1963 – Lilies of the Field

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Lilies of the Field – 1963

Well, it’s time to scale things back for a bit.  The nominees for 1963 were all larger epics, all except for Lilies of the Field.  America, America, Cleopatra, How the West Was Won, and even the winner, Tom Jones, had stories that spanned years and grand themes that gave them a larger feel.  But Lilies of the Field was a small film that took place over the course of only a few months.  The cast was not very big and the small and intimate nature of the movie was more relaxed and simple.  Even the length of the film was only an hour and 34 minutes.

Sidney Poitier played Homer Smith, a handyman who was just passing through.  He stops at a nunnery in the middle of the Arizona desert.  There, he meets 5 German nuns who are led by Mother Maria, played by Lilia Skala.  Mother Maria believes that Homer was sent by God in answer to her prayers.  She hires Homer to repair a roof.  Then, she somehow gets him to stay overnight and drive the sisters into the local town on Sunday morning.  Then, she somehow convinces him to build them a chapel.

Homer stays and works.  He goes out of his way to help the sisters.  He is generous and kind.  He helps them to learn the English language.  He brings them gifts of food and supplies.  All he asks is that Mother Maria provide the materials he needs to build the chapel.  Finally, with the help of the Mexican townsfolk, he builds a beautiful chapel, something of which he can be proud.

That’s the simplified version.  But the interest lies in the complex interactions between the two strong personalities of Homer and Mother Maria.  The way I saw it, I was on Homer’s side.  He was honest, hard-working, and generous.  But I am finding it difficult to put into words, just how against Mother Maria I really am.  On the one hand, she was a terrible person.  She was dishonest, manipulative, a bully of sorts, and ungrateful.  On the other hand, she had a strength of character and a powerful faith which led her to accomplish seemingly impossible goals.

Why do I say that?  Well, she clearly took advantage of Homer without even thanking him for his efforts.  She seemed to believe that he had been sent by God to be her personal slave.  Seriously.  He agrees to do the work, expecting pay.  But whenever he brings up the subject of payment, she talks over him, gives him another task to perform, and bullies him into silence.  She treats him without respect and never even thanks him for his work, saying that God was the one who sent him, so God should receive the thanks.

She manipulates Homer into building the chapel.  But he is a generous guy.  He sees that the sisters are in need and he allows himself to be strong-armed into the monumental task.  So they make an arrangement.  He agrees to build the chapel and she agrees to provide the bricks and building materials.  But when she fails to hold up her end of the bargain, she takes it out on him, asking him why he is not building, as if she doesn’t understand that he can’t build the chapel without bricks.

Homer brings the sisters gifts food and supplies out of the goodness of his heart, and still, Mother Maria only thanks God.  Even in the end, when the chapel is finished, the bricks and extra labor having been provided by the local townsfolk, she cannot bring herself to thank Homer.  God built the chapel, not Homer.  Well, screw you lady!  God may have used Homer as his instrument, but Homer did the work!  A simple thank you was all he wanted!

I’ll be honest, the ending upset me and I don’t think it was supposed to.  The final scene is one in which Homer tricks Mother Maria into saying the words, “thank you.”  But the words were not directed at him and as soon as she caught herself saying them, she stifled them.  There was no sincerity in her words.  And this is supposed to be the touching moment of understanding between them?  I didn’t get that sense at all.

I have also learned that the book ends beyond the film, showing how after Homer leaves, Mother Maria spreads rumors and creates a myth that Homer was really an angel sent by God, that he was not really human at all, and that he was a devout Christian who did his work joyfully.  Wrong!  You bullied a good man and completely took advantage of his generosity.

1963 – How the West Was Won

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How the West Was Won – 1962

This was a well-made movie with a huge cast of huge names.  Somehow, they got some of the biggest stars in Hollywood to take small roles and bit parts.  People like John Wayne, James Stewart, Gregory Peck, Henry Fonda, Karl Malden, Robert Preston, Carroll Baker, Carolyn Jones, Agnes Moorhead, Harry Morgan, Debby Reynolds, George Peppard, Eli Wallach, Richard Widmark, Andy Divine, Russ Tamblyn, and Spencer Tracy made for an epic film that was pretty impressive in its scope and scale.

