Five Favorite Films: Movies About Television

In the early-1950s television’s ability to reach into America’s living rooms was taking the country by storm. The advertising industry that was building up around television was becoming hugely influential on the nation’s culture. Many observers saw TV as being in the process of killing off the movie-making industry in Hollywood and the movie-exhibiting business all over the country.

Eventually, one by one, the major studios sold off the rights to their old features to television. To lure audiences into aging downtown movie palaces the most panicked producers in Hollywood reached out to eye candy like CinemaScope and 3-D. Soon the studios decided they had to stop making movies in black and white. Eventually, the businessmen of Hollywood saw they had to throw off the Hays Code, adopted in the early-’30s to keep the smut out of American movies.

A national trend moved the movie theater business to multiplexes in the suburbs. Downtown single-auditorium movie houses fell onto hard times. So, Richmond is fortunate to have an authentic old movie palace still in operation as a cinema: The Byrd Theatre, which opened in 1928, is now owned and operated by a non-profit foundation.

Yet, some 60 years after the doom of big-budget movie-making was being predicted, while the old studio system that thrived in the ‘30s and ‘40s is history, it seems no matter how much it costs to make feature films, determined producers will always figure out ways to keep doing it.

Of course, one of the things that Hollywood has relished doing that television couldn’t do, or wouldn’t do, for a long time, was to tell unflattering, inside stories about how the people who rule the television industry operate ... to expose their real priorities. As a medium, TV was too uptight to pull back the curtain to reveal its inner works. In other words, "The Dick Van Dyke Show" wasn’t a realistic look at the job of producing a weekly sitcom.

However circuitous, that introduction leads us to this week’s list of five film favorites -- movies about television. All of them were made in the 20th century, one of them, just barely: 

  • “Broadcast News” (1987): Color. 133 minutes. Directed by  James L. Brooks. Cast: William Hurt, Albert Brooks, Holly Hunter, Jack Nicholson. Note: The inevitable rivalries that color the relationships of the news producer, writer/reporter and presenter/anchorman are explored. Being overly self-absorbed is an industry requirement. Roger Ebert said: “[As] knowledgeable about the TV news-gathering process as any movie ever made.”
  • “The China Syndrome” (1979): Color. 122 minutes. Directed by James Bridges. Cast: Jane Fonda, Jack Lemmon, Michael Douglas, Scott Brady. Note: A reporter discovers a cover-up of an accident at a nuclear power plant and all hell breaks loose. Her determination to tell the story becomes dangerous to her and anyone close by. Ironically, the infamous Three Mile Island partial meltdown incident in Pennsylvania happened 12 days after this film was released in 1979. 
  • “A Face in the Crowd” (1957): B&W. 126 minutes. Directed by Elia Kazan. Cast: Andy Griffith, Patricia Neal, Walter Matthau, Anthony Franciosa, Lee Remick. Note: An early warning about television’s potential to boost a charismatic personality into real power. As corny as this film is, in ways, most of it holds up well. Although Andy Griffith doesn’t play a heavy often, he sure knocks it out of the park in this one.
  • “Magnolia” (1999): Color. 188 minutes. Directed by  Paul Thomas Anderson. Cast: Jason Robards, Julianne Moore, John C. Reilly, Philip Seymour Hoffman, William H. Macy, Tom Cruise, Philip Baker Hall. Note: A dark but whimsical story about fate and luck, told from several angles that overlap. The scene that unites all the characters, to sing the same Aimee Mann song is about as risky AND as satisfying as it gets on the big screen.
  • “Network” (1976): Color. 121 minutes. Directed by Sydney Lumet. Cast: Peter Finch, Faye Dunaway, William Holden, Robert Duvall. Note: The future of cable television’s soon-to-be-seen excesses in bad taste is anticipated with chilling accuracy by writer Paddy Chayefsky. Finch’s unhinged anchorman character, Howard “I’m Mad as Hell” Beale, is unforgettable. It won him an Oscar.
Close runners-up: Although I wanted to put “Medium Cool” (1969) on this list, it’s been so long since I’ve seen it that I couldn‘t do it. “Wag the Dog” (1997) almost made the list, too. If I’ve left off your favorite movie about television, please feel free to use the comments option this blogzine offers to give it its proper due.

