It’s now time to finally roll out my final 11 favorite (desert island, must-see, go-to; add your own descriptor) movies. From the beginning of the list ( https://roadtowonder.org/2020/11/21/and-now-our-feature-presentation-part-1/ and https://roadtowonder.org/2020/12/12/and-now-our-feature-presentation-pt-2/), I pointed out that this list was in no particular order; however, in this last post of flicks, the movies will be in an ascending order of favored status, culminating in a tie for 1st place. That’s right, I can’t choose between my top two picks, but no worries! I am invoking the magical “It’s my blog, and I can write it the way I see fit” rule.
Without further pontification, here we go!
Mary Poppins (1964)
Walt Disney did not achieve a finer movie than this. All that was once Disney coalesced into this film which was adorned with a superb soundtrack, and that includes many tuneful songs, some of which I still occasionally sing today. I watched this in the back of my parents’ ’64 red & white Rambler station wagon. For my younger readers, you are bereft of the pleasure of having to drive in to a dirt lot, mount a clunky (and heavy) metal speaker on your car’s window, and enjoy your flick with the terrible sound thereby produced, as the images danced before your eyes on the enormous white screen hundreds of feet away (or so it seemed), leading you into realms of fantasy delight.
This was the movie that spun my 8-year-old heart in the direction of wonderment that still enchants me to this day, and was, therefore, the seed from which grew my search for God in my late adolescence. What hath Walt wrought? Imagine that!
Can I make a confession? I had my first crush on Julie Andrews who seemed supernatural in her movement, beguiling in her speech, and left me thoroughly enamored of her. At this point, allow me to give a brief nod to 2018’s Mary Poppins Returns, Emily Blunt’s assaying of the Poppin’s mantle. She outdid herself without casting any shadows on Andrews & Company (how could that happen?). In fact, my wife and I were frequently in tears as we were swept up in a nostalgia ride of the ages. We both agreed the return of Ms. Poppins was a 10. I would be remiss if I didn’t mention Dick Van Dyke’s performance in the sequel – which is what this movie is supposed to be. I won’t spoil it, but he plays his age (the man was 93 when the movie premiered, and, astonishingly, is still going strong today!). Don’t miss it . Back to the original!
Much used to be made of Mr. Van Dyke’s poor cockney accent, but that shouldn’t hinder appreciation; I’m not a linguist, and he was fabulous in this movie as Bert the chimneysweep. The music is unrivalled in its bubbly simplicity and beauty. Can I fail to mention, ‘Supercalifragilisticexpialidocious’, the hilarious nonsense song that, for awhile, confounded millions of school age children and their parents as to how to spell the darned word? Trivia point: For the ensuing school year, I was the only 3rd grader who could actually spell the word (to my knowledge). Thanks, Mary!
Nitpick: Bert must have had a magical harmonica. When he is singing one of his comical songs, a harmonica sound is heard, but you can clearly see he’s not playing it.
If you’ve come this far with me, you already know the degree to which I tend to indulge in superlatives while chatting about my favorite movies (or favorite anything, really!). I see no reason to correct that course, nor do I see it as needing correction, so here we go!
Clue is a near genius level example of ensemble hilarity that never stops during its 94 minute run. It’s a whodunit that is all the more laugh-out-loud funny for its All-Star cast which includes – just to name a few: Lesley Ann Warren, Christopher Lloyd, and in a manic display of dizzying comic panache, Tim Curry. Like all comedy that I find eternally endearing, the jokes in this film never get old. If you’ve played the board game from which this movie is derived (who hasn’t?), you’ll get the gist quickly as to the plot. The misdirections, the zippy one-liners, and the frothy dialogue serve to keep us entranced as we gleefully follow along to discover who did the murder. Actually, there are several of them to solve by movie’s end, but that is where it gets a little more involved. You see, 3 different endings were filmed. If you saw it in the theater, you saw only one. But if you were like me and wore out the VHS, the 3 endings were included at the movie’s conclusion.
The human heart is shot through (excuse the pun) with darkness and deceit. Nowhere is this more zestfully displayed than in Clue.
Nitpick: When the singing telegram girl gets shot, she falls over as if she were passing out rather than falling backwards like she should have. Yes, I am reaching with this one, but there are many more nits in this funny movie. I would be surprise if there weren’t, given all the cast interactions and fast pacing.
