Unlike Christmas, Halloween, and the more "bankable" holidays, Thanksgiving has been left out to dry in terms of classic cinematic material devoted to it. To quote the introduction of Cole Porter's immortal "Anything Goes":
"Times have changed
And we've often rewound the clock
Since the Puritans got a shock
When they landed on Plymouth Rock.
If today any shock they should try to stem
'Stead of landing on Plymouth Rock,
Plymouth Rock would land on them!"
Plymouth Rock may be moss-covered and forgotten next to more illustrious holiday "sidekicks", including Santa's sleigh and the Easter Bunny's egg sack, but Thanksgiving has still retained its power to inspire, challenge, and push us to be thankful not just on the day itself, but year wrong.
Being the superficial bugger I am, I often find that the things I'm most thankful for are among the more superficial of our lot. While I am thankful for my family, health, and my dashing good looks, I am drawn deeper this year to find something I'm specifically thankful for, something that has changed my life for the better and inspired me to be who I am.
I decided, after much introspection, that I'd share the five films that I think define who I am and who I've become in this topsy-turvy world of show-business that I inhabit. It is a world of outstanding artifice, but one with real heart for those strong enough to plum its depths.
In other words, here are the five films that I'm thankful for this Thanksgiving!
1. Sunset Boulevard (1950):
When I think of a film that best showcases "old Hollywood," I will invariably say Sunset Boulevard. This stylish, brooding pulp noir cautionary tale on the dangers of ambition under the Hollywood sign is terrifically-paced, grotesquely executed, and feverishly unrelenting.
Disillusioned Hollywood screenwriter Joe Gillis is about to pack up his bag and leave California when he stumbles upon washed-up, obsessive former silent actress, Norma Desmond, who is planning her return to the screen in a big way with the aid of her solemn and faithful butler, and one-time husband, Max. The lives of these three souls tainted with wanderlust and regret and painted in broad strokes, but it is fitting in the context of a story that can only be described as operatic (and, indeed, it became a hit Andrew Lloyd Webber musical in the early 90s.)
What to Watch For: Boulevard is famous for its brief cameos from among the glitterati of the birth of film, here presented as "wax works" who are forgotten to the past, including Buster Keaton, Cecil B. Demille, and Hedda Hopper. Erich von Stroheim (playing butler Max) was himself on the road to being Hollywood's top director when his spendthrift habits made him unemployable in Hollywood. The film that brought his downfall, Queen Kelly, starred Norma Desmond herself, Gloria Swanson!
Favorite Scene: "I am big, it's the pictures that got small!"
2. Disney's One-Hundred and One Dalmatians (1961)
This animated romp is as close to comfort food in visual form as I can conjure. I used to pretend (and still do) that I was Cruella de Vil, flying through the house with a long cigarette holder and scaring the dogs, before jumping into my coupe and tearing across the town in style.
Little needs to be said of the countless merits of this tale of stolen puppies, which toes the line between children's extravaganza, pulp crime serial, and a Tallulah Bankhead stage play. (Cruella de Vil herself was said to have been inspired both in look and in voice by Miss Bankhead, perfectly replicated and improved upon by voice actress Betty Lou Gerson.)
What to Watch For: Cruella de Vil. What else can I say? Disney's greatest villain is a walking piece of pop art, spilling smoke, stealing puppies, and charging through the streets of London in search for the perfect fur coat. Cruella was eventually played by superstar Glenn Close, as well as Disney's resident "voice actress of all evil" Susanne Blakeslee. Interestingly enough, the physical model for Miss de Vil was character actress, Mary Wickes! (The full story of Miss Wicke's association with Disney can be read in greater detail in my full article on the subject!)
Favorite Scene: Cruella's first scene!
3. Funny Girl (1968)
My feelings about this classic movie musical can be summed up in the main character's opening words: "Hello, Gorgeous!" This is the role that ignited the meteoric rise of Miss Barbra Streisand and cemented her in the world of pop culture for decades. Though the film, a faithful adaptation of the stage musical, is a bit long, I prefer the length to an injudicious editor with a pair of magmatic scissors.