Next Thursday another Five Film Favorites episode with a different category will be offered. 

Five Film Favorites: Cartoons

This category is especially tricky. There's no way I can remember what my favorite cartoons were when I was 10 years old, back when cartoons mattered to me more than most things in real life. Baseball mattered more.

What will fill up this list will be my five favorite cartoons today. Still, before I get to that I want to give the reader some sense of what I liked best, back when I was a cartoon-loving kid. My favorite 'toons featured these characters: Betty Boop, Bugs Bunny, Daffy Duck, Heckle and Jeckle, Mr. Magoo, Popeye, Woody Woodpecker and so forth. Rather than go on, I'll stop there. You get the picture.  

In the late-1950s I still very much enjoyed the smooth animation styles of the old cartoons that were originally made to play in movie theaters. The early cartoons made for television, like Mighty Mouse, had imitated them. Then the Hanna-Barbera style came to TV. It was everywhere suddenly and I didn't like it all that much.

The drawings were flatter. Their entertainment value relied more on the dialogue than the art. Although I watched Huckleberry Hound and Yogi Bear, even liked them, I was put off by the animation style. The same was true for Rocky and Bullwinkle, although I liked the cartoons on that program more, because the writing was much funnier.

For this list of five favorites I'm talking mostly about cartoons that are about seven minutes long, which was standard in the time before television. So no feature length animated films are on this list. Neither are made-for-TV shows like The Simpsons, etc. 

Here are my five favorite short (all less than 10 minutes) cartoons, with one added special mention of an unusual animated segment of a feature-length film.

"The Critic" (1963): 4 minutes. Color. Directed by Ernest Pintoff. Voice by Mel Brooks. Click here to watch it.

"Duck Amuck" (1953): 7 minutes. Color. Directed by Chuck Jones. Voices by Mel Blanc. Click here to watch it.

"Minnie the Moocher" (1932). 8 minutes. B&W. Directed by Dave Fleischer. Voices by Mae Questel, Cab Calloway. Click here to watch it.

"Rooty Toot Toot" (1951): 7 minutes. Color. Directed by John Hubley. Voices by  Thurl Ravenscroft, Annette Warren. Click here to watch it.

"Thank You Masked Man" (1971): 8 minutes. Color. Directed by John Magnuson. Voices by Lenny Bruce. Click here to watch it.

Bonus pick: This is a segment from "Allegro non Troppo" (1976). It was an Italian take off of Disney's "Fantasia." Both films used pieces of classical music as their sound. Click here to watch it.

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Five Film Favorites: War Movies

Note: This piece was originally published on Sept. 5, 2013. All rights are reserved.

Yes, like it or not, the drumbeat for war is sounding again and stirring passions. The debate inside the beltway over whether to bomb Syria is taking place as these words are being written. Justifications, warnings and predictions are in the air. With uncertainty swirling about, one thing is for sure -- filmmakers are paying attention to what’s happening. They are taking notes for the movies to be made about what’s happening … and what will follow.

As a setting for compelling stories the extremes of war have been useful to filmmakers throughout the history of movies. The first American feature-length motion picture to receive widespread distribution was D.W. Griffith’s rather warped melodrama about the American Civil War and its aftermath, “The Birth of a Nation” (1915).

Depending on what might be called a “war movie,” at least 20 such feature films have won the Academy Award for Best Picture. The problem with arriving at an exact number is that while some movies are set during wars, not all of them seem like traditional “war movies.” Which opens the door to the problem of defining that term.