The Great Race (1965)
The comedy pairing of Tony Curtis and Jack Lemmon will make another appearance before this list is done, but their work in this movie is nothing short non-stop merriment. And when you add the dazzling girlishness that was Natalie Wood, you have a recipe for an entertaining ride.
And what a ride this film is! Billed as “The Greatest Comedy of all time!” (an arguable point; wait for the rest of this list, for example), it was most certainly the most expensive comedy ever made at the time of its production. Plus, it was based on an actual auto race, “The Great Auto Race of 1908,” which was run from New York City to Paris (the US won).
Mention must be made of Jack Lemmon’s performance. He starred in two roles in the film. As Professor Fate, with Max, his loyal henchman (portrayed by Peter Falk), and as Crown Prince Frederick Hoepnick. Lemmon manages to portray two radically different characters in the same film with astonishing ease. Not an unprecedented thing to do, but still a hallmark of this fun film.
It would have been great to see Curtis and Lemmon pair up again in a movie, but that was not to be. The much vaunted pie fight scene took 5 days to film, and may make you never want pie again. Reportedly, Tony Curtis – who appeared in a white racing suit throughout the film – had to change his costume repeatedly during the scene to maintain the fiction of not ever being hit by a pie.
A nod must also be given to Larry Storch, of F Troop fame, as the infamous Texas Jack. As the racing competitors were staying over in the town of Boracho, an obligatory saloon fight scene erupts. The line bellowed by Texas Pete, “Now can a man get some fightin’ room??!!!” still resounds in my ears as every time he says it he gets decked by yet another punch.
The Great Race will have you laughing and longing for the days when a Hollywood comedy relied on character and story rather than ironic one-liners and scatological references. Now if you’ll excuse me, I’m going to get another slice of pie.
Nitpick: A TV antenna from the Eiffel Tower? Also, what’s with the 50 star US flags at the race’s conclusion?
My Fair Lady (1964)
At this stage in my list, I will point out that 3 of the last 7 movies are musicals, so if any of you seek to avoid any contact with that genre of movie, proceed at your own risk.
My Fair Lady, both this movie and the Broadway play of the same name, are based on George Bernard Shaw’s 1913 book, Pygmalion. In 1983, Peter O’Toole and Margot Kidder starred in a TV movie adaptation of Shaw’s book which I saw. Being derived from the book, it was non-musical and provided me with a vastly different perspective on a hallowed, personal favorite. The ending is much different, therefore, but I won’t spoil it by telling you in case you decide to search it out.
My personal experience with this movie also includes being cast as Prof. Henry Higgins in a community theater production in Grand Rapids, MN in 2010. What I took away from my involvement with that production will remain a part of my store of cherished memories for years to come. I’ll point out that it was terribly challenging to try to not come across as Rex Harrison doing Henry Higgins. Harrison’s speech-singing of the songs became a unique hallmark of his inimitable performance. The seasoned actor was, allegedly, not a passable singer so he did his best with what were – I assure everyone – most intimidating material. The man never shuts up for the whole show! And so, I gave my best effort in what has since become my most rewarding stage role to date.
So much for my personal exposure with the source material. What a charming, evocative movie this is! If movie musicals are your sort of thing at all then you probably adore this show. If not, you might like the volatile chemistry established between Harrison as Prof. Higgins and the ever luminous Audrey Hepburn. Ms. Hepburn, not at all luminous, however, in this role, gives a brassy, sassy performance and, at turns, a coquettish one. I once read a synopsis of the movie where the writer made mention of the surprising fact that Higgins and Ms. Doolittle never physically touch each other for the entire duration of the movie! You now; he’s right. They don’t.
With that in mind, prepare to see a subtly developing romance grow from rank agitation between the two principals to a blooming (sorry for that) ardor by movie’s end. But don’t expect that ardor to be ladled on. This was in the era when character driven movies were king; the intelligence of the audience was respected, and thus the decision to lay it on with a shovel was never made; you had to pay attention and discern the nigh intangible movements of the heart as played out through witty and visceral interaction.
I shall revere this movie for as long as I live. It kinda makes me want to dance, and that, all night.
Nitpick: When Higgins sings, “An Ordinary Man”, he turns on several phonographs. Moments later, he turns off one, and all the sound stops. C’mon, man! You can’t fool me. I was in that thing.
