#7) The Day the Earth Stood Still (1951)

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#7) The Day the Earth Stood Still (1951)

OR “Aliens-They’re Just Like Us!”

Directed by Robert Wise

Written by Edmund H. North. Based on the short story “Farewell to the Master” by Harry Bates.

Class of 1995

SEE the original trailer! AMAZE at the blurb from Look Magazine! WITNESS the incredible spoiler!

The Plot: A UFO lands in Washington D.C. Its inhabitants are a human-like alien named Klaatu (Michael Rennie) and a robot named Gort (Lock Martin). After being attacked and escaping an army medical center, Klaatu takes refuge in a boarding house under the assumed name of Carpenter. He befriends a fellow tenant named Helen (Patricia Neal) and her son Bobby (Billy Gray). While in hiding he connects with Professor Barnhardt (Sam Jaffe), who is studying atomic power, a power that Klaatu’s race has already mastered. With his ship stranded in plain sight, and Gort waiting for his return, Klaatu tries to get an important message to the people of Earth.

Why It Matters: The NFR calls this a “classic science fiction film with a strong pacifist message”. Bernard Herrmann’s score also gets a shout-out.

But Does It Really?: This goes in my “absolutely yes” category. This film is the best kind of science fiction. It takes an interesting idea and runs with it in a realistic way. This is one of those films that makes me angry at how relevant it still is. Ultimately it is a film about communication and what we are and aren’t doing to achieve that. It is a call for peace, and no matter what type of world we are living in, we can always use the reminder.

Everybody Gets One: Frances “Aunt Bee” Bavier, who is especially saucy in this one for some reason. Billy Gray would go on to achieve fame as Bud on “Father Knows Best”.

Wow, That’s Dated: This film takes place in that brief time when both radio and television were news sources, with radio still dominating. This film also shows us a time when doctors could openly smoke in a hospital, and when two dollars could get you more than one movie ticket. Simpler times indeed.

Take a Shot: Sadly, no one says the phrase “the day the earth stood still” in this film. You’ll have to think of something else.

Seriously, Oscars?: Not a single nomination. Not Adapted Screenplay. Not Original Score. Nothing. The film did, however, win a Golden Globe in the now defunct category “Best Film Promoting International Understanding”. Always embarrassing when the Golden Globes beat the Oscars at recognizing a classic.

Other notes

  • “Farewell to the Master”, the short story this film was based on, contains the film’s bare bones, but doesn’t give us the pacifist viewpoint. It actually reads more like a “Twilight Zone” episode.
  • In films like these, no matter what the aliens have learned about our planet, they always land in America.
  • Klaatu reveals that his race studied Earth by listening to our radio broadcasts. I guess they missed “War of the Worlds“.
  • Once the name Carpenter came up I thought, “Oh no is this a Jesus metaphor?” Minimum research shows I’m not the only one who thought this. Allegedly director Robert Wise has said it’s purely coincidental.
  • My favorite scene in this film is when Klaatu and Bobby visit the ship site and the radio announcer talks to them, but immediately cuts Klaatu off when he starts talking about not “substituting fear for reason”. Stop being so relevant to my time, movie!
  • Among the trappings that this film could have fallen into, I appreciate that at no point does Klaatu lie to Bobby (the name Carpenter aside) and at no point do he and Helen get romantically involved.
  • Another great line in this film “It isn’t faith that makes good science, it’s curiosity.”
  • Did anyone else notice that throughout the film the “Room for Rent” sign is permanently lit? What is going on in that house?
  • If nothing else, this film predicted motion-sensor technology.
  • This film went out of its way to include very diverse extras, especially in the last scene. Now if only any of them had any lines…

Legacy

  • Don’t worry, they remade this with Keanu Reeves.
  • This is the film that every bad alien movie shown on “Mystery Science Theater 3000” was trying to be, particularly “This Island Earth”.
  • Bernard Herrmann used theremins in his score to give it an other-worldly quality. Everyone else in the ‘50s followed suit.
  • Speaking of, this is the score that inspired Danny Elfman to go into film composing.
  • The phrase “Klaatu barada nikto” has seeped so fully into science fiction culture that there’s a Wikipedia page keeping track of every time it’s referenced.
  • Fellow NFR entry “E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial”, another alien movie that may or may not be a Christ allegory.
  • Recent Oscar nominee “Arrival”, also based on a short story and also a science fiction film about peace and communication.