The film was made up of 5 vignettes, each one a story in itself, telling of a different aspect of how early American settlers tamed and colonized the western frontier.  Each story had a connecting thread that began with the Prescott family and continued with their descendants.  First was The Rivers of 1839, followed by The Plains of 1851.  Next came the Civil War between 1861 and 1865.  After that was the Railroads in 1868.  And finally came the Outlaws in 1889.  Each story was good enough to have been expanded into an entire film, but they were told short and sweet.  They were interesting and easily followed.  Actors and actresses came and went, but the common thread of the single family that ran through them all gave the film a tight cohesiveness.

In part one, the family started out with the parents, Zebulon Prescott and his wife Rebecca, played by Malden and Moorehead.  Their two daughters, Eve and Lilith, are played by Baker and Reynolds.  At the end of part one, Eve marries Linus Rawlings, played by Stewart.   In part two, Lilith marries Cleve Van Valen, played by Peck.  In part three, Linus and later, his son Zeb, played by Peppard, joins the Union Army.  In part four, Zeb tries to make peace with Indians as the Railroads are being built.  And in part five, we learn that Cleve and Lilith have become wealthy as railroad tycoons, but have fallen on hard times.  Cleve is dead and Lilith moves to her ranch in Arizona along with her nephew Zeb, who has become a US Marshall.  He is married to Julie, played by Jones, and after fighting to take down a gang of dangerous outlaws, they all ride off into the sunset.

And that’s the basic story line.  The rest of the big name actors all took smaller roles.  For example, John Wayne played General Sherman in the Civil War story.  Robert Preston played a Roger Morgan, a wagonmaster crossing the plains with Lillith.  Henry Fonda played Jethro Stewart, a buffalo hunter who helped Zeb make peace with the Indians.  Eli Wallach played Charlie Gant, the head of the gang of outlaws who fought with Zeb.

Three of the vignettes were directed by Henry Hathaway, one by John Ford, and one by George Marshall.  But unless you are well versed in their various directing styles, you’d never notice any of the differences.  The stories were distinct, and yet they all fit together like a kind of jigsaw puzzle, eventually presenting us with a larger image.

One of the things that really caught my attention was the incredible cinematography.  Some of the wide open shots of the beautiful and scenic American geography were stunning.  The movie was one of only two dramatic feature films ever to be filmed in a new and innovative process called Cinerama.  Unfortunately the process could only be effective if shown on a special curved screen.  When shown on a flat screen, the actors didn’t seem to be looking at each other.  There were also wide shots in which the image on the screen was drastically curved, giving it a fish-eye effect.

The acting was top-notch.  I especially liked Reynolds and Baker.  Reynolds’ character, Lilith, was the only character to be alive in all 5 vignettes, though she only appeared in 3.  The movie had the advantage of star power and it used it to the fullest.  Even Spencer Tracy, who did not appear on-screen, was the narrator who helped with the transitions between the different segments, and he did a wonderful job.

The feel of the epic reflected the manifest destiny of the American settlers, which said that we were meant to be the masters of the land simply because we were, and yet it was honest at the same time.  There were good people and bad, and some people who were a bit of both.  The movie well-made and just fun to watch.

1963 – Cleopatra

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Cleopatra – 1963

This movie was alright, but I’ll be honest.  I expected more from the cast.  I was a bit underwhelmed by the performances of Elizabeth Taylor as Queen Cleopatra, Rex Harrison as Julius Cesar, and Richard Burton as Mark Antony.  They didn’t do a horrible job, but I’ve seen each of them in other films in which they did better jobs.  This was an epic and Hollywood made it into a huge deal.  It had big sets, big costumes, big music, big stars, hundreds and hundreds of extras, and, consequently, a budget that nearly bankrupted 20th Century Fox.  I think the film was too ambitious, trying to be bigger than it needed to be.  The film was over 4 hours long, but in my research, I have learned that the original cut was over 6 hours!

Unfortunately, the production was plagued with so many problems that there was no way it could have been any better than it was.  The original budget was $2 million, but the film ended up costing $37 million.  Why?  Because everything was originally set to be filmed in London.  Gigantic sets were built, exotic plants were imported, and scenes were filmed.  But then Elizabeth Taylor became ill, so ill that surgery was required to save her life.  However, the weather in London was so detrimental to her recovery that the filming was moved to Rome.

