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Scenes of the Season: It’s a Wonderful Life

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Frank Capra’s 1946 film, It’s a Wonderful Life, has become one of the most watched films of the holiday season.  I can remember years when it seemed like it was showing on a loop—at least if you had cable.  This year, astonishingly, it doesn’t seem to be showing anywhere.  I know that can’t be right. Can it?

It hardly seems necessary to say anything about it—like Casablanca it’s one of those movies that even if you’ve never seen it, you probably still know the gist of it.

[mild spoiler alert] James Stewart is George Bailey, a small town guy with big dreams. He wants to shake that small town dust off his feet and see the world. And build things. Then he meets Mary (Donna Reed). Life seems pretty good, despite the fact that he never does get out of that small town. He runs the Savings & Loan that his father started and is the most popular guy in town. It’s Christmas Eve, and his brother  is returning for the holidays after being given the Congressional Medal of Honor for heroism during the war. But then things go terribly wrong over the course of Christmas Eve, and he ends up wishing he’d never been born. And an angel grants his wish.

The scenes where George meets Mary and where they decide to marry are alone worth the price of admission. And if you’ve wondered who Donna Reed was and why she had her own TV show, you’ll find out.

The film was a bit of a box office dud when it came out. It’s not as tight as other Capra movies; at 125 minutes it feels a bit long, and could have used some editing. And Capra’s corn-fed populism seemed to have run its course, as the strong turn towards noir in the post-war years might suggest. In fact, Capra never really made another major film, certainly none that are remembered or watched today. His heyday was the 1930s, when he had a string of hits that are still popular: Mr. Smith Goes to Washington (1939), Mr. Deeds Goes to Town (1936), You Can’t Take it With You (1938)—a personal favorite—and whatis his most critically acclaimed film, and after Wonderful Life the one most frequently watched today, It Happened One Night (1934), with Clark Gable and Claudette Colbert.

Directors working with the same actors on a number of films were fairly common in the heyday of Hollywood, but Capra’s working relationship with his staple actors was particularly rewarding. Lionel Barrymore in You Can’t Take it With You and Wonderful Life—a bit curmudgeon-y in both, but charming in the former and cruel in the latter.  Jean Arthur—astonishingly charming, “the quintessential comedic leading lady”—in You Can’t Take it With You and Mr. Deeds.  And James Stewart. James Stewart in two of his most remembered performances, in Mr. Smith and Wonderful Life, as well as in You Can’t Take it With You, in which he’s great.  Stewart has been better, and been in much better movies—including another holiday movie, The Shop Around the Corner (1940), directed by Ernst Lubitsch.  But Stewart’s roles and performances in the Capra movies tend to really stay with people.

As I said, I haven’t been able to find when and where It’s a Wonderful Life is showing on TV this season, but you can watch the whole movie online on YouTube:

For more…

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Great Films—Seven Samurai, Notorious, The Ruling Class—on Hulu

Some of my favorite movies are available online, in high quality, for free (with limited ads) on Hulu right now.  I suspect these movies will only be temporarily available, as part of ongoing efforts to lure people in to Hulu Plus, so take advantage of them while they last:

The Seven Samurai (1954). What needs to be said of this movie? One of the greatest films ever made. Directed by Akira Kurosawa and starring a young Toshiro Mifune and the charming studio stalwart Takashi Shimura in one of his finest performances (his best being in Kurosawa’s Ikiru). Kurosawa drew on tropes and traditions of American Westerns as well as samurai movies, and in turn The Seven Samurai influenced both of those genres—albeit the samurai movie to a much greater degree—directly shaping such films as The Magnificent Seven (a remake of the Western-influence samurai movie as a Western) and more recently Takashi Miike’s 13 Assassins, which features a peasant warrior who is the direct descendent, if not an outright copy, of Mifune’s character in Seven Samurai.

The Tale of Zatoichi (1962) is not in the same class as Seven Samurai, but the long-running series of samurai movies is still a treat. Shintaro Katsu stars as Zatoichi, a blind masseuse roaming the Japanese countryside, who conceals a deadly sword in his cane and terrific swordsmanship beneath his bumbling façade.  Most of the films in the series seem to have much the same plot: Zatoichi comes to a new town where there is some strife, often involving gangsters and gamblers, and his attraction to a beautiful woman or sense of justice draws him into the conflict; when it’s over he’s slain all the bad guys, most of them in one climatic battle, but has to leave town, driven out, back to his wanderings, by a sense of his own flawed nature and of the violence he feels follows in his wake. Or something like that. You can figure it out for yourself if you have the time: Hulu is showing 18 of them for free at the moment.

