Tag Archives: musicals

Classic Film for Trying Times

Fred-and-Ginger

Along with the rest of the country, I have been struggling to adjust to our current world situation. I am fortunate in many ways–with the ability to work my day job as a teacher from home, I have no lost income, and I am young and healthy. My heart goes out to anyone suffering illness or caring for someone who is. This is an uncharted road, and it’s frightening not to know what’s coming next or when this will end.

A few days ago, a family friend asked for a list of classic movies to watch during COVID-19 isolation and I wanted to share it with my readers. Throughout this post, I have bolded the films that appear on my list, and I would encourage anyone who hasn’t seen them to check them out while quarantined.

I have written on this subject before, but I want to reiterate just how beneficial classic film can be in difficult times like these. Much of cinema in what we consider the Golden Age of Hollywood was made specifically for people living through trying times. In the 1930s, as the country suffered through the Great Depression, not knowing where meals would come from or how long it would last, movies like Swing Time (1936) allowed the public to escape their troubles into a world of almost dreamlike fantasy, as Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers sang in their gentle tones of happiness and calm.

 

Much of the public clung to the movies, and their stars, to help them stay stabilized during the Depression and the ensuing years of World War II. In the 1930s, the success of The Thin Man (1934) relied not only on the public’s desire to see beautiful costumes and lavish living, but also on the star power of William Powell and Myrna Loy, who had become faces of comfort. Star-studded musicals like Meet Me in St. Louis (1944) followed, showing the country the nostalgia of the past and also giving them familiar faces that brought a sense of stability to a tumultuous era.

It is also necessary for people who may be feeling alone or isolated to be able to see their experiences reflected on film. After World War II ended, The Best Years of Our Lives (1946) came out, which reflected in beautiful nuance the complex emotions of soldiers coming home from war. Movies like Stella Dallas (1937) deal very frankly with feelings of loneliness, allowing us to identify with Stella when we feel apart from the world and it feels like there’s no one to turn to.

At the same time, laughter is, and always has been, the best medicine in many troubling times. The fact that screwball comedy emerged in the 1930s is, in my estimation, no accident. People needed something to laugh at, funny dialogue to listen to, and carefree characters to identify with. My Man Godfrey (1936) and The Awful Truth (1937) both take viewers to a space where they can laugh at the idle rich, while at the same time identifying with some of their universal struggles. The fast-paced dialogue forces the audience to pay attention and forget whatever is going on outside.

One of the most important things, though, especially in times of isolation like the ones we’re finding ourselves in now, seems to be allowing yourself to make a connection. In the Golden Age of Hollywood, audiences developed deep connections with certain stars, and the routine of going to the movies to see the latest Barbara Stanwyck or Claudette Colbert picture helped many people get through their difficulties. The connection we have today with film stars is not the same as it was in the 1930s. The star system, in which the moviegoer’s connection with a star was barely below that of a god, has long gone. Today, in order to make that same connection, identify a film that makes you feel good, and allow yourself to watch it as many times as you desire. For me personally, that movie is The Thin Man. I can’t identify precisely why it is that The Thin Man is so comforting to me, but whenever I’m feeling sad, upset, or anxious, it picks me right up again.

Above all, readers, stay safe, stay healthy, and find your comfort. I leave you with one last clip, from The Purple Rose of Cairo (1985). A young woman, living through an abusive marriage during the Great Depression, finds solace in going to the movies, and her fantasy becomes a reality when one of the characters steps off the screen. The two of them have a romance that takes her away from her current circumstances, and gives her the courage to stand up for herself and face those circumstances head on. It is a love letter to the power of movies to change our outlook and ultimately bring us closer to healing.

Here is the complete list of films that I sent to my family friend.

