Now, Sunset Boulevard. I suspect if there was a worldwide poll to find the most popular Billy Wilder movie of all time, this might win. Yes, everybody loves Some Like It Hot (including me! Oh my God, that movie!), but I think people have a ‘thing’ for Sunset Boulevard. I literally have never met anyone in my entire life who didn’t like it. Even people who don’t particularly like the classics that much (those plonkers!), they will tell you that they LOVE Sunset Boulevard. And to try and figure out exactly what makes it so popular would be impossible. It’s a really addictive movie and it keeps you coming back to it. It’s dark and odd (in the best way possible), but there’s something comforting about it. I think one of the really interesting things about it is the fact that William Holden’s character is supposed to be dead and yet he is the narrator. I think that was Billy’s way of saying ‘this isn’t to be taken seriously, people’. He actually did once say that the only thing worse than not being taken seriously would be to be taken too seriously. And Sunset Boulevard is the perfect example of that.
I love desert island questions! You know, like ‘What three items would you take with you?’ and all that. They are seriously so much fun. Desert Island questions and This or That questions. Better yet, Desert Island This or That questions. Ohhh, imagine the fun! My go-to question is ‘If you could take one movie, one song and one book with you to a desert island for a year, what would they be?’ The Philadelphia Story, Rio by Duran Duran and Greg Proops’ The Smartest Book in the World. That’s a lovely private party right there. Soooo, today I’ll celebrate my love for desert island questions (that Roberta Flack/Peabo Bryson song would have been a lot different if they’d named it that), and I’ll post my Top 5 movies I’d take with me to a desert island.
I have a friend who watches Out of the Past (1947) once a week, every single week. As you all should! It’s so good, it’s insane. And it holds a very unique place in film noir history. Basically, in the pantheon of film noir, The Maltese Falcon (1941) is the most iconic, The Third Man (1949) is the most copied, Sunset Boulevard (1950) is the most beloved and Double Indemnity (1944) is the best. And Out of the Past is the most ‘noir’ of them all. It’s the one everyone agrees is the quintessential film noir, the one you show people when they want to learn about film noir. The flashbacks, the long drive in the rain, the voice-over, the ruthless femme fatale, played by he wonderful and underrated Jane Greer, the fallen hero, played by the one and only Robert Mitchum, and the overall plot development as well as the resolution and the ‘feel’ of it… It has all the elements and in the right order and it plays them to perfection. And it contains possibly the greatest line in film noir history *points to the title of this post*. It’s noir 101. And it’s brilliant.
Do you remember that scene in His Girl Friday (1940) when Cary Grant describes Ralph Bellamy as looking ‘like that fellow in the movies, Ralph Bellamy’? That was probably the first time I realized that inside jokes and movie references go waaaay back. So I started to notice a lot of those in other movies. So here is my top 5 (see, I’ve made an effort to come up with a top 5, just for you). I’ll start with number 5, ’cause I’m a rebel.
5. The Big Heat (1953) – when Glenn Ford is about to leave the bar, ‘Put the blame on Mame’ is playing. It was originally featured in Gilda (1946), also starring Glenn Ford.
4. Arsenic and Old lace (1944) – Raymond Massey’s character Jonathan Brewster was originally played by Boris Karloff in the Broadway production, but because it ran for so long, he was unable to be in the film because he was still doing the play. So Jonathan Brewster is described as looking ‘like Boris Karloff’.
3. Double Indemnity (1944) – Fred MacMurray: ‘Neff, with two Fs, like in Philadelphia, you know, the story.’ Barbara Stanwyck: ‘What story?’ Fred MacMurray: ‘The Philadelphia Story’.
2. The Apartment (1960) – when Mr Dobisch and Mr Kirkeby are talking about Baxter and Miss Kubelik having a little toot, Mr Kirkeby says ‘Toot? More like a lost weekend!’. The Lost Weekend (1945), like The Apartment, was also directed by Billy Wilder.
1. Every ‘Archie Leach’ reference by Cary Grant. Let’s face it, Archie Leach is probably the most famous real name of any actor ever. And when you can reference your real name in several of your movies, you know you’ve made it.
I’m terrible at doing top 10 lists. Or top 5, for that matter. You know what I’m good at? Top 4 lists. Somehow I always struggle to find my 5th favorite anything. So my Hitchcock top 4 goes a little something like this: Rear Window, Notorious, Vertigo and Psycho. Honorable mention to Dial m for murder, Rope and North by Northwest. And To catch a Thief. See? It’s practically impossible. But yeah, Rear Window has always been my favorite, and Notorious has always been my second favorite. It’s not the most typical Hitchcock film, but there’s something fascinating about it. And that something is that kiss. That now infamous kiss on the balcony. Second only to the kiss from From Here to Eternity and that’s debatable. You’ve got Ingrid Bergman and Cary Grant. And Rio. And it’s just beautiful. The sweetness of the kiss, they way they talk to each other, the way they try not to fall in love with each other… It’s just grand. And it was practically impossible to film, because of the Hays Code (no more than three seconds per kiss). So three seconds it was. A million times, over and over. And it was enough.
