When Movies Didn’t Need Color

Personal B&W pix-picks by L. E. Taylor

Last month, I passed along a boyhood remembrance from decades ago. The narrative came to rest upon an old movie, The Enchanted Cottage.

Some readers have responded, both to the poignancy of the World War II phantasy, but also to the fact that it was in black and white. I’d already intended to set aside time soon to write about black-and-white movies, which comprised the majority of films enjoyed by people of an earlier generation.

As a painter in my youth, I was branded a “colorist” by my grad school critic. True enough, but the stark poetry of graphite on velum also conveys a color of another kind. Sketches in pencil or ink can jolt the sensibilities as in a dream. (We are told most of us dream in black and white. Maybe.)  Tones of black and gray strip our nature of obvious emotional triggers, and insist upon more form. And fewer flowers.

Without the flowers, here’s my tip: Do yourself a favor and start watching black-and-white movies – some are great classic cinema, some are merely good entertainment. Many are clumsy and banal (just like everything else.) But this list, though admittedly biased to my own Middle American sensibilities, is pretty safe if you want to sample the really good stuff of a younger Hollywood, in glorious black-and-white.

  • Casablanca (Bogey, Bergman, and Nazis, 1942)
  • Brief Encounter (As sensual as platonic love gets, 1945)
  • Roman Holiday (Greg Peck & magical Audrey Hepburn, 1953)
  • It Happened One Night (Clark Gable with no undershirt, 1934)
  • Stagecoach (Debut of “The Duke”, 1939)
  • How Green Was My Valley (Manly sentiments; literary, 1941)
  • The Maltese Falcon (Classic Bogart thriller, 1941)
  • DOA (Riveting cinema noir mystery, 1950)
  • All About Eve (Smart, classy show-biz drama, 1950)
  • They Died With Their Boots On (U.S. history on-the-hoof, 1941)
  • On the Waterfront (Best Brando until The Godfather, 1954)
  • Double Indemnity (Sexy cinema noir murder thriller, 1944)
  • The Third Man (Cold War thriller,1949)
  • Some Like It Hot (Best comedy for grownups, 1959)
  • Key Largo (Bogey & Bacall, gangsters in the Keys, 1948)
  • Twelve O’ Clock High (Great psychological war drama, 1949)
  • Mrs. Miniver (English family braves WWII Blitz, 1942)
  • The Sea Hawk (Best swashbuckler flick, 1940)
  • They Were Expendable (PT boats, lots of stars, 1945)
  • The Sea Wolf (Grim film of a great Jack London novel,1941)
  • The Ghost and Mrs. Muir (Supernatural, romantic, 1947)
  • Blithe Spirit (Witty, elegant, literary Noel Coward classic, 1945)
  • The Ox-Bow Incident (Tense tragedy. Classic symbolism, 1943)
  • Sergeant York (WWI heroism, Gary Cooper, 1941)
  •  Citizen Kane (Tops on all the “greatest” lists, 1941)
  • The Magnificent Ambersons (American family drama, 1942)
  • The Bank Dick (W.C. Fields’ best, 1940)
  • Top Hat (Fred & Ginger invent movie dancing, 1935)
  • The Apartment (Smarmy-sweet story; ‘60s irony, 1960)
  • Red River (Classic western, good character development, 1948)
  • Going My Way (Bing Crosby, the singing priest – Oscar, 1944)
  • The Bishop’s Wife (Great supernatural romantic comedy, 1947)
  • The Big Sleep (Classic cinema noir; Bogey & Bacall, sizzle, 1948)
  • The Keys of the Kingdom (Powerful challenges to faith, 1944)
  • Requiem for a Heavyweight (Tough neo-realism, 1959)
  • Bad and the Beautiful (‘Inside Hollywood’ drama; big stars, 1952)
  • To Have and Have Not (Bogey meets Bacall, Hemingway, 1944)
  • From Here to Eternity (Five-Star military drama with five real “stars”, 1954)

Once you’ve acquired a taste for the better B&W vintages, you might be liberated for good from twenty-first century vulgarity.

Your comments and suggestions are welcome, of course. Leave them at the candy counter, and bring me a tub of popcorn, will you? Salt, extra butter.

Onward.

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One More Time

Observations on cashing in or cashing out, by L.E. Taylor

Every accomplished writer knows the principle of re-writing. No work of art is born whole. Classical painters were, first of all, draftsmen; all the greats are admired as much for their notebooks and folios of sketches that preceded their grand-scale works as they are for the murals and canvases that adorn, centuries later, the walls of time.

