In some ways Olivia de Havilland may be one of the more underrated actresses of her generation. She wasn’t as iconic as some of her peers like Katharine Hepburn or Bette Davis and not quite as beautiful as her rival sister, actress Joan Fontaine (Suspicion); instead of sexiness de Havilland brought a righteous intelligence to her roles. She was known throughout history mostly for playing Melanie in Gone with the Wind and for her association with the dashing actor Errol Flynn in their eight films together, most notably The Adventures of Robin Hood, They Died with Their Boots On, and Captain Blood. She had a number of other relevant roles in the ‘40s including The Snake Pit, Not as a Stranger, and Hold Back the Dawn. de Havilland won two Oscars: first, for the melodrama To Each His Own and then for her most interesting performance in William Wyler’s The Heiress, based on the Henry James novel Washington Square.
The late 1800s in New York City: mousy spinster Catherine Sloper (de Havilland) lives with her wise and widowed doctor father, Austin (Ralph Richardson who in real life was only 14-years-older than de Havilland), and her doting aunt, Lavinia (Miriam Hopkins). Catherine’s utterly plain and shy and unexceptional in every manner, which makes it more surprising when the handsome Morris Townsend (Montgomery Clift) shows up in town from California and immediately takes an interest in Catherine, wooing her with all his pretty-boy charms. Romanced for the first time, Catherine comes alive, becoming a giddy school girl utterly smitten with her suitor. The two lovebirds become engaged and plan to elope, but Austin doesn’t trust the rogue, knowing a playboy gold digger when he sees one; he tells Catherine he will disinherit her if she marries him. He also hurts his daughter when he coldly explains that Morris could have any young hottie in NY and why would he chose her if it’s not for the money? Proving Dad right, with the money not coming Morris doesn’t show up for the elopement and rushes back to California. Brokenhearted, Catherine realizes for the first time she really is a dullard who can only find love if she’s loaded with cash. And then to make matters worse, Austin dies and Catherine goes from a happy simpleton to a cold heiress. Years later Morris returns to try and get in on the money again, but the new self-empowered Catherine only pretends to buy into his oily trap and turns the tables on him instead, accepting a lifetime of loneliness to keep her dignity.
Seven Days in May
With the Cold War in full swing, the saga of President Kennedy peaking, another potential war in Asia, and nuclear proliferation moving at a rapid pace, the early ‘60s inspired a slew of solid political flicks. From nuclear madness came Fail-Safe, Dr. Strangelove, and On the Beach. Political soap operas inspired Advise & Consent and The Best Man and from those, the deep paranoia of the right, and the “military industrial complex” came director John Frankenheimer’s twisted, sorta sci-fi nightmare, The Manchurian Candidate. For Frankenheimer’s follow-up he would combine all the genres (nukes, politics and right wing paranoia) for the slick White House thriller Seven Days in May which features Burt Lancaster and Kirk Douglas appearing together for the second time, after Gunfight At The O.K. Corral (not including Lancaster’s cameo in The List of Adrian Messenger). Just as he did brilliantly in Sweet Smell of Success this time Lancaster took the supporting bad guy role. It’s a great showdown between two of Hollywood’s most sculpted physiques of their era.
Based on a novel by Fletcher Knebel and Charles W. Bailey, Douglas plays Colonel Martin "Jiggs" Casey, a Pentagon Joint Chiefs of Staff aide to the powerful James Mattoon Scott (Lancaster). Jiggs is a moderate, more devoted to upholding the Constitution than playing politics, but the guys above him are stone-cold hawks and don’t like it when liberal President Jordan Lyman (Fredric March) signs a nuclear disarmament agreement with the Soviets. Reading cables, hearing secondhand conversations, and finding an incriminating crumpled note leads Jiggs to deduce that Scott is planning a military coup against The White House. He takes his suspicion directly to the president and then begins a cat and mouse game of cloak n’ dagger, teaming with the most trusted members of the president's inner circle, including his top aide, Paul Girard (Martin Balsam), a crusty drunken Southern congressman played wonderfully by Edmond O’Brien (he won an Oscar ten years earlier for his performance in The Barefoot Contessa), and finally Jiggs cozies up to a boozy Washington socialite, Eleanor Holbrook (Ava Gardner), who knows all the town’s players and harbors secrets.
