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March 2021 Poll: Back to the ’80s!

Hey hey, readers! As some of you know I like to occasionally go back to some of my first posts, and write revised and expanded versions. It’s tough for me to narrow down which movies I want to focus on, so now I’m leaving it up to you!

We’ll start with the 1980s, a decade with many an iconic classic on the NFR. Which of the following of my old posts would you to see get a new write-up?

You’ll see the winning post in April 2021. Thanks for your votes!

#545) Sabrina (1954)

#545) Sabrina (1954)

OR “The Michael Douglas Scale: The Motion Picture”

Directed by Billy Wilder

Written by Wilder & Samuel Taylor & Ernest Lehman. Based on the play “Sabrina Fair” by Taylor.

Class of 2002 

The Plot: Sabrina Fairchild (Audrey Hepburn) is the daughter of a chauffeur (John Williams, not that one) for the upper-class Larrabee family of Long Island. Sabrina has had a crush on younger brother David Larrabee (William Holden) since childhood, but David is oblivious to her feelings. After a suicide attempt, Sabrina is sent to Paris by her father to study at Le Cordon Bleu. Two years later, Sabrina returns to Long Island a cultured, sophisticated beauty, catching the eye of a now-engaged David. To prevent David from ruining his engagement (and therefore an important business merger), older brother Linus (Humphrey Bogart) pretends to be interested in Sabrina to get her away from David. But of course, fake feelings turn into real feelings, as so often happens in rom-coms like these. Who will Sabrina end up with? And how old is everyone exactly?

Why It Matters: The NFR write-up is primarily a plot synopsis, followed by the assessment “Not one of Wilder’s most hilarious or thought-provoking, but still charming and entertaining”.

But Does It Really?: Yeah, I’m with the NFR on this one. There’s nothing inherently wrong with “Sabrina”, but it does pale in comparison to Wilder’s other classics. The three leads are all charming and funny, but I couldn’t get over the massive age gaps between everyone. Ultimately, “Sabrina” is a minor classic: iconic enough for eventual NFR inclusion, but not tops on anyone’s list.

Shout Outs: Linus calls David “Scarface“, one of two Wilder movies to reference that gangster film.

Wow, That’s Dated: Among the bits of early ’50s culture referenced throughout “Sabrina” are Mickey Spillaine, Adlai Stevenson, the Kon-Tiki expedition, and the play “The Seven Year Itch”; soon to be a major motion picture.

Title Track: While the film maintained the play’s title “Sabrina Fair” in its international release, the US version was shortened to “Sabrina” in order to avoid confusion with “highbrow stories” like “Vanity Fair“.

Seriously, Oscars?: Although “Sabrina” missed out on a Best Picture Oscar nomination, the film’s six nominations included Best Director, Adapted Screenplay, and Actress for Hepburn. “Sabrina” lost five of these nods to “On the Waterfront” and “The Country Girl”, but Edith Head took home her 6th Oscar for Costume Design.

