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Sunday, May 15, 2016

Five Movies on an Island -- with my Dad

This is my entry in the "5 Movies on an Island" blogathon to celebrate "National Classic Movie Day" on May 16th, hosted by Classic Film & TV Cafe.
Everyone who knew him would agree with me that my Dad was a modern Renaissance man.  A Ph.D. scientist by practice, he loved and made a study of the arts and literature in his spare time. His primary love was classical music, especially opera, and he taught opera appreciation later in his life.  I was just starting to adore classic film when I lost Dad, but nevertheless, he also loved classic film, and I have fond memories of sharing some with him, starting from when I was a child through to the last year we had together.  May 16 is Dad's birthday, and this year he will be gone five years. This post is dedicated to him, and if I ever found myself on a desert island, I'd hope to have with me these five films, that he and I shared, to remember him.

Presented in the order I watched them with Dad, they are:
SCROOGE aka A Christmas Carol (1951)
This would perhaps be on my top ten favorite films list in any case.  Count me among those who believe Alastair Sim's portrayal of Scrooge is the best ever on film, because of his treating the character as a real person.  His deeply psychological portrait of a man who hates himself, and thus everyone around him, is compellingly nuanced.  The terrific supporting cast of Kathleen Harrison, Mervyn Johns, Hermione Baddeley, and Michael Hordern, and taught direction of Brian Desmond Hurst, contribute to making the film one that, in the words of Leonard Maltin, is too good to be viewed only at Christmas.  My earliest recollection of this film was when I was perhaps about 10 years old, and late on a winter's evening I tiptoed into our family room to see that my Dad was on his own watching this blurry, scratchy old B&W film on the TV.  "What's this?", I asked.  "It's 'A Christmas Carol' -- from the 50's, the best movie version", Dad replied.  I chuckled in disbelief -- "This??"  It looked so ancient and uninviting.  It must have been a very poor print.  I shook my head and walked away from the TV.  Decades later I want to tell my Dad that this film is a holiday ritual for me, and that of course, as usual, he was right.

I was in college and on summer break, staying with my parents in our family home, when Dad checked this film out of the video store and announced it was going to be our evening's entertainment.  When I asked him what the film was about, I knew immediately what his attraction was.  It was a story about a opera-loving man (Klaus Kinski) determined, against all odds, to build an opera house in the middle of the Amazon jungle, and to engage the eminent Enrico Caruso to sing there.  As directed by Werner Herzog, and produced in Germany, I recall it being a somewhat surrealistic journey, fraught with madness and danger, excitement and love.  I confess to not appreciating it those many years ago, but I saw my Dad smile as he watched.  It's now considered one of Herzog's best, and for me, with my new love of film, more than deserving of another viewing.  Having this on a desert island will give me more than enough time to plumb the depths of vision and meaning that Herzog brought to this tale.

THE SEARCHERS is a film that existed in my imagination for many years before I ever saw it.  As a teenager, I was fascinated with Buddy Holly and his music, and was familiar with the story that Buddy Holly & the Crickets' first big hit "That'll be the Day," was inspired by the phrase repeated often by John Wayne in this movie.  I hadn't heard any more about the film for many years since then, but in recent years I began to see it popping up in lists of the best films of all time, best westerns, etc.  [I was impressed --Buddy Holly and his friends had good taste in movies as well as music!]  In 2009, I decided to finally see it, prompted by a friend who was on a mission to see every film in the AFI's top 100.  I rented it, and decided to watch it one day when my parents were visiting me here in Boston.  Neither of them recalled seeing it, but thought that they might have when it first came out in theaters in 1956.  When the credits rolled, Mom, Dad, and I agreed we had seen something special--an epic performance by Wayne and a classic of storytelling, framing, and cinematography.  Knowing that my Dad appreciated seeing this as I did, made me feel like I had accomplished a mission in more ways than one. This film also has enough beauty and characterizations to make multiple desert-island viewings a great pleasure.

LA GRANDE ILLUSION (1937) -- Dad was the one who introduced this Jean Renoir film to me.  As he took advantage of his membership in the now defunct Blockbuster video mail order service, he came across this one and brought the DVD along on another trip to Boston.  I had not yet entered fully into my classic film obsession, but I remember being open to this film, as I'd heard of Erich von Stroheim, and was eager to see a war film from an earlier era; at the time, I had become a fan of WWII films and stories, being turned on to them by Clint Eastwood's filming of FLAGS OF OUR FATHERS and LETTERS FROM IWO JIMA.  This B&W film grabbed me initially by the colorful characters portrayed by von Stroheim & Jean Gabin, the multiple languages spoken, and the poignant anti-war message camouflaged by humor and romance.  It is a film that should remind us in any era that we are all human, and most of all deserve respect from one another.  The film also started Dad on an appreciation of French cinema, an interest he explored in the last years of his life by taking a course from his local 'institute of learning in retirement' on films from Truffaut and Malle.

Buster Keaton -- the Shorts Collection.
I credit Buster with setting my feet solidly on the path to classic film obsession. On a lark, I'd brought a friend with me to a local screening of STEAMBOAT BILL JR with live music.  Shortly after that, I was exploring classic film starting with the silent comedians, Buster Keaton first, followed by Chaplin, watching everything they ever made.  One of my Christmas gifts that year was this multiple disc set from Kino.  As my parents and sister were visiting for the holidays, I 'subjected' them to watching these whenever we needed some down time.  To my great surprise, my Dad and sister both enjoyed them almost as much as I did.  Our favorites were probably COPS, ONE WEEK, and THE BALLOONATIC.  Once we finished a short, it was hard to keep from watching the next one.  I remember saying to my Dad, "Up for another?"  He replied, "Yes, they're addictive, aren't they?"

Over the last months of Dad's life he and I corresponded by phone and email about classic film, both of us watching and discussing some of the Truffaut and Malle films he was studying in his short course. I wish I'd have had more time to explore with him this mutual interest, but am tremendously grateful for the love of art and classics in general that Dad made it a priority to share with me.  Along with many other memories, these films will always be linked to his memory in my mind.


  1. Bonding through film, or any love of the creative arts, touches us deeply as what we appreciate says so much about who we are. Buster and Ebenezer and Ethan are old friends. I'll soon catch up with your other two choices.

    1. You're so right, Patricia. Thank you for the comment. And you can't go wrong with any of these characters, or films, desert island or no. :-)

  2. Great idea for a post. Very touching.