Thursday, December 30, 2010

When Harry Met Sally: To a Happy New Year

Well, it's my last favorite film of the year.  I think I did a pretty decent job keeping up on my goal.  I only missed a few weeks total.  I've decided to end the year the way I started it, with a romance.  This time, however, it's one of my all-time favorite romantic comedies, one where everything comes down to that faithful New Year's Eve.  Say goodbye to 2010 and ring in all the great things that 2011 will bring with "When Harry Met Sally..." (1989)!

"When Harry Met Sally..." is the story of a man and a woman and their friendship over many years in New York City.  Harry (Billy Crystal) and Sally (Meg Ryan) first meet for a road trip after college to New York.  Complete opposites, they part ways on arrival, only to meet again five years later on a plane trip.  Again they part, only to finally meet again six years later and become best friends.  But can men and women truly be friends without sex getting in the way?  Only time will tell in this brilliant comedy by screenwriter Nora Ephron and director Rob Reiner.

The concept for "WHMS" actually came about from Rob Reiner's disastrous life as a single man.  Ten years after his divorce from Penny Marshall, he was still having difficulty seeing himself ever fall in love again.  He also wanted to try and answer the question, "Can men and women truly be friends?"  So Reiner and producer Andrew Scheinman had lunch with Ephron to discuss the idea.  Ephron ended up just talking with Reiner and Scheinman about their single lives, and ran with the idea on her own for a while.  You see, this first meeting was back in 1985.  Reiner still had two more films to make before "WHMS" - "Stand By Me" and "The Princess Bride."  But the trio would get together once a year at least to keep the project moving until production began.

The character of Harry Burns is based primarily on Reiner himself.  Reiner was extremely depressed at that time in his life, and he cherished his depression.  Ephron thought his dark attitude toward everything was very funny though, so thus, Harry was born.  Reiner and Billy Crystal had been best friends (and still are) since the two met when Crystal did a guest spot on "All in the Family" as, coincidentally enough, Reiner's best friend.  But Reiner did not initially hand Crystal the part of Harry.  He looked around first before finally realizing that there was no other choice but Crystal.  Crystal had never had a leading man role in a film before, not like this, but he had witnessed personally Reiner's struggle to date again after his divorce.  Therefore, he already knew Harry inside and out, and with Crystal joining the team, the script just got even funnier.

Crystal came up with the most famous line from the film actually.  While talking about the script during a meeting, Ephron, Reiner, and Scheinman noticed it was slightly Harry-heavy, and they needed more insights into the female psyche for Sally.  So Ephron dropped the bombshell on them (remember, this was way before "Sex and the City") - women fake orgasms.  (In utter shock at this revelation, Reiner immediately asked every woman at Castle Rock if this was true, which of course, every woman admitted it was.)  So thus the famous deli scene was created.  Only in the first draft, Sally didn't fake an orgasm at the table.  That idea came from Meg Ryan herself.  Unfortunately, when it came down to the shoot, Meg was a little nervous and wasn't giving it the gusto Reiner wanted.  So Reiner demonstrated himself, slapping the table and screaming "Yes!" at the top of his lungs.  The funniest part about all this?  He did it right in front of his mother.  Crystal came up with the topper line, "I'll have what she's having," and Reiner gave it to the perfect actress - his mother.  That line is now #33 on AFI's "100 Years...100 Movie Quotes" list.

Ryan was not Reiner's first choice for Sally Albright either.  Other than "Innerspace," this was Ryan's first starring role as well.  Reiner had considered Molly Ringwald, Susan Dey, Elizabeth Perkins, and Elizabeth McGovern before finally hiring Ryan for the role that catapulted her into America's Sweetheart status.  And the character of Sally was based primarily on Ephron.  Someone who's very neat, controlling, yet optimistic in many ways, Ephron has the exact same characteristic of ordering all her food very, very specifically, mainly with things "on the side."  After spending many working lunches with her, Reiner noticed this trait and insisted Ephron include it for Sally.  Thanks to the fame of "WHMS," Ephron one time had a waitress mention to her, "Have you ever seen 'When Harry Met Sally'?" after Ephron gave another complicated order.