Other notes 

  • The idea to adapt the play “Sabrina Fair” to the movies was either Billy Wilder’s or Audrey Hepburn’s. Either way, it was going to be a vehicle for Audrey from the start. Playwright Samuel Taylor was hired to co-write with Wilder, but quit after Wilder’s extensive rewriting, and Ernest Lehman was brought in as a replacement. Due to scheduling issues with William Holden, production was moved up, and the film began shooting without a finished script. Lehman would find himself occasionally writing scenes in the morning that would be filmed that afternoon.
  • Alright, let’s get this out of the way: there is quite an age gap in this movie’s love triangle. During production in 1953, Humphrey Bogart was 53, William Holden was 35, and Audrey Hepburn was 24. We know that the character of Sabrina is 22 years old when she returns from Paris, but we’re never told how old the Larrabee brothers are supposed to be. It really overshadowed my overall viewing experience.
  • This is another one of my “sixth sense” movies, where I can divine a movie’s behind-the-scenes struggles without knowing about them beforehand. In addition to the film’s truncated shooting schedule, Bogart apparently did not get along with his director or co-stars (he was aware that he was only cast as Linus when Cary Grant turned it down). In addition, Holden and Hepburn had a brief affair during filming, and Ernest Lehman suffered a breakdown from all the re-writes.
  • Audrey Hepburn is being ignored by every man in sight? This must be fantasy.
  • It was during Sabrina’s suicide attempt that I realized just how many Wilder movies feature suicide attempts as a minor plot point. Are you okay, Billy?
  • Much of the supporting cast is comprised of future TV stars. Linus’ secretary Miss McCardle is played by Ellen Corby, aka Grandma Walton. Both Nancy Kulp and Raymond Bailey make uncredited appearances here a decade before their teaming on “The Beverly Hillbillies”. And blink and you’ll miss Marion Ross (Mrs. Cunningham on “Happy Days”) as one of Elizabeth’s friends at a party.
  • Age issues aside, it’s fun to watch Bogie and Holden play against type. Bogart trades in his stoic lowlifes for a straight-laced businessman, while Holden takes a break from his cynical dramatic leads to play a more light-hearted cad.
  • Sabrina doesn’t look too different after two years in Paris, besides her haircut and wardrobe. Side note: Most of Hepburn’s dresses were designed by Hubert de Givenchy, but were actually made by Edith Head and the Paramount costume department. Because Givenchy went uncredited for his designs, Edith Head received the Oscar for Costume Design.
  • Once again, you are all so lucky that Audrey Hepburn is so charming. Her natural star power really smooths over this movie’s major problems.
  • There are times when Bogart sounds like Edward G. Robinson. Even he doesn’t remember which gangster he was. And while I’m still grossed out by the Linus/Sabrina shipping, if anyone could successfully charm a significantly younger woman, it’s Bogart.
  • “Suppose I was ten years younger and you weren’t in love with David.” Nope, still gross.
  • As you can probably guess by now, I don’t have a lot to say about “Sabrina”. It’s pleasant, but there was definitely a barrier between me and this movie. I found myself biding my time until this film’s inevitable happy ending, which is…sweet?

Legacy

  • “Sabrina” marked the end of Billy Wilder’s 12 year contract with Paramount Pictures. Wilder’s next movie would be with 20th Century Fox: the aforementioned “Seven Year Itch”.
  • This film was the first collaboration between Audrey Hepburn and Hubert de Givenchy, who would go on to design Hepburn’s iconic wardrobe in “Breakfast at Tiffany’s“.
  • “Sabrina” has had a few remakes over the years, most notably an American remake in 1995 by Sydney Pollack. Despite a cast led by Harrison Ford and Julia Ormond, a score by that John Williams, and some good notices from critics, “Sabrina” never rose above the inevitable comparisons to its predecessor.

#544) Stormy Weather (1943)

#544) Stormy Weather (1943)

OR “Here’s to You, Mr. Robinson”

Directed by Andrew Stone

Written by Frederick Jackson and Ted Koehler

Class of 2001

No trailer so…I dunno, here’s the opening?

The Plot: Told primarily in flashback, Bill Williamson (Bill Robinson) recounts his show business career, from dive bars to nightclubs to Vaudeville. There’s an ongoing romantic subplot with singer Selina Rogers (Lena Horne), and some comic relief from Bill’s friend Gabe (Dooley Wilson), but primarily this movie is an excuse to highlight some of the great African-American talent of the era. Besides Robinson and Horne, there’s Fats Waller, Ada Brown, Mae E. Johnson, Katherine Dunham, the Nicholas Brothers, and Cab Calloway!

Why It Matters: While the NFR admits “Stormy Weather” is “not the most imaginative of scripts or direction”, they feel that the film’s roster of talent “distinguishes it among musicals of the day”.

But Does It Really?: The NFR write-up pretty much hits this one on the head. “Stormy Weather” is on the NFR for what it represents (an outstanding array of African-American talent) rather than what it is (an otherwise standard movie musical). You still have to muscle through some of the era’s more uncomfortable racial stereotypes and tropes (more on those later), but “Stormy Weather” is an important time capsule of some of the 20th century’s greatest entertainers. A slight pass for NFR induction.

