The movies in my head, part one


Apollonia’s sister Augusta came to the office recently, and we had a long and lively conversation about old movies. We are both addicted to Turner Classic Movies, as it turns out. She challenged me to come up with a list of my favorite movies. Impossible! But we started naming our favorites, and . . .



Dodsworth!” Augusta proclaimed. Oh my god what a movie. It’s based on a slender but uncharacteristically sweet Sinclair Lewis novel. Walter Huston is a patient man who gets dragged to Europe by his nervous silly wife Ruth Chatterton; he meets Mary Astor, and – well, I won’t tell you more. But what a final scene! Who needs CGI when you have acting?



Okay, I’m up to this challenge. Five, four, three, two, one:



The Red Shoes. Spectacular Technicolor, classic plot, incredible acting. Featuring real ballet stars: Moira Shearer, Robert Helpmann, Leonid Massine. And featuring one of my favorite actors, the grave and handsome Anton Walbrook.



Holiday. Katherine Hepburn, Cary Grant, Edward Everett Horton. Glorious Philip Barry 1930s dialogue, and a classy upper-crust setting, and a happy ending. And it has a charming air of insouciance, almost as if the characters were ad-libbing the dialogue – which is just as it should be. “Do you mean your father isn’t even a Whoozis?”



Black Narcissus. Another Archers movie, like “Red Shoes,” based on a Rumer Godden novel. The colors and the scenery, oh my God. Apollonia can’t stand this movie because of the male lead, David Farrar, an ugly hairy brute who’s shirtless for maybe a little too much of the movie. But, for me, it just seems hilarious that this gargoyle actually seems attractive to the sex-starved nuns in the movie.



Witness for the Prosecution. I am not normally a fan of courtroom movies: too claustrophobic. But this one I’m okay with. Charles Laughton as a lawyer, Elsa Lanchester as his nurse. Tyrone Power! Marlene Dietrich! A complex twisty plot, with humor, yet! And every time you think the mystery’s resolved, it snarls back up again . . .



Thirty Seconds Over Tokyo. As with courtroom movies, I am not warm to the war-movie genre. This movie is the exception: it’s intense and simple and methodical. I understand why they made it: it was a war thing, they needed to show America striking back at Japan. It’s the American version of something by Leni Riefenstahl.



Dune. I first saw first in the back yard of the Marine House in Tunis, under the stars, projected onto a sheet. It’s one of the most peculiar, spaciest, funniest, scariest movies of all time.  It opens with the ethereal Virginia Madsen as Princess Irulan, floating calmly against a starscape, saying calmly, “A beginning is a very delicate time.” It’s perfectly magical. The whole movie gets into your head if you watch it more than once. “Wait for my brother, Baron!”



More soon. This is fun.




The Red Shoes and Black Narcissus

For a while in the 1940s, British cinema was really spectacular. Four movies are my particular favorites: “Black Narcissus,” “Stairway to Heaven,” “The Life and Death of Colonel Blimp,” and “The Red Shoes.”


All were directed and written by the team of Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger. All are in beautiful Technicolor, or some mutant version of Technicolor that’s even more vivid than the real thing. All four are full of contrasts: sincerity and cynicism, religion and worldliness, life and death. All four accommodate these contrasts with ease and grace and humor. All four feature fascinating actors and actresses: Deborah Kerr, Moira Shearer, Roger Livesey, David Niven, Anton Walbrook.


Powell loved extreme close-ups and theatrical gestures and bright primary colors. And Pressburger, a Hungarian who spoke better English than most native speakers (a regular Joseph Conrad type), wrote beautiful dialogue.


My favorite is “Black Narcissus,” I think. It’s based on a Rumer Godden novel about a group of Anglican nuns who set up a convent in northern India near the Himalayas. It’s too much for them. They fail spectacularly, against a background of spectacular scenery.


My friend Pat prefers “The Red Shoes.” She saw it when she was a kid – but let her tell it: “I was maybe eight or nine years old. The theater was several blocks away on a very busy street – 55th Street in Chicago – and I went to the movies every Saturday afternoon for a double feature. In those days one could sit through the showings as many times as the movie was shown and I loved the Red Shoes so much I waited through the second feature until Shoes came on again. My mother wasn’t one for franticness, but she was pretty worried when I didn’t show for dinner. She didn’t scold much though, I think she thought it was clever of me to be so entranced. After that I had to have a coloring book of ballet dancers and I remembered that the ballerina in the movie had white makeup on her eyelids and black dots in the corners of her eyes. So, naturally, all the dancers in my coloring book had to have that too.”


When’s the last time a movie made you feel like that?



In the words of Libby Gelman-Waxner: this is what movies are all about.



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