John Farr

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The Best Movies Afloat by Farr

Posted: 04/11/2012 4:45 pm

This weekend marks the centennial of the Titanic disaster, an event that's been recreated in countless films, including the 1997 James Cameron epic that's back in theaters. (Personally I never much cared for the film in two dimensions; I doubt I'll like it more in three. And yes, I know I'm in the minority on this.)

Regardless, when you consider all the movies where boats of various sizes figure in the plot, you discover more riches than the Titanic could ever have carried.

In fact, for the purposes of this piece, I'm consciously omitting all military/war films, since they would comprise (at least) one article all on their own. I'm also avoiding pirate movies for the same reason.

That leaves ocean liner pictures, and films where smaller boats play a role. I've always appreciated how movies set on liners recreate a bygone era when travel could be calm and civilized. Other boat films may take us on-board a luxurious yacht, or show man pitted against the biggest and cruelest natural force on earth: the sea.

So -- the following dozen movies are decidedly a mixed bag, spanning sophisticated comedy, gritty drama, even documentary. Rest assured, though: every title remains sea worthy -- cinematically speaking, of course.

Man Of Aran (1934) -- Shot on Ireland's remote Aran Islands, this astonishing documentary depicts the primal struggle between humanity and the unpredictable, seemingly limitless water that surrounds us. Whether battling ferocious storms or hunting a gigantic basking shark, the residents of this desolate island undergo laborious, dangerous tasks each day with hardy determination, seemingly undaunted by the hardships they face. No movie better illustrates the tenuous, symbiotic relationship between brute nature and human endurance than Robert Flaherty's hauntingly gorgeous Man of Aran. Flaherty, director of the classic Nanook of the North and father of the documentary form, shot Aran, his first sound feature, over the course of two and a half years, casting heroic locals in key roles and training his camera on the rugged, magnificent environment in which they eke out their survival. Man of Aran is pure visual poetry, astounding and unforgettable.

A Night At The Opera
(1935) -- Grand opera would never be the same once the Marx Brothers got though with it. Otis B. Driftwood (Groucho) is interested in arts patron Mrs. Claypool (Margaret Dumont), or more precisely, Mrs. Claypool's checkbook. Along with newfound confederates Fiorello (Chico) and Tomasso (Harpo), he's also interested in undermining the cruel, arrogant opera star Lasparri (Walter Woolf King), while advancing the romance and careers of young performers Rosa and Ricardo (Kitty Carlisle and Allan Jones). Through the force of comic anarchy, the Brothers accomplish precisely that. This, the first and best of the team's MGM releases, features more focus on plot, musical numbers and romance than their earlier, wonderfully pure Paramount outings, but the results are still first-rate, with a splashy MGM production and a well-balanced romantic subplot (featuring a lovely young Carlisle) complementing some of the team's zaniest antics, including that immortal stateroom scene, and the impromptu baseball game during the opera.

Dodsworth (1936) -- Sam Dodsworth (Walter Huston), a business tycoon, decides to retire and take an extended trip to Europe with wife Fran (Ruth Chatterton). Unfortunately, Sam's financial success has only increased Fran's latent vanity and social-climbing tendencies. No longer distracted by his work, Sam sees his wife's weaknesses for the first time, as she openly flirts and cavorts with a European aristocrat. Sam must confront the problem in his marriage, then find a way to regain some happiness for himself. Based on a novel by Sinclair Lewis, director William Wyler and screenwriter Sydney Howard have crafted an adult, perceptive romantic drama, beautifully played. They wisely minimize the soapiness inherent in the premise, leaving an honest and surprisingly moving film about love lost and re-discovered. The Oscar-nominated Huston is superb.

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, lies, and screams loud enough. On a posh cruise to Europe with his father, Harvey falls overboard and is rescued by a boat full of fishermen led by crusty skipper Disko (Lionel Barrymore) and including kindhearted, Portugese-born Manuel (Spencer Tracy). As Harvey's official rescuer, Manuel undertakes to teach the 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 as the sensitive Manuel (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.