This is another one of the great films that my brother introduced me to.  It was the summer before I moved to Los Angeles, and I was visiting UCLA and taking a media workshop.  I stayed with my brother in his small single apartment for one night before I moved into the UCLA dorms for the workshop, and we watched "WHMS" while chatting about LA and college.  I fell in love with "WHMS" at the same time I fell in love with LA.  My love for Los Angeles may have waned over the years, but not "WHMS."  One reason it's so resonant for me (and everyone else) is because it's so real.  Even the small little vignettes where the older couples talk about how they met are real.  Reiner and Ephron interviewed so many couples about their love stories that they wanted to include some of them.  They even tried using the real-life people in the scenes, but unfortunately the timing was not there, so Ephron wrote the stories into the script and they then hired actors.

So, ring in the new year with this great romantic comedy!  "When Harry Met Sally" is available on DVD almost everywhere.  Have a wonderful New Year's Eve, everyone, and I'll see you back here in 2011 with even more great Hollywood trivia and stories to tell.  And thanks again for being part of such a wonderful year for me!

(Post-tidbit:  If you visit Katz's Deli in New York, you can sit at the actual table where the famous deli scene was shot.  They even have a sign pointing to it, which says "Where Harry met Sally...hope you have what she had!")

(Post-post-tidbit:  Ironically and wonderfully, while making this film based on his horrible single life, Reiner met and fell in love with his future wife Michele.)

Tuesday, December 21, 2010

It's a Wonderful Life: Back to the Beginning

Can you believe it?!  It's been a whole year now since my first blog post.  And what a crazy year it has been.  So many things have changed, but I couldn't be happier with it all.  Therefore, I felt the only appropriate way to celebrate was to talk more about the first movie I ever mentioned.  Sit back and wrap yourself in Christmas nostalgia today with the classic "It's a Wonderful Life" (1946).

Now, I don't think there is a person in this world who doesn't know the story of this film...but I'll tell it anyway.  George Bailey (Jimmy Stewart) is a good man, has been all his life.  A lot of tough things have happened to him, but he's always managed to look on the bright side.  However, on Christmas Eve, when yet another bad thing happens, he finally breaks down and can't take it anymore.  He decides to jump off a bridge, for everyone's sake.  But, luckily, his guardian angel Clarence thwarts his attempt, and shows him what the world would be like if he never existed.  Realizing things are never as bad as they seem, George asks to live again and runs home to his family to celebrate whatever may be coming their way.

This famous tale was floating around Hollywood for several years before the great Frank Capra got a hold of it.  Based on a short story called "The Greatest Gift" by Philip Van Doren Stern, RKO Studios originally bought the rights specifically as a starring vehicle for Cary Grant.  However, several screenplay attempts never managed to capture that magic spark, so the story was shelved.  Capra heard about the short story and, after reading it, bought it from RKO for his own production company Liberty Films.  RKO gladly sold all the rights, including the previous screenplays.  So Capra, with the help of Frances Goodrich, Albert Hackett, Jo Swerling, Michael Wilson, and even Dorothy Parker, rewrote the scripts into the one we know today, as well as changing the title to "It's a Wonderful Life."

Capra always wanted Stewart, his favorite actor, to play the part of George Bailey.  Stewart was a little reluctant to accept though.  It had nothing to do with disliking the script.  Stewart had recently returned home from WWII and was very nervous about getting in front of the camera again.  Luckily, "Wonderful Life"s villain Lionel Barrymore (the mean old Mr. Potter) changed Stewart's mind, and he ended up giving one of the best performances of his career.  Of course, part of the magic has to go to Donna Reed, the perfectly cast Mary Hatch Bailey.  Capra had originally wanted his favorite actress Jean Arthur to play Mary, but she had to decline because she was already committed to a Broadway show.  So Capra looked at Olivia de Havilland, Ann Dvorak, even Ginger Rogers, before finally deciding on the fresh-faced unknown Reed.