Filled with character actors, a heartthrob anti-hero in Omar Sharif, and hit song after hit song, Funny Girl is an epic journey into the fable of The Ugly Ducking ("if a girl isn't pretty") who becomes the beautiful swan. "Don't Rain on My Parade" and "People" became hallmarks for generations to come and Streisand's unabashedly Yiddish and driven Fanny Brice has put her stamp on the history of film and changed the rules for leading ladies everywhere.
What to Watch For: If one of the voices that you hear in the opening scene at the poker table sounds familiar, its because the voice in question belongs to legendary voice actress Mae Questel. Questel, who plays Fanny's tormentor Mrs. Strakosh, was the original voice of two of the most iconic cartoon creations, Betty Boop and Olive Oyl. Questel would also become known to modern audiences as the Alzheimers-ridden Aunt Bethany in National Lampoon's Christmas Vacation!
Favorite Scene: The climax on the film, the "My Man" sequence.
4. Beetlejuice (1988)
"It's showtime!" A film that could be written off as a guilty pleasure is, in my opinion, the greatest monster movie ever made. Filled with scenes of side-splitting humor mixed with grotesque and macabre denizens of the Netherworld, Tim Burton's masterpiece has become a classic for children of my generation.
Though Michael Keaton's role as Beetlejuice is relatively brief, he certainly puts his stamp on the iconic "ghostest with the mostest"! Keaton imbues the role with a vaudevillian's timing and a burlesque emcee's sweaty charm. Winona Ryder's Lydia is as much as ghoul as Beetlejuice himself, and Alec Baldwin and Geena Davis join her as true ghosts to force out Lydia's parents, Delia and Charles, from their family home. Blue humor dots, but doesn't distract, from this morality tale of respecting the past and learning to co-exist with those who bug the hell out of us.
What to Watch For: Catherine O'Hara's performance sets the gold standard for how sympathetically one can play such a douche-bag of a character so lovingly. Also, watch for Robert Goulet as Charle's boss and TV-host Dick Cavett as Delia's agent, who gets to deliver what is ranked as perhaps my favorite movie line: "Delia, you are a flake. You have always been a flake. If you insist on frightening people, do it with your sculpture."
Favorite Scene: The Dinner Table "Day-O" scene, which perfectly bastardizes Harry Belafonte's island rhythms!
5. Duck Soup (1933)
"Well, that covers a lot of ground. Say, you cover a lot of ground yourself. You better beat it - I hear they're going to tear you down and put up an office building where you're standing. You can leave in a taxi. If you can't get a taxi, you can leave in a huff. If that's too soon, you can leave in a minute and a huff. You know, you haven't stopped talking since I came here? You must have been vaccinated with a phonograph needle."
The opening tirade of Groucho Marx versus Margaret Dumont is my first piece of evidence for my case that Duck Soup is the greatest film in the history of the medium. In a day that rails against nostalgia of a certain age, the Marx Brothers' final foray for Paramount is seventy minutes of non-stop action, comedy, physical humor, Gilbert-and-Sullivanesque musical numbers, and utter irreverence.
In a way, the film is impossible to dissect - one must see it to get the full effect. In fact, this film can be used as major barometer for possible friendships. If someone says they don't like Duck Soup, odds are I won't very much care for them either!
What to Watch For: Margaret Dumont. Since I'm writing the first full-length biography of this dowager to end all dowagers, she can been seen to the best effect in this film. (I'll take a moment to plug my book project's GoFundMe page, as well *wink wink*) A Lusitania-sized woman who, I can assure you, always got the joke, Dumont is the anchor that holds the insanity of the brothers in check and provides for them a perfect authority figure for them to decapitate, decimate, and conquer.
Favorite Scene: The opening exchange between Groucho and Dumont, perhaps the greatest single moment in film!
Steven Krage is an award-winning writer, author, blogger, film historian, playwright, podcaster, classical musician (opera singer and pianist), actor, librarian, rare book collector, and professional eccentric who lives and breathes pop culture of the past, present, and future. His recent acting roles include Mr. McQueen (Urinetown), Carmen Ghia (The Producers) and a monologist in the final Chicago cast of the Listen to Your Mother Festival. He is currently writing a book-length biography of infamous Marx Brothers foil, Margaret Dumont: The Marx Sister. “I'm not a stooge, I'm the best straight woman in Hollywood. There's an art to playing it straight. You must build up your man, but never top him, never steal the laughs from him.” – Margaret Dumont. (For more information, please visit StevenKrage.com!)