#26) Rosemary’s Baby (1968)

#26) Rosemary’s Baby (1968)

OR “Only Demons in the Building”

Directed & Written by Roman Polanski. Based on the novel by Ira Levin.

Class of 2014 

This is the revised and expanded post of my original “Rosemary’s Baby” post, which you can read here.

The Plot: Rosemary Woodhouse and her stage actor husband Guy (Mia Farrow & John Cassavetes) move into the Bramford, a large Manhattan apartment building with a haunted history. After settling in, Rosemary discovers she is pregnant, and becomes increasingly annoyed when their elderly neighbors Roman and Minnie Castevet (Sidney Blackmer & Ruth Gordon) keep interfering with her plans, including making her see another doctor (Ralph Bellamy). As the months past, Guy becomes more distant and irritable, and Rosemary becomes more paranoid about the Castevets’ true intentions. No spoilers but – oh screw it, it’s been 50 years if you haven’t seen it by now you’re not going to – they’re witches who arranged for Rosemary to birth the Devil’s son. How’s that for a twist?

Why It Matters: The NFR calls the film no less than “a masterpiece of the horror-film genre”, praising Farrow, the supporting cast, and Polanski’s “expressive European style of psychological filmmaking”.

But Does It Really?: I had never seen “Rosemary’s Baby” before my first viewing for the blog five years ago, and it turns out this movie is somehow even scarier the second time around. Even knowing what the big reveals were, I still got the heebie-jeebies from watching this movie, thanks in no small part to Mia Farrow’s flawless performance, and Polanski’s excellent protracted suspense (and that’s as much as I’m willing to compliment Polanski). Over 50 years later, “Rosemary’s Baby” remains a hallmark of the horror genre, a landmark in pop culture, and a no-brainer for NFR inclusion.

Everybody Gets One: The daughter of director John Farrow and actress Maureen O’Sullivan, Mia Farrow came to prominence in the mid 1960s; on screen for the popular primetime soap opera “Peyton Place”, and off-screen for her marriage to Frank Sinatra, a man 29 years her senior. Sinatra wanted Farrow to give up her career to focus on their marriage, and while Farrow initially agreed, within a year she had signed on to play Rosemary. When filming delays created a scheduling conflict between “Rosemary” and “The Detective” (a Sinatra film Farrow had been cast in), Farrow was convinced by “Rosemary” producer Robert Evans to stay with the film after showing her a rough cut of her work. Sinatra’s lawyer presented Mia Farrow with the divorce papers on the set of “Rosemary’s Baby”.

Wow, That’s Dated: Rosemary mentions several times that Guy appeared in the plays “Luther” and “Nobody Loves an Albatross”, two real plays that ran on Broadway in winter 1963/spring 1964. Also dated: the idea that a working actor and his unemployed housewife can afford a spacious New York apartment.

Seriously, Oscars?:  “Rosemary’s Baby” was one of the highest grossing films of 1968, but the still very “Old Hollywood” Academy was slow to embrace New Hollywood, and “Rosemary” received only two nominations. Polanski lost Adapted Screenplay to James Goldman for “The Lion in Winter”, but longtime showbiz veteran Ruth Gordon prevailed as that year’s Best Supporting Actress, giving one of the all-time best acceptance speeches.

Other notes 

  • In addition to the lead cast, the supporting cast is a murderer’s row of longtime film and stage actors. Among them, Maurice Evans (aka Dr. Zaius), Ralph Bellamy, the instantly recognizable Elisha Cook, Patsy Kelly, D’Urville Martin (later played by Wesley Snipes in “Dolemite is My Name”) and a young Charles Grodin!
  • As a longtime scaredy cat, watching horror movies on this list is easier because – true to films of the time – nothing scary happens in the first 45 minutes. It’s the slowest burn of atmosphere and setup. With this second viewing of “Rosemary’s Baby”, I picked up on some of the subtleties that Cassavetes, Gordon, and Blackmer are playing early on. Though with the advent of hindsight, everyone is giving Rosemary plenty of red flags right from the get-go. Come on, the Castavets are pretty unfazed by Terry’s death.
  • The best executed, and therefore most terrifying scene in the movie is Rosemary’s “dream”. The editing perfectly conveys the sense of drifting in and out of sleep, and the cinematography gives a wonderfully disorienting feeling as Rosemary realizes that this is no dream. Just brilliant. 5/5, no notes.
  • Ruth Gordon & Sidney Blackmer are both outstanding. Sure, Gordon’s Oscar win was as much a lifetime consolation prize as anything else, but this is inspired casting, with her quirky persona helping disguise the character’s evil intentions. Blackmer correctly balances out Gordon by playing it straight, letting his piercing, probing eyes do most of the work instilling terror.
  • I somehow missed “Rosemary’s Baby” on my Die Hard Not-Xmas list. I must rectify that immediately.
  • Also date: Rosemary’s “just friends” party that is a swinging ’60s shindig. It definitely stands out, but I suspect that’s the point. Guy and the Castevets have dominated and controlled Rosemary’s life so thoroughly, she’s missing out on the ’60s culture the rest of her generation is participating in.
  • This occult reveal brought to you by Scrabble: America’s Good Time Game!
  • If the voice of Donald Baumgart sounds familiar, it’s Tony Curtis in an uncredited cameo! Polanski wanted a voice that was familiar enough that Rosemary/Mia would feel thrown trying to place the voice while asking about her husband. Coincidentally, Curtis would go on to present Ruth Gordon with her Best Supporting Actress Oscar.
  • Behind-the-scene controversies aside, Mia Farrow is pitch-perfect in this movie. Because the movie is solely from Rosemary’s perspective, we truly empathize with her journey, going through our own anxiety and madness as her world is turned upside down. Farrow’s tour-de-force is the phone booth conversation, captured in one uncut four-minute take as Rosemary struggles to reach out to Dr. Hill, her last lifesaver. Side note: the man who enters the booth after her is William Castle, the film’s producer, best remembered for his gimmicky horror B-movies of the 1950s.
  • The finale is surprisingly low-key, yet still manages to be disturbing and unsettling. Rosemary’s outburst of “What have you done to his eyes, you maniacs!” is justifiably iconic (as is Roman’s response), and the final moments also manage to be heartbreaking. Another reason I can stomach this more than later horror movies is because there’s a restraint in the horror. We never see Rosemary’s baby, but our imagination of what he could look like is far scarier, as is our speculation of what happens next.

