I had the rare treat of sitting in a modern movie theater watching The Grapes of Wrath for the first time on the big screen. Our local megaplex is currently running a classic film series. This was extra cool because I went with my aspiring film-maker son who was also seeing it for the first time. It was extra extra cool because we had the theater to ourselves. Well, actually, that’s only kinda cool because that means nobody else bothered to go. Now, to be fair, this was the 4th and final showing of the week. They have 2 shows on Sunday and 2 on Wednesday. So maybe the other shows were better attended.
First, if you haven’t seen this movie please do so. It’s heralded as an American classic for a lot of very good reasons. I suggest planning to see it twice. The tension of the pressure the Joad family is under rarely lets up. I will be seeing this again soon so I can relax more and enjoy the story not wondering how rough things will get for them. Mind you, they get plenty rough.
But Henry Fonda and John Ford live up to their legendary names. Both men were nominated for Oscars as was the picture and John Ford took home the prize for Best Director, the 2nd of his career. He took this one from Alfred Hitchcock. In 1940 Rebecca won Best Picture and Hitch was nominated. But that was as close as he would ever get to winning an Oscar. Jane Darwell, who plays Ma Joad, won Best Supporting Actress honors as well. You probably don’t recognize the name, but you will remember her as the woman who feeds the birds in Mary Poppins. Henry Fonda would have to wait more than 4 decades before winning his own award as Best Actor for On Golden Pond.
As great as this film was, the stunning thing for me was how great this film was. That… sounds confusing. What I mean is that for a film that will celebrate its 75th anniversary next year, this one really holds up. Granted, John Ford didn’t have the benefits of the technological marvels that modern-day film makers have. He had to work on soundstages and make them look like the plains of Oklahoma. There are a couple of scenes that look about as “outdoors” as The Wizard of Oz. It was noticeable. But it gave me an opportunity to comment to my son (in full voice, after all we were the only ones there) “The greatness of this film will have to rely on the quality of the script, the performances of the actors and the way the director tells the story. There won’t be any slick film making in this one.” But boy, did it deliver.
I have been disappointed in some “classics” that I think haven’t aged like fine wine, but more like flat soda. Because of my son’s interest in film I will often hand him a stack of DVDs, load up the DVR or find something on Netflix to help add to his cinematic education. This has often been a great opportunity to share an important moment in film history. Movies like The Godfather (both 1 & 2), The Shawshank Redemption, Pulp Fiction and Planet of the Apes have been just a few that have stuck with him. I still can’t believe that I was able to keep the ending of Planet of the Apes a secret. There are few film moments that can compare with watching someone see that for the first time having no idea what’s coming. Even more than 40 years later it still holds up. All of these do. As do movies like Citizen Kane, Casablanca and Sunset Boulevard. But for every Sandra Bullock there is a Kathleen Turner if you catch my meaning.
For all its triumph and reputation, frankly Scarlet, Gone with the Wind is too long. It’s tough to get through. In 1990 Dances with Wolves seemed like an epic. Now it just seems like an epic case of beginners luck. I think a lot of that is because Kevin Costner’s career hasn’t held up. Seeing him from 24 years ago is a reminder of how far he fell. I love Hepburn and Bogart, but The African Queen is super corny. Some of the dialogue is almost as goofy as a James Cameron movie.
It isn’t just the great films of history either. The 80’s comedies that I fondly remember from my adolescence haven’t fared much better. Back to the Future, Mannequin and The Karate Kid are just not anywhere near as good and I remember them. Now, you might be thinking, “Well, duh! Those movies aren’t very good!” But let me assure you, Person-Who-Didn’t-Go-To-High-School-In-The-80’s, these movies were box office successes and adored by a generation who didn’t know better.
But fear not teens from the 80’s! All is not lost. Footloose, ¡Three Amigos!, Ferris Bueller’s Day Off, Ghostbusters and The Princess Bride are still very watchable 80’s flicks even if there are a few signs of dating around the edges (A town where dancing is illegal? Really?)
So what makes your lists? What has held up and what hasn’t? Post your comments below. You can also find me on the Twitter machine (@cmselby).