I grew up watching these on weekends in a local Japanese theatre. They’re brilliant. After you watch them, you can read about the series on Wikipedia or check it out on Amazon. Takashi Kitano did a mostly excellent remake/updating of Zatoichi a few years back, with himself in the title role — but it was a bit to serious and realistic, and lacked the hokey charm I find in the originals.

Stagecoach (1939)—the film that transformed Westerns, bringing both John Ford and John Wayne to prominence.  The first appearance of John Wayne in the film is one of the great entrances of American cinema.

Notorious (1946)—one of Ingrid Bergman’s most powerful performances and Cary Grant as you have never seen him before. Bergman is a party-going playgirl in South America recruited to act as a spy; Cary Grant is her spy-master.

Charade (1963)—a movie I love, really so extravagantly that I might argue for it as one of the greatest movies of all time, though I know that in truth it isn’t. But Cary Grant has never been more charming, I think, which is saying a lot, and Audrey Hepburn is luminous and… funny. Really funny. I don’t think her gift of comic timing has ever been showcased as well (except perhaps in How to Steal a Million). Hepburn plays a young Parisian wife who suddenly finds herself a widow, and Cary Grant pops into her life as…well, watch it and see.  Directed by Stanley Donen, who started out as a song-and-dance man with Gene Kelly as his partner. He made his directorial debut working with Kelly on Singin’ in the Rain and On the Town (perhaps the greatest integrated musical ever), on which he is credited as co-director, and then went on to make a number of very good films on his own, including Indiscreet with Grant and Ingrid Bergman; but those first musicals aside, this is clearly his masterpiece.

The Blob (1958). A classic monster movie that still scares.  An unintentionally smart mash-up of teen movie and 50s sci fi monster flick, with one of Steve McQueen’s first performances, and a bizarrely fun and goofy theme song by Burt Bacharach.

The Ruling Class (1972). A tour de force performance by Peter O’Toole, one of his finest, as the mentally unbalanced heir of a British noble.  DO NOT read any details about this film before watching it (even my earlier post on it), as there’s a surprise twist about 2/3rds of the way through, and it is worth being surprised by it.  This is a cult classic, which used to get rapturous receptions at the UC Theatre in Berkeley during fairly frequent screenings in the late 1970s through mid 1980s. A bitterly black comedy whose social commentary may not seem particularly startling or original now, but was fairly sharp back in the day.  Worth watching for O’Toole’s performance alone.

Quadrophenia (1979)—a great soundtrack by The Who, mods versus rockers, and Sting.

Most of these are from the wonderful Criterion Collection, which guarantees that the prints and their digital transfer will be of the highest quality, and that the versions of the films will be the most original (no half-baked cuts for the American market or anything like that).

If you have a Roku or anything similar, you can even sign up for a free one-week trial, call in sick and stay home to watch all of them for free, over a few gloriously indulgent days of movie magic, on your (hopefully big screen) TV. Otherwise you can watch them on your computer; you know, now that I think of if, the office I’m working in right now has excellent broadband, and no network restrictions…

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On TCM Sep 8-11: Old Faves, Michael Curtiz, and Films for 9/11

A couple of favorites roll around again—which maybe shows that TCM’s programmers share my tastes, or perhaps just that their vaults are not as deep as they sometimes seem. On Thursday, 8 Sep at 3:30am TCM is showing the great Ealing Studios classic The Ladykillers (1955) starring Alec Guinness—and once again they’ve mislabeled this great black comedy as a “crime” picture. Then The Mouse That Roared (1959), with Peter Sellers and Jean Seberg, screens at 7am.