Legacy 

  • Despite mixed critical reception, “Rosemary’s Baby” was a smash hit with moviegoers. Perhaps the film’s most important impact on pop culture is the rise of films involving the devil in the ensuing decades. Without “Rosemary”, there’s no “The Exorcist“, “The Omen”, “Devil in a Blue Dress” and countless others.
  • This is one of those movies where the poster is just as iconic as the movie itself. A creation by legendary graphic designer Philip Gips, the “Rosemary’s Baby” poster has turned up throughout pop culture, including being replicated for Darren Aronofsky’s 2017 film “Mother!”. God, remember that movie?
  • Both the film and the original novel of “Rosemary’s Baby” have sequels. 1976’s “Look What’s Happened to Rosemary’s Baby” was a poorly received TV movie with only Ruth Gordon reprising her role (Rosemary was played by Patty Duke). Ira Levin finally wrote a follow-up novel in 1997 called “Son of Rosemary”, which disregards the TV movie entirely, and was dedicated to Mia Farrow.
  • “Rosemary’s Baby” was remade in 2014 as a two-part miniseries starring Zoe Saldana. Transplanting the action to modern day Paris, the new “Rosemary” was not well received. For crying out loud, they aged down the Castevets!
  • Ruth Gordon’s long showbiz career was rejuvenated thanks to “Rosemary”, pivoting from screenwriter/character actor to quirky old leading lady, most notably in “Harold and Maude“.
  • Mia Farrow’s film career took off after “Rosemary’s Baby”, though in later years she opted to focus more on her family and humanitarian efforts. And the less said about her partnership with a certain problematic writer/director, the better. On a similar note…
  • As for Roman Polanski, suffice it to say that he made one more really good film in America (Fellow NFR entry “Chinatown“) before fleeing the US to escape criminal charges, and remains a fugitive to this day (albeit a continually employed, Oscar-winning fugitive).

Further Viewing: This film is as good an excuse as any to bring up “The Kid Stays in the Picture”, a Robert Evans documentary narrated by the man himself (using the audiobook from his memoir of the same name). Is it an intriguing look at one of Hollywood’s most influential producers? You bet your ass it is.

#624) What Ever Happened to Baby Jane? (1962)

#624) What Ever Happened to Baby Jane? (1962)

OR “Twisted Sister”

Directed by Robert Aldrich

Written by Lukas Heller. Based on the novel by Henry Farrell.

Class of 2021

The Plot: Blanche Hudson (Joan Crawford) was a glamourous movie star in the 1930s before a car accident left her confined to a wheelchair. 30 years later, she lives reclusively in her old Hollywood mansion with her sister Jane (Bette Davis), a former child star in vaudeville (“Baby Jane”) who was quickly overshadowed by Blanche’s fame. Jane still resents Blanche and while ostensibly her sister’s caretaker, takes pleasure in tormenting and gaslighting Blanche. When Jane learns that Blanche plans on selling their house and sending her to a psychiatric institution, Jane continues to lose her grip on reality, further cutting Blanche off from the outside world and planning a revival of her vaudeville routine with her pianist Edwin Flagg (Victor Buono). The emotional and physical battle between the two sisters is only rivaled by the alleged off-screen battle between this film’s two stars.

Why It Matters: The NFR hails the film as “vivid and often uncomfortably terrifying” and its significance for highlighting Crawford and Davis’ “memorable, long-running feud” as well as its creation of the Hagsploitation subgenre (more on that later).

But Does It Really?: I have pushed for this movie to make the NFR for five years, so no complaint from me that “Baby Jane” finally made the cut. In addition to being a late-career highlight for both leads (Davis in particular is underrepresented in the NFR), “Baby Jane” is an iconic film that, for better or worse, has added to and helped shaped the legacy of its two stars. The film’s melodrama still plays surprisingly well 60 years later, mixed with some genuinely scary tension and note-perfect performances from Davis and Crawford. “What Ever Happened to Baby Jane?” is a unique bit of film history and its addition to the NFR is long overdue.

