“Mister Gower, you don’t know what you’re doing. You put something wrong in those capsules. I know you’re unhappy. You got that telegram and you’re upset. You put something bad in those capsules. I know you’re unhappy. It wasn’t your fault, Mister Gower…”
Each time I watch “It’s a Wonderful Life,” I begin to cry at this scene. It provides an early glimpse at the truly good heart of George Bailey: as a boy, he offers compassion to his employer who is mistreating him at the moment. I’m getting choked up as I type this, just thinking about it.
This film, released in 1946, nearly forty years before I was born, has made a major impact on my life. Not only is it the first “old” movie I recall watching as a young child, but it also ignited my love affair with classic films. It has also been a source of comfort at times when, like grown-up George Bailey, my problems seemed insurmountable and I thought perhaps it would be better if I’d never been born.
Filled with wholesome themes typical of a Frank Capra film – particularly that of the triumph of the common man over the corrupt leader, it is one of the original “feel good” movies. “It’s a Wonderful Life” also made me fall in love with James Stewart. He was such a nice guy. As a child, I began asking my father, the resident movie buff, for “more Jimmy Stewart.” My father came back with 1939’s “Mr. Smith Goes to Washington,” (another Capra/Stewart collaboration) and 1958’s “Vertigo.”
“Vertigo” opened up a new world to me – the world of Alfred Hitchcock. With a clever story, Hitchcock’s directing, and Bernard Herrmann’s haunting music, it captivated me. James Stewart turned my ideal “good guy” on his ear, presenting the image of a man flawed, obsessed, haunted by his past and trying to take control. The music in the film has stayed with me through the decades, down to last November when I first watched “The Artist,” and recognized the Scene d’Amour, used in the most climactic part of the film. That cemented my love for “The Artist,” as you can see in one of my earlier posts, A Lost Art.
Seeing my enthusiasm for “Vertigo,” my father showed me 1954’s “Rear Window,” and 1963’s “The Birds.” I continued to be fascinated by Hitchcock’s style, a feeling that is reflected in my personal DVD library, which includes over 10 films directed by Alfred Hitchcock.
Then there was “The Ten Commandments.” A lavish Biblical epic directed by Cecil B. DeMille, the 1956 film starred Charlton Heston and provided my sister and I with countless hours of entertainment.
We watched it over and over until our parents were sick and tired of hearing dialogue from the film, which we still have memorized, all these years later.
There was one film I heartily resisted my father’s opinion on: “Citizen Kane.” Despite my father’s reassurances that I was missing out on “the best movie ever made,” and his efforts to engage my interest by walking around mumbling, “Rosebud, rosebud,” I refused to watch it. “It’s the most boring movie ever made,” I’d reply. Eventually, however, my curiosity won out over my stubbornness and I watched it. It was interesting but perhaps a bit over my head at the time. After watching it again as an adult, however, I can see why the American Film Institute ranks the 1941 film at number one on its 100 Years… 100 Movies list.
My father also showed us “Casablanca,” which was ranked at number two on the AFI’s 100 Movies list. The 1942 film is, in my opinion, the perfect film. It offers everything necessary to make a film not only great, but enjoyable. I never tire of watching it; each viewing provides details and nuances I may have missed before.
Not wanting to be outdone by my father, my mother decided to show us some classics as well. This is how I had my first encounter with Audrey Hepburn.
“Breakfast at Tiffany’s” was another pivotal movie in my love affair with classic film. The 1961 film acquainted me with a style icon and a genteel lady – Audrey Hepburn. As I went through my teen years, I did not appreciate classic films as much as I did before or after that period in my life. But as my teenaged “wisdom” ran out, my love for classic film rekindled. And “Breakfast at Tiffany’s” was the spark that did it. After watching the film again at age 19, I was enthralled by Audrey. I wanted more. I wanted to talk like her, dress like her. So I began watching as many of her films as I could. Some were serious films like “The Nun’s Story,” some madcap comedies like “Paris When it Sizzles.” But by far my favorite was 1953’s “Roman Holiday,” which has permanent residence in my DVD changer, for cinematic therapy on those days when I feel overwhelmed.
When I watched “Charade” for the first time, I fell in love with Cary Grant. Released in 1963, this comedy/suspense film is often dubbed “the best Hitchcock film that Hitchcock never made.” In actuality, it was directed by Stanley Donen.
But let’s get back to Cary Grant. He was suave, handsome, charming. When “Charade” was released, he was 59 years old, playing a romantic lead opposite a 34 year old Audrey Hepburn. But the 25 year age gap meant nothing to me. I loved the chemistry between them. I started looking for more Cary Grant. And I found him. I think I can honestly say there isn’t a film I didn’t like him in. Whether it was the Oscar-worthy (nomination, but not a win) heartstring tugging of 1941’s “Penny Serenade,” or the daffy comedic antics of 1944’s “Arsenic and Old Lace,” I loved every minute he was onscreen. Nominated twice, he never won an Oscar except for an honorary award in 1970. Nevertheless, Cary Grant is my favorite actor of all time.
Then I discovered Gene Kelly. A phenomenal dancer, he could also sing, act, and later direct. I enjoyed his films in a different way from other films – I usually had a big silly grin on my face throughout the film. Something about Gene Kelly just makes my heart swell with joy. Perhaps it’s his exuberance in each dance sequence. Perhaps it’s that smile of his. Whatever it is, his singing and dancing in “Singin’ in the Rain” can make me smile despite my foulest mood.
The 1952 film is ranked as the number one musical on the AFI’s list of great musicals. It is extremely enjoyable and provides many laughs with clever dialogue and the memorable “Make ’em Laugh” number by Donald O’Connor. I never tire of this movie.
There are so many more great films that I love and haven’t even touched on – “Gone With the Wind,” “The Wizard of Oz,” “Some Like it Hot,” and many more. I regularly discover classic films I previously wasn’t aware of, and fall in love all over again. My television is tuned to Turner Classic Movies almost permanently. Classic films like those I’ve mentioned here define popular culture. Without them, the advancements in filmmaking we see today would not be possible. These films have enriched and become a major part of my life. It is my belief that everyone could enjoy and appreciate them, if only they would open their minds and hearts to give these great films a chance.