My non-West Coast friends may not be aware that, for the past several years, the Golden State has been stricken by drought. This has meant day after day of beach weather, shorts and sandals, rising air toxicity, dead lawns, and alarming produce prices at the market. But now, we Californians are taking heart (with some trepidation), for the weather phenomenon El Nino is just offshore, brewing something special for us later this year. We face potential months of torrential rain, replenished reservoirs, snow-packed ski resorts, flooding and fatalities.
Sounds like the perfect time to throw on a robe and slippers, brew a pot of tea or heat up a pudding, grab a blanket and the cat, and watch a movie.
Ah, but what should you watch while the storm is raging? As the raindrops beat against your window, this is the time to seek out your comfort films, those movies that you turn to time and again for a sense of peace and contentment. Everyone’s list is different: maybe you discovered your comfort films during childhood, an illness or a particularly stressful time. Or they may be films that, for some reason, mesh so well with your own sense of the way a story should be told, or the way the world should exist that, as the credits roll on the screen at the end of each viewing, you feel a renewed sense of completeness that repeated viewings never diminish.
I found most of my comfort films on TV in the days when film studios opened their vaults to stations in need of Saturday afternoon and late night programming. I also went to a lot of movies as a kid and amassed quite a list of films that still give me a visceral thrill whenever I watch them.
And so, as a public service, I would like to offer six films – three today, three tomorrow – that are drawn from my own comfort bank for rainy day viewing. This is an eclectic list. None of these films were blockbusters, and I cannot promise that you will find yourselves in sync with these films in the same way I am. But I can promise you that there is much to like in each of these films, and that, if you haven’t heard of them, you would be well served to give them a shot. Here they are in alphabetical order:
THE BROWNING VERSION (1951, directed by Anthony Asquith, adapted from the 1948 play by Terence Rattigan)
I suppose I should have guessed I would end up a teacher merely from the fact that I have always been drawn to films about them. I try and watch To Sir, With Love at the end of every school year to remind myself why I chose to work with those often infuriating beings called high school students. Films about teachers are divided into two categories: Really Good Films That Inspire You and Really Ridiculous Films That Get It All Wrong. Sadly, for every Dead Poet’s Society, you have six films like Dangerous Minds, where one difficult class is enough to inspire teacher Michelle Pfeiffer to and send her to the local bar for a soothing cocktail. (What happened to 2nd period?) Pfeiffer solves her problem coming to school the next day dressed in leather and teaching rock songs as poetry. Voila! The kids are cured! Yeah, right.
The Browning Version is an A-list teacher movie, both subtle and lovely. The main character, Andrew Crocker-Harris, is no hero. Most of his students despise their ancient public school Classics master, his wife is cheating on him with one of his closest colleagues on the faculty, and he is frankly fed up with the whole business. The film quietly depicts the last days of this man’s job, focusing on his bitterness as the culmination of a long and fruitless career.
This is what it can mean to be a career teacher: we enter this low-paying profession because of how school inspired us, or because we have such passion for a subject that we long to share our passion with young people and inspire them to carry on with their knowledge. The day-to-day bureaucracy and student apathy wear a teacher down, and the rare and powerful moments of connection a teacher makes with students can sometimes be so subtle that they are easily missed.
That one student calls attention to Crocker-Harris’ effect on him in a way that leads to the teacher’s redemption is so beautifully and naturally rendered that I choke up every time I watch it. And after observing a man lose nearly every shred of dignity for over an hour, the final act of watching him get his own back is incredibly satisfying and beautifully acted by Michael Redgrave and a brilliant English cast.
This clip comes near the climax, so I would advise you to watch it only if you have seen the film before:
GOLD DIGGERS OF 1933 (1933, directed and choreographed by Busby Berkeley)
Frankly, I’d suggest a full day of Busby Berkeley films to ride out the storm. Start with 42ND STREET, move onto this one, and finish with the brilliant FOOTLIGHT PARADE! These three films form an ode to the genius of Busby Berkeley, the extraordinary choreographer who used the camera as an ally to shape his mammoth dance numbers that featured complex geometric formations by thousands of very scantily clad chorines. All three films feature Ruby Keeler, whose heavy-footed tap dancing style and squeaky New Yawk singing voice were unparalleled, and Dick Powell, the golden-throated tenor with a wisecracking air.
