It seems that just because we're approaching Christmas, every movie we watch as a family has to involve the topic, or at least have a jingle in the soundtrack. I'm all for screening the perennial Yuletide classics, but if you're feeling a slight sense of wear-out on "It's A Wonderful Life", "Scrooge", or even "Santa Clause 1-4", there is a solution.
Regardless of one's faith, at its core the holidays involve gatherings of extended family spanning all life-stages, so it makes sense to lay in a store of films that all generations can watch and enjoy together. And risking heresy, these titles don't have to concern Thanksgiving, Christmas or Hannukah specifically--they could simply reinforce human and social themes that inspire our respective New Year's resolutions. Regardless, they'll each make for a nice change of pace from all the commercial hoopla that comes with the season.
So adopting this broader outlook, here's my first varied grab-bag of outstanding but under-exposed movies suitable for multi-generational family viewing over the holidays.
Captains Courageous (1937)- Young Harvey Cheyne (Freddie Bartholomew) is the pampered son of a wealthy widower and tycoon (Melvyn Douglas) who has learned he can get whatever he wants if he whines loud enough. On a posh cruise to Europe with his father, Harvey falls overboard and is rescued by a boatful of fishermen including crusty skipper Disko (Lionel Barrymore) and kind-hearted, Portugese-born Manuel (Spencer Tracy). As Harvey's official rescuer, Manuel undertakes to teach young Harvey about real life and the ways of humble men who work the seas. Based on a Rudyard Kipling story, this heartwarming adventure saga follows the transformation of a bratty pantywaist into a decent young man under the tutelage of Tracy's gentle fisherman. Bartholomew is a natural playing the self-centered child of privilege, and really clicks with Tracy, who won a Best Actor Oscar for his performance (though he hated putting on an Iberian accent). Absorbing for viewers of any age, "Captains" is a rousing tale whose bittersweet climax will not leave a dry eye on deck.
Gentleman Jim (1942)- Sponsored by a bank executive, brash Irish pugilist and bank clerk Jim Corbett (Errol Flynn) trains himself in the scientific methods of prize fighting at San Francisco's Olympic Club. Cocky and charismatic, Corbett works his way up the fledgling boxing hierarchy, while trying to win over the high-born Victoria Ware (Alexis Smith). But Corbett faces his ultimate challenge when he takes on famed bruiser John L. Sullivan (Ward Bond) in a highly charged bout in the New Orleans of 1892. Raoul Walsh's splendidly robust biopic of Corbett, the first fighter to win the world heavyweight title under the more refined Marquis of Queensberry rules he helped draft (no biting, kicking, or clawing), is one of Hollywood's finest sports dramas. Flynn's deft handling of Corbett's outsize personality-a mix of classy manners and boorish bluster-and Bond's own turn as Sullivan, a champion boxer who can "lick any man in creation," are the film's main attractions. Walsh handles the action exceedingly well, especially the final ring showdown, a bout as thrilling as anything in Scorsese's "Raging Bull."
The Red Shoes (1948)- Ballerina Vicky Page (Moira Shearer) is torn between her allegiance to her mentor, ballet impresario Boris Lermontov (Anton Walbrook), and her love for young composer Julian Craster (Marius Goring). Her real-life conflict is set against the ballet of "The Red Shoes", based on the Hans Christian Andersen fable of a girl who slips on beautiful slippers and finds she cannot stop dancing. Close to sixty years after release, Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger's best-remembered classic remains one of the most sumptuous Technicolor films ever made. The ballet sequences (choreographed by Robert Helpmann) are breathtaking, but never eclipse the human drama, with Walbrook powerful as the icy, imposing Lermontov, and Shearer a red-haired vision, whether still or in motion. "Shoes" remains one of our greatest film achievements.
Little Fugitive (1953)- With his Mother gone overnight to visit a sick relative, twelve year old Lennie (Richard Brewster) is entrusted to look after his seven year old brother Joey (Richie Andrusco). Instead, goaded by his friends, Lennie plays a practical joke on Joey which makes the younger boy think he's killed his brother, and needs to "take it on the lam". So where does Joey escape to, with the little money their Mother left: why, Coney Island of course, where he discovers a bonafide fantasy-land. Once Lennie realizes his trick worked too well, he must track Joey down before Mom gets home. This sublime, touching little film became a landmark in independent film-making, winning the Silver Lion Award at Cannes, and influencing what would become the French New Wave with its documentary-like immediacy. Seen today, "Fugitive" evokes a potent nostalgia for the long-ago fifties, with the fabled Coney Island beach and amusement park captured (from a kid-sized view) with all its wonder intact. Appealing non-actor Andrusco is also transfixing as Joey. "Little Fugitive" is definitely worth tracking down.