On Friday (at 5am), you can catch one of the great Spenser Tracy / Katharine Hepburn romantic comedies, Pat And Mike (1952). Hepburn is a multitalented athlete from an upper class background and Tracy is the fight promoter who takes her on as a client. At 10am, there’s a little known and seldom seen film from the great director, Nicholas Ray: Party Girl (1958), starring Cyd Charisse. At noon is a movie I’ve never heard of but am quite interested in: The Angel Wore Red (1960), directed by Nunnally Johnson and starring Dirk Bogarde and Ava Gardner as a priest and prostitute who fall in love during the Spanish Civil War. The synopsis makes it sound like sentimental rubbish, but I have a long-standing interest in the Spanish Civil War…

Michael Curtiz directed some terrific movies—including Captain Blood (1935) and The Adventures of Robin Hood (1938) with Errol Flynn, Yankee Doodle Dandy (1942), Mildred Pierce (1945), and most famously Casablanca (1942). He was nominated for the Best Director Oscar five times, twice in one year (1938), and won for Casablanca. But he made a lot of movies—173 of them in a career that started in Hungary in 1915 and ended with his last movie in 1961, only one year before his death—and some of them were bound to be less than terrific. The ones showing Friday evening are in this latter category. Yankee Doodle Dandy proved that Curtiz could do decent work in a musical, but I’ll See You in My Dreams (1951) and The Jazz Singer (1953) are at best mediocre, demonstrations that musicals require more than interesting female leads—Doris Day in the former and Peggy Lee in the latter—and competent direction to succeed. Fortunately, TCM has some other Curtiz films playing this week.

Saturday morning (Sep 10) starts with a decent, albeit minor example of Curtiz’s work: the “Philo Vance” murder mystery The Kennel Murder Case (1933), starring Mary Astor and William Powell. Interesting trivia: both these actors have a connection to one of San Francisco’s adopted sons, Dashiell Hammett. Mary Astor is best know for her work as the wide-eyed and seemingly sympathetic, but endlessly duplicitous Brigid O’Shaughnessy in The Maltese Falcon (1941), based on the novel of the same name by Hammett. Similarly, William Powell is best remembered as Nick Charles in the “Thin Man” series, also based on a Hammett novel. The “Philo Vance” mysteries were immensely popular in their day, with 12 novels, 15 movies (from 1929-47), and a radio serial. These days, though, they’re largely forgotten, while other mystery series from that era are still known and watched. Powell appeared as Vance in four of the films, but it’s his work in the six “Thin Man” movies (from 1934-47) that is remembered these days. Basil Rathbone played Vance in the fourth film in the series, but it is his other series from that period, the “Sherlock Holmes” movies he did with Nigel Bruce, that is still watched today.

TCM is showing more “Philo Vance” movies on subsequent Saturday mornings, so you’ll get a chance to find out what made them popular at the time. But if Curtiz’s “Philo Vance” mystery is basically of interest to film scholars or as a curiousity, the rest of Saturday offers at least two unqualified treasures: The Caine Mutiny (1954), directed by Edward Dmytryk and starring Humphrey Bogart and Van Johnson, and The Loneliness Of The Long Distance Runner (1962), the classic “angry young man” film directed by Tony Richardson.

For the 9/11 anniversary, TCM pulls out all the stops. Sunday (Sep 11) is classics from start to finish—including Gary Cooper as Lou Gehrig in The Pride Of The Yankees (1942) at 4:45am; one of the first and greatest American musicals, 42nd Street (1933) at 7am; Woody Allen’s masterpiece Annie Hall (1977) at 1:15pm; perhaps the finest and most important of all “integrated musicals” at 3pm, On the Town (1949); Curtiz’s masterpiece Casablanca (1942) at 5pm; and one of Howard Hawks’ best, and one of the best Westerns, Red River (1948), with John Wayne and Montgomery Clift, at 11pm. It’s an amazing day of film, selected in part by TCM’s guest programmers, two responders to the Twin Towers attacks.

For more…

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The Beginnings of Science Fiction Cinema: A Trip to the Moon

On this day in 1902, the first science fiction film was released: Le Voyage dans la lune (“A Trip to the Moon”), directed by Georges Méliès and based on Jules Verne’s From the Earth to the Moon with material from The First Men in the Moon by H. G. Wells

For more…

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More Star Specials on TCM – Grand Illusion, Red River, Cary Grant… and Dobie Gillis

After today’s Bogart marathon—all day today, 13 films and 1 documentary—TCM’s “Summer Under the Stars” with Jean Gabin on Thursday, Debbie Reynolds on Friday, Montgomery Clift on Saturday and then Cary Grant on Sunday. The program then continues for the remainder of the month (full schedule here).

