The Birds, 1963 (The title is self explanatory)


The Birds poster, via IMDB

They seem relatively innocent. We see them every day. They chirp and nestle. Sometimes, they even seem perky. If you live in Portland, they even put them on things and call it art. But apparently, Alfred Hitchcock looked at them and decided they were good fodder for a horror story (well, OK, Daphne DuMaurier who wrote the original novel in 1952 thought they would be good fodder for a horror story, but you get my drift).

The story starts the way most scary stories do, with everything innocent. Melanie Daniels is a wealthy, socialite prankster who gets roped into taking a pair of love birds to the home of dreamy lawyer Mitch Brenner. Mitch lives north of San Francisco in Bodega Bay, which is as quaint and isolated as you would expect it to be. In fact, there’s lots of exposition about how isolated the place is, with only one road in and out, etc. So, Melanie takes the birds there for reasons that are kind of convoluted, and decides to make a weekend of it. She books a room at the home of Annie Hayworth, played by Suzanne Pleshette, who is also the town’s school teacher. Shortly after Melanie, played by Tippi Hedren, arrives, birds in the town start to attack. The attacks grow in intensity and severity, and town residents begin to be killed.

It’s hard to understand why these sweet, gentle creatures would want to hurt us, but Director Alfred Hitchcock addresses some possible causes for their vitriol in his trailer:

At first, the town’s PTB are skeptical, as there is no apparent scientific explanation for the birds’ behavior. They’re cute, right? Gradually, though, the attacks become impossible to ignore and residents start to panic. Some decide to high-tail it out of town. Others decide that staying is their best revenge on those flying beasts.

I would like to take this moment to go on record and state that if swarms of birds started viciously attacking people in my city or neighborhood, I would gladly leave said city or neighborhood. I would not be one of those people staunchly claiming that it would take a lot more than some deadly swarms of birds to get me to leave my home. Similarly, I will never be one of those people you see on CNN stating that they’re going to just sit tight during the hurricane, and that it’ll take a whole lot more than gale-force winds and a wall of water to get them to leave. What I lack in fortitude I make up for in running away. I suspect I’m partially here due to natural selection because my ancestors survived by running away from dangerous things like volcanoes and fires and staying out of the water when megalodons were around and that’s partly why I’m here today to write in this blog, so as a survival mechanism it’s pretty good.

Back to Bodega Bay, the birds are on mega-attack. They swarm pretty much everyone who goes outside and there even manages to be an explosion. Alfred Hitchcock is probably the only person who can work an explosion into a movie about bird attacks and not have it seem contrived. Several more folks die.

After the explosion, Melanie joins Dreamy Mitch, along with his mother, played by Jessica Tandy, and kid sister at their gorgeous ranch home, thinking they can all just hole up and ride it out. It’s during this time that Melanie gets the unwise idea to go upstairs alone, for no apparent reason. Melanie has not read the memo and is unaware that she is in a horror movie, and that the first rule of horror movies is that you never, ever, under any circumstances go upstairs alone. You also never go downstairs alone. Avoiding any level change actually seems to be the key to survival. I think that Melanie’s decision appears to be the earliest example I have seen of this phenomenon, so perhaps it was not added to the rules at this time.

In the end…well, I’ll leave it to you.

The Birds has all the classic trappings of a horror movie, but the culprit is a lot more interesting.
What makes the birds so frightening is Hitchcock is basically exploring what happens when something relatively harmless becomes the opposite. With the scenes of swarming avians it seems Sharknado actually owes more to The Birds than it does to Jaws. Hitchcock also repeatedly swerves over the line of being graphic and then not. One of the first victims in The Birds is shown with gouged-out eyes, but a later victim is shielded from the camera. This makes you wonder…how bad was it. Because they’re just birds. How bad could it be?


Pinky, 1949 (or, starring the whitest black actress you’ve ever seen)

Pinky’s not a familiar story to those of us who didn’t live through the Jim Crow era.

This film follows the title character as she returns home to rural Alabama after several years at nursing school in Boston. Pinky was raised by her grandmother, Dicey, in a small cabin while Dicey scrimped every penny washing other people’s laundry so that her granddaughter could get an education and never wash other people’s laundry. The kicker is that Pinky is a light-skinned African-American woman who spent her time in the North omitting her true background and living without the daily discrimination that she would face in her home town.