Yes, the exclamation point was, from the beginning, part and parcel of this blockbuster film’s title. A more rambunctious and spacious romp can hardly be found among movie musicals. Originally a Broadway play, premiering on March 31, 1943, Oklahoma! is the kind of musical that gets in your face and your heart real fast. From the opening song, ‘O What a Beautiful Morning’, sung by the incredibly likeable Gordon MacRae, to the eponymous song at the end, this is an entire corn crib of tunes sure to enhance anyone’s shower time. I know this from experience.
I warned you this last and final part of my list would contain more than a few musicals, and I issue that warning (again) with my tongue firmly placed in my cheek, for there is nothing that will set the house on the street where I live (Oops! Mixing my musical references!) more on fire than a few rousing renditions of ‘People Will Say We’re In Love.’
Richard Rodgers & Oscar Hammerstein, one of the best music writing teams ever, scored big with Oklahoma!, their first Broadway collaboration. In fact, every song was an organic part of the storyline – the first Broadway musical in which that was the case. For my money, there are no other songs in a musical where there exists the perfect marriage of music and melody.
This was Shirley Jone’s feature film debut, and she exudes wagon loads of bucolic charm and exuberance as Laurie, a young girl on the horns of a romantic dilemma: Does she choose Jud, the rough hewn and earthbound farmhand, or Curly, the handsome, singing cowboy who sings on key and whose teeth gleam white into the night? Actually, the romantic hijinx which ensue in this film mirror the conflict between the farmers and the cowboys, both groups vying for land in this new territory, primed for Statehood. Rod Steiger, as Jud, provides all the gravitas you would want in a musical where Cupid is firing more arrows than on Valentine’s Day. There is more than a little darkness hovering just at the edge of the proceedings with Jud’s dark, obsessive lust for Laurie barely under wraps. That, and after watching, you’ll never look at – or into – a kaleidoscope the same way again.
Giddyup, pardner and set yerself down for a genuine hootennanny! Watch this show! But be careful! After seeing it, people might say you’ve fallen in love.
Nitpick: They must have had a house moving party in-between busting sod and broncos because in the opening shots, Aunt Eller’s house is on flat ground with no trees around. At the end, it’s up on a hill surrounded by trees. Aunt Eller was played by the inimitable Charlotte Greenwood. Everyone should have an aunt like Aunt Eller, and that’s no nitpick!
The Sound of Music (1965)
You are part of the dizzying aerial shots of the Alps as slowly you descend to the hillside where the French Horns begin to intone the music for this immortal movie. And then she sings with a crystalline purity that is at once so unearthly and, yet, so accessible, as if she were a longtime friend. You know all this, unless you are one of the poor, unfortunates who have never seen The Sound of Music. Julie Andrews, as Maria Von Trapp, is preternaturally graceful throughout, even in the scenes where she is brought back to earth through circumstance.
Barely hovering above the schmaltzy , some still say the producers weren’t entirely successful in this regard , this movie still delivers plenty of genuine emotional impact 55+ years after its release. The last Rodgers and Hammerstein collaboration before the latter’s death in 1960, SOM (Sound of Music, ’cause I’m lazy), bears the composers’ marks of insightful, psychological lyrical weight and tunefulness. What else would you expect of a Musical?
Set around 1938 in Salzburg, Austria during the time leading up to WWII, the central story revolves around Maria, a governess and former novice from the Nonnberg Abbey near Salzburg, who finds employment in the house of Captain Georg Von Trapp and his 7 children. The cinematography is gorgeous, and the costumes are meticulous, even the children’s outdoor clothes made from the family draperies(!)
Christopher Plummer remains one of my favorite actors, and though he was loathe to be in this picture at the time, I read that he had long since reconciled with what has become an institution and happily recalls his involvement. His role in this provides a counterweight to the adorable lunacy of Ms. Andrews, and when he does come around to seeing things the way they should be, in the film, it’s always a glorious and heartwarming thing to witness. His rendition of ‘Edelweiss’, though dubbed, is a showstopper for me. It’s a good thing to see a dad coming out of himself and being what he knew he could be to his kids (and to his soon-to-be-wife).
