Merry New Year! Trading Places (1983)

This post is part of the Happy New Year Blogathon, hosted by Steve at MovieMovieBlogBlog. Ring in the new year with the rest of the posts HERE!

A riff on Mark Twain’s The Prince and the Pauper, Trading Places is one of the great buddy comedies of the 1980s.

Louis Winthorpe III (Aykroyd), a young, rich snot-head who trades commodities, has an uber-preppy fiancé (Kristin Holby) and a butler named Coleman (Denholm Elliot) who secretly despises the rich people he works for.

In truth, Coleman works for Randolph (Ralph Bellamy) and Mortimer (Don Ameche) Duke, Louis’ bosses. The Dukes are the kind of awful rich people who mess with people just for the hell of it, and they decide to wager what would happen if Louis and a street hustler name Billy Ray Valentine (Eddie Murphy) traded places. They conspire with Coleman and a shady character named Beeks (Paul Gleason) to make the switcheroo happen.

Framed for theft and drug-dealing, Louis’ downfall is swift. He ends up crashing with a prostitute (of the gold-hearted variety, natch) improbably named Ophelia (Jaimie Lee Curtis). Meanwhile, Billy Ray begins to feel pride of ownership in his new home and shows himself adept at commodity trading. When the two finally figure out it’s the Dukes behind the switch, they team up to exact revenge.

The story takes place during the holiday season in Philadelphia. The opening is one of my favorites in film, with a montage of people getting ready for a new day in the varied ethnic neighborhoods of the city. While it’s in many ways a loving view of the city, it also shows the schism between rich and poor (including homeless people sleeping outside during the winter) and emphasizes the limited sphere of Louis’ life. He’s ripe for a fall. Watching that fall is both horrifying and hilarious.

With Ophelia and Coleman (who is forgiven for his part in the plot awfully fast, I think) Louis and Billy Ray plan to ruin the Dukes financially by stealing inside information from Beeks. Aboard a train on New Year’s Eve, they wear absurd disguises that wouldn’t fool a child (i.e. Louis in absurd, not to mention offensive, blackface and Ophelia in lederhosen with a terrible Swedish accent).

On the train there’s a New Year’s Eve costume party in progress. (Do these parties happen on Amtrak trains as a general rule? I’ve no idea, though the one time I traveled by Amtrak I did happen on a car full of people drinking scotch from gallon bottles at 10 o’clock in the morning, so I’m guessing Amtrak is used a lot for parties, impromptu or otherwise.)

One especially exuberant party attendee (Jim Belushi) in a gorilla costume becomes a critical player in the action. When Beeks figures out what’s going on, he hustles the costumed quartet through the train at gun point. Ending up in a storage area with a live caged gorilla (don’t ask) said gorilla is at first entranced by the Belushi character appearing in costume and then becomes violent when Beeks conks him on the head.

O.K., Beeks is portrayed as a genuinely awful person, but I’m not sure he is deserving of his fate of being taped up in the gorilla costume and caged with the real (and very randy) gorilla.

Be that as it may, it’s the final section of the film that after more than 30 years of repeat viewings is still not totally clear to me. Louis and Billy Ray arrive at the commodities exchange to make certain the Dukes lose all their money while enriching themselves (and Ophelia and Coleman). It has something to do with buying low and selling high, and fooling the Dukes into doing it the opposite way.

Bellamy and Ameche (who was in the midst of a career comeback during the 80s) are stupendous as the odious Duke brothers. One could even see them as a prediction of the rise of another pair of odious super-rich brothers. Aykroyd and Murphy, who have little to do with each other until two thirds of the way into the film, make a terrific pair once the characters team up. Curtis brings her special edge to a basically cliched role, and Elliott is perfect as the butler who thinks his employers are scumbags.

Like many comedies of the 1980s, Trading Places is concerned with big business and big money. While the main characters end up fabulously wealthy, the villains are consigned to the agonies and humiliations of the poor.

In fact, I can’t think of anything more 1980s than heroes vanquishing rich a-holes and repairing to the Caribbean to become, well, rich a-holes.


The “It Takes a Thief” Blogathon – Final Wrap-Up!

First, I want to extend my warmest thanks to all who participated in the “It Takes a Thief” Blogathon. SO many great posts, and quite a few about films I’ve never seen–some I’ve never heard of! WOW! My viewing list has expanded a lot the last few days.

Go HERE for a complete list of posts with links.

Please check out these posts that did not make it into the daily recaps:

Cinematic Scribblings writes about Jerzy Skolimowski’s eccentric car-crazy protagonist in Le Départ.

Top 10 Film List pays tribute to one of noirs most manipulative femme fatales in a review of Criss-Cross.

Outspoken and Freckled believes the 1999 remake of The Thomas Crown Affair has the sexual tension the original lacked.

Thanks again to all! That’s a wrap!

“It Takes a Thief” Blogathon – Day 3 Recap

Day 3 of our blogathon brings even more theft and mayhem!

Critica Retro writes about William Powell’s perfect counterpart to his Nick Charles persona in The Thin Man–The Robber in the pre-code film Jewel Robbery.

