Several weeks ago, I was sitting at lunch opposite my twenty-eight-year-old second cousin once removed, with a host of other family members. It being a reunion of sorts, the mood was jolly.
I have always liked my cousin -- she is smart, brassy, funny -- extremely well spoken and well educated. The kind of person that gives you hope for the future.
The she dropped the bomb. Looking at me in a direct but decidedly matter-of-fact way, she said: "I won't watch black and white movies."
"Never?" I responded, thunderstruck.
"Never. And most of my friends wouldn't either."
She went on to explain that from what she'd seen of these dusty old cinematic relics, they were too slow and too talky. And she noted, the acting seemed fake to her.
I responded that this was a shame -- that she (and her pals) were depriving themselves of some of the greatest films ever made; that movies should be judged -- at least somewhat -- in the context of their time; that before the advent of the "Method", acting styles were indeed closer to the broader stage tradition; that black and white cinematography could be uniquely stunning; that many of the best older films offered something that too many new movies lack: namely, quality scripts.
To which she just smiled at me indulgently. I was getting precisely nowhere.
It is a sobering thought though -- that what I lovingly term "the new generation" might totally reject any film not made in color (excepting "Schindler's List"), and in fact might be willing to go back only to the early '70s, thinking of that fertile time period in movie-making as ancient history.
While I may hope that their curiosity to go back further may increase with age, something tells me I shouldn't count on it for the vast majority of twenty-somethings.
I think it's a low-down dirty shame -- only because if my pessimistic hunch gets borne out, they are really missing out.
On my own website of movie recommendations, black and white features comprise around 30 percent of the total.
But it's the American Film Institute's (AFI) ranking of greatest American movies that says it all... the top two picks (Citizen Kane and Casablanca) were shot in black and white. Four of the top ten titles, and by my count forty-one of the top hundred, were black and white movies.
That's a lot of great movies to turn your backs on, kids!
So -- to channel my sense of concern into something constructive, I gave myself a little exercise. If I could get all those black and white haters out there to watch just ten titles -- movies that constituted absolutely essential viewing -- which would they be?
Knowing many of my readers will offer up their own choices, I'll just list my picks, in no particular order -- and excluding those obvious top two AFI champs:
Duck Soup (1933)-It seems there's only one man who can lead the country of Freedonia away from fiscal ruin and a disastrous war with neighboring Sylvania: Rufus T. Firefly (Groucho Marx). Surely he'd save the day if it weren't for the crazy machinations of Chicolini (Chico) and Pinky (Harpo), who constantly spoil his plans. But precisely what are his plans? They seem to involve rich widow Mrs. Teasdale (Margaret Dumont), whose large fortune could certainly ease the pressure in his chaotic administration. Considered by many to be the Marx Brothers' greatest film, Duck Soup remains must viewing. An unmitigated delight for grown-ups, even if your children are too young to catch all the rapid-fire dialogue, they're sure to enjoy the physical humor and prevailing sense of anarchy. On one level a biting denunciation of war and fascism, the movie also stands as a masterpiece of absurdist comedy. Hail! Hail! Freedonia! And Duck Soup, for that matter.
Modern Times (1936)- Charlie plays a struggling factory worker whose gentle, innocent nature is at odds with an increasingly mechanized, dehumanized workplace and world. Real-life wife Paulette Goddard plays the waif Charlie befriends, protects and loves. Together, against seemingly insurmountable obstacles, they find a way to get along. Though originally planned as Chaplin's first sound film, the legendary actor/director ultimately decided to make a silent film with sound instead. Hence, the film features the ingenious use of sound effects at strategic moments, not to mention some priceless visual gags and set pieces, as when Charlie literally becomes a cog in the machine. An adorable Goddard is also ideal as the object of Charlie's affections. Incidentally, Chaplin also wrote the score, including the timeless melody, "Smile" -- which is just what you'll do when you watch this film.
The Grapes Of Wrath (1940)- This triumphant film adaptation of John Steinbeck's Pulitzer Prize-winning book tells the story of the Joad family, farming Okies who lose everything in the devastating Dust Bowl during the Great Depression. They are forced to pack their meager possessions in a jalopy and drive west to California in a desperate search for a second chance. Here the brilliant John Ford creates pure cinematic poetry, with Henry Fonda giving the performance of his career as Tom Joad and actress Jane Darwell winning an Oscar for her brilliant portrayal of Tom's beleaguered mother. A moving and authentic depiction of one of our country's most difficult periods- and the sturdy, decent men and women who weathered it -- this timeless entry speaks to the indomitable nature of the human spirit. Unquestionably one of the all-time champs.
The Best Years of Our Lives (1946)- The great Sam Goldwyn produced this groundbreaking movie about the plight of returning servicemen at the end of the Second World War. The film follows the unique readjustments to civilian life faced by three veterans who all hop the same transport home: Fred Derry (Dana Andrews), an officer and pilot coming back to a dead-end job and an uncertain relationship; Al Stephenson (Fredric March), an older soldier returning to a loving family and stable career, and Homer Parrish (Harold Russell), a sailor who has lost both his hands in combat, and already abhors the pity he expects to receive from his parents and fiancee. Thanks to William Wyler's expert, understated direction, each of the three characters that make up this remarkably sensitive, perceptive picture is subtly drawn, evoking the complex challenges that confronted returning veterans of all ranks. Regardless of each man's individual challenges, they all shared the need somehow to make sense of their war experiences while readjusting to a permanently changed America. Even with the requisite dose of sentimentality and romance, this powerful film never strays far from its central premise -- that no matter what you return to in a time of peace, war changes you forever. Oscar-winner for Best Picture, Best Actor (March) and Best Supporting Actor (Russell, an actual amputee veteran who is incredible here).
