Passing the Celluloid Baton

By Stu Kobak

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    For movie lovers, sharing is one of the great pleasures. Dissecting the delights of a fine film over coffee or wine, with a cookie thrown in, makes a good movie better and provides an outlet for rage over a bad one. Sharing movies with your children will provide a family forum for years. Passing on a love of films to the next generation is a sacred duty. Though selecting the films to watch together is not always an easy task.

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      My father has been gone almost a dozen years, but movies provided some of out finest moments of communication and communion. I can still remember that first encounter with a drive-in theater somewhere in Vermont. Diplomatic Courier was the flick and Tyrone Power the star. Ironically, that’s one of the only movies I remember seeing with my father in a theater. We shared most of our movies on the early TVs! There was Million Dollar Movie, Picture for a Sunday Afternoon, and the endless string of CBS movie fare, The Late Show, The Late Late Show, and—I swear—The Late Late Late Show.  Many times I crept out of bed long after my mother had kissed me good night, and a movie was always on the TV. My father was an easy con on those nights—I’d sweetly asked to watch for a few minutes. That’s one thing he passed on to me; I’ve always been the easy con for my kids when it comes to sharing movies.
     Family viewing and sharing is a much more complex matter today. The modern home has a TV in every room. “Family” movie night often means a separate video for the kids in one room and for the adults, far away, in another. My parents didn’t have the difficulty contemporary families have in convincing their children to watch older movies at home. I voraciously devoured anything presented. Black and white? No problem. It was all black and white. Classics? Everything seemed a classic then.
      Today, older movies present obstacles. But you can overcome them through careful selection. The Wizard Of Oz has worked wonders for both our children. It has just the right balance of delight and fear, and it has fairy tale color and a story played out with a vibrant intensity exceeding anything delivered on film today. Kids just love this movie. It may be old (1939), but the magic still captures the imagination.
     The color of The Wizard Of Oz can be a back-door entry to black and white films for your children. Most kids will vehemently protest—as out of date—anything in black and white. (Plenty of adults do, too.) A reminder that The Wizard Of Oz is just as old as the black and white movie you’re offering can ease the initiation. The Wizard of Oz is available on DVD, with the latest edition offering up the goodies from the Ultimate Oz special editon laser disc. 

A modern fairy tale through the eyes of the very original director Tim Burton, Edward Scissorhands is an interesting choice to entice younger viewers. Perhaps not an obvious choice given the skewed point of view of the director, the film captures the magic of classic fairy tale telling.  Burton's derivative satire. combining classic elements of horror films and a John Waters sensibility toward society, is awash in exciting colors. Johnny Depp's monster is thoroughly innocent and childlike and the kids will instantly identify with him. Caroline Thompson collaborated with Burton on the story and the screenplay, but Edward can only come from the imagination of an outsider like Burton. Listening to Burton's audio commentary on the new special edition DVD of the film is quite revealing as to the origins of the story and the psyche behind it. The DVD, while colorful, has many scenes that are too soft and colors bleed slightly. Overall, this is as good as I have seen the film. If memory serves, and it isn't always adequate, the film suffered from the same softness in theaters. Edward makes a nice pathway to segue into some vintage horror stuff, perhaps Frankenstein or others of that ilk. Young Frankenstein might be another perfect choice to overcome the barrier often erected over black and white films. Once the youngsters cut to the quick in that hilarious film, resistance to black and white will certainly be reduced. 
        There are other doors into black and white, too. The Adventures Of Robin Hood, directed by Michael Curtiz, is one of the most colorful adventure movies ever. For years, I thought the movie was in black and white, since my introduction was on our old Dumont black and white TV. What a grand surprise was in store for me! All the ingredients are splendidly mixed together for perfection in movie magic. Robin Hood has got screen rake Errol Flynn in top form, and charming Olivia de Havilland as Lady Marion. The sword play is exciting and the long-bow work rousing.
    The Adventures of Robin Hood is one of the most sought after DVD titles. With the magnificent three strip Technicolor and the superb action, this is a core title for any collection.
        Now—after enchanting them with Robin Hood’s Technicolor cavorting—slip in the black and white adventure (also starring Flynn and directed by Curtiz), The Sea Hawk. After a few minutes, protesting youngsters will fall silent, captivated. The Warner Brothers team is at its creative peak with this film. Flynn plays Captain Geoffrey Thorpe, Queen Elizabeth’s favorite defender of the British seas and the scourge of King Philip’s Spanish galleons. The Sea Hawk is set at the birth of the famed Spanish Armada. In this fictionalized account, Thorpe and some of his fellow privateers suspect England’s ally Spain of secretly preparing to make war on England. The movie revolves around Thorpe’s attempt to prove the Spanish treachery.

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     Director Michael Curtiz takes Thorpe on the most adventurous route in search of proof. He stages the sea battles with devil-may-care excitement. The crash of sabers and the rope-born boarding parties are brilliantly vital. Before Thorpe succeeds in bringing the truth to England, he does time as a galley slave and sails the waters of the “New World.”
      No small share in the achievement of The Sea Hawk must go to the silken photography of Sol Polito. Whether capturing the big master shots of dueling ships at sea or bringing new dimensions to the art of swordplay, Polito’s camera is unfailing. The unforgettable climactic duel between Thorpe and his enemy Wolfingham is splendidly highlighted by dancing silhouettes.
     With The Sea Hawk, Erich Wolfgang Korngold delivers one of the finest scores ever written for the screen. As in Captain Blood and The Adventures Of Robin Hood, Korngold embroiders the action with magnificent music founded on his classical Viennese training. Flynn is wonderful, alternately dashing and charming, a nobleman with a touch of rogue. He charms audiences as well as well as his queen. Flora Robson places her own crest on the role of Elizabeth. She stands equal to Flynn in their great scenes together, managing to hint at some roguishness of her own. Henry Daniell is appropriately odious as Lord Wolfingham and Claude Raines wears the robes of treachery with smarmy ease. Alan Hale is a hearty Mr. Pitt, once again playing sidekick to Flynn as he did as Little John in The Adventures Of Robin Hood.
     The Sea Hawk is not yet available on DVD, but hopefully Warner will release the marvelous adventure before very long. 
       An hilarious spoof of the epic swashbuckler genre, The Court Jester is probably the best of all Danny Kaye’s daffy films. This time Kaye finds himself in merry old England playing Hawkins, a look-alike of the Fox, a character modeled after Robin Hood. Kaye assumes the identity of Giacomo, a court jester and assassin en route to the English court. I can’t imagine fitting Danny Kaye into a more appropriate costume. The result is an assault of laughter.