Funny:

The Thin Man (1934)

The Awful Truth (1937)

Ball of Fire (1941)

My Man Godfrey (1936)

Nostalgic/Sad:

I Remember Mama (1948)

Penny Serenade (1941)

Stella Dallas (1937)

The Best Years of Our Lives (1946)

Charming:

Indiscreet (1958)

Auntie Mame (1958)

Pillow Talk (1959)

The Philadelphia Story (1940)

Musicals:

Funny Face (1957)

Swing Time (1936)

Golddiggers of 1933 (1933)

On the Town (1949)

Meet Me in St. Louis (1944)

Pre-code:

Baby Face (1933)

Red-Headed Woman (1932)

Ladies They Talk About (1933)

The Blue Angel (1930)

Searching for Mary Poppins in 2018

 

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When I first heard that there would be another Mary Poppins movie made in 2018, I wasn’t sure what to think. Being a lifelong devotee of the original film, I was hard-pressed to imagine anyone who could fill the gigantic shoes of Julie Andrews and Dick Van Dyke, or if anyone even had the right to try. Early mumblings in the classic film community about Mary Poppins Returns were skeptical, cautious. Some said they wouldn’t see it. Some said they were willing to give it a chance, but held low expectations.

I always fell somewhat into the second camp. I brightened to hear that Lin-Manuel Miranda would be playing the Bert character (perfect casting, I felt), but I remained on my guard. I was convinced that remaking Mary Poppins at all was a futile effort.

I went to see the film yesterday afternoon at the lovely Landmark Shattuck in Berkeley. I went in with an open and curious mind, looking forward to seeing how the filmmakers and actors handled the seemingly insurmountable task of a Mary Poppins remake. But immediately, I understood what this movie is about. Mary Poppins Returns is not a remake at all–but rather a piece of much-needed escapism for 2018 audiences, in a world that desperately needs it.

Movies have always served the social needs of their time. In moments of national crisis, they have served to allay fears, provide comfort, or commiserate with worries. Frequently, the messages were subtle. In 1944, at the height of World War II, Meet Me In St. Louis brought wartime viewers back to 1903 St. Louis, when things were easier, life was slower, and there was no war. Though the film takes place 40 years prior, the message was clear. “Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas” was really for the soldiers, and the American people as a whole.

Mary Poppins was released in 1964, as the United States faced dire challenges. With the Vietnam War heating up, the Civil Rights Movement at its peak, Russia and the United States facing off and John F. Kennedy recently assassinated, adults and children needed to be taken away from their circumstances. Mary Poppins‘ fantastical escape into 1910 London and a land of chalk drawings, cartoons, and magical nannies provided just that opportunity.

So it is, too, with Mary Poppins Returns. On most days, we are pummeled with the stress of a neverending news cycle, and the realities of a world that frequently feels like it’s crumbling beneath our feet. A retreat into escapist entertainment is very much in line with the cinematic and cultural history of the United States, and very necessary.

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In 1964, the merging of cartoon and real-life characters was a state-of-the-art production process. Though not a new technology, it was a difficult one, imperfect and rarely used, and emblematic of a large budget production. Reviews upon its release commended the mixing of live action and animation as “immense,” and the Los Angeles Times critic Philip K. Scheuer noted that Disney had been trying to perfect the process for the past 40 years, and dared to shoot 400 Mary Poppins scenes using it.

In 2018, we have long since moved on. Computer animation is the norm now–we have seen the rise of Pixar, of Avatar, and other processes that try to make moviegoing seem as true to life as possible. Mary Poppins Returns goes the other way. Using a similar cel animation process combined with live action that was advanced and awe-inspiring in 1964, director Rob Marshall has created an air of nostalgia and simplicity. The effect is that the audience is thrown back to a time when moviemaking didn’t have to feel true to life, when suspension of disbelief was valued over meticulous true-to-life detail. And for many of us, that means a throwback to our childhood moviegoing experiences–evoking memories of the cel-animated Disney movies that defined the studio through the 1990s and early 2000s. Worries are tossed to the wind, and the audience is engulfed by pure fantasy.

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In these trying times, we as a society would do well to learn once again how to appreciate escapist entertainment such as the kind Mary Poppins, and Mary Poppins Returns offers. It is a cultural necessity in our efforts to deal with daily life, and a panacea that this troubled world dearly needs.