Everybody Gets One: Victor Buono was primarily a stage and TV actor before landing “Baby Jane”. After first choice Peter Lawford backed out right before filming (he worried the film would ruin his reputation), Robert Aldrich spotted Buono on an episode of “The Untouchables” and cast him as Edwin Flagg. “Jane” was Buono’s first credited film appearance (he gets an “Introducing” credit), and earned him an Oscar nomination. Buono worked in film and TV for the rest of his career, his most famous post-“Jane” role being as the villainous King Tut on “Batman”.

Wow, That’s Dated: A major plot point of “Baby Jane” is the then-current resurgence of Classic Hollywood via TV reruns. Also dated, Blanche’s reliance on a landline. Would she have been able to escape if she had a cell phone?

Title Track: In the studio era of unnecessary title songs, “What Ever Happened to Baby Jane?” has an unnecessary title song! While the lyrics are never sung in the film proper, an instrumental version can be heard twice in the film, and Bette Davis sang the lyrics during a promotional appearance on “The Andy Williams Show”.

Seriously, Oscars?: A box office hit, “What Ever Happened to Baby Jane?” was nominated for five Oscars, winning one for Norma Koch’s Black-and-White Costume Design. Most famous among its losses, Bette Davis (on her record-breaking 10th nomination) losing Best Actress to Anne Bancroft in “The Miracle Worker”. Adding insult to injury, Joan Crawford – missing out on a Best Actress nomination herself – arranged to accept the Oscar on behalf of the absent Anne Bancroft.

Other notes 

  • Alright, let’s get this out of the way: the Joan Crawford/Bette Davis feud. While there are numerous articles chronicling the two actresses and their decades-long squabble, very little of it can be reliably substantiated. There are a few common threads: a potential affair in the ’30s between Davis and Crawford’s then-husband Franchot Tone, the two actresses competing against each other for roles when they were both at Warner Bros. in the mid-’40s, and the aforementioned Oscar incident (all of this exacerbated by both actresses telling exaggerated tales about each other in their later years). Only Crawford and Davis will ever know for sure what their feelings were towards each other, and while I suspect there was some level of animosity between them, I also believe that much of what we consider “the feud” is subsequent generations taking the actresses’ later tales as scripture and playing an internet trivia game of Telephone. Also adding fuel to the fire are the tell-all books “Mommie Dearest” and “My Mother’s Keeper”, as well as the former’s film adaptation. Speaking of books…
  • Henry Farrell’s novel “What Ever Happened to Baby Jane?” was published in March 1960 and its film rights were immediately snatched up. The film’s production didn’t pick up steam until a year and a half later, when Robert Aldrich signed on to direct. Aldrich recruited Joan Crawford (star of his previous film “Autumn Leaves”), and Crawford, ever the shrewd business professional, knew this was the right script to bring her and Bette Davis together for the first time. As their “feud” was well-known by 1962, the press leapt at the chance to speculate how the two actors got along (or didn’t) during production. All accounts point to the two being courteous and professional to each other during filming (though not necessarily going out of their way to be friends). Aldrich, however, was encouraged by Warner Bros. to maintain the notion of a feud to drum up free publicity. Most famously, it was Aldrich – not Davis as later purported – who placed a few Coca-Cola bottles on set to prank Crawford, a Pepsi-Cola board member.
  • Okay, all of this historical context out of the way, how are these two in the actual film? Unsurprisingly, they’re both very good as two women trapped in their own little world (Blanche literally, Jane emotionally). Davis of course has the far meatier role, leaving no scenery left un-chewed, but still finding room to develop Jane’s descent into madness. Crawford has the quieter role, but plays it with the right amount of terror and strength. The two balance each other perfectly, you can’t have one performance without the other.
  • Having a pre-credits scene in your movie was still a novelty in 1962, but having it take a full 12 minutes before the first credit appears is excruciating. And it’s another 8 minutes before Davis and Crawford finally show up! That being said, the actors playing young Jane and Blanche are well-cast (Davis’s counterpart in particular has her exaggerated articulation down pat). Side note: The films used for young Jane’s early movies are real-life Bette Davis flicks “Parachute Jumper” and “Ex-Lady”, while Blanche’s film shown on TV is Crawford’s “Sadie McKee”.
  • The Hudson’s nosy neighbor Mrs. Bates is played by Anna Lee, a longtime film actor best remembered today as the nun who steals the car parts in “The Sound of Music“. Her daughter Liza is played by Bette Davis’ real-life daughter B.D. Merrill, future author of “My Mother’s Keeper”. Whoops.
  • There’s a lot of racy (by 1962 standards) dialogue in this movie. Jane calls Blanche’s movie “crap”, Edwin insinuates that his mother was promiscuous, and Jane’s muttering of “bitch” is drowned out by Blanche’s buzzer. Was the Production Code on vacation that week?
  • Shoutout to Maidie Norman as the Hudson’s housekeeper Elvira. Aware of her limited roles in film and TV due to her race, Norman always played her roles of maids and servants with dignity, to the point of re-writing her “Baby Jane” dialogue to remove – as she put it – “old slavery-time talk”.
  • It amuses me that no one in the “real world” seems phased by Jane’s haggard appearance. But then again, she is a woman over 40 in Hollywood: she might as well be invisible.
  • As far as gigolos to aging movie stars go, Buono is good, but he’s no Bill Holden. Points, however, deducted from this movie for going out of its way to make a fat joke at Edwin/Buono’s expense.
  • Also dated: people memorizing phone numbers. When Blanche finally gets downstairs to call her doctor, I assumed she wouldn’t be able to call because she left the number upstairs. Turns out people used to just know important phone numbers off-hand. What a skill.
  • Say what you will about Jane, she’s an excellent mimic. Her Blanche is uncanny; it’s like Joan Crawford is dubbing it in for her (wink wink).
  • Even with Davis’ advantage, I can see how Crawford missed out on an Oscar nomination. In addition to being the more passive lead role, Blanche is literally sidelined for most of the film’s second half. There’s not a lot you can do acting-wise when you’re tied up with tape on your mouth.
  • The movie’s beach finale is heartbreaking, as the final reveal is made and both women finally recognize the Hell they have created for themselves. Fun Fact: The beach used in this scene is at Malibu, the same stretch of beach Aldrich used to film the final scene in “Kiss Me Deadly“.
  • The moral of this movie: For the love of god, work out your childhood trauma, I am begging you!