This caused great delays in the schedule.  Due to prior commitments, the actors playing Julius Cesar and Mark Antony had to leave the production, so they had to be recast, and all their footage had to be filmed a second time with Harrison and Burton.  In addition to that, the sets all had to be built again in the new location, and the problems just continued to get worse.

Director Joseph L. Mankiewicz originally screened his 6 hour version, but the studio wanted the film cut down to just over 3 so that more screenings could be shown per day in theatres.  Mankiewicz asked if the film could be split into 2 parts and released as 2 separate movies, but his request was denied.  Apparently, Elizabeth Taylor had started a very public affair with Richard Burton.  Cleopatra and Antony’s love story was told in the 2nd half of the film and Fox wanted to capitalize on the affair.  They felt that waiting an entire year before showing their on-screen romance was too risky.

As for the film, itself, I loved all of Cleopatra’s costume changes.  She was wearing something different in every single scene.  In fact, Taylor held a Guinness Book of World Records title for the most costume changes in a single film: 65 to be exact.  That record was eventually surpassed by Madonna in 1996’s Evita, in which she wore 85 different costumes.

I loved the opulence and glamour of the production as a whole.  I am a fan of epics and this was one on the same scale as other such great films as Quo Vadis, Ben-Hur, and The Ten Commandments.  I enjoy the larger than life sets and the props.  But as always, when watching a historical drama, I have to ask how historically accurate the film was.  I’m happy to say that Cleopatra was pretty spot-on.  Only a few minor details were altered, ones that I have absolutely no problem with.

But I think the film’s failings were two-fold.  First, it was the length.  Four hours is a long time to sit through a movie.  I would have loved to see the original 6 hour version split into two films.  Second was the acting.  Taylor, playing the lead, was obviously not at the top of her game.  Harrison did a good enough job, though I couldn’t help noticing that the Roman Cesar had a decidedly British accent and mannerisms.  He was nothing more than a costume change away from Henry Higgins.  Roddy McDowel’s British accent was no better as he played Octavian, the new Cesar.

Sure, Burton had the same accent, but I thought his performance was a cut above the others.  He seemed a little more natural in his role than his costars.  Mark Antony was portrayed as a great military leader who was effective emasculated by his relationship with Queen Cleopatra.  He loved her so much that he was willing to give up everything to serve her: his country and the adoration of his men.  And when he saw how his love turned him into her slave, destroying his self-respect, not to mention his career, he turned to drink.  Burton played that story line especially well.  Realistic self-pity is not easy to play effectively.  Well done, Burton!

1963 – America, America

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America, America – 1963

This wasn’t a bad movie.  It wasn’t really my kind of film to watch, but it certainly was entertaining.  It was directed by Elia Kazan, and was loosely based on the life of his uncle.  It followed the character of Stavros Topouzoglou, a young Greek boy living in poverty near the base of Mount Argaeus in Turkish Anatolia.  In the late 1890s, the Greeks and the Armenians of the region were brutally oppressed by the Turks that occupied the land.

Stavros was played by a handsome young actor named Stathis Giallelis.  It was his first film role ever, and he had to study English for nearly 18 months in preparation for the part.  But he did a phenomenal job.  His acting ability was astonishing and his emotional presence was powerful.  Kazan really cast the perfect person in the film’s lead.

Stavros has big dreams of getting out of his home, out from under the oppressive thumb of the Turks, and away from the influences of his family.  He wants to make something of his life on his own terms.  More than anything else, he wants to go to America, the land where you get to make a fresh start and be the master of your own destiny.

In one of the most heartbreaking sequences of the film, his family gathers together everything of value they have and give it to him.  They send him off to the big city of Constantinople to work for his uncle.  Once there, he is charged with earning enough money to slowly bring his family, one by one, to the city.  It is their plan to save the family from their extreme poverty.  But along the way, before he even reaches Constantinople, he becomes the victim of the despicable thief, Abdul, played by Lou Antonio.  Abdul cheats him out of all of his money and possessions.  And what’s worse, he is forced to murder Abdul to save his own life.  He arrives in Constantinople penniless.  It makes you want to weep for him.