Things get prickly shortly after Pinky’s arrival. She manages to run afoul of both black and white residents of her town and plans to make a hasty retreat back north. Her return to the North is postponed when Pinky commits to nursing her grandmother’s boss, Miss Em while she’s on her deathbed. Miss Em lives in a big, old, antebellum mansion that’s seen better days. Despite the home’s decrepit appearance, the house, its land and its valuable antique contents are worth a fortune. Miss Em’s relatives are chomping at the bit to collect their inheritance. Ethel Barrymore’s Miss Em projects a gruff exterior, but actually harbors a soft spot for Pinky and Dicey. She warns Pinky of the dangers of living as something other than herself. The real shocker comes after Miss Em passes, leaving her mansion, with its antes and its bellums and its Scarlett O’Hara staircase, to Pinky. Miss Em’s relatives don’t take kindly to their inheritance going to an outsider, much less the washer-woman’s granddaughter, and very much less the granddaughter of the washer-woman who happens to be black. A legal case ensues and things get ugly.

It’s during this time that Pinky is surprised by a visit from her northern beau, a Boston physician named Tom. Tom isn’t just white. Tom could pass for a Kennedy. He takes Pinky’s revelation about her background surprisingly well, mostly because he has no grasp of it. After all, he’s not racist. But of course, Pinky will have to go back to pretending to being white after they get married and return to Boston, because a white Boston physician simply cannot marry a woman of color in 1949.

This is where the northern manifestation of racism bumps up against the southern manifestation of racism. The list of Southern offenses in terms of racism is not short.  Segregated transportation systems, drinking fountains, and schools; church bombings; lynchings; Emmet Till, and I could go on. But the dirty little secret of the North is that there was and is racism there, just with a different accent. Racism is the reason for discriminatory mortgage-lending policies. Racism is the reason why my home town was filled with trash cans labelled “Keep Dearborn clean.” Racism is the reason Detroit burned in riots 1943 and 1967. It’s there, as much as many Northerners would like to pretend that racial discrimination is some sort of exotic creation of the South. It’s an illusion that’s easier to maintain when the black people stay on the other side of the freeway.

Despite this glimmer of self-awareness, the film has casting that’s downright bizarre. Jeanne Crain as PInky is supposed to be playing a light-skinned black woman. But Jeanne Crain doesn’t resemble a light-skinned black woman. Jeanne Crain is about as anglo-saxon as it gets. Her family heritage is English, Irish and French, according to Wikipedia and though that item doesn’t have a citation, it’s easily believable.  Supposedly, both Lena Horne and Dorothy Dandridge were interested in the role of Pinky and they could have rocked it.

I could find no real explanation for Crain’s casting other than fears of making the film too controversial in the production notes at Right. You wouldn’t want a film about racism to be controversial. Had the film starred an African-American lead actress, it would undoubtedly have ruffled many feathers. The kissing scenes between Pinky and Tom would have shown a white actor, William Lundigan, kissing a black actress, as opposed to a white guy kissing a white woman pretending to be a black woman pretending to be a white woman. I suppose part of the circular logic of the time was that white audiences would have a harder time justifying the racism experienced by Pinky if she looked more like them. In a weird way, that was probably true. But how sad that producers felt, and probably still feel, as though people can only feel sympathy for those who look like themselves. It’s the height of ironies that in 1949, a film with an anti-discrimination message would have only one main character played by a black actor. That was Ethel Waters, who played Pinky’s grandmother, Dicey.

But, considering that it is 2013 and people freaked out about this Cheerios commercial, maybe we have little room to judge the filmmakers from 1949. We’re not quite there yet.

The upside is that Crain actually does a good job with the role. In the beginning, she comes across as passive and disconnected, which works on a symbolic level, as that’s what Pinky has been doing for the last several years of her life. Hiding herself. As the film unfolds, she becomes more passionate and you do start to feel a sense of love between Pinky an Dicey. I just think an African-American actress could have done at least as good of a job, and a more believable one.

