My love for movies began after my parents and I, moved from Manhattan to Brooklyn. I was just a few days shy of my eleventh birthday and was, and still am, an only child. I was on the shy side in those days making it hard at times to make new friends. There were plenty of kids around my age in the apartment building we moved to; still, it was not an entirely smooth transition. Movies became my outlet. Nearby was the Loew’s Oriental, a large majestic theater within walking distance. My other movie outlet was TV. New York City television during those early years, long before home video, was a treasure trove, a repertory theater filled with old films…only with commercials. There was The Early Show, The Late Show, The Big Preview, The 4 O’clock Movie, The 4:30 Movie, The Late Movie, Five Star Movie, Chiller Theater, and the best of all, Million Dollar Movie.
There was also WNEW, Channel 5, a local station at the time. On Sunday afternoons, beginning at 1 PM, the station became a film festival showing movies all afternoon, all from Warner Brothers. It was here I was introduced to Bette Davis, Errol Flynn, Joan Crawford, James Cagney and Humphrey Bogart. Of all the Warner Brothers crew, it was Bogart and Cagney whom I loved most. Most likely, because early on I took a liking to gangster films. While I liked Cagney a lot, it was Humphrey Bogart whom I was drawn to and still to this day remains one of my favorites.
Why Bogart instead of Cagney? Cagney is arguably the better actor, certainly the more versatile. Whether he was playing a psychotic hoodlum like Cody Jarrett or entertainment giant George M. Cohan, he was amazing. Bogart did not have that versatility, but what he did have was an anti-hero sensibility in his characters that Cagney’s good guy or bad guys did not have. Sure Bogart played weasels in many early roles: Angels with Dirty Faces, The Roaring Twenties, Bullets or Ballots. He was pure evil in The Petrified Forest and Dead End, but he was best in films where his characters were more complex; men who lived by their own code, in works like The Maltese Falcon, The Big Sleep, Casablanca or In a Lonely Place.
Joan Blondell was sassy! If for no other reason, that’s why she is one of my favorites. She can deliver a snappy line like no one else. Along with Barbara Stanwyck, she took no gruff from men. Whether as the star or more likely the second female lead, she practically would steal the film. She is especially effective opposite James Cagney, and as I wrote in an article some time back, together Cagney and Blondell had moxie. Blonde Crazy is one of my favorite Blondell films. It’s a terrific, sexy and fun film with Blondell and Cagney playing off each other at their best. While her career was long, for me, her best work was in the 1930’s in films like Gold Diggers of 1933; the film ending Remember My Forgotten Men is one of the highlights of her career. Other must see Blondell works include The Public Enemy, The Crow Roars, Blondie Johnson, Three on a Match, Union Depot, and Night Nurse. Attached are two articles I previously wrote on Blondell: The Films of James Cagney and Joan Blondell and The Essential Joan Blondell.
I first became aware of Barbara Stanwyck after seeing Billy Wilder’s masterpiece of noir, Double Indemnity, for the first time as a young teenager. I could not say at the time why I liked her, but I found her fascinating. After watching her in many additional films over the years, I have come to recognize it was her combination of sexy allure and toughness. On the surface, Stanwyck was not the most beautiful woman, but she was enigmatically fascinating to watch as an actress and as a woman. Like Blondell, she could be sassy, and again like Blondell she was a major part of the pre-code era appearing in some of its most infamous films. Unlike Blondell though, Stanwyck’s career became even bigger post pre-code. She brought badly needed strength to even the weakest films (check out Roustabout with Elvis). To this day, Stanwyck’s allure, her talent and her unique style of sexiness outshine anyone.
In 1971, I read a review about a film called The Panic in Needle Park. It was a small movie, the second directed by photographer Jerry Schatzberg, made entirely in New York’s Upper West Side. The film’s stars were two little-known actors named Al Pacino and Kitty Winn, both portraying heroin drug addicts who mainly hang out in the Upper West Side park that back in the 70’s was known as Needle Park. Pacino’s character is a street hustler looking to score his next fix by stealing, hustling or whatever means necessary. It’s a dark, downbeat performance in a dark and downbeat film that smacks you in the gut.
By 1972, when Pacino appeared as young Michael Corleone in The Godfather, I was hooked on this guy’s performances. Admittedly, part of the allure was Pacino being an Italian-American. However, it was more than that, I loved how he encompassed his characters. Pacino, like Robert DeNiro, Jack Nicholson, and others was part of the New Hollywood and the films he and they made were smart and relevant. For me, his best films (Scarecrow, Serpico, The Godfather II, Carlito’s Way, Dog Day Afternoon and Donnie Brasco) had an intensity that we rarely see today.
I have been fortunate enough to see Pacino on stage twice, both times on Broadway. The first time was back in 1977 in The Basic Training of Pavlo Hummel and later in 1992 in Salome. I did see Pacino live one more time in 2011 at Ruth Eckerd Hall in Clearwater. It was a one night only Q&A, with Tampa Bay Times film critic, Steve Pearsall.
These days, Pacino’s films vary in quality, but there are still some must-see films like Danny Collins, and I am excited about the recently announced reunion of Pacino, Robert DeNiro, Harvey Keitel, Joe Pesci and Martin Scorsese in The Irishman. It makes me salivate.
The first time I saw Woody Allen was either on The Ed Sullivan Show or in What’s New, Pussycat? Either way, it was in 1965. I became a fan immediately. In Pussycat, a mediocre comedy, he practically stole the movie. Allen wrote the screenplay and cheekily included a part for himself. His character, Victor, was already the fully formed cinematic Woody we would see on screen in the future. Back then, Woody seemed to be everywhere. He was still doing standup in clubs, performances which are preserved on three comedy LP’s. He was on TV: Password, The Jack Parr Program? Candid Camera and Hullaballoo, are just a few.
Woody made his film directorial debut in the 1966 hybrid What’s Up, Tiger Lily. Woody took a minor Japanese James Bond style spy film, stripped away the dialogue and redubbed it with his own script about a secret egg salad recipe. He also shot some additional new footage including performances by The Lovin’ Spoonful. I am probably one of the few who saw this film when originally released. In 1969, Allen made his first “real” Woody film with Take the Money and Run. It was a hodgepodge, cinematically speaking, but it was funny!
As Woody continued to make more films: Bananas, Everything You Always Want to Know about Sex, Sleeper, and Love and Death, you could see his skills as a filmmaker grow which each work. Then came his first masterpiece, Annie Hall. There were plenty more to follow. For me, Woody, along with Mel Brooks and the underrated Albert Brooks, are modern day comic masters. The closest we have to the comic genius of Chaplin, Keaton, and Lloyd. Is that too bold a statement?
This post is part of the Five Stars Blogathon celebrating National Classic Movie Day. Check out other film worthy blogs joining in the celebration by clicking here.