#9) The Music Box (1932)

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#9) The Music Box (1932)

OR “Stairway to Comedy Heaven”

Directed by James Parrott

Dialogue by H.M. Walker

Class of 1997

This is one of those films that has entered into the public domain, so there’s a lot of versions of this online. This is the best version I could find.

The Plot: Strapped for cash, Stan Laurel & Oliver Hardy try their luck as a transfer company and take on the deceivingly simple task of delivering a player piano to a client’s home. The only things in their way are a nosy cop, a volatile professor, and oh yes, a flight of stairs with 133 steps.

Why It Matters: Interestingly, the NFR description doesn’t actually cite a specific reason “The Music Box” is in the registry. The accompanying essay by Laurel & Hardy expert Randy Skretvedt is much more loving.

But Does It Really?: Let me put it this way; I didn’t write too many notes for this one because I was laughing out loud too much. This film is quintessential Laurel & Hardy. Anyone who doesn’t know who these two men are or why they are among the best comedy duos ever will have their answer after watching “The Music Box”. Hardy’s pompous over-confidence and Laurel’s endearing earnestness are on fine display here, and the two compliment each other beautifully. On the page, a 28-minute short about moving a piano up some stairs shouldn’t be funny the whole way through, but this one pulls it off (though I admit it trips at the finish line just a bit). “The Music Box” is filled with great visual gags, pratfalls, and classic examples of set-ups and payoffs by two of the best.

Wow, That’s Dated: Player pianos, horse-drawn carriages, doorbells with actual bells.

Seriously, Oscars?: This won the very first Oscar for what was then called “Best Short Subject – Comedy”. That category would eventually morph into today’s “Best Live Action Short Film”.

Other notes

  • I had to look up the word “foundered”. Well played, movie.
  • Given how mean that nursemaid was to the boys, I wish they had gone full “Potemkin” on that baby carriage.
  • How come Laurel doesn’t talk for the first 7 minutes of this short?
  • There are two things that Hardy does in this short (as well as in others) that will never fail to make me laugh; his welp of pain when he’s the brunt of a pratfall, and his direct take to the camera with his “Can you believe this?” look.
  • After 25 minutes of watching them abuse each other, the shot of Laurel & Hardy dancing while cleaning up is just pure joy.
  • The steps used in the film are still in Silver Lake, and are officially known as the “Music Box Steps”.

Legacy

  • Every idiot who thinks they can repeat the bit.
  • That one scene from “Friends”.
  • That time Laurel & Hardy presented at the Oscars, despite the handicap that they had been dead for several decades.
  • More blatant disregard for pianos.
  • The third act of “Home Alone”.
  • And of course, the very loose 1989 remake starring Jessica Lange.

Further Viewing: A Laurel & Hardy classic that probably won’t make it onto the Registry any time soon, “Babes in Toyland” (aka March of the Wooden Soldiers) is one of my perennial Christmas favorites. It’s dated and weird as hell, but thanks to the boys, it’s also drop-dead funny.

#8) The Graduate (1967) [Original 2017 Post]

1967-the-graduate#8) The Graduate (1967)

OR “Mind the Generation Gap”

Directed by Mike Nichols

Written by Calder Willingham and Buck Henry. Based on the novel by Charles Webb.

Class of 1996

Original Theatrical Trailer

This is my original “Graduate” write-up, but wouldn’t you rather read the revised, expanded version instead?

The Plot: Benjamin Braddock (Dustin Hoffman) has just graduated from a fancy east coast college and returns to his parents’ house in California for the summer. Unsure of what he wants to do with his life, Benjamin spends his days lounging in the pool, and his nights sleeping with family friend Mrs. Robinson (Anne Bancroft). Things get complicated as outcast Benjamin starts to come into his own, and get more complicated with the arrival of Mrs. Robinson’s daughter Elaine (Katharine Ross).