The Three Faces of Eve, 1956 (or It’s All About Joanne Woodward)

This movie is really all about Joanne Woodward’s performance, which is good, because she won an Oscar for it. Other than that, though, it’s a very slow trip downhill.

First, we meet Eve White. She’s an unfulfilled 1950’s housewife with low self-esteem, married to Ralph, a dolt, and mother to Bonnie. She starts to have blackouts, headaches, and mysterious shopping trips that she doesn’t remember. She gets sent to psychiatrist Dr. Curtis Luther and then we meet Eve Black, a party girl who likes to wear racy dresses, sing in nightclubs and in general do things that would appall Eve White. Luther diagnoses Eve as having multiple personality disorder. This puts a pretty big strain on Eve’s life and marriage. Ralph isn’t very supportive because he’s unable to comprehend what a mental illness is, because he himself lacks a brain.

Most of the film is actually pretty dull. You just feel sorry for Eve White and, though Eve Black is more entertaining, I tired of her the way people are tired of Lindsay Lohan’s antics. I almost turned it off, but it started getting interesting when Ralph took Eve Black on a getaway to Jacksonville, Florida. Classy old Ralph was cheating on his wife with his wife. And it was creepy. Eventually, Ralph and Eve divorce, and their daughter goes to live with relatives. After treatment, a third personality, Jane, appears. Jane seems fairly well-balanced and well-adjusted. Over time, Jane recounts the childhood trauma that caused her personality to split. The Eves go away. The remaining, whole Jane marries a wonderful man who has a brain, and she regains custody of her daughter.

The film’s portrayal of what is now called dissociative identity disorder is extremely outdated compared to today’s understanding, but it was still surprisingly compassionate in its portrayal. And I don’t believe that the pat happy ending is what really happened to the woman who was the case study for the film, but such are movies from the 50’s.

As I said before, this movie really is all about Joanne Woodward, who was outstanding at playing what was essentially three very different people. Other than that, it’s frustrating, slow and the rest of the cast is unremarkable. Or maybe Joanne Woodward is just so awesome that everything else around her is boring. She was married to Paul Newman, after all.

Georgy Girl, 1966 (or There’s a movie to go with the song!)

You know that song Georgy Girl?

Hey there, Georgy girl. Something, something, something, fancy free? Something something, something, etc.?

Well, there’s a whole movie that goes with it. Yeah, I never did either.

Georgy Girl takes place in 1966 London, which means it’s all mod and swinging and really cool. This is the era that birthed the Beatles. Everyone is gorgeous and wears really cool, stylish clothes. Except for Georgy. Georgy is a music teacher and hopeless old maid, as she is not yet married or in the family way at the age of 24. We’ll just giggle about that for a minute. Georgy, in addition to being a hopeless old maid, is also hopelessly unfashionable. Instead of sleek mini-skirts, she’s all baggy sweaters, make-up free and pony tails. In other words, the way I look most of the time. Georgy lives at the home of the very rich old creeper for whom her father has worked since she was a child.

Georgy’s best friend and main foil is Meredith, who is everything that Georgy is not and everything that Edina Monsoon wishes she’d been in the 60’s. She’s got the look and the hair, and the clothes. Meredith, played by the gorgeous Charlotte Rampling, is a professional cellist and, let me sugarcoat this to soften the blow, she’s an awful, terrible despicable person who treats everyone, especially Georgy like their dog poop stuck to their shoe. Rampling also plays her as having a mean case of Bitchy Resting Face.

For all the Ugly Duckling talk that there is about Georgy, it should still be said that she’s played by a Redgrave. Georgy isn’t ugly; we’re just conditioned to think of her that way because that’s what the filmmakers wanted. Georgy is unfashionable and a little socially awkward, but not unattractive and she is not overweight. In one of the only scenes where she’s wearing a form-fitting dress, you can see that she’s not close to being overweight.

Supposedly, Lynn Redgrave said some fairly nasty things about her body from this stage of her film roles. I’m here to say Lynn, you were not overweight, and even if you were, you did not deserve to feel about yourself the way you did.