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     The writing/directing team of Norman Panama and Melvin Frank could do no wrong. The plot is well constructed and the dialog uproarious. The clever couplets of The Court Jester remain with lovers of the film forever. A dialog sequence as simple as “Get it?” “Got it.” “Good.” is delicious in repetition. “The pellet with the poison’s in the vessel with the pestle; the chalice with the palace has the brew that it true” is mangled with brilliant aplomb by Kaye. His double-talk never integrated so well as it does here. And the sight of Kaye approaching the royal person before his duel with Sir Griswold doubles me over in laughter every time.
     Even the musical numbers are in perfect harmony with the plot, and Kaye is ably abetted in the hilarity by a cast of seasoned pros. Basil Rathbone brings dour sincerity to the role of Ravenswood, power behind the English throne—a role clearly modeled after Rathbone’s earlier Sir Guy of Gisborne in The Adventures Of Robin Hood. Playing straight-man to Kaye, Rathbone never cracks a hint of smile. Mildred Natwick is wonderful as the sorceress Griselda who hypnotizes Kaye into doing dirty deeds. And Glynis Johns is charming as the love interest.
     The Court Jester was filmed in Paramount’s VistaVision process, meant to project ideally at an 1.85:1 aspect ratio. The color on The Court Jester is absolutely invigorating. What a great high. All the richly adorned costumes of the king's court come to life on this DVD. The high energy of the production is enhanced by the visual beauty of this wonderful film. Though high color saturation can lead to color bleeding, The Court Jester maintains it's color integrity throughout. The picture is quite sharp. There is slight edge enhancement, but it's not disturbing. God bless Paramount for taking the trouble to make this grand entertainment an anamorphic transfer. I'm plain greedy. I want The Court Jester to look as good as it can since it's one of my all time favorite movies, and this is probably as good as it will ever look. There are several scenes in which there was stationary dirt on the Rank which shows up prominently against the blue skies. Too bad. The sound is just fine. It's clean, the glorious lyrics and clever dialogue are easy to understand. Could you ask for anything more?
     Good family viewing consists of more than just adventure, of course. We can explore with our children very serious subjects through films. One Rosh Hashanah, my wife and I chose to share The Diary Of Anne Frank with our then eight-year-old Lizzie, remembering, together, a Jewish family in circumstances very different from the plush surroundings of our home theater.
     Anne Frank was cooped up in a Holland attic for more than two years with her family of four, another family of three, and an eighth fugitive, a dentist. They were hiding from the Nazis and the confinement they endured was far better than the fate that ultimately awaited them. Only Anne’s father survived.
     By nature, the set of Diary is stage-bound, which effectively emphasizes the tensions endured by families forced to silently share tight quarters. Through his gifted sense of timing, veteran director George Stevens prevents his audience from growing bored of the claustrophobic attic.      

Anne Frank’s story is an inspiring record of human decency, not only from the point of view of the Frank family and their fellow fugitives, but from the deadly risk taken by the shopkeepers who sheltered them. George Stevens proves a wise choice as director. Fifty years ago, Stevens was one of the Army photographers who recorded the liberation of the Nazi concentration camps, capturing the reality of the horror in the starkest of images. Those haunting moments must have endowed Stevens with a unique sensibility in directing his actors.
     Millie Perkins plays Anne Frank in a straightforward, undistinguished manner. Perkins never shares with the audience what might be going on the inside this young woman, who entered her confinement at the age of 13, just beginning to explore the feelings of womanhood. Joseph Schildkraut is a powerful center of reason for the attic’s occupants and Shelley Winters, who won an Academy Award as Best Supporting Actress for Mrs. Van Daan, creates a consistently interesting character. Richard Beymer, playing the Van Daan son, is a constant surprise, displaying fine sensitivity in his scenes with Perkins. Douglas Spencer and Dody Heath as Kraler and Miep, the shop owners who shelter the refugees in their attic, are both wonderful. Spencer, a savvy character actor, has his finest screen moments under Stevens’ direction, and Ed Wynn playing dentist Albert Dussell is both irritating and moving.
     Presented in its original widescreen Cinemascope aspect ratio of 2.35:1, Fox Video released a  laserdisc several years ago that exquisitely captures the nuances of the Academy Award winning (black and white) photography of William C. Mellor. Hey, Fox, when can we expect a spectacular DVD for this title?
     By digging into the classic film repertory, your choice of films for family sharing becomes endless. After a time, you’ll probably find that the kids will almost always want to watch together as a family. I wouldn’t start off with a film as talky and static as The Diary Of Anne Frank, but once you have lured your children into the world of cinema, it becomes easier to broaden their horizons. The secret is the art of the seduction. From Errol Flynn and Danny Kaye to Anne Frank and even to Tim Burton, we owe our children the joy of these great screen treasures. And in sharing them, we add another layer of pleasure to our own film memories.

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