Further Viewing: This is as good a time as any to express my love for the film “The Lost Skeleton of Cadavra”, which owes a huge debt of gratitude to this film.

#6) Zapruder film of the Kennedy Assassination (1963)

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Filmed by Abraham Zapruder

Class of 1994

NOTE: In light of this film’s subject matter, I’ll be skipping the usual format. In addition, comments have been disabled. No one cares that you think this is a hoax.

What can I say? A lot has been written about what did or did not happen on November 22nd, 1963 in Dallas, Texas. All we know for sure is the 26 seconds captured by a local dress manufacturer with his 8mm camera; the President of the United States was gunned down in his prime. This is the second time I’ve watched this film (the first on a big screen for a college documentary class) and with any luck, I can avoid witnessing this unfortunate piece of American history again. This film’s preservation is a sad but important necessity in our film heritage.

Listen to This: While the NFR has chosen to preserve John Kennedy’s last day in office, the National Recording Registry has preserved his first. The Inauguration Ceremony of John F. Kennedy is the dawn of a new era in America, when we were told to “ask not what your country can do for you – ask what you can do for your country.” The inspiring beginning before the tragic end.

#5) Yankee Doodle Dandy (1942)

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#5) Yankee Doodle Dandy (1942)

OR “The Hoofer with a Heart of Gold”

Directed by Michael Curtiz

Written by Robert Buckner and Edmund Joseph. Story by Buckner. [Possible contributions by the Epstein Brothers]

Class of 1993

The Original Theatrical Trailer. Don’t have 2 hours to spare? Here’s the whole film in 4 minutes!

The Plot: James Cagney is George M. Cohan, the actor/songwriter/producer whose legacy includes the songs “Over There”, “Give My Regards to Broadway”, “You’re a Grand Old Flag” and of course, “Yankee Doodle Dandy”. Told in flashback while talking to Franklin D. Roosevelt (who is shot like George Steinbrenner on “Seinfeld”), an elderly Cohan recounts his life, from his “born in a trunk” beginnings on vaudeville, to his successes on Broadway.

Why It Matters: The NFR cites Cagney’s performance, as well as the film’s uber-patriotism.

But Does It Really?: I mean, that’s pretty much what this movie has going for it. It’s a very simple (and partially inaccurate) biopic, and its release not too long after we entered World War II pretty much ensures its strong flag-waving, but really this is a vehicle for Cagney. Compared to his work in many gangster films (more on those later), it’s a lot of fun watching him do a song-and-dance man turn. Part of the reason Cagney dominates is because everyone else is so poorly underwritten (at least Walter Huston gets a deathbed scene). And I fear that because Cohan is largely forgotten now most of this film’s spectacle will be lost on a modern audience. If you’re sticking with Cagney and its patriotism, then “Yankee Doodle Dandy” deserves a place in the registry for its historical contributions. Whether or not that significance carries over for a modern audience is still up for debate.

Wow, That’s Dated: There’s your standard ‘40s fare like jive talk, flags with 48 stars, and jabs at the Irish, but unfortunately this is the first of what will most likely be many films for which I have to give the BLACKFACE WARNING. It’s a quick scene early on during the family’s traveling montage, and it really doesn’t need to be there. It’s brief, but no less uncomfortable.

Take a Shot: The title gets a mention 6 minutes in, and then there’s the big title number 45 minutes in where you’ll have a ball. If you’re expanding the game to include the phrase “Yankee Doodle”, please pace yourself.

Seriously, Oscars?: The film won Cagney his only Oscar for Best Actor, and took home the prizes for Sound Recording and Scoring of a Musical Picture. And that’s about as much as I’d give this movie. One of the rare times I think the Oscars got it right. And this was the year after they snubbed “Citizen Kane”.

