Going Back Home
Sorry for the lack of updates this week. I got felled by a summer cold. And now I am stepping away for a week to tackle a necessary project. But will be back with updates and lots of other stuff on July 22. In the meantime......here are two favorite movie moments from one of my home states: West Virginia.
The Night of the Hunter (1955)
Orphans John and Pearl flee their murderous stepfather (Robert Mitchum) by taking a boat down the Ohio River. One of the loveliest and scariest movies I know based on the novel by West Virginia writer Davis Grubb.
Fool's Parade (1971)
Mattie Appleyard (James Stewart) gets paroled from the Moundsville, WV penitentiary but no one will cash his check for $25,000 he's earned for 35 years of labor in prison. Appleyard decides to take matters into his own hands (I do not recommend this method!). Also based on a novel by West Virginia's Davis Grubb.
More questions from my faithful readers are the subject of Tuesday Questions. Here we go!
Do you have any favorite drive in movie memories?
Not too many. I’ve been to the drive in less than a handful of times in my life. I mostly remember them for being hot and sticky affairs (get your minds out of the gutter, people!!!!). It was usually summertime, the car’s A/C was off, and it quickly became hot and humid inside. I should also say that I never went on a date to a drive in movie. My opinion might be different in that case.
Probably my favorite drive in experience was my first. In 1972, my family went to a drive in triple feature: SNOOPY, COME HOME (1972), LE MANS (1971) with Steve McQueen, and BIG JAKE (1971) with John Wayne. BIG JAKE was the first PG movie I ever saw. I also remember that the only people who stayed awake for the whole thing were my dad and myself. I don’t know what time we got home but it was LATE.
Do you think the demise of the classic old studio system (think the 30's, 40's and 50's) resulted in better films, worse films or neither?
Thanks, John! Like all things, I think there were good and bad results when the studio system went under. In general, I think it resulted in better films, especially in the 1950’s, 1960’s, and 1970’s. Filmmakers were freed to explore subjects they would not have been able to under the old studio system. They pushed the boundaries and broke away from the old Production Code which meant movies seemed more like real life. Also, actors and directors started getting paid what they were truly worth. So overall I would say they were better films.
The downside was that it made it more expensive to make movies. Rather than having all your resources in house at the studio, producers had to go out and assemble their crews and casts on a film-by-film basis.
Once corporations started reinserting themselves into the creative process in the early 1980s, the variety and types of films began decreasing. Today, I think the range of subject matter is worse than in the studio days. Back then, a studio consciously tried to make films in all genres aimed at all segments of the audience. Now, the studios aim everything at the most reliable audience demographic going the movies: young males aged 15-25. I miss the days when CHINATOWN and THE LAST PICTURE SHOW were summer releases.
It may not be the film with his best acting, but my all-time favorite John Wayne movie is "McLintock". I have lost track of how many times I have seen it but it never fails to make me laugh out loud each & every time. And what a cast it had... too many to mention. It's a film still watching.
Thanks, Pat! I agree. I watched MCLINTOCK (1963) a lot when I was a boy but have not watched it in probably 40 years. Barely remember it now except that Wayne falling down the stairs was a running gag. I’ll have to check it out again soon.
Do you have a question????? Please send it in!!!!!!
Why I Write: Class Pictures
I have wanted to be a writer for as long as I can remember. Here is one of the reasons why:
Back in 2001 when my mother was dying of lung cancer, I traveled down to her home in Florida to chat and start sorting things out and making sure things were in order (she subsequently passed away in 2002). Mom has lived alone since she and Dad divorced back in the 1980s. On my last day there, Mom and I spent the morning talking about what I was supposed to do with everything once she was gone. I was the executor of her will so she wanted me to be sure to know where "all the bodies are buried."
She pulled out boxes that she had carefully prepared for each of us children. There are three of us in my family: my oldest sister Pat, middle sister Pam, and me, baby Richard. Each box contained old mementoes and memories from our childhood. Stuff that each of us had cast aside years ago as insignificant yet Mom had somehow kept and was now giving back to us. Imagine suddenly being confronted with almost every homework assignment you’d ever done or every card or present you’d ever given your mother. That’s what was in these boxes.
I open up my box to see what it could possibly hold. The envelope on top grabs my attention right away. I recognize it because I'd been thinking about that very same envelope for decades and wondering where it could be.