He goes to his uncle who had been counting on his family’s money to save his failing business.  But rather than a life that would be lived for someone else, he chooses to leave and take his chances on his own.  The rest of the film follows the young man as he becomes homeless, does backbreaking work for almost no pay, his brush with death, his return to his uncle, his engagement to a young girl with a wealthy father, and his refusal to become trapped in a life that would deny him his dreams of going to America.

Finally, he buys his ticket to cross the ocean.  He has an affair with Sophia Kebabian, a married, wealthy, American woman, played by Kathrine Balfour, and nearly gets himself put on the first boat back to Turkey.  It is only through the supreme sacrifice of his tubercular friend Hohannes, played by Gregory Rozakis, that Stavros is able to get through US immigration.  Hohannes committed suicide and Stavros took his papers and his name.  Once there, he gets a job as a shoeshine boy, and though it takes years, he earns enough money to bring his family to America.  One of the relatives he is able to bring is his nephew, Elia Kazan.

The scope of the tale is epic and really delves into themes of independence and freedom: freedom from oppression, and freedom from the demands of the family.  The character of Stavros is in almost every single scene of the nearly 3 hour film.  He goes through several significant changes and Giallelis handles them all with intense focus and passion.  He really was the highlight of the film.

That’s not to say that the rest of the cast didn’t measure up.  Stavros’ parents, Isaac and Vasso, played by Harry Davis and Elena Karam, also did a wonderful job.  Paul Mann did a great job as Aleko Sinnikoglou, the wealthy father of the homely Thomna, played by Linda Marsh.  Marsh was especially good.  The scenes in which she begs him to love her are powerful and almost difficult to watch because you know he cannot.

The movie was good and well-made, and if I had any real disappointment, it was that it was filmed in black-and-white.  This was, after all, 1963.  Color had been around for over 25 years!  Jump on the bandwagon Elia!  Embrace the color!

1962 – To Kill a Mockingbird

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To Kill a Mockingbird – 1962

This was an excellent movie.  It was touching, inspirational, culturally significant, incredibly well-acted, beautifully written, and wonderfully directed.  It was up against some pretty stiff competition in the Best Picture category.  Films like The Longest Day, The Music Man, Mutiny on the Bounty, and the winner, Lawrence of Arabia seemed to be raising the bar.

To Kill a Mockingbird had something that none of those other films had.  It had a wholesome tenderness that is a rarity in film.  Gregory Peck played the leading character of Atticus Finch, a lawyer in a poor Southern town in 1933.  He was a widowed man with two young children to care for.  And it was that loving relationship that he shared with his children that stood out to me as one of the most phenomenally portrayed aspects of the film.  Peck played the kind of father that we all wish we had.  He was kind and gentle, but firm in his beliefs and willing to fight to uphold them.

His children, Jem and Scout, were played by Phillip Alford and Mary Badham, respectively.  These two characters were incredibly well-written.  Not only was sufficient time devoted to the development of their individual personalities, but the depiction of the relationship between two siblings was deftly handled.  The subtle hierarchy between the older Jem and the younger Scout was beautifully depicted.  Without a doubt, these two kids turned in some fantastic performances.  Badham, who was 6 years old at the time, was the youngest person to ever be nominated for Best Supporting Actress.

The central plot of the film revolved around a court case in which a black man, Tom Robinson, played by Brock Peters, was accused of beating and raping a white girl, Mayella Violet Ewell, played by Collin Wilcox.  Atticus takes the case.  During the mock trial, he proves that not only is Tom Robinson innocent, but heavily implies that it was the girl’s own father who had beat her and raped her.