Well, for today’s purpose “war movies” are going to be divided into two categories: heroic and anti-war. Still, most of the best war movies, at least in my book, have at least a hint of anti-war sentiment in them. Some might call it sanity. After all, war isn’t just hell, it’s crazy hell.

For this week’s list of favorites a “heroic war film” is about the quest to bravely fight through that crazy hell as part of a larger purpose. Such films are usually about losing oneself in the pursuit of that quest. Whereas, an “anti-war film” is more about the toll of war, or the sheer folly of it.

Thus, I have to cheat for this week’s favorites list -- two different sets of five favorites are needed to cover the war front.

Heroic War Films
  • “Attack” (1956): B&W. 107 minutes. Directed by Robert Aldrich. Cast: Jack Palance, Eddie Albert, Lee Marvin. Note: This gritty WWII yarn pits extremes against one another with cynicism as the referee. Cooney is the hated officer who owes his rank to political pull. Caught in the throes of a fit of cowardice he fails to support his men when it counts most. One of them, Costa, survives and wants Cooney to pay.
  • “The Deer Hunter” (1978): Color. 182 minutes. Directed by Michael Cimino. Cast: Robert De Niro, Christopher Walken, Meryl Streep, John Savage, John Cazale. Note: This tense story pulls three pals loose from their familiar blue collar moorings. It drops them into unimagined horrors in another world -- Vietnam. Then it explores the nature of heroism staring into the madness of a dilemma with no good options.
  • “The Great Escape” (1963): Color. 172 minutes. Directed by John Sturges. Cast: Steve McQueen, James Garner, Richard Attenborough, Charles Bronson, Donald Pleasence. Note: McQueen is at his antihero best in this somewhat true WWII story about captured Americans and Brits in a German prisoner of war camp, plotting a massive escape. Their ingenuity and dedication are the stuff of a great adventure … whether they get away with it or not.
  • “The Thin Red Line” (1998): Color. 170 minutes. Directed by Terrence Malick. Cast: Sean Penn, Nick Nolte, Adrien Brody, James Caviezel, Woody Harrelson. Note: When Malick makes a WWII movie it’s going to be different from most war movies. This one lingers on the soldiers’ dreams and boredom, then explodes into action most of them have extreme difficulty handling. Of course, there are those charmed individuals who somehow thrive in combat.
  • “The Train” (1964): Color. 133 minutes. Directed by John Frankenheimer. Cast: Burt Lancaster, Paul Scofield, Jeanne Moreau. Note: In 1944 a German colonel wants to grab a bunch of important art and take it out of France, to Germany, before the approaching Allied troops can liberate Paris. The French resistance wants to prevent the Nazis on the train from completing their thieving mission.

Anti-War Films
  • “Dr. Strangelove or: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb” (1964): B&W. 95 minutes. Directed by Stanley Kubrick. Cast: Peter Sellers, George C. Scott, Sterling Hayden, Slim Pickens, Keenan Wynn. Note: Coming just after the Cuban Missile Crisis this outrageous, nuke-mocking black comedy worked like a charm. Poof! The fallout shelter-building-craze began to go out of style in the suburbs. Trivia: owing to the assassination of JFK in November of 1963 this film's release was delayed two months.
  • “Forbidden Games” (1952): B&W. 86 minutes. Directed by René Clément. Cast: Brigitte Fossey, Georges Poujouly, Amédée. Note: An orphaned and confused little girl is taken in by a family. In this subtle anti-war classic the devastating toll of mechanized war, as seen by children -- who can hardly grasp what’s happening around them -- is stunning. Don’t look for a lot of battle scenes in this one.
  • “King of Hearts” (1966): Color. Directed by Philippe de Broca. Cast: Alan Bates, Geneviève Bujold, Pierre Brasseur. Note: The first movie to play at Richmond’s long-lost Biograph Theatre (in 1972) was a zany French comedy; Bujold was dazzling opposite the droll Bates. The story is set amid the harsh but absurd realities of way too much war (WWI). Hey, when the world goes crazy, why shouldn’t the crazy people take over the town?
  • “Paths of Glory” (1957): B&W. 88 minutes. Directed by Stanley Kubrick. Cast: Kirk Douglas, Ralph Meeker, Adolphe Menjou. Note: In the trench warfare stalemate of WWI, the search for glory becomes a fool’s errand. Living in mud with dead bodies piling up, blame-shifting begins to obscure the mission -- what is the mission? Honest men start to look like enemies to their corrupt superior officers.
  • “Seven Beauties” (1975): Color. 115 minutes. Directed by Lina Wertmüller. Cast: Giancarlo Giannini, Fernando Rey, Shirley Stoler. Note: This film is a unique combination of comedy and tragedy. Caught in a war, if they want to survive, what -- if anything! -- will captive soldiers refuse to do? What will their families at home, facing starvation, refuse to do? This unforgettable look at Italy in WWII takes you there.
Couldn‘t figure out what category to put "The Battle of Algiers" (1966) in, but if you watch it, this docudrama will tattoo your mind. It should be required viewing for those who are deciding whether or not to bomb Syria tomorrow.