4 Star Films enjoys the unexpected levity in The Big Steal, the film that paired Robert Mitchum and Jane Greer again after their success with Out of the Past.

Pure Entertainment Preservation Society examines the bittersweet romance between a thief and an honest man in Remember the Night.

Thoughts All Sorts is engrossed by the slower pace of the heist movie Man on a Ledge.

Movierob is fascinated by the art of lifting wallets depicted in Robert Besson’s French New Wave film, Pickpocket.

Moon in Gemini finds the satire of upwardly-mobile Americans willing to steal to maintain their lifestyle prescient in Fun with Dick and Jane.

Random Pictures loves the mash-up of classic noir and 1970s-style filmmaking in Payback.

Bloggers: if you post late, no worries! I will do a round-up post of any last-minute entries in a day or two.

Thanks so much to everyone who participated!

“It Takes a Thief Bogathon”: Fun with Dick and Jane (1977)

This post is part of the “It Takes a Thief” Blogathon, hosted by ME. Read the rest of the criminally good posts in this event HERE!

Crooks in classic films generally split into a couple of categories: either professional criminals, or people driven by desperate circumstances to commit crimes. There’s another subset where characters steal to get revenge.

Fun with Dick and Jane is a little bit different. Taking place during the recession of the late 1970s, it involves middle-class people who could probably chug along well enough until an economic uptick, but instead resort to crime to maintain their upwardly-mobile lifestyle.

Dick Harper (George Segal) is an aerospace executive who is stunned when his boss Charlie Blanchard (Ed McMahon) fires him. He and his wife Jane (Jane Fonda) at first think this is a mild blip in their lives, and forge ahead with building a pool in their backyard while planning very minor economies to their lifestyle.

Reality soon hits when Dick finds it difficult to get another job right away. Caught working for money under the table, Dick loses his unemployment. Pleas to Jane’s parents for a loan fall on deaf ears. Jane gets a low-paying job but they still need food stamps and the electricity is soon turned off. Desperate, they apply for a high-interest loan.

Gosh, this sounds like the making of a tragedy, doesn’t it? It’s far from it, though. Up to this point, the film is a razor-sharp satire of American middle class life and expectations. Dick is so clueless his Latino co-worker, who he barely spoke to at work, has to show him how to navigate the world unemployed. Their maid rolls her eyes when she overhears them blithely dismiss their situation. While having a meeting at home with a potential employer, a vendor they haven’t paid shows up with a bullhorn and insists on confiscating all their household plants, screaming “Deadbeat!”

While they are applying for the loan, the film takes a quick turn. Thieves show up to rob the loan company. When they run away from the cops, Jane manages to grab two thousand dollars of the stolen money. Rationalizing that the loan company has insurance, they keep it.

When that money is gone, Dick plans to commit a holdup. Jane insists on accompanying him. After several missteps, they successfully rip off an X-rated motel. Giddy with their success, they begin to regularly commit stick-ups. Soon their confiscated lawn and pool are restored and they are throwing big parties. All this spending leads them to plan one big score by robbing Dick’s former boss Charlie.

The film got mixed reviews when it first opened, but with the hindsight of the last 40 years of history, it seems close to prescient. It predicts the 1980s ruthless mentality in pursuit of money. (This is brought home most clearly in a scene where Jane throws money out of the car to stop pursuers and causes a riot which is reminiscent of the final scenes of the 1980s comedy Ruthless People.) It’s also possible to see it as a prototype for TV series like Breaking Bad and Weeds. Dick and Jane don’t commit crime so they can survive—they do it so they won’t look bad in front of the neighbors.

Segal and Fonda are terrific—they show both the love and frustration married people have with each other through clever banter usually reserved for romcoms. Some might complain that the movie makes their characters too likable, and that’s fair. But lets be honest, crime committed in the name of maintaining the American Dream is secretly admired by some. There are those who expect poor people to remain poor, and despise their situation because they assume it is one of their own making. Dick and Jane’s pseudo-poverty, on the other hand, is discomfiting.

The robbery scenes—both the failed and successful ones—are hilarious, especially when Dick tries to hold up a drug store and the pharmacist misunderstands what he wants. Another stand-out scene is when Jane tries to get a loan out of her parents, and all she gets is a lecture on self-reliance. Assuring Jane if they come through this without help they will be set for life, her mother declares as she leaves, “I’m so happy for you!”

One wonders if her parents would be proud of the way Dick and Jane relied on themselves to remain affluent members of the middle class.

The “It Takes a Thief” Blogathon – Day 2 Recap

Day 2 of the “It Takes a Thief” Blogathon has yielded even more heinous activity by various thieves and other miscreants:

Film Noir Archive finds director Michael Mann established his archetypal lead character in his debut film Thief.

A Shroud of Thoughts gives a detailed overview of one of the most popular British TV series of the 1960s, The Saint.

Destroy All Fanboys enjoys the light tone of Jules Dassin’s caper film Topkapi.

Realweegiemidget Reviews was charmed by the Scottish film The Angels’ Share, about a group serving community payback who decide to steal some rare whiskey.

Liz Durano pays tribute to The Usual Suspects‘ ensemble cast and great twist ending.

