It Happened One Night (1934)
Starring Clark Gable and Claudette Colbert
Written by Robert Riskin (screenplay) and Samuel Hopkins Adams (short story)
Directed by Frank Capra
One of the most interesting behind-the-scenes tidbits I've discovered about It Happened One Night is just how much its lead actors hated working on the film. Its distributor, Columbia Pictures, was one of several studios on what was called "Poverty Row". Other studios would send difficult actors to one of these lots as a 'humbling experience,' so they would learn to appreciate what they had. Clark Gable was sent there after a number of other actors had passed on the script, and Claudette Colbert only took the job when director Frank Capra told her he would double her salary and she would be done in four weeks. (At least, that's the story according to IMDB.) Colbert was particularly unhappy the entire time, and didn't think much of the final cut of the film.
Neither did critics or audiences, at first. It Happened One Night debuted to weak box office and indifferent reviews, and it looked like it would be another flop for Columbia. Then, something strange happened. It landed in second-rate theatres, and actually did better there. Word of mouth snowballed, more and more people saw it, and it actually turned into Columbia's biggest hit at the time. This delayed wave of regard carried the film all the way to the Oscars, where it became the first of only three movies in history to win the "big five" awards (Best Picture, Director, Actor, Actress and Original or Adapted Screenplay).
Not bad for a movie that almost everyone involved with hated. What's impressive is you wouldn't know it by just watching the film -- it looks like everyone involved is having a blast. Either Gable and Colbert are consummate professionals or their chemistry is just that good. I'd like to think the latter.
Colbert is Ellie Andrews, the socialite daughter of a very rich man. Her father doesn't approve of her gunshot marriage to wealthy aviator King Westley (no kidding, that's his actual name -- he's not royalty) and basically abducts her to his yacht. She escapes, and in order to avoid notice rides a Greyhound bus back to New York where she hopes to meet her new husband. There, she meets a reporter who just happened to quit his job moments ago, Peter Warne (Gable).
Peter offers to help Ellie evade capture if he gets exclusive rights to the story; if she refuses, he'll blow the whistle and send her back into the loving, tight embrace of dear old dad. That's the only set up you need before it's off to the races. Gable and Colbert trade jabs with impeccable timing, and together they make one of the best screen couples I've ever seen, hands down. When you see two people who can't stand each other slowly come together over the course of the film, you can bet they're building on the template these guys formed.
Gable is as awesome as ever as a cad and conniver; he's always in control, always has an idea for any situation. Peter gets Ellie out of as many scrapes as he gets her into, but she's quite game to go along with it. In fact, she often takes his ideas and improves upon them in surprising ways -- Ellie may be inexperienced, but she's tremendously quick-witted. It's great to see this sheltered socialite come into her own the way she does; not only does she rise to the occasion, she loves doing it.
It Happened One Night is remembered quite fondly because it treats its romantic leads equally; Peter has his foibles and vulnerabilities just as much as Ellie. She picks at them, too, just as pointedly as he does. She gives as good as she gets, even though she's not afraid to be vulnerable, or petty, or hurt. What makes me so fond of Ellie is that she's such a fully-realized character. She's helpless not because she's a woman, or of low intellect, but simply because she's never had the chance to help herself. And through the course of the trip you see her rely on her wits, charm and intelligence just as much as Peter.
It kind of blows me away to realize just how influential this movie was; a lot of the mannerisms for Bugs Bunny was based on things that happened in the film, and apparently sales of undershirts plummeted because of one scene of Clark Gable undressing. Beyond the legends about that, you just see this movie embedded in the DNA of every quippy romantic comedy that's come out since, and even though they try to capture the interplay of Gable and Colbert, they can't quite catch lightning in a bottle for a second time.
Another great thing about this film is the variety of people they meet in their travels. I've taken the Greyhound bus across the country before, and it turned out to be a lot less fun than what was depicted. I swore I'd never get on a bus again to travel long distances after that trip, but this movie made me seriously reconsider that. There's a love of people that suffuses itself through the energy of the film; even though its leads have many bad qualities, you never once think of them as bad people. That attitude carries on right down the line, from annoying fellow passenger Oscar Shapely to severe helicopter father Mr. Andrews. I'm sure much of that comes from Capra, who somehow makes his affection for Americana earnestly without coming over too corny about it.
