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Four Over Forty

November 19, 2009

Right now, it has become difficult for me to even FIND a movie I want to see in the theaters.  When the only theater options available are 2012 and  The Box and the only things releasing on video are Transformers and G.I.  Joe, I find myself turning to the classics to keep me occupied. 

So, until Bright Star, Precious and Young Victoria make it to Missouri, here are four films over 40 years old that are worth a viewing if you find yourself stuck in your Netflix queue!

To Kill a Mockingbird (1962)

Atticus and Scout

  “I wanted you to see what real courage is, instead of getting the idea that courage is a man with a gun in his hand.  It’s when you know you’re licked before you begin but you begin anyway and you see it through no matter what.  You rarely win, but sometimes you do.”  ~Harper Lee, To Kill a Mockingbird, Chapter 11, spoken by the character Atticus

 Directed by Robert Mulligan, this adaptation of Harper Lee’s great American novel takes liberties with characters and condenses plot points, but never loses the poignancy of the central two stories:  the love of a good-hearted father for his children, and that same father’s struggle to show his kids that justice is worth fighting for, even if in the end you lose the battle.

At the heart of the film is Gregory Peck’s moving and accurate portrayal of Atticus Finch.  While Peck can be stiff in other films, this character calls for a quiet steadfastness that Peck radiates well.   Mary Badham’s Scout is  a wonder of understanding and innocence.  Horton Foote’s screenplay wisely keeps some of Lee’s most moving quotes.  Mockingbird is still a film that has the power to move me to tears from the first sounds of the opening credits.

Rebecca (1940)

Returning to Manderley

  “You wouldn’t think she’d been gone so long, would you? Sometimes, when I walk along the corridor, I fancy I hear her just behind me. That quick light step, I couldn’t mistake it anywhere. It’s not only in this room, it’s in all the rooms in the house. I can almost hear it now. ” – Mrs. Danvers, describing the first Mrs. DeWinter, Rebecca (1940)

Hitchcock’s adaptation of Daphne DuMaurier’s  infamous page-turner is an excercise in mannerisms.    Hitchcock’s casting of Shakespearian actor Laurence Olivier is no accident here – he’s the lynchpin of the plot.   Yet, while Maxim DeWinter is the handsomely brooding lead, it is the character never present on film that is the most memorable.  Rebecca, the first Mrs. DeWinter, lingers everywhere in Hitchcock’s film.   From her ethereally cold bedroom to the sea-swept cottage where she spent her last moments, Rebecca holds sway over the entire film.  

Joan Fontaine’s second Mrs. De Winter is all doe-eyed, pleading only for love, yet showing a nerve of steel when threatening with losing the only one who has ever needed her.  It’s vastly similar to her performance in Jane Eyre, but works nonetheless. 

 It is Judith Andersen’s Mrs. Danvers, the manipulative and deluded housekeeper, who steals the show.  Dour, uncompromising and utterly creepy, her Danvers pops up without even seeming to move, and brings terror to an otherwise toothless film.

The Women (1939)

Hollywood's Golden Age

 “The first man who can explain how he can be in love with his wife – and another woman – is gonna win that prize they’re always giving out in Sweden.”The Women (1939)

1939 is often referred to as Hollywood’s greatest year.  Beneath the hubub that was Gone with the Wind was this charming, often over-looked film that starred dozens of the age’s greatests actresses, including  Norma Shearer, Rosalind Russell, Joan Crawford, Paulette Goddard and Joan Fontaine.

The Women has a great conceit at its heart:  never show a single man on screen for the entire film.   Every actor, animal, sculpture, even painting is female!  The basic plot is simple:  a society matron’s husband is philandering with a shopgirl, and her friends gather together to help(sometimes helping, sometimes hurting) poor Mary Haines get her life in order.

Norma Shearer was MGM’s prime asset at the time, but her star was fading, and Joan Crawford was more than ready to capture that crown for herself.   The behind the scenes tension between the two stars was so legendary it even bleeds onto the screen when the wife and mistress confront each other for the first time.

Shearer is bland, but Russell, Goddard and Crawford break out the claws that keep this kitty on the prowl.  Anita Loos’s script keeps the banter flying, and The Women sparkle and outshine even Scarlett O’Hara.   It’s no wonder the recent reboot couldn’t capture the magic of this unique film.

The Philadelphia Story (1940)

Tracy Lord’s Dilemma

George Kittredge: “Oh, it’s grand, Tracy. It’s what everybody feels about you. It’s what I first worshipped you for from afar. ”
Tracy Lord: “I don’t want to be worshipped. I want to be loved.”

The Philadelphia Story (1940)
 
George Cukor’s The Philadelphia Story is what all great romantic comedies should aspire to be: whip-smart, timeless, and incredibly romantic without being sappy.  Katharine Hepburn went from “box office poison” to comeback story of the year thanks to her sense of business savvy.  She (with the help and financing of Howard Hughes) snapped up the film rights to the Broadway smash and, with the clever casting of leading men Cary Grant and Jimmy Stewart, made box office history.  
Tracy Lord (Katharine Hepburn) is about to marry the divinely rich (and divinely dull) everyman, George Kittredge simply because he is the embodiment of everything her first husband, Dex (Cary Grant) is not.  Whereas George is the champion of the working class, Dex is the walking symbol of  pampered, entitled East Coast society life.    Tracy wants a change, but as Dex patiently reminds her, sometimes a swing in the opposite direction is no good.
Throw into the mix two gossip magazine reporters, including failed novelist Macaulay Conner (Jimmy Stewart) who are trying to get the scoop on the Lord family scandal (Tracy’s father has run off with a much younger dancer), and you have a fine recipe for classic comedy.A love triangle for all time ensues, with Macaulay fighting an attraction for Tracy, who represents all that he loathes about the rich and mighty  (“With the rich and mighty, always a little patience”, Macaulay states), and Dex trying to subtly remind Tracy why they should never have parted in the first place.
It’s a romp with a solid heart and some profound thoughts about what makes two people compatible in this crazy world of ours.
The dialogue is divine, and so are the performances.  The drunken, eve -of -the -wedding pool scene is one of the finest moments in all of cinema, with every line quotable.
So, if you are caught in the Netflix trenches with nowhere to turn, try one of these four gems.  For me, they are like  visiting with an old friend.  No matter how long it has been, they are always happy to see you.
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