Sometimes They Go to Eleven reviews one of the classic “thieves fall out” films, 1968’s The Split.

Love Letters to Old Hollywood contrasts and compares Dirty Rotten Scoundrels to the film it was based on, the rarely-seen Bedtime Story.

LA Explorer delights in the twists and turns in the plot of the Cary Grant/Audrey Hepburn film, Charade.

The Midnite Drive-In is not that surprised to discover the two early films versions of The Maltese Falcon can’t compare to the John Huston/Humphrey Bogart classic.

Please join us tomorrow for Day 3!

The “It Takes a Thief” Blogathon – Day 1 Recap

Day 1 of the It Takes a Thief Blogathon and we already have a wealth of great posts!

MovieMovieBlogBlog declares that Woody Allen steals the show in his first feature film Take the Money and Run.

Silver Screenings takes a vacation with Cary Grant in her review of Alfred Hitchcock’s To Catch a Thief.

The Story Enthusiast credits Ernst Lubitsch with introducing the suave international thief in his film Trouble in Paradise.

The INCspotlight covers Michael Crichton’s adaptation of his own novel, The Great Train Robbery.

Sat in Your Lap believes the cult film Twilight’s Last Gleaming is one of the hidden gems of the 1970s.

CineMaven’s Essays From the Couch falls hard for Jean Gabin while viewing the French caper film Touchez Pas au Grisbi.

Midnite Drive-In reveals a preference for George Sanders out of the three actors who played Batman’s Mr. Freeze in the 1960s television series.

The Stop Button considers The Friends of Eddie Coyle a good but flawed film.

Caftan Woman conveys how You and Me is an unusual blend of romance, melodrama, and crime story.

Totally Filmi reviews Sapthamashree Thaskaraha (Seven Good Thieves), a Malayalam film about a group of men who meet in prison and plan a heist.

Movies Silently takes advantage of a rare opportunity to view and review 1928’s Alias Jimmy Valentine.

Wide Screen World finds Tom Hanks miscast in the lead role of Road to Perdition but otherwise likes this adaptation of the graphic novel.

Join us tomorrow for more thievery and other kinds of mayhem!

The “It Take a Thief” Blogathon is Here!

The “It Takes a Thief” Blogathon has arrived!


When your post goes live, leave the URL for your post in the comments section here or under the original announcement post. You may also send it to me via Twitter. My handle is @DebbieVee.

I will do daily recaps, but will also collect all the URLs in this post as they come in. You may link your post to this one so people who read yours can find the other posts.

Remember, you may post any day during the blogathon: Friday, November 17 – Sunday, November 19. If you’re running a little late, no problem! I will do an update on any posts that come in later than Sunday.

Looking forward to a great event!


MovieMovieBlogBlog: Take the Money and Run

Silver Screenings: To Catch a Thief

The Story Enthusiast: Trouble in Paradise

The INCspotlight: The Great Train Robbery (1979)

Sat in Your Lap: Twilight’s Last Gleaming

CineMaven’s Essays From the Couch: Touchez Pas au Grisbi

Midnite Drive-In: Batman’s Mr. Freeze, All three film adaptations of Hammett’s The Maltese Falcon

The Stop Button: The Friends of Eddie Coyle

Caftan Woman: You and Me

Totally Filmi: Sapthamashree Thaskaraha “Seven Good Thieves”

Movies Silently: Alias Jimmy Valentine

Wide Screen World: Road to Perdition

Film Noir Archive: Thief (1981)

A Shroud of Thoughts: The Saint (1963 – 1969)

Destroy All Fanboys!: Topkapi

Realweegiemidget Reviews: The Angels’ Share

Liz Durano: The Usual Suspects

Sometimes They Go to Eleven: The Split

Love Letters to Old Hollywood: Dirty Rotten Scoundrels

LA Explorer: Charade

Critica Retro: Jewel Robbery

4 Star Films: The Big Steal

Pure Entertainment Preservation Society: Remember the Night

Thoughts All Sorts: Man on a Ledge

Movierob: Pickpocket

Moon in Gemini: Fun with Dick and Jane (1977)

Random Pictures: Payback

Cinematic Scribblings: Le Départ

Top 10 Film List: Criss-Cross

Outspoken & Freckled: The Thomas Crown Affair


Then & Now Blogathon: The Magnificent Seven (2016)

This post is part of the Then & Now Blogathon, hosted by Realweegiemidget Reviews and Thoughts All Sorts. Read the rest of the posts in this event HERE!

Also read my “Then” post for this blogathon HERE!

It seems like every day there’s another announcement out of Hollywood that a classic film is being remade. 99.9% of the time, I’m totally uninterested in the resulting films.

However, when it was announced that there would be a remake of The Magnificent Seven with a diverse cast and African-American director Antoine Fuqua helming, I became very excited.

As much as I love classic Westerns, there’s no getting around the fact that most of them erased the diversity of the frontier. About a quarter to a third of working cowboys in the West were African-American. Many more were Mexican and Native American. People from literally every corner of the globe went to the American West seeking a new life.

This erasure in films has slowly been changing since about the 1970s, but the few Westerns made nowadays are still overwhelmingly focused on white characters.