Miracle on 34th Street
No other film in history has been able to capture the spirit of Christmas and toss cinders on the commercialism that the holiday has come to represent quite like Miracle on Thirty-Fourth Street. At 60-something-years-old, the film is still just as relevant, funny, and, ultimately, moving as it ever was. Like How the Grinch Stole Christmas (the original animated version), It’s a Wonderful Life,and the more recent A Christmas Story, Miracle on Thirty-Fourth Street has become standard, even compulsive, viewing during the holiday season. Today’s kids may think that Christmas is some kind of video game or a season to shop and spend money, but Miracle on Thirty-Fourth Street has reminded generations what it’s supposed to be about. As Mr. Kringle says in the film, “Christmas isn’t just a day; it’s a frame of mind.”
The beautiful but icy Doris Walker (Maureen O’Hara) is a cynical single mom who works for the glamorous Macy’s Department Store in New York City. While handling the big Thanksgiving Day Parade she pulls a bearded old man (Edmund Gwenn) off the street to play Santa Claus. The twist is he actually claims to be the jolly toy maker and even calls himself Kris Kringle. The good-natured, but possibly delusional, old coot is so convincing Macy’s hires him to be their full-time in-store Santa. Meanwhile, Doris’s daughter, Susan (Natalie Wood), is her mom’s mini-me, with equal disdain for childish things like make-believe. But when she befriends her do-gooder neighbor, a bachelor lawyer with the unfortunate name of Fred Gailey (John Payne), he encourages her to start to act like a kid and gets Doris to instantly open her heart to romance. All three befriend Kris, while he and Fred try to loosen up the two uptight females. Little Susan is taken aback when she see Kris speak Dutch to a peewee foreign girl, giving her the idea that maybe this guy is the real deal.
Set in the rapidly changing times of 1960s England, Billy Liar tells the story of a young man who's impervious to change and weak from imagination. Most teenagers go through a phase of deception—one in which they exaggerate their circumstances and experiences in order to get respect and acceptance from their peers. Young boys and girls brag about certain sexual encounters or invisible spouses, or some claim that generic items bought on sale were expensive. These claims at excellence are sometimes made out of boredom, but oftentimes are done just for the chance to exercise their imaginative muscles. When they reach adulthood, these traits are usually written off as juvenile and grown-up mentalities eventually set in. Our protagonist, Billy Fisher (Tom Courtenay), is one of those young adults who can't seem to make that transition.
His town accentuates his conflicting views towards change and offers a great metaphor. The majority of the people there don't change, nor do they stray from their safety zones as far as relationships and employment. Housewives wait on edge to see if someone has dedicated a song to them on the popular radio station, “Housewives’ Choice.” Young men scuffle for employment and young ladies work towards becoming their future housewives. But as these people carry on their daily routines, change invades them via demolitions of prized structures and the increase of blacks in many positions. Billy is constantly trying to play by the rules and bend them at the same time, but what he really wants to do is tear down the entire foundation and start anew.
The Wild One
Though that amazing string of performances in A Streetcar Named Desire, Viva Zapata!, Julius Caesar, and On the Waterfront earned Marlon Brando four straight Oscar nominations (finally winning for Waterfront) and made him the most celebrated acting talent of his generation, it’s actually his work as Johnny in The Wild One that made him an icon of rebellion and helped inspire the youth culture that was just beginning to emerge in America (and abroad). The Wild One was the first “biker picture” to penetrate mainstream consciousness, a genre that would become very popular in independent film ten lean years later.
Though produced by issue-director/producer Stanley Kramer, giving the film an overly dramatic “this is important” vibe, it’s actually a really fun B-movie, carried by Brando’s cocky performance. His Johnny leads his biker gang almost like a cult leader. The gang, with their rowdy antics, tries to impress their messiah, but Johnny, with his southern/ be-bop accent, is a man of few words. Hitting the road looking for kicks, Brando and his gang stumble on a small town where they instantly catch the attention of the law and some uptight citizens, and a saloon owner invites them to stay for beer and sandwiches. The innocent young barmaid Kathie (the very beautiful Mary Murphy) catches Johnny’s eye. It doesn’t help when he declares “I don’t like cops,” even though her dad is the town’s sheriff (Robert Keith, father of Brian), and is actually very evenhanded and sympathetic to Johnny and his pals.
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The Best Years of Our Lives
It's not a great movie but then perhaps it is still the best of its kind of film. There's an element of national catharsis that The Best Years of Our Lives channels, redeeming it from whatever middlebrow pretensions it uses to get there. In aesthetic terms it may be nothing more than a syrupy drama that presumes to show the "reality" that G.I.s from WWII faced when they returned home but, clunky soap operatics aside, it does fulfill a need for some kind of closing statement from Hollywood about the emotional toll the whole wretched thing took on average people.
Similar ground had been covered by the turgid Since You Went Away two years earlier but whereas that celluloid headache made you pine for the hours lost trudging through its "epic" pretensions, The Best Years of Our Lives has enough good stuff to make it worthwhile viewing.
