|One of two cases|
Today most movies viewed at home are streamed over Netflix or Amazon Prime or some similar service. Nonetheless, DVDs hang on. They have accumulated on my shelves since the days when they were the cutting edge in home video. It is silly to keep them without an intent to re-watch them at some point. In the current situation, as health authorities urge us to stay in our homes, it is as good a time to revisit some as any. These are seven (one per day) I spun up last week. All are worth a look. That is not a happy accident. I’ve thinned out the shelves during random re-watch schemes over the years (as long-term readers – there are a few – of this blog might be aware) by discarding the most groan-worthy. A few of the flicks below accordingly have received mention on this site before, but a second shout-out won’t hurt, so let’s do it again.
Diary of a Lost Girl (1929) – This silent film stars Kansas-born Louise Brooks though it was filmed in Germany. Plot: an unmarried teen named Thymian has a child thereby prompting Thymian’s hypocritical father to send her to a reformatory while placing the baby in the care of a midwife. The reformatory is run by a perverse sadomasochistic couple. Thymian escapes with another girl who takes a romantic interest in her. She discovers that the baby has died in the midwife’s care. She then goes to work in a brothel for a kindly old madam and marries a Count. This is a fascinating film on many levels.
The Philadelphia Story (1940) – The list of my top ten favorite movies has altered quite a bit over time, but in my adult life The Philadelphia Story always was on it and still is. Tracy Lord (Katherine Hepburn) divorced Dexter (Cary Grant) after a short tempestuous marriage, and now plans to marry the self-made nouveau riche George (John Howard), who lacks not only the easy grace of old money but lacks its relaxed morality as well. A tabloid newspaper sends reporter Macaulay (Jimmy Stewart) and photographer Elizabeth (Ruth Hussey) to cover the high society marriage. Macaulay is so self-satisfied in his disdain for the privileged class that Tracy calls him out for being a snob: “You're the worst kind there is. An intellectual snob. You made up your mind awfully young, it seems to me.” Throw in Tracy’s precocious younger sister, her crapulous uncle, and a father with a taste for chorus girls. Stir with dialogue that is intelligent, sophisticated, and funny (if occasionally un-PC), and you have a bona fide movie classic.
Hold That Ghost (1941) – No one expects an Abbott and Costello movie to be Shakespeare, but this is one of their better vehicles. The duo (here named Chuck and Ferdie) are gas station attendants who by dumb luck are in a car with gangster Moose Mattson when he is killed in a shootout with police. The terms of Mattson’s will state that, since he doesn’t know whom of his friends to trust, whoever is with him when he dies inherits his estate. The boys find they now own a spooky and isolated roadhouse: a former speakeasy and gambling joint. Moose’s money is rumored to be in the house. Strange things start to happen when they are stranded there overnight with other bus passengers. Perhaps the house is haunted or perhaps other gangsters are after the money. The movie is silly in the ways one expects with these two, but it has some comic moments that still work and it features numbers by the Andrews Sisters.
King Creole (1958) – This Elvis Presley movie was made just before his stint in the army and is the best of any of them, before or after. Later films contain his most iconic movie numbers (e.g. the duet with Ann Margret in Viva Las Vegas) but as a movie the noir melodrama King Creole stands out. Elvis plays a high school dropout in New Orleans who gets a chance as a night club singer, but he makes some seriously bad choices and runs afoul of a gangster (Walter Matthau). He is torn between two women, nice girl Nellie (Dolores Hart) and the worldly Ronnie. A pre-Morticia Carolyn Jones is perfect as the over-educated moll Ronnie. When she flirts with Elvis on orders from her boss, Elvis complains, “Your heart wouldn’t be in it.” “You wouldn’t miss it,” she answers. This film was Elvis’ favorite, too.
The Night Stalker (1972) was a TV movie that served as a pilot for the short-lived TV series Kolchak: The Night Stalker (1974-75). A pushy newspaper reporter (Darren McGavin) willing to think outside the box suspects that a Las Vegas serial killer is a vampire. The movie also stars Carol Lynley. 25 years before Buffy the Vampire Slayer (a 1997-2003 TV show that I hold in high regard, unlike the 1992 movie) this film and the subsequent series had a similar combination of horror and understated comedy that clicked well. What Kolchak didn’t have that Buffy later did (besides teenage characters) were character evolution, multi-episode story arcs, and philosophical themes. Kolchak had a “monster of the week” format instead. Nonetheless, as a standalone modestly budgeted movie The Night Stalker isn’t bad.
Great Balls of Fire (1989)
For a brief moment in the 1950s, rock legend Jerry Lee Lewis (b.1935) was as big as Elvis. When tabloids reported that he had married his 13-year-old cousin, however, his career crashed. He never fully recovered his popularity, though he continued to work in smaller venues and to record – and still does despite a 2019 stroke. Despite some trite and stereotypical elements, this movie is a surprisingly good depiction of Lewis’ rise, fall, and survival. It stars Dennis Quaid, a young Winona Ryder, and the music of Jerry Lee Lewis.
Crash (1996), not to be confused with the 2004 movie of the same title, is directed by David Cronenberg and is based on the novel by JG Ballard. Cronenberg, a Toronto native, set the movie version of Crash in Ontario instead of the UK, which changes the tone but not the substance. The central character is named James Ballard (yes, really) and is played by James Spader. James barely survives a head-on crash that kills the other driver; he then encounters and becomes erotically involved with the other driver’s wife, played by Holly Hunter, who also was injured in the crash. They fall in with fetishists who tap into primal eroticism through car crashes. This group is led by the philosopher-artist Vaughan (Elias Kotias). Rosanna Arquette brings a special weirdness to her fetishist character Gabrielle. JG Ballard had a notion that modern life is so at variance with the natural world in which people evolved that it takes very little push to make us a little crazy – in this case tangling car crashes with eroticism. Rated NC-17, Crash is creepy, violent, sexually graphic, and not for the easily offended. But, in its own warped way, it has something interesting to say. Be selective with whom you share it, though; many viewers truly hate it.
A Re-Watch Anthem:
The Beach Boys – Do It Again