Every year for the Summer Classic Film Series, we provide film notes that take you behind-the-scenes of your favorite movies to learn a bit more about how they were made and the people who made them. This year, in the interest of reducing person-to-person contact, we are putting these notes here on our site so that you can enjoy them at your convenience before or after you see the film.
Jump to a specific film:
A Hard Day’s Night | Back to the Future | The Big Lebowski | Blade Runner: The Final Cut | Cabaret | Casablanca | Devil in a Blue Dress | Do the Right Thing | Double Indemnity | Ghostbusters | The Goonies | Jaws | Mary Poppins | The Princess Bride | Purple Rain | Raiders of the Lost Ark | Selena
Listed alphabetically by film title.
Director: Michael Curtiz
Screenplay: Julius J. Epstein, Philip G. Epstein, Howard Koch
Cinematography: Arthur Edeson
Editor: Owen Marks
Music: Max Steiner
Cast: Humphrey Bogart, Ingrid Bergman, Paul Henreid, Claude Rains, Conrad Veidt, Sydney Greenstreet, Peter Lorre
CASABLANCA first arrived in theaters in 1942, and, since then, seemingly every iconic moment and unforgettable one-liner from this beloved film has permeated our popular culture, to the extent that people who have never even seen the movie feel as if they have. Such lasting impact usually results from a rare combination of great artists doing the best work of their career and, let’s face it, pure luck.
For example, what if the strict film censorship of the 1940s hadn’t essentially forced the movie to end the way it does (perfectly, as it turns out)? What if, instead of Humphrey Bogart, the role of Rick Blaine had been granted to the rumored front-runner…Ronald Reagan? What if an unproduced play titled “Everybody Comes to Rick’s” hadn’t been unearthed from a pile of discarded work headed for the trashcan?
As most classic movie fans are well aware, the Golden Age of Hollywood was filled to the brim with adaptations. Every literary best-seller and Broadway blockbuster put stars (not to mention dollar signs) in the eyes of studio executives all over Los Angeles, and major motion pictures were being developed from these popular favorites by the hundreds.
What you didn’t often see, however, was an unproduced play getting the star treatment from a major studio like Warner Bros, yet that’s exactly what happened with “Everybody Comes to Rick’s,” an unproven commodity from stage writers Murray Burnett and Joan Alison. A Warner story analyst initially thought the piece was “sophisticated hokum,” but by the time the studio was done with it, CASABLANCA would be considered one of the greatest movies ever made.
Most people credit the film’s greatness to its script, but good luck figuring out precisely to whom that credit belongs. Though the script is often credited to the twin brothers Julius J. and Philip G. Epstein (who were the first to be assigned to the project), they weren’t entirely present for the formative stages of the script’s life. In fact, they elected to join Frank Capra in the making of WHY WE FIGHT after the attack on Pearl Harbor, so Howard Koch took over on CASABLANCA. And those are just the credited writers; the uncredited Casey Robinson reportedly spent nearly three weeks on rewrites, and producer Hal Wallis claims the legendary final line came from his own pen.
Of course, we wouldn’t even care who wrote the lines if they hadn’t been delivered so perfectly by CASABLANCA’s extraordinary cast. As is so often the case with classic films, our enjoyment relies as much on the charismatic star wattage of the top-billed names as it does on the supporting cast filling in the gaps. Bogart and Bergman give us one of the screen’s most captivating romances, managing to portray both once-in-a-lifetime love and devastating heartbreak with equal dexterity. As if that weren’t enough, they’ve got beloved personalities like the impish Claude Rains, the underhanded Sydney Greenstreet, and the slithery Peter Lorre adding a touch of humor and a little intrigue to the proceedings.
With that script and these actors, it’s no wonder CASABLANCA has become an annual tradition not only for the Paramount but for movie lovers everywhere. It’s the kind of film you can easily watch once a year (some of us could probably make that once a month), and it will never get old. Does that mean it’s a “perfect” film? If such a thing is possible, I can’t imagine a better candidate for the job.
–Stephen Jannise, Film Programmer
Director: Bob Fosse
Screenplay: Jay Allen
Cinematography: Geoffrey Unsworth
Editor: David Bretherton
Music and Lyrics: John Kander and Fred Ebb
Cast: Liza Minnelli, Michael York, Helmut Griem, Joel Grey
In 1969, director Bob Fosse released his cinematic adaptation of SWEET CHARITY, which proved to be such a calamitous flop that you’d think Fosse would’ve been discouraged from making another movie musical. But luckily for us, the man had confidence, and three years later he gave us CABARET.
CABARET took just about the longest route possible to the silver screen, going from book to play to movie drama to stage musical and finally to movie musical. Once Christopher Isherwood’s short stories became Kander and Ebb’s hit Broadway musical, it was only a matter of time before the captivating story and those unforgettable songs found their way into cinemas. But it didn’t happen right away; in fact, long before Fosse’s version hit the screen, there were plans to do it with off-screen couple Warren Beatty and Julie Christie (say what?).
Many things were changed from both the stories and the stage musical in the transition to the screen, and Kander and Ebb actually wrote three new songs for the movie that are now considered crucial and performed in current stage versions (“Mein Herr,” “Money,” and “Maybe This Time”).
These new songs, particularly that third one, gave the film’s leading lady, Liza Minnelli, a chance to truly shine (not to mention her first opportunity to sing onscreen). Minnelli had actually auditioned for the role on Broadway, and many were stunned that she hadn’t gotten the part. But thankfully she got to play the role in the movies, leaving us a wonderful record of her considerable talents.
The film received raves from critics, performed very well at the box office, and was showered with Oscars, including Best Actress for Minnelli and Best Supporting Actor for Joel Grey (for playing the unforgettable “Master of Ceremonies,” a role he had originated in the Broadway version). In fact, the film holds the records for most Oscars won by a film that didn’t win Best Picture.
In all that outpouring of affection, no one received more praise than Fosse, who added the Oscar for Best Director to his Tony Award that year for “Pippin” and his Emmy award (also that year) for directing Minnelli’s television special “Liza with a Z,” making him the first director to win all three awards in the same year. Now that’s a comeback.