Eventually, Meredith becomes pregnant by her boyfriend Jos, for whom Georgy also has feelings. Because Meredith would be a terrible, awful, horrible mother and is mostly upset that her butt is getting bigger, Georgy and Jos make plans to raise the baby in the sort of Hillary Clinton Village thing that would have gone over well in the late 60’s. Meredith has the baby and, because she doesn’t care about anything other than herself, can’t be bothered to care for the child and decides to give her up for adoption, which is actually the kindest thing she’s ever done. Georgy and Jos begin a de facto romance and live together as a family with newborn Sara. Even though Georgy finally has the attention of a man, she only has eyes for the baby girl. Jos is ambivalent.

There’s another subplot here that meets up with the baby plot toward the end of the movie. The rich old creeper, played by James Mason, had offered Georgy a lucrative position as his mistress. Georgy was obviously insulted by the offer. She wants someone to love her, and she wants that person to be Jos, or at least not someone old enough to be her grandfather. But by the end of the movie, Creeper’s wife has died, and Creeper is able to upgrade his offer for Georgy from mistress to wife. Georgy accepts, as this arrangement will allow her to drop the pretense of romance with Jos and keep Sara. Sara gets one stable loving, parent, and one parent with pockets deep enough to fund years of therapy. Jos doesn’t have to give up his freedom in swinging London. Meredith’s butt goes back to its normal size. Creeper gets to get it on with a much younger woman. So everyone wins. There’s a perfunctory wedding and the new family rides away into the sunset while the groovy theme music swells.

Ultimately, Georgy Girl is about self-discovery and the search for fulfillment, which Georgy achieves. It’s actually a fun movie, and was probably very heartwarming for its day, but this is the part that actually made me want to start this blog. This movie made me say out loud  “They wouldn’t end it like this today.” In the end, Georgy arranges to adopt Meredith’s baby girl, and marry the rich creeper. Her dreams of being a mother come true, so we’re supposed to think this is great. I just don’t think that in 2013, we would consider marrying a creepy guy you don’t love to be a triumphant ending. I would see it going one of two ways. If today’s Georgy Girl were an indie film, the title character would probably be played by Ellen Page or Zooey Deschanel, and she would use her spunky attitude to support herself and her daughter. If it had a bigger budget, she’d have a rich, handsome love interest played by Joseph Gordon-Levitt or James Franco who would confess his love, adopt the baby as his own and they wouldn’t have a care in the world. Either way, she wouldn’t marry someone she doesn’t love.

But then that got me wondering if the 1966 ending isn’t the more realistic, even though it’s the less ideal one in modern times. We give a lot of lip service to marrying for love, but there are still many ill-advised unions that people either enter or stay in because the people involved feel it’s best for the children. Is the less than ideal ending the more realistic one?

Jaws (…or Before there was Shark Week)

Imagine being this guy’s dentist.

Editor’s note: I’d planned to focus on some more old timey, golden classic films for now, but…I went on vacation. So here, in honor of Discovery Channel’s Shark Week, is Jaws.–Rachel

There’s one film that will always mean summer to me. It will always mean suntan lotion (remember suntan lotion?), cans of Pepsi-Free (remember Pepsi-Free?) and sandwiches embedded with grains of sand.

It’s Jaws. My family’s Northern Michigan lake cottage more closely resembles On Golden Pond than the Atlantic Ocean, but that doesn’t stop a kid with an overactive imagination from making it that way. I make sure that I watch Jaws every year, and I’ve read it about a half-dozen times.

The film opens with a beachfire scene. There’s beer and this being the 70s, I imagine a decent amount of chemical and herbal stimulants might also be present, but I’m really just guessing here. A young couple make their way away from the crowd and down the beach on a skinny-dipping mission. Chrissie, the girl, strips and makes her way into the tranquil, moonlit waters while her partner, Mr. Excitement, passes out on the beach. Chrissie had apparently not received notice that she was a character in a horror movie. If she had, she might have known that the first thing that will get you killed in a horror movie is removing clothing, the second is being intoxicated. Poor Chrissie. Screwed on both counts.

