Schultz reviews: Rainy day movies
Remember all those mornings when you wished you could just stay home, park yourself on the couch, and watch an old movie? Well, chances are good that one way or another that day has arrived for you, and for many of us.
There’s really not a right way to react to the news we’ve all been receiving over the past weeks and months ... but there might just be a way to put it out of our minds for a little while — a diversion, a way to kick back and relax, and enjoy some of the better things staying at home has to offer. You know, besides sleep.
Below is a small handful of movies you might not have seen for a while ... or, depending on your age, might not have ever seen at all. The most recent of the pictures was released some 36 years ago, and the oldest is over 50. American in origin, all were fairly popular in their day — one was even a global blockbuster. Each of them is just fine for family viewing. And all are easily available for streaming — on your TV, your computer, or even your smartphone. You won’t even need to drive to the video store.
So pull the plug, make a bunch of popcorn, turn off the news for a couple of hours, and check out a real American movie classic or two. Or three:
“The Natural” Distributed by Tri-Star Pictures, 138 Minutes, Rated PG, Released May 11, 1984:
Anybody remember the old “Joe Palooka” comic strip?
Created in 1930 by the legendary cartoonist Ham Fisher, the daily “Joe Palooka” newspaper strip about a big, good-natured towheaded prizefighter, “a gentle knight who didn’t like to fight, a defender of little guys,” was populated by oversized characters with colorful names (Joe’s loyal girlfriend was Ann Howe, and his manager was Knobby Walsh), and for decades remained one of America’s most enduring and popular daily comics. At its peak, “Joe Palooka” was published in some 900 daily newspapers across the United States.
If somebody had created a major motion picture based on Joe Palooka and changed his racket from prizefighting to baseball, the result would’ve looked a lot like “The Natural.” The big screen morality fable, so uncomplicated and familiar to our national psyche that it might’ve been written by Horatio Alger himself, became for a time a bona-fide cultural phenomenon, depicting the American Pastime of Our Memories in terms and images vivid enough that we could almost smell the peanuts and Cracker Jacks in the bleacher seats.
In “The Natural,” a youth from America’s midwestern plains of the early 1920s, Roy Hobbs, loves the game of baseball, and is almost supernaturally gifted at the sport. Eschewing a life on the farm in favor of chasing his dreams of a career as a ballplayer, as soon as he’s old enough Roy packs his custom-made bat Wonderboy (whittled from the trunk of a lightning-blasted tree), leaves behind the girl he loves, and boards a train to seek fame and fortune in the big leagues. But along the way, he's sidetracked by fate and temptation.
Years later, Roy reappears during the Great Depression — a man on the worn edge of youth, a late-season signing in the dugout of the hard luck New York Knights baseball team, managed by the hapless Pop Fisher. Skeptical of Roy’s abilities and distrustful of the team owner’s motives in signing him, Pop at first is reluctant to play the middle-aged rookie, but eventually relents when there are no other options left. And the moment Roy takes Wonderboy in hand and strides to the plate, the Knights become baseball’s magical comeback team. But for Roy Hobbs, success comes with a high price indeed.
Led by Hollywood icon Robert Redford as Roy Hobbs and a who’s who of 1980s motion picture superstars as characters as colorful as any in Joe Palooka (Glenn Close as Iris Gaines, Wilford Brimley as Pop Fisher, Barbara Hershey as Harriet Bird, Robert Duvall as sportswriter Max Mercy, Richard Farnsworth as Red Blow, Kim Basinger as Memo Paris) ”The Natural” takes a story that could’ve come from a year’s worth of Bazooka bubble gum wrappers and elevates pulp fiction to the level of epic filmmaking. Combined with Randy Newman’s stirring score, the picture then raises the epic into something like ... well, something like American Folklore.