Legacy 

  • “What Ever Happened to Baby Jane?” premiered on Halloween 1962, and while receiving mixed reviews from critics was an immediate hit with audiences. As previously mentioned, “Baby Jane” spawned the Hagsploitation (aka “psycho-biddy”) subgenre; low-budget thrillers in which Classic Hollywood stars of a certain age (Olivia de Havilland, Barbara Stanwyck, Shelley Winters, etc.) are either the tormenter or tormented.
  • Aldrich, Davis and Crawford all reunited for an immediate follow-up/spiritual sequel “Hush…Hush, Sweet Charlotte”. As with their previous interactions, stories of Crawford and Davis’s on-set issues are tough to nail down precisely. What we do know is that Joan Crawford left the film one week into the shoot (Crawford cited an illness, Aldrich disputed this) with Davis’ longtime friend Olivia de Havilland coming in as Crawford’s replacement.
  • Among Robert Aldrich’s post-“Jane” filmography are action movies “The Flight of the Phoenix”, “The Dirty Dozen”, and “The Longest Yard”. Looks like I have a few more Aldrich pictures to replace “Jane” on my NFR nomination list.
  • “Baby Jane” has also remained popular as a cult classic with queer audiences, especially the drag community. Given both stars’ larger than life personas and Davis’ ghoulish makeup, I’m not surprised.
  • Perhaps the film’s most parodied moment: Davis’ line reading of “But’cha ARE, Blanche! Ya ARE in that chair!” It’s spoofed by George Costanza of all people!
  • “Baby Jane” has received the remake treatment once, as a 1991 TV movie starring real-life sisters Lynn and Vanessa Redgrave. It’s updated for the ’90s, and seems like one of those movies that should work in theory, but somehow doesn’t.
  • A reminder that the character of Baby Jane Hudson appears as a background extra in the climactic game of 2021’s “Space Jam: A New Legacy”. I’m sure that went over as well with the kids as Big Chungus.
You know, just because you own an IP doesn’t mean you have to use it.
  • But of course, the film’s true legacy is its place as the epicenter of the Davis/Crawford feud. Whatever the truth is, this film will always serve as a fantasy embellishment of what might have transpired between these two titans. The feud was further immortalized in Shaun Considine’s 1989 book “Bette and Joan: The Divine Feud”, which was eventually adapted into the 2017 miniseries “Bette and Joan” with Susan Sarandon and Jessica Lange.

Further Viewing/Listening: The history of the Crawford/Davis is well covered, and while there’s plenty of speculation out there, the two dissections that seem to hue closest to the facts are the “Be Kind Rewind” video embedded below, as well as this episode of the podcast “You Must Remember This”.

#623) The Grapes of Wrath (1940)

#623) The Grapes of Wrath (1940)

OR “Joad Trip”

Directed by John Ford

Written by Nunnally Johnson. Based on the novel by John Steinbeck.

Class of 1989 

The Plot: Freshly paroled from prison, Tom Joad (Henry Fonda) returns to his parents’ farm in Sallisaw, Oklahoma, only to discover it abandoned. Joad learns that the family farm was foreclosed by the bank (this being the Great Depression/Dust Bowl and all), and they have plans to move to California and seek migrant work. Tom finds them before they leave and, along with ex-preacher Jim Casy (John Carradine), joins the Joads on their westward trip. The journey is fraught with hardships and setbacks, including a disappointing lack of work and support upon arrival in California. Despite these struggles, Tom remains steadfast in his belief that honest hard-working people will always band together against oppression.

Why It Matters: The NFR calls the film no less than “American artistry”, highlighting “Gregg Toland’s stark photography and Henry Fonda’s memorably penetrating performance”. They also include a series of production stills from the film.