–Stephen Jannise, Film Programmer
Do the Right Thing
Director: Spike Lee
Screenplay: Spike Lee
Cinematography: Ernest Dickerson
Editor: Barry Alexander Brown
Music: Bill Lee
Cast: Danny Aiello, Ossie Davis, Ruby Dee, Richard Edson, Giancarlo Esposito, Spike Lee, Bill Nunn, John Turturro, Paul Benjamin, Frankie Faison
After making a name for himself with his first two films, SHE’S GOTTA HAVE IT and SCHOOL DAZE, Spike Lee began to think about what he wanted to say with his third project. At first, all he had was a title (HEAT WAVE), and he was keeping his eyes open for inspiration. As a series of racially-charged incidents rocked New York City in the late 1980s, Lee decided he would address this toxic hatred head-on with a film set in Brooklyn during the hottest day of the year. In the end, he got to make the exact film he set out to make, with the only change being a new title: DO THE RIGHT THING.
But he certainly had to fight for this film, particularly when its original studio, Paramount Pictures, grew increasingly concerned over the subject matter and ultimately refused to release it. Luckily, Lee found support at Universal Studios, where executives Sean Daniel and Tom Pollock had already gained a great deal of experience in defending challenging films when they released Martin Scorsese’s incendiary THE LAST TEMPTATION OF CHRIST. Far from being frightened by that earlier experience, Daniel and Pollock were excited to lend their support to another film with something to say.
Once the studio situation got sorted out, Lee could move on to casting the film. He initially reached out to Robert De Niro for the part of Sal Fragione, a white pizza parlor owner in the neighborhood of Bedford-Stuyvesant in Brooklyn. De Niro passed on the project, leading Lee to Danny Aiello. Though Aiello was certainly not the household name that De Niro was, he was certainly having a moment in popular culture thanks to his performance as Cher’s fiancé in MOONSTRUCK and his appearance as Madonna’s rotten father in the “Papa, Don’t Preach” music video. Aiello accepted the role, setting himself on a cinematic collision course with Lee’s character Mookie, the pizza parlor’s only Black employee.
Using the clout granted to him by Universal executives, Lee ensured that there were opportunities for Black filmmakers not only in front of the camera but also behind the scenes, opening doors for Black technicians and crewmembers to participate in the typically white-dominated trade unions. Also, despite studio pleas to shoot in Los Angeles, Lee got his wish to shoot on location in Brooklyn, providing the film with its authentic atmosphere.
DO THE RIGHT THING divided critics (some of whom lazily labeled the film as “reckless” and engaged in fearmongering by saying it would generate more race riots – it didn’t), and it was passed over for the top prize at the Cannes Film Festival in favor of Steven Soderbergh’s SEX, LIES AND VIDEOTAPE. The film wasn’t even nominated for the Best Picture Oscar, which ultimately went to DRIVING MISS DAISY that year. But in terms of lasting resonance, none of these films can match the legacy of Lee’s masterpiece.
–Stephen Jannise, Film Programmer
Back to the Future
Director: Robert Zemeckis
Screenplay: Robert Zemeckis, Bob Gale
Cinematography: Dean Cundey
Editors: Harry Keramidas, Arthur Schmidt
Music: Alan Silvestri
Cast: Michael J. Fox, Christopher Lloyd, Lea Thompson, Crispin Glover, Thomas F. Wilson
Few movies are more fun to watch than Robert Zemeckis’ BACK TO THE FUTURE, which weaves an intricate, cleverly written story that takes us to the past and future and back again.
This dazzling film introduces us to restless high-schooler Marty McFly, who would soon become a pop culture legend thanks to the performance of Michael J. Fox. At the time, Fox was enjoying the height of popularity thanks to his starring role on the hit TV series “Family Ties,” and Fox carried every last ounce of his charm from that show to this film, making him an instant box office sensation.
And who could forget the eccentric Dr. Emmett Brown (or “Doc”), unforgettably played by funnyman Christopher Lloyd. Together, these two formed one of the very best duos in the history of movies. All whiz-bang effects and sharp time-travel plotting aside, these two characters and the wonderful actors who portrayed them are the real reason we keep coming back for one viewing after another.
But, wow, what clever writing it is, too. No matter how many times you see the film, you have to marvel at all the laughs the film gets from this sudden intrusion into the 1950s by a teenager from the 1980s. Anytime Marty forgets where…I mean, when…he is and orders drinks that don’t exist or suggests that a movie star will become president, he draws the most hilarious blank stares.
But the laughs and anachronisms aren’t the only remarkable thing about the film. Any decent screenwriter could come up with a time-travel story, but writer/director Robert Zemeckis and his co-writer Bob Gale went the extra mile to add human elements to the mix.
The idea that a boy could get lost in the past is intriguing enough, but having his own mother (as a teenager) fall in love with him? That’s the stroke of brilliance that takes the film to a whole new level. It’s every teenager’s dream to have someone develop a crush on them, but what if that someone was your own mother and that crush might very well prevent you from being born in the first place?
With a crackerjack plot like that, it’s no wonder that BACK TO THE FUTURE was the number one box office hit of 1985. Its dominance of pop culture at the time even extended to the radio, where Huey Lewis and the News’ song from the film (“The Power of Love”) topped the charts for several weeks. Considering the film’s success, it came as no surprise that plans were immediately put into motion for sequels, which are also incredibly fun to watch.
–Stephen Jannise, Film Programmer
Raiders of the Lost Ark
Director: Steven Spielberg
Screenplay: Lawrence Kasdan
Cinematography: Douglas Slocombe
Editor: Michael Kahn
Music: John Williams
Cast: Harrison Ford, Karen Allen, Paul Freeman, Ronald Lacey, John Rhys-Davies, Denholm Elliott, Alfred Molina
No one was enjoying more success in Hollywood than Steven Spielberg and George Lucas when they met in the summer of 1977 to discuss the idea that would become RAIDERS OF THE LOST ARK. Two years earlier, Spielberg had guided the aquatic thriller JAWS to the title of highest-grossing film of all time, a record that was about to crumble in May 1977 when Lucas’s own STAR WARS began outperforming even the wildest expectations.