So Poor Chrissie swims out under the gorgeous moon and then. Well. Something starts to nibble on her toes, and it ain’t Mr. Excitement. What follows is a violent and harrowing scene in which something attacks her from below. It’s no less scary with Barbie dolls, or maybe it’s more scary:

She scrambles for a buoy, and we think she’s almost going to make it out. And then. Then, she’s pulled down one final time, her bellowing silenced forever and Mr. Excitement is blissfully unconscious on the shore. The waters are again peaceful and tranquil. This scene in the film and the book are equally affecting. It’ll keep you out of the water forever, or at least a few hours.

In fact, my first exposure to it was finding a mildewed paperback version of the story that someone had left at the cottage. One night, I happened to read the opening passages. Then my mother called me for my bath. So Poor Chrissie and her terror were fresh on my mind as I approached the bathroom. Mom left to go do something else, trusting that I could wash myself, but there was no way I was getting into that tub. NO FREAKIN WAY. Sure, a shark probably wouldn’t get me, but with all those fluffy bubbles, I couldn’t see the bottom. Leaving the safety of the plush orange bathmat could result in the yellow fiberglass slipping away beneath me and falling into a shark-infested saltwater abyss. Instead, I did the sensible thing. I swished an arm into the warm water, wrapped myself in a towel and walked into the hall. My mother stopped me, seeking an explanation for my bone-dry skin. I replied that I’d bathed and dried off already. Unsurprisingly, mom smelled a rat. Somehow, she got me into that tub. I swam constantly, but in the deep recesses of my mind, I never took for granted that any body of water was shark-free. I even remember swimming alone in my high school pool after the team I coached had finished practicing. There were times when I imagined I’d seen a suspicious fin trailing me in the water, and made a hasty grab for my towel. Of course, as a teenage girl swimming alone at night, I was more likely to be killed by an ax murderer. But I digress…and that’s what makes this such an affecting story. It defies reason, and yet it is totally reasonable. No one’s been killed by Freddie Kruger, but people HAVE been killed by sharks. It’s just that the odds aren’t that high. Also, for some reason, watching it makes me crave fish and chips.

But back to our movie. The next morning, Poor Chrissie’s body is found by Amity’s finest, which includes the waterphobic Chief “You’re Gonna Need a Bigger Boat” Brody, played by Roy Scheider. Amity is the kind of quaint New England town that depends on tourist dollars for survival and that really comes alive on Fourth of July. People like to go there, probably eat some lobster and go swimming. But people won’t want to go some place just to eat lobster if they can’t swim without being eaten by a shark. The town PTB keep the shark attack quiet over the protests of wealthy fish scientist Matt “This Was No Boat Accident” Hooper (Richard Dreyfuss) and more attacks continue, most notably against a young boy and what I’ve read was Steven Spielberg’s black lab. That’s when the town decides to get serious about its shark infestation.

Panic ensues the way panic usually does. People do stupid things to try to catch the shark, like dangling a roast off their dock. More people get eaten and the all important summer season becomes less and less successful. So they eventually hire a guy named Quint, who’s sort of a drunken shark-hunting badass. So Bigger Boat, Boating Accident and Quint form an unlikely and uneasy team of shark-hunters to get this sucker who is eating their tourists and their director’s dog. In the end, our hunting party assembles on Quint’s boat (the one that’s not big enough) to try to lure the shark to them and kill it in some way. Because that’s the most logical way to deal with the situation.

You can talk a lot about Jaws without really even talking about the main characters. There’s not a ton of character development. We’re given snippets of the background of everyone and then we fill in the rest. The most telling exposition comes in the form of Robert Shaw’s famous monologue as Quint. The tale of the USS Indianapolis is bone-chilling and probably should have been made into a movie itself.  Here you go. The day after Quint’s famous speech is when the final battle goes down. Some people get eaten and the boat gets destroyed, and eventually the shark gets taken out by the clever use of an oxygen canister.

