My friend Nathan Jones recently came up with a terrific idea, the ABC Movie Challenge: Watch any unwatched Blu-rays and DVDs in your collection, choosing one film from each letter in the alphabet. Since I have many unwatched discs, I decided to take the challenge, today starting with just the first three letters.
Each time I go to the used bookstore, I find movies (usually on DVD, rarely Blu-ray) that I either didn’t or couldn’t see when they came out, usually because I was too young to see them. Three such films have been sitting on my shelf for years. So let’s take a look at these titles covering A, B, and C:
Alice’s Restaurant (1969) Arthur Penn (MGM DVD)
As a kid, I scoured the movie section of the newspaper every Friday for the new movie releases, even if they were movies I couldn’t see. One such movie was Alice’s Restaurant, which I knew nothing about. My brother, 12 years older than me, did know about the movie and the song on which it was based. He didn’t have the Arlo Guthrie record and didn’t (wouldn't?) take me to the movie, so I could only wonder what both the song and the movie were about. Not until I began listening to WZZQ (Jackson, Mississippi’s rock station) a few years later did I hear and grow to love the 18-minute song. But at the time all I knew about the movie was the newspaper ad (which was also the theatrical poster) of this goofy guy in a hat with a napkin and no shirt, apparently waiting for a meal. (What kind of restaurant was this?) I didn’t know Arlo Guthrie from anybody (and probably had never heard of Woody Guthrie), but I did know Mad Magazine’s Alfred E. Newman and thought this guy looked like a good candidate for his first cousin.
The film version expands on the song, fleshing out the characters of Ray (James Broderick) and Alice Brock (Pat Quinn), Arlo’s friends and new owners of a deconsecrated church in Great Barrington, Massachusetts. Their home becomes a hangout for all sorts of bohemians and hippies and provides some pretty unbelievable romantic encounters for Arlo. (Basically every woman he meets wants to bed him.) The problem with the film is that its images, voices, rhythms, and spirit have been so well captured by the song, the movie can’t come close to matching it. Yet we do get a nice appearance by M. Emmet Walsh, in only his fourth movie. (225 movie and TV credits later, he’s still with us.)
Alice’s Restaurant appears between director Arthur Penn’s Bonnie and Clyde (1967) and Little Big Man (1970). Penn was probably the right guy to attempt this project, and much of it works, including the slow, contemplative ending. I’m glad I finally saw it, but probably won’t watch it again.
The Big Trail (1930) Raoul Walsh (20th Century Fox Blu-ray)
The Big Trail (1930) marks John Wayne’s first starring role as well as an early widescreen Western shot on location (covering seven states). The story is routine, even by 1930 standards: John Wayne plays Breck Coleman, a young trapper seeking to avenge the death of his friend who was traveling on the Santa Fe Trail. Coleman comes upon a large group of settlers ready to cross the Oregon Trail and shows no interest in joining them until he discovers a man named Red Flack (Tyrone Power Sr.) among their number. Flack, Coleman believes, is the man who killed his friend. Thus begins the journey. The story also involves a love triangle between Coleman and a young woman named Ruth Cameron (Marguerite Churchill), who is more interested in a man named Thorpe (Ian Keith), one of Flack’s buddies.
Director Raoul Walsh and cinematographers Lucien Androit and Arthur Edeson capture some magnificent shots of the journey, depicting the hardships of the travelers (particularly the horses, which must have been harmed during the filming). These moments are spectacular, yet the film also includes many scenes with people simply standing around talking for long stretches of time. I will keep this disc, mainly to explore some of the extras covering the production, history, and legacy of the film.
Cabaret (1972) Bob Fosse (Warner DVD)
Cabaret is a film I could’ve seen in 1972, but wouldn’t have enjoyed. It was rated PG, so the only thing preventing me from seeing it was the fact that I didn’t care to. It was a musical, perhaps the only type of movie I preferred not to see. Since I’ve matured a little bit since then (despite what some may say), I decided to pick this up at the used bookstore several years ago and determined that the ABC Challenge was the perfect time for it.
During the Weimar Republic in 1931, Berlin’s Kit Kat Klub exists in a sort of fantasy world of song, dance, and sexuality, a place where anything goes. The Nazis are clearly a presence, but mostly act as observers, as if they’re taking notes now and will mete out judgment later. Free-spirited performer Sally Bowles (Liza Minelli) seeks to seduce Brian (Michael York), a young British academic tutoring students in English to fund his doctoral studies. A rich baron named Maximilian von Heune (Helmut Griem) enters the picture, creating opportunities for tension? Friendship? Something else? I will not disclose anything further here.
Although millions of people have seen this film, I won’t tell you what happens next, but I will say that the scene involving the song “Tomorrow Belongs to Me” begins innocently enough, yet turns into one of the most terrifying moments from any film. Almost as effective is the appearance of the title song, presented at the very end of the film, a song I had always considered carefree and joyous. It is not; far from it. But it is stunning.
Cabaret is a film I didn’t expect to like, but it’s a tremendous achievement, unlike any other musical (yet consider my limited exposure to the genre) I can think of. Joel Grey won an Oscar for his performance as the Master of Ceremonies, Liza Minnelli for Best Actress, and Bob Fosse for Best Director. The film also won five other Oscars. If not for The Godfather, Cabaret probably would’ve walked away with the Best Picture Oscar.
I will keep this DVD only long enough to acquire the Blu-ray.
Thanks to my friend Nathan for suggesting this project! I hope to tackle D, E, and F soon. Maybe you’ll consider the challenge as well?