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the otto files

where the classics never go out of style

At some point in January I decided to keep track of all the movies I watch in 2018. Please read that sentence carefully: “the movies I watch” is the key phrase. As a rule, I rarely “go out to see” a movie in theaters anymore because I don’t care too much about new movies. I’ll watch the occasional new release. In fact, I saw The Big Sick late last year without even realizing it was a brand new movie because I viewed it on Amazon Prime. Nevertheless, the focus on CGI and action-packed superhero fare is not really my taste. I’m am a lover of “classic films.”

Everyone has a different definition for that term “classic film.” I recently heard someone on a podcast say they considered it to be mainly the movies of the 1930s and early 1940s. That’s a little too limited for me. I think anything from the 1920s – 1980s can be a classic at this point depending on the film and your requirements. I mean Raging Bull (1980) is certainly a classic because of it’s moody cinematography, intense writing and magnificent acting while films like Airplane (1980) and Ghostbusters (1984) are classics in comedic goofiness. At the same time, B movie series of the 1940s like Boston Blackie and Dr. Kildare are also classics because they were such an iconic part of the culture of their era.

I’ve been getting thousands of inquiries as to why I haven’t kept this blog up-to-date in recent months. Okay, maybe more like a half dozen inquiries. Anyway, there are two simple reasons: 1.) I’ve been preoccupied with a book I’m writing, and 2.) I am generally a disorganized and undisciplined individual. Nevertheless, I thought since I was keeping this journal anyway about the films I watch in 2018, I would occasionally share some thoughts and reactions to the various films on this blog.

The most recent film I watched was John Ford’s 1958 comedy/drama¬†The Last Hurrah based on the novel by Edwin O’Connor. Think of an American version of The Quiet Man but shot in black and white and focused around the world of politics and ward healing instead of the courtship rituals of a small Irish village. The Quiet Man was is the more well known Ford picture I suppose because it’s tailor made for yearly viewing around the St. Patrick’s Day holiday. The Last Hurrah is a true American story about the politics of immigration and class warfare with a roguish humor to lighten the trip.

In terms of the major stars of the Golden Age of Cinema, Tracy ranks near or at the top of my Leading Man category along with Bogart, Cagney, Powell, and Grant in the same group. I’ve often said I’d be happy just to watch Tracy eat breakfast. It has long been discussed among film critics and historians that while acting ability is a component of stardom there is the more ethereal aspect of the camera’s reaction to you. Billy Wilder once commented about the magic quality of Greta Garbo saying, “That face, that face, what was it about that face? You could read into it all the secrets of a woman’s soul. You could read Eve, Cleopatra, Mata Hari. She became all women on the screen. Not on the sound stage. The miracle happened in that film emulsion. Who knows why? Marilyn Monroe had this same gift.” I believe the same to be true of Spencer Tracy. The camera loved him and in his face you read the myth and legend of America. He was a giant and this is one of the most perfectly suited roles he ever played.

For someone like myself, the greatest joy in viewing the movies made in Hollywood during the 1930s and 1940s is in spotting all the fabulous and unique character actors. The Last Hurrah, though made at the end of the 1950s, includes a host of some of the very best character actors of the previous decades: Basil Rathbone (the quintessential Sherlock Holmes), Donald Crisp (Oscar winner for How Green Was My Valley), James Gleason ( his last film after 40 years in front of the camera and 100+ films), John Carradine (The Grapes of Wrath and patriarch of a great acting family), Basel Ruysdael (Broken Arrow), Wallace Ford (A Patch of Blue), Ricardo Cortez (star of silent pictures in his last film), Frank Albertson (Sam Wainwright in It’s A Wonderful Life, Hee Haw!), Ken Curtis (Festus on Gunsmoke), Frank McHugh (Three Men on a Horse), Jane Darwell (Oscar winner for The Grapes of Wrath), and one of my personal favorites, Edward Brophy (Larceny, Inc.). Even the uncredited actors are memorable faces such as Richard Deacon, James Flavin, Harry Lauter, Mae Marsh, Tom Neal, and Frank Sully.

The Last Hurrah also boasts three of the four founding members of what Hollywood columnist Sidney Skolsky once dubbed “The Irish Mafia” – Tracy, Pat O’Brien, and Frank McHugh. The only one missing was Jimmy Cagney and he would have fit right into this film. He could have easily handled the Honorable Charles J. Hennessey role. It’s a small part but I think Cagney would have done it particularly to work with Tracy. In fact, Cagney and O’Brien made nine movies together while Cagney and McHugh shared the screen in no less than eleven features. Sadly, Cagney and Tracy never made a film together. What a combination that would have been.

When Academy Award time rolled around, this film was snubbed. Spencer Tracy and John Ford both won the awards for Best Actor and Best Director from The National Board of Review and Tracy was nominated for the BAFTA, the British version of the Oscars but the Motion Picture Academy nominated him instead for his role as The Old Man in the screen adaptation of Hemingway’s The Old Man and the Sea, a role and a movie that was decidedly inferior to The Last Hurrah.

This Saint Patrick’s Day do yourself a favor following your annual viewing of Ford’s beautiful Irish travelogue The Quiet Man, watch The Last Hurrah. It will warm the cockles of your Irish heart, whether you’re a genuine “from the sod” Irish or just Irish for the day.

 

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