So much so that some reviews of the 2016 film expressed doubt that an African-American man could be a lawman, yet they did exist historically. (Ironically, I also read a review of the original film that expressed skepticism about someone like Yul Brynner existing in the West—even though his ancestry is mostly European. Go figure.)

The most famous African-American Western lawman is probably Sam Bass. I suspect that the character of Sam Chisolm, played by Denzel Washington, is based on him somewhat.

This version of The Magnificent Seven is similar to the original, but diverges from it in some key aspects. Instead of a Mexican village terrorized by bandits, it is a mining town called Rose Creek that is being taken over by a robber baron named Bartholomew Bogue (Peter Sarsgaard). Intent on owning all the land and its gold, Bogue tells the residents to take twenty dollars each for their farms and vacate, or face the consequences. Then he torches their church and guns down several people who object.

One of the victims is Matthew Cullen (Matt Bomer). His widow Emma (Haley Bennett) sets out with another resident, Teddy (Luke Grimes), to find men who will help them defeat Bogue. They encounter U.S. Marshall Sam Chisolm and plead for his help. He refuses until he learns that their enemy is Bogue.

He gathers a group of gunmen, including gambler Joshua Faraday (Chris Pratt), former Confederate soldier Goodnight Robicheaux (Ethan Hawke) and his partner and knife expert Billy Rocks (Byung-hun Lee), mountain man Jack Horne (Vincent D’Onofrio), and Mexican outlaw Vasquez (Manuel Garcia-Rulfo). They meet up with Comanche warrior Red Harvest (Martin Sensmeier), who rounds out the group.

So how does this version compare to the original? Well, mostly, it doesn’t. That doesn’t mean it’s a bad film—I found it a solid, entertaining Western for the most part. I enjoyed the performances immensely (heck, I could watch Denzel in a Western all the live-long day, every day). It was refreshing to see a woman driving the plot in a Western, too.

Unfortunately, the characters simply lack the depth of those in the original. Mainly because this version forgoes what drove them in the first place: their own irrelevance in a rapidly changing West. Instead, it substitutes a rote revenge plot. (Chisolm has a personal grudge against Bogue, of course.) Giving at least the lead character an actual reason to defeat the villain changes the story profoundly, and not in a good way. Bogue is such a stereotypical baddie, he’s almost silly at times. Calvera was a much more complex villain in the original, who was able to manipulate some of the townspeople to support him.

But like I said, as a straight-up, shoot-em-up, the film is highly enjoyable.

The film does make ONE major misstep I find almost unforgiveable:

They close out the credits with Elmer Bernstein’s iconic theme music from the original.

Dudes. Don’t remind people that a better version of your film exists.

Then & Now Blogathon: The Magnificent Seven (1960)

This post is part of the Then & Now Blogathon, hosted by Realweegiemidget Reviews and Thoughts All Sorts. Read the rest of the posts in this event HERE!

Also read my “Now” post for this blogathon HERE!

I’m a sucker for Westerns. It has been one of my favorite genres since I was a small child. When my niece and nephew were little, I tried to impart my love of classic movies to them (mostly successfully, I’m happy to report). When my nephew was 10 years old, I showed him one of my very favorite Westerns, the 1960 version of The Magnificent Seven.

As we watched it, I was a little concerned that my nephew would find it boring. Though I wouldn’t categorize it as a cerebral Western, it has long stretches without action and focuses more on the characters than the shoot-em-ups.

The minute it was over, he begged me to show it to him again.

Based on the Akira Kurosawa film Seven Samurai, The Magnificent Seven has a deceptively simple plot: poor farmers who live in a small Mexican village are terrorized every year by a gang of bandits who take most of their food and supplies. Desperate to keep the bandits out, they decide to gather everything of value they own and use the money for hired guns.

I say “deceptively” because there is a lot more going on in this film than a simple revenge plot. When three of the farmers arrive at a border town, they witness an unusual tableau. An undertaker is refusing to hold a funeral paid for by some passing salesman. It’s because the dead man is Native American, and the town refuses to allow him a burial in Boot Hill.

Two professional gunmen, Chris Adams (Yul Brenner) and Vin Tanner (Steve McQueen) defy the threats by the townspeople and drive the hearse to Boot Hill. The farmers are so impressed they ask Chris to help them drive out the bandits.

Both Chris and Vin have seen better days but still balk at the proposition. The story is set at a point in the West’s history when civilization (and its laws—not to mention prejudices) are taking hold. The need for gunmen is rapidly declining. They are almost walking anachronisms and keenly aware of it.

They eventually agree to help the farmers and cobble together a team of six men (James Coburn, Charles Bronson, Robert Vaughn, Brad Dexter) including themselves. A young hot-head (Horst Buchholz) persists in following them and is eventually permitted to join the group.

In the village, they teach the residents to fight against the bandit Calvera (Eli Wallach) and his men. Against their will, the men begin to care about what happens to the villagers and the town. They face their own fears and what they have missed in life because of the path they have chosen. They realize that bravery isn’t always facing down an opponent with a gun, and gain a deep respect for the famers.