Other notes

  • If you watch the clock on FDR’s desk at the beginning and the end of the film, Cohan talks to him for pretty much the full length of the movie. That means his conversation with the president more-or-less happened in real time. Meanwhile Franklin’s sitting there thinking “Can you wrap this up pal? There’s a war on, ya know…”
  • Nepotism abound; Cagney’s brother William was an associate producer, and his real-life sister Jeanne plays Cohan’s sister!
  • At one point it is mentioned that the Cohans can’t get work “this side of San Francisco”. Is there a lot of business on the other side? Wouldn’t that be the Pacific Ocean?
  • If you think about it, Cohan was his generation’s Lin-Manuel Miranda. How do you kids like that?
  • Cagney is an excellent dancer, but not that good a lip-syncher.
  • This movie has one of my favorite old Hollywood tropes; big production numbers that are being presented on a theater stage despite the fact that they are waaaaaay too big to fit any standard stage.
  • The scene where Cohan meets Eddie Foy is mostly lost because no one remembers Eddie Foy. But it helps to know that he is played here by his son, Eddie Foy Jr., who must have gotten a kick out of doing this.
  • For those of you keeping score; Cagney was 42 when he filmed this, Joan Leslie was 16 (!), Walter Huston was 58, Rosemary DeCamp was 31 and Jeanne Cagney was 22. So, for most of the movie, no one in the main cast is playing their actual age. This also means Cagney was older than his mother!
  • There are two scenes where the boom mike casts a huge shadow on the set. How did no one notice this either time?
  • And finally, it should be worth noting that this movie has the unfortunate distinction of being the first film to be colorized by Ted Turner back in the ‘80s.

Legacy

  • That point in the ‘40s where everything had the words “Yankee” and “Doodle” in the title.
  • Cagney reprising his role of Cohan 13 years later for a cameo in “The Seven Little Foys”.

Listen to This: Two original recordings of Cohan songs; Billy Murray’s take on “You’re a Grand Old Rag” (Before it was changed to the less offensive “flag”) and Nora Bayes’ version of “Over There”.

#4) The Gold Rush (1925)

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#4) The Gold Rush (1925)

OR “The One Where Chaplin Eats His Shoe”

Written and Directed by Charles Chaplin

Class of 1992

NOTE: Like a few of the films we’ll be watching, this one has multiple versions. “The Gold Rush” can be viewed in its original 1925 silent version (which runs about 95 minutes) or in its 1942 re-release version that recuts a few things and adds a soundtrack and narration by Chaplin (this runs about 75 minutes). Since I’m not entirely sure which version is in the NFR, I watched the original 1925 cut. You can read my thoughts on the 1942 version here.

The Plot: Chaplin’s beloved Tramp character resurfaces as “The Lone Prospector” during the Klondike Gold Rush. Along the way he encounters a fellow prospector (Mack Swain) who may have struck it rich, a wanted criminal (Tom Murray) hiding out in a cabin, and a dance hall girl named Georgia (Georgia Hale) whom he falls for. There’s plenty of laughs and heart in the film originally subtitled “A Dramatic Comedy”.

Why It Matters: Interestingly enough, the NFR only refers to its two most iconic scenes (The shoe eating scene & the Oceana roll dance), as well as it being the film Chaplin wanted to be remembered for.

But Does It Really?: Maybe it was the longer print, or the slower pacing of the silent era, but this one took a while for me to get into. Don’t get me wrong, the iconic moments are remembered for good reason, but as a whole I can only say that this film has its moments. As for posterity, let’s say “The Gold Rush” is to Chaplin what “The Birds” is to Hitchcock; a classic to be sure, but compared to some of the director’s other films, not their definitive work.

Everybody Gets One: While many of them worked with Chaplin throughout the years, this is the only Chaplin film on the registry for most of the supporting cast. Henry Bergman (who plays Hank Curtis) is the exception, having also appeared in “Modern Times”.

Wow, That’s Dated: Fur coats as a sign of wealth. Pillows with actual feathers in them.

Take a Shot: Going solely on the titles of the original cut, a few shout outs but not enough to get your drink on.

Seriously, Oscars?: Since the Oscars didn’t come around until 1928, the original release was not eligible. BUT, in a weird lapse in eligibility, the film’s 1942 re-release was nominated in the categories of Sound Recording and Original Score. AND IT STILL LOST. Keep in mind this was 17 years later, when Chaplin was already a poster child for Oscar abuse.

Other notes

  • I’m curious why a perfectionist like Chaplin would risk the unpredictability of working with so many animals. This film has a few dogs, a cat, a mule, and even a bear! Plus a guy in a chicken suit!
  • Jim McKay looks like Zero Mostel circa “Fiddler on the Roof”. There. I said it.
  • I like that the cops hanging out in Jim McKay’s tent are trying to survive, yet still have time for their pipes.
  • There’s a lot of gunplay in this movie, including Jack wanting to shoot up Chaplin’s place just for fun. Sheesh.
  • Oh man, Chaplin really liked using that Georgia title card. Practically every time she shows up it’s there. If the stories are true, Chaplin really had it bad for Georgia Hale while making this film.