With stars like that, and more than a dozen of their films each day, there’s no shortage of highlights. Here, though, are some of the highlights of the highlights:

Grand Illusion (1937) – directed by Jean Renoir, with Jean Gabin as a French prisoner in a WWI German camp, commanded by Erich von Stroheim – showing Thursday, Aug 18 at 7pm. One of the great classics of world cinema, Roger Ebert called it “a meditation on the collapse of the old order of European civilization.” It’s followed by another film by Jean Renoir and starring Jean Gabim, La Bete Humaine (1938), based on the novel by Emile Zola.

Singin’ In The Rain (1952) – directed by Gene Kelly and Stanley Donen, and starring Kelly, Donald O’Connor and Debbie Reynolds – showing Friday, Aug 19 at 11:15pm.  Kelly and O’Connor play a couple of song and dance men who are trying to make the transition from silent movies to sound. Reynolds is a club dancer and movie fan. A sparkling script by Betty Comdon and Adolph Green. Roger Ebert says Singin’ “is a transcendent experience, and no one who loves movies can afford to miss it.” Leonard Maltin called it “the greatest movie musical of all time.” Selected as one of top ten films of all times in the Sight & Sound critics’ poll.

And yet… And yet… You’ve probably already seen it, so maybe you should check out The Affairs of Dobie Gillis (1953) with Debbie Reynolds and Bobby Van, Hans Conreid (The 5,000 Fingers of Dr. T) and Bob Fosse – showing first in the Debbie Reynolds marathon, at 3am. The film on which the TV series The Many Loves of Dobie Gillis, featuring pop culture’s first beatnik, Maynard G. Krebs, was based.

Red River (1948) – directed by Howard Hawks and starring John Wayne and Montgomery Clift in one of the greatest Westerns of all time – showing Saturday, Aug 20 at 10am.

Saturday, August 21, features 13 movies starring the incomparable Cary Grant, including many of his greatest. The top picks:

4:30am: I’m No Angel (1933) – with Mae West

6 am: My Favorite Wife (1940) – with Irene Dunne

12:30pm: The Philadelphia Story (1940) – directed by George Cukor, with Katharine Hepburn and James Stewart

2:30pm: North By Northwest (1959) – Alfred Hitchcock once said that Cary Grant was the only actor he ever loved. The two made four films together, and this is the last.  It might also be the least. It’s spectacular, with some amazing cinematography—including the wonderful shots at UN Plaza and the scene with the crop duster. But it also has Hitchcock’s weakest blonde, Eva Marie Saint—though perhaps she only seems weak in comparison to Grace Kelly, who’d been in Grant and Hitchcock’s previous outing together, the sparkling To Catch a Thief. Still, immensely satisfying.

7:15pm: Only Angels Have Wings (1939) – another one directed by Howard Hawks, and a personal favorite of mine – with Jean Arthur.

1:15am: Bringing Up Baby (1938) – an another by Howard Hawks, probably a personal favorite of just about everyone. The classic screwball comedy starring Grant as a mousy professor and Katharine Hepburn as a scatterbrain heiress. Clearly TCM wanted to finish their day of Cary Grant on a very high note.

For more…

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Humphrey Bogart on TCM Wednesday, August 17, 2011

All Bogie, all day Wednesday, August 17, from 3am PST until after midnight. And as with the day of Jimmy Stewart on the weekend, the day features some of the best the actor did—including the two movies that made him a star, High Sierra, at 11:45am, and The Maltese Falcon, at 5pm. Here are the highlights:

8 am PST: To Have And Have Not (1944) – Lauren Bacall‘s film debut in a movie directed by Howard Hawks with a script by William Faulkner from a novel by Hemingway. “You know how to whistle, don’t you, Steve? You just put your lips together – and blow.” It doesn’t get much better than that. Or does it…

9:45 am: The Big Sleep (1946) – Bogie and Bacall again, directed by Howard Hawks, with Faulkner on script duty again (with Jules Furthman and Leigh Brackett) working from the great hardboiled detective novel by Raymond Chandler, and a score by Max Steiner. By the end of it, apparently no one involved in the movie could figure out exactly what happened in the story, but it doesn’t matter a bit. The erotic energy of Bogie and Bacall’s exchanges has to be seen to be believed. “I like that. I’d like more.” It really doesn’t get much better than this.