But Does It Really?: Sometimes a preordained “classic” film can be underwhelming given its legendary status, while others can still wow an audience and make a solid case for their staying power. “The Grapes of Wrath” is somewhere in the middle. It’s very good, I grant you that, but I surprisingly don’t have a lot to say about this movie other than…it’s very good. I think part of that is the film’s straightforward presentation; Ford’s realistic directing style lacks pretension, with Fonda and the rest of the cast giving grounded, understated performances. While “Grapes of Wrath” is never anyone’s pick for Greatest Movie Ever Made, its effective presentation and evergreen theme of survival amongst oppression consistently ranks it among the greatest, and that is more than reason enough to induct “Grapes” into the NFR inaugural class.

Everybody Gets One: Nunnally Johnson started out as a journalist and short story author. When he sold his short story “Rough House Rosie” to Paramount for a Clara Bow vehicle, he quit the newspaper business to become a screenwriter. His screenwriting career spanned 40 years, with a brief detour into directing in the ’50s (“The Man in the Gray Flannel Suit”, “The Three Faces of Eve”). For his efforts adapting “The Grapes of Wrath” to the screen, Johnson received an Oscar nomination, and met his future wife Dorris Bowdon (Rosasharn Joad).

Wow, That’s Dated: The film is – of course – ingrained in the Depression-era culture and Dust Bowl politics of the novel’s setting. So ingrained in fact that a brief text prologue was added to the film for its international release so foreign audiences could understand the historical context.

Title Track: John Steinbeck’s wife Carol came up with the title “The Grapes of Wrath”, taken from the second line of “The Battle Hymn of the Republic” (“He is trampling out the vintage/where the grapes of wrath are stored”). This lyric is a reference to a passage from the New Testament. I’m a bit hazy on the details, but I guess Jesus stomped on grapes in a winepress and, I dunno, he fell down or something?

Seriously, Oscars?: A hit upon release, “The Grapes of Wrath” received seven Oscar nominations, including Best Picture. The big winner of the night was “Rebecca“, but “Grapes” took home two major prizes: Jane Darwell for Best Supporting Actress and John Ford for Best Director (his second of an eventual four). Henry Fonda lost Best Actor to Jimmy Stewart in “The Philadelphia Story“, and would end up waiting 40 years before receiving a lifetime achievement statuette, plus a Best Actor win for “On Golden Pond” the following year.

Other notes 

  • “The Grapes of Wrath” was published in April 1939, and was immediately the most popular book of the year, subsequently winning a Pulitzer Prize and the National Book Award. The film rights were snatched up by 20th Century Fox for $70,000, with a Steinbeck mandated clause that the film adaptation would “retain the main action and social intent” of the novel. Fox studio chief Darryl F. Zanuck co-produced the film, and the project was quickly rushed into production; filming in October and November of 1939, with its New York premiere in January 1940.
  • This is my perennial reminder that like so many other Fox properties on this list, “The Grapes of Wrath” is legally a Disney movie. Perhaps a Hooverville expansion in California Adventure?
  • Poor Henry Fonda. He’s very good in this, so good it doesn’t look like he’s acting. His Tom Joad is the stoic center of the story, as he should be, but that means no fireworks or hysterics to help you notice his great performance (even his closing monologue is powerfully subdued). I’m beginning to understand why Oscar voters gravitated more towards Jimmy Stewart’s flashier comic turn in “Philadelphia Story”.
  • Look how young John Carradine is in this! I didn’t realize Carradine made movies before he was ancient.
  • [Spoilers] It’s fun to watch Charley Grapewin go from his reserved performance as Uncle Henry in “The Wizard of Oz” to the more energetic Grandpa Joad. Sad to see him die, though.
  • Leave it to Gregg Toland to make anything look this good in black and white. The traveling shots of the American Southwest are impressive, though never as glossy or over-saturated as they would have been if the film was shot in color.
  • A good chunk of the Joad’s traveling takes place on Route 66, one of America’s first highways. A quick shot in the montage shows a sign calling it the Will Rogers Highway, an unofficial moniker no doubt popularized after the humorist’s death in 1935. Route 66 would eventually be officially dedicated to the late Rogers in 1952.
  • As always, I appreciate when I get to watch a John Ford movie on this list that isn’t a western brimming with negative racial stereotypes.
  • Shoutout to Darryl Hickman, playing the youngest child Winfield Joad. As of this writing, he is the film’s last surviving cast member!
  • A roadtrip through the Southwest to California with a car on the verge of collapse and the grandparents dying mid-trip? I didn’t realize “Grapes of Wrath” shares so much DNA with “Little Miss Sunshine”. I’m looking forward to this movie’s beauty pageant dance-off finale.
  • In a rare moment of something getting past the censors, nobody at the Hays Code offices seemed to catch Tom telling Ma to “get the hell off” the car fender. It’s pretty quiet; I only caught it because I had closed captioning on.
  • Jane Darwell had been acting in films since the silent era, but she didn’t hit her stride until she became a contract player and character actor at 20th Century Fox. Her Ma Joad is far and away her career high point (with her brief appearance as the Bird Woman in “Mary Poppins” a potential second), quietly holding the film together with her warmth and determination. Of that year’s Best Supporting Actress contenders, I’d say Judith Anderson in “Rebecca” is giving the best performance, but you can’t fault the Academy for giving Darwell the trophy. Anderson’s Mrs. Danvers is impressive, but too cold and off-putting to the average moviegoer. Ma Joad is the one you want to hug.
  • The Weedpatch Camp is a real labor camp created in the 1930s as part of the New Deal to support displaced farm workers. Even more impressive, Weedpatch is still around, and was inducted into the National Register of Historic Places in 1996.
  • If nothing else I was captivated by this movie. I found myself caring for the Joads quite a bit, hoping that each episode would be the one where they finally catch a break (it helps that I was never assigned the book in high school and genuinely didn’t know what would happen). I was surprised by how many moments of kindness there are in this film. Yes, there’s the corrupt labor officials and “red agitators”, but those are nicely balanced by regular people who help out others even when it makes things harder on themselves. Steinbeck’s work is filled with such downer material it’s nice to see these uplifting moments of humanity.
  • You’ve definitely heard Tom’s final monologue or a variation of it at some point in your life: “Where there’s a cop beating up a guy, I’ll be there…” It’s delivered calmly yet stirringly by Henry Fonda, the epicenter of his future screen persona. My question: With Tom’s turn to pseudo-vigilante and looking out for the oppressed, did he just become Batman?
  • The novel’s original ending continued to chronicle the Joads after Tom left them, and things ended on a sad note – especially for Rosasharn. In an attempt to end the film somewhat optimistically, Ma’s “We’re the people” speech, spoken about two-thirds through the book, was transplanted to the end. I was surprised to see the film continue following Tom’s departure, but ending with Ma’s monologue about how “they can’t lick us” is the right choice. In addition to its upbeat by comparison presentation, it illustrates how much Ma was inspired by Tom’s words to keep fighting.