Legacy

  • That time Werner Herzog ate his shoe, and it just wasn’t the same.
  • I’m pretty sure this is the movie that gave us the trope of someone being really hungry and then imagining another person as food.
  • Robert Downey Jr. and Johnny Depp (plus whoever the dude is that made this video) attempting the roll dance.
  • Speaking of, even Grandpa Simpson gets in on the act.
  • But that’s not all, this runner-up in the Chaplin lookalike contest thinks he can do the roll dance too.

Further Viewing: A look at the restoration of the original 1925 cut using the surviving elements of the 1942 re-release.

UPDATE: (2/13/17) “Second Screening” link added.

#3) Gertie the Dinosaur (1914)

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#3) Gertie the Dinosaur (1914)

OR “Jurassic Art”

Written and Directed by Winsor McCay

Class of 1991

View the entire film in its silent glory.

The Plot: Winsor McCay (playing himself and billed as “America’s Greatest Cartoonist”) visits the American Museum of Natural History and sees the skeleton of a real dinosaur. He bets fellow cartoonist George McManus (also playing himself) that he can bring a dinosaur back to life through his cartoons. Incredibly stupid bet aside, McCay goes to work making 10,000 drawings of a dinosaur he names Gertie. At a dinner, McCay demonstrates his moving drawings and makes Gertie do a series of demeaning tricks. There’s also a sea serpent and a mastodon for some reason.

Why It Matters: While not the first animated film ever, “Gertie” helped shape modern animation in a number of ways. It was the first animated film with a background (!), as well as the first to infuse an animal with human-like characteristics. Animation buffs will also note this film’s invention of the techniques “cycling” (reusing the same bit of animation on a loop) and “Keyframe animation” (drawing a character’s main poses first and then drawing the “in-between” poses later).

But Does It Really?: For all of the above, absolutely. Though next time, maybe don’t toot your own horn so much, Mr. America’s Greatest Cartoonist. There were only, like, four of you back then. Cool your jets.

Shout Outs: McCay (ever the epitome of modesty) begins by listing his previous works (and future NFR entries) “Little Nemo” and “Dream of a Rarebit Fiend”.

Wow, That’s Dated: Common usage of the term “dinosaurus”, facial hair that can only be described as “Chester A. Arthurian”.

Take a Shot: Do intertitles count? I mean, no one actually says the name Gertie, but it shows up quite a bit on the cards.

Other notes:

  • The original film consisted solely of the animation, and was screened on the vaudeville circuit with McCay appearing on stage and interacting with Gertie. The live-action prologue was added later.
  • McCay’s son Robert recreated what the live version of “Gertie” would have looked like on a 1955 episode of “Disneyland” (aka “The Wonderful World of Disney”).
  • In addition to animating Gertie, McCay animated the background by hand for each frame of the film. Again, the first animated film with a background, so no one knew you didn’t need to do that.
  • So back to the bet; McCay bets another cartoonist that he can bring a dinosaur to life via animation. This wasn’t McCay’s first film. HE’S DONE THIS BEFORE. And you’re a fellow cartoonist, as well as his friend, you should know this! I think George knew all of this and just wanted McCay to get carpel tunnel.
  • I’m pretty sure one of the other men in the prologue is Sigmund Freud. My only proof is that he was alive back then and one of the guys looks like him. And frankly that’s all I need.
  • Did people always wear suits back then or did cartoonists get paid the same as lawyers?
  • I know we didn’t know a lot about dinosaurs back then, but did they like pumpkins? And why would Gertie want a pumpkin that small? That’s like me staving off hunger with a grain of rice.
  • I gotta admit that the animation on Gertie is still quite amusing 103 years later. I love her little dance at the end!

Legacy

  • Seeing as how Gertie is the mother of modern animation, I’m going to go ahead and blame her for “Rock Dog”.
  • Gertie is also (according to the actual film historians) the first dinosaur ever to appear on screen, so we have McCay to blame for, let’s say, “Theodore Rex”.
  • And speaking of interacting with a cartoon, I’m giving Gertie credit for “Turtle Talk with Crush”.
  • Gertie is also represented by, of all things, an ice cream shop at Walt Disney World in Florida.

Further Viewing: “Gertie on Tour”, an abandoned sequel that features Gertie in the present day (somehow). Along the way I’m pretty sure she kills an innocent bunch of people on a cable car. Then she dreams about the time she made a spectacle of herself at a dinosaur party. And that’s it.