Anatomy of a Murder
Director Otto Preminger seemed to look for controversial subjects all through his career but with his two hour and forty minute courtroom masterpiece Anatomy of a Murder, he might’ve gone farther than 1959 audiences could handle. The film is about a lawyer defending a man who’s accused of killing a guy who possibly raped his wife. If that wasn’t lurid enough for audiences, they especially got all angsty over a word that was repeated in the trial, that horrific word…. “panties” (you know, women’s underwear). For anyone who can get past such a lewd word, Anatomy of a Murder is very dense in detail, almost an epic in just exploring the small details of a legal case. And it’s still one of the best lawyer flicks ever.
The film is loaded with talent on both sides of the camera including a famous title sequence by Saul Bass (Psycho) and a catchy score by Duke Ellington (strange since the film takes place in Michigan’s Upper Peninsula—not exactly a “jazzy” part of the country. Also, Duke appears in a cameo as well.) Michigan Supreme Court Justice John D. Voelker wrote the book based on a real life case; the script was shrewdly adapted by Wendell Mayes (The Poseidon Adventure, Death Wish). It’s also shot in cool black & white by the dependable cinematographer Sam Leavitt (A Star Is Born, Exodus, Major Dundee) and it was edited by another pro, Louis R. Loeffler (Laura, The Long Hot Summer). And of course director/producer, the Hungarian-born Preminger himself, was one of the big guns of his era, with a directing career going back to the Noir period (Laura, Whirlpool). Anatomy of a Murder was easily his best film but everything he did, no matter the overall quality, was always interesting.
Three cheers are due for the unsung back lot maestro, John Brahm. His work is fairly ubiquitous; in his day he directed several major studio films and later countless episodes of several different TV shows, but his name isn’t found on most lists of great Golden Age directors. This is a shame because within a couple of years (roughly 1942–1947) he directed some superb thrillers for Twentieth Century Fox that gave producer Val Lewton, and directors Orson Welles, Fritz Lang, and Alfred Hitchcock a run for their murder movie money. Brahm, like the Warner Brothers’ in-house dynamo, Michael Curtiz, was a filmmaker so adept at the art of directorial craftsmanship that you remember his great films more than you remember his authorial imprint on them. Though his last name never became critical shorthand for a specific style (unlike the terms “Wellesian” or “Hitchcockian”) he was a director who, with the right project, was second to none.
The Enchanted Cottage
If you are impervious to the charms of a sentimental love story beautifully told and with ravishingly romantic art direction then please click away at once! For who could deny the simple pleasures of a small film about love filled with such strange charms? The Enchanted Cottage is hardly a work of great art for the ages but by some mysterious combination of good acting, gorgeous cinematography, and just the right amount of bewitching weirdness it manages to transcend its Hollywood cornball trappings and become a minor kind of classic—one that says something profound about love as being both simple and eternally mysterious.
The film opens at an evening gathering of sophisticated middle-aged Waspish types in a Massachusetts mansion where the guests are all gathered in the living room of the host. A blind pianist with a beautifully cultivated accent (Herbert Marshall) is regaling the assembled guests with the story of how his two friends, Oliver and Laura, fell in love before he performs the new piece inspired by them. As he begins performing the piece we flash back to the first meeting of the two and the role that a cottage, an enchanted cottage, played in the story of their falling in love.
Bigger Than Life
The ‘50s weren’t all Bob Hope and Doris Day comedies. Quite a few American films from that decade were honest assessments of the psychic toll taken during an era where postwar consumer culture and an insidious conformism were coming to define the mainstream of American cultural life. This was the era of the Red Scare and the Hollywood blacklist. It was an era of rigid gender roles, Father Knows Best, and suburban sprawl. The angst of this era was beautifully captured in the films of director Nicholas Ray. He gave us Rebel without a Cause, In a Lonely Place, and Bigger Than Life—all iconic treatises on men at war with themselves and the people who love them.
Nicolas Ray knew something about men in crisis. He had a gift for getting inside the heads of men who were alienated from themselves as well as from those around them. Bigger Than Life ranks as probably his darkest examination into the mind of a man falling apart. To add subversion to the proceeding pathos the main character’s drug-fueled anger and paranoia are best understood as violent psychological manifestations of the quintisentially American obsessions with success, strength, and a patriarchal family structure in which both mother and child are rendered subservient to the whims of an angry, domineering, and vengeful father. In other words, Ray is taking on the 1950s themselves and painting a portrait of a deranged society confined by roles that leave no room for humanity.