Film Notes: Summer Stock and others

Lately our evening TV has trended toward checking the movie channels around 8pm (after watching the TV game shows Jeopardy and Wheel of Fortune, the former my favorite and the latter Y’s) to see what’s on. We subscribe to a set of HBO channels and a set of Starz channels and TCM, Turner Classic Movies. Usually I’m enough of a purist to see movies only from the beginning, and then watch them to the very end, all the way through the credits, as I always do in theaters. Recently I’ve become more relaxed on the first point, especially for movies I hadn’t been motivated to see when they came out.

(Yet I was fascinated to read an article somewhere recently about how common it was for families in the 1950s to show up at the theater in the middle of the movie, then stay for the next showing until they got to the point where they walked in, and then leave the theater. This strikes me as barbaric. Yet it happened to me once: when my father took me to see 2001 for a second time, back there in Glen Ellyn in late 1968, he got home from work late and so we didn’t get to the movie on time. So we watched the movie as we arrived, I think during the Blue Danube space waltz scenes, and then stayed for the next showing…and so left the theater during the Blue Danube space waltz scenes.

There’s also the point that in those days the theater managers didn’t clear the theaters between showings. You could sit there and watch the movie again and again, without paying more than once. My pals at the time and I did this with Star Wars, in 1977, at the Chinese Theater in Hollywood. We stood in line to get in, and once seated, stayed for two showings. [And then I didn’t bother to watch it again for… 40 years. I thought it was simplistic, juvenile, comic book sci-fi.])

So for example, recently,

  • We saw the last hour of “Cats,” the recent film version of that musical that was ridiculed for its weirdly anthropomorphic cat costumes. I’ve never seen the musical, but of course I know of it. Sub-points:
    • I didn’t know that the grand finale song, “Memory,” is about an aged cat about to go off to cat-heaven, the “heavy-side layer.”
    • I also thought that song was entirely an invention of the musical’s composers, but Wikipedia advises it was based on an Eliot poem not included in Old Possum’s Book of Practical Cats.
    • There have been at least two times in my life when, the first time I heard a song, it so arrested my attention that I knew I was listening to a future classic. The first was hearing “Memory”, IIFC while visiting my parents in Tullahoma around 1979 or 1980, seeing it on TV. The second was hearing Nirvana’s “Smells Like Teen Spirit” on the car radio, driving home from work. Those chord progressions.
  • We saw the last hour of “Titanic” and I was enraged when, as soon as the credits began, Starz moved the image into a box in the corner in order to play a commercial or two, with their own sound. I wanted to hear the song! (Which I know many people hate, presumably from overexposure, but I actually quite like it.)
  • We saw most of “Sense and Sensibility,” the 1995 Ang Lee/Emma Thompson adaptation of the Jane Austen novel. Austen wrote what could now be considered super-high-end soap operas, though informed by English class consciousness. I never remember the details of her stories. This one, in Emma Thompson’s screenplay and Ang Lee’s direction, builds to an amazing emotional release I wasn’t expecting.
  • We saw the original “True Grit” a while back, with John Wayne, who won an Oscar for the performance, in the typical award win for a perennial candidate who hadn’t won it for anything else. He was OK, quite good in some scenes, but so was Kim Darby, who wasn’t nominated for anything.
  • Others recently: “Blackboard Jungle,” a 1950s message movie about juvenile delinquency, with a young Sidney Poitier (a movie I’d never previously seen); the last half of “Field of Dreams” (which I saw when it came out); almost all of “Mrs. Doubtfire” (which we’ve both watched a couple times before); most of the Elton John biopic “Rocket Man” (never seen til now); some of “Crash” and some of “La La Land” (both seen on release), and so on.
  • And earlier: the animated “The Lion King,” which I’d never seen before. Some of “Doubt” and “A Simple Plan” which Y didn’t like. The “Psycho” remake (the original a film I can watch over and over, as with many Hitchcock films). Most of “The Remains of the Day” (another film I can watch over and over). “Michael Clayton.” “A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood.” That’s back to June.

And last night, perhaps most significantly — a 1950s musical called “Summer Stock,” with Judy Garland and Gene Kelly. It’s pretty good —

And so my thought was, that for every classic movie (or novel), there are 5 or 10 others, on similar themes or with similar actors or by the same writer, that are nearly as good (or perhaps just as good or better depending on your personal criteria) but that are not as well-remembered as that classic.

In “Summer Stock” Gene Kelly’s and Judy Garland’s acting and singing is as good as in any other movie. So why is this film not as well-remembered as, say, “A Star Is Born” or “Singin’ in the Rain”? Perhaps the story, rather more cliched here, or the score, which is mostly just OK yet which has one classic song — “Get Happy”. Gene Kelly does a brilliant dance number in which he improvises a routine from a squeaky floorboard, and a loose rug.

So my thought is that a too tight focus on lists of “all time best” movies or novels or whatever might lead you to miss those many others nearly as good ones. And I’m going to apply this lesson to my own currently in-work project.

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