For this blogathon I will also review the 2016 remake of The Magnificent Seven, which boasts are more diverse cast of main characters. Here’s the interesting thing, though: the original actually has more to say about racism than the remake. Chris and Vin risk their lives so a Native American they didn’t even know can get a decent burial. This incident gives rise to one of the best lines of dialogue in the movie:

“Well I’ll be damned. I never knew you had to be anything but a corpse to get into Boot Hill. How long’s this been going on?”

“Since the town got civilized.”

Unlike most classic Westerns, the non-white characters are essential to the story and portrayed as complex human beings. (Except for Wallach, Buchholz, and Vladimir Sokoloff, who plays the village elder, most of the Mexican characters are played by Mexican or Mexican-American actors. I even recognized a couple of the Mexican actors from my days of watching telenovelas.)

What I’ve always found most appealing about Westerns is the theme of community (represented by the village here) and also the theme of reinvention/clean slate. The gunmen are becoming outmoded, yet find they have a final chance to recast themselves as true heroes. Given the opportunity to abandon the villagers to their fate, they risk everything to drive the bandits out for good. Even they aren’t quite sure why they do it. Nor do they see themselves as winners in the fight.

When the film first came out it was mostly reviled as a pale attempt to remake Seven Samurai. (Kurosawa disagreed, and presented director John Sturges with a samurai sword in appreciation.) As the years have gone on, it has risen in estimation as a thoughtful film with both rousing action and memorable characters.

It’s no wonder my nephew was so anxious to see it again.

Reminder: the “It Takes a Thief” Blogathon Starts Soon!

There’s still plenty of time to sign up for the “It Takes a Thief” Blogathon! It begins Friday, November 17 and runs through Sunday, November 19.

If you want to join in, leave a comment here or under the original post, or contact me on Twitter (my handle is @DebbieVee).

Looking forward to reading your posts on thievery in film!

Food in Film Blogathon: Eat Drink Man Woman (1994)

This post is part of the Food in Film Blogathon, hosted by Speakeasy and Silver Screenings. Please read the rest of the delicious posts HERE!

I grew up near Main Street in Flushing, Queens, which today is considered New York City’s second Chinatown. You can find authentic Chinese (as well as Japanese, Korean, Vietnamese, etc.) cuisine in the many restaurants up and down Main Street and its side streets. You can also get the Americanized dishes found at most Asian restaurants in this country. If you’re not of Asian descent, the wait staff will likely present you with their Americanized menu.

We had a friend from Hong Kong who would meet up with us on Main Street and order the most amazing meals from the authentic cuisine menus—heck, they were really banquets. The food was made with incredibly fresh ingredients. One time, at a nearby table, we witnessed the staff bring out a ginormous live crab for the guests to inspect and approve one-by-one before it was cooked.

Memories of these meals is one reason I adore Ang Lee’s film, Eat Drink Man Woman. Mr. Chu (Sihung Lung) is considered the greatest chef in Taipei, Taiwan. Every Sunday, he cooks by himself an elaborate banquet for his three grown daughters. Everything is made from scratch. He even uses chickens he raises in his own backyard (this is the middle of a big city). The presentation of the food is meticulous. Just watching him cook and seeing the results make my mouth water every time I watch the movie.

His three daughters, on the other hand, see the Sunday meal as a trial. All still live at home with their widowed father—Jia-Jen (Kuei-Mei Yang), who is a school teacher and a born-again Christian, Jia-Chien (Chien-Lien Wu), a successful airline executive, and Jia-Ning (Yu-Wen Wang), a student who works at, of all things, a Wendy’s restaurant.

While the food looks sumptuous, the daughters usually complain that it tastes a little off. Mr. Chu has lost his sense of taste as he has aged, and relies on his friend Old Wen (Jui Wang) to make certain the food passes muster at the restaurant where he works.

At each meal depicted in the film, someone at the table makes a life-changing announcement that reverberates through the family.

Like Ang Lee’s previous film The Wedding Banquet (which also featured Sihung Lung, as well as a couple of other actors in this film) the main theme is the evolution from tradition to modernity in the Chinese family. No one in the Chu family wants to sit through these meals (I want to cry when I see how much is left unconsumed), and it seems Mr. Chu doesn’t want much to make them, either. But it’s a tradition, and one that won’t end unless the family scatters.

It’s tradition that keeps his daughters—all of whom chafe to leave and find their own lives—tied to their father. They assume one of them at least will be tasked with taking care of him until he dies. Even though they all live in the same house and eat at the same table, they could be four strangers, with their own secrets and plans and dreams the others are unaware of until one makes an announcement at the Sunday meal.

The film focuses mainly on the middle daughter, Jia-Chien, who seems the most likely to make her own life. As good a cook as her father, she resents that he insisted she finish her studies instead of becoming a chef. Her attempts to escape from her father’s house are met with disaster—she loses all her savings when she buys an apartment in a building that turns out to be on top of a toxic waste dump. Her romantic life is also a disaster. Her relationship with her elder sister is very cold. When she sees her father at the hospital having some tests, she assumes his desire to retire from the restaurant has to do with poor health and she must resign herself to taking care of him.