11:45 am: High Sierra (1941) and 1:30 pm: They Drive by Night (1940) – both directed by Raoul Walsh, two of the many taut, tightly directed and gritty films Walsh did for Warner Brothers in the 1930s and 1940s, including the last film in the original gangster cycle, White Heat (1949), starring James Cagney.

5 pm: The Maltese Falcon (1941) – John Huston’s directorial debut and the first of six movies he would do with his friend, Humphrey Bogart. Considered by many the first real film noir. Based on the novel by Dashiell Hammett. “The stuff that dreams are made of.”

Some of Bogie’s best films are missing—Casablanca (1942), obviously, The Treasure of the Sierra Madre (1948) and The African Queen (1951)—but some of the minor films during the day are worth checking out, most particularly Bullets Or Ballots (1936), a fine little gangster pic starring Edward G. Robinson and Joan Blondell.

In AFI’s 100 Years celebration, Humphrey Bogart was named the top male screen legend in American film history. Any of these highlighted films will show you why.

For more…

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San Francisco Area Classic Films and World Cinema

Quick Note: I have a public Google Calendar that lists upcoming classics of Hollywood and world cinema and events of interest to cinephiles in the San Francisco Bay Area available here: San Francisco Area Classic Films and World Cinema.

A link to this calendar is available in the far right column as well.

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Tomorrow (13 Aug 2011) on TCM: Jimmy Stewart and “The Shop Around the Corner”

All day tomorrow, Saturday, August 13, TCM is featuring the films of James Stewart—and it’s a terrific lineup, with some of Stewart’s most well-known films, and some of classic Hollywood’s best. Some of the highlights:

6am (PST): Mr. Smith Goes to Washington (1939) – the Frank Capra classic about DC politics

11:30am: The Shop Around The Corner (1940) – a romantic comedy gem directed by Ernst Lubitsch, the film on which You’ve Got Mail was based

1:15pm: Bell, Book and Candle (1959) – Kim Novak, Jack Lemmon and Elsa Lanchester as Greenwich Village witches

5pm: The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance (1962) – with John Wayne, directed by John Ford – “When the legend becomes fact, print the legend.”

9pm: Anatomy Of A Murder (1959) – courtroom drama directed by Otto Preminger

Bell, Book and Candle is not going to be on too many lists of greatest or must see movies, but it is a fun little film I’ve loved since I saw it on TV as a young kid. There are a lot of movies like it for me—movies that showed on Channel 2 or 20 or 44 in big blocks on Saturdays and Sundays and that formed my love of classic Hollywood, of Abbott & Costello, Bing and Bob, Fred and Ginger and the rest.

Maybe Ernst Lubitsch’s The Shop Around the Corner played on TV back then, but if it did I missed it. Of course, that just meant I got to see it for the first time on a reel screen in a decent print, and the film is indeed a gem. Not as sparkling as Lubitsch’s masterpieces, Trouble in Paradise (1932) and Ninotchka (1939), but still a treasure. Stewart had been starring in films for 5 years and this was his 21st, but he looks so fresh—perfect as the young shop clerk Alfred Kralik who lands a position at the Budapest shop of Matuschek and Company and falls in love with a woman he knows only through the letters they exchange.

Although Samson Raphaelson is credited as screenwriter, it seems likely that some of the credit should go to Lubitsch, who could have drawn on his experience growing up in pre-War Europe and with his father’s business as a draper for so much of the details of the film. I like that the film is set in Budapest, and that the to American ears odd-sounding Hungarian names are used for all the characters. It was filmed in Hollywood and most of the cast and crew were American, but it has a real European film—helped by the marvelous, marvelous performances of the Prussian-born Felix Bressart as Pirovitch, Kralik’s closest friend in the shop, and the Viennese Joseph Schildkraut as the slimy Vadas. Bressart also appeared in Lubitsch’s Ninotchka, as one of the Russians who Greta Garbo is sent to oversee.

Jimmy Stewart is one of the great stars of the classic Hollywood cinema—an all-rounder who did everything well. He made some of the best comedies (The Philadelphia Story, You Can’t Take It with You), terrific dramas and biopics (Anatomy of a Murder, The Glenn Miller Story), two of Hitchcock’s best (Vertigo and Rear Window), great Westerns (perhaps most of all Winchester ’73)—and of course that beloved holiday classic, It’s a Wonderful Life. Jimmy Stewart once said that he wanted people to remember him “as someone who was good at his job.” We remember him as one of the greatest.