This is a grand romantic comedy that's about more than two people finding each other and falling in love. It's about how discovering the world outside yourself makes you a more complete person; both Ellie and Peter are trapped in different myopic world views, and it's only when they open up to one another that they learn how to get out of their own way. Alone they're reasonably intelligent, headstrong people who can't quite catch a break. Together, they're an unstoppable bickering force. The world -- and the audience -- is in the palm of their hands.
Starring Cary Grant, Eva Marie Saint and James Mason
Written by Ernest Lehman
Directed by Alfred Hitchcock
Cary Grant is Roger O. Thornhill, an advertising executive who has no problem with lying. During a dinner with "friends," he's abducted by two thugs and driven to a grand house in the countryside. He's met by a gentleman (Mason) who insists he's a man named George Kaplan, beaten up and interrogated. When he refuses to give up any information, Thornhill is given a bottle of whiskey and put inside a stolen car, then pushed towards the cliff of a winding oceanside road. He barely escapes. He does, though, and when the police won't believe his story he takes it upon himself to figure out just what the hell is going on.
That investigation takes him from New York to Mt. Rushmore, meeting a host of shadowy characters along the way. Despite the dizzy confusion Thornhill suffers and the incredibly high stakes at play here, he never loses the ability to crack a joke with his traveling partner Eve Kendall (Saint) or basically lie his way deeper into trouble. This humble Mad. man actually turns out perfectly suited for the adventure, right down to the sudden, cheeky epilogue.
North by Northwest is a much lighter film than most of Hitchcock's work, and I'd like to think that's mostly due to the whip-crack writing of Ernest Lehman and the wry, sharp delivery of Cary Grant. Hitchcock's direction is as sure as ever, and he keeps things moving along at a nice, brisk pace. The movie is over two hours long, but it really doesn't feel like it -- you're hooked from the moment that Thornhill is taken until that climactic chase and battle on the top of Mount Rushmore. It's a small feat to make a movie that long pass the time so quickly.
What I love about the film is how comfortably Grant falls into the role of action hero. He looks about as old as Roger Moore does during his Bond run, but it doesn't slow him down. There are a ton of crazy setpieces he has to navigate, from that first drunken car escape, to the iconic biplane attack, to running through the woods from thugs sent to kill him. He manages to keep the tone wonderfully light, so that his Thornhill is up to any challenge thrown at him. A career of lying and being forced to think fast on your feet is all he needs to get out of most jams, along with a bit of luck or two.
The story is twisty enough that you're never quite sure of your footing, even though the plot is laid out for you in an exposition-heavy scene right after our introduction to the hero. I won't go into details here, but I will have to say it's just a bit disappointing -- the first thirty minutes have that amazing "What the hell?" feeling, where you have no idea how this situation could have developed but an incredible curiosity about it. To have everything explained by a bunch of men in a room lets the air out of the premise just a bit, but you don't have much time to cling to your expectation of a more measured revelation. You're given the information and then they're off to the races once again.
Eva Marie Saint makes an excellent foil and companion to Grant's Thornhill. She's smart, mysterious, elegant, delicate and a bit vulgar all in one package. It's fascinating to watch them play off each other, and it really brings home the value of having two leads with undeniable chemistry. Even though they spend a lot of time sniping each other, you just know that they're really having a blast. That sense of fun infuses the entire movie.
It's quite a fun piece of popular art, and a perfect template for the Bond movies that would come three years later. I enjoyed it from top to bottom -- with just a small disappointment near the beginning -- and it's made me a fan of Cary Grant, Eve Marie Saint and Hitchcock himself. The more I read about his movies, the more fascinated I become.