The Treasure Of The Sierra Madre (1948)- Fred Dobbs, Bob Curtin and Howard, three motley down-and-outers in Mexico (Humphrey Bogart, Tim Holt and Walter Huston, respectively), pool their meager resources and set off to search for gold. Only Howard, a former prospector, really knows what he's doing. Against all odds, the men get lucky and strike a vein. But just when things should start looking rosy, black clouds appear on the horizon. In having to protect and share their riches, the seeds of distrust are sown, particularly in an increasingly paranoid Dobbs. John Huston's hypnotic cautionary tale delivers savage human drama wrapped up in an adventure film. Containing generous doses of humor, suspense and action, ultimately Treasure is a striking meditation on the nature of greed. Trivia note: this film marked the first time a father and son took home Oscars the same night: John for his peerless direction and his father Walter for his indelible performance as crusty old Howard. Treasure is just that -- cinematic gold.
All About Eve (1950)- Joseph L. Mankiewicz's peak as director concerns aging stage actress Margo Channing (Bette Davis), wise in the ways of fame and the theatre, who's nevertheless blindsided by an adoring fan named Eve Harrington (Anne Baxter). Eve enters Margo's orbit as awed acolyte, then slowly usurps everything Margo has in one subtle, masterful act of manipulation. Don't miss this sharp, caustic take on the theatre world, and the wide assortment of parasites, barracudas, and hangers-on that populate it. Eve is the wolf in sheep's clothing, a comer with just enough talent and cunning to penetrate Margo's inner circle and catch her when she's vulnerable and feeling her age. Davis gives the best performance of her long career, and young Baxter is simply outstanding. George Sanders also impresses as jaded critic Addison De Witt, the only soul wise enough to see what Eve is up to. On his arm in one key scene is Marilyn Monroe, in a minor bit as a vacuous but decorative chorus girl. Eve is nothing short of superb, from the very first entrance to that last curtain call. Bravo indeed!
On The Waterfront (1954)- Washed-up prizefighter Terry Molloy (Marlon Brando) is increasingly disillusioned working for his mobster brother, Charley (Rod Steiger), who in turn is right-hand man to ruthless waterfront boss Johnny Friendly (Lee J. Cobb). When Terry falls for the beautiful Edie Doyle (Eva Marie Saint), the sister of a man brutally murdered on Friendly's orders, he finally decides to take a stand against the widespread corruption on the waterfront. But will he live long enough to savor his hard-earned redemption? Waterfront marked Brando's third cinematic teaming with director Kazan, and the result is what most people consider to be their best work together. Its gritty, almost claustrophobic on-location direction captures the human desperation and acute sense of danger emanating from the waterfront neighborhood, a world unto itself. The acting is absolutely top notch throughout, as Steiger, Cobb, Marie Saint and Karl Malden (as a local priest) all perform at-or close to- Brando's level. And don't miss that unforgettable wind-up! (Kazan himself later stated that Brando's work here was the finest male performance he ever saw on-screen.)
12 Angry Men (1957)- A young man is accused of murder, and as the jury deliberates on a verdict, only one juror (Henry Fonda) holds out for acquittal, causing frustration among the majority. The advocate for reasonable doubt gets under the skin of one particular juror (Lee J. Cobb), whose belief in the man's guilt is tinged with an underlying anger. As deliberations continue, the pendulum gradually begins to move in the other direction. Still, reaching a unanimous verdict will pose an enormous challenge. Sidney Lumet's first feature film is a spare, powerful human drama of the first order. Fonda underplays expertly as the voice of reason, and his fellow jurors are played by some of the best character actors of the day, including Jack Warden, E.G Marshall, Martin Balsam, and Jack Klugman. Finally, as Fonda's nemesis, Cobb projects the savage fury of a man too often wronged, a victim of his own blinding ignorance. This was a big triumph made on a small budget. Watch it -- your verdict is bound to be favorable.
The Apartment (1960)- C.C. Baxter (Jack Lemmon), a junior executive in an insurance company, climbs the corporate ladder by lending out his conveniently located apartment for the assignations of his superiors. Complications arise when the young man falls for elevator girl Fran Kubelik (MacLaine), who is also girlfriend to big boss J.D. Sheldrake (Fred MacMurray). When Sheldrake wants to use the apartment too, Baxter's professional rise accelerates, but his feelings for Fran start to make him question the whole arrangement. Peerless director Wilder seamlessly blends comedy, romance and pathos in this touching tale of a lonely man forced to confront the corruption of his life, just as he falls helplessly in love. With winning performances by all (both Jack and Shirley received Oscar nods) -- and a priceless script by the director and frequent collaborator I.A.L. Diamond -- this film deservedly won Best Picture at the Academy Awards, and stands as my personal favorite Billy Wilder film. And believe me-that's saying something!
To Kill A Mockingbird (1962)- Atticus Finch (Gregory Peck), a widower and small-town lawyer in the Depression-era South, bravely defends Tom Robinson (Brock Peters), a black man accused of raping a white girl, which generates seething resentment in the community. Still Atticus stands tall and does his duty. His two children, Scout (Mary Badham) and Jem (Phillip Alford) can only look on in wonder. In their spare time, they also work to unravel the mystery of Boo Radley (Robert Duvall), the supposedly crazy man who lives nearby. A film that speaks volumes about ignorance and racial intolerance in our country's recent past, this enduring classic also a perceptive and deeply moving study of the relationship between two children and their single-parent father, with much of the action seen through young Scout's eyes. The child actors give affecting, natural performances- young Badham in particular is a standout -- and Peck deservedly won the Best Actor Oscar in the role of his career. This should be required viewing for all children 12 and over.
To see John's videos for WNET-Channel 13, go to www.reel13.org