The Lady Eve (1941) -- Colonel Harrington and daughter Jean (Charles Coburn and Barbara Stanwyck) are skilled card sharks who intend to ply their lucrative trade on board a chic ocean liner. Also on board is Charles Pike (Henry Fonda), a shy, naive heir to a brewery fortune. He's the perfect mark, but Jean starts to fall for him. Once off the boat, Pike resumes his normal life, but his ordered world gets disrupted once more when he meets an English lady with a striking resemblance to Jean. Could it be? Preston Sturges' crazy genius jumps right off the screen in this movie. A highly successful screenwriter before adding directing to his resume, he had an off-the wall sensibility that was way ahead of his time, and more than anything he'd done up to this point, this release proved it. Sturges' brilliantly anarchic script is brought to life here by a first-rate cast: Stanwyck is at the peak of her appeal as a husky-voiced con lady with a surprisingly vulnerable heart, and Coburn is incongruously cuddly as her father. Fonda also makes for a surprisingly effective straight man. This is one "Lady" you should stand up for.

La Terra Trema (1948) -- Before director Luchino Visconti became known for lavish epics like The Leopard, he directed this neo-realist masterpiece, evoking the rugged life of Sicilian fishermen on an unpredictable, temperamental sea, and portraying the equally daunting challenges the men face on land, as they conspire to fight the fish wholesalers who make disproportionate profits from their catch, leaving them with a pittance to live on. Through Visconti's unsparing lens, we witness the daily repetition of backbreaking labor and the ongoing pain of injustice these fishermen face. All this is seen and felt amidst images of stark, breathtaking beauty. Featuring a brilliant use of non-actors, whose weathered faces each tell the same hard story, this fascinating, rewarding film has the impact of a documentary -- and the unmistakable feel of truth.

Key Largo (1948) -- On the brink of a huge storm, WWII vet Frank McCloud (Humphrey Bogart) visits a disheveled hotel in the titular island town to pay his respects to Nora (Lauren Bacall), the widow of a deceased war buddy. Run by Nora's father James (Lionel Barrymore), the hotel is playing host to some pretty seedy urban types, and Frank soon discovers why: infamous mobster Johnny Rocco (Edward G. Robinson) and his men have slinked back into the country and temporarily seized control of the establishment. Based on Maxwell Anderson's play, John Huston's Key Largo is a classic 1940s noir featuring taut direction and indelible performances from Bogart and Robinson as the menacing Rocco. In a cast that also boasts Bacall, Oscar-winner Claire Trevor as Rocco's drunken mistress, and Lionel Barrymore as the cantankerous hotelier, it's Rocco's sadistic, savage power that occupies center stage. Bogie is comfortably in star mode as the taciturn good guy who comes through in the clinch. Don't miss that ending on board a boat called the "Santana" (the name of Bogart's own yacht and production company).

The Lady From Shanghai
(1948) -- When he's offered a job working on a Mexico-bound yacht by Arthur Bannister (Everett Sloane), a wealthy, handicapped lawyer whose wife he rescued from muggers, itinerant Irishman Michael O'Hara (Orson Welles) accepts. Resisting the advances of gorgeous Elsa (Rita Hayworth), the woman he saved, O'Hara finds himself sailing in even hotter water when he agrees to help Bannister's friend George Grisby (Glenn Anders) stage his own murder. This murky, intriguing noir puzzler from Welles features excellent performances, stark atmospherics, and a typically Wellesian visual flair culminating in the famous Hall of Mirrors sequence. Dark-humored and fatalistic, the film owes much of its tension to Welles' off-camera conflicts with Hayworth, his real-life wife at the time. Part of the fun is seeing a master wrestle with the mysteries of his own life, and this "Lady" has plenty to spare.