Friendly Persuasion (1956)- Jess Birdwell (Gary Cooper) and his minister wife Eliza (Dorothy McGuire) are happily raising their three children in the pacifist, hospitable ways of the Quaker faith. But as the Civil War looms closer to home, their eldest son, Josh (Anthony Perkins), joins the Home Guard to defend their community against Rebel raiders, forcing them to examine their faith and conscience. "Persuasion" is a sensitive portrayal of Quaker life-ways, with flashes of merry humor, especially around Jess, who can't resist racing a neighbor's buggy or the allure of a new pump organ-both frowned upon by his stoic religion. Black-lister Michael Wilson's progressive-minded script doesn't shy from weighing militarism against Christian love, and William Wyler's solid direction of stars Cooper and McGuire makes their love for each other seem unfailingly genuine. Future "Psycho" star Perkins is also excellent as the gangly, intense teen who joins the Union defenders against his parents' wishes. For a quaint, incisive look at old-time Quaker life, try a bit of "Friendly Persuasion."
The Miracle Worker (1962)- Set in the late nineteenth century, this incredible but true tale of teacher for the blind Annie Sullivan (Anne Bancroft) who through sheer will and saint-like patience, transforms blind, deaf, and dumb Helen Keller (Patty Duke) from a wild beast to a feeling, reasoning child, connected to the world around her. Not only does she have to play lion-trainer with the uncontrolled Helen, but must also re-shape the narrow expectations of Helen's parents, who are instinctively protective and believe little can be done for their child. Adapted from the hit Broadway play which the leads also starred in, director Arthur Penn preserves two incredible performances (both Oscar- nominated) and one amazing story for posterity. Lean and powerful, with no excess melodrama. "The Miracle Worker" will earn a standing ovation from your armchair. Trivia note: Duke would go on to perform Bancroft's role in a TV remake seventeen years later-but in our book, the late, great Anne will always own that part.
A Patch Of Blue (1965)- Black businessman Gordon (Sidney Poitier) strikes up a friendship with eighteen year old Selina (Elizabeth Hartman), a neglected, blind white girl he meets in a park, and decides to see to her welfare. She blossoms under his care and mentorship, but Selina's abusive mother Rose-Ann (Shelley Winters), a moonlighting prostitute who's seen better days, viciously tries to drive a rift between them. The gifted Poitier shines in Guy Green's tender parable about the meaning of friendship, notably one of the first studio films to take on the charged subject of interracial love. Leisurely paced and simply told, "Patch" is worth sticking with, as uniformly fine performances carry the audience to a satisfying finish. Late ingenue turned character actress Winters took home an Oscar that year for her unsympathetic turn as Selina's racist, harridan mother.
Junior Bonner (1972)- The "Junior" in question (Steve McQueen) is a fading rodeo star who re-visits his home turf to participate in the area's annual event. There, he re-unites with his family: beloved dad Ace (Robert Preston), a charming but irresponsible dreamer; mother Elvira (Ida Lupino), his grounded but long-suffering mother; and brother Curly (Joe Don Baker), who's becoming rich developing the land Ace sold him at a discount. Junior must see if he still has the stuff to compete, while coming to terms with his family situation. Director Sam Peckinpah's most subtle, gentle movie is a perfect star showcase for the mellow McQueen, who wears the part of Junior like a pair of old jeans. "Junior" also boasts a fabulous late career turn from Preston (best remembered for "The Music Man"), who virtually steals the movie as Ace. Appropriate for older children, who should enjoy those bucking bronco scenes, "Bonner" delivers terrific Americana. Don't miss it!
Breaking Away (1979)- This strikingly buoyant coming-of-age picture set in Indiana tells of four local boys (and recent high-school grads) who must face their futures, but not before enjoying one last carefree summer. Protagonist Dave (Dennis Christopher) is obsessed with cycling, and on learning how many cycling champions come from Italy, cultivates an appreciation for all things Italian, much to the consternation of his more conventional parents (Paul Dooley and Barbara Barrie). Dave's cycling skills will eventually be tested against the snobby college guys in Bloomington's annual bike race. Director Peter Yates's heartfelt, life-affirming movie will prove a winner for older kids and adults. Christopher is appealingly quirky in the central role, and the film showcases the budding talents of future stars Dennis Quaid and Daniel Stern as two of Dave's close buddies. Dooley is particularly memorable as Dave's bewildered father, a solid Middle American you might actually buy a used car from. "Breaking Away" is worth its weight in gold as well.
Next week, I'll post Part 2 of this series, which lists top family-friendly titles made between 1980 and the present.
In the meantime, for more great film selections, visit www.bestmoviesbyfarr.com.