Unfortunately, the idyllic town of Bedford Falls doesn't actually exist.  It was built specifically for "Wonderful Life" on RKO's ranch in Encino, CA (yeah, that's right.  Encino used to have open space!  Can you believe it??)  The little town covered four acres of land, and the famous tree-lined street George runs down was actually three city blocks long.  75 buildings made up the tiny fake town, and prior to filming, Capra had a number of dogs and cats roam its streets to give it that "lived in" feel.  However, their biggest accomplishment was the snow.  Prior to "It's a Wonderful Life," film snow was just cornflakes painted white.  It looked great, but the crunching noise while walking made all dialogue have to be rerecorded later.  Capra didn't want that so he tasked RKO's special effects team to come up with something new.  They came up with a chemical snow using foamite, soap and water, which worked beautifully and won the team a special Scientific Oscar. However, even though it looks cold on screen, Los Angeles was experiencing a record heat wave the summer of 1946.  Some days got so hot that Capra let his cast and crew off to recover.  You can actually see Stewart sweating in a few wintry scenes.  Luckily, he's supposed to be so emotionally worked up that it fits. 

Surprisingly, "It's a Wonderful Life" was not the big success we think of today.  With a budget of $3 million, it only made $6.3 million at the box office.  It did receive good reviews and five Oscar nominations, but it was overshadowed by the powerhouse film "The Best Years of Our Lives" and didn't win a thing.  The flick has only become the Christmas staple we know today because of television and a clerical error.  The film rights were purchased from Paramount (who had acquired Liberty Films) in 1955 by National Telefilm Associates (NTA).  However, because of a clerical error, they were unable to renew the copyright in 1974.  Now don't go jumping off to use the film just yet.  Even though the film's copyright lapsed, the story it was based on has not.  But because of this error, "It's a Wonderful Life" was shown on more channels on television than most other films, making it a holiday favorite.

So enjoy your holiday and celebrate with family and friends this week as you watch "It's a Wonderful Life."  (That ending still makes me cry every time.)  Merry Christmas, everyone!!

(Post-tidbit:  In the scene where Uncle Billy leaves the Bailey home drunk, we hear what appears to be him stumbling into a bunch of trash cans and then yelling, "I'm alright!  I'm alright."  This was actually an ad-lib because in reality the sound was a stagehand accidentally knocking over a bundle of props.  The poor guy was so afraid he was going to be fired because of his mistake.  Capra instead gave him a $10 bonus for "improving the sound.")

Friday, December 17, 2010

For the Weekend: More Christmas Classics

Christmas is just a week away, and there are still so many great films to talk about before then.  So today I've chosen a few more great classics from the '40s that will surely brighten your holiday.

First up is the lighthearted romantic comedy "Christmas in Connecticut" (1945).  Starring Barbara Stanwyck, Dennis Morgan, Sydney Greenstreet, and S.Z. Sakall, it tells the story of a sailor who, after being lost at sea for 18 days, is asked to join the great homemaker Elizabeth Lane (the Martha Stewart of her time) for Christmas.  The only problem is that Ms. Lane is a fake.  Her husband, baby, farm, cooking skills are all from her imagination.  In a crazed effort not lose her job from her magazine editor finding out the truth, she pretends to have it all with the help of friends, only to fall in love with the sailor in the process.  "Christmas in Connecticut" was originally offered to Bette Davis, but she turned it down.  Second-pick Stanwyck gladly accepted the role, as it was a refreshing change of pace from her last film, the dark "Double Indemnity" (1944).  Pure Christmas delight.

