Life in the Slow Lane

June 26, 2008

More black and white movies

Filed under: Movies — pauljlane @ 4:32 pm

The Wizard of OzMy column in Night & Day this week highlighted some of my favorite black and white movies (the column appears below). Here are a couple more that did not make the list.

• “American History X” This film is not a classic like the others on the list are, but this 1998 tale of racist brothers uses black and white as a story-telling technique as the film flips between present day and flashbacks. The action is brutal in its realism, the drama is gripping and Edward Norton and Edward Furlong gave great performances as the brothers.

• “The Wizard of Oz” Another film that uses black and white for effect, anyone who doesn’t know this story and why it belongs on this list needs to go to Blockbuster. Go on, now …

• Disney classics: Do yourself a favor and find the old Mickey Mouse, Donald Duck and other cartoons Walt Disney made in his early days. They’re nothing spectacular in terms of animation, but yo just can’t help but enjoy their innocence and historical significance.

• “Young Frankenstein” This 1974 Mel Brooks comedy is shot in black and white and is a parody of early monster movies. Gene Wilder is brilliant, Marty Feldman is brilliant and Brooks’ writing is brilliant in conveying subtle humor and jokes you almost miss.

• “Night of the Living Dead” The original 1968 George Romero zombie film didn’t hit you over the head with horror. Rather, it used mood, music and the occasional glimpse of the undead’s carnage to frighten you. This film may not hold the attention of soe younger watchers, but it’s how horror should be done.

Note: I have never seen “It’s a Wonderful Life,” “Psycho,” “Schindler’s List” or “Raging Bull” otherwise they’d probably be here, too.

Here is the original column.

•••

My generation has a problem with perception that needs to be corrected.
Ask your nearest twentysomething about “It’s a Wonderful Life” or “Casablanca,” and you will see their nose curl up and lips sneer in disgust.
“Isn’t that movie black and white?” they’ll likely snarl. “I hate old movies.”
How, in this day and age, can we still discriminate against a film based solely on the color of its celluloid skin?
People who dismiss a classic film just because it lacks hue does themselves a disservice. There are plenty of gems that were made — gasp! — before they figured out how to add the colors of the rainbow.
Some of these films will be on display this summer at North Tonawanda’s Riviera Theatre, which will host a series of classic movies (turn to page XX for the story).
Just like, now, there were some stinkers made back in the day (the mind-numbing ”Gone with the Wind,” for example, might just be the most overrated movie ever). But a lot of good came from those times, as well.
Following are five of my favorite classic black-and-white films and why I’d recommend people check them out (there might be a few spoilers mixed in, so be aware of that).
• “MR. SMITH GOES TO WASHINGTON” This 1939 film may have been idealistic, but that innocence is what made it so enjoyable.
James Stewart starred as Jefferson Smith, a local youth leader who’s appointed to fill out the term of a deceased senator. Smith is taken under the wing of a corrupt colleague who uses his naivety to betray him, setting Smith up to take the fall for a crooked land purchase in his state. Smith launches into an extended filibuster to delay the Senate’s vote to expel him, and in the process his colleague has a change of heart.
Democracy might not operate this way in real life, but the film presents how it should be in theory. Stewart gave the first of many great performances in this film, as his country bumpkin matures before the viewer’s eyes and becomes a public servant in the most pure sense of the word.
• “TO KILL A MOCKINGBIRD” This 1962 adaptation of the Harper Lee novel was so compelling that Gregory Peck’s Atticus Finch was named the greatest hero of American film by the American Film Institute.
Peck stars as a lawyer in the segregated South who’s called upon to defend a black man accused of assaulting a white girl. Overcoming attacks on himself and his children, Finch does the right thing in giving his client the best possible defense, despite facing a jury — and town — that already made up its mind.
Finch is what every father should be — strong, supportive and willing to do what’s morally right because he knows his children are watching. Peck did a spectacular job portraying the lawyer, and seeing his daughter Scout (Mary Badham) run around in a giant ham costume is good for a few laughs.
• “THE GRAPES OF WRATH” Another literary translation, this 1940 film tells of an Oklahoma family that moves to California in a desperate attempt to find work.
Henry Fonda stars as Tom Joad, an ex-con who discovers that the family farm has become a victim of drought. He reunites with his family and heads to California, where the hope is to find migrant work — only there are thousands of people already there in the same situation. After encountering discrimination from locals and various other abuses, Joad vows to fight for social justice and becomes an activist.
The movie deviates from the equally great novel, but both do a good job of evoking emotion from a family’s struggle to survive. There was not a bad performance throughout the film, and although the setting is outdated the central theme is still relevant now.
• “CITIZEN KANE” Orson Welles made his directorial debut in this 1941 film, named the best American film of all-time twice by the AFI.
Welles portrays media magnate Charles Foster Kane, who passes away at the start of the film with the dying word “Rosebud.” A reporter (William Alland) is charged with documenting Kane’s life and finding the meaning of that word, and the magnate’s story is told mainly through flashbacks (a new story-telling method at that time). He chronicles Kane’s past, his start as a newspaper man and rise to power, including an attempt at the governor’s seat in New York state.
What he can’t find out is what Rosebud means — but viewers do at the end.
The story’s main theme — that money and power don’t mean happiness — always has been and always will be true. More so, though, it’s the method in which that message is conveyed that’s so moving.
• “12 ANGRY MEN” The concept is surprisingly simple: 12 nameless men are in a jury room for pretty much the duration of the film, and all they do is talk.
To borrow from Occam’s razor, however, it’s most often the simplest things that are correct.
Fonda is among the ensemble cast of this 1957 film, which is based on the play of the same name and tells of one juror who tries to convince his peers of the suspect’s innocence despite seemingly overwhelming evidence to the contrary. The entire film revolves around their debate, with each juror bringing their own viewpoint (and prejudice) to the discussion.
In a film this simplistic, the drama has to — and does — carry the production. No explosions, no fancy props, just engaging dialogue. This is a perfect example of how filmmaking should be done.
An honorable mention goes to any of the “Three Stooges” short films. Are they stupid? Absolutely. Are they still funny today? Undoubtedly, you knucklehead.
Contact editor Paul Laneat 693-1000, ext. 116,or lanep@gnnewspaper.com.

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