Thursday, May 12, 2016

Stuck on a Desert Island (with a DVD player)

In celebration of National Classic Movie Day, and as part of the Classic Film and TV Cafe's blogathon, I'm going to venture on choosing the five (!!) movies I want with me when I'm stuck on a desert island.  For someone with over 1,000 DVDs in her library, this is no easy task, but I'm going to give it a try with the caveat that the five I pick today may not be the same five I pick tomorrow!

I know that when forced to choose, I'm going to want to mix up the genres a bit, so I'm not watching the same kind of film over and over,.  Let's start with a musical, and my selection here is without equivocation.   Whenever Singin' in the Rain is on, I have to watch the whole thing.  I start out saying "I'll just watch this scene", and the next thing I know, the movie is over and I've re-watched it again.  I actually do that with a lot of movies, which is probably not a surprise to anyone reading this.  Regardless, Singin' in the Rain is special.  With great music, wonderful dancing (Donald O'Connor doing "Make 'em Laugh" is an especial favorite), and terrific actors (Jean Hagen as Lola Lamont - she is perfection!)  it has everything.  It also serves as an introduction to the beginning of talkies.  It's a film to which I frequently refer people, especially when they are puzzled as to why films look like they do in 1929 and 1930.  Plus, it's a film that you will finish with a smile on your face and a song in your heart.
If you've never see I Remember Mama, you are missing a wonderful film.  My pick for drama has several competitors (mainly A Tree Grows in Brooklyn, Johnny Belinda and The Enchanted Cottage), but for this week, I'm going with Irene Dunne in one of her last films.  As the titular Mama, Dunne is perfect as Marta Hansen.  Sure, Mama at time seems without fault, but it's hard to care or even notice as Dunne is so unbelievingly convincing as this warm and loving wife and mother.  Narrated by the family's oldest daughter, Katrin (played beautifully by Barbara Bel Geddes), the story is a series of incidents in the life of the Hansen family over a number of years, which makes it perfect desert island viewing.  Each "story" can be watched as part of the whole progression of the film, or as an independent short story.  Especially poignant is an incident that revolves around the illness of the youngest daughter, Dagmar (June Hedin), and the inability of Mama to see her ailing child after surgery (hospital rules forbid any visitors for 24 hours post surgery.  Wow, have things changed with time!)  Dunne's heartbreak and guilt (she'd promised the child she would be there when she woke) in this segment reaches out from the screen and tears your heart.  Ultimately, it is the strength of the family and the care that the immigrant mother and father show to their children as they try to avoid "go[ing] to the bank" that you will remember.
There are some really great westerns, and I have to admit that I had trouble deciding on just one.  It came down to two:  The Searchers and Westward the Women (add to the mix, a friend suggested Shane and The Big Country.  Yes, my friends make my life harder).  Ultimately, I chose The Searchers since it is again one of those movies I fall into each time I see it.  John Wayne is exceptional as Ethan Edwards, a man driven to almost insanity by his hatred of Native Americans.  When Ethan's niece, Debbie, is captured by a group of Indians who murdered the rest of her family, Ethan and Martin Pawley, a young man of mixed heritage who was raised by Debbie's parents, go on a quest to recover Debbie from her captors.  But as the years pass and Debbie goes from childhood to young adulthood, it becomes clear to Martin that he must continue on the journey, no matter the cost.  For, if he abandons it, Ethan will surely murder the young woman he now sees as a squaw.  The story is intense, with Wayne creating a character that is impossible to like, but with whom the viewer feels a bond.  Also notable are Jeffrey Hunter as Martin and Ward Bond as the Reverend Clayton, both characters that act as counterpoint to Wayne's driven loner.  Finally, there are the magnificent vistas of Monument Valley, which director John Ford uses to tell his tale.  It's a film with so many layers that, with each viewing, you'll see something new. 
There are a number of comedies, especially romantic comedies which come to mind when asked to pick a desert-island selection: Victoria, Victoria, The Major and the Minor, Roman Holiday are just the tip of the iceberg.  But I decided to select Bachelor Mother, starring Ginger Rogers as Polly Parrish, the temporary employee of Merlin and Son Department Store.  When her job is about to come to an end, Polly goes out on her lunch break to find another job.  She sees a woman abandoning a baby at a foundling home.  Fearful the baby will roll from the stoop, Polly rushes in - and is mistaken for the baby's mother by the staff.  As a result, Polly finds herself saddled with a baby, as well as a suitor, in the form of David Merlin, the "and Son" of the department store.  The film is funny and sweet, the baby is adorable, and our romantic couple have a great chemistry.  But what I love about this film are the attitudes of everyone towards this seemingly unwed mother.  Sure, we, the audience, know that Polly is a "good girl", but the other characters don't, and uniformly they treat her with kindness and compassion.  I especially love Polly's landlady Mrs Weiss (played to perfection by Ferike Boros), who, rather than condemn the girl, goes and gets her adult son's baby things and becomes Polly's go-to baby sitter!  In an era where unwed mothers didn't exist, or were punished (usually by death) at movie's end, Bachelor Mother gives us a picture of a society that embraces the mistakes of a young woman, and ends by creating a happy family, all without violating the Code.
I'm not a huge horror fan, but I love suspenseful films.  The Spiral Staircase is one film that I considered for this category, but really there was no contest in the ultimate winner: The Uninvited.    It really does have everything - a phenomenal story, great cast, two ghosts, a really mysterious house, and a haunting musical score.  (In an earlier blog entry, above, you'll find a link to a You-Tube video of the magnificent theme, Stella By Starlight).  One of the problems with suspense films is that, once you know the answer, you don't always enjoy rewatching the film.  But The Uninvited still is a pleasure even when you know what is coming.  Much like Laura, it's the acting, and the relationships of the characters that keep you returning to this film.  Ray Milland is exceptional as Rick, the new owner of Windwood House, as is Ruth Hussey as his sister Pam.  But the person who steals the film from under everyone else is the ethereal Gail Russell, playing Stella Meredith, the object of Rick's love and the focus of the beings that haunt the house.  The Uninvited is a movie that will make you believe in ghosts.
As I said, this is a list that could change at a moment's notice, and you'll notice that the list lacks a few films that one might expect to see on a desert island list.  So, let's give a nod to To Kill a Mockingbird, Gone with the Wind The Best Years of Our Lives, The Thin Man, Casablanca, just a few in a list of "essentials" that film fans love.  These are wonderful; I own them, I would never give them up. I rewatch them regularly, but you all KNOW about these films.  With my list, I hope I may have brought up a few films that might not have made your own "essentials" queue.