Adapted from Bernard Malamud’s (vastly different) novel by Roger Towne and Phil Dusenberry and directed with both skill and heart by Barry Levinson, “The Natural” like a good storybook has an almost dreamlike effect on the viewer — a quality augmented by Caleb Deschanel’s soft photography and flawless 1930s production design by Mel Bourne and Angelo Graham: You’ll be looking for Babe Ruth and Lou Gehrig to show up in the background. The picture’s a little long at 138 minutes, but you won’t complain.
If there’s such a thing as the Great American Movie, this one would be a strong contender for the title. Whether you’re seeing it for the first time or the 20th — and plenty of people have — ”The Natural” is well worth another look.
“The Natural” is rated PG for adult situations, language, and some violence. The movie is currently streaming on Netflix.
“Raiders of the Lost Ark” Distributed by Paramount Pictures, 115 Minutes, Rated PG, Released June 12, 1981:
Everything you’ve ever heard about “Raiders of the Lost Ark” is true.
After the blockbuster successes of “Jaws” in 1975 and “Close Encounters of the Third Kind” in 1977 (and the colossal egg laid by “1941” in 1979), director Steven Spielberg was looking for a next project to solidify his reputation as a Hollywood hitmaker. He was eager to direct a James Bond picture, but was politely turned down — the James Bond movies were developed “in house,” and not projects for hire.
At the same time, Spielberg’s friend George Lucas had an idea for a movie but no longer wanted to direct. Fresh from his worldwide successes with “American Graffiti” in 1973 and “Star Wars” in 1977, Lucas was already developing his next Star Wars project, and didn’t want to divide his attention. The filmmaker’s notion was to produce an action adventure picture which would recreate the classic weekly movie serials from the 1930s and 1940s — pictures he’d loved as a kid, but were no longer being produced.
Spielberg and Lucas brainstormed the idea together during a shared Hawaiian vacation and hashed out some of the details — imagining, as Spielberg recalled, “a James Bond film without the hardware.” The two filmmakers completed a rough outline for the picture and sealed the deal with a handshake — Spielberg would direct the picture, and Lucas would produce. The men persuaded Paramount Pictures to invest an $18 million budget and distribute the result.
Seeking to cast as the picture’s hero actor Tom Selleck, then riding high as the star of CBS television’s just-cancelled “Magnum, P.I,” the original plan was foiled when CBS learned of their star’s elated new status and unexpectedly renewed “Magnum” for another season. Spielberg then persuaded Lucas to instead cast one of the stars of “Star Wars” — the newly minted Hollywood matinee idol Harrison Ford. And with locations in France, England, Tunisia, and Hawaii standing in for a Mediterranean island, New England, the Egyptian desert, and South America, Spielberg planned his shooting schedule carefully, filmed quickly, and brought the picture in ahead of schedule and under budget. And an action adventure classic was born.
In “Raiders of the Lost Ark,” globetrotting archaeologist Indiana Jones (named after Lucas’ pet Malamute Indiana, the same dog who’d already inspired the Chewbacca character in “Star Wars”) is enlisted by the United States government in late 1938 to recover the lost Ark of the Covenant, the sacramental chest containing the broken stone pieces of the Biblical Ten Commandments, an artifact reportedly possessing enormous spiritual powers. The mythical Ark is coveted by Hitler, who plans to employ the vessel and its supernatural powers as a weapon. The archaeologist’s mission is to locate the vessel and keep it out of Hitler’s hands.
Devised by producer George Lucas to pay homage to the weekly action adventures he’d enjoyed as a child, “Raiders of the Lost Ark” instead reinvented the genre, and streamlined it. And augmented and enhanced with the instantly-recognizable march-like musical score by both filmmakers’ frequent collaborator John Williams — and a title theme as catchy and evocative as Souza’s “Stars and Stripes Forever” — Spielberg and Lucas formulated a global blockbuster franchise which broke box office records in 1981 and continues to his day (the fourth sequel, again starring Harrison Ford as Indy, is due in July of 2021).
