By Alan Hurst
I’ve been conditioned to react with a pang of guilt to anything that veers towards self-indulgence – be it an extra scoop of ice cream, supersizing an order of fries, a seat upgrade on a flight, dinner at a five-star restaurant, or ordering a Criterion Blu-ray of a movie I’ve already purchased in multiple formats. These are all things that aren’t really necessary (hence the guilt) – but they are still a source of varying degrees of pleasure and enjoyment.
The same is true with this list of films – none of them are lasting works of cinematic art or even minor classics but, for whatever reason, I can usually put them on once or twice a year and feel just a little guilty (and defensive) about enjoying them as much as I do. But it doesn’t stop me.
10. Star! (1968)
This was the first flop of Julie Andrews’ career and it was a big one. At that point she was the biggest box office star in the world, coming off a string of major financial and/or critical successes that included Mary Poppins (1964). The Americanization of Emily (1964), The Sound of Music (1966), Hawaii (1966), and Thoroughly Modern Millie (1967). It appeared she could do no wrong. This biography of British musical comedy star Gertrude Lawrence seemed ideal – one of the biggest musical stars of the first part of the century being played by one of the biggest musical stars of the second half. It also reunited Andrews with key members of the production team from The Sound of Music, including director Robert Wise. The same studio (20th Century Fox) was even footing the bill. But in 1968 times were changing and the appetite for musicals was dwindling, as was the audience for Andrews. Despite seven Oscar nominations, Star! was a critical and commercial flop, labelled hopefully old-fashioned, over-produced and Andrews was criticized for being nothing like the sophisticated, brittle real-life character she was playing. But for me this movie has many charms – chief among them are the wide array of production numbers, the wonderful evocation of early 20th century London and, of course, Andrews. If she’s not ideally suited to the acerbic character, she’s still sensational in the many production numbers. As staged by Michael Kidd, very few of the numbers would ever make sense in a real theatre, but there’s no denying the fact that they’re eminently watchable.
9. The Ghost and Mr. Chicken (1966)
This is strictly B-movie fare from Universal. It’s filled with recognizable character actors from film and TV of that era and stars Don Knotts as a would-be reporter trying to do a story about a haunted house on the anniversary of the murder that took place there years before. I was never a huge Don Knotts fan but this, along with his first few seasons as Barney Fife on The Andy Griffith Show (1960-68), show him at his best. As a kid I remember seeing The Ghost and Mr. Chicken on TV and being suitably spooked as the very nervous Knotts as Luther Heggs made his way through the house. The spookiness was augmented by a fun musical theme and score (reminiscent of TV’s The Munsters) and a perfectly captured small-town atmosphere. As an adult, this one is still fun to watch and it was a kick to be able to introduce it to our nephew a few years ago – and he had the same reaction we did as kids.
8. Journey to the Center of the Earth (1959)
A combination of Jules Verne’s prescient storytelling, some truly bizarre art direction, dated special effects, and two-dimensional acting that somehow still holds a fascination for me as few other adventure films of the era did. The title is the story – it’s about a group of disparate people who head to the center of the earth through a volcanic opening in Iceland. On the way they encounter a rival scientist, prehistoric monsters, and a waterfall/shower (enjoyed by a nearly naked Pat Boone) that belongs in a Vegas lobby. The thrill of this one for me is the pure adventure of it all and, as you watch it unfold, trying to process the unrealistic scope of what they’re trying to do. The ending is pure hokum – lying in a ceramic saucer from the underwater city of Atlantis as they’re pushed upward by lava – but it’s still fascinating as an idea. And even more fascinating is the fact they all live to tell the tale – except, of course, for the bad guy. It stars James Mason, Arlene Dahl and Pat Boone.
7. A Stolen Life (1946)
Bette the Good and Bette the Bad. A Stolen Life is one of two times that Bette Davis played twins. This is the better film, but it’s still not very good. The other was Dead Ringer (1964). Here she plays Kate and Pat. Kate is a painter who returns to Cape Cod and falls in love with Bill, a lighthouse worker played by Glenn Ford. Bill falls for the more outgoing and flirtatious Pat and eventually marries her, much to his regret, and the wedding is soon followed by an unrealistic mishap at sea that leads to an inevitable conclusion. The guilty pleasure of this film is the totally unrealistic plot that allows Davis to wildly overplay as both the good and the bad sister. Davis’ career was starting to slide around 1946, but she is certainly still giving her all in this one. Although a little slow at times, for me this is the perfect rainy afternoon movie with a nice east coast feel and enough melodrama to spare.