Legacy 

  • “Grapes of Wrath” was a critical and commercial hit right out the gate, solidifying John Ford as one of our great directors, and Henry Fonda as a morally just leading man. One of the biggest fans of Fonda’s performance was John Steinbeck himself, who said the actor made him “believe my own words.”
  • The closest anyone has come to remaking this film was the Steppenwolf Theatre Company’s stage adaptation of the novel that played on Broadway in the early ’90s, and was subsequently filmed for TV. The cast included Gary Sinise, Lois Smith, Terry Kinney, Jeff Perry and – Bingo! I got Steppenwolf Company Member Bingo!
  • While “The Grapes of Wrath” has maintained its legacy as a classic over 80 years later, I feel that most modern references are to the book rather than the film specifically. Fonda’s “I’ll be there” speech still gets quoted, but “Grapes of Wrath” is primarily remembered for being the good classic movie companion to a good classic book.
  • The only parody I can recall off-hand of the movie is that “South Park” episode where the main characters headed out “Californee” way to find some internet.
  • No post on this blog is complete without some classic “Simpsons” reference, so here’s Nelson Muntz with his “Grapes of Wrath” diorama. Yes, yes, very good wrath.

The NFR Class of 2022: My Ballot

Hello readers,

Well, it’s that time of year again; the National Film Preservation Board gathers to select the 25 films that I will one day force myself to binge. As the NFR sticks to their annual tradition, I shall stick to mine: nominating 50 movies and publishing my findings for consideration. Here are my 50 in order of random categorization. Movies with an asterisk (*) denote films I am submitting this year for the first time.

I will keep submitting these movies until conditions improve: Witness for the Prosecution (1957), The Miracle Worker (1962), The Great Escape (1963), It’s a Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World (1963), Carrie (1976), Big (1988), When Harry Met Sally (1989), The Sixth Sense (1999)

Some of my Favorites: Hardware Wars (1978), Clue (1985), Pee-wee’s Big Adventure (1985), Home Alone (1990), Mystery Science Theater 3000: The Movie (1996), Austin Powers (1997)*

Some of the GF’s Favorites: The Valley of the Dolls (1967)*, Almost Famous (2000)*

My obligatory Disney selections: The Band Concert (1935)*, Treasure Island (1950)*, The Jungle Book (1967)*

Disney-adjacent movies: Snow White (1916)*, The Hunchback of Notre Dame (1939)*

How are neither of these films on the list yet?: Love Affair (1939)*, An Affair to Remember (1957)

Movies I’m surprised I’ve never submitted before: The Picture of Dorian Gray (1945)*, The Misfits (1961)*, The Way We Were (1973)*, Scarface (1983)*, Inglourious Basterds (2009)*

My mission to preserve American Theater on this list knows no bounds!: Original Cast Album: Company (1970), Broadway: The Golden Age, by the Legends Who Were There (2003)*

Franchises!: Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone (2001)*, Spider-Man (2002)*

Going all in on Jane Fonda: The China Syndrome (1979)*, 9 to 5 (1980), On Golden Pond (1981)*

And Robin Williams too: Good Will Hunting (1997)*

Grab Bag: Dinner at Eight (1933)*, Captain Blood (1935)*, Advise and Consent (1962)*, Cleopatra (1963)*, Shampoo (1975)*, Smokey and the Bandit (1977)*, Blue Velvet (1986)*, Dirty Dancing (1987), Speed (1994), Fight Club (1999)*, No Country for Old Men (2007)

The first round of 2012 submissions: The Avengers (2012)*, Silver Linings Playbook (2012)*, Skyfall (2012)*

On average, 3.6 of the 50 films I submit every year make it into the NFR. I’ll be curious to see what the 0.6 movie is this year. Maybe 72 minutes of a lost film?