The movie’s secret? From its first frame of film all the way to its last, “Raiders of the Lost Ark” is a wall-to-wall fun factory — a flag-waving, feel-good adventure classic so effective that the viewer can’t help feeling like a child again, seeing a movie for the very first time. And the audience responded — during those last days before the dawn of home video, “Raiders of the Lost Ark,” like “Star Wars,” was still playing in theaters a full year after its release, and during its first run alone returned Paramount Pictures’ investment more than 21 times over. It’s a movie you owe it to yourself to check out again.
Streaming now on Netflix, “Raiders of the Lost Ark” is rated PG for some disturbing images, action and violence, some language concerns, and a scene of mild sensuality.
“True Grit” Distributed by Paramount Pictures, 128 Minutes, Rated G, Released June 13, 1969:
The picture doesn’t quite fit together right and contains scenes which occasionally seem to be from different genres and styles of filmmaking, if not different films entirely. But because of some miracle of perfect casting, 1969’s “True Grit” becomes not only a motion picture legend, but also its star’s most celebrated role in a career which includes cinema classics like “Stagecoach” in 1939, “Red River” in 1948, “The Quiet Man” in 1952, “The Searchers” in 1956, and “The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance” in 1962.
In “True Grit,” when an honest and upstanding cattle cattle rancher is gunned down during a business trip by one of his cowhands, the murdered man’s singleminded teenage daughter hires to track and capture the killer the only man she can find who possesses “true grit” — a broken-down, overweight, alcoholic, one-eyed has-been federal marshal. Then she tags along on the manhunt to make sure the job’s done right.
Adapted by Marguerite Roberts from author Charles Portis’ best-selling novel and directed on breathtaking Colorado locations by western shoot-’em-up legend Henry Hathaway, “True Grit” has become almost as famous for the roster of stars who turned it down as it is for the ones who were eventually cast. Before singer Glen Campbell, the role of the Texas Ranger who accompanies the marshal on his chase was offered to Elvis Presley, who wanted top-billing. And the role of the teenage girl was offered to Mia Farrow, Sondra Locke, Tuesday Weld, and Sally Field before the relatively unknown Kim Darby was finally cast.
But despite author Portis’ rumored preference for Robert Mitchum, for the role as the over-the-hill federal marshal Reuben “Rooster” Cogburn there was only one real choice: 62-year-old John Wayne. A bona fide motion picture legend with some 43 years in the film business and an astonishing 70 movies already to his credit, Wayne actively campaigned for the role in “True Grit,” but he needn’t have bothered — the producers would have come to him sooner or later. And the role fits the veteran star like a well-worn saddle, right down to the spurs, six-shooter, and uncharacteristic black hat and eyepatch.
As the old marshal rouses himself from age and dissipation and goes after the killer with the single-minded focus and determination of a seasoned lawman, John Wayne as the has-been Cogburn brings to vivid life all the legends and tales of the Old West for the initially skeptical but eventually worshipful young girl ... and for the viewer in the audience. The film itself might be flawed, but as the elderly marshal takes his horse’s reins in his teeth and rides into the fray with guns blazing against the bad guys, his performance will leave you exhilarated and cheering. Never mind the 2010 remake with Jeff Bridges — this version, and John Wayne, are the real thing.
Screenwriter Marguerite Roberts had been blacklisted by the HUAC for nine years during the McCarthy era, and was given the “True Grit” assignment at Wayne’s insistence. The scene in which Wayne without a stunt double jumps his horse over a four-rail fence was the last of the picture, scheduled that way in case the horse fell and the star was killed or disabled. If Wayne sounds occasionally winded or breathy, it’s because of the altitude of the Colorado locations — the actor had lost a lung to cancer three years previously. The sets for the picture remain local tourist attractions, even more than 50 years later.
Also featuring performances by Jeff Corey and Strother Martin (both of whom also appeared in “Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid” that same year), Jeremy Slade, Dennis Hopper (just before the release of “Easy Rider,” but after its filming), and a young Robert Duvall in one of his first major motion picture roles as the outlaw “Lucky” Ned Pepper, “True Grit” is rated G. The picture is currently streaming on Netflix.