3/15/14: The Grapes of Wrath

Grapes

“I been thinking about how the country’s been dumbin’ down since the people been neglectin’ the Classics. Whether it’s a guy got a million acres or a million unemployed starvin’. All of ‘em…neglectin’ the Classics. ‘Ceptin’ us, o’course. And I been wonderin’ if all us folks got together & yelled to ‘em, maybe we can do somethin’. Maybe we can find out what it is that they think’s wrong with ‘em, and see if there ain’t somethin’ that can be done about it. I ain’t thought it out all clear yet. It’s like that feller Casey Jones says:” ‘That notion just crossed my mind.’. And if we can get ‘em watchin’ the Classics again the way we used in this country, “maybe we can give this country soul again. And if you don’t help me, then it don’t matter. I’ll be around – I’ll be everywhere: Watchin’ ‘em; introducin’ ‘em; discussin’ ‘em. Wherever there’s a movie about a fight; or about people so poor they can’t afford even to eat. I’ll be there. Wherever there’s a cop beatin’ up a guy on screen, I’ll be there. I’ll be in there when guys yell, ‘I’m mad as Hell & I’m not gonna take this anymore!’. And maybe America can get smart again like we use to be. And you’ll see it in the way kids laugh; and when ther eatin’ stuff; and playin’ in front of ther houses. Oh, I dunno. It’s just somethin’ I been thinkin’ about.”

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John Ford’s 1940 pro-union, Dust Bowl era masterpiece, The Grapes of Wrath, won him the Oscar in 1941 at the 13th Academy Awards. The Dust Bowl was manmade weather catastrophe in the Great Plains, brought on by over-farming which caused topsoil erosion. In concert with a decade of abnormal drought, winds would kick up dust storms that caused mass exodus, both of Biblical proportions. Nunnelly Johnson was nominated for an Oscar for his adaptation of John Steinbeck’s Pulitzer Prize-winning novel released a year earlier, it’s the story of Oklahoman Tom Joad (for which Henry Fonda was nominated for Best Actor), just out of prison & hitchhiking his way back home when he runs into Casy (John Carradine) who used to be his preacher. Casy’s lost his faith as the town lost their houses. The two of them head over to Tom’s Ma & Pa’s house (Jane Arwell won the Supporting Actress Oscar & Russell Simpson). They’ve packed & gone over to Uncle John’s (Frank Darien). The extended Joad’s & Casy all head to California in their beat-up truck where there’s supposed to be work picking grapes. The trip on Highway 66 is very rough & they have to stay at Migrant Camps along with the millions of others who left the plains during the Dust Bowl.

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Grapes, which was nominated for 3 more Oscars including Best Picture, was 1 of 25 initial entries in the Library of Congress’ National Film Registry in ‘89. Alfred Newman’s (9 Oscars & 36 more nominations) uncredited score, based on the traditional folk song, Red River Valley, is fantastic. Another song that comes up big is Goin’ Down the Road Feelin’ Bad. It’s performed by extended family member Connie (Eddie Quillan) on the porch steps at a camp where the Joad’s stay. This famous scene sums up the Joads’ arduous journey of mishap & death perfectly. This is probably the earliest crossover version of the traditional piece. It was brought on by the picture’s uncredited musical consultant, Woody Guthrie. Later versions by Bill Monroe & then Woody made it even more mainstream. Over 80 different bands have recorded the song, most notably the Grateful Dead who have performed dozens of mind-blowing versions of it. So, if you ain’t gonna be treated this a-way, let’s all get goin’ where those chilly winds don’t blow & watch the trailer to John Ford’s Grapes of Wrath below, then stream it on Netflix! 4 Stars!

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3/8/14: Chicago (2002)

Chicago

“You know, all my life I wanted to have my own act. But noooo, no, no, no! It’s always no. They always turned me down. One big world full of no! And then Cindy came along. Safe, sweet, Cindy, who never says no. Oh, I’ve never done this before, but you know, it is such a special day & you’re such a great group of readers! And, and, I just really feel like I can talk to you, you know? I’m gonna tell you the truth. Not that the truth really matters, but I’m gonna tell you anyway. When ya meet the right girl, yer priorities change. So I decided to get a job – a real job for a real company in a real city. You know, Hell on Earth! Then I met Joe Steps, who said he’d get me into The Insurance Company.” So he hired me. Steps: Funny name for a guy that used to walk all over me, huh? “But that didn’t quite work out like I planned. I guess it didn’t really work out too great for Steps either”, since he was laid off back in ‘96. I outlasted him by 15 years. You see, the insurance industry is staffed mainly with dames. I guess I lasted so long because I’m more in touch with my feminine side. Ya know, I always wanted to be a girl! I could shave my legs nice & smooth and wear those hot outfits like those chicks in that Rob Marshall movie, Chicago. You ever see it? I’d be smart & pretty & sexy! “And ALL…THAT…JAZZ!!”

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Today’s Classic Movie Blog is on Rob Marshall’s 2002 musical, Chicago, won 6 Oscars at the 73rd Academy Awards including Best Picture and was nominated for 7 more. It’s the Roaring 20’s Chicago, and Roxie Hart (Renee Zellweger) will do anything to get into vaudeville, including cheat on her husband, simple & non-descript Amos (John C. Reilly). One night, her lover Fred (Dominic West) took her to a vaudeville show to see Velma Kelly (Catherine Zeta-Jones). He’d been promising to make her a star. Roxie fantasizes that she’s Velma then takes Fred home to her place. After he uses her, he tells her that she has no talent & ends the affair. Roxie puts an end to Fred & is arrested for murder. She meets Velma – who killed her husband & sister when she catches them in bed after her show – on Murderess’ Row. The cell block is run by Mama (Queen Latifah), who takes bribes to get her girls a meeting with “razzle-dazzle” defense attorney Billy Flynn (Richard Gere), who’s never lost a case. The film was adapted from Bob Fosse’s 1975 Broadway play. Fosse’s piece was adapted from Maurine Watkins’ 1926 Broadway play about Buelah Annan & Belva Gaertner, who were both arrested for & acquitted of murder in Spring 1924. Roxie’s character is based on Belva, who killed her lover on 3/11/24 & was arrested the next day.