Next up is the sentimental Christmas staple "Miracle on 34th Street" (1947).  This classic story tells the tale of a Macy's department store Santa Claus who believes he's the real deal.  Edmund Gwenn plays the infamous Kris Kringle in an Oscar-winning performance, with Maureen O'Hara, John Payne, and an 8-year-old Natalie Wood starring along with him.  The film starts out with the famous Macy's Thanksgiving Day Parade, which are all shots of the real 1946 parade.  Gwenn actually got to play the coveted Santa role for the parade, including the speech on the Macy's marquee after the parade's end and the reveal of the store's Nutcracker window display.  However, with all the Christmas aspects, studio head Darryl F. Zanuck insisted on releasing the picture in May because he felt more people went to the movies in May than December.  Therefore the publicity department had to work extra hard to hide all the Christmas elements of the story for marketing.  Check out the Christmas-less trailer below:

And finally, it's the Judy Garland romance "In the Good Old Summertime" (1949).  Now, don't be fooled by the title.  This is actually a musical remake of the classic Christmas film "The Shop Around the Corner" (1940).  Garland and Van Johnson star as two pen pals in love, only they don't know each other's real identity - coworkers that cannot stand each other.  Originally, this remake was supposed to star Frank Sinatra and June Allyson.  However, Sinatra passed on the project and Allyson became pregnant before production finally began, so Johnson and Garland stepped in.  Things were very stressful between Garland and MGM at this time though.  This ended up being her second to last film for the studio before they canceled her contract.  However, it was a pleasant and easy filming process for her.  Studio head Louis B. Mayer later asked Johnson how they managed to get her through it all so smoothly.  Johnson simply said, "We made her feel wanted."  Simple, understandable, kind.

Get your yuletide spirit pumping with all these great films.  All three are on DVD, but "In the Good Old Summertime" is also airing on TCM tonight (12/17) at 9:30pm EST and Christmas Eve at 4pm EST.  Have a great weekend, everyone!  Be back Monday with another holiday classic.

(Post-tidbit:  Liza Minnelli made her big-screen debut in "In the Good Old Summertime."  She is the little girl holding Van Johnson and her mother Judy Garland's hands at the end of the film.  However, it was the final MGM film for the great Buster Keaton, who started with them way back in the '20s.)

Tuesday, December 14, 2010

The Thin Man: Mystery with a Little Bit of Christmas

Today's favorite film of mine is not necessarily what you might consider a Christmas film, but, hey, it does take place during Christmas!  No, I'm not talking about "Die Hard."  (I already talked about that one, remember?)  No, today's film is the classic mystery "The Thin Man" (1934)!

Based on the great detective novel of the same name by Dashiell Hammett, it tells the tale of Nick and Nora Charles as they visit New York for a vacation.  Nick Charles used to be a detective there, before he married millionaire heiress Nora and moved to California.  When they visit his old city for the first time in four years, though, old friends and colleagues (and his noisy, curious wife) reluctantly drag him into the mysterious disappearance of another old friend Clyde Wynant.

Directed by W.S. "One-Take" Van Dyke, it stars the great movie duo William Powell and Myrna Loy in only their second film together.  Their first was "Manhattan Melodrama" (1934) with Clark Gable and also directed by Van Dyke.  He witnessed the great off-screen repartee and chemistry between the two while making "Melodrama" from their first meeting.  So when he heard MGM had the rights to Hammett's novel "The Thin Man," he knew exactly the couple to cast in the film.  At first, the studio refused to let him cast the pair, for they were not the big names we know now.  Luckily, Van Dyke won out and proved they were the perfect Nick and Nora, as the rest of the world fell in love with the duo.

Actually, Loy and Powell had such good chemistry between them that much of the public believed they were really husband and wife.  But that was never the case, not even close.  They never dated, but only became extremely good friends.  They enjoyed working with each other so much that the two didn't mind making twelve more movies together, including five "Thin Man" sequels ("After the Thin Man" (1936), "Another Thin Man" (1939), "Shadow of the Thin Man" (1941), "The Thin Man Goes Home" (1945) and "Song of the Thin Man" (1947)).  Van Dyke also directed the pair in a number of their following films, including the first three "Thin Man" sequels and "I Love You Again" (1940).