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Five Film Favorites: Movies About Making Movies

Filmmakers tell us stories. 

The people who write the screenplays and direct the movies we see on screens, large and small, sometimes appear to know a lot about cowboys, or modern teenagers in love, or lathered up serial killers, or life in the fast lane, or whatever. Still, what most successful filmmakers actually do know about, firsthand and in-depth, is what goes on behind the camera in the business of producing popular motion pictures.

Consequently, plenty of movies about making movies have been made; some of those inside looks at filmmaking are among the best features ever produced. After all, there’s no business like show business!

Which means narrowing the list down to just five titles this week wasn’t easy, but that’s my job.

Yes, “Sullivan’s Travels” (1941) is still a cool flick and it’s sort of about making movies. Yes, I always enjoy watching “Singin' in the Rain” (1952), even though most of the old studio system musicals from the 1940s and ’50s aren’t likely to ever appear on any favorites list of mine. Yes, “Wag the Dog” (1997) deserves more praise than it has received. And, most recently, I enjoyed “The Artist” (2011) quite a bit, although I‘ve only seen it once. Yes, more films could be cited in this paragraph, but today none of them have made the cut. 

This Thursday my five favorite movies about making movies are: 
  • “8½” (1963): B&W. 138 minutes. Directed by Federico Fellini. Cast: Marcello Mastroianni, Claudia Cardinale, Anouk Aimée. Note: While this is a film about making a film, don’t stew over trying to make sense of it. Just watch as Fellini dazzles you with unforgettable characters and images, as he shrugs and admits to his own confusion.
  • “Day for Night” (1973): Color. 115 minutes. Directed by François Truffaut. Cast: Jacqueline Bisset, Valentina Cortese, François Truffaut. Note: An engaging look at the process of crafting a movie's plot, with the soap-opera-like private lives of the cast and crew intermingling with the production. It could be seen as a director’s bittersweet confession.
  • “The Day of the Locust” (1975): Color. 144 minutes. Directed by John Schlesinger. Cast: Donald Sutherland, Karen Black, William Atherton, Burgess Meredith. Note: This foreboding story was adapted from the Nathanael West  novel about the fresh lure of stardom in Hollywood and the same old road to hell.
  • “The Player” (1992): Color. 124 minutes. Directed by Robert Altman. Cast: Tim Robbins, Greta Scacchi, Fred Ward. Note: Dealing out some payback to Hollywood, Altman pulls back the curtain to show us the blackmailing, back-stabbing side of how stories -- reduced to pitches -- get processed into movies. No doubt, Altman and his accomplices had fun making this one.
  • “Sunset Blvd.” (1950): B&W. 110 minutes. Directed by Billy Wilder. Cast: William Holden, Gloria Swanson, Erich von Stroheim. Note: For a young struggling writer, down on his luck, why not coast for a while? Why not facilitate the batty fantasies of a rich, has-been movie star? What could go wrong?
Yes, there’s a thread of cynicism that runs through all five of them. Perhaps that’s because the filmmakers felt compelled to remind the viewer that show business people just make stuff up all the time. We viewers shouldn’t really believe they know all that much about cowboys or modern teenagers.