The meals that the daughters dread so much turn out to change the lives of each of them in profound ways. Fate and other factors intervene to change the paths they have set out for themselves.

There’s something a little sad about the way this family slowly relinquishes tradition and obligation as it catches up with the times. But there’s also joy and humor as each main character finds their place in life.

It’s a lovely film. Just make sure you’re not hungry when you watch it.

The Joan Fontaine Centenary Blogathon: Born to Be Bad

This post is part of the Joan Fontaine Centenary Blogathon, hosted by In the Good Old Days of Classic Hollywood and The Wonderful World of Cinema. Read the rest of the posts in this event HERE!

Back in the early 1980s, I worked as a cashier at a movie theater on New York City’s Upper West Side. It showed mainly foreign and independent films, and sometimes reissues of older films. It was very common for famous people to come to the theater to watch films.

I will never forget the day Joan Fontaine came to the theater.

She came very early for the film she wanted to see, my boss informed me, because she wanted to be seated first and not cause a commotion when she entered the theater.

The theater was not officially opened yet, so she waited by the ticket booth while my boss and the ushers rushed around to open everything early to accommodate her.

Being a New Yorker, I usually pretended not to recognize famous people because that was considered totally uncool and Un-New Yorker-like.

I couldn’t help it. While trying to act totally nonchalant, I kept sneaking what I hoped were discreet looks at her.

She had to be in her 60s at this point, but I had never seen a more beautiful, elegant woman. She was coiffed and dressed like many wealthy women who lived on Upper East Side—hair styled in a sleek bun, wearing a lovely fur (this was before real furs were a no-no). Her skin was smooth and clear. She looked much younger than her age. She smiled patiently as if it was no big deal a famous star was being left to cool her heels outside a theater.

I had seen many famous people, as I said, but never anyone who screamed “STAR” the way she did.

When choosing which film to write about for this blogathon, I immediately alighted on Born to Be Bad, because it is so atypical of most of her roles.

Based on a book called All Kneeling by Anne Parrish, the film was directed by Nicholas Ray. It is also an atypical film for Nicholas Ray, and for that reason it is often erroneously categorized as a film noir. It is in no way a film noir. It fits much more in the melodrama category.

Fontaine portrays Cristabel, an ambitious and scheming young woman who steals her cousin’s (Joan Leslie) wealthy fiancée (Zachary Scott) even though she is having a passionate affair with a rugged author (Robert Ryan).

Cristabel is an interesting villain because her scheming is of the passive-aggressive variety. Like a spider sitting on someone’s shoulder, she gently poisons everyone without most realizing what she’s doing. Here is where Fontaine’s particular kind of beauty enhances the role: she looks so darn INNOCENT. Yet she is a huge ball of malevolence.

Her cousin Donna works as Cristabel’s uncle’s assistant and agrees to let Cristabel live with her while she goes to business school. (Which, in my opinion, is one hell of an imposition on an employee.) Donna has an eclectic circle of friends, including her very wealthy fiancée Curtis, her artist friend Gobby (Mel Ferrer), and her author friend Nick, who she is helping to get published.

The only one who sees through Cristabel right away is Gobby, who paints her portrait though her boyfriend objects he makes her look like Lucrezia Borgia. (Gobby is clearly coded as gay–he convinces husbands he’s “harmless”–and gets some of the best lines in the movie.) The other men, even Cristabel’s uncle, are her pawns who believe everything she says.

When Cristabel manipulates Curtis into asking Donna to renounce any right to his fortune, Donna finally gets what’s going on and breaks off with Curtis. Cristabel and Curtis marry soon after, causing Nick to run away to India (but not before giving her the “you’ll never get me out of your blood” speech).

Though Curtis is besotted with Cristabel, it’s obvious right away that she can’t stand him. She uses lots of excuses to be out of his company. When Nick returns, she tries to resume their relationship without promising to leave Curtis.

Her schemes finally catch up with her. While claiming she doesn’t want anything from Curtis, she takes a huge armful of furs when she leaves him.

This film is delightful to watch just because Fontaine is playing something so out of her wheelhouse. The cast is very strong, and the film has the added benefit of Ray’s stylized direction.

Unfortunately, the film was made during Howard Hughes tenure at RKO. As he often did, he insisted on rewrites and reshoots. Ray was incensed when he took away his right to the final cut.

Even so, over time the reputation of Born to Be Bad has improved, when it was dismissed as a soapy women’s picture during its initial release. I know I enjoy it immensely every time I watch it, especially when I contrast the deliciously villainous Cristabel with the elegant woman waiting to get into a movie theater all those years ago.


Spencer Tracy & Katharine Hepburn Blogathon: Father of the Bride (1950)

This post is part of the Spencer Tracy & Katharine Hepburn Blogathon, hosted by In the Good Old Days of Classic Hollywood. Read the rest of the posts in this event HERE!

Film lovers talk a lot about what makes a classic film. One element often mentioned is the film still feels relevant even decades after it was made.

I contend Father of the Bride, starring Spencer Tracy and Elizabeth Taylor, is one of those films.