West Side Story (1961)
Starring Natalie Wood, Richard Beymer, Russ Tamblyn and Rita Moreno
Written by Ernest Lehman (screenplay), Arthur Laurents (book), Leonard Bernstein (music) and Stephen Sondheim (lyrics)
Directed by Jerome Robbins and Robert Wise
This movie comes with the weight of all its baggage. Granted, a lot of classic movies do, but this one a bit more than most. It's been parodied a lot, and the basic premise (hey, it's a re-imagining of Shakespeare's Romeo and Juliet!) has been done so often that it's easy to lose touch with what makes this movie special. I'll admit that I didn't know a lot about it going in besides that the Montagues and Capulets were now rival gangs called the Sharks and the Jets, and that there was a LOT of dance-fighting. Both of these things are true, but there's also a lot more going on than it looks at first glance.
Maria (Wood) is the sister of the Sharks' leader, Bernardo (George Chakiris). They're a Puerto Rican street gang encroaching on the traditional territory of the Jets, their Polish rivals. Tony (Beymer), best friend of the Jets' leader and former member himself, falls in love with her right when the turf war between the gangs heats up past its boiling point. Right when both sides are planning an all-out rumble to determine who owns the streets once and for all, Tony and Maria have to try and make their budding romance work while untangling their duty to family and heritage.
This is no straight-up retread. The story is surprisingly and deeply enriched by the change of setting. Maria is caught between two worlds -- the promise of a life in the land of opportunity with someone who genuinely loves her, fulfilling her dream of America; or the close-knit community she has with her family and friends, the small Puerto Rican neighborhood that feels it can't catch an equal break in this country. Maria's choice reflects the basic decision that so many minorities have to make here -- do you follow your optimism and try to blend into the great melting pot of mainstream society, or do you stay with your community and make that stronger, better, livelier? Re-framing Maria's choice as one of honoring the individual vs. honoring the society that individual is born into makes her decision much more complex and difficult.
The plight of the country's inner-city minorities wasn't exactly a huge topic of conversation in 1961; I'm impressed that West Side Story (and the musical it was made from) had the stones to make it the crux of the story. Both the Polish Jets and Puerto Rican Sharks feel like they're protecting the only space carved out just for them -- the wider world (represented by the authority figure Krupke) is hostile and unyielding, and there's only so much space to go around. It's understandable that each group would want to own it; if they're not going to get a fair shake anywhere else, at least they have this small strip of the neighborhood where they can be who they are, make the rules.
It's the possibility of making over a small part of America in their image that resonates so strongly with these two factions. In the song "America", Bernardo's girlfriend Anita (Moreno) sings about how crappy things are in Puerto Rico, how the possibilities are endless here. Bernardo replies with tales of a wall of discrimination between his people and the outside world. If they're going to embrace the American dream, it has to be here and now. They'll have to take the opportunity they dreamed of; no one else is going to give it to them.
The movie's influences extend beyond Shakespeare; a lot of shots were made to duplicate paintings of New York from famous contemporary artists of the day, and co-director Robert Wise fought to shoot within the city. He chose condemned buildings and rough neighborhoods for his sequences to really sell the small, claustrophobic world these two packs of youngsters are roiling in. It's as much Shakespeare as it is New York, a love letter to two disparate things that actually work in surprising harmony.
The songs are breezy and fun, with lyrics that fall off the tongue of the actors so well. That's a specialty of Sondheim, who I happen to like. The actors work insanely hard to create a world where the rough life of gang members can be expressed through something as contrary as choreographed dance, and for the most part it works. I felt myself resisting the conceit with the iconic opening number of the movie before checking myself, and you might need to do the same sort of mental adjustment. This is the world of the movie, this the conceit of the story. If you buy this one thing, accept the story in its own language, it opens up to be quite effective.
So forget what you know about West Side Story; yeah, it's a song-and-dance-infused retelling of Romeo and Juliet, but it's also a mature and complex postcard of life amongst minorities in 1950's New York that's surprisingly intelligent. You can't ask for more from your pop art, really.