So, when the two reigning box-office champions joined each other in Hawaii to toast/escape from the staggering global success of STAR WARS, it seemed only natural that another major idea would come up in conversation. Lucas mentioned that, back in 1973, he had written an idea for a movie called “The Adventures of Indiana Smith,” a tribute to the rousing adventure serials of the 30’s and 40’s. After Spielberg said he loved everything about it but the last name, Lucas came back with a new name and a fleshed-out story so chock-full of grand ideas that some of them had to be shelved and eventually used in the sequel.
Though they had settled on the name of Indiana Jones, Lucas and Spielberg were initially at odds about what type of man this Dr. Jones would be. Lucas had in mind a world-traveling, womanizing playboy akin to James Bond, while Spielberg saw him as more of a Bogart-type with a bit of a drinking problem. Ultimately, neither idea won out as it was decided that simply being an archaeologist who cracks bullwhips and catches rides underneath Nazi semi-trucks was entertainment enough.
With the story and the hero all set, the time came to find someone to pay for all of this. When you watch the finished product, it doesn’t take long to notice just how much money went into its making. Even with their considerable pedigree, Lucas and Spielberg did not have an easy time convincing executives to foot this large of a bill. However, demonstrating just how savvy they were, Lucas and Spielberg made sure they were prepared by storyboarding every last frame and keeping the production on a very tight shooting schedule.
Once that shooting schedule began, the Indiana Jones set became a wild and crazy place, featuring everything from Nazi submarines (borrowed from the set of DAS BOOT) to dozens of poisonous snakes, which were actually just a bunch of giant legless lizards. Well, mostly: there’s no mistaking that the snake staring Indy down in the Well of Souls is an honest-to-goodness cobra. In the original releases of the film, before it was digitally remastered and enhanced in the 2000s, if you looked hard enough you could see reflections in the glass pane protecting Harrison Ford from the venomous viper.
Speaking of Ford, the super-stardom he received as a result of this movie was certainly well-deserved – he was quite the trooper during the production. In the course of making this film, an airplane ran over Ford’s knee (!), his ribs were bruised while being dragged behind a moving truck, and he was sickened with food poisoning in Tunisia along with most of the crew. It was this very sickness that gave us one of the most memorable scenes in the movie: when Indy decides to shoot one of the baddies rather than use his whip, it’s not because Ford wasn’t proficient enough with the weapon. It’s because he was so weak he could barely stand.
Among the other burdens Ford had to deal with was that iconic fedora; like all good adventure heroes, Indy needed to do all his stunts without losing his hat. Found on Saville Row by costume designer Deborah Nadoolman and aged by Ford himself, the hat not only added personality to the character but also allowed the stunt doubles to step in without being noticed. In fact, that’s lead stuntman Terry Leonard being dragged underneath the moving truck, a visual tribute to the stunts performed by Yakima Canutt in John Ford’s STAGECOACH. Fun fact: the truck driver who gets punched in the face by Ford? Also Terry Leonard.
With stunts like these, mind-boggling practical effects, another legendary score from John Williams, and the guiding hands of Lucas and Spielberg, it’s no surprise that RAIDERS was the highest-grossing film of 1981 and remains one of the top twenty highest-grossing films of all time (adjusted for inflation). More importantly, it’s a timeless adventure yarn that continues to remind us how immediate and thrilling a movie can be when the boulders are real, not computer-animated.
–Stephen Jannise, Film Programmer
Blade Runner: The Final Cut
Director: Ridley Scott
Screenplay: Hampton Fancher, David Webb Peoples
Cinematography: Jordan Cronenweth
Editor: Marsha Nakashima, Terry Rawlings
Cast: Harrison Ford, Rutger Hauer, Sean Young, Edward James Olmos, M. Emmet Walsh, Daryl Hannah
Ridley Scott’s BLADE RUNNER was released on the exact same day as John Carpenter’s THE THING. So, if you were a sci-fi-crazy moviegoer in 1982, you were in cinematic nirvana! However, it wouldn’t have been quite the same experience as the one you’re about to have, since the version you would have seen in 1982 differed greatly from the version we will watch today.
In its original theatrical release, BLADE RUNNER was significantly altered from the vision that Scott and star Harrison Ford had for the film. Whereas Scott and Ford had fought to make a subtle film that never talked down to its audience, producers and executives were convinced that their version was too complicated and difficult to follow.
The biggest change these neurotic financiers forced onto the film was a series of narrative voiceovers spoken by Ford that essentially held viewers’ hands through the film they were watching. The quality of those voiceovers was so bad that, for years, BLADE RUNNER fans were convinced that Ford performed them poorly on purpose in the hopes that they wouldn’t be used. But in 2002, Ford insisted, “I delivered it to the best of my ability, given that I had no input. I never thought they’d use it. But I didn’t try and sandbag it. It was simply bad narration.”
Thankfully, over the years, a number of different director’s cuts were released, bringing us closer and closer to Ridley Scott’s original vision until we finally arrived at the “Final Cut” you will see today.
Here, in all its glory, is the dark, mysterious, noir-esque sci-fi treasure that Scott always intended it to be. Gone are the voiceovers as well as the studio-enforced happy ending that had been tacked onto the theatrical release. This was always a gritty and hard-edged film tinged with despair, and now it has the ending it deserves.
What that ending means for the characters is anybody’s guess (even after the sequel BLADE RUNNER 2049, many questions remain), and that very open-endedness is what so often defines great art.
–Stephen Jannise, Film Programmer
Director: Richard Donner
Screenplay: Chris Columbus
Cinematography: Nick McLean
Editor: Michael Kahn
Music: Dave Grusin
Cast: Sean Astin, Josh Brolin, Jeff Cohen, Corey Feldman, Kerri Green, Martha Plimpton, Ke Huy Quan, Joe Pantoliano, Anne Ramsey
At the peak of his filmmaking powers, Steven Spielberg had so many great ideas that he didn’t even have enough time to direct them all, which was a boon for other directors hoping to get their own big break.
