A Classic (Movie) Education

My whole family enjoys movies. Classics, comedies, action-adventures, romances, dramas, thrillers, and silly satires are all in our library. I have done my best to make sure my sons both received a thorough education in cinema, and I had a good reason.

When I was a child, I watched Bugs Bunny cartoons (in reruns) every morning or afternoon. For those of you old enough to remember the original Looney Tunes, you know that they often featured satires and caricatures of classic Hollywood stars like Humphrey Bogart, Lauren Bacall, James Cagney, Cary Grant, Katherine Hepburn, Jimmy Stewart, Edward G. Robinson, Clark Gable and others. Seeing these “people” in the cartoons inspired me to watch the movies that made them famous. After all, I assumed if they were big enough stars to warrant a scene with Bugs Bunny, they must be pretty good. I was right.

On my own, well—with the help of HBO, TCM, AMC and other classic movie cable channels, I began my journey through iconic film history at a very young age. In doing so, I discovered something I never expected. I “got” a lot more jokes than my friends who had no interest in old movies. I laughed when someone said, “I want to be alone,” or “I’m shocked! Shocked!” I snickered whenever someone quoted Lauren Bacall. “You know how to whistle, don’t you? You just put your lips together… and blow.” My friends just stared.

So imagine my pride when I watched Neil Simon’s The Cheap Detective, 1978, with my family this last weekend, and my sons laughed at all the jokes that spoofed the classics like Casablanca, The Maltese Falcon, The Big Sleep, and other Bogey staples. Of course, they raised their eyebrows at the racial comments—apparently, somebody thought it was okay to make fun of Chinese people in 1978.

Another thing that I loved was that my boys knew who almost every actor in the movie was. Peter Falk starred alongside Ann-Margaret, Eileen Brennan, Madeline Kahn, Abe Vigoda, Dom DeLuise, Sid Caesar, and many others. They even recognized a young James Cromwell from his role on Babe. They not only knew the actors, but they could identify the characters they spoofed, too. I’m thrilled that my kids appreciate great comedic actors from every age. It was fun for all of us.

Would I recommend The Cheap Detective? To any Humphrey Bogart fans, absolutely! To others I would suggest a little homework first.

That’s a wrap for this Toast to Cinema. Thanks for reading.

Play It Again, Sam

Some movies are just too good to watch only once. Some lines are so pivotal that they are not only quoted over and over, but even the misquotes become cliché.

Last week we watched Casablanca for about the eleven-hundredth time. We could nearly say all the lines with the actors.  From the last line of the opening narration, “…and wait, and wait, and wait,” to the last line of the whole film, “this looks like the beginning of a beautiful friendship,” we did our best vocal styling with the film. 

We notice something new just about every time we watch. The first victim of the local pick-pocket wears a zebra-striped neck-tie. The table lamps and wall sconces cast amazing shadows on the textured walls of Rick’s Café Americain. Little things like that make every viewing more interesting.

Though the film is in black and white, I spend more than a few seconds trying to imagine the color of the clothes and fabrics throughout the movie. After all, Moroccan architecture and textiles are usually splashed with rich jewel-toned colors.

Besides the subtle details of the background of the picture, the actors in the story are the gold standard in the industry. Humphrey Bogart swings between a tough, cold-hearted saloon owner, to a man so desperate in love that he’s willing to sell out a hero to the enemy. Ingrid Bergman’s face reflects emotion like a mirror. You can see the very second when she falls in love all over with her husband. And the line that Claude Rains delivers as he’s shutting down Rick’s still gets us all laughing out loud. “I’m shocked!”

Maybe the most poignant scene in the film is when a very young Joy Page, playing a refugee, asks Rick if it was all right for a girl to do a very bad thing if it would mean that her husband would be happy. Bogey’s verbal response is harsh, but his actions show his true character, setting the stage for film’s climax.

If you haven’t seen Casablanca, WATCH IT NOW. This film is a required course in life.

That’s a wrap for this Toast to Cinema. Thanks for reading.

Rain, Rain, Don’t Go Away!

It’s a beautiful cool morning, and the rain is coming down. It’s not too stormy—just overcast and wet. It’s the perfect weather to stay in pajamas, call in sick and put in a black and white movie.

I think a soggy day is great for a murder mystery, a monster flick, a comedy, or a romance. I’ve tried war movies or tearjerkers, but I end up sobbing a little too much, and then I’m down for the rest of the day.

The rain puts me in the mood for something sentimental. Romantic films, like Casablanca or Gone with the Wind, balance out the rain with optimism and hope. Something like Barefoot in the Park works, too. It’s funny and light-hearted, without being syrupy and depressing. I can’t handle The Way We Were or Love Story on rainy days. They are just too sad. I adore Sabrina (both the original and the remake) or Breakfast at Tiffany’s for a fun pick-me-up romance.

If there’s a good measure of thunder and lightning, then I really enjoy a hearty Hitchcock thriller. I’ll pop in Dial M for Murder, Rope, Rear Window or Psycho—if I’m feeling really brave. That one gets to me, though. I have to know that sun is in the forecast. I enjoy films like Gaslight and Wait Until Dark for milder shivers.

An Agatha Christie adaptation is great for keeping one’s whodunit senses active. Evil Under the Sun is one of my favorites. The story is set in the sunny Mediterranean, and the characters keep you smiling with their over-the-top eccentricities.

A good caper picture is always great for rainy days. The Italian Job and How to Steal a Million always make my short list. It seems movies about stealing things get my heart pumping and actually make me feel as though I were accomplishing something—something besides finishing a bowl of popcorn.