The African Queen (1951) -- Coarse-tongued, boozy steamer captain Charlie Allnut (Bogart), a supplier of trade goods to East African villages during WWI, offers to take prim, imperious Rose Sayer (Katharine Hepburn) back to civilization after her devoted brother, a British missionary, dies during a German attack. Charlie and Rose have an oil-and-water rapport, but over the ensuing days, as they face a gauntlet of perils on the arduous journey home, their mutual hostility softens and then turns much sweeter. Scripted by James Agee, John Huston's hugely entertaining African Queen pairs a grizzled Bogart with the lovably straitlaced and ever-haughty Hepburn for a bumpy ride down a treacherous river, where a German gunboat is lurking, along with leeches, rapids, and (surprise!) romance. According to Hepburn's memoir (and several books), it was a hell of a shoot for everyone concerned, but DP John Cardiff managed to render the humid environs of East Africa in majestic, eye-popping Technicolor. Sterling performances by Hepburn and Bogart (who nabbed the Oscar for his turn as the cantankerous river rat) are the best reason to revisit African Queen, though. Opposites attract!

A Night to Remember
(1958) -- Told from the point of view of heroic second officer Herbert Lightoller (Kenneth More), this ultra-realistic film re-enacts the fatal maiden voyage of the world-famous Titanic, crown jewel of the industrial age. Supposedly "unsinkable," Titanic struck an iceberg on April 14, 1912, on its way to New York from England, and sank to the bottom of the ocean, taking more than 1,500 people with it. Here, we follow diverse groups of passengers and crewmen, including the ill-starred Captain Smith (Laurence Naismith) and American heiress Molly Brown (Tucker McGuire), many of whom never set foot on shore again. By far the best movie ever made about the Titanic tragedy, Baker's riveting, semi-documentary Night is based on the bestselling book by Walter Lord, and brings us closer to knowing what the journey must have been like than any version before or since. Unlike other studio takes on the story, Baker sticks to real-life details, crafting an intelligent, suspenseful re-enactment of the fateful night, while glimpsing many human stories behind the disaster. Featuring lavish costumes and exquisite production design, as well as a cast of more than 200 actors, Night is one high seas outing you'll remember for a long time.

Some Like It Hot (1959) -- Out-of-work musicians Joe (Tony Curtis) and Jerry (Jack Lemmon) nab a job performing in Illinois, only to witness the St. Valentine's Day Massacre after the gig. To escape the gangsters on their tail, the two disguise themselves as female musicians (Josephine and Daphne), and head to Florida with an all-girl orchestra. Both men fall for lead singer Sugar Kane (Marilyn Monroe), but their fake identities prevent them from acting on their desires -- at least at first. Long before Tootsie and Mrs. Doubtfire, Wilder gave us this comic, gender-bending masterpiece, which came at the very end of the conservative '50s, providing a preview of the more liberated decade to come. Here the director is in pure comedy mode, and pulls off a tricky premise brilliantly. Lemmon and Curtis make an ideal comic duo, Monroe sparkles as the object of their sisterly affections, and Joe E. Brown nearly steals the picture as a dotty millionaire besotted with Lemmon's Daphne. A howl, truly.

Ship Of Fools (1965) -- Set in 1933, a tragic turning point in Germany's history, Stanley Kramer's psychological drama trails a disparate group of passengers sailing from Vera Cruz right into the heart of fascism. The ship's a kind of purgatory, holding a washed-up baseball player (Lee Marvin), a faded beauty (Vivien Leigh, in her last film), two combative young lovers (George Segal and Elizabeth Ashley), and assorted other characters. Based on Katherine Anne Porter's novel, producer/director Stanley Kramer creates a fascinating, emotionally gripping film with a conscience. "Ship" stays afloat thanks to Abby Mann's sharp screenplay and a slew of memorable performances: Simone Signoret as a Spanish activist, Oskar Werner as the onboard doctor, and Oscar-nominated Michael Dunn, whose direct-address speeches are worthy of Sophocles. And then, there's the incomparable Lee Marvin, riveting as always.

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