The first example of this phenomenon was POLTERGEIST. Spielberg co-wrote the film and was excited about getting it made, but contractual obligations on E.T. THE EXTRA-TERRESTRIAL prevented him from taking the director’s chair on the project, leaving the job in the capable hands of Austin’s own Tobe Hooper (THE TEXAS CHAIN SAW MASSACRE).
It happened again a few years later with THE GOONIES. In this case, Spielberg came up with the initial story but ultimately decided to take a backseat in the creative process as a producer, focusing instead on his Oscar-nominated adaptation of THE COLOR PURPLE. Script duties were assigned to Chris Columbus, who had proven himself a genre master one year earlier with his screenplay for GREMLINS. His script for THE GOONIES proved to be another success story, and he ultimately parlayed this winning streak into a prosperous directing career, helming such beloved classics as HOME ALONE, MRS. DOUBTFIRE, and the first two HARRY POTTER films.
But the direction of THE GOONIES fell to Richard Donner, who by this time had already made one of the all-time-great horror films (THE OMEN) and one of the all-time-great superhero films (SUPERMAN). Unsurprisingly, he turned today’s film into one of the all-time-great cinematic adventure yarns.
Donner would later admit that the many special effects headaches he encountered on SUPERMAN couldn’t prepare him for one of the most challenging tasks a director could ever face: working with a large group of young actors. Though his cast for THE GOONIES were always professional and delivered remarkable performances, he recalls how difficult it was to manage them when they were all together.
His efforts certainly paid off. The film arrived in the summer of 1985 to enthusiastic reviews and great box office results. As they had with POLTERGEIST, there were those in the industry who loudly wondered how much Spielberg had “helped” the officially credited director in the making of the film. The posters certainly didn’t help — the usual credit “A Richard Donner Film” was printed below the film title. Above the title? “Steven Spielberg Presents.”
–Stephen Jannise, Film Programmer
Director: Ivan Reitman
Screenplay: Dan Aykroyd, Harold Ramis
Music: Elmer Bernstein
Cinematography: Laszlo Kovacs
Editor: David E. Blewitt, Sheldon Kahn
Cast: Bill Murray, Dan Aykroyd, Sigourney Weaver, Harold Ramis, Rick Moranis
At first glance, horror and comedy, occupying extreme opposite ends of the spectrum, don’t seem to go together. Especially not in films where fans and audiences of both genres spend their hard-earned money to see either a film that scares them or makes them laugh. But surely, not a film that does both?
But horror and comedy have often been mixed together in films, creating some truly entertaining pictures that manage to both shock and amuse. James Whale’s immortal BRIDE OF FRANKENSTEIN (1935) is leavened with rich, sardonic black humor while Bob Hope mugged and joked his way through THE CAT AND THE CANARY (1939) and THE GHOST BREAKERS (1940). The Three Stooges met a few monsters in their two-reelers from Columbia Pictures while The Bowery Boys starred in SPOOK BUSTERS (1946), GHOST CHASERS (1951), THE BOWERY BOYS MEET THE MONSTERS (1954) and SPOOK CHASERS (1957). Horror icon Bela Lugosi appeared in such low-budget horror comedies as SPOOKS RUN WILD (1941) and GHOSTS ON THE LOOSE (1943). And who can forget the Don Knotts classic THE GHOST AND MR. CHICKEN (1966) and Mel Brooks’ hysterically funny YOUNG FRANKENSTEIN (1974)? There are many other such films – tonight, we have one of the most iconic horror comedies of all time.
In GHOSTBUSTERS, comedians Bill Murray, Dan Aykroyd, Harold Ramis and Ernie Hudson, play a team of eccentric parapsychologists in New York City who go into business as professional ghost catchers. They start out with small stuff, like a green “slimer” ghost in the New York public library, but when they are hired by Sigourney Weaver, they find themselves in over their heads and facing a threat of cosmic proportions.
The GHOSTBUSTERS screenplay was originally written by Dan Aykroyd as a project for himself and fellow Saturday Night Live alumnus John Belushi. Aykroyd’s script was overly ambitious, calling for many very expensive special effects and was ultimately deemed impractical to produce by director Ivan Reitman. Aykroyd and Harold Ramis took Reitman’s advice and re-worked the material in 1982. They wrote roles specifically for John Belushi and John Candy, but Belushi died tragically and Candy wouldn’t commit to the film.
GHOSTBUSTERS was released in the United States on June 8th, 1984, and it quickly became both a critical and commercial success. The film grossed $242 million in the United States and more than $295 million worldwide. It earned two Oscar nominations: Best Visual Effects and Best Original Song (the theme song, by Ray Parker Jr., was a hit single, receiving much airplay while the soundtrack album became a bestseller).
GHOSTBUSTERS quickly became an indelible part of American pop culture. It ranks number 28 on the American Film Institute’s list of 100 Years…100 Laughs. A sequel, GHOSTBUSTERS II followed in 1989 as well as two animated cartoon series, video games, toys, action figures, comic books and clothing tie-ins.
The Princess Bride
Director: Rob Reiner
Screenplay: William Goldman
Cinematography: Adrian Biddle
Editing: Robert Leighton
Music: Mark Knopfler
Cast: Cary Elwes, Robin Wright, Mandy Patinkin, Chris Sarandon, Christopher Guest, Wallace Shawn, Andre the Giant, Fred Savage, Peter Falk, Carol Kane, Billy Crystal
Rob Reiner got a great many gifts from his father, Carl Reiner, including a sharp sense of humor and the ability to direct or act in what would become legendary comedies. But one of the very best gifts Reiner ever received from his dad was the 1973 William Goldman novel, The Princess Bride, a gift that would set one of the most beloved films of all time into motion.
The younger Reiner fell in love with the book and reread it often over the years. After starring in one of the most-watched TV shows of all time, “All in the Family,” and stunning Hollywood with the massive success of his directorial debut, THIS IS SPINAL TAP, Reiner knew that he wanted to use his newfound clout to adapt THE PRINCESS BRIDE as a feature film.