Finch’s closing argument is an impassioned speech against racism, so eloquently delivered, that, though it is long, I have paraphrased bits and pieces of it here.  He says, “To begin with, this case should never have been brought to trial.  The state has not produced one iota of medical evidence that the crime Tom Robinson has been charged with ever took place.  It has relied instead upon the testimony of two witnesses, whose evidence has been called into serious question.  The witnesses for the State have presented themselves to you in the cynical confidence that you gentlemen would go along with them on the assumption… the evil assumption that all Negroes lie, all Negroes are basically immoral beings, all Negro men are not to be trusted around our women.  An assumption which is, in itself, a lie.  Now I am confident that you gentlemen will review, without passion, the evidence that you have heard, come to a decision, and restore this man to his family.  In the name of GOD, do your duty.  In the name of God, believe… Tom Robinson.”  Unfortunately, prejudice wins out and Robinson is found guilty.

Peck was truly incredible and he earned the Academy Award for Best Actor, a well-deserved honor.  I have also read that Peck, in real life, was very much like the soft-spoken and gentle character he portrayed in the film.  Even though he had a very prolific career, the character of Atticus Finch is widely considered to be his most significant role.

And finally, the last and most enigmatic part of the film is the character of Arthur “Boo” Radley, played by Robert Duvall in his big-screen debut.  He is never actually seen until the final few moments of the film, though he is an object of fear for the children of the town.  He lived in the scary house up the street, the house their parents warned them away from.  He was so violent he had to be chained up in the basement.  But in reality, he turned out to be a kind, gentle, shy recluse.

He watched over the children of the town, always staying out of sight.  But in the end, when Jem and Scout are attacked by a drunk Bob Ewell, played by James Anderson, it is Boo who saves them by killing their assailant.  He carries the unconscious Jem home and finally reveals himself.  The sheriff knew that justice for the Robinson case had finally been carried out, and that convicting Boo for defending the innocent children would be a “sin.”  Duvall did a great job with his small role.  It was a powerfully profound ending to a wonderfully written and well-acted film.

1962 – Mutiny on the Bounty

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Mutiny on the Bounty – 1962

This is the 2nd time a version of Mutiny on the Bounty has been nominated for Best Picture.  The first time was in 1935, and it starred Clark Gable and Charles Laughton.  That one took home the Oscar for Best Picture.  This one starred Marlon Brando playing the head mutineer, Fletcher Christian, and Trevor Howard as the evil Captain Bligh.

So the first thing I was looking for when I was watching this movie was the differences between the two films.  What was it that made the producers decide that a new version needed to be filmed?  Was anything significantly changed?  Besides the fact that this version was filmed in color, I think the biggest thing was the ending.  In the 1935 version, the film ended with Christian and his men arriving at Pitcairn Island where they make plans to develop a utopian society.  This film actually goes into the tragic aftermath where the mutineers devolve into criminals and turn on each other, though in reality, their criminal behavior was actually worse that the film depicted.

Another difference is that this film version placed a lot more emphasis on the romance between Lieutenant Christian and his Tahitian woman Princess Maimitti, played by Tarita TeriiPaia.  Another thing which I felt the movie devoted significant time to was the free-love attitudes of the Tahitian culture, though when I consider the year in which it was made, I suppose I shouldn’t be too surprised.

But in watching this particular version, I still have the same problem that I had with the 1935 film.  So, because both films were based on the same source material, the original novel by Charles Nordhoff and James Norman Hall, I have to assume that the fault lies there.  The character of Captain Bligh was so mean, cruel, and downright stupid, that he was practically unbelievable.  And my research supports my opinion.  The real William Bligh was not as evil as the film depicts.

The real Bligh was no crueler than any other Naval Captain, though he had a habit of insulting people out of turn.  According to my research, he was vain and was quick to call others incompetent.  The real Bounty’s log shows that Bligh resorted to punishments relatively sparingly.  He scolded when other Captains would have whipped, and whipped when other Captains would have hanged.  And I also found it interesting to note that he and Fletcher Christian had been friends for many years.

The reason why the real crew mutinied is not entirely clear.  It is thought by many that the inexperienced crew simply wasn’t used to the rigors of life at sea and the carefree time they spent in Tahiti made them reluctant to return to their difficult duties on the Bounty.  But, of course, the film depicts the mutineers as the heroes.  They are so mistreated and wrongfully abused by the evil Captain, they seemed to have no choice but to rebel.