Unless you were rich, weddings were usually modest affairs pre-World War II. With the rising middle class, that changed profoundly. Suddenly, many people who would have previously had small church or city hall weddings were putting on big catered affairs.

My mom and dad were married during the 1950s and both wanted a small wedding. My mother proposed my grandfather give them the money he was going to spend on the wedding.

My grandfather gave them a choice: “Have a big wedding, or your mother and I will use the money to take a trip to Paris.”

They had the big wedding.

My grandfather was a little unusual, in that he had saved for years to give my mother (their only child) a big wedding. Most fathers were (and still are) appalled by how much money goes into what is basically a four-hour party.

Enter Stanley Banks (Spencer Tracy) who is not only appalled his beloved 19-year-old daughter Kay (Elizabeth Taylor) is engaged, he’s even more upset that his wife Ellie (Joan Bennett) insists they give her a “nice” wedding.

At every turn, he tries to keep the costs of the wedding down, and at every turn he is thwarted. Insisting the house is “good enough” for a wedding, he is stunned when the wedding list grows to over 250 people, which will require tenting in the yard and other expensive modifications to the house.

What’s funniest to me is how Stanley is the only one who thinks this is ridiculous. Everyone else acts as if the extravagance is completely normal.

Hands down my favorite part of the movie is when he digs up an old suit in the attic and is certain he can still fit into it. This makes me howl every time I watch it because it reminds me of my dad (who did not want my sister to have a big wedding, just like Stanley).

My mother insisted he buy a new suit.

“I have a suit.”

“What suit?”

He went to his closet and returned with a powder-blue leisure suit, circa The Six Million Dollar Man era.


“Why not? It’s fine. I’m not spending money on a new suit.”

I intervened and suggested he wear his tuxedo, since it was an evening wedding.

My mother, not at all mollified: “That tuxedo is really old, it’s probably out of style, too!”

We were watching a taped episode of a soap opera and a character on screen was wearing a tuxedo. I ran to the closet and took out the tuxedo jacket, holding it up to the TV.

“See, see? The lapels are exactly the same. It’s almost identical!”

Crisis averted. He wore the tuxedo.

Father of the Bride captures perfectly the constant underlying hysteria that goes into making a wedding happen. At one point Stanley and Kay are having a midnight snack because they can’t sleep. Kay confesses she is worried about getting married. Stanley mistakenly thinks she’s nervous about the wedding night and tries to reassure her. (Which I think it very sweet and a bit unusual for a 1950s movie—especially since it’s a conversation between a father and daughter.)

She says it’s way sillier than that: she’s having nightmares about the wedding going wrong. Stanley, who is also having nightmares about the exact same thing, realizes that he’s not alone in his fears of disaster.

Father of the Bride may not be considered a masterpiece of cinema, but there are so many things about it that still resonate today. We’re still so obsessed with weddings there are tons of TV reality shows devoted to the subject.

The film may not be considered one of Spencer Tracy’s greatest performance, but I love Stanley and how he has such a hard time letting Kay go. You don’t see a whole lot of strong father/daughter stories on film. This is one of my favorites.

Hollywood’s Hispanic Heritage Blogathon: Juana Inés (2016)

This post is part of the Hollywood’s Hispanic Heritage Blogathon, hosted by Aurora at Once Upon a Screen. Read the rest of the posts in this event HERE!

“She was warned. She was given an explanation. Nevertheless, she persisted.”

This now-famous quote by Senator Mitch McConnell, which was meant to demean Senator Elizabeth Warren, is a perfect way to describe many of the great women in history, and certainly describes the subject of the 2016 Mexican TV miniseries, Juana Inés.

Based on the life of Sor Juana Inés de la Cruz (née Juana Inés de Asbaje y Ramírez de Santillana), the seven part miniseries concerns one of the greatest poets of the Baroque era. Born in New Spain (Mexico) during the 17th Century, she was illegitimate, but nevertheless had an uncle influential enough to get her a place at the Spanish viceroy’s court, where she soon became a favorite of the viceroy and his wife. Still in her teens, she was already a poet and remarkably well-educated for a woman of her time and place. She could read and write Latin and Greek, as well the language used by the Aztecs, Nahuatl. It’s even more remarkable when one considers she was almost entirely self-taught.

When the viceroy’s daughter needs a new tutor, Juana Inés applies for the position (she was only 17 at the time). In an attempt to humiliate her, she is forced to undergo an examination by some of the greatest intellectual and religious minds in the country.

Reader, she passes with flying colors.

Unfortunately, her illegitimate status makes it impossible for her to marry well. Instead, she enters a convent. She finds the Carmelite order too confining and leaves. Eventually she finds a sponsor who is willing to pay her dowry to enter the richer (and less strict) order of Hieronymite nuns, where she stays with until her death. She writes voluminously and collects an impressive library, as well as corresponds with some of the greatest minds of the age, including Isaac Newton.

However, both her fame and intelligence gain her enemies within the Catholic Church (remember, the Spanish Inquisition still exists). She is finally forced to swear she will give up her writing and library. After her death from the plague at the age of 43, it is discovered she never stopped writing and had hidden many of her books.