If you can’t choose just one classic, and you need a good laugh, spend a couple hours with Steve Martin as he joins the characters from a dozen classic noir films, cut together to create a crazy new story line, in Dead Men Don’t Wear Plaid. This 1982 parody includes segments from all your favorites like This Gun for Hire, The Big Sleep, Suspicion, and The Postman Always Rings Twice. It’s a must-see for any noir fan, especially if you like Martin’s genius combination of deadpan and slapstick.

Rainy days are also the perfect time for really cheesy monster movies. The cheesier the better. Watch the original Invasion of the Body Snatchers or This Island Earth. Listening to characters (talking about a cat) saying things like, “We can him Neutron, because he’s so positive.” Just makes me laugh aloud. All my geek friends understand why this line is stupidly funny.

Another option for rainy day fun is a musical. If you have kids at home with you, this is a great time to share a movie from your childhood, too. Remember Bugsy Malone? No? It’s a 1976 film starring Jodie Foster and Scott Baio. It’s the basic gangster movie made with an all-child cast, and—oh yeah—the Tommy-guns shoot cream puffs. It’s cute for the kids, and I guarantee you’ll find yourself singing along with the gang.

Do you have a favorite rainy day movie? Let me know—the forecast is cloudy for a few more days!

That’s a wrap for this Toast to Cinema. Thanks for reading!

Happy Valentine’s Day!

It’s here, and the pressure’s on. Every woman in any kind of relationship—serious or not—expects their man to suddenly become romantic for this designated 24 hour period. We want roses, chocolates, appropriate gemstones, dinner and some special planned event.

Never mind that dinner reservations are impossible to manage. If you really cared, you’d have thought about that in January. And who cares that the price of roses skyrockets for one week a year? You saved up, right? Tickets to the ballet or symphony are hard to come by? The good news is that a truly romantic movie will serve just as well.

What’s more—the theatres are usually full of love stories right about now. The Vow will certainly be a home run for the seriously love-struck. One for the Money is a fun romp for the more casual couples. Want a tale as old as time? Take your sweetie to Beauty and the Beast. Is your gal a Ryan Reynolds or Denzel Washington fan? You might even get away with the action-packed Safe House.

Girls, do you want to treat your sci-fi loving man? Star Wars: Episode 1—The Phantom Menace 3D is a good bet.

Another lucky break is that this year, Valentine’s falls on a Tuesday. This means that you might be able to have a small celebration on Tuesday evening—such as a home-cooked dinner—and then wait until Friday for a big evening out.

Why is this a good deal? Because This Means War opens on Friday. It’s a romantic comedy done Bourne-style, with guns, cars and explosions. I see this as a win-win for both parties.

What if a night out is simply out of the question? You still have options.

Check out your local video rental or Netflix for some classic romances. Casablanca is nostalgic, witty and the epitome of love’s sacrifice. An Affair to Remember is Cary Grant at his most suave.

If your dear heart enjoys the newer classics, treat her to something like Ghost or Sleepless in Seattle. Titanic is sure to make her misty. The Notebook is a practically a declaration of your undying devotion. Use it wisely.

If none of these titles fits your needs, I have another suggestion for you. Find the video of the first movie you saw together and buy it. Purchase a package or two of your darling’s favorite movie candy, along with some popcorn, and wrap it all up. You can always add a cute teddy wearing 3D glasses or something similar to make it more personalized. This will show your date that you remember important milestones in your relationship.

IMPORTANT SAFETY TIP: only do this if you actually remember your first movie together! Don’t ruin the evening, and potentially much more, by confusing your special gal or guy with someone else. This could be dangerous, as well as sad for everyone involved.

That’s a wrap for this Toast to Cinema. Thanks for reading. I hope you enjoy a wonderful Valentine’s Day!

Music ♥ Loves ♥ Film

Movies love music. Motion picture took its baby steps with a soundtrack. Even before the film incorporated sound, movie houses brought in musicians—pianists, organists, sometimes even full orchestras—to accompany the movie.

Music connects the audience to the story instantly, by pushing our emotional buttons. By linking visual images with sound, we receive cues about what is about to happen. Our hearts pump faster; we hold our breaths. We hunker down in our theatre seats and grab the hand next to us.

Picture a girl running from the beach into the gentle waves of the ocean. She’s carefree, enjoying a beautiful sunset swim. Now add a deep cello background. Duhhn-unmph. Duhhn-unmph. Duhhn-unmph. Yeah, she’s toast.

Try to imagine any great movie without music. It’s difficult.

I joke around with my kids about the music in ‘80’s movies, but what would Ferris Bueller’s Day Off be without “Danke Shoen” or “Twist and Shout?” How could Meryl Streep and Robert Redford fall in love without the tender scores moving them together in Out Of Africa?

Whenever I think about the Pirates of the Caribbean films, I hear the Hans Zimmer soundtracks. John Williams’ scoring for the Star Wars Saga is iconic. Sometimes when I’m angry, I pretend the Darth Vader music accompanies my march to confrontation. It’s most empowering.

Where would Bogey and Bergman be without “As Time Goes By?” That song played as big a role in Casablanca as Peter Lorre did. Speaking of the music as a character, I adore the owl mariachis in Rango. Their asides with the Spanish guitars and trumpets are hysterical.

When I write, I incorporate music into my stories, too. When I wrote about the pirate Jean Lafitte, I constantly listened to “Jupiter” from The Planets Suite by Gustav Holst. To me the music embodies a buoyant power and enchanting tempo, just like the gentleman pirate himself. My romantic comedy, Fake Jake, incorporates several styles of dance music, from ballet to disco to country western.

My older son composes music on his computer, and when I heard one of his songs last week, I asked if I could use it for a book trailer. You’ll hear it soon!

Music sets the tone, not only for the unfolding story, but for our minds as well. What are your favorite soundtracks? I want to listen, too!

That’s a wrap for this Toast to Cinema. Thanks for reading!