A penny saved is ridiculous.

A penny saved is ridiculous.

Wednesday, July 13, 2011

Let's get serious


During our occasional lunches, my friend Ray Smith is always very patient with me when I go on and on about the latest big summer movies, genre-oriented television series, and other fantasy, science-fiction and adventure offerings on TV and the big screen. He even takes my advice sometimes and experiences some of the things I talk about, the latest examples including J.J. Abrams’ monster adventure Super 8 and the HBO series Game of Thrones. He enjoyed both.

He did ask me for a favor, though. As creative and fun many genre movies and television shows can be, he told me, it’s important that we don’t lose sight of the more subtle artistry of the serious American drama, the kinds of stories that don’t employ CGI, big special effects, casts of thousands, and bombastic scores. Ray asked that if he compiled a list of some of his favorite dramas of the American screen, would I seek them out and discover them for myself. Absolutely, I told him.

So, shortly after our talk, Ray forwarded to me a generous list of not-to-be-missed serious American films (a baker’s dozen plus a bonus, as he put it). As I suspected it would be, Ray’s list is compelling and exciting, and has sent me scurrying to my Netflix account to line up as many of these movies as I can for home viewing.

Also suspecting that the intelligent, well-read readers of Kindle Taproom might also enjoy Ray’s list, I’m including it here, split into two posts of seven movies each. I’m also including Ray’s extremely interesting capsule descriptions of the films he selected. Oh, one more thing: Ray said that all his selections are dramas that in some way involve the American family, and American family issues. All the better to ratchet up the dramatic tension! A future list of Ray’s will involve other themes. So, without further ado, here we go...

14 American dramas, involving families, that everyone should see (part one):

Picnic (1955)- Directed by Joshua Logan. Starring William Holden, Kim Novak, Rosalind Russell, Cliff Robertson (film debut), Arthur O’Connell, and Susan Strasburg. One of my top five favorite films. This is an adaptation of William Inge’s Pulitzer Prize winning play of small town family conflicts during a particular Labor Day. Great example of how to “open up” a basically intimate drama. Cast is uniformly great, with Russell and O’Connell being particular standouts. Novak never did anything better.

The Dark at the Top of the Stairs (1960)- Directed by Delbert Mann. Starring Robert Preston, Dorothy Maguire, Shirley Knight, Eve Arden, and Angela Lansbury. Another Inge drama, this one set in the 1920s. Not too well known today, this drama of a couple trying to save their passionless marriage also embraces racial and religious bigotry. The great comedienne Eve Arden has a rare dramatic role.

All Fall Down (1962)- Directed by John Frankenheimer. Starring Warren Beatty, Eva Marie Saint, Angela Lansbury, Karl Malden, and Brandon DeWilde. From another William Inge play, this story involves a loving family who idolizes its narcissistic son and tries to remain oblivious to the emotional ruin he creates. This is the film Frankenheimer made Frank Sinatra watch in order to secure Lansbury for the mother’s role in The Manchurian Candidate. Sinatra wanted Lucille Ball!

Toys In The Attic (1963)- Directed by George Roy Hill. Starring Dean Martin, Geraldine Page, Wendy Hiller, Yvette Mimieux, and Gene Tierney. A bit watered down from the original play by Lillian Hellman, but still a powerful story of two sisters obsessed with supporting the dreams and illusions of their profligate brother. A mixed race relationship is toned down considerably, but it’s there. Tierney’s last film of consequence.

Come Back, Little Sheba (1952)- Directed by Daniel Mann. Starring Shirley Booth, Burt Lancaster, Terry Moore, and Richard Jeackel. Booth won both Broadway’s Tony and the Academy Award for Best Actress for her portrayal of Lola Delaney, a slovenly, delusional middle-aged housewife who tries to cope with the loss of her husband’s love and his alcoholism. Lancaster is too young to play her husband “Doc”, but he is terrific, too. And Booth will, quite simply, break your heart.

Summer and Smoke (1961)- Directed by Peter Glenville. Starring Geraldine Page, Lawrence Harvey, Una Merkel, Pamela Tiffin, Rita Moreno, Thomas Gomez, and John McIntire. From the play by Tennessee Williams. An aging, uptight spinster, caring for her loveless, judgmental parents, carries a lifelong love for a shallow, rakish man-about-town doctor who was a childhood friend. Beautifully filmed, with one of Elmer Bernstein’s most haunting scores. After a life time of comedy roles Una Merkel was nominated for Supporting Actress as the deliciously vicious mother.

The Subject Was Roses (1968)- Directed by Ula Grosbard. Starring Patricia Neal, Jack Albertson, and Martin Sheen. From Frank D. Gilroy’s Pulitzer Prize winning play, this is the story of a young soldier who comes home from World War II to face the quiet wreckage of his parents’ marriage. This was Neal’s comeback film after her tragic strokes. Albertson won Best Supporting Actor. Another great example of opening up a play to good advantage.

The rest of Ray’s list will be posted shortly. In the meantime, get busy updating your Netflix queue or checking Turner Classic Movies' July and August listings!

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