Movies That Matter: The Sequel

Movies That Matter is returning to the Plaza Branch.

Introduced last fall, this Sunday afternoon film series offers some of the greatest titles in world cinema, with opening and closing remarks by the Library’s Robert W. Butler, former film critic for the Kansas City Star.

Movies That Matter: The Sequel consists of 10 titles from both the silent and sound eras. There are comedies, musicals, adventures, searing drama, horror – even an animated classic.

All screenings are at 1:30 p.m. on Sundays in the Truman Forum of the Plaza Branch, 4801 Main St. Admission is free.

 

The schedule:

The Grand Illusion (France; 1937)

Sunday, Sept. 29, 2013

On the outside it’s a World War I escape movie about Frenchmen breaking out of a German POW camp.

On the inside Jean Renoir’s The Grand Illusion is a meditation on the inevitability of armed conflict and the changing face of European society.

The titled French officer De Boldieu (Pierre Fresnay) has more in common with the aristocratic German commander of the prison camp (Eric von Stroheim) than he does with his own working-class fellow prisoner, Marechal (Jean Gabin). Then there’s Rosenthal (Marcel Dalio), the Jew whose “new money” denotes a future in which competence, not birthright, determines the pecking order.

Renoir, the son of impressionist painter August Renoir, was a humanist who observed that no matter which side you’re fighting for, the basic qualities we share should trump the politics that push us apart. But it never works out that way.

An end to war? Alas, Renoir argues, that’s the grand illusion.


The Bride of Frankenstein (USA: 1935)

Sunday, October 27, 2013

The Bride of Frankenstein employed most of the same creative team that produced the original Frankenstein four years earlier. Yet this sequel is a much different animal – and much superior.

James Whale’s Frankenstein was a somber adaptation of Mary Shelley’s 1818 novel about a scientist who builds a creature from dead bodies and gives it life. It made an overnight star of actor Boris Karloff, who played the mute “monster.”

But it only employed a fraction of the novel’s plot. There still was plenty left over for a sequel.

It’s the tone that makes Bride of Frankenstein so remarkable. It’s satiric, practically contemptuous of its horror origins, frequently over the top. It has more in common with Mel Brooks’ Young Frankenstein than with the original film.

Some have speculated that Whale, who was gay, gave free rein to his camp impulses.

Whatever. This is one fun movie.


Breathless (France; 1960)

Sunday, November 17, 2013

Jean-Luc Godard’s Breathless is among the most influential films ever made.

That it doesn’t seem all that remarkable today only attests to how completely it changed moviemaking. Its once-radical style has been totally absorbed into cinema culture. What was revolutionary is now standard issue.

It’s a crime drama about a charismatic Paris thug (Jean Paul Belmondo) who initiates a torrid affair with a beautiful young American (Jean Seberg). He goes on a crime spree that doesn’t end well.

But it’s the approach Godard took to his first feature that still wows audiences. He treated his melodrama as a documentary, filming without permission on real streets and sidewalks. He used a handheld camera; when a tracking shot was required, cinematographer Raoul Coutard was pushed about in a wheelchair. The editing was a revelation, filled with jarring jump shots instead of the graceful between-scenes transitions movie-goers expected.

According to The New York Times, Breathless is both “a pop artifact and a daring work of art” and is “still cool, still new, still – after all this time! – a bulletin from the future of movies.”


Pinocchio (USA; 1940)

Sunday, December 1, 2013

For a follow up to his groundbreaking Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs Walt Disney needed something special.

He found it in Pinocchio. It may be the best animated film of his career, one that is hugely satisfying simply as a children’s fantasy but which works on levels way beyond a grade schooler’s grasp.

It’s a thematically dark film with cruel characters and a Pleasure Island sequence as hellish as anything in Dante. And it is a pithy, probing examination of morality that counters the heavy-handedness of Collodi’s 19th-century novel with song, dance, comedy, and melodrama, all the while preying on our subconscious fears and hopes.

Even the hit songs plumb ethical depths. “I’ve Got No Strings” is a hedonist’s declaration of independence, while “When You Wish Upon a Star” perfectly captures our hope for benevolent intervention from the beyond.

It’s a cartoon almost too complex for kids.


Sunrise (USA; 1928)

Sunday, January 19, 2014

Called by some “the Citizen Kane of silent cinema,” Sunrise was the last masterpiece made before sound took over, a bold visual experiment seething with human emotions.

Directed by German-born F.W. Murnau (whose silent vampire classic Nosferatu was screened in 2012 as part of this series), it’s the simple story of a man (George O’Brien), his wife (Janet Gaynor), and the seductive woman from the big city (Margaret Livingston) who threatens their rural happiness.

Employing enormous stylized sets and wildly innovative cinematography (including some seemingly impossible camera movements), Murnau combined visual mastery and expressionistic lyricism to tell a universal story.

Though made as a silent film employing title cards to convey dialogue, Sunrise was released with a musical soundtrack to take advantage of the new sound-on-film technology. Thus it represents an almost perfect melding of the silent and sound eras.


An American in Paris (USA; 1951)

Sunday, February 16, 2014

The most famous movie about Paris was shot in Culver City, California.