Just one small problem: he wasn’t the first person to have that idea. As it turns out, many other studios and filmmakers had tried and failed to bring Goldman’s work to the big screen. Richard Lester (A HARD DAY’S NIGHT, SUPERMAN II) was the first to attempt it in the mid-70s, and Francois Truffaut, Robert Redford and Norman Jewison all met with the same dead end.
That’s a long list of major names who couldn’t get this project off the ground, and yet, after a successful meeting in which he clicked with Goldman on their vision for a film, Reiner moved forward on his version with confidence. Though Superman himself, Christopher Reeve, had once been considered for the heroic role of Westley, Reiner would only accept Cary Elwes for the part after seeing him play the romantic lead in a British period piece called LADY JANE. As fate would have it, Elwes had also been a fan of the novel since childhood.
The rest of the cast is a veritable who’s-who of character actors, comedy legends and pop culture icons. You’ve got the man the 80s loved to hate, Chris Sarandon, as the wretched Prince Humperdinck, the always amazing Robin Wright in the title role, and wrestling mega star Andre the Giant as, well, a giant wrestler. If it’s laughs you’re after, look no further than Billy Crystal, Carol Kane, Wallace Shawn, SPINAL TAP’s Christopher Guest, and the list goes on and on.
Believe it or not, the film was only moderately successful at the box office, earning $30 million on its $15 million budget. But, in the ensuing years, the world has embraced THE PRINCESS BRIDE as one of the cinema’s great fairy tales, overflowing with memorable quotes, dashing heroism, and delightful romance. After seeing how the film is framed, with poignant scenes featuring Peter Falk and Fred Savage, it’s especially moving to consider that it all started with a gift from a father to his son.
–Stephen Jannise, Film Programmer
Director: Steven Spielberg
Screenplay: Peter Benchley, Carl Gottlieb
Cinematography: Bill Butler, Rexford Metz
Editor: Verna Fields
Music: John Williams
Cast: Roy Scheider, Robert Shaw, Richard Dreyfuss, Lorraine Gary, Murray Hamilton
There are those who blame Steven Spielberg’s JAWS for creating the concept of the “blockbuster movie,” which, to them, refers to a cinematic spectacle that ignores artistic ambition and innovation in favor of mass appeal. After all, it was the first film to pass $100 million at the box office, breaking the records long held by such cinematic titans as THE SOUND OF MUSIC and GONE WITH THE WIND. Motivated to match that achievement, studio executives began devoting their attention to looking for the next STAR WARS or SUPERMAN, at the expense of the more intellectual efforts that defined 1970s American filmmaking.
While there can be no doubt that the overwhelming success of JAWS has influenced the direction of major motion picture production and marketing to this day, there’s one thing you can’t blame Spielberg’s aquatic thriller for: the surplus of bad blockbusters arriving in theaters every year. Because JAWS is anything but bad. In fact, JAWS is a remarkable demonstration of how clever, inventive, and awe-inspiring a “popcorn movie” can be. So masterfully does Spielberg ratchet up the tension, and so effortlessly does he make you care for the characters, that the movie serves as a kind of film school. Pay enough attention to JAWS, and you’ll come away with a basic knowledge of what makes great films tick.
Even more impressive is the fact that Spielberg was only 26 years old when he was handed the reins of this challenging production. Though he had certainly turned a few heads with his previous thrillers, DUEL and THE SUGARLAND EXPRESS, those experiences in no way prepared him for the grueling task of shooting JAWS. The director didn’t make things easier on himself by insisting the shoot take place on location in Martha’s Vineyard, rather than the more controllable environment of a studio water tank. The locals and vacationing tourists weren’t huge fans of the film production invading their space; at least, not until the studio started throwing some money around.
Adding to the difficulty level was the shark itself. After the idea of using a real, trained great white shark was ruled out, Spielberg hired highly regarded effects genius Robert A. Mattey to construct the beast. Mattey did him two better and developed three hydraulic sharks that weighed one ton each and required thirteen scuba-equipped puppeteers to give them life. Sounds great, doesn’t it? Well, not when all three insisted on breaking down at the worst possible moments, forcing Spielberg to shoot less of the sharks than he had planned. As cinematic serendipity would have it, that very inconvenience ultimately added to the heart-racing suspense. What really made the movie terrifying was not seeing the menace.
The casting was equally key, as, shark aside, the film would be carried or sunk by the men playing the three leads. Robert Shaw had to be convinced by his wife that he wouldn’t be upstaged by a shark, and Richard Dreyfuss agreed to take the role despite being certain the film would prove a disastrous flop. Only Roy Scheider was passionate about the role from the get-go, so perhaps it’s no surprise that he was the only one to return for JAWS 2.
Ultimately, JAWS proved as much a critical success as it was with audiences. The film earned four Oscar nominations and won three, including Best Original Dramatic Score for John Williams’s legendary theme that has been spoofed and reused about a million times since then.
–Stephen Jannise, Film Programmer
A Hard Day’s Night
Director: Richard Lester
Screenplay: Alun Owen
Cinematography: Gilbert Taylor
Editor: John Jympson
Music: George Martin, John Lennon, Paul McCartney
Cast: John Lennon, Paul McCartney, George Harrison, Ringo Starr, Wilfrid Brambell
You simply cannot overstate how incredibly different, fresh and exhilarating A HARD DAY’S NIGHT was at the time of its release (and still is today, over fifty years later). There had never been any movie like it before, and it would be years before any other filmmaker attempted what director Richard Lester and The Beatles managed to pull off.
There’s no real story to speak of. The film follows a day in the life (now there’s a song title!) of The Beatles (John Lennon, Paul McCartney, George Harrison and Ringo Starr) as they prepare for a live television appearance. They run a gauntlet of rabid, screaming fans, hordes of reporters and photographers, and fussy television producers while occasionally finding a few moments for themselves. Oh, and they have to deal with Paul’s wacky grandfather (Wilfrid Brambell).