Everybody Gets One: After starting out as a busker at age 8, Bill “Bojangles” Robinson eventually became a tap dancer in vaudeville, with some saying he single-handedly revived tap as an art form. Although often chastised for the “Uncle Tom” figure he played on stage and in the movies, Robinson was proud of the many racial barriers he broke during his lifetime, as well as his ongoing civil rights efforts. Side note: No one knows exactly how Bill Robinson got the nickname “Bojangles”, though the most common story is he acquired it as a child in Richmond, Virginia.

Wow, That’s Dated: It’s an all-Black cast and I still have to issue a BLACKFACE WARNING? Is nothing sacred?

Title Track: Written by Harold Arlen and Ted Koehler in 1933, “Stormy Weather” was first performed by Ethel Waters at Harlem’s famous Cotton Club. As this film’s title, “Stormy Weather” was a replacement for the original name, “Thanks, Pal”.

Other notes 

  • “Stormy Weather” is often linked with MGM’s “Cabin in the Sky”, the first all-Black movie from a Hollywood studio, released three months before “Stormy”. None of my research detailed what specifically created this important one-two punch in movie history, other than “Cabin” was a film adaptation of a successful stage musical, and it is believed that Fox greenlit “Stormy Weather” to “jump on the band wagon” as it were. Coincidentally, both movies star Lena Horne.
  • Director Andrew Stone is not well remembered today, but he had a successful run of films that, like “Stormy Weather”, centered around music or musical figures (he had recently helmed “The Great Victor Herbert“). I couldn’t find any specifics regarding Stone’s input on “Stormy Weather”, corroborating accounts from various colleagues that his directing style was “unimaginative” and “literal”.
  • We have a massive readout on the Michael Douglas scale: Despite their characters being portrayed as contemporaries, Bill Robinson is 39 years older than love interest Lena Horne! Not that it matters: this is the least affectionate love story in movie history. I don’t even think they hug at any point. An unfortunate double-standard of the time.
  • At last we get Dooley Wilson in a non-“Casablanca” movie. Wilson’s turn here as Gabe is essentially the old Jack Benny routine: a cheapskate constantly conning his way out of paying for anything. I was waiting for Dooley to have a White, raspy-voiced valet.
  • In addition to the aforementioned blackface, this movie gives us an extended cakewalk sequence, with costumes a bit on the Little Black Sambo side. It’s fleeting, but still quite cringeworthy.
  • The more of Bill Robinson I watch in this movie, the less likely I am to keep submitting “The Little Colonel” for NFR consideration. Sure, the scene of Robinson and Shirley Temple dancing up the stairs is iconic, but why induct a movie for one Robinson number when you’ve already got a movie on the list that’s full of them?
  • This is one of Thomas “Fats” Waller’s rare film appearances, and sadly his last before dying of pneumonia at age 39 five months after the release of “Stormy Weather”.
  • When you think about it, the film’s emphasis on musical numbers over characters makes sense for the time. “Stormy Weather” is an entire feature of the one-note stereotypes and specialty acts that Black actors were allowed to be in the movies. Aside from the work of Oscar Michaeux and Spencer Williams, this is what Black representation looked like in 1943.
  • “Diga Diga Doo” is a tough number to watch, but points for whoever rhymed “nature” with “mate, you’re”.
  • Cab Calloway is another one of those performers who somehow has three movies on the Registry despite not being known for their film work. I’m not complaining, I just think it’s interesting.
  • Whoa, Cab and Gabe are giving me a lot of jive talk at once. Someone call Barbara Billingsley.
  • By virtue of its “staged” appearance, “Stormy Weather” is hardly a remarkable movie musical moment, but it’s a great performance by Lena Horne, as well as by Katharine Dunham and her dance troupe.
  • And then at the very last minute we get an appearance from dancers Fayard and Harold Nicholas. As always, the brothers do not disappoint with their precision, and their “Jumpin’ Jive” number still gets shared on social media as a testament to their work.
  • And because it’s 1943: Remember to buy your war bonds in this theater.