And the sadistic depths to which the character of Bligh sank were tantamount to outright murder.  Through his stupidity and inability to take responsibility for the failures of the Bounty’s mission, the crew was being picked off, one by one.  He made bad decisions which cost them time and lives, and he blamed it all on the inadequacies of the crew.  The character actually made a point of saying that cruelty with a purpose is not cruelty at all.  It is efficiency.  That is one messed up way of thinking.

Now, I feel that something else I found in my research must be mentioned.  The more I hear and read about Marlon Brando, the actor, the less likable I find him to be.  He had monstrous ego which was so bad that would tell the directors how to do their jobs.  As paraphrased from Wikipedia, the film’s first director was Carol Reed, however, behind the scenes, Brando effectively took over directing duties himself, causing the film to become far behind schedule and way over budget.  This resulted in Reed pulling out of the project.  He was replaced with Lewis Milestone.

And finally, a quick mention of two things I liked and one I didn’t.  I liked Richard Harris as one of Christian’s fellow Mutineers.  I also liked a funny moment in which Bligh has to order Christian to make love to Princess Maimitti so as not to offend the Chief.  But I didn’t like how the Chief, in general, was portrayed as a laughing moron.  It seemed very racist to my modern sensibilities.

1962 – The Music Man

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The Music Man – 1962

The first thing that comes to mind when I think about The Music Man is how I always enjoyed watching it when I was a child.  I really loved all the wonderful music and the bright costumes.  I loved the film’s light-hearted air and the feel-good ending.  I’ve also seen it a few times as an adult, and I’m still mesmerized by the energetic dancing and the vaguely campy comedy.  It is a film that can’t help but leave a smile on my face.

The film was perfectly cast with Robert Preston playing the lead, Professor Harold Hill, a traveling sales man and successful con-artist.  His scam is simple.  He tells people he is selling bands.  He collects money for instruments and uniforms, and promises to organize the young boys in a town into a top-notch marching band.  The trouble is, he doesn’t know a thing about music.  Then, when he has everyone’s money, and has given them cheap instruments and ill-fitting uniforms, he leaves town with his pockets full of cash.

However, in River City, Iowa, he has bitten off more than he can chew.  In an effort to cement his scam of the whole town, he charms the beautiful young librarian, who also happens to be a widow.  Shirley Jones plays Marion Paroo, the woman who refuses the smooth salesman’s advances and quickly learns that he is a fraud.

Her younger brother Winthrop is played by a 7 year old Ron Howard.  The child has emotional issues over the death of his father and rarely speaks to anyone.  When he does, he has a very prominent lisp.  But when Hill convinces Mrs. Paroo, his mother, played by Pert Kelton, that he has the makings of natural-born coronet player, Winthrop gets so excited, he starts talking.  Now, believe it or not, this is the basis for most of the film’s emotional content.  Hill becomes a sort of a father figure to the boy, allowing him to overcome his mental blocks.  And when his healing process becomes evident, the cold heart of his sister warms until she falls in love with Hill, knowing perfectly well what kind of a man he truly is.

Her reasoning is perfectly reasonable, from an emotional standpoint.  Sure, he was a liar and a con-artist, but from a certain perspective, he actually made good on all his promises.  When he promised the town a band, what he was actually promising them was something to hope for, something to dream about, something to fall in love with.  He gave the town excitement, waking them up from the drudgery of their day to day lives.  He gave them happiness.

The music by Meredith Wilson is wonderful and memorable.  Even people who have never seen the show know the song 76 Trombones.  But I also loved Ya Got Trouble, Pick-a-Little, Talk-a-Little, Marion the Librarian, The Wells Fargo Wagon, and Shipoopi.  And who can forget the softer love songs like Goodnight My Someone and Being in Love?  This film was nominated for 6 Oscars and took home only 1: Best Musical Score.

Aside from the main cast, comedian Buddy Hackett played Hill’s partner in crime and friend, Marcellus Washburn.  He was wonderful in the song Shipoopi.  Timmy Everett and Susan Lucky played the cute young couple, Tommy Djilas and Zaneeta Shinn.  Paul Ford played Mayor Shinn.  The actor had a talent for constantly bumbling words and phrases in ways that were hilarious.  He’d say “I’ll settle your hash as soon as I get these premises off my oldest girl!”  And I have to make special mention of Hermione Gingold who was absolutely wonderful as Eulalie Mackechnie Shinn, the Mayor’s wife.  She was comedy gold in her stuffy but likable role.  She was overwhelmingly nose-in-the-air and pretentious, but she played it all tongue-in-cheek.  I love the Grecian Urn dances!