And as always, you can submit any American movie you want for NFR consideration. You can start nominating here, and check out a list of movies not yet on the NFR here.

Happy Viewing and Happy Nominating,

Tony

#622) Beauty and the Beast (1991)

#622) Beauty and the Beast (1991)

OR “You Bête Your Life”

Directed by Gary Trousdale & Kirk Wise

Written by Linda Woolverton. Based on the fairy tale by Gabrielle-Suzanne Barbot de Villeneuve and Jeanne-Marie Leprince de Beaumont. Songs by Howard Ashman & Alan Menken.

Class of 2002

The Plot: Once upon a time, a young woman named Belle (Voice by Paige O’Hara) yearns to go outside her provincial French town and have the kind of adventures she has read about in so many books. When her father Maurice (Voice by Rex Everhart) gets lost in the woods, he takes shelter in an enchanted castle, run by a menacing Beast (Voice by Robby Benson). In exchange for her father’s safety, Belle offers to stay prisoner in the castle in his place. Over time, Belle shows affection for the Beast, who – unbeknownst to her – is a prince doomed to stay transformed as a beast until he can love and be loved. It’s a tale as old as time, song as old as rhyme, yada yada yada.

Why It Matters: The NFR gives a recap of the film’s plot and historical significance, though weirdly no superlatives.

But Does It Really?: I saw “Beauty and the Beast” when it was first in theaters, and I have to say that I was as charmed on this re-watch as I was all those years ago. “Beauty and the Beast” works on every front: it is a spectacular feat of animation, an incredible piece of musical theater, and an overall outstanding film. Every artistic choice in this movie, from the storytelling to the performances, is the right one, leading to a movie that continues to weave its magic spell. Sure, like so many Disney classics, “Beauty” endures thanks to its conglomerate’s merciless marketing, but “Beauty” holds its own as an entertaining fairy tale with a guaranteed spot in the NFR.

Everybody Gets One: Gary Trousdale and Kirk Wise were both CalArts graduates working as animators and storyboard artists at Disney when they got the call to replace Richard Purdum as director on “Beauty and the Beast”. At this point, the duo’s only directorial credit was for the animated pre-show of EPCOT’s Cranium Command. Screenwriter Linda Woolverton was determined to break out of children’s television, landing a job with Disney after sending them a copy of her young adult novel “Running Before the Wind”. With “Beauty”, Woolverton became the first woman to write a screenplay for an animated film.

Wow, That’s Dated/Title Track: “Beauty and the Beast” not only gives us a lovely title number, but also the first of my favorite ’90s Disney staple: the end credits power ballad!

Seriously, Oscars?: The most successful animated feature at the time, “Beauty and the Beast” received six Oscar nominations, including the first Best Picture nod for an animated feature. Though “Beauty” lost the top prize to “The Silence of the Lambs“, the film prevailed in Best Original Score and Best Original Song (for the title number). It is speculated that the film’s lack of a Best Picture win prompted the creation of the Best Animated Feature category a decade later.

Before we continue, I’d like to go on a little rant I’ve been holding onto for a while, and “Beauty and the Beast” feels like the right film to say my piece. One of my main goals with this blog is to combat modern Internet film criticism, in which an entire film is dismissed due to a single logical misstep (often mislabeled a “plot hole”). Sure it’s fun to poke holes in movies we love (CinemaSins and Honest Trailers come to mind), but that becomes a problem when it is mistaken for genuine criticism and a movie is deemed a failure because it doesn’t hold up to real-world logic. “Beauty and the Beast” tends to get a lot of flak in this area (“How old was the prince when he turned into a beast?” “Is every item in the castle a transformed human?” “Is Belle displaying Stockholm syndrome?”). Here’s the thing Internet: Movies. Aren’t. Logical. The best pieces of art are based not in logic but rather in emotions: the ones that drive the art as well as the ones they evoke. When done well, as in “Beauty and the Beast”, the audience is willing to take leaps of faith with a film’s internal logic in favor of the emotional experience. So please, let’s stop chastising this movie for what it isn’t and keep celebrating it for what it is; a fairy tale charmingly brought to life on the big screen. Okay, rant over. Where were we?