Refinements come with each iteration of an idea. So do fresh insights buried dormant in the preliminary noodling that passes for first drafts. Early in life, we are impatient with the notion that our first attempt at anything is nowhere near its potential. Only as the brain matures, and we continue to work, are our skills honed to mastery.

Practice, man, practice.

Today, it seems that anyone who can make an angry mess on a cheap canvas board or spout puerile obscenities on a stage or movie screen is an “artist.” (For reference please consider recording artists, then go to your Webster’s and look up “travesty”.) Generations ago, artists devoted themselves to apprenticeship for years of their often short, sometimes hungry, lives. Mentored by master practitioners, they learned their craft. Talent is God’s gift for each of us to develop. It cannot be taught. Craft is the language of talent, without craft talent is stillborn. However, un-accompanied by talent, the mastered craft is still a craft, a valuable set of skills and acquired taste that can carry a person far.

As a mentor to novice writers, both young and old, one encounters as many diversions of personality and aptitude as there are pupils. Varying degrees of student talent and readiness to work frame the teacher’s challenge. And lure the teacher’s hope.

In my own experience as a self-taught artist, as an athlete, and as an ever-maturing writer, all of this has been borne out. So my view of the process is neither a selfish bias nor an observation worth arguing about with tyros. In recent years, I’ve also seen the model played out among people who’ve enrolled in my workshops.

Some students, with meager writing in their past, or brief attempts abandoned for want of craft, have made remarkable gains in both fluency and content. They arrived eager to learn and with an appetite for enjoyment. In a matter of one or two sessions these diverse women and men began to take charge of their gifts and use them to enrich their own minds.

Others, with the same potential – in some cases, even more in the way of life-adventures and searing experience – arrived doubting. Not doubting the instructor or the drill, but doubting themselves. Pity. I am reminded of an old quote: If you think you can, or if you think you can’t, either way, you’re right.

Does it come down to an unwillingness to edit and refine one’s writing? Hardly ever. Yes, it’s work, but the fuel for all toil is the belief in a worthy goal, and the rejection of doubts about yourself.

Have you ever said, “Oh, I’ve read Huckleberry Finn – in high school,” and used that as reason never to go back to it? Think about it; you were a kid. Go read it again. After decades of maturing, you may appreciate Mark Twain’s insights as an adult writer and commenter on America. The same is true of beloved music or drama. How many times can you enjoy My Fair Lady, or La Boheme, or Macbeth, or your Frank Sinatra collection? Just once?

Consider your Bible. After long respites of time and troubles of the flesh, many adults return to Scripture. One may discover a depth and a new spiritual banquet un-savored years before by the fidgety teen you were in catechism or in Sunday school.

“Review” is a good, solid English word that factors into the intellectual growth equation. When we re-view (that is, “see again”), we change. Our perceptions gradually modify with experience. But a youth of any era cannot grasp the notion that it may be in our very nature to evolve into another person.

A few years ago the drug-stoned Hollywood actor and notorious sixties rebel Dennis Hopper was interviewed by Rolling Stone (or Mother Jones or somebody). The interviewer mused that Hopper was once the epitome of drop-out anti-establishment anarchy. He asked the middle aged actor how he’d emerged now, in the 1980s, from years of wild excesses as its opposite: a TV spokesman for American Express, and a registered Republican. Hair neatly slicked back, clad in a trim dark suit, with white shirt and striped silk tie, Mr. Hopper replied, “Hey, man, I grew up.”

Onward.

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Right There in Black & White

Memories of an ex-munchkin among young women and summer breezes, by L. E. Taylor 

The diversions of television and Internet notwithstanding, we who have more life in the rearview mirror than through the windshield often find ourselves drifting off the road and into the past.

Recently, I found myself stock still in the living room with a glass of merlot in one hand and the TV remote in the other. Then I was gone.

The year was 1942. It was summer at my old Auntie Kane’s house on the Canadian shore of Lake St. Clair. I’d been sent across the river and into this bucolic yesteryear by my parents to protect me from the annual hot weather curse of cities: polio. Infantile paralysis, it was called, and it loomed over every household, in every neighborhood.

My Auntie (actually, my “great aunt,” my Grandma’s sister) was a widow whose only asset was a two story summer home built in 1912 by her late husband Will, a nineteenth century British emigrant, speedboat whiskey runner, illegal Detroit saloon proprietor, real estate speculator, and family character. Because the Kane’s had lost it all, as the saying goes, in the 1929-30 Crash, Minnie Kane was dependent for income upon a parade of family members and friends from the old days, and the pals they brought along for weekends in the cooling breezes off the blue lake.