Now, I know I probably shouldn’t do this, but I have to do a little movie bashing.  In 2003 a version of The Music Man was filmed as a made-for-TV movie.  It starred Matthew Broderick, Kristen Chenoweth, Victor Garber, and Molly Shannon.  Without putting too fine a point on it, it was horrible, especially when put next to the 1962 version.  And as much as I like Broderick, his performance had no energy, no charisma, and not an ounce of the pizzazz that a flashy traveling salesman like Harold Hill needed to have.  He sounded like he was reading his lines out of a phone book.  I only mention it because if you want to watch The Music Man, avoid the 2003 version.  It was disappointing on so many levels.  It doesn’t hold a candle to the original.

1962 – The Longest Day

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The Longest Day – 1962

There was so much about this film that was done right.  The size and scope of the narrative was epic in nature, even though the events depicted in the film only cover the space of two days.  The complex battle scenes, the humongous cast full of stars, the historical accuracy of the plot, and the fast paced action all made for a memorable film on a grand scale.

The film is a telling of the events of the Allied invasion of Normandy in WWII, covering June 5th and 6th of 1944.  The film was like a docudrama in that it told of one of the biggest turning points of the war, in which 3,000,000 men, 11,000 planes, and 4,000 ships turned the tide history.  The epic events are told from the perspectives of French, English, German, and American soldiers, each speaking in their own native languages with the use of subtitles.

The film covers the massive preparations, mistakes, decisions, and random events that led to one of the greatest offensives in human history.  It went into the reasons why certain people made certain decisions, and showed the results of those decisions.  And of course, the 8 exciting battle scenes, each of which must have been a logistical nightmare to film, came out realistic and engaging.

The most exciting of them was the storming of the beaches of Normandy.  I also really loved the liberation of Ouistreham and the breaching of the wall on Omaha Beach.  The sheer number of extras and the constant barrage of machine-gun fire and exploding shells kept me on the edge of my seat.  The action sequences were so bold and non-stop, that they started about an hour and a half into the three hour movie and didn’t stop until the end.

The film also touted incredible star power with a long list of big-name actors like John Wayne, Eddie Albert, Paul Anka, Richard Beymer, Red Buttons, Henry Fonda, Jeffrey Hunter, Roddy McDowall, Robert Mitchum, Edmond O’Brian, Rod Steiger, Robert Wagner, Richard Burton, Sean Connery, and Leo Genn. They all played key historical figures, from common infantry soldiers and paratroopers, to commanders and generals.

Some of the more prominent figures were Brigadier General Norman Cota and Colonel Thompson, who led the soldiers inland, up the beaches of Normandy, played by Mitchum and Albert, respectively.  John Wayne played Lieutenant Colonel Benjamin Vandervoort, who commanded the 505th Parachute Infantry Regiment.

But just as important to the film as the Allied forces, were the German actors who most people probably haven’t heard of, playing the roles of Nazi officers.  These actors played their parts incredibly well.  I’ll never forget Hans Christian Blech playing the part of Major Werner Pluskat.  He was the man who first saw the fleet of thousands of Allied ships appearing on the horizon as they approached Omaha Beach.  Blech was incredible as he shouted into the phone, while shells exploded all around him, “You know those five thousand ships you say the Allies haven’t got?  Well, they’ve got them!”

But I think that one of the most memorable lines in the film was spoken in German by Major General Günther Blumentritt, the Chief of Staff at OB West, played by Curt Jürgens.  Upon learning that the panzer units could not be sent to reinforce the German soldiers defending Normandy, he calmly remarks, “This is history.  We are living an historical moment.  We are going to lose to war because our glorious Führer has taken a sleeping pill and is not to be awakened.”  Then, as an afterthought, he adds, “Sometimes I wonder which side God is on,” an echo of a sentiment given earlier by John Wayne.