Jaws is a horror story, but you forget it’s a horror story. The culprit is not a genetic experiment gone wrong, not an escaped creature from a lab, not a vengeful supernatural creature. Part of the power of Jaws is that it won’t happen, but you’re not sure it couldn’t. There are some plot holes, but it’s worth it to set them aside. The science of Jaws is all wrong, and even the author Peter Benchley said he regretted painting the creatures in the extremely negative light that he did. It couldn’t happen, any rational person knows. But…yet people can and do get attacked by sharks, I’ve even written about it. You know it’s not going to happen…and yet…and that’s scary. I mean, Michigan’s freshwater lakes don’t have killer sharks (or do they?), although bull sharks can survive in freshwater. But what if a baby shark somehow got caught in say, the bilge tank of a ship and made its way up the St. Lawrence Seaway into the Great Lakes and then it got into the water supply and then it got into our little inland lake and then it ate me. It happened with zebra mussels…

The other most powerful aspect of Jaws as a film is in what you don’t see. We don’t actually glimpse the shark until more than halfway into the film. The original audiences knew they were going to see a shark movie, but really didn’t get a sense of the scale of the thing, as evidenced by the original trailer. This is what makes it so affecting. We don’t get all the goods, unlike horror movies today. We don’t KNOW how big this fish is. We don’t know how evil it is. For most of the movie, we can only guess. This aspect of the movie was an accident. The robotic shark that had been developed for the film didn’t work very well, so Spielberg had to find out how to make a shark movie mostly without a shark. If the shark had been visible, I don’t’ think Jaws would have become a thing. I think it would just be the kind of bland seventies movie that they show on Saturday afternoons on obscure cable channels with shoddy special effects. If we had to see a movie with a 1970s mechanical shark, it would look pretty silly in 2013 . But because there are so few special effects in Jaws, it holds up much better than it otherwise would. The best effects are the story, the music and the unknown.

So, Jaws. See it, but take your bath first.

The Philadelphia Story (1940)

The Philadelphia Story poster, via Wikipedia

The Philadelphia Story is a 1940 picture starring Katherine Hepburn as Tracy Lord (I know. If you’re a child of the MTV age, you can’t help but think of this person. They’re not the same person,). This Tracy is a rich, young society divorcee about to wed for a second time. Tracy’s first marriage to CJ Dexter Haven, (I know. If you’re a child of cable TV, you can’t help but think of this guy when you hear the name Dexter. They’re not the same person.), ended two years earlier, Dexter punctuated their break-up with a smack that knocked her to the ground. Now, she’s about to marry George Kittredge, a coal-miner-turned-executive who is clearly there for the money and the status. Tracy abhors  publicity in the gossip rags, but that’s exactly what Kittredge wants given his new station in life. It’s plain to see that this union is doomed, and it’s unclear why they got together in the first place, but most of us have an ex like that.

Meanwhile, at the offices of an evil gossip rag, Macaulay Connor is assigned to cover the Lord wedding, along with photographer Liz Imbrie. The pair meet Dexter who, inexplicably, will be a constant presence at the home of his ex-wife during her nuptial weekend. He’s their “in.” Doesn’t seem like a great plan, but it works. Tracy is initially hostile about the reporters’ presence in her home during her wedding prep, but quickly grows fond of Connor (and really, who wouldn’t be fond of Stewart?). The night before her wedding, Tracy gets drunk and is seen looking cozy with Connor. Kittredge sees this and sends her a letter (I know, isn’t that cute? On paper and everything.) the next morning questioning her faithfulness and whether a wedding should even take place. Kittredge is quickly dismissed and Tracy seems set up to marry Connor. After all, she’s already in her dress, and the guests have arrived, so you may as well marry someone. That doesn’t pan out, either. In a contrived bit of plot twisting, Tracy ends up marrying Dexter (remember, not the serial killer), even though he, you know, knocked her to the ground two years earlier. But he’s reformed and looks like Cary Grant and everything, so it’s all good. Also, I don’t think you’re supposed to think about it too hard.

Overall, the material is well-written. It’s a solid romantic comedy with no real surprises. The film only makes passing reference to the fact that Dexter had hit his ex-wife and doesn’t seem too flustered about the issue of domestic violence. Plus, the guy’s supposedly all kinds of reformed so it’s supposed to be considered acceptable by 1940 standards. By today’s not so much, for obvious reasons. The notion of privacy being invaded by a single magazine photo spread is kind of quaint in today’s climate of paparazzi, deliberately leaked sex tapes, celebs posting their dinners to their Instagram accounts and the entire Kardashian family.