Indeed, An American in Paris sums up Hollywood in its Golden Era: Why bother with the real and true when the make-believe is so much more satisfying?

This joyous celebration of music and dance ultimately becomes high art when, in its audacious final 16 minutes, it delivers a dazzling wordless ballet that brought out the best in choreographer/star Gene Kelly and director Vincente Minnelli.

At the same time An American in Paris exemplifies the virtues of the old studio system, with craftsmen and artists from the various M-G-M departments (music, scenic design, costuming, cinematography, sound) working in harmony to create a movie that delights at every turn.

Kelly has rarely been so infectious, while newcomer Leslie Caron (only 18 when she made the film) became an overnight star. Plus you get the dour misanthropy of Oscar Levant.

Nominated for eight Oscars, An American in Paris won six, including best picture.


The Grapes of Wrath (USA; 1940)

Sunday, March 9, 2014

“Wherever there’s a fight so hungry people can eat, I’ll be there. Wherever there’s a cop beating up a guy, I’ll be there...”

John Ford’s The Grapes of Wrath spends two hours rubbing our noses in poverty and economic exploitation, yet somehow sends us off with hope-filled hearts.

John Steinbeck’s 1939 novel about the Joads – a family of dispossessed Oklahoma farmers fleeing the Dust Bowl for California – is an incendiary read. The conservative Ford rejected the book’s socialism, but recognized in its pages the resiliency and ultimate triumph of the American character.

Cinematographer Gregg Toland (his next job would be Citizen Kane for Orson Welles) shot the film like a WPA documentary. His black-and-white images are utterly realistic yet achingly beautiful.

And the performances from Jane Darwell (who won an Oscar) and Henry Fonda – who in Tom Joad found the greatest character of his storied career – are quietly spectacular.

“...And when our people eat the stuff they raise and live in the houses they build, why I’ll be there, too.”


The Treasure of the Sierra Madre (USA; 1948)

Sunday, April 27, 2014

If only we could strike it rich, then our problems would be over. Right?

Not according to John Huston’s The Treasure of the Sierra Madre, which demonstrates that with newfound wealth comes plenty of bad baggage: bloodthirsty bandits, betrayal, and madness.

Based on B. Traven’s 1927 novel, the film stars Humphrey Bogart, Tim Holt, and Walter Huston (the director’s father) as a trio of expatriate Americans who hope to revive their failing fortunes by mining for gold in Mexico’s rugged interior. They endure merciless weather, rugged mountains, and the occasional gila monster. And they find that hitting the motherlode only creates a whole new set of problems.

Shot almost entirely in Mexico (one of the first Hollywood movies made on a foreign location) and oozing authenticity with every frame, this superb adventure won two Oscars for John Huston (directing and screenplay) and another (supporting actor) for his father – the only such father-son win in Academy history.


The Lady Eve (USA; 1941)

Sunday, May 18, 2014

For nearly a decade writer/director Preston Sturges had one of the most enviable jobs in Hollywood. During the ‘40s he was allowed to create comedies virtually without studio interference (he was the Woody Allen of his day, but without the neuroses). And being his own boss brought out the best in him.

The Lady Eve is one of the great screwball comedies. Barbra Stanwyk is a con artist who sets her sights on the bumbling heir to a brewing fortune (Henry Fonda). He’s not all that bright to begin with, and having just come off a couple of years in the South American jungles catching snakes he’s particularly vulnerable to the lady’s charms.

Some humor doesn’t age all that well, but Sturges’ brand of witty lunacy seems as fresh today as it did in the years before World War II. Toss into the mix great eccentric character actors like Charles Coburn (as the lady’s card-shark papa), Eugene Pallette (as a beer magnate), and William Demarest (as our leading man’s gruff bodyguard), and you’ve got one of the great screen comedies.


The Adventures of Robin Hood (USA; 1938)

Sunday, June 1, 2014

The greatest swashbuckling film of all time almost bit the dust with a mid-production change in directors.

But from a potential disaster arose what the New York Times’ Frank Nugent deemed “A richly produced, bravely bedecked, romantic, and colorful show ... it can be calculated to rejoice the eights, rejuvenate the eighties, and delight those in between.”

The Technicolor production is spectacular with castles, pageantry, gorgeous costumes. The style is lighthearted yet mythic, crammed with both bravura heroics and comic panache.

Errol Flynn was dismissive of his “lightweight” movies, yet he was never more virile or charming than as Robin of Locksley. Longtime screen partner Olivia de Havilland was beautiful and spirited as Maid Marion. Claude Raines and Basil Rathbone made for terrific heavies.

After more than 70 years, The Adventures of Robin Hood seems not to have aged a day.


Major funding for programs at the Kansas City Public Library is provided by the Ewing Marion Kauffman Foundation.

About the Author

Robert W. Butler is a lifelong Kansas City area resident, a graduate of Shawnee Mission East High School and the William Allen White School of Journalism at the University of Kansas. For several decades he was the movie editor of the Kansas City Star; he now writes a movie-themed blog at butlerscinemascene.com. He joined the Library's Public Affairs team in 2012.

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