No, we movie-lovers should just enjoy the best of these filmmakers’ efforts and take them for what they are, for the most part -- made-up stories, created to tell us a larger truth.

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Five Film Favorites: Westerns

Jack Burns and Whisky pass through a junkyard in
"Lonely Are the Brave," which was adapted from the
Edward Abbey novel, "Brave Cowboy."

We’ve all seen lots of bad Western movies. Typically, they feature fist-fighting drunk cowboys and their inevitable handgun duels, all poured into hackneyed plots. Yet, a good Western, with well drawn characters moving about in a lean story, is hard to beat.

Regardless of the overall quality of the movie, the stark landscape of most Westerns is the prefect backdrop for tall tales of men, and sometimes women, driven to extremes.

Listed below are my five favorite Westerns, presented in alphabetical order:
  • “High Noon” (1952): B&W. 85 Minutes. Directed by Fred Zinnemann; Cast: Gary Cooper, Grace Kelly, Thomas Mitchell, Lloyd Bridges. Note: The contrasts are vivid. Shadow or light? Happiness or duty? Community or self interest? Honor or whatever is the opposite? Life or death?
  • “Lonely Are the Brave” (1962): B&W. 107 minutes. Directed by David Miller; Cast: Kirk Douglas, Gena Rowlands, Walter Matthau, George Kennedy. Note: To help his friend, a free-spirited cowboy flings himself recklessly at the hobbling effects of modernity … then tries desperately to escape.
  • “Stagecoach” (1939): B&W. 96 minutes. Directed by John Ford; Cast: John Wayne, Claire Trevor, Andy Devine, John Carridine. Note: With this saga that throws disparate travelers together, to face peril, Ford made a star of Wayne. And, Ford created a template for all such movies to follow.
  • “The Treasure of the Sierra Madre” (1948): B&W. 126 minutes. Directed by John Huston; Cast: Humphrey Bogart, Walter Huston, Tim Holt. Note: Three down-on-their-luck drifters, almost strangers, throw in together to prospect for gold in Mexico. Problems ensue and personalities clash.
  • “Unforgiven” (1992): Color. 131 Minutes. Directed by Clint Eastwood; Cast: Clint Eastwood, Gene Hackman, Morgan Freeman, Richard Harris. Note: A grizzled pair of former gunfighters/murderers team up to try to collect a $1,000 reward by killing two cowboys who deliberately disfigured a prostitute. Naturally, the corrupt sheriff must throw his weight around.

The films on the list above all have plots that can be boiled down to one word. “High Noon” is about honor. “Lonely Are the Brave” is about freedom. “Stagecoach” is about survival. “The Treasure of the Sierra Madre” is about greed. “Unforgiven” is about revenge. Decisions by the characters drive the action.

“Lonely Are the Brave” is probably the least known movie on that list. If you aren’t familiar with it, do yourself a favor and see it soon. It’s sort of a beat treatment to the cowboy-verses-modernity angle. It was produced to be a Hollywood answer to the French New Wave films that were becoming popular in America in the early-1960s.

My peers grew up watching Western feature films in movie houses and weekly Western series on television. And, whether we knew it or not, some portion of the baby boomer generation’s collective sense of right and wrong was being shaped by all those heroes and villains wearing cowboy hats and boots.

Speaking of fashion, when I was six or seven years old there was a spell in which any shirts with a collar that I wore had to resemble the trademark checkered cowboy shirt Roy Rogers wore on his weekly TV show.

The five films on my list represent my favorites today. Another day’s list of favorite Westerns might be different. Moreover, this list doesn’t represent my ideas about important or great movies. Just favorites.

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