#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.

#2) The Godfather (1972) [Original 2017 Post]

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#2) The Godfather (1972)

OR “Why I Don’t Like Oranges”

Directed by Francis Ford Coppola

Written by Mario Puzo and Francis Ford Coppola. Based on the novel by Puzo.

Class of 1990

This is my original “Godfather” write-up; wouldn’t you rather read my revised, updated version?

The Original Trailer, which doesn’t believe in actual footage or spoiler alerts.

The Plot: A decade in the life of influential New York mafia family the Corleones. The Godfather (Marlon Brando) is ailing and after a close call, hot-headed eldest son “Sonny” (James Caan) takes over the family business. Meanwhile, youngest son Michael (Al Pacino) wants nothing to do with his family or the business, but keeps getting drawn in to both. Rounding out the cast are Robert Duvall as the family consigliere, John Cazale and Talia Shire as the other Corleone siblings, and Diane Keaton as Michael’s girlfriend who never quite learns to not question the business.

Why It Matters: The NFR calls it “the highest echelons of filmmaking” and cites the film’s cast, cinematography and score.

But Does It Really?: Yes. Next question.

But seriously, I have nothing to say about this film you haven’t heard before. It’s about as perfect as filmmaking gets. The key is that at no point does it ever scream at you “look at how perfect this film is!” Much like Michael and the family business, it takes its time luring you in. The direction and cinematography never draw attention to themselves, but a change to either would be film blasphemy. The cast is flawless; from Brando’s (endlessly imitated) performance unlike anything else in his canon, to Pacino’s subtle transformation, and on down. This film launched everyone’s careers and it’s amazing to watch all these young actors more than hold their own with Brando. Perfect, engaging, groundbreaking, flawless, and possibly the NFR entry with the widest influence. The only problem is how this film didn’t make the NFR’s first round of induction, having to wait a year to make the list.

Shout Outs: No specific references, but many have said that [Name Redacted]’s death scene is based on a similar scene in “Bonnie and Clyde”. Others have also compared the last shot of the movie to the last shot of “The Searchers”.

Everybody Gets One: Abe “Fish” Vigoda, and the great Alex Rocco aka Roger Meyers Jr. from select episodes of “The Simpsons”.

But Not Everybody Bats 1000: A very special shout-out to John Cazale (Fredo). Before his tragic death at only 42, he made five films. But not only are all five films in the NFR, they all received Best Picture Oscar nominations, with three wins. A perfect legacy for someone we lost too soon.

Wow, That’s Dated: Nothing major, but James Caan’s hair always screamed early ‘70s to me. Plus as a bonus you get allllllllll the ethnic slurs in this film.

Take a Shot: A few references to “Godfather” throughout the opening wedding. Following that, you have to be really patient, but in the last hour you can get pretty wasted.

Seriously, Oscars?: Despite an impressive 11 nominations, “The Godfather” only managed three wins (Albeit in three major categories: Picture, Actor, and Adapted Screenplay). Most of its losses went to work done by fellow NFR entry “Cabaret”, whose technical achievements are just as good as “The Godfather”, just a whole lot flashier.

And while we’re on the subject, can we talk about Brando’s win for Best Actor? Of course he’s good, but is he really the lead? Especially over Pacino, who has more screen time, but shared a supporting nod with James Caan and Robert Duvall? I understand studio/actor politics, but this is one of those tricky “co-lead” gray areas that makes sense at the time, but leads to a lot of head-scratching in the future.

Other notes:

  • I feel like Kay gets plenty of red flags about Michael and his family during the wedding. If she still wants to get involved she’s been properly warned.
  • Though never confirmed by Mario Puzo, Johnny Fontane seems to be based on Frank Sinatra. Both were crooners in the late ’40s who successfully pivoted to films, and then eventually Vegas in the mid ’50s. Sinatra seemed to be aware of it, I’m just surprised he never used his alleged real-life mafia connections to do anything about it.
  • Quick story: I knew I was going to call this blog The Horse’s Head before I picked “The Godfather” for viewing. It’s been about 10 years since I’ve seen the film and I legitimately forgot that the horse’s handler at the beginning is also named Tony. I’m not much for “signs” but this one definitely comes close.
  • Geez, I’ve only done two of these and both of them feature Oscar statuettes in the background. Real subtle, you guys.
  • What happens to Don Vito’s cat? It’s in the wedding and then just disappears. Hope it didn’t betray the family. Though I’m sure the cat wouldn’t mind if it got to “sleep with the fishes”.
  • It may seem gratuitous that Simonetta Stefanelli (Apollonia) bares her breasts in one scene, but don’t worry ladies, this film gives you the equally impressive breasts of Richard Castellano (Clemenza).
  • The scene where Carlo beats up Connie must have been really weird for Coppola to direct. “Okay Gianni, in this scene I want you to yell and beat up my sister.” Thanksgiving ’72 must have been a tough one.
  • Is it just me, or is there a lot of ADR in this film? Did Brando have to rerecord everything? Could no one understand him? And practically every time there’s a long shot of two people walking in this film it sounds dubbed

Legacy

  • Proof that sequels can run the gamut from equal to their predecessor to vastly inferior.
  • Whatever the hell a “Novel for Television” is.
  • This is the movie that put Coppola on the map, so we have this to blame for Nicolas Cage and all them Schwartzmans.
  • In addition to the above, we have the acclaimed Sofia Coppola the writer-director and the less-so Sofia Coppola the actor.
  • Please see “Scorsese, Films of Martin”.
  • Also that HBO series.
  • The most awkward moment in Oscar history.
  • While he didn’t invent the phrase, James Caan’s ad-libbed “bada bing” has definitely become a thing since then.
  • That scene in “You’ve Got Mail”.
  • The best scene in “Robin Hood: Men in Tights”.
  • And, of course, the very uninspired title of this blog.