Shot in a cinema verite style on the streets of London, A HARD DAY’S NIGHT has a semi-documentary look, but it’s spiked with an effervescent pop joy for the four young men and their music. The songs are all first-rate, and all four Beatles come across as skilled comedians with a barrage of one-liners, sight gags and physical humor. It’s the Marx Brothers meet rock and roll, and the result is a unique, celebratory experience of the greatest rock band of all time at the peak of their early, worldwide fame.
Songs include: “A Hard Day’s Night,” “I Should Have Known Better,” “I Wanna Be Your Man,” “Don’t Bother Me,” “All My Loving,” “If I Fell,” “Can’t Buy Me Love,” “And I Love Her,” “I’m Happy Just to Dance With You,” “This Boy,” “Tell Me Why,” and “She Loves You.”
The Beatles made three other feature films in their career: HELP! (1965) (also directed by Lester), the animated YELLOW SUBMARINE (1968) and the concert film LET IT BE (1970). All three films have their merits, but nothing ever quite matched the impact of A HARD DAY’S NIGHT, whose influence would be felt years later when cable channel MTV began broadcasting music videos in the 1980s. The DNA of many of those early music videos can be traced directly back to A HARD DAY’S NIGHT.
Director: Gregory Nava
Screenplay: Gregory Nava
Cinematography: Edward Lachman
Editing: Nancy Richardson
Score: Dave Grusin
Cast: Jennifer Lopez, Edward James Olmos, Jon Seda, Constance Marie, Lupe Ontiveros
The meteoric rise of the “Queen of Tejano music,” Selena Quintanilla-Pérez, was likely already being considered around Hollywood as the perfect silver screen biopic even before her life was tragically cut short at the age of 23. But when Selena was murdered at the hands of former family friend and employee Yolanda Saldívar in March 1995, Warner Bros. moved quickly to create an unforgettable film that would both commemorate Selena’s remarkable talent and mourn her tragic end.
Of course, the biggest question was: who should play Selena? After all, who could capture the energy and charisma that Selena brought to the stage at every show? The casting directors cast a wide net reminiscent of the legendary search that brought Vivian Leigh into the role of Scarlett O’Hara in GONE WITH THE WIND. Over 22,000 (!) aspiring actresses auditioned for the role, and established stars like Salma Hayek and telenovela favorite Bibi Gaytán were also considered.
In the end, four professional actresses and three hopefuls from the casting calls were chosen to advance to screen tests. Among the final seven was a backup dancer and unproven actress named Jennifer Lopez, who had significant stage experience, thanks to stints on tour with New Kids on the Block and the hit TV show “In Living Color,” but very little onscreen experience. Being suddenly thrust into the spotlight proved to be the least of Lopez’s challenges, however, as she immediately received criticism from Selena fans who felt that a New York-born, Puerto Rican-American actress should not portray a Texas-born, Mexican-American singer.
Nevertheless, Lopez poured every ounce of energy and dedication that she had into the role, moving in with Selena’s sister Suzette in order to learn more about the late musician from the people who knew her best. And, while you might think that Lopez’s background as a dancer would have prepared her to play this role, the actress actually had the opposite experience. “It’s very difficult to unlearn everything your body is accustomed to doing and that it does naturally,” Lopez has said. “I had to learn what Selena did, which is very different from my own dance instinct.”
Ultimately, Lopez’s efforts would win over Selena fans around the world, most importantly (to Lopez) from those in Selena’s hometown of Corpus Christi. But the film’s director, Gregory Nava, had his own potential roadblocks to deal with, including a few involving Selena’s father Abraham Quintanilla Jr. Having been very protective of his daughter throughout her career, Abraham was understandably even more protective of her story after her death. He felt that the film should avoid depicting Selena’s assassination, but Nava convinced him that acknowledging this horrific moment was crucial to telling Selena’s story.
He was right. In the end, the most remarkable thing about Selena is how much she continues to mean to us even after her death. Though she was cruelly prevented from giving us more music and memorable moments, the work that she did accomplish in her all-too-short career will continue to stand the test of time and inspire future generations of fans.
–Stephen Jannise, Film Programmer
Director: Albert Magnoli
Screenplay: Albert Magnoli, William Blinn
Cinematography: Donald E. Thorin
Editor: Albert Magnoli
Music and Lyrics: Prince, Michel Colombier
Cast: Prince, Apollonia Kotero, Morris Day, Olga Karlatos, Clarence Williams III
There is perhaps no brighter spot on the late, great Prince Rogers Nelson’s resume than the film PURPLE RAIN and the smash-hit soundtrack that accompanied it. It was a well-earned triumph, as the project was many years in the making.
In the midst of touring for his massively successful album 1999, Prince began scribbling down some ideas for PURPLE RAIN and putting feelers out for any studio willing to foot the bill. As it turned out, no one was willing to take a chance on a biographical (Or is it? The vagueness alone was enough to turn studios off) film about Prince, which meant that the movie would be made by young, aspiring filmmakers who recognized a star on the rise when they saw one.
Albert Magnoli was a recent USC film school grad who had one directorial credit to his name when he was approached to make Prince’s idea a reality. Quite remarkably, Magnoli had the nerve to suggest that script needed a lot of work, particularly the third act, and it was after meeting Prince in person, when he recognized a vulnerability in the singer that you never saw onstage, that Magnoli knew he had found the movie. He moved to Minneapolis, spent a great deal of time with Prince and his band, and immersed himself in the local music scene. All of that effort shows in the finished film.
With relative unknown Apollonia Kotero cast as the female lead and a modest shooting budget of $7 million, this ragtag group led by a rock-and-roll legend set about making movie history. Despite agreeing to distribute the film, Warner Bros. never thought of the movie as anything more than a vanity project. That is, until the movie made back its entire budget in the first weekend, encouraging the studio to expand the film to 1,000 more screens on its way to making $68 million and becoming the ninth-highest-grossing film of the year.
Oh, and the soundtrack remained at the top of the charts for 24 straight weeks. Moral of the story: listen to Prince. You might just make pop culture history.