We all know and love Max Steiner and Bernard Herrmann, but what about the unsung hero of classic movie scores, Miklos Rosza? Take a look at his body of work: Double Indemnity (1944), Spellbound (1945), The Lost Weekend (1945), The Killers (1946), A Double Life (1947), Quo Vadis (1951), Ivanhoe (1952), Ben Hur (1959), amongst many, many others. Pretty awesome, isn’t it? You’ll recognize those scores anywhere. They’ve become iconic and are a part of film history. And he actually holds a very special Academy Awards record: he’s the only composer to date to have won an Oscar against not one, but TWO of his other scores. He won an Oscar for Spellbound in 1946, and his scores for The Lost Weekend and A Song to Remember were also nominated that same year. And he won two other Oscars after that, for A Double Life and Ben-Hur. Before that, he was an accomplished classical composer in his native Hungary for many years. Not a bad career at all, is it?
We classic movie buffs are one of the most fierce fandoms on the planet. We are experts, we know every line from every movie, we know who won an Oscar when and for what, we get references right away and we have little private marathons in celebration of an actor or director’s birthday (yes, we absolutely do, ask anybody). I just love how ‘connected’ we all seem to be. Like, you join any Facebook group about the classics, and it feels like one huge family. In the real world, movies from 1970 onwards have taken over and are more immediately recognizable and, great as they are, because of that, the classics are often overlooked. You have to look for a specific list or poll that has the word ‘classic’ in the title for them to appear on it. But that’s a good thing, actually, because that means they’re in a league of their own, which they are.
Legend goes that when Billy Wilder and Charles Brackett’s script of ‘Midnight’ was turned in, the studio liked it but thought it needed something. So they hired new writers to rewrite the script. ‘Get me Wilder and Brackett!’ they said. So Wilder and Brackett decided to hand in their script again without making any changes whatsoever. The studio then thought it was brilliant and that they should start filming rightaway. And so one of the all-time great screwball comedies was born. Claudette Colbert, John Barrymore, Don Ameche, Mary Astor, Francis Lederer and a crazy plot that will leave you in stitches. Mary Astor is cheating on John Barrymore, so he hires Claudette Colbert to seduce Francis Lederer and break up their affair. Screwball comedy at its finest. This was one of the many screenplays Billy Wilder and Charles Brackett wrote in the 1930s before Billy became a director in 1942 (they were, in fact, responsible for making ‘Garbo laugh’ in Ninotchka) and it’s one of their very best. And Claudette Colbert is pefect, as always.
I just love Barbara Stanwyck! Unfortunately, most people will remember her from The Big Valley, instead of the many great movies she made during The Golden Age. After years of being a member of almost every classic movie page on FB and interacting with classic movie buffs from all over the world, I’ve realized that Barbara Stanwyck is one of the most popular and beloved actresses ever. She’s not the most famous nor is she everyone’s number one favorite, but she is definitely the one EVERYBODY loves. There’s nothing not to love about her. Aside from being a great and versatile actress, there’s also something really comfortable about her. I don’t know what it is, but when you’re watching her, you feel safe. Everybody who worked with her loved her. Marilyn actually once said that she was the only actress from the older generation who was nice to her when they worked together in Clash by Night. Great film, by the way. She’s just fantastic. And she’s also the answer to the question ‘Who was known as ‘The Best Actress Who Never Won An Oscar?’ which will ALWAYS come up in old movie quizzes. It’s a crime, I tells ya. Four nominations, ZERO Oscars. Ridiculous. She’s still awesome, though.
Of the four movies Kate and Cary made together, Bringing up Baby (1938) and The Philadelphia Story (1940) get all the attention. Everybody’s seen them and everybody loves them. Sylvia Scarlett (1935) is the one that their fans had to watch because they’re loyal fans and they wanted to watch all of their movies. It’s not THAT bad, but it is the worst of the lot. Basically, if those four films were a band (let’s call them The Fab Four. Oh wait…), Sylvia Scarlett would have been kicked out for its backstage anticts and it would have probably been the first to appear on Celebrity Big Brother. And then there’s Holiday (1938), which, again, if they were a band, would have been a very underrated bassist and it probably would have gotten an MBE or OBE for its services to music, years after they had peaked. It’s a gem of a film. The story is very simple: it’s the holiday season, there’s a huge house, probably the biggest house I’ve ever seen in a film. I mean, there’s an elevator, for Heaven’s sake! And there’s a sister who wants to marry Cary, but he falls in love with Kate and Kate falls in love with him and they kiss and hug and live happily ever after. It’s just an absolutely delightful movie. And it will put a smile on your face no matter what mood you’re in. Love, love, love it.