The character of Max Detwiler – played with a barely concealed deliciousness, by Richard Haydn, has one of the greatest lines ever delivered in a movie: “I like rich people. I like the way they live. I like the way I live when I’m with them.” I couldn’t have said it better, myself.
This movie has achieved a spot in my heart that continually tutors me in the small and simple things in life, and in all ways, both musical and otherwise. Perhaps it’s best summed up by the disarmingly simple song, “Do-Re-Mi”: Once you know the notes to sing, you can sing most anything! And so I have.
Nitpick: SPECIAL CATHOLIC NITPICK – During the wedding of Maria to the Captain, Max approaches the altar and genuflects on his left knee instead of his right. Tsk, tsk, Max!
Some Like It Hot (1959)
I actually found a Public Domain image for this movie! For a comedy that has been called “the best comedy of all time, and the only drag movie that works”, this film fires on all cylinders from start to finish. Oh, ok; the scenes where Joe (Tony Curtis) and Sugar (Marilyn Monroe) engage in some farcical romantic romp (pictured above) gets a tad longish, but otherwise, all is well. Tony does an able Cary Grant impression, as Oil Executive Shell Junior, too.
The reason this works so well for me is that this movie never takes itself too seriously. We’re all in on the gag; there’s no moment when we’re bidden to take the proceedings for anything other than what they are: 2 desperate guys, witnesses to what became known as the St. Valentine’s Day Massacre, donning women’s’ clothes and joining an all-women band, escaping to Florida until it all dies down (before they do). Underneath what’s going on we see some of the honest yearning for acceptance; the longing for real love that we all experience. This is especially revealed in the character of Sugar, who is basically Marilyn, herself, onscreen. It’s kind of a meta-performance, if you will, by her.
If I haven’t mentioned it yet – and I may have – I like it when directors choose to film in B&W. It lends a gravitas and clarity to what’s going on, even when there’s plenty of shenanigans happening, as in this film. I did say we’d meet up with Curtis & Lemmon again in my list. They had such a natural chemistry between them, and it makes for accessible comedy, which was what they did best together.
In this most perfect of comedies, the way it ends is one for the ages: On a speedboat out of Miami, there are 4 people, Jerry (Daphne) and Sugar; Joe (Geraldine) and Osgood. Osgood Fielding – a tycoon – has been shamelessly wooing Joe (Josephine), but now, all bets are off! Osgood wants children with his new paramour. Josephine resists, saying she can’t have children. When Osgood blithely says, “We’ll adopt”, Joe angrily rips off his wig, saying, “I’m a man!” Without missing a beat, Osgood intones, “Oh well, nobody’s perfect.” Cue the dumbfounded look by Geraldine. High comedy hilarity at its best!
Nitpick: On the beach in Miami, mountains can be seen in the background. There aren’t any mountains in Florida.
O Brother, Where Art Thou? (2000)
The second Coen Brothers’ offering in my list ( see https://roadtowonder.org/2020/12/12/and-now-our-feature-presentation-pt-2/, for the other one); this movie contains some of the most laugh-out-loud moments in film. And for your listening pleasure, it boasts a soundtrack culled from the finest in Deep South Americana which became even more lauded than the movie, awarded to the hilt, if you’re into that sort of music, and I am.
Loosely based on Homer’s Odyssey, this is a tale of three escaped convicts who are trying to find some buried treasure. Essentially, Everett (George Clooney), the de facto leader of the trio, is Odysseus. Over the course of the film, as they make their way through 1930s Mississippi, getting waylaid by ‘sirens’, who are 3 ladies at a creek who spontaneously decide to seduce our heroes, and falling prey to the predations of a ‘cyclops’ – a huckster Bible salesman, played adroitly by John Goodman. There are many other signs and symbols in this flick, but see if you can pick them out yourself. Supposedly, the Coen’s had never read Homer’s epic but knew of it through cultural references. I do recommend it, of course. The Robert Fagles translation is achingly beautiful, and for under $13, you can’t go wrong: https://www.amazon.com/Odyssey-Homer/dp/0140268863/ref=asc_df_0140268863/?tag=hyprod-20&linkCode=df0&hvadid=312014159271&hvpos=&hvnetw=g&hvrand=9208886413008910665&hvpone=&hvptwo=&hvqmt=&hvdev=c&hvdvcmdl=&hvlocint=&hvlocphy=9010653&hvtargid=pla-434692293322&psc=1.