And if you don’t believe me, you can get visual proof on this Tumblr blog: fuck yeah, jimmy stewart.

For more…

And one last bit of trivia… The song “The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance” was written by Burt Bacharach and Hal David for the movie, but wasn’t used. Gene Pitney recorded it the following year and it became a big hit for him.

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King Kong and Max Steiner Films at The Castro, Jul 29-Aug 4

You may not know the name Max Steiner, but if you like old movies you know his work. Steiner wrote the scores for more than 300 films, including some of the most famous of Hollywood’s Golden Age. He was nominated for the Academy Award 24 times over the course of his four-decade career, and won three times – for The Informer (1935), Now, Voyager (1942), and Since You Went Away (1944).

Beginning this Friday, July 29, San Francisco’s Castro Theater is featuring a one-week retrospective of films with scores by Max Steiner:

Jul 29 – Mildred Pierce / The Letter
Jul 30 – Casablanca / The Treasure of the Sierra Madre – with Humphrey Bogart
Jul 31 – Gone with the Wind
Aug 1 – Now, Voyager / Dark Victory – with Bette Davis
Aug 2 – White Heat / Angels with Dirty Faces – with James Cagney
Aug 3 – The Big Sleep / Key Largo – Humphrey Bogart again
Aug 4 – King Kong / The Searchers – a strange pairing, but both wonderful

King Kong is a fitting film to end the Castro’s tribute to Steiner. His score wasn’t nominated for an Oscar (the film wasn’t nominated in any category) and he wasn’t even given screen credit for it, but it is one of the most significant scores in the history of motion picture soundtracks. Steiner was given a large budget for the time, and the music was a key component of the film’s success – a success that saved the studio, RKO, from bankruptcy. Although he’d already scored more than 50 films, his work on King Kong was something new and special, and it ushered in a new era in the scoring of films. In this and his other work in the 1930s, Steiner, along with another Austrian emigre composer working in Hollywood, Erich Wolfgang Korngold, largely defined what we now think of as a film score.

I’ve seen King Kong at the Castro and it’s an experience not to be missed – a great old movie – one of the greatest – in a great old movie theater, like it would have shown in when it was first released.

For more…

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On TCM Jul 25-31: A Joe E. Brown marathon and more singing cowboys

On Monday, July 25, at 7PM (PST) is The Ox-Bow Incident (1943) – a top notch Western that relies for its greatness on a superb scripting and acting rather than action and spectacle. Henry Fonda gives one of his best performances as a loner who gets caught up with a lynch mob. Directed by William Wellman. In the wee small hours, you can catch They Made Me a Fugitive (1947) – a film noir starring Trevor Howard. I haven’t seen it, but I like both noir and Howard so I am particularly interested.

When I think of TCM, I tend to think of “classic” movies – for obvious reasons. Classic film is typically defined as consisting of movies made during the period from the early 1930s and the advent of sound to the end of the traditional Hollywood studio system in the late 1960s. Many of the movies showing on Tuesday, July 26, fall outside this definition, but are worth considering anyway.

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The Red Vic Movie House is Closing

Red Vic Movie House in San Francisco to close.
The already endangered repertory movie scene in San Francisco is taking yet another hit.

Later this month, 31 years to the day after it became an instant landmark in the Haight-Ashbury, the Red Vic Movie House will close. (via SFGate.com.)

On July 25, the Red Vic will show its last movie, bringing to an end a wonderful 30 year run as one of the funnest and funkiest rep movie houses in the land.

All of our friends love to watch movies. So in 1980, a group of us decided to collectively run our own cinema. Hence, the Red Vic Movie House. For almost 10 years, Red Vic’s first home was at the corner of Haight and Belvedere Streets. Here, we introduced our now legendary couches to offer our patrons a funky, yet comfy, place to watch their favorite films.
via RED VIC MOVIE HOUSE

It’s the end of an era in more ways than one. The Red Vic is one of the last independent neighborhood cinemas in San Francisco. And it is one of the last rep cinemas in the Bay Area – one of the last real movie theaters showing old movies. When it closes, in less than two weeks, there will only be a couple of places left to see classic films as they were meant to be seen – on the big(ish) screen, rather than on DVD and flat screen. And there will be one less place to see films other than big chain multiplexes in malls.