Legacy 

  • “Stormy Weather” was released in the summer of 1943, in the midst of several race riots throughout the country (including the “Zoot Suit Riots“). Despite protests from African-American groups, and half of the country’s first-run theaters refusing to screen it, “Stormy Weather” was a box office hit.
  • “Stormy Weather” the movie helped extend the popularity of “Stormy Weather” the song, with everyone from Frank to Judy to Etta to Ringo covering the classic. Lena’s performance in this movie made the song one of her standards as well.
  • After almost 50 years in show business, “Stormy Weather” was Bill Robinson’s last movie before his death in 1949.
  • Between “Stormy” and “Cabin”, 1943 was Lena Horne’s breakout year, with Ms. Horne maintaining her well deserved icon status for the rest of her long life.
  • “Stormy Weather” rarely gets mentioned outside of its historical significance, though the Nicholas Brothers’ routine has its fans, including Fred Astaire, who once told the brothers that it was “the greatest movie musical number” he had ever seen.

Further Viewing: “Cabin in the Sky”, this movie’s companion piece, was finally added to the National Film Registry in 2020. The Horse’s Head post for that is coming soon…maybe.

Listen to This: Ethel Waters’ original 1933 rendition of “Stormy Weather” made the National Recording Registry in 2004. Other “Stormy” artists on the Registry include Lena Horne (“Command Performance“), Cab Calloway (“Minnie the Moocher“), and Fats Waller (“Ain’t Misbehavin’“).

#543) Porky in Wackyland (1938)

#543) Porky in Wackyland (1938)

OR “Much A Dodo About Nothing”

Directed by Robert Clampett

Written by Warren Foster

Class of 2000

The Plot: Porky Pig (voiced by Mel Blanc) travels to “Darkest Africa” to hunt the elusive Dodo bird (also voiced by Mel Blanc). Porky arrives in Wackyland, which is filled with all kinds of surreal cartoon creations. The Dodo bird finally appears, but it turns out capturing him is more challenging (and more absurd) than Porky expected.

Why It Matters: The only superlative in the NFR write-up comes not from the Registry itself, but rather Leonard Maltin, who calls the film an “eye-popping tribute to the unlimited horizons of the animated cartoon.”

But Does It Really?: Oh sure. At a time when Disney had the market cornered on groundbreaking, realistic animation, shorts like “Porky in Wackyland” are a good reminder that cartoons shouldn’t always obey real-world physics and logic. Plus, I’m always surprised how few Looney Tunes and/or Merrie Melodies shorts are on the NFR (Bugs, Daffy, and Porky have one starring role apiece). A yes for “Porky in Wackyland”, and hopefully some more classic Warner Bros. animation on this list.

Everybody Gets One: “Porky in Wackyland” is the only NFR appearance for three of the most influential figures in Looney Tunes history. “Wackyland” was writer Warren Foster’s first Looney Tunes script, and he wrote 170 more over the next 20 years. Producer Leon Schlesinger was responsible for bringing such luminaries as Mel Blanc, Tex Avery, and Chuck Jones on board to Looney Tunes, and his hands-off approach to producing allowed his animators free reign over their creations. Director Bob Clampett spent 15 years with Looney Tunes, helping create Porky Pig, Daffy Duck, and Tweety, among other characters.

Wow, That’s Dated: Mainly the idea of a cartoon character’s comic schtick being a stutter. Other than that, paperboys, as well as a reference to the Sinclair Lewis novel “It Can’t Happen Here“. Is Wackyland in danger of becoming a dictatorship?

Seriously, Oscars?: No Oscar nomination for “Porky in Wackyland”; the Animated Short category was still dominated by Walt Disney in 1938 (the winner was his “Ferdinand the Bull“). Although Porky Pig never won the Oscar outright, he received his first nomination with 1944’s “Swooner Crooner“.

Other notes 

  • Predating Bugs Bunny and Daffy Duck by a few years, Porky Pig was the first breakout star of Warner Bros.’ Merrie Melodies. After his supporting debut in 1935’s “I Haven’t Got a Hat”, Porky became an audience favorite and quickly rose to star status. At this point, Bob Clampett hadn’t quite settled on Porky’s personality (sometimes he was depicted as a child), but here with “Wackyland” Porky settles into his years as the befuddled straight man.
  • Porky was originally voiced by Joe Dougherty, who actually did speak with a stutter. Because Doughtery had no control over his stutter, he was quickly replaced by Mel Blanc, with the speech disorder being maintained for comic effect.
  • For the curious, the last official sighting of a dodo bird was in 1662 in one of the Mauritius isles in the Indian Ocean, so Porky heading off to Africa to find the dodo isn’t so far-fetched. The dodo bird would become synonymous with extinction 200 years later when it was featured as a character in Lewis Carroll’s “Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland“, which this short gets its title from.
  • Oh good, a Jolson “Mammy” reference. This is why I keep putting off watching “The Jazz Singer” for the blog.
  • Among the assorted oddities in Wackyland is a prototype of “CatDog“.
  • There’s also a three-headed monster that is close enough to the Three Stooges, but not close enough for copyright infringement. In theory, anyone could have those haircuts and poke each other in the eyes.
  • Dodo has a lot of the same qualities as early Daffy Duck: the voice, the antagonism, and the overall, well, daffiness. It feels like either one of them could have become Looney Tunes’ next breakout character.