–Stephen Jannise, Film Programmer
Director: Robert Stevenson
Screenplay: Bill Walsh, Don DaGradi
Cinematography: Edward Colman
Editor: Cotton Warburton
Music and Lyrics: Richard M. Sherman, Robert B. Sherman
Cast: Julie Andrews, Dick Van Dyke, David Tomlinson, Glynis Johns, Elsa Lanchester, Reginald Owen, Ed Wynn, Karen Dotrice, Matthew Garber
Few studio heads in Hollywood history could claim greater success than Walt Disney, who founded his own Walt Disney Studio in 1926 and, until his untimely death in 1966, ran the company with an uncommon affinity for knowing what the people wanted to see. From the early days of Mickey Mouse to the first feature-length animated film (SNOW WHITE AND THE SEVEN DWARFS) and all the wonderful animated and live-action films and television shows that followed, Disney had an uncanny ability to strike just the right note with audiences around the world.
But is there one film in particular that sums up Disney’s approach to filmmaking, not to mention his optimistic idealism regarding humankind and its capacity for good? Well, by most accounts, especially Disney’s own, that film is MARY POPPINS, his last and most defining masterpiece. Released just two years before his death, POPPINS was the culmination of the Disney studio’s technological progress, Disney’s own considerable efforts to bring the novel to the screen, and his desire to be taken as seriously for his live-action efforts as he had been for his animated films.
As so often happens, it was actually Disney’s children who introduced him to author P.L. Travers’s Mary Poppins stories, and he became so enamored with the first novel (and certain of its silver screen potential) that he immediately sought to obtain the film rights. However, standing steadfastly and stubbornly in his way was Travers herself, whose unwavering devotion to the written word had her convinced that no film could do her beloved character justice. The year of Disney’s first inquiry on the matter? 1938. It would ultimately be more than 20 years before Travers agreed.
But even after Travers relented, she remained a thorn in Disney’s side throughout the production. She was not too thrilled about the songs, somewhat upset when Disney softened the Mary Poppins character, and absolutely furious about the use of animation in the film. Her script approval rights gave her some say in the making of the film, but Disney had final cut, thank goodness.
Disney also controlled the casting, and he spotted a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity when Julie Andrews was refused the role of Eliza Doolittle in Warner Brothers’ adaptation of MY FAIR LADY, despite having created the role on the Broadway stage. Disney swooped in and gave Andrews the feature film debut role of a lifetime, one that would ultimately bring her an Oscar for Best Actress. As for the happy-go-lucky chimney sweep Bert, Dick Van Dyke practically auditioned for the role through his televised hit “The Dick Van Dyke Show,” of which Disney was a huge fan.
In Disney’s opinion, the film would only work if the music was just right, and he worked closely with composer/lyricist brothers Richard M. Sherman and Robert B. Sherman throughout the songwriting phase. Legend has it that “Feed the Birds” became Disney’s favorite song, and he would often, in the middle of a songwriting meeting, simply ask the brothers to play the song as he gazed out the window of his office, tears pooling in his eyes.
With the perfect cast and the Sherman Brothers’ unforgettable songs, Disney had the surefire hit he always knew the film could be. After the movie premiered at the Grauman’s Chinese Theatre on August 27, 1964, the following several months became a victory lap for Disney, culminating in the film’s Oscar nomination for Best Picture (Disney’s only nomination in the category) and Andrews’s win. Poetically, a filmmaking career that took flight with “Disney’s Folly” (SNOW WHITE) drew to a close with “Disney’s Crowning Achievement.”
–Stephen Jannise, Film Programmer
Director: Billy Wilder
Screenplay: Billy Wilder, Raymond Chandler
Cinematography: John Seitz
Editor: Doane Harrison
Music: Miklos Rozsa
Cast: Fred MacMurray, Barbara Stanwyck, Edward G. Robinson, Porter Hall, Jean Heather, Tom Powers
Not only is this movie considered to be one of the very best noir films ever made, it is also typically remembered above all others for cementing the noir genre as a purveyor of shadowy style and effortless cool, thanks to one of the great directors, Billy Wilder, and an unforgettable cast led by Barbara Stanwyck, Fred MacMurray and Edward G. Robinson.
In DOUBLE INDEMNITY, MacMurray plays Walter Neff, the leading salesman at his insurance firm in Los Angeles. When he visits a client on a house call and finds the client’s wife (Stanwyck) home alone, Neff becomes understandably suspicious when she asks him to sell her additional accident insurance for her husband. Alarmingly to us and to Neff, he agrees to sell her the insurance and falls into an increasingly dangerous spiral of lust, greed, and intrigue.
All the quintessential elements of film noir are here: hard-boiled dialogue, an urban environment steeped in shadows, and Stanwyck’s iconic femme-fatale. This particular film noir is a cut above the rest, thanks to the vivid direction and subtle hints of dark humor provided by legendary writer/director Billy Wilder and his co-writer Raymond Chandler.
All the actors here are delivering career-best performances. MacMurray, who had mainly dabbled in comedies up to this point, had to be convinced to take on this much more serious role. Luckily, Wilder was one of the great convincers in Hollywood history, and MacMurray would eventually consider Walter Neff to be the best role he ever played.
Edward G. Robinson was mainly known, as he still is, for his considerable talents as a screen gangster. In tonight’s film, he actually stays on the right side of the law and ultimately serves as a father figure to MacMurray’s character, forming a poignant relationship between the two characters that stands in stark contrast to the cold, harsh behavior defining the rest of the film.
Though DOUBLE INDEMNITY was decidedly dark, audiences and critics alike were nevertheless able to see the shimmering talent on display in this masterpiece. The Oscars rewarded the film with eight Academy Award nominations, including Best Picture, Actress, Director, and Screenplay. It was denied most of these awards by the Leo McCarey film GOING MY WAY. All these years later, there is no question that DOUBLE INDEMNITY has better navigated the tests of time, remembered by all film lovers as a major landmark in cinema’s history.