Further Listening: Special mention to “Che La Luna Mezzo Mare”, the song Mama Corleone sings at Connie’s wedding. The Lou Monte recording is the closest I ever got to embracing my Italian heritage as a child. Enjoy.

#1) Sunset Boulevard (1950) [Original 2017 Post]

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#1) Sunset Boulevard (1950)

OR “The One with the Dead Monkey”

Directed by Billy Wilder

Screenplay by Charles Brackett & Billy Wilder & D.M. Marshman Jr.

Class of 1989

Original Theatrical Trailer

This is the original post I wrote for “Sunset Boulevard”, but wouldn’t you rather read my superior revised write-up instead?

The Plot: Every journey has a first step, and what better place for me to start than in Hollywood? William Holden is Joe Gillis, a jaded, down-on-his-luck screenwriter who ends up caught in the tangled web of former silent film star Norma Desmond (Gloria Swanson) and her butler Max (Erich von Stroheim). Along the way he helps Desmond with her comeback vehicle, while at the same time collaborating with/falling for a script reader with larger aspirations (Nancy Olson). Secrets are revealed, pictures get smaller, and someone goes for a swim.

Why It Matters: NFR calls it “Arguably the greatest movie about Hollywood” and cites the film’s “brilliant dialog, decadent production design and wide-ranging acting styles [that] have never been topped.”

But Does It Really?: I may argue the legitimacy of other entries, but not this one. Re-watching it for this post reminded me just how good this film is. A perfect blend of film-noir, a haunted house story, an adult romance, and oh yes, a really dark comedy. Like so many of Wilder’s best, the screenplay lays a solid foundation that is only amplified by outstanding direction and a top-notch cast. It’s the rare film that rewards you with each viewing. At a time when film was just starting to acknowledge its history, this movie looks at the first generation of Hollywood stars as the ghosts that live among us. This film has a lot to say about Hollywood, and it says it all in a fresh, haunting way.

Shout Outs: Sheldrake says he turned down “Gone with the Wind”, Gillis wonders if the monkey was related to “King Kong”.

Everybody Gets One: Gossip columnist Hedda Hopper, as well as actor Jack Webb, who apparently knows a guy in the Department of Missing Persons.

Wow, That’s Dated: All kinds of ’40s name dropping going on in this one. Plus a joking reference to the Black Dahlia murder (I guess Wilder and company didn’t believe in “Too Soon”).

Take a Shot: The title is in the first line of dialogue, less than two minutes in. It gets a few mentions throughout, though not enough to even get a good buzz going.

Seriously, Oscars?: While the film won for its screenwriting, art direction and score, the Oscars did not acknowledge any of the film’s performers. Upon losing Best Actress to newcomer Judy Holliday, Gloria Swanson allegedly asked her “Couldn’t you have waited until next year?”

Other notes:

  • M. Marshman Jr. (the film’s third credited writer) was a journalist who impressed Wilder & Brackett with his critique of their earlier film “The Emperor Waltz”. And who says filmmakers and critics can’t get along?
  • Not to take anything away from the film’s well deserved Oscars, but the film does mention the award a few times throughout. Sheldrake even has one on his shelf at the beginning. Hint hint, Academy.
  • Is it just me, or does Gloria Swanson sound a lot like Madeline Kahn?
  • How does one get the nickname “Hog-Eye”?
  • At one point Gillis mentions the “bowling alley in the cellar”. Very disappointing that no scenes take place down there.
  • Perhaps the most unfortunate thing about this film is that Norma Desmond is ONLY FIFTY YEARS OLD. Her career’s been over for 20 years, which means SHE WAS THIRTY. Some things never change; Hollywood will let a dinosaur like Cecil B. DeMille keep directing, but a woman over 50 is useless (unless she works for Ryan Murphy, of course).
  • According to the book “Close-Up on Sunset Boulevard” by Sam Staggs, the journal Commonweal predicted in its review of the film that “the Library of Congress will be glad to have in its archives a print of ‘Sunset Boulevard’.” Pffft, what do they know?

Legacy

  • The Andrew Lloyd Webber mega-musical adaptation. (And quite a few stories about the many divas who played Norma).
  • At least half of all Carol Burnett skits.
  • Not one, but two episodes of “The Twilight Zone”.
  • Airport 1975
  • A really good episode of the otherwise forgotten “The John Larroquette Show”.
  • Practically everyone in every film since announcing they are “ready for my close-up, Mr. DeMille.”