Legacy 

  • “Porky in Wackyland” is considered one of the greatest animated shorts of all time. In 1994, animation expert Jerry Beck ranked “Wackyland” number 8 in his book “The 50 Greatest Cartoons”. In reference to its unapologetic absurdism, historian Steve Schneider called this short “Warner Bros.’ Emancipation Proclamation”. A bit extreme, but I see their point.
  • After his successful stint with Looney Tunes, Bob Clampett would focus on his other great artistic love – puppetry – and create “Time for Beany” in 1949. Warren Foster would go on to work for “The Flintstones”, writing almost half of the show’s episodes.
  • “Wackyland” would be remade in color as 1949’s “Dough for the Do-Do”, and the Dodo character would make appearances throughout Looney Tunes history, including the 1990s cartoon “Tiny Toon Adventures”.

Bonus Clip: This “blooper” of Porky Pig cursing after messing up a take. Who knew that Porky was the Christian Bale of his day?

That’s all, folks!

#542) Kiss Me Deadly (1955)

#542) Kiss Me Deadly (1955)

OR “Hammer Time”

Directed by Robert Aldrich

Written by A.I. Bezzerides. Based on the novel by Mickey Spillane.

Class of 1999 

The Plot: Ralph Meeker is Mike Hammer, an L.A. detective who plays by his own rules. Late one night Hammer picks up hitchhiker Christina (Cloris Leachman), who gives him the cryptic message “Remember me” before she is beaten up and killed by thugs. Hammer decides to investigate the circumstances surrounding Christina’s murder, deducing that following this thread will lead to “something big”. What follows is a joyride through L.A.’s seedy underbelly and ecounters with mob boss Carl Evello (Paul Stewart), Christina’s roommate Lily (Gaby Rogers), and the corrupt Dr. Soberin (Albert Dekker). It seems that everyone connected to Christina is trying to find a mysterious box rumored to contain a fortune. What they find is a mystery so big film geeks are still debating it.

Why It Matters: The NFR write-up is mostly an overview about the movie and its “alternate” ending (more on that later). There’s a more thorough analysis in an essay by filmmaker/Robert Aldrich expert Alain Silver.

But Does It Really?: “Kiss Me Deadly” stands out in the film noir category not so much for its gritty realism or its taboo subject matter, but rather from its off-beat artistic strokes. Underneath the hood of this seemingly straight-forward murder mystery is some really creative work from Aldrich, Bezzerides and cinematographer Ernest Laszlo. I suspect the film is also on this list to represent Mike Hammer, a popular 20th century literary figure. While not an untouchable film classic, “Kiss Me Deadly” is still an enjoyable, fun-to-analyze movie 65 years later, and I give it a pass.

Everybody Gets One: Born into a family of wealthy Rhode Island socialites and politicians, Robert Aldrich was disinherited by his father after dropping out of the University of Virginia. Aldrich moved out west and got a job at RKO as a production clerk. He worked his way up to becoming an assistant director (including for fellow NFR entry “Force of Evil”), and by the 1950s was directing feature films. Many of Aldrich’s frequent collaborators first worked with him in his assistant director days.

Wow, That’s Dated: The usual ’50s stuff: pay phones, gas station attendants, plus the phrase “bedroom dick”, which doesn’t mean what you think it does.