Among its many contributions to film culture in the Bay Area, the Red Vic gave us couches instead of individual seats, long before the lounge-style seating in deluxe theaters. In the original Red Vic, these were literally couches – mostly cast-offs and second hand items scrounged as cheap seating. And there was the popcorn – with real butter, of course, and nutritional yeast as an added topping. If you’ve never tried nutritional yeast on your popcorn, do it now – it’s brilliant.  With a glass of unfiltered apple cider, it made a really tasty and healthy movie treat.  They also had great coffee and brownies. All in all, the best snack food I’ve had at a movie theater.

And to remind you to bus your own damn dishes, they had one of the funniest cinema shorts since the UC’s “no smoking” message with John Waters, featuring one of the Red Vic staffers getting dragged under one of those couches by the Creature from the Black Lagoon.

The last three movies showing at the Red Vic are Orson Welles’ Touch of Evil, showing Sunday and Monday; one of the greatest rock concert films ever, The Last Waltz, on Tuesday and Wednesday; and lastly Harold and Maude, playing Friday through Monday.

Harold and Maude is an interesting choice for final film. It’s been a cult favorite at rep cinemas in the Bay Area for pretty much as long as I’ve been going to movies. I remember seeing it for the first time at Berkeley’s UC Theater in the late 70s and it was already a cult thing then, only a few year after its release. But I guess if I’d been scheduling things, I’d have been to tempted to go with another cult film, Marat/Sade. This used to sell out pretty regularly at Red Vic, and people would even come in costume – it was one of those “only in San Francisco” experiences. Well, actually everything about the Red Vic was a bit that way.

I’ll see you there tomorrow, and Tuesday and again for Harold and Maude. I’ll be the sad one with the big, big bowl of popcorn with nutritional yeast.

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Life in the Dark: Frank Capra’s “You Can’t Take It with You”

You Can’t Take It With You (1938)
Directed by Frank Capra
Screenplay by Robert Riskin; adapted from the Pulitzer Prize-winning play by George S. Kaufman and Moss Hart
Cast includes James Stewart, Jean Arthur, Lionel Barrymore and Edward Arnold

I thought I knew You Can’t Take It With You. After all, I’ve seen it at least a half dozen times, possibly as many as a dozen or more. Tony Kirby (Jimmy Stewart) is a young executive, the boss’ son, who falls in love with his secretary, Alice Sycamore (Jean Arthur). She comes from a screwball family of irrepressible eccentrics. Like so many romantic comedies, the film follows the basic Shakespeare comedy schema: boy and girl are in love, but their relationship is blocked by the forces of social order, so they flee to a forest, a space apart, where they can be together – in this case, the forest being the ramshackle house of Alice’s family, where most of the movie takes place (an obvious marker of its origins as a stage play).

Well, all of that is true as far as it goes. But watching it the other night, I realized I had it all wrong really. You Can’t Take It With You is not so much the story of the son and his relationship, but rather that of the father, Anthony P. Kirby (Edward Arnold) and his crisis of character. He’s the protagonist, the one whose character has an arc, undergoes a conflict and a transformation. The son just breezes along.  Stewart and Arthur are both so wonderful that it misleads you – though this isn’t their best work, nor even their best work together for Frank Capra, which is in Mr. Smith Goes to Washington (in which Arnold also appears). No, it’s Edward Arnold’s Anthony P. Kirby that is the real hero here, as should have been obvious from the title – he’s the most likely person to whom “you can’t take it with you” might be addressed. Seen this way, the movie is the story of his realization that his life as a successful man of high finance has led him away from what is really important, and threatens to not only destroy his relationship with his son – and his son’s happiness – but also threatens his life.

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zerode

is an over-caffeinated and under-employed grad school dropout, aspiring leftwing intellectual and cultural studies academic, film buff and occasional reviewer, and former private detective. Raised in San Francisco on classic film, radical politics, burritos and soul music, then set loose upon the world. He spends his time in coffee shops with his laptop and headphones, caffeinating and trying to construct a post-whatever life.

 

What's in a name... The handle "zerode" is a contraction of Zéro de Conduite, the title of Jean Vigo's 1933 movie masterpiece about schoolboy rebellion.

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