You might be asking, "Now, what makes this such a special movie?  Isn't it just another detective story?"  Oh, how wrong you are!  Van Dyke decided to focus more on the relationship between Nick and Nora than the mystery of the book (a relationship Hammett based on his on-again, off-again relationship with playwright Lillian Hellman).  He hired the married writing couple Albert Hackett and Frances Goodrich to pen the script and specifically told them to play up the banter of the Charleses and make the mystery secondary.  What resulted was the first time in Hollywood history where a married couple were having fun, laughing with each other, and enjoyed being married.  This comedic detective story is actually credited with helping kick-start the screwball comedy genre, which includes such classics as "Bringing Up Baby" (1938) and "The Awful Truth" (1937).

And with the easy the two leads show with each other, who couldn't help falling in love with them and the comedy?  It's all real too, because as I mentioned earlier, Van Dyke's nickname was "One-Take."  That's right!  He was renowned for shooting everything quickly and always using the first, fresh take.  "The Thin Man" had a B-movie budget (only $230,000), and Van Dyke still managed to finish the film under time, in only twelve days.

Another character you shouldn't miss in "The Thin Man" is Asta the dog.  The wire-haired fox terrier steals every scene he is in, and rightfully so.  Really named Skippy, he became a star himself from the film's success.  Not only did he appear in some of the following sequels (other terriers played Asta later), he stole the show in other great films like "The Awful Truth."  Also, he created a terrier craze in the US (which sadly led to many puppy mills trying to crank out the breed to meet the demand).  However, as lovable as he appears on screen, neither Powell nor Loy were allowed to become friends with the dog, so as not to break his concentration during filming.  This was not a loss for Loy though, for Skippy evidently bit her once.

I truly love this movie!  Fall in love with the Charleses too on TCM this December 21st at Midnight EST/9pm PST.  It is also on DVD if you can't wait that long.  Have a wonderful week, everyone!  Be back Friday.

(Post-tidbit:  Now, contrary to popular belief, the "thin man" of the first film is not Nick Charles.  It is actually in reference to Wynant, the character everyone is looking for.  But people associated the title "The Thin Man" with Nick and Nora so much that the studio continued using the words in the sequels' titles, even though there is never anymore references to any "thin" men.)

Friday, December 10, 2010

For the Weekend: Nothing but Firth

After seeing "The King's Speech" last week, I have been in the mood to watch a lot of Colin Firth films (and who could blame me).  So I thought I'd write about all those wonderful, sappy, romantic films that make every girl in the world swoon over Firth.  (Guys, feel free to skip today's post.  This one's for all the girls.)

First off, if you live in one of the selected cities playing "The King's Speech" currently, I highly, highly recommend going to see it.  It stars Firth as Britain's King George VI (Queen Elizabeth II's father) who tries desperately to overcome a horrible speech impediment, especially when the UK declares war against Germany.  Helena Bonham-Carter plays his wife and Geoffrey Rush plays the speech therapist who finally helps him succeed.  It's an amazing true story, and for all you anglophiles out there like me, it's a wonderful look into Britain's history.  "Speech" has been getting a lot of Oscar buzz too, so you're sure to hear more about it then.  Firth is amazing and surely will garner his second nomination (following last year's for "A Single Man").

Of course, Firth would not be whom we crave now if it wasn't for the BBC miniseries "Pride and Prejudice" back in 1995.  Based on the classic novel by Jane Austen, this highly acclaimed series brought new romanticism to one of the greatest love stories ever written (my favorite, for sure).  Firth is (and forever will be for) the enigmatic Mr. Darcy, the dream man of every hopeless romantic.  Jennifer Ehle stars as the story's heroine Elizabeth Bennett, a 19th century young woman with four sisters and no inheritance to her name.  The story (which I'm sure you all know) follows her and her unmarried sisters as they deal with the pressures and rules of society.  This series made Firth an international heartthrob from mainly one scene, the infamous lake scene.  Firth goes swimming in a lake, only to later be seen walking to his house dripping wet.  Around the corner though, he bumps into Elizabeth Bennett unexpectedly, and a delightful, heart-pumping tension sparks between them.  This scene is now considered "one of the most unforgettable moments in British TV history."  Firth originally wasn't interested in playing Darcy.  However, producer Sue Birtwistle persistently coaxed Firth until he finally accepted the role, one that has stayed with him ever since.

