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.

Film Noir

Fade in on a door paneled with obscure glass. Painted across the glass are a name and the words, ‘Private Detective.’ A whiskey-graveled voice begins to recount the strange string of events leading up to that moment. This is the beginning of a great film noir.

This dark genre became the norm in the 1940’s, but since that time, there are fewer and fewer movies of the type. Maybe they’ve become cliché. Maybe producers think they are passé. Speaking for myself, I love and miss them.

There’s something dangerous, and at the same time soothing, about being taken into the confidence of the main character in the middle of a murder investigation. Maybe it’s the fact that, because his voice is telling you what’s happening as the story unwinds, you have the security of knowing that he is neither the killer nor one of the killer’s victims. He’s in control, and by the end of the film, he will be all right, and you will know exactly what happened. In the midst of mystery and darkness, you have a constant comforting voice to guide you.

Humphrey Bogart, Alan Ladd, and Robert Mitchum perfected these shadowy characters with their flawed personalities and less-than-honorable motives. Movies like The Maltese Falcon, This Gun for Hire, and The Big Steal all ooze mystery and suspense. As you watch, you become acutely aware that nobody can be trusted. Everyone is lying, and nothing is what it seems. The damsel in distress is most often a black widow or something of the like. Women like Veronica Lake, Gene Tierney, and Lauren Bacall embodied the role of femme fatale.

Is the genre extinct? I’ve seen a few attempts to recapture the atmosphere of noir. Mostly these elements appear within films that are book adaptations, probably because that’s easier. The format lends itself to narration. The movies have been good, but still lack the truly noir title, because they fail to commit fully to that dark and moody domain. These films get an E for effort, but usually fail in execution.

I’d love to see a Film Noir revival. Who’s with me? I hoped that, with the popularity of the LA Noir video game, someone might make a great new movie. Maybe it’s being done quietly. Maybe I’ll make one myself.

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!