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Vaudeville began with the late 17th century Paris’ Vaudeville Comedy & was very popular in America from the 1880’s thru the early ‘30’s. The American variety shows were an assemblage unrelated acts including musicians, strippers, comics, singers, dancers, whatever.  The word is likely from the French voix de ville (voice of the city). The high cost of live entertainment compared to the new-fangled talkies during the Depression by killed the genre. Some vaudevillians who made the jump to film: Al Jolson; W.C. Fields; Mae West; the Marx Brothers; Buster Keaton; Charlie Chaplin; and, of course, Laurel & Hardy. For more on vaudevillians in the movies, check out the Sons of the Desert’s monthly The Laurel & Hardy Cinema at the fabulous Vazzy’s in Bridgeport. So watch the trailer below then add Rob Marshall’s homage to vaudeville, Chicago, to your Netflix queue. It will “razzle-dazzle” ya! 4 Stars!

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3/7/14: One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest

Cuckoo

Back before I retired, I was working 55, 60 hours a week. 9-5; 5-5; 5-6; 24/7/365! Whatever it took. Even on vacation, it was 6-9 in the morning, meetings at lunch or over drinks at Chases on the Beach’s Tiki Bar in New Smyrna Beach FL. Life was simple then & I had a lot of free time on my hands. Then came 11/11/11: Retirement day; lucky #11. Ya, right! That’s when everything changed & I had to reinvent myself. Instead of just watching films, I began to introduce them. Later teach film-based cooking classes at Wolcott Adult Ed. That’s where I met Denise Whelan & she turned me on to the OLLI Program at UConn’s Waterbury Campus. So last fall, I presented a Kubrick course there. And now I host films at least twice a  week unless it’s bikini time at Chases. Then I do relax…sorta. But mostly, I’m busier than ever. ‘Relax!’, people tell me. ‘You’re retired. You should be taking it easy.’. “And now they’re telling me I’m crazy over here because I don’t sit at home like a goddamn vegetable! Don’t make a bit of sense to me. I don’t think it’s crazy at all. And I don’t think any of you do either. No man alive could resist the temptation to watch great movies for fun & to quench his intellectual curiosity. And that’s why I got into blogging as well. If that’s what being crazy is, then I’m senseless; out of it; gone-down-the-road! Whacko! But no more, no less, that’s it! Eh, I must be crazy to Blog in a loony bin like this.”

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Anyway, Miloš Forman’s One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s stars Jack Nicholson as renegade Randle ‘Mac’ McMurphy. It’s Oregon, 1963.  The seemingly stable Mac is serving a short prison sentence for the statutory rape of a 15 year old girl when he’s sent to a mental institution for evaluation. The ward is run by the dictatorial, sadistic & manipulative Head Nurse Ratched (Louise Fletcher in her Academy Award-winning role). She keeps her patients under complete control with a combination of mind-control techniques: Humiliation; medication; music & group therapy designed to stress conformity; denial of privileges; and other less pleasant forms of treatment. Her patients include: The stutterer Billy (Brad Dourif); the childlike Cheswick (Sydney Lessick); delusional Martini (Danny DeVito); Harding (William Redfield) is pedantic & paranoid; the vulgar Max Taber (Christopher Lloyd) ; and Chief Bromden (Will Sampson) is a deaf & dumb, native American hulk.

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The picture won 5 Oscars in 1976 at the 48th Academy Awards: Best Picture; Actor; Actress; Director; and Adapted Screenplay (Lawrence Hauben & Bo Goldman). And it was nominated for 4 more Oscars: Supporting Actor (Dourif); Cinematography; Film Editing; and Score. Ken Kesey wrote the novel. It was ground-breaking, and did a great deal to change the way mental health institutions managed their patients. I love the book. It’s mind-blowing! One of my favorites ever. But the film – I like it even more!! Kesey, however, prefers his novel even though he doesn’t have a clue which is better, more important, funnier, stranger…anything! He was one of the most open-minded men of his or any generation, but was so annoyed that the film was written from Mac’s point of view rather than Chief’s, he vowed never to see it. Perhaps his one failure in his 76 years is that he never did. He made the same mistake that so many people do: He compared a book to a movie. But they at least watch the film. You can’t do that! A novel is a project undertaken by one guy or girl, all alone in his or her room in underpants for 2 years. A film is a collaboration of the work of 100’s of people under the supervision of a director. It’s not apples & oranges, it’s apples & orange groves. I know what you’re doing: You’re saying to yourselves, ‘But that’s what you just did!’. It’s not. My opinion is based on scholarly analysis. Compare & Contrast in Your Blue Book, if you will. A deeper dive than, [in Lily Tomlin operator voice] ‘I think the book was better.’. I know. You’re thinkin’, ‘That makes no sense. Get off of the fence. Coming from you, I’d never have guessed.’. Just watch the trailer for Cuckoo’s Nest. Once it’s over, you know what to do: Put it on top of your Netflix queue. 4 Stars!

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