The most notable continuation of that role is in "Bridget Jones's Diary" (2001).  Helen Fielding, the author of the novel of the same name, came up with her story after watching the BBC "Pride and Prejudice."  Renee Zellweger stars as Bridget, a 32-year-old single woman in London.  The story chronicles one year of her life as she keeps track of it in her diary.  Hugh Grant costars as Daniel Cleaver, her caddish publishing boss, a Mr-Wickham-like character, and Firth plays, you guessed it, Mr. Darcy!  Mr. Mark Darcy, a barrister (aka lawyer), was based on both Mr. Darcy from the book "Pride and Prejudice" and Colin Firth himself.  (Fielding even references Firth's Darcy in her book.)  This little inside joke of casting Firth as Mark Darcy proved a winner, because again he made every girl swoon like crazy (even me and my friends this week after watching it for the 500th time).  Also, it includes the best, funniest fight scene ever, between Firth and Grant, who have had a little off-screen battle for roles throughout their careers.

And finally, the last swooner for today, "Love Actually."  This 2003 film, written and directed by Richard Curtis (co-writer of "Bridget Jones's Diary"), follows ten individual yet interweaving love stories in the five weeks leading up to Christmas (see, I still got some Christmas in there!).  It stars a cavalcade of talent including Firth (of course), Alan Rickman, Hugh Grant again, Emma Thompson, Bill Nighy, Liam Neeson, Laura Linney, and Keira Knightley.  Firth plays Jamie Bennett (another "Pride and Prejudice" homage), a writer who runs off to France after he finds his girlfriend cheating on him with his brother.  In one of his scenes, he jumps into a lake with his clothes on, something Curtis jokingly mentions he now has to write into every movie he does with Firth because of "Pride and Prejudice."  The lake Firth dove into for "Love Actually" was less than a couple of feet deep though, so he is, in reality, crawling along the bottom to make it appear like he is swimming clumsily around.  He also was bitten on the elbow by mosquitoes, causing it to swell up to the size of an avocado by the next day.

So, girls, go out and swoon this weekend with Colin Firth.  All the above can be found on DVD, except for "The King's Speech" which is in theaters in selected cities now.  Have a wonderful weekend!  Be back Monday with another Christmas classic.

(Post-tidbit:  Richard Curtis has written many of the romantic comedies we love, including "Four Weddings and a Funeral" (1994) and "Notting Hill" (1999).  The Christmas adaptation of the "Love is All Around" in "Love Actually" is a reference to the original song in "Four Weddings."  After "Four Weddings" was released, "Love is All Around" stayed at the top of the charts for 15 weeks straight.  Curtis thought it would then be funny to bombard the audience with the song all over again.)

Monday, December 6, 2010

The Nightmare Before Christmas: A Burton Holiday Feast

Yep, you guessed it!  Another holiday movie for you today as we creep closer and closer to Christmas.  (Did I mention I have a LOT of holiday favorites?)  Today's film is actually the one Christmas film it's okay to start watching at Halloween, but I usually wait til now because what is Christmas in my house without...Tim Burton's "The Nightmare Before Christmas" (1993)!

"Nightmare," the great stop-motion animation tale, tells the story of Jack Skellington, the king of Halloweentown.  After another successful Halloween, Jack wanders out into the forest and comes across a set of fancy doors, one for each holiday.  He accidentally falls through the Christmastown door and discovers a world (and holiday) completely unlike his own.  So on his return to Halloweentown, he decides to take over Christmas this year and be "Sandy Claws" himself.  Will Christmas survive this town's idea of joy?  Will the real Santa survive the evil Oogie Boogie?