Other notes 

  • This movie assumes you already know who Mike Hammer is. First appearing in Mickey Spillane’s 1947 book “I, the Jury”, Hammer is a hard-nosed detective and self-described misanthrope. In contrast to the stoic cynicism of a Sam Spade or Philip Marlowe, Hammer’s emotions often got the better of him, his rage consistently leading to violent fights with various lowlifes. Although critics at the time derided the brutality and sensuality of the novels, the Mike Hammer series were among the most successful books of the 1950s.
  • “Kiss Me Deadly” was the second film adaptation of a Mike Hammer novel. The first was 1953’s “I, the Jury” with actor Biff Elliot as Hammer.
  • Right from the start this movie is going to be different. A cold open (unheard of in 1955), followed by credits that scroll downwards! And a song from Nat “King” Cole! Talk about unforgettable.
  • Despite all of the murder mysteries on this list, we so rarely get an actor playing the “vic” who went on to become a star in their own right. In this case, the late great Cloris Leachman. You don’t see her pre-70s work too often, but as always, Leachman imbues a lot of character into Christina’s brief screentime.
  • The best exchange in this movie is between Hammer and his assistant Velda. “You’re never around when I need you.” “You never need me when I’m around.”
  • The film’s most impressive technology: Hammer’s early version of an answering machine, consisting of a reel-to-reel tape mounted on his wall.
  • “Kiss Me Deadly” is to Los Angeles what “Vertigo” is to San Francisco: a lovely time capsule of the city as it once was. There’s plenty of local landmarks highlighted throughout Hammer’s travels, including Angels Flight.
  • [Spoilers] When people think of the film’s cinematography, they’re usually thinking of the shot of mechanic Nick being crushed to death by a car he’s working on. The camera rushes to his face, making that shot from the point of view of the car’s…axle?
  • Thankfully neither Aldrich nor screenwriter I.A. Bezzerides care a lot about the novel’s convoluted mystery, and the movie spends more time on character and aesthetic, which helps make the film more palatable. You can follow the clues if you want, but that’s not this film’s priority.
  • Ralph Meeker kinda looks like Charlton Heston. And occasionally Maximilian Schell from the right angle.
  • I also enjoy the moment where Hammer points out how polite the henchmen are being as they escort Hammer away. Their response: “We’re here on this Earth such a brief span, we might as well be.”
  • Dr. Soberin shows up in full classic Bond villain mode, monologuing while the hero is tied up. They even obscure his face during his first scene!
  • Shoutout to Percy Helton as Doc Kennedy, the somewhat sadistic coroner who tries to extort money out of Mike Hammer. Helton also played the drunk Santa who gets fired at the beginning of “Miracle on 34th Street“.
  • My main takeaway from this movie is that no one locked anything in the ’50s. People could just hop into your car or walk into your home. Different times indeed.
  • And just when you think you know where this movie is going, along comes that ending. Without giving too much away, it infuses the Cold War paranoia of the time with the ending of “Raiders of the Lost Ark“, and a pinch of “Seven” thrown in for fun. It packs quite a punch.
  • [Mini-spoiler] At some point following the film’s first release, the ending was trimmed by about a minute. The original closing shots show Hammer and Velda escaping the burning house along the beach, but the truncated ending finishes with the previous shot of the house on fire, implying that Hammer and Velda perished inside. What a difference a few cuts make.

Legacy 

  • Although “Kiss Me Deadly” received rave reviews from critics, it was not a hit with American audiences. The film did, however, do well overseas, and found a cult following in France. Both Jean-Luc Goddard and François Truffaut have cited “Kiss Me Deadly” and its experimental cinematography as an influence on the French New Wave cinema of the late 1950s.
  • Easily the film’s most iconic homage: Quentin Tarantino alludes to “Kiss Me Deadly” and its mystery box with the briefcase in “Pulp Fiction“.
  • Mickey Spillane wrote nine more Mike Hammer novels after the release of “Kiss Me Deadly”, two of which were published posthumously following Spillane’s death in 2006.
  • There have been several adaptations of Mike Hammer over the years, most memorably a TV series in the ’80s starring Stacy Keach as Hammer.
  • Among Robert Aldrich’s later films as director are “What Ever Happened to Baby Jane?” and “The Dirty Dozen”; neither of which are on the NFR. As God is my witness, I will get “Baby Jane” on that list (and then “Dirty Dozen” if there’s time).