There’s so much great acting in this one! George Clooney is one of the premier actors of our time; he can do it all, drama, action, and as a comedic performer, he sells it and we buy it. Tim Blake Nelson as Delmar, one of the three cons, was the only one in the movie who had actually read the Odyssey, being a Classics grad from Brown University. You’d never know it here. He hams it up like nobody’s business, and of the three is probably the most kindhearted. John Turturro, one of my picks for all-time greatest character actor, is Pete, who gets captured at one point and utters one of the movie’s best lines: “Do not seek the treasure,” whispered in a theater as he is chained to guards. His wide-eyed earnestness as he says this is only part of how vested he had to be in his role.
This is the least violent of the Coen brothers’ movies, but don’t let that stop you if you haven’t seen it. Of course, if you haven’t, you were probably born under a rock somewhere in Mississippi, just shy of creek where Delmar got baptized.
Nitpick: 2 things: The guys at the picnic with the ‘Cyclops’ are all drinking Bud, but the labels are clearly modern. Also, at the rally, the woman is playing a Martin guitar with gold sealed tuners. Those were not around until the 60s. Ok, all of you, do not pass Go, do not collect $200, and get yerselves on the chain gang!
The Wizard of Oz (1939)
Wow! It’s hard to find an accessible image of anything pertaining to this movie! However, the search was ended when my wife the super sleuth suggested I look on the Smithsonian’s website and voilà!
After 81+ years, this movie still ranks in the top ten of many ‘Best of’ lists. As you can see, it’s number 3 for me. In the years of my youth, this movie was served up yearly, and you can bet I was planted squarely in front of the tube (yes, it really was a tube in those days). That was before a person could stream virtually anything they wanted 24/7. But the rarity of its appearance made it all the more precious. Somewhere, there’s a lesson in there.
Of course, you can’t talk about the Wizard of Oz without also mentioning the magnificent song, Over The Rainbow. Even before she is swept away by the tornado, Dorothy is already miles away as she sings this song from her Kansas farm home. In fact, you might say her own yearning carried her away, and the tornado was only a cinematic prop. Hmmm, a prop as a prop. Now that’s some meta-reflection for you! Years since, Dorothy’s yearning for a better life has been covered by artists from all over the musical spectrum; from Jewel to Willie Nelson.
Isn’t the story of this movie – from the books by L. Frank Baum – essentially a reworking of Homer’s Odyssey? I flagellated that poor, dead horse in my last entry, I know, but it’s true! Some stories are so seminal to our understanding of life that they are deeply embedded in the collective psyche of our world. That’s another way of pointing out archetypes, but that’s another post, and I’m straying here.
This film touches the childlike part of us. I think that’s one of the reasons it’s a perennial favorite. Beyond the colorful costumes, the fantastic special effects (remember, this is 1939!), and the inimitable characters, there is a profound enchantment at work here, and it’s the beginning of a romance of the soul. Did Dorothy really go to the magical land of Oz? Or was it a dream, occasioned by her falling in the barnyard, and getting knocked unconscious? Do we need to make a distinction here? I don’t think so. Her desire is real; therefore, all else that transpires serves to usher us into the realm of her desire – a heart’s thirst for flight, for wonder, and for a bigger life.
Let your inner munchkin out soon, and put this movie on. You’ll never look at your Kansas the same way ever again.
Nitpick: At the end of “The Merry Old Land of Oz”, all the munchkins are laughing but miraculously, they’re still singing. Must be the water.
Field Of Dreams (1989)
We are standing on holy ground here, so tread softly, but keep those cleats on. There is no number 2 in this list as my last two picks share the top spot, and they both have baseball as their central mise en scène. Another thing the top two film s share is the fact that I am not particularly enamored of the lead actors as actors. In other words, Kevin Costner, who plays Ray Kinsella, the man who builds a baseball field in the middle of his corn after hearing voices directing him to do it, is not a top shelf actor. But it doesn’t matter. You’ll read all about the other guy in the next and last entry.