The day after I left on this trip was my young son Ben's first picture day at his elementary school. When I'd left home, he had infections in both of his ears and my wife Betsy was driving him to the doctor but Ben was bound and determined that, no matter how he felt, he was going to be at his first school picture day the next morning. Ben was in Young 5's then (the 21st century equivalent of our old kindergarten). His eagerness to get his picture immortalized made me recall my own first kindergarten picture day and the class portrait we'd taken at the time. And I knew that was the picture inside the envelope I now held in my hands.
I opened the manila envelope and pulled out the baby blue folder. I flipped it open. And there we were: the kindergarten class of Harrington Elementary School, 1967-68. There were all our fresh faces surrounding our teacher Mrs. Seward as we began our first foray into public education and life outside our homes. I located myself at the end of the upper left hand row and smiled to realize there was more than a little Ben in my features (even though I know it was vice versa).
I have lots of memories from kindergarten: coloring, show and tell, and the field trip to a local farm to see a young horse that had just been born. The day we had a cookout in the classroom and sat around eating beans and singing cowboy songs like we were out on the range.
Staring at that class photo in my hand, I searched for a particular child. I did not remember her name but I remembered her face. And there she was in the lower right hand corner of the photo. She's almost as far away from me as you can get in the class grouping, but I've never forgotten her. To my knowledge, we never had a conversation. I am somewhat surprised to see that she is wearing a red and white checked gingham dress. That was the exact same color and pattern of my favorite stuffed animal Puppy who I spent many a night sleeping with in my childhood (and who still carefully rests in the head board of my present bed).
I find the girl's name: Jennie Emmons. Yes, that was her name all right. My family moved away after my kindergarten year so I never saw any of these children again. Yet I never forgot Jennie.
A few weeks after this picture was taken, Jennie's mother was in a car accident coming home from the grocery store and Jennie Emmons died. Richard, the wide-eyed little boy in the upper left of the picture, has gone on to experience most of the highs and lows of life. He's had some of his fondest dreams come true and some of them dashed. Jennie Emmons never got out of Kindergarten. As I stared at the photo, I was now an adult with gray hair and a son who himself was now five years old. Jennie Emmons is forever a young five.
Jennie Emmons is one of the reasons why I am a writer today. Every day, people wander in and out of our lives. A lot of times they are soon gone for no good reason. But they linger in my mind and often transform into fictional characters and stories that work their way down my arm, out of the tips of my fingers, and onto the page. They are part of how I remember and keep them alive. At heart, these fictional creations have their origin in real life people and places that I have known. And yet I feel the deepest, most profound necessity to put them down on paper and pass them on to you.
It has nothing to do with fame. It has nothing to with money. It has everything to do with preserving today and yesterday for those still here and those yet to come. It is a commitment I keep for the Jennie Emmons of the world.
Why do YOU write? Please share.
Happy Independence Day, everyone! Get out there and water ski and eat hot dogs and light sparklers and watch the fireworks! But only after taking in these two patriotic movies that get to the heart of the American character.
A MORE PERFECT UNION (1988) ***stars
Commissioned by the U.S. government to celebrate the 200th anniversary of the U.S. constitution, Perfect Union works as an unofficial sequel to 1776. Many of the same historical players from the first movie are back again (Benjamin Franklin, Roger Sherman, John Dickinson, James Wilson). John Adams and Thomas Jefferson are relegated to the edges – they were the USA’s ambassadors to England and France at the time – but in their place we get James Madison (Craig Wasson) and George Washington (Michael McGuire). Both are statesmen who see the United States falling apart and know that only a new form of government can save the country.
The movie accurately depicts what a tough job it was to pull all the states together and create this working constitution which has somehow managed to survive into the 21st century. And how the issues debated at the constitutional convention are still getting debated and reinterpreted today. Yes, it is a bit talky but it is a civics lesson all us citizens should watch at least once to better understand who we are as a nation and as a people.
The film is a bit hard to find these days but you can watch it on YouTube HERE.
TRIVIA: Because it is a government production, the film was shot in the actual Independence Hall where it all originally went down.