6. The Ma and Pa Kettle Films (1947-57)
Ma and Pa Kettle (played by Marjorie Main and Percy Kilbride) were introduced as supporting characters in the Fred MacMurray-Claudette Colbert comedy The Egg and I (1947). It told the story of newlyweds moving to the country to raise chickens (think TV’s Green Acres). It was a typical comedy of the day and a top money maker for Universal. What wasn’t typical was the public reaction to the characters of Ma and Pa, a long-time married couple with 15 kids. Ma was always working and trying to keep things together in their ramshackle house while Pa was always trying his best not to work. They literally stole the film from their younger stars (Main even got an Oscar nomination for best supporting actress) and Universal realized they had a potential gold mine on their hands. Very quickly a series of Ma and Pa Kettle movies were in the works and the first one – Ma and Pa Kettle – was released in 1949 to big box office. It was usually one a year following that and their down-home adventures took them to the fair, New York, Hawaii, and the race track. There were battles with city council, in-laws, neighbours, and the government but everything always ended well. There was something very likable about both of these characters, even though the quality of the films (never high to begin with) decreased over the years. I think Marjorie Main is one of the unsung heroes of movies from the thirties through the fifties. She could be crusty, funny, maternal, and tough all at the same time. Seeing her name on the credits at the beginning of any movie was always a good thing.
5. Smokey and the Bandit (1977)
It was the biggest hit of the year, just behind Star Wars. Star Burt Reynolds (Bandit) was the biggest box-office star of the decade. It co-starred Sally Field just as she was beginning her ascent to the top ranks of film actresses. And it featured Jackie Gleason in an outrageously over-the-top performance as the Sherriff pursuing Bandit. But critics hated it. There isn’t a lot of plot here – something about hauling Coors beer over state lines when it was illegal to sell it without a permit east of the Mississippi – and the script has a slapdash quality to it. But what it does have is an unerring sense of fun, some terrific chase sequences and a cast that is clearly having a great time. Burt Reynolds was never sexier or more relaxed than he is here – you can see immediately why Field’s character falls for him (although the 1970’s fit of his tight jeans is a little distracting). Field is adorable and Jerry Reed is fun as Bandit’s sidekick. As for Gleason, while he certainly isn’t subtle, I think it’s one of the best things he ever did on film. If you’re looking for the perfect summer movie, this is it. And try to get the theme song (“Eastbound and Down”) out of your head after you hear it.
4. Reflections in a Golden Eye (1967)
I’ve watched this film multiple times and I can’t for the life of me come to any conclusion as to whether it’s bad or good – but it is fascinating and bizarre. The pedigree both behind and in front of the camera is pretty high calibre. It was directed by John Huston and based on a fine Carson McCullers’ novel. It stars Elizabeth Taylor, Marlon Brando, Brian Keith, Julie Harris and Robert Forster. Brando plays an army major struggling with his attraction to a young soldier (Robert Forster) who likes to go horseback riding in the nude. Taylor plays Brando’s sexually frustrated wife who likes to taunt and humiliate him. She’s also having an affair with Keith’s character. Keith’s wife (Harris) has mutilated herself after the death of her child and is now completely dependent on her effeminate houseboy for companionship. Confused? I guess that’s why the film sticks with me – it’s an addictive mixture of marital woes, repressed sexuality and voyeurism. Visually it has a dreamlike quality and was filmed in saturated gold tones to the point that the color creates an entirely different world. The cast is nothing if not interesting. Brian Keith comes off the best, Julie Harris is frightening in her hysteria, Elizabeth Taylor is a nice combination of kitten and lion in a highly charged performance, and Marlon Brando gives one of his quirkiest performances as the confused and degraded major. The final scene with Huston’s camera panning from Brando to a screaming Taylor to a recently murdered man and back again is as abrupt as it is disturbing.