Why It Matters: The NFR cites the work of Nichols, Henry, Hoffman and especially Bancroft. Their description of the film also goes out of its way to point out that the film seems dated in places and doesn’t quite capture the ‘60s the way “Easy Rider” does. The expanded essay by Jami Bernard is much more forgiving.

But Does It Really?: Many will carp about the film not quite capturing the ‘60s, but “The Graduate” is the right film at the right time. When America was feeling uncertain about its future, along came Benjamin Braddock. This is one of the rare films that is a truly cinematic adaptation of a novel. It takes the exact same story and tells it in visuals just as much as in words (if not more). This is all grounded by the star-making turns of Dustin Hoffman and Anne Bancroft. He’s too old for the role and she’s too young, but together they are giving performances that are about as perfect as you could ask for.

Everybody Gets One: A trove of TV actors are featured in this one; William “Mr. Feeny” Daniels, Norman “Mr. Roper” Fell, and Marion “Aunt Clara” Lorne. But special mention must go to Walter Brooke. A film veteran of 25 years at the time of filming, Brooke achieved film immortality with just one word.

Wow, That’s Dated: Drive-in restaurants. Bossa nova as mood music. In addition, once the film does its on-location shots, the ‘60s love generation comes out in full force.

Take a Shot: The word “graduate” is not said until 43 minutes in, and then is only said one more time in the film. Even if you extend the word to its variations, you’re not getting buzzed.

Seriously, Oscars?: With seven nominations, and with competition that included “Bonnie and Clyde” and “In the Heat of the Night”, “The Graduate” ended up taking one statue; Best Director for Mike Nichols. Amazingly, this is one of the rare times that a film only won in the Best Director category without winning anything else.

Other notes

  • I guess the film is now owned by Studio Canal. The version I saw began with their current logo, which is incredibly out of place with this film.
  • Between Mike Nichols’ direction and the cinematography by Robert Surtees, the generation gap between Benjamin and his parents is immediate and powerful.
  • Regarding Ben’s isolation; does he have zero friends? One wonders what he must have been like as a roommate.
  • This film proves time and again that comedy is drama plus detail (a line that some attribute to Nichols’ old sparring partner Elaine May). The scene where Benjamin tries to book a hotel room is filled with great examples of this. There’s nothing inherently funny about getting a hotel room for your affair, but the scene’s details keep making it funnier and funnier.
  • Gotta love a montage so long it takes two songs to cover it.
  • I don’t want to slight Katharine Ross, because she’s doing fine work here, but what does Ben see in Elaine? She is so underwritten. We know nothing about what Ben sees in her other than she’s the same age as him. But then again, that may be the whole point.
  • Those who know their Bay Area geography know that when Benjamin drives on the Bay Bridge to go to Berkeley, HE’S GOING THE WRONG WAY. You can see the piers of San Francisco very clearly in the background. He should be driving on the less cinematic lower level.
  • Speaking of, I’ve been to UC Berkeley, and that ain’t it.
  • Everyone’s favorite “Before They Were Famous” moment is a young Richard Dreyfuss as one of the tenants in the boarding house. His character was, of course, studying oceanography and would eventually clash with Mr. Robinson on the subject.
  • How much easier would Ben tracking down Elaine have been if the internet had existed? It’s not a pleasant thought, but I’m going ahead with it.

Legacy

  • The Graduate Part 2 (which may or may not have Julia Roberts)
  • That time Dustin Hoffman cashed in on his own filmography.
  • That running joke on Season 4 of “Arrested Development”
  • The attempt to adapt the film (and the book) into a stage play. Jury’s still out.
  • [Deep exhale] Way to go, Meathead.

Listen to This: “Sounds of Silence”, Simon & Garfunkel’s first hit album, which includes two songs featured in the film; “April Come She Will” and of course, “The Sound of Silence”. “Mrs. Robinson” would be featured on side two of their first post-“Graduate” album, “Bookends”.

#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)

1385120056000-ap-jfk-anniversary-001#6) Zapruder film of the Kennedy Assassination (1963)

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”.