This is a fully entertaining story, though, and there’s plenty of generous touches of fantasy. I mean, when you consider that the ghosts of baseball greats come back and play in Ray’s field, and that they are only seen by “true believers” is more than a momentary effect; it’s the whole movie! But the soul-stirring, central piece in it all is the return of Ray’s dad to that field, and the reunion of father and son, even if only for a temporary time. Every time I get to that scene, which is at the very end of the movie, my heart just bursts with tears. It is the elemental wound – the absence of the father, and the consequent longing for that father – that gives this movie its emotional and spiritual center. More than a dream, this movie gives us a truth: we all need a spiritual connection, and the most deeply personal ones are those from within our family.
I don’t think this movie could be made today. That’s a subjective statement, but there doesn’t appear to be a proper understanding of the pivotal and irreplaceable role fathers must play in their family’s life, particularly their sons’ lives. This is all the more poignant for me in light of last year’s familial revelations (see: https://roadtowonder.org/2020/09/13/in-my-fathers-house/. and https://roadtowonder.org/2020/10/10/afterglow/).
I’ll never look at Iowa the same way again: https://www.google.com/maps/place/Field+of+Dreams+Movie+Siteemail@example.com,-91.0353469,14z/data=!4m5!3m4!1s0x0:0xc7f292cb89e201ed!8m2!3d42.4976182!4d-91.0542824.
See how much this film impacted the imaginations of the viewers? It’s nearly a shrine in its separateness, and has to be good for tourism, even more than 30 years after the film debuted.
And I’ll always want one more game of catch with my dad. The importance of that image cannot be underestimated, and the desire for its reification is only one man’s reach for the Infinite. And you don’t have to be a dad to play catch with your sons or your daughters. But don’t wait for the voice in your head to get you moving in that direction.
Nitpick: The town of Chisholm, MN has its name misspelled as “Chisolm.” Also, Shoeless Joe is portrayed by Ray Liotta in a wholly wrong-headed way. Joe Jackson was born and played ball in the area where I live, Greenville, SC, and would have had the Upstate drawl. Instead, in the movie, he sounds like he just flew in from Brooklyn! And, contrary to the way he is depicted in the movie, Doc Graham batted left-handed. Strike 3!!! Yer out!!!
The Natural (1984)
Here we are – the summit of my cinematic peak, anyway. And, as I said, the lead actor – in this case, Robert Redford – doesn’t do much for me; never has. But he makes it all work, and in the service of this film, he’s outstanding. A great story can and often does carry everyone along. Need I point out we have yet another reworking of the Odyssey? Too bad Homer’s not around; he could sue for copyright infringement!
Roy Hobbs is a baseball phenom; anything he wants to do, as sportswriter Max Mercy points out, he does. Roy’s rise to fame, however, is preempted by his very own “Circe”, AKA, Harriet Bird, who invited him up to her place only to shoot him. The story of this film is Roy’s struggle to regain his ‘Natural’ status. How he does it, well, I’ll let you see, those who haven’t. For those who have, you’ll agree there are plenty of noteworthy quotes to be had. A couple to serve my point:
“They come and they go, Hobbs; they come and they go.” – Max Mercy, apparently, trying to instill in Hobbs the acceptance of the transitory nature of life and fame.
“Roy, you know what I believe? I believe we have two lives; the life we learn with, and the life we live after that.” – Roy’s childhood sweetheart, Iris Gaines, who says this as she visits his bedside in the hospital as he ponders the possibility of playing the in the Championship game despite having incurred a life threatening stomach ailment.
This film should speak to anyone who knows the pain if having had a dream forestalled or ripped away for you. It’s a perennial challenge to not lie down and give up; to stretch yourself, and to believe in that angel we all have beside us, though we are often not aware. Ironically, in the Bernard Malamud 1952 novel of the same name from which this movie springs, Roy winds up in a far different position than in this movie. You decide which is the better ending.
Nitpick: Roy uses a 3 slot payphone to call Iris. Those weren’t around until the 50s.
And that’s it. I hope I’ve helped you discover some gems for further viewing and, along the way, given you a fresh take on some of the movies you’ve already seen. Perhaps I’ll do a music version of this someday, but that’s a ways down the road. Most of all, I want you to be instilled with that sense of wonder that we all have felt when we walk out of theater (remember those?), looking up, and not wanting the movie to end. May your life be such a film, full of twists and turns, to be sure, but along the path, glimmers of light and an apotheosis at the end. Stay tuned!