Other notes 

  • Walt Disney attempted to make an animated “Beauty and the Beast” twice in his career, but both versions stalled due to development issues. The idea was resurrected in the 1980s as a project for the animation studio Disney had started in London to oversee “Who Framed Roger Rabbit“. “Roger” animation director Richard Williams declined the offer to direct, but recommended his colleague Richard Purdum. Under Purdum’s direction, “Beauty and the Beast” was a more serious non-musical, but following the success of “The Little Mermaid” in 1989, the Powers That Be ordered “Beauty” to be re-tooled as a musical, a shift that did not mesh with Purdum’s vision, leading to his resignation. Trousdale & Wise were assigned as acting directors, becoming the film’s official directors three months into their new assignment.
  • When I was young, I used to listen to this soundtrack all the time, and apparently those lyrics all stayed rent-free in my brain because I sang along during this whole viewing. Not only are the songs catchy and clever, but they do an amazing amount of storytelling. The opening number “Belle” establishes the film’s setting AND introduces Belle and Gaston AND serves as Belle’s “I Want” song. At a brisk 84 minutes, this film has no time to waste.
  • We really don’t deserve Belle as a movie hero. Unlike practically every Disney female lead before or since, Belle is not motivated by romance or wishing, but rather by kindness and inner beauty. Most of Belle’s more dimensional traits can be attributed to Linda Woolverton, though Paige O’Hara’s performance gives her a lovely balance between the fairy tale and modern aspects of the character.
  • Quick shout-out to the film’s voice cast, especially those playing the castle’s enchanted objects. Most of the voice actors were/are musical theater performers with many a Broadway and “Law & Order” credit (including that Venn diagram’s intersection Jerry Orbach!) David Ogden Stiers is clearly having a blast as the stuffy Cogsworth, and Angela Lansbury is giving us a genteel variation of Mrs. Lovett as Mrs. Potts.
  • Of course, this film’s vocal performances are perfectly matched by the animated performances. They’re all great, but Glen Keane is your MVP, embellishing Benson’s vocal work as the Beast with added nuances of tragedy, ensuring that we actually care about him. Special mention to Will Finn for matching Stiers’ exasperated energy as Cogsworth. Finn would go on to animate Iago in “Aladdin”.
  • What’s in the forbidden West Wing? Mostly just walk-and-talks with witty yet perpetually exhausting banter.
  • For those of you keeping score: Number of NFR films with Sandra Bullock: 0. Number of NFR films with Jo Anne Worley: 1.
  • “Be Our Guest” is easily the most fun song in the movie, and Jerry Orbach’s finest hour. Fun Fact: “Be Our Guest” was originally going to be sung to Maurice when he entered the castle, but an early screening made the production team realize that the song needed to be sung to Belle, and was quickly reanimated.
  • Wow, I really don’t remember Chip being this annoying. It makes one pine for the subtleties of the kid who played Thumper.
  • The title number is just as beautiful as you remember it being, with a very impressive simulation of a dolly shot moving through the ballroom as Belle and the Beast dance. This combination of hand-drawn and computer animation was achieved using a system called CAPS (Computer Animation Production System), which was developed by Pixar, right around the time the company had inked a deal with Disney to make three feature-length features.
  • Even for a movie that keeps its momentum going, the third act really moves fast. We go from “Kill the Beast” right into a comic action sequence (complete with a Wilhelm and a “Potemkin” reference), into the more serious climax, straight through to the happy ending. More movies should take note of this pacing. The finale does, however, feature the movie’s one unintentionally funny moment for me; when Belle returns and lovingly shouts “Beast!” to the Beast. Did she never bother to learn his real name? (See Internet? One nitpick and I still like the movie. It’s possible!)
  • “Beauty and the Beast” is dedicated to Howard Ashman, the film’s lyricist and one of its executive producers, who died of heart failure caused by AIDS eight months before the film’s release; though he did live long enough to see an early rough cut, and predicted the film’s success.

Legacy 

  • The critical and financial success of “Beauty and the Beast” was a grand-slam for Disney following the home-run of “The Little Mermaid”. The film continues to be a jewel in the Disney crown, and a staple of modern pop-culture. Kirk Wise and Gary Trousdale would direct two more films for Disney animation: the underrated “Hunchback of Notre Dame” and the even more underrated “Atlantis: The Lost Empire”.
  • Inspired by a positive review from New York Times critic Frank Rich, Disney turned “Beauty and the Beast” into a Broadway musical, the first such adaptation of an animated film to hit the Great White Way. With eight new songs (one of which was written but deleted from the film), “Beauty and the Beast” ran on Broadway for over 5,000 performances, and paved the way for every hit Disney film’s inevitable theatricalization.
  • The aforementioned deleted number, “Human Again”, found its way back into the film thanks to an IMAX Special Edition in 2002. It’s cute, and it’s great having a few more moments with these characters, but “Human Again” has been more or less relegated as a supplemental feature in the years since.
  • “Beauty and the Beast” has been adapted for every aspect of the Disney synergy machine, from merchandising to theme parks. It also recently received a live-action remake, that adds 45 minutes of screentime to cover all of the original’s “plot holes”. I could go on about that movie’s flaws, but I’ll never be as articulate as Lindsay Ellis.
  • Rather than a direct-to-video sequel, “Beauty and the Beast” became the inaugural film on my “Beauty and the Beast midquel set during Christmas” list.
  • “Beauty” is well represented in the various Disney theme parks, including an impressive ride in Tokyo and a themed restaurant in Florida. Not only have I been to the latter, but I tried the grey stuff. It’s alright.
  • And finally, a shoutout to this parody from an episode of “The Critic”, which I found hilarious, mainly because it was one of the few lampooned movies that I had actually seen.

Further Viewing: There are countless other adaptations of “Beauty and the Beast” from before and after the Disney version, but the most renowned is Jean Cocteau’s 1946 adaptation, considered one of the greatest movies ever made, and containing a few elements lovingly borrowed for the Disney version.