Class and privilege are central themes to the movie. Tracy, pampered from birth, hasn’t thought too hard about all of her privilege. She doesn’t grasp the fact that some people, including women, have to work for a living. Connor and Liz serve as character foils. Connor is an aspiring novelist and poet who earns his living as an ink-stained wretch (not unlike myself), and Liz is a divorcee who supports herself with her photography. Tracy doesn’t quite understand why someone would write magazine articles when what they want to be is a respected author (cause, you know, respected authorship just falls out of the sky). On the same level, as a non-wealthy divorcee in 1940, Imbrie is part of an emerging class of female working professional who is in sharp contrast to Tracy, the future Lady Who Lunches. Still, it’s hard to fault Tracy, who seems like a genuinely nice person, just sheltered. I’m sure that in the tail end of the Great Depression and the start of a second World War, Tracy’s gorgeous clothes and society wedding might have provided a nice mental escape. Or they really pissed people off.

The biggest upside of this movie is that Stewart is his usual delightful self and has excellent chemistry with Hepburn. I sensed no chemistry between Grant and Hepburn, which is odd because they had been romantic leads before. Grant seems unnecessary in most scenes; his main purpose is to hook up with Hepburn’s character at the end. Throughout the film, he appears wooden and kind of lost between Stewart and Hepburn. Indeed, it was the film that earned Stewart an Oscar, although he is quoted as saying that Henry Fonda should have won for The Grapes of Wrath. It’s been a while since I’ve seen The Grapes of Wrath, but that was probably a fair assessment. There’s nothing wrong with Stewart, it’s just that it’s a role he could have played half-asleep.

The bottom line: It’s an enjoyable movie if you don’t think too hard about it and you overlook the opening scene.

Some Like it Hot, 1959 (Or, Why do we love it when a man puts on a dress?)

Cover of "Some Like It Hot"

Cover of Some Like It Hot

What is it that makes us so happy when a man puts on a dress?

Some Like it Hot isn’t the first or the last of the man-in-a-dress movies. It’s a remake of a French film from the 1930’s, and it serves as a predecessor to films like Tootsie, Mrs. Doubtfire and The Birdcage. But it is one of the funniest and most enduring.

The film opens in Prohibition-era Chicago, as Joe and Jerry, played by Tony Curtis and Jack Lemmon, respectively, have a sweet gig in a band at a speakeasy. It’s all fun, booze and dancing girls until it gets raided by the cops. Somehow, our two stars manage to escape arrest (their knack for near-misses with danger will be an ongoing theme). Their lives get pretty sucktacular pretty damn quick as they lose their overcoats in a bet and are stuck wandering Chicago coatless in February lugging their instruments. Their luck almost changes when they secure a gig at a Valentine’s Day dance in Urbana, and head to a garage to borrow a car from one of the many women Joe has bedded in the recent past. This is where things go from sucktacular to whatever is much, much worse than sucktacular, when they happen to witness a fictionalized version of the St. Valentine’s Day Massacre orchestrated by mob boss Spats Colombo.

Escaping with only their lives and their instruments Joe does some quick thinking and puts in a call to an agent who was looking for a bass player and saxophonist, the two specialties of Joe and Jerry, except that it’s an all-girl band. Joe raises his voice a few octaves and swiftly secures the spots for himself and his fellow bandmate on the run. Joe and Jerry arrive at the train platform the next morning in full female form. Jerry’s make-up job looks not unlike the Joker from Batman, but it’s good enough to pull off for a few hours. One does wonder how the pair, broke and running for their lives could acquire the full monty so quickly AND learn how to walk in high heels, albeit not very well. And I don’t even want to think about how uncomfortable all that 1920’s underwear would be. Today’s gender-bending mob witnesses at least have the option of grabbing some Spanx at Target on their way out of Dodge. The plan is that they board the train, fall in with the band until they make it to Miami, and then scram.