NASHVILLE (1975) ****stars
Robert Altman’s American kaleidoscope follows 24 characters over the 4th of July holiday in the country music capital of the world. All of them have something to do with the country music industry. They are either stars or they want to be stars or they want to be connected to the stars. Over the course of 3 days, stars rise, stars fall. People meet, people say goodbye. Friendships are formed, relationships fall apart.
It all comes to a head at a big political rally at the Nashville Parthenon for never seen third party presidential candidate Hal Phillip Walker. We never see Walker but we do here him on the radio spouting the same meaningless populist phrases that politicians still use today.
Though it is almost 40 years old, the movie perfectly captures the wide-ranging American character: our fascination with family and music and celebrity and making money and guns. It is all on display here: the good, the bad, and the ugly. And yet it ends up making you appreciate and love being an American even more despite all our flaws. And it is all set to a collection of original Oscar-winning country songs written by the stars themselves including Keith Carradine's classic "I'm Easy".
See it if you love country music. See it if you want to better understand the wide-ranging beauty of what it means to be an American. How the melting pot comes together, doesn’t always work out, but somehow we manage to keep on keeping on.
Have a happy and safe 4th of July, everyone! I’ll chat with you on Monday.
Looking for something patriotic to watch for this year’s Independence Day? Looking for movies that tell us where we have been as a country & a people while also showing us where we have to go? Then you can’t get any better than these:
1776 (1972) ****stars
Sherman Edwards’ Tony-winning musical has been adapted to the screen with its Broadway cast mostly intact (a rare thing indeed) and original stage director Peter Hunt at the helm. William Daniels and Howard Da Silva are brilliant as John Adams and Benjamin Franklin trying like heck to wake up the Continental Congress and pass the Declaration of Independence. The movie entertainingly shows how the divisions we lament in this country have been there from the very beginning. It also shows how we must learn to overlook those differences if we wish to accomplish a greater good.
The songs are fun. The debate pretty much follows how it all went down. George Washington’s dispatches from the front capture how on the edge the Continental Army operated. And I fall in love with Blythe Danner every time I watch this. (For those of the younger generation, she is Gwyneth Paltrow’s mother). Virginia Vestoff is all strong and resilient as Abigail Adams (she died of cancer shortly after the film was made). A shout out as well to Donald Madden as John Dickinson, the tireless opponent of all things relating to independence.
The film makes us realize what a close shave getting independence declared actually was. It is all here: deathly ill Caesar Rodney’s midnight ride through the night to cast a Yes vote, James Wilson’s last minute change of heart. It makes you realize in this age of filibusters and 60 vote minimums, that many of the greatest laws we’ve passed in this country did so by the skin of their teeth.
Be sure to watch the restored 164-minute version readily available on DVD. It was cut by half an hour when released in 1972. President Nixon, friends with producer Jack Warner and busy orchestrating the Watergate cover up at the time, thought some of the dialogue and the song “Cool, Cool Conservative Men” liable to anger the country and send the population into the streets. So Warner cut them. Fortunately, the cut footage has mostly been restored. Frankly, I find it all prescient on where the country was going to go. Of where we find ourselves now.
TRIVIA: This was the last movie filmed at the original Columbia Pictures studio before it was torn down.
PET PEEVE: Director Peter Hunt restored all of the footage except the complete version of John Adams’ song “Piddle, Twiddle, & Resolve”. I got a chance to ask him about that once and he confessed that he didn’t restore it because he always hated how he shot the song. Daniels is standing there singing how it is “hot as hell in Philadelphia” and steam can be seen coming out of his mouth (because it was really a chilly night in L.A.). You can watch the complete song HERE.
GETTYSBURG (1993) ***1/2 stars
Ronald Maxwell’s sprawling recreation of the Battle of Gettysburg (which took place July 1-3, 1863) is definitely long at 4 hours 14 minutes (the director’s cut is even longer). There may be a bit too much speechifying (though much of it is moving). But the movie is a once in a lifetime experience: a thrilling recreation of the actual battle on the actual battlefield (the only time the National Park service allowed it). It is the closest we will ever come to actually being there at the most important battle of the American Civil War.
The movie does a beautiful job of capturing both the North and South points of view going into the battle. Points of view that are still valid today.
The large cast is excellent. Jeff Daniels makes a moving and heroic Joshua Lawrence Chamberlain. Tom Berenger is a conflicted James Longstreet. Richard Jordan (in his final role) is a tragic Lew Armistead. Stephen Lang is perfect as the too trusting and naïve George Pickett leading his men into a bloodbath.