That first year, 1942, was a test to see if I could handle June, July, and most of August on the lakeshore and permanently away from my mother and father, my baby brother, and my neighborhood chums (I could). Also, they needed to see if they could handle it (they could, too). So, summers during the War came to mean Canada for me. Not only did I meet a lot of interesting adults of all types and humours, but also (young men being away on urgent business, in uniform), a good portion of these folks were women. Young women.

Now I was only eight when the parade began, but as summers advanced, so did my curiosity about adult ways. I learned a lot. When the adults were relaxed on holiday at Auntie’s, they spoke freely among themselves – about politics, business, sports, sex. Well, the man-woman thing didn’t have a word connected to it then, but the phenomenon was present, always. My parents and their circles of couples would play gin rummy or poker indoors or Indian dice out on a sunny blanket; the men would go golfing; everyone swam in the sandy shallows of the clear lake; meals were always uproariously entertaining and the humor was always ironic and irreverent and full of salty information for the only kid there.

And he was certainly there. Always right there, not missing a syllable or a nuance. In fact, he wrote a book about it.

Many of the long forgotten bits of information little Larry absorbed in those four summers came from the brides and girlfriends of absent young warriors. The military men were my heroes, especially the Marines and the fliers. One of Auntie’s summer girls was married to an Air Corps pilot named Burton, which fascinated me. Her name was Pat. Then there was Mary, and Peg, and Ruth; these three only had boyfriends who were overseas. They were always gabbing, joking, and sometimes one would retreat into herself. They were all lonely. They masked the loneliness with an edgy gaiety that would come in bursts and then disappear like a summer lake squall.

And I was always there.

One day, they were talking about a movie that made a big impression. They settled into a serious conversation about it. Its title intrigued me. I asked what’s it about? Pat did a double take as though to say, “What? Are you still here?” Mary said, “It’s about a homely girl who meets a handsome man who’s engaged to a pretty woman. He goes off to war and comes back with his face all scarred up and ugly. When others are around, they are both ugly, when they’re alone in the cottage you see what they see, two beautiful people.”

Well, I never saw The Enchanted Cottage, but it did show up sixty-nine years later in my living room in Dallas Texas.

Black and white. Good movie.

Onward.

 

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Coming soon, essay: When Movies Didn’t Need Color.

 

 

 

A Movie Whose Time Has Come

A reflection on Somewhere in Time… by L.E. Taylor

Well, it’s about time.

Thirty-three years ago I went to the theater to see a new movie that had been shot almost completely in one of the most romantic and beautiful locations in America. The fact that the location is also in my native Michigan had a lot to do with my eagerness to see it. I was not disappointed; in fact I was transported.

Because I had no interest in what movie critics think, I was way too busy nursing life’s wounds to read that the elite men and women of the media were scoffing at Somewhere in Time.

I loved it. And I have re-upped my fan-ship many times since, by way of Turner Classic Movies and my own well-worn DVD.

This morning (Monday, October 7th), during my daily browse of the American Thinker website, I came across a wonderfully affirmative article by independent critic David Paulin. Its opening paragraph gave me a nice start to my workday:

MackinacIsland_GrandHotel“Message to high-brow movie critics and cultural elites: Stay away from the Grand Hotel on Michigan’s Mackinac Island this weekend. 

No cynicism allowed! Not among the nearly 800 “time travelers” who arrived on Friday at the historic Grand Hotel — the start of a three-day gathering during which they’ll dress up in period garb and (in their minds) transport themselves back to 1912. The fanciful journey has been an annual ritual for 23 years now, bringing together incurable romantics from all over the country, and even abroad. It’s a celebration of the 1980 movie “Somewhere in Time“– a bittersweet love story involving time travel and shot mostly in and around the majestic 126-year-old Grand Hotel.

The film’s message: love is eternal.”

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The American Thinker article is much more substantive than I have room for in this weekly blog post. (You can enjoy reading it yourself; just follow the link below.)

So why pass this along today? Two points. 1) There’s been very nice fan response to my earlier movie recommendations – most recently last week’s small plug for Swept from the Sea, and 2) an observation that you may want to comment on yourself – about “Critics”.

Point #1 is self-explanatory. Lots of good reader suggestions for other films they want added to the lists. (Great! Watch for them in future LETsBlogs). A couple of days ago, in fact, a neighbor hailed me as I was getting into my car and asked if I owned Swept from the Sea. When I said no, he said he’d just ordered it after reading LETsBlog, and I could borrow it when he’s done. Good show!