3. Queen Bee (1955)
This is Joan Crawford looking and acting more like a drag queen than she ever had before. You have to give Crawford credit – she made her career last through multiple incarnations. In the mid-fifties she was riding high with the surprise success of Sudden Fear (1952) and was still getting lead roles after 30 years in the business. Queen Bee is definitely not one of her best films, but the character she plays here is so mean, vindictive and emasculating that it’s one of the great guilty pleasures of the decade. It’s set in the south (again) and Joan plays Eva, a woman who makes life miserable for everyone – her alcoholic husband, her ex-beau, his fiancé, and a visiting cousin. Crawford probably knew the material she was working with wasn’t top notch and that’s why her performance and appearance are as stylized as they are. None of the other characters are remotely likable or sympathetic, which makes Crawford’s performance more interesting – and amusing – as she slowly devours each of them.
2. Valley of the Dolls (1967)
One of the great bad movies of all time. It tries so hard to be current, risqué and explosive that it unintentionally became one of the funniest movies of the sixties. It was based on a trashy Jacqueline Susann novel that became a phenomenal best-seller. It tells the story of three young women who meet in New York – one is a talented singer who becomes a big star (Patty Duke), another becomes a successful model for a cosmetic company (Barbara Parkins) and the third is a beautiful actress but with limited talent (Sharon Tate). All three succumb to heartbreak, addiction and misery. The film has two things that deserve some praise – a beautiful title tune and a nice performance from Sharon Tate as, ironically, the least talented of the trio. Everything else is a complete mess but try to stop watching. Aside from the main theme, the music is inane (“I’ll Plant My Own Tree”???), the costumes are a garish attempt to be “mod” in the extreme, the script is melodramatic to the point of incredulity, and almost every performance is pitched beyond reality. Director Mark Robson doesn’t do any of his cast any favors – but he really does a disservice to Patty Duke as Neely (supposedly based on Judy Garland) and Susan Hayward as the aging star (supposedly based on Ethel Merman). Their performances are horrible, yet they were both very good actresses. Seeing Duke during her character’s downward spiral scream the word “fag” in guttural tones or completely lose it in an alley you wonder what Robson was thinking. And to have Hayward try to rescue her wig from Duke before she flushes it down a toilet is beyond demeaning – let alone having her sing about planting that stupid tree. But Valley of the Dolls is probably the best example of camp you’ll ever see on film and, for something so bad, it’s alarmingly entertaining.
1. Mame (1974)
All cards on the table – I’m a huge fan of Lucille Ball. Always was and always will be. And Mame can be viewed as the ultimate test of a Lucy fan’s devotion. A true fan may acknowledge that the film has flaws, but they will always defend Lucy and her work in this film. A true fan will never admit she was too old for the part (“Why can’t Mame be 60?”), that she can’t sing the score (“OK she’s not Doris Day, but Mame was a smoker and partier – what was she supposed to sound like?”), and that she’s too stiff in the dance sequences (“Phooey, she was 63 when she filmed this and she broke her leg the year before – she moves great.”). A true fan will also blame the director and cinematographer for the way their beloved Lucy was photographed (very soft-focus close-ups). But if we’re being honest, the reason this film remains watchable is precisely the reason it doesn’t work – Lucy. She’s charming in the slapstick sequences, she gets to be glamorous and stylish, a little bitchy and the ultimate “Auntie” that anyone would love to hang out with. But there’s also the fact that – and this is hard to admit – she is about 15 years too old for the part, her two pack-a-day cigarette habit had lowered her voice and limited her vocal range, and she isn’t as agile as she used to be. But try not enjoying Lucy looking beautiful and dancing in the well-staged title tune or Lucy and Beatrice Arthur sniping at each other during “Bosom Buddies”. It’s impossible.
Hooked from a first viewing of Mary Poppins at four and after school reruns of I Love Lucy, Alan has been a movie and TV enthusiast ever since. A particular aficionado of films from the late thirties through the seventies, he enjoys helping others discover the joys of those films, directors and stars. His career has careened from journalism to public relations to marketing, always with one foot in the arts and with a unique ability to relate all work and life experiences back to a movie. Alan’s top five desert island films are Bonnie and Clyde, Sunset Boulevard, Cabaret, Mildred Pierce and, with no apologies, Mary Poppins. Alan’s focus will be on films from Hollywood’s first golden era (and a little beyond) as well as TV.