Decameron 2020: Saturday Matinee

Well, my friends, we’re two months into quarantine/lock down/self-isolation…whatever you want to call it. By now, you’ve caught up on all of your TV shows. You’ve binged watched your favorite movies. You’ve read that book that’s been collecting dust for a few years that you’ve been meaning to read. Household projects are getting completed.

What do we do now? We have to stay strong. Whether we like it or not, this virus isn’t going away soon, and the quarantine must continue not just for our own health and safety, but for the health of our friends, neighbors and families.

Soooo, I propose a trip into classic Tinsel Town. Among my many passions in life are old movies. I spent 10 years writing about classic cinema for a catalog company, while I was building It surprises me how forgotten old Hollywood is, and it amazes me how good the entertainment remains, even in the 21st century.

Today, instead of a story, I want to recommend 5 great films to watch, that you might not have seen before, but that might just blow your mind and at least help you forget your worries for 90 minutes. Most of these films are easily accessed on various movie services that you can get with your smart TVs. If worst comes to worst, you can “rent” them from Amazon Prime. It will be worth every penny.

No, I won’t lob softballs at you like “Casablanca,” “The Wizard of Oz,” “Gone with the Wind” or “Some Like It Hot.” Even people who’ve never seen any other black-and-white or Technicolor films have seen those. Nope. I want to get into the not-obscure, but certainly not on the tips of most people’s tongues these days films.

HORSE FEATHERS: The Marx Brothers made the first screwball talking picture (“talkie”) in 1929 with the madcap “The Cocoanuts.” It was deliriously funny in the year it came out, but it doesn’t hold up half as well as 1932’s “Horse Feathers.” Groucho, Chico, Harpo and Zeppo are called upon to save a university from ruination…while seducing the “college widow.” How do you save any college? You give it the best football team money can buy. My, how so little has changed. After a slow opening scene, the movie moves at a manic pace with a non-stop stream of witty one liners and slapstick comedy. The film is a riot, and you’ll instantly be tempted to change the password on your computer by the end of the film. If only Harpo’s pantomimes were emojis.

THE BIG SLEEP: Long before the world obsessed about the romance between Brad and Angelina, a real romance electrified the silver screen. Humphrey Bogart and Lauren Bacall had dynamite chemistry on and off the set. Meeting on the set of “To Have and Have Not” (1944), Bacall was only 19 and Bogie was married and 45. Their sizzling screen romance boiled over into his divorce and their marriage. What makes Bacall stand out so much for me is not only her beauty, but she is tough as nails and cool as a cucumber. While I actually like “To Have and Have Not” a little better than “The Big Sleep” (1946), it is easy for some folks to think it is a little too derivative of “Casablanca,” just set in the Caribbean. “The Big Sleep” is hard-boiled film noir at its edge-of-your-seat suspenseful best. Bogie is a private eye hired to keep a grifter from ripping off a wealthy family whose youngest daughter is a dope-fiend wild child. Her older sister is played by Bacall, she and Bogie spark, but she’s hiding a much more sinister skeleton in her closet. When Bogie goes to uncover it, it might just cost him his life. The banter between Bogie and Bacall is as sharp as the crack of a .38 in the night.

TOP HAT: Even if you don’t like musicals, it is nearly impossible not to love Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers dancing their way from London to the most beautifully stylized Venice in 1935’s “Top Hat.” Often thought of as their best picture, the film’s formula has gelled perfectly. Irving Berlin wrote the songs, while Astaire choreographed some of the most dazzling tap dance routines caught on film. Astaire plays a tap-dancing playboy who is trying to help his buddy, the hilariously bumbling character actor Edward Everett Horton, smooth things over with Horton’s wife, played by Helen Broderick. Broderick is close friends with Rogers. Astaire is smitten with Rogers, but she thinks he’s her best friend’s husband, whom she has never previously met. Things get out of hand, but hilarity and great dancing ensues. For fans of “I Love Lucy,” Lucille Ball makes her film debut as a platinum blonde shop girl in a flower shop. She probably only has one line, so you have to watch closely.

SUNSET BLVD: Most of you are likely familiar with the catch phrase, “I’m ready for my close-up, Mr. DeMille,” but have you actually seen the psychological thriller “Sunset Blvd” from 1950? A struggling young Hollywood writer stumbles into the home of fictional silent film star Norma Desmond (played by real silent film star Gloria Swanson) in contemporary 1950 Hollywood. In a short while, she hires him to help orchestrate her return to modern stardom, and he is happy to take her money and lustful desires. But things quickly turn ugly when things inside the bubble-life she’s created for herself get out of hand and he falls for his best friend’s fiancĂ©. Legendary film director and writer Billy Wilder hit a home run with one of the few older films to truly capture psychopathy and other mental health issues. I saw this film for the first time when I was 12, I looked at my mom wide-eyed at the end and said something to the effect of “Oh my God, they get it.” She knew then that I’d never be a normal kid. Keep an eye open throughout the movie as dozens of real silent film stars populate the background as extras.

CITY LIGHTS: Charlie Chaplin brilliantly understood one thing: His character “The Tramp” was dead as soon as he talked. Chaplin was at his wittiest when he didn’t open his mouth and let his actions speak for him. When “City Lights” came out in 1931, people thought he was insane to be the only holdout for silent movies. Yet, the genius here is that it isn’t silent. He recorded the film with all of the music and sound effects needed to keep the story flowing. Yet, he didn’t give the actors any lines. He continued to use title cards when words were needed. Sadly, most of the music of the silent movies has been lost because the sheet music was never stored with the film canisters. With “City Lights” the movie comes with its original soundtrack, so you can hear it the way it was intended. Oh, yeah. The plot. Chaplin is in love with a blind girl, who doesn’t know he’s a homeless tramp. He learns an operation can save her vision, so he sets out on a madcap course to get her the needed money. As she thinks he’s rich, will she still love him when her vision is returned and she finds out who he really is? If you aren’t used to silent movies, sometimes you just have to get your head in the right place for them, but when you are in the zone, these movies are as powerful and hilarious as any made today. “City Lights” is a great place to start, although Chaplin’s “Modern Times” is also a great entry, also with a recorded soundtrack and effects. (Did you know the famous song “Smile” was written by Chaplin for “Modern Times.” He was an amazingly good composer, although he rarely gets much credit for it.)

6 thoughts on “Decameron 2020: Saturday Matinee

  1. Frankie 4 Fingers

    All are fantastic films.”The Big Sleep” *sigh* The cinematography is exquisite. It and “The Maltese falcon” are two of the most beautifully shot Film Noirs. The 1978 version of the Big Sleep with Robert Mitchum is a travesty. My favorite Chaplin film, however, is “The Kid” but “City Lights” is the better film.

    1. Nathaniel Cerf Post author

      Howdy, Frankie! “The Kid” is probably the better film, as it will make you laugh and tear your heart out. But as an entry into silent cinema, it is so hard to recommend a version with good music playing along. So many DVDs of silent movies just stick random classical music on top of the film, but they never sync the music to the action on the screen like the early days when an organist or piano player accompanied the film. Some of the magic gets lost when there is a bad mix of random music with the movie.

  2. Art Cerf

    Great idea.
    How about “The Maltese Falcon,” “The Thin Man,” “Random Harvest,” “While Heat” and “High Noon?”

  3. Donald Mincher

    Better late than never – just found this fantastic site! I’ve seen your old movie picks (most, more than once).
    KUDOS! I couldn’t agree more. Love your site.


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