Tim Burton, like so many of us, grew up loving the old Christmas specials on television, like "Rudolph the Red-nosed Reindeer" and "How the Grinch Stole Christmas."  While he was an animator at Disney in the 80s (yep, that's right.  Burton, the Goth king, used to work for Disney), he wrote a three-page poem entitled "The Nightmare Before Christmas."  After the success of his first two shorts "Vincent" and "Frankenweenie," the studio sought to make the poem into another short or television special.  But it never got off the ground, and Burton left Disney when his disillusionment in the studio he grew up wanting to be a part of grew to its peak.  He then went on to his own success with "Pee-Wee's Big Adventure," "Batman," "Beetlejuice," and "Edward Scissorhands."  Yet he never forgot about his "Nightmare" idea and, in 1990, decided to ask for the rights back from Disney (all creative ideas imagined while working at Disney become Disney property).  Luckily, Jeffrey Katzenberg was running the studio at the time and, being a Burton fan, agreed to finance a film version under the Disney banner.

So without a script and only the poem and Burton's own original sketches, the production was setup in San Francisco.  Burton hired Henry Selick to direct because he himself was too busy with pre-production on "Batman Returns" at the time.  He then hired Michael McDowell, his collaborator with "Beetlejuice," to write the script.  Unfortunately, they had creative problems, so Burton focused instead on the music first with his constant composer Danny Elfman.  McDowell was then replaced by Caroline Thompson, and the team was set.  As for casting, Chris Sarandon (Prince Humperdink himself) was cast as the speaking voice of Jack.  (Chris didn't like the way he sang, so Danny Elfman did the singing for Jack.)  Catherine O'Hara was hired for Sally and Shock after working with Burton before on "Beetlejuice."  Paul Reubens played Lock.  And William Hickey played mad scientist Dr. Finklestein. 

The production took over 19 sound stages in San Francisco to build and shoot the sets and puppets for "Nightmare."  227 puppets, both multiple characters and multiple copies of each (especially the leads), were made using metal armatures for skeletons.  This wasn't claymation were animators could change the facial expressions on the spot; the puppets were made of foam latex.  For Jack, Sally and others, all their expressions had to be pre-made.  Jack himself had over 400 interchangeable heads for every expression and emotion.  Sally, because of her long hair, had a series of masks that could be snapped on and off.

Because it's stop-motion animation, they were shooting at 24 frames per second, which means they had to pose each puppet 24 times for just a second of film, leading to many scenes taking a full week or more to complete.  So thanks to duplicate puppets, one animator could be working on one scene at the same time another scene was being filmed on another set.  There are a few scenes in the film that were filmed at regular speed though.  See if you can figure them out and drop me a comment.

When "Nightmare" was released in October 1993, Disney had changed its mind and released it under Touchstone Pictures instead of Walt Disney Studios.  This was because Disney felt the film was a little too dark for children, so it was put under their more adult banner.  Of course time has told that they were very wrong in their assumption.  "Nightmare" became a huge success and is now a cult favorite, loved by both old and very young.  It has spawned a slew of merchandise, many theatrical re-releases including in 3D and 4D, and since 2001, has been the theme of the Haunted Mansion at Disneyland for its Haunted Mansion Holiday attraction that runs from October through December (my absolute favorite time to go to Disneyland!!).  Disney even started working on a sequel in 2001, but Burton put a stop to it, saying he liked to "try to respect people and keep the purity of the project as much as possible."  A sequel was made in video game version though ("The Nightmare Before Christmas: Oogie's Revenge").

So, wake up your inner child and enjoy the beautiful animation of the holiday classic "The Nightmare Before Christmas."  Have a wonderful week, everyone!  Be back Friday with some more great films.

(Post-tidbit:  In the final scene, when the vampires are playing ice hockey, instead of using the pumpkin you see for their puck, they used to be playing with Tim Burton's severed head.)