If the length bothers you then watching it in 3 parts on July 1, July 2, and July 3.
See it to get a better understanding of who we are as a country. And see it for the grand splendor of Pickett’s Charge: a total folly of a maneuver but a brave and beautiful thing. It makes us appreciate how close the North came to losing the war; it makes us realize how close the South came to winning.
TRIVIA: The actor playing the British observer is George Lazenby, famous for his one off appearance as James Bond in ON HER MAJESTY’S SECRET SERVICE (1969).
TOMORROW: 4 MOVIES FOR THE 4TH PART II
Some of my faithful readers have been sending in some questions. Some have left their names and some have been anonymous. But Monday seemed a good time to answer some of them.
Terry writes regarding John Wayne:
I would argue with THE ALAMO. I don't dislike it (even though the story has almost nothing to do with the history of the battle, which annoys me), but I think Wayne had better performances. I would suggest, for instance, IN HARM’S WAY, the Otto Preminger war picture. Wayne shines as a naval officer demoted after Pearl Harbor, who redeems himself in battle. It also has an incredible all star cast.
Thanks, Terry. I like IN HARM'S WAY (1965) but think it’s much too long and Wayne is just average in it. The ending is pretty downbeat too. Kirk Douglas plays an interesting character with a very dark side. And it is fun to see the grown up Brandon De Wilde from SHANE as well as the grown up (and rather sexy) Jill Haworth from EXODUS. Wayne and Patricia Neal don't seem to have any chemistry though.
Did you see JAWS when it first came out? What do you think of the sequels?
I did not see JAWS when it came out in 1975. Because of the violence, the MPAA’s ratings board wanted to give it an R. Universal appealed and the MPAA allowed the PG rating as long as the posters and commercials carried the warning “May Be Too Intense For Younger Children.” That was good enough for my mother to say I could not see it. I finally saw JAWS when Universal re-released it in the summer 1979.
As for the sequels (all totally unnecessary IMHO) I like JAWS 2 (1978) (***). It isn’t
great but still entertaining. I like the personalities of the teenagers. JAWS 3-D (1983) (**1/2) is fun in a cheesy kind of way. I like Dennis Quaid and Bess Armstrong. And this is the movie that made me a lifelong Lea Thompson fan. So I
can forgive film’s many flaws. JAWS: THE REVENGE (1987) (**) is just horrible.
I hope they’ve permanently closed the books on JAWS. Even though rumors persist that they want to remake the original. NO!
Have you ever fallen asleep in a movie? Have you ever walked out of a movie?
Yes and yes. I used to never fall asleep in films until I had to start taking my son to family movies. The first movie I slept through was SHARK TALE, though I have also slept through BACK TO THE BARNYARD, and DOOGAL. Did manage to nod off for parts of ALIENS IN THE ATTIC and PARANORMAN.
The only movie I have walked out of was ISHTAR (1987) only because I was on a date and I knew if I did not leave, the date would be ruined. So, yes, that night I picked love over movies.
Anonymous writes: How can you like XANADU (1980)??? That movie is BAD BAD BAD!!!!!!!!
First off, there are no rational explanations for liking a Guilty Pleasure. You realize how horrible it all is but you like it anyway. That’s why it is a GUILTY pleasure.
But in terms of the movie XANADU, as I wrote in my Friday column, I love the soundtrack, hate the movie. I saw it on opening night in 1980 with a full house at the Clarkston Cinema and the audience just sat there saying nothing for the whole screening. It was one of the first shockingly bad films I can remember seeing in a theater.
Where to begin? Michael Beck is miscast as the lead. Director Robert Greenwald doesn’t seem to know how to direct a musical. Olivia Newton-John shows none of the talent and promise she had in GREASE.
The only thinks it has going for it are: 1) Gene Kelly making his final appearance in a musical. His dance number with Olivia is one of the few highlights, 2) Don Bluth’s
animation. He and his associates had just been fired by Disney (that’s another story) and they do a good job here, 3) Olivia Newton-John is very beautiful. A movie can be forgiven a world of sins if the leading lady is gorgeous. Thanks for writing. And leave your name next time! Don't be a stranger.
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Do you have a question????? Please send it in!!!!!!