The entire cast did a fantastic job, but I think the highest praise has to be given to Cornelius Ryan, writer of the original novel upon which the film is based, Darryl F Zanuck, the film’s producer, and the film’s three directors, Ken Annakin, Andrew Marton, and Bernhard Wicki.  The size and scope of this film was truly epic, a must-see for anyone who enjoys movies.  I’m not even a huge fan of war films, but this one gave me such an accurate depiction of all the key points of the famous day, that I came away from it, not just feeling like I had been entertained, but somewhat educated, as well.  This was really a great film.

1961 – The Hustler

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The Hustler – 1961

The Hustler was a movie that, on the surface, was about a small-time pool hustler who wanted to be a big-time hustler.  He is a world-class pool player, but he has one major flaw.  He doesn’t know when quit, which, I think, is one of the film’s biggest themes.  As in most things, part of being good is knowing when to quit.

Paul Newman plays Fast Eddie Felson.  He has dreams of challenging the best pool player in New York, Minnesota Fats, played by Jackie Gleason.  When he has taken Fats for thirteen thousand dollars, he keeps going, playing against the man for 25 hours, and eventually loses it all back to his opponent.  Fats never loses his composure, but Eddie plays till he drops to the floor, drunk and sloppy.

Penniless, Eddie falls in love with a good woman he meets at a bus station.  She is Sarah Packard, played by Piper Laurie, who is a cripple and a lush.  He moves in with her and the two end up caring deeply for each other.  But then Eddie makes a deal with the devil and the devil doesn’t want her around.  George C. Scott plays Bert Gordon, a professional gambler.  He fronts Eddie enough money to make a play for the big leagues.

Sarah, feeling like she is losing Eddie to a lifestyle she hates, tries to get him to walk away.  But once again, Eddie doesn’t know when to quit.  Even after Bert propositions Sarah and has a drink thrown in his face, she still fights for Eddie’s heart.  But after Bert proves that he has won Eddie’s soul, she knows that she has also been beaten.  Eddie now belongs to Bert and not her.  So, in her defeat, she gives up and sleeps with Bert.  Afterword, realizing that she is already a part of the pathetic lifestyle from which she has been trying to save Eddie, she kills herself.

His grief over her death suddenly makes him emotionally able to start hustling in the big leagues.  After he suffers, he is suddenly able to return to Minnesota Fats and beat him.  But in his victory, he also has the heart to reject Bert, blaming him for Sarah’s death and admitting how much he loved her.  As Eddie learns to be a better hustler, he matures as a person, until finally, he becomes a better adult, so to speak.  The trick is that he had to endure great loss before that could happen.  The filmmakers did a good job of portraying that parallel, almost making pool hustling a metaphor for life.

The four principal actors, Newman, Gleason, Laurie, and Scott, were all praised by the critics for their performances.  In particular, I was impressed with both Newman and Laurie.  The relationship that was built between them was strange and complex, but at the same time, undeniable.  Director Robert Rossen did his job well, giving them just enough time to be believable in their tragic romance.  However, though I thought Gleason and Scott did just fine, I didn’t see where they were extraordinary.

Still, there was one thing that really caught my attention.  During some of the scenes where pool was being played, both Gleason and Newman were shown making some pretty difficult shots.  Today, any actor could make any shot with the aid of CGI, but these two obviously knew what they were doing on the felt.  They made some incredibly difficult shots look easy, and I was properly impressed.

Something else that I’d like to mention is the music.  The film’s high-energy jazz score was written by Kenyon Hopkins.  While the music itself was not overly-remarkable, I thought that it fit the feel of the story incredibly well.  It had an air of being fast and loose, just like Eddie’s character.  It was also slightly chaotic and almost seedy, just like the life of a hustler.  It was a well-written score, perfectly crafted to give the film perfect feel.

The film was nominated for 9 Academy Awards, winning 2:  One for Best Art Decoration/Set Decoration, Black & White, and the other for Best Cinematography, Black & White.  According to my research, the cinematography was lauded because, depending on how many people were in a shot, and which character was dominant within the context of the plot, attention was paid to whose head was highest and whose was lowest on the screen, though to be honest, the subtle distinction was lost on me.  Clever, yes, but pointless if nobody gets it.  Fortunately, someone did.