GOLD DIGGERS is arguably the best of the three, in that its witty book is the least clichéd of the “let’s put on a Broadway show” sagas that were old hat by the 30’s, in its sensational score, and most of all in its cast of Warner Brothers staple thespians. Besides Keeler and Powell, we find Ginger Rogers, Joan Blondell, and Aline MacMahon as the gold-digging chorines of the title, Guy Kibbee and Ned Sparks, and Sterling Holloway, whose faces you will recognize even if you do not know their names, and Warren William, an aging leading man who is all but forgotten today, as the nemesis of joy who is transformed by love.
There are only five numbers in the show, but in the hands of Berkeley, they are more than enough. The film opens with that classic of the Depression, “We’re In the Money,” featuring Ginger Rogers (before she really got big!) singing Pig Latin! Another production number for Rogers, “I’ve Got to Sing a Torch Song,” was filmed, cut, and then given to Dick Powell as a solo for his struggling songwriter slash secret millionaire character to sing.
The final three production numbers span the breadth of what Berkeley could accomplish when he wanted. “Pettin’ in the Park” pushes all the boundaries of Pre-Production Code Hollywood. Check out Billy Barty, famous little person but here still a child, as a horny baby, or the rainstorm that sends all the women to their park dressing room to disrobe (in semi-discreet, highly suggestive silhouette).
Move to “The Shadow Waltz,” a gloriously romantic song of love crooned expertly by Powell as hundreds of platinum blondes play their electric violins and make shapes for the camera.
Then climax with “My Forgotten Man,” Berkeley’s most political number ever and a powerfully dark expose of how returning soldiers were treated after World War I. It is one of Berkeley’s best numbers ever!
GREEN FOR DANGER (1946, directed by Sidney Gilliat, adapted from the novel by Christianna Brand)
Another British film, and let’s face it – early British cinema does radiate a sense of coziness and provides a stable of actors who are just unfamiliar enough to most viewers that the power of their portrayals isn’t lessened by the glamor of stardom.
As my friends at the Golden Age Detection group on Facebook can attest, I have a lifelong love for classic murder mysteries. In the 1930’s and 40’s, the mystery was a very hot genre, with many series featuring beloved detectives (Charlie Chan, The Thin Man, Philo Vance) along with a number of excellent stand alone mysteries to enjoy. And of course there were dozens – no, hundreds – of formulaic detective stories and “Old House” mysteries that were definitely ranked as “B” or even “C” films, but many of which were delightful fun. (Check out Universal Studio’s Inner Sanctum Mystery series – all six films are collected and available on DVD.)
Green For Danger often finds itself on the top ten lists of murder mystery fans, and it deserves every accolade it receives. It is a fine adaptation of a great novel. It is neatly filmed by Gilliat, with a few scenes that are masterpieces of suspense as well as with a nice blend of humor and horror. Best of all, it really works as a whodunit, a genre that usually falls flat on the movie screen. Alastair Sim shines as Inspector Cockrill, an outwardly comical detective assigned to find out which of the doctors and nurses in a wartime operating room killed the mailman who had just been brought in as a victim of a German blitz.
The film, like the book, does a great job of showing English citizens pitching in during World War II and trying to stave off a sense of hopelessness. Each suspect is fully realized, sympathetic, and worthy of suspicion. One red herring after another is deliciously thrown at the viewer, fooling most of us, and despite the humor that Sim brings to the role, the final confrontation with the killer is genuinely surprising and equally moving.
This movie is so good that, even knowing the killer’s identity as I do, I still can get a thrill as the investigation unfolds, leading inexorably to the satisfying unmasking of a double killer. And I have to single out the filming of the second murder: it’s an object lesson in how to use a camera to generate suspense.
There’s a sampling of three of my favorite comfort films. I’ll share three more tomorrow, and I eagerly hope that you will offer up your favorites to me! The rain is a’comin’!
One thought on “THE EL NINO SCREENING ROOM – PART ONE: Comfort Films for the Approaching Storm”
Nice idea for a post, Brad, and I like your choices! You gotta love Busby Berkeley…and GREEN FOR DANGER is really a terrific film. Looking forward to seeing what your other 3 choices are in the follow-up post!