monday with another great movie.

(Post-tidbit:  "Bachelor Mother" was David Niven's first starring role, which came out in theaters right when WWII started, and Niven went back home to the UK to enlist.  On his return, he was bombarded by movie posters for "Bachelor Mother," calling him "the star who came home to join the RAF.")

Monday, May 3, 2010

Mamma Mia!: For My Momma

Next Sunday is Mother's Day.  (Don't worry. You still have a week to get your mom something.)  So, for my favorite movie selection this week, I decided to write about one of my mother's favorites as well, "Mamma Mia!"

Released in 2008, this film version of the smash hit stage musical stars Meryl Streep, Pierce Brosnan, Amanda Seyfried, Christine Baranski, Julie Walters, Colin Firth and Stellan Skarsgard.  Seyfried's character Sophie is about to get married, but she doesn't know which one of her mom's (Streep) ex-suitors is her father.  So, unbeknownst to her mother, she invites all three possibilities (Brosnan, Firth and Skarsgard) to her wedding.  Of course, lighthearted joy and mayhem ensue, all set to the hit music of ABBA.

My mom is one of the greatest people I know, and I'm not just saying that because I'm her daughter.  She has been married to the same man for 42 years now, come June 22 (which is also Meryl Streep's birthday, by the way).  She has raised two healthy, happy children, and as far as I can see, has not let a single ounce of love falter in all her family years.  She's a little quieter than the rest of us (my dad, my brother and me), a true Texas belle.  She doesn't get as excited and involved in movies and television like my dad and I do (many times to her boredom, such as when we start talking about "Lost").  But she still loves watching them.  And thanks to her taste, I have come to love musicals and romances just as much as war movies and action films.  I am a true, perfect combination of my parents, and I love that.

And even though she's a bit quieter, I know she's still a fighter for family, especially her kids.  I can totally see some of my mom in Meryl Streep's role (minus the slutty part where she sleeps with 3 guys in a 2-week period.  Mom, if you ever did that, I don't want to know!).  Streep first saw the stage production of "Mamma Mia!" on Broadway in October 2001.  She then wrote a letter to the producers afterward, thanking them for bringing a little bit of lighthearted joy into the lives of New Yorkers after 9/11.  Little did she know that she would soon be bringing that joy to millions herself.  "Mamma Mia!" the movie, is the highest-grossing musical of all time, breaking the previous 30-year record held by "Grease."  It also was the 5th highest-grossing film of 2008, and until "Avatar" came along, it became the highest-grossing film in UK history, surpassing "Titanic."  To date, it has made over $600 million worldwide.

And anybody can see why this film did so well.  Not only do you get the always-fun music of ABBA, you can see how much fun the cast had making it too.  Filmed mainly on location in Greece, it was like a paid vacation for the cast.  Getting paid to sing and dance in a beautiful location?!  How could things get better than that?  Oh yeah, Meryl Streep's there too, that's how.  Of course, everyone had to sing the songs themselves, which terrified the three men.  According to Firth, when he first had to meet ABBA band members Björn Ulvaeus and Benny Andersson for the pre-recordings of the movie's songs, he had "images of myself, you know, floods of Ambian-fueled tears, while I was being shouted out in Swedish by bearded men."  Luckily, the ABBA members were friendlier than he thought, especially when he noticed how terrified both Brosnan and Skarsgard were too.  (And, oh!  Don't blink, but both the ABBA gentlemen have small cameos in the film - Andersson as a piano-playing fisherman and Ulvaeus as a Greek god.)

And even though we could all probably do without Brosnan ever singing again, Streep was beautiful as always.  This was not the first time she sang in one of her films though.  She sang in "Postcards from the Edge," "Silkwood," "Death Becomes Her," and "A Prairie Home Companion."  She even took opera singing lessons as a kid.  Is there anything Streep can't do?  Seyfried, on the other hand, started her career out as a child model and singer before getting her first noticeable acting role in "Mean Girls."  When she heard about the auditions for "Mamma Mia!," she thought she was losing out because she wasn't Greek.  (She had never seen the stage production.)  Her experience working with Streep was a dream come true though, saying "it doesn't really get better than this."

So, get out your dancing shoes, pop "Mamma Mia!" into the DVD player, and have some fun this week.  And, Mom, Happy Mother's Day!  I love you!

(Post-tidbit:  British actress Dawn French was originally cast in Julie Walter's role of Rosie, until she kept hearing her character described as the "fat, funny one."  She dropped out after that, but still did a spoof of "Mamma Mia!" with longtime collaborator Jennifer Saunders for BBC's Comic Relief.  (Enjoy that below.))