Juana Inés not only wrote religious poetry, but also love poetry. She had a passionate relationship with another viceroy’s wife, María Luisa Manrique de Lara y Gonzaga, who became her patron after she returned to Spain and helped spread her fame throughout Europe and the New World.

The Mexican television series Juana Inés is a sumptuous production that does justice to the life of this fascinating woman. Arantza Ruiz plays her as a young girl and Arcelia Ramirez plays her as a mature woman. Both give superlative performances.

Hernán del Riego plays Father Antonio Núñez de Miranda, Juana Inés’ confessor, and alternately her sponsor and nemesis. In the series, he is portrayed as a kind of Salieri figure, who appreciates her gifts but is also jealous and resentful of them.

The series does not dance around whether or not Juana Inés was bisexual—it leaves no doubt that the relationship between Juana Inés and María Luisa was both emotional and physical.

The series is amazing in the wealth of details (they even recreate a hair decoration she wore in a portrait made before she became a nun). But what I love about it the most is how they portray Juana Inés as a woman who gave zero you-know-whats for the patriarchy. Again, this was an especially dangerous time for a woman to defy the Church and the status quo. And yet she did just that. She finds a way to always be her true self even though her options were severely limited.

As of this writing, Juana Inés is available for streaming on Netflix. There is no option for a dubbed version, but do give the subtitled version a chance. I can’t recommend it highly enough.


The Texas Blogathon: Days of Heaven (1978)

This post is part of the Texas Blogathon, hosted by Quiggy at The Midnite Drive-In. Read the rest of the darn good posts HERE!

Days of Heaven was director Terrence Malick’s second film after the much-celebrated Badlands. A difficult shoot, a long editing process, and a simple tragic story told from the distancing point of view of a child, it was mostly well-received, though some critics complained it was too pretentious and arty.

Today, it is considered one of the best films of the 1970s and one of the top films of all time.

The story begins in 1916 and concerns Bill (Richard Gere) a young Chicago mill worker who kills his foreman after an argument. With his lover Abby (Brooke Adams) and younger sister Linda (Linda Manz) he jumps a train and heads west. Bill and Abby pretend they are siblings to prevent talk about their relationship. Arriving in the Texas panhandle, the trio finds work for a rich farmer (Sam Shepard).

The work is relentless and brutal. It soon becomes apparent that the farmer has his eyes on Abby. Overhearing a conversation between the farmer and his doctor, Bill concludes the farmer will die soon. He encourages Abby to marry him so they can live well after the farmer dies.

Of course, things do not go as planned. The farmer does not die quickly. Jealousy and the farmer’s suspicions about the true nature of Abby and Bill’s relationship compel Bill to leave for a time. When he returns, the festering feelings lead to tragedy.

The plot, as I said, is almost absurdly simple. There is very little dialogue, and most of that seems improvised. Reportedly, Malick threw away the script during filming and encouraged the actors to “find” the story.

This lead to the difficulties with editing. Malick eventually hit on adding a voice-over by Manz. Her unique voice and matter-of-fact delivery enhances the action of the film. Her commentary is anything but on-the-nose; instead, it’s oblique and contemplative, as if she’s remembering the events at a later date.

The film was not shot in Texas. Alberta, Canada stood in for the Texas panhandle. However, it certainly has the wide-open spaces feel of Texas. The farm spreads as far as the eye can see. The farmer’s Victorian mansion looks almost absurd stuck in the middle of it. The opulence is also a stark contrast to the way the farm workers live, outside regardless of the weather.

And they work. How they WORK. As Linda says in the voice-over, they work from sun-up to sundown with no breaks. It’s backbreaking work, too. They can be let go at the whim of the foreman at any time.

Some critics have complained that the love triangle is shown at such a distance it strangles the emotion of the story. But I find the distance is necessary. Bill uses Abby to gain a better life, but you can almost understand why. Without regulations and unions, workers were treated vilely during the early 20th Century. Watching Bill shovel coal into a huge furnace—probably having to do it for 12 straight hours—seems utterly inhumane. Children work side-by-side with adults near dangerous equipment. There’s never the slightest chance that all that hard work will elevate them to something better.

All of this to enrich one man (his foreman comments after the harvest is done that he will make well into the six figures from the one year—a fortune now, and even bigger one then). The farmer (who is never named) seems like a nice fellow and unfortunate at that, considering he is dying. But when he begins to suspect the truth about Abby and Bill, he turns into a possessive and violent man, who probably believes he’s entitled to deal with them in any way he sees fit because of his place in life.

The film is rightfully famous for its cinematography (by Nestor Almendros, who was beginning to lose his sight during the shoot). The film crew even complained about the complicated set-ups and shooting during the time of day as the sun is setting. The film production ran over so long that Almendros had to leave for a prior commitment. Haskel lWexler took over for him, but was only credited with “additional photography,” making it seem his contribution to the film was minor.

In spite of all the problems with the film’s production, it remains today one of the most breathtaking examples of the hyper-realistic films of the 1970s. Nestled in the overwhelming beauty of the landscape is poverty, brutality, betrayal, tragedy, and loss. As Linda comments, most of us are half angel and half devil. Days of Heaven makes the case more eloquently than most films.