Point #2 is well covered by Mr. Paulin’s article. Whatever the Vincent Canbys and Roger Eberts may sniff at from their Olympian perches, Middle Americans tend to trust movies that speak to them, whatever elites may opine.

My own tastes are also personal, and I admit my opinions are subjective. As a writer and a garden-variety movie fan, my biases are less than elite. The parts of the equation, however, all need to be there: Well-conceived and executed script; flawless production quality; intelligent direction: seamless, persuasive acting; strong musical score. But any expensive movie can have all those and still have me grabbing for the remote.

I’m sure you have movies that you love… just because you do. They speak to you, and the more you watch them the more you see in them to like. Please let us know what they are.

Meantime, please checkout David Paulin at The American Thinker.

(Don’t be put off, good reader, by the ‘spoilers.’ The movie is better than his synopsis may imply.)

So. If you want a good tip from a garden variety movie guy, have a peek at Somewhere in Time.

Onward.

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A Gift from the Sea

Remembrance and Reflections: By L.E.Taylor

This posting, as always, is for seekers. But in this case, you’ll have to be motivated to actually rise up, and seek. In other words, you might want to look stuff up.

Got it? Okay, here goes…

There had been a monstrous tidal swell across the Pacific in the Sea of Japan, and from the three-hundred-foot-high cliffs of Northern California’s coast, I’d safely witnessed amazing thirty foot breakers roll in from beyond the horizon, and crash upon our shore.

Then, on a sunny and calm new morning, I walked down to the hard packed sea-perfumed beach, a young journeyman with no purpose but to harvest whatever came my way. And there it was, a glistening aquamarine globe, hand blown by some anonymous Nipponese craftsman, and deposited by fate in the flotsam of seaweed and bright shells and bleached driftwood, nicely within reach. It had been one of thousands of glass buoys woven into fishnets three thousand miles westward. And now it belonged to me. I caressed the imperfect orb. I brushed off the sand and held it in both hands. It went into my sack of treasures and I walked on.

Later, by the light of a driftwood fire, I studied the softball-sized globe. It was obviously handmade, sturdy and with an irregular navel where the umbilicus had been snipped from supple molten glass. Continue reading

Movies for Boys Who Would Be Men

Part One:  Curriculum 101 – Eleven Good Ones

Recently, after seeing trailers for the post-modern re-boot of The Lone Ranger, I had to reflect on my personal experience with the 1930s radio origins of that classic American myth.

More than a few followers of LETs Blog responded, not all on this blog site (more on that later*), but all voiced strong opinions about the moral and intellectual sludge that passes for quality entertainment in this Age of Corruption. (If you think I’m just a grouchy old man, you’re only half right; I was also a grouchy young man.)

As I visited with these cultural compadres I recalled a list of movies I’d cobbled together a few years ago for my very young grandsons (who ignored it). They are older now, but the list has remained largely intact (and still ignored). A few titles have been removed, because they were redundant or didn’t age well. Others have been added or shifted about, because I’m smarter than I was.

These are not what I call “Bambi” movies. (No offence to baby deer lovers, but you get my meaning.) They represent the types of stories that informed my understanding of virtues which define a civilized person. These films feature no zombies, no vampires, no robots.

There is also no P.C. And no B.S.

Because reality is harsh for many youngsters in any era, the messages that resonate with them are not dry sermons or syrupy treacle. The images and ideas that stick in the mind are rooted in ages-old experience of risk, failure, loss, cruelty, and sometimes victory in spite of it all. But none of it comes without a price.

This article offers only a partial list for beginners. I call it Curriculum 101. It is for boys at least 12-14, depending upon their ability to sit still. For perspective and without reservation, though, be assured that each of these gems will deliver satisfaction for men and women of any age. As they have for me. And still do.

Now… Ready projection! Lights out please… And… ROLL ‘em!

LET’s Curriculum 101 (age12+)

1. The Shootist; (Manliness, pain, boy/man conflict. John Wayne)

2. Twelve O’Clock High (Valor in real wartime. Gregory Peck)

3. The Cowboys (Under stress, boys become men. John Wayne)

4. Chariots of Fire (Moral conviction, perseverance, Olympics.)

5. Rudy (boy’s perseverance, collegiate football.)

6. Red Badge of Courage (Cowardice, heroism, Civil War. Audie Murphy)

7. Black Beauty (Heroism – boy and valiant horse)

8. Jeremiah Johnson (Mountain men, 19th century. Robert Redford)

9. Field Of Dreams (Baseball fantasy, father/son. Kevin Costner)

10. Bad Day at Black Rock (Loner battles bad men. Spencer Tracy)

11. Wind and