And then, Sugar comes along walking “like Jell-O on springs,” and the plan all goes to pot. Marilyn Monroe’s Sugar has loved ‘em and lost ‘em, and is one flask away from losing her job as ukulele player and singer in Sweet Sue and her Society Syncopators. Slack-jawed, Joe and Jerry board the train as Josephine and Daphne, and manage to make their way to Florida undetected. That’s where the true hijinks ensue as Daphne/Jerry pulls off swimming in the ocean while not destroying his make-up job, and Joe pulls off the even more improbably feat of courting Sugar while posing as an oil tycoon. In the end, everyone manages to find love, and manage more narrow escapes from Colombo and Co., who just happen to be having a mob shindig at the band’s hotel.

Some Like it Hot is more than just a man-in-a-dress flick, and this is part of what makes it endure. The dialogue is smart and the casting is strong. Monroe brings her typical gorgeousness, radiant smile and flawless skin, but also brings an undercurrent of vulnerability to her role. You really don’t want her to get screwed over again, but you can’t see how there are many other outcomes. Or maybe we’re just all too familiar with what happened to Monroe, and think seeing her happy on-screen will give her a happy ending in life. Curtis and Lemmon work together so seamlessly that they could have easily been a comedy team rivaling Lemmon and Matthau. The modern bromance owes a lot to this crew.

Some Like it Hot serves up helpings of mafia-intrigue, cynicism about prohibition, and romance. But its most obvious nod is to the screwball comedies of the 1930’s. According to the nice people at Turner Classic Movies, Director Billy Wilder planned to shoot the film in color, as required in Monroe’s contract. However, after seeing Curtis and Lemmon dressed as women, he felt black and white would be the better option. If you’re wondering just how bad those make-up jobs looked in color, you can get an idea here.  This helps to give the film not just the fun of the 1930’s, but also the look of the era.

It is also probably the funniest of the “man in a dress” films. We always love it when a man puts on a dress, much like we always give Oscars to the actress who had to ugly-up for her movie. The cross-dressing theme was somewhat risque for the time, but it’s an old-school theme. It was already alive and well in Shakespeare’s day, and even goes back to Greco-Roman and Norse mythology, and it’s not going to go away. Something about the image of a man squeezing into pantyhose and stumbling in high heels is especially entertaining to us on a cellular level. Perhaps because it reflects how ridiculous so many aspects of womanhood are. High heels seem kind of silly and arbitrary after watching Lemmon and Curtis struggle down the platform in them.

If you’re still not convinced, keep in mind that this film was scandalous for its time. The cross-dressing is the obvious culprit, but then there’s also the possibility that Jerry will marry another man, Sugar kissing someone who looks like a woman, and Monroe’s dresses, which leave little to the imagination. Theaters in Kansas supposedly wouldn’t show it, and it didn’t receive approval under the Hays Code. The most fun scandalous rating comes from the National Legion of Decency, which gave it a C for ‘condemned’. If that won’t convince you to see it, I don’t know what will.

What’s this all about?

So I watch a lot of old movies. A few years ago, I made a New Year’s Resolution to watch more old movies. I came up with this idea for a few reasons. First, I realized that there were a lot of classic films that I had never seen. Second, I really have no vices. I’m a social drinker and non-smoker who doesn’t believe in dieting. I mostly stick to decaf. I have accepted that my shoe collection will never be organized in any form or fashion. There really wasn’t much I could cut back on. Third, I thought it would be fun to try something that might actually be, you know, fun. My plan was to watch at least one movie a week that I was too young to have seen in the theater. And I stuck to it pretty faithfully until about June and I  had better things to do. 

So now, I’ve decided to pick it up again. Mostly because I enjoyed it, and also because I really had no one to discuss the films with. So often, I’d think “They wouldn’t end it that way today.” And when you meet a friend for lunch and they ask what’s up and you start going on about a 50-year-old Elizabeth Taylor film they kind of look at you as though you’re strange. Also, blogging is what we writers do now, and I thought this might be more interesting than writing about parenting and cats. 

Editor’s Note of Warning: I’m just a person who watches movies. I’m not any sort of film expert or insider. As a feminist, I am especially interested in how films portray and have portrayed women and women’s issues, but that won’t necessarily be the focus of every movie or post. Feel free to agree or disagree. I really have no ego invested in this. I’m just a person who watches movies.