Rear Window (1954)
Starring James Stewart and Grace Kelly
Directed by Alfred Hitchcock
Written by John Michael Hayes (screenplay) and Cornell Woolrich (short story)
There is so much that impressed me about this movie that it's difficult to know where to begin. This was the second of four collaborations between director Alfred Hitchcock and star James Stewart, and if they're all this good I definitely can't wait to see the others. Hitchcock directs the movie with a wonderfully deft hand, effortlessly gliding between the inner lives of photographer L.B. Jeffries (Stewart), his girlfriend Lisa (Kelly) and the half-dozen subplots woven amongst the neighbors that Jeffries is spying on. The main plot that intersects Jeffries, Lisa and one of the neighbors is tense in all the right places, and shows off a great skill in building tension, subverting expectations and keeping the audience guessing. Still, while it's technically impressive from a storytelling standpoint, emotionally it's actually the least engrossing.
Jeffries is a globe-trotting news reporter who's been confined to his apartment with an injury sustained from one of his assignments. Hitchcock spends the first minute or so of the film pausing at significant portions of his apartment, giving us a quick and efficient character study in seconds. The pictures that are lingered on tell us who Jeffries is and how he got the injury; then we see that he has a girlfriend, a high-society girl that he met on a photo shoot. I don't think I've ever seen a movie get to the heart of its main characters so quickly; it's simply masterful.
To pass the time while he's nursing his broken leg, Jeffries spies on his neighbors with one of his cameras. He has names for just about all of them -- there's Miss Torso, a dancer who entertains a few men in her apartment every night; Miss Lonelyhearts, a middle-aged woman whose solitude radiates through her entire apartment; Miss Hearing Aid, an older woman whose meddling in the affairs of others is often thwarted by her inability to hear. There's a newlywed couple, a songwriter prone to fits of depression, a strange couple obviously comfortable with each other who sleeps out on the fire escape. The people who gains most of Jeffries' attention is a man and his invalid wife -- they're clearly unhappy, and it's quite possible that the husband is involved in an affair.
A few friends visit to break up these bouts of spying. There's Lisa, who brings him dinner and argues with him about their very different lifestyles. There's Detective Doyle (Wendell Corey), a good friend of Jeffries who provides him with affectionate, breezily mean banter. And there's Stella (Thelma Ritter), his nurse, a wisely crude woman who provides him advice whether he wants it or not. Jeffries' relationship and conversations with each of these people are remarkably distinct, bringing out different aspects of his personality and demanding different tones in his mood. The character work here is exquisite, each exchange revealing something significant about their moods, their reaction to the plot, the way they think or feel about each other.
The story of the husband and his invalid wife takes a turn after the basic premise is establish, and Hitchcock manages to juggle five or six different subplots while letting that take up the bulk of the time. At just under two hours, the film has a lot to do in a short amount of time, and both John Hayes (the writer) and Hitchcock keep things moving along without sacrificing space to let moments breathe when they need to.
The set is just as impressive, and vital to making the whole thing work. The entire movie is shot within the confines of Jeffries' apartment, so all of the subplots and moving pieces we see through the course of the film have to be seen from a rather limited view. Hitchcock works well within these confines, having his actors use those windows and the spaces between them to tell their stories as efficiently as possible. He uses the voyeur's angle to ratchet up wonderfully thick tension, like when something huge goes down in the apartment of Miss Lonelyhearts and the unfaithful husband at the same time. And he gets a wonderfully creepy effect out of simply having the adulterer turn off the light and smoke a cigar alone in the dark.
Stewart, Kelly, the main supporting actors and all of the neighbors do quite well. Raymond Burr plays the adulterer in a role that flies right in the face of our image of him, and Ross Bagdasarian (the creator of Alvin and the Chipmunks) does surprisingly well as our bipolar songwriter. The scenes run like clockwork, all guided by the hand of a master watchmaker.
The character arcs mostly intersect through the main story, and a brief epilogue touches on what's happening to the residents of the apartment complex once order is restored. A lot of things have changed, so many things remain the same, and in many cases it's a genuine surprise what's stuck and what hasn't. When we last see Jeffries and Lisa, they've come to a much better understanding of each other and have grown closer as a result, but of course there's still just enough tension in the relationship to keep things interesting.
Rear Window is a simply great movie. If you're a fan of great character studies, superbly efficient use of space and time, and a mystery that may keep you guessing for a little bit, you simply can't miss it.