We are all being smart -- laying low, avoiding crowds, especially indoors, washing our hands. All of that. So, over the next few weeks, I’ll make some suggestions for good films to watch from the safety and comfort of home. I’m not going to suggest stuff that most everyone knows. You don’t need me or the radio to tell you about the Jurassic Park films, Batman, The Incredibles or anything like that. These are films you may not know, but that I think may surprise and delight.
Films in black and white are not old-fashioned; they’re hip and cool, just like great black and white photography. Black and white can be elegant and suggestive, which is why black and white comedy can be so good; like good jokes much is unsaid. In His Girl Friday from 1940, Walter Burns (Cary Grant) is the editor of a newspaper; Hildy Johnson (Rosalind Russell) was the ace reporter. They were married but are now divorced and Hildy has come to the paper to tell Walter that she is quitting newspaper work to marry an insurance man, played by Ralph Bellamy and move to Albany.
Now, even if there are movies for another 250 million years, Rosalind Russell will never leave Cary Grant to marry Ralph Bellamy. Audiences in 1940 knew that and you will know that too the second you see earnest-faced Bellamy mooning outside the newsroom carrying an umbrella and wearing rubbers on his shoes because he thinks it might rain.
Howard Hawks, who directed His Girl Friday, had no patience in his comedies for characters who were earnest instead of lively and smart – and fast talking, like Hildy and Walter.
His Girl Friday is considered the fastest-talking movie ever; it was the model for Barry Sonnenfeld’s Men in Black. When I have shown this film to young people who think they don’t like either old movies or films in black and white, within about five minutes they are laughing as they never thought possible in a comedy.
That’s one recommendation for these tough days at home. One of the most striking and beautiful color films ever made is The Red Shoes, from 1948. Parents have been showing The Red Shoes to their children who take ballet lessons for decades, which is a mystery to me because it ends rather unhappily. The movie is based on a story by Hans Christian Andersen about a girl who tries on some magical red ballet shoes and they dance her to death.
This movie is directed by the British team of Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger, working with a great cinematographer, Jack Cardiff – and together they are perhaps the greatest colorists in the history of the movies so far. From the very beginning the color takes your breath away. Red, of course, is the key, but in combinations that are simply stunning. You can’t take your eyes off the shoes and so the film absorbs you into the dance in ways no other film has ever done.
The Red Shoes was filmed in original Technicolor, and even through the dulling of television, the deeply saturated colors leap off the screen.
The story features a young and untried composer, a dancer new to the big time – and the arrogant, imperious dance impresario, played by Anton Walbrook, who’s like a revelation the first time you see him on a movie screen. This constellation of characters may not be new, but Powell and Pressburger give it life, to say the least.
There’s talk that because the theaters are closed, the Hollywood studios may release films right to streaming. None of them will carry the magnificence and surprise of these two pictures. Give ‘em a shot.