–Stephen Jannise, Film Programmer
The Big Lebowski
Director: Joel Coen, Ethan Coen
Screenplay: Ethan Coen, Joel Coen
Cinematography: Roger Deakins
Editor: Joel Coen, Ethan Coen, Tricia Cooke
Music: Carter Burwell
Cast: Jeff Bridges, John Goodman, Julianne Moore, Steve Buscemi, David Huddleston, John Turturro, Philip Seymour Hoffman
Ethan and Joel Coen can do it all. Writers, directors, producers, and editors, the two have worked together since making a splash with their audacious, neo-noir (and shot-in-Austin) debut, BLOOD SIMPLE (1984). But rather than becoming pigeonholed as genre/crime filmmakers, the brothers set off on their own career course, a journey that would produce one of the most unique bodies of work in the contemporary American cinema. Their unique, quirky, individual style, which often walks a fine line between comedy and tragedy, has served them well and will most likely continue to do so for many years to come.
The Coens followed up the success of BLOOD SIMPLE with RAISING ARIZONA (1987); BARTON FINK (1991); and FARGO (1996). Next up was THE BIG LEBOWSKI, an unconventional crime comedy that is the textbook definition of “cult film,” a status it acquired before the final release prints had even dried. Jeff Bridges stars as Jeffrey “The Dude” Lebowski, an unemployed Los Angeles slacker and avid bowler, and the supporting cast of quirky characters includes Julianne Moore, Steve Buscemi, John Turturro, Philip Seymour Hoffman and Sam Elliott.
Only the Coen brothers would have the audacity to mix a crime film, stoners, and the bowling sub-culture into a crazy, wild ride down the rabbit hole. Loosely based on the works of crime maestro Raymond Chandler, THE BIG LEBOWSKI moves episodically and deals with characters trying to unravel a mystery within a hopelessly complex plot that’s ultimately unimportant.
Like RAISING ARIZONA, THE BIG LEBOWSKI did not do well at the box office upon first release, receiving mixed reviews from critics. But like RAISING ARIZONA, the film found an audience on home video and quickly became a cult classic, with fans embracing the idiosyncratic characters, baroque dream sequences, unconventional dialogue, and eclectic soundtrack.
With a budget of $15 million, the Coens wrote parts specifically for John Goodman and Steve Buscemi, who had already been cast. In preparation for playing “The Dude”, Bridges met with Jeff Dowd, the real life “Dude”, who liked to drink White Russians and really was known as “The Dude.”
Bridges also drew on his own life in the ’60s and ’70s and went into his own closet with the film’s wardrobe person to pick out clothes he thought the Dude might wear. The film was shot in and around Los Angeles over a period of eleven weeks, and all of the bowling scenes were shot at the Hollywood Star Lanes.
THE BIG LEBOWSKI cemented the Coens’ reputation as masters of their own, bizarre subgenre of films. No one makes movies like them and no one does it better. The brothers have been nominated for many Oscars together plus one individual nomination each, winning Best Original Screenplay for FARGO and Best Picture, Best Director and Best Adapted Screenplay for NO COUNTRY FOR OLD MEN.
Devil in a Blue Dress
Director: Carl Franklin
Screenplay: Carl Franklin
Cinematography: Tak Fujimoto
Editor: Carole Kravetz
Music: Elmer Bernstein
Cast: Denzel Washington, Tom Sizemore, Jennifer Beals, Don Cheadle
Denzel Washington is outstanding as novelist Walter Mosley’s hero, Ezekiel “Easy” Rawlins, in the immaculate, 1940s-set neo-noir “Devil in a Blue Dress,” but that’s not the only reason for its significance. The movie was the first, and remains the only, onscreen appearance of the character, even though Mosley has featured him in 14 novels since the first publication in 1990. There was the potential for a movie franchise starring Washington, but the film’s failure at the box office (despite favorable reviews) likely destroyed any chances of that happening. However, while a series never materialized, this one-off adaptation remains a monument for Washington fans and lovers of hard-boiled fiction alike.
The film sees Rawlins as an unemployed black veteran in post-WWII Los Angeles, agreeing to do some private detective work for a local gangster, tracking down a mysterious woman (Jennifer Beals), and discovering that he has a flair for the work. His search for the woman leads him into a labyrinth of blackmail, murder, and political intrigue, populated by a full array of intriguing secondary characters. He is both helped and hindered by his scene-stealing, cheerfully homicidal old friend Mouse (a breakout performance by Don Cheadle).
Director Carl Franklin, who made his reputation with the esteemed sleeper hit “One False Move,” avoided a sophomore slump with this more substantial effort. While it shows off the same shrewd vision that made “One False Move” so engrossing, “Devil” also creates a beguiling backdrop depicting African American life in Los Angeles, circa 1948. In the process of pulling audiences into an intricate detective story, Franklin and cinematographer, Tak Fujimoto (“The Silence of the Lambs”) open up a sumptuous, shadowy world.
What could have been a run-of-the-mill detective thriller is elevated by strong performances, notably Washington’s innate swagger, delivering a gritty character portrait. Unlike some larger-than-life P.I.s, Rawlins is distinctly human. He’s a dignified Black man trying to cope with the racial injustices of his time, as well as his own personal demons, but doesn’t always succeed. He can be heartless or spiteful, sometimes lacks courage, and is too easily seduced by temptations of the flesh. His preoccupation with acquiring wealth sometimes leads to poor decisions.
But his flaws are mitigated by his yearning to rise above his station in life as a Black man living in the middle of the twentieth century in America, as well as his hardwired sense of what’s right and especially what’s wrong.
“Devil” had the kind of vitality that could have sustained the material for years. However, while the film received generally positive reviews, it was a box office bomb — grossing just $17.1 million against a budget of $27 million.
The reasons for that are hazy: Washington was a recognizable face at the time, with films on his resume like “Malcolm X (1992), for which he earned an Academy Award nomination; “Philadelphia” (1993) opposite Tom Hanks; “The Pelican Brief” (1993) with Julia Roberts; and “Crimson Tide” with Gene Hackman in 1995. Granted, he had yet to truly carry a major studio picture to box office glory, but “Devil” should have at least earned back its budget, especially since Mosley’s novels were already quite successful, and Rawlins was his most popular character. But there must not have been enough crossover appeal to draw crowds. However, audiences would gradually discover “Devil” on home video, as it would eventually become a beloved classic work of American noir.
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