(Post-post-tidbit:  Originally there was narration at both the beginning and end of the film, and it was recorded by Sir Patrick Stewart.  Unfortunately that recording didn't make it to the final flick, but you can still hear it on the soundtrack.)

Friday, December 3, 2010

For the Weekend: More Bing for Christmas

Christmas would not be Christmas without Bing Crosby.  So for your weekend suggestions today, I've got more Bing for your holiday enjoyment.

I already talked about "Holiday Inn" (1942) a little on Monday in conjunction with "White Christmas" (1954), but it's not a movie to pass up either.  "Holiday Inn" is a great little musical about a retired entertainer (Crosby) who decides to open an inn, but only on national holidays.  He falls for his costar at the inn (Marjorie Reynolds), but his old partner (Fred Astaire) shows up and throws a wrench into their romance.  This was, of course, the film that introduced the song "White Christmas" to the world, but no one imagined the success it would be.  At first, the big hit song was "Be Careful, It's My Heart," which was on the billboard charts for months before "White Christmas" started taking the reign.  Filming started the year before, but half way through the production, Japan bombed Pearl Harbor, and the US went on ration mode.  This meant that production had to scavenge Hollywood for props and costumes for "Holiday Inn"...and Paramount's publicity department didn't let it go unnoticed.  (One report stated that Reynold's beaded dress used up the very last of the beads in Hollywood.)  Crosby also went on his radio program during production and sang the first ever public performance of "White Christmas" on Christmas Day for the troops.

My next Crosby recommendation isn't necessarily a Christmas flick (it was released in May after all), but I seem to think of it at Christmastime anyway, maybe just for its lead.  "Going My Way" (1944) stars Crosby in his Oscar-winning performance as Father O'Malley, an unorthodox priest who comes to help Father Fitzgibbon (Barry Fitzgerald) with his struggling parish in New York.  Fitzgerald also won an Oscar for his performance, but he was actually nominated twice for the same role, for Best Actor (which he lost to Crosby) and Best Supporting Actor, the only time that ever happened in Academy Award history (new rules were applied because of this).  "Going My Way" also won five more Oscars, including Best Picture and Best Song for "Swinging on a Star."  Crosby wasn't going to attend the awards ceremony and was instead playing golf (his favorite pastime) only hours beforehand.  Many people tried to get him to change his mind, but it was only his mother that prevailed, saying she would never speak to him again if he let the opportunity pass him by.  Thus he rushed home, threw on a suit, and made it in time to receive his award.

Once you've watched "Going My Way," I recommend its sequel "The Bells of St. Mary's," released in December of 1945.  Again Crosby plays Father O'Malley, but this time he journeys to a rundown school to help Sister Mary Benedict (Ingrid Bergman) bring it back to life.  Yet, again Bing doesn't see eye to eye with his new superior.  Filming for this began right after the Oscars ceremony where both Crosby and director Leo McCarey won their awards for "Going My Way."  When Bergman won her Best Actress award for "Gaslight" that same night, she joked, "I'm particularly glad to get it this time because tomorrow I go to work in a picture with Mr. Crosby and Mr. McCarey, and I'm afraid that if I went on the set without an award, neither of them would speak to me!"  "St. Mary's," which was actually written before its predecessor, was the first sequel to be nominated for a Best Picture Oscar in Academy history.  It garnered seven other nominations, including Best Actress and Best Actor (the first time an actor had been nominated for the same role in two different films), but only won one award for Best Sound.

So, get your Bing Crosby fix this weekend with these great films!  "Going My Way" and "The Bells of St. Mary's" are both instant streamers on Netflix right now, but unfortunately you'll have to rent (or buy, it's a great film!) "Holiday Inn."  (It's not even on TCM's schedule this month for some reason.)  Enjoy your weekend, everyone!  Be back Monday with another favorite. 

(Post-tidbit:  Yes, it's true.  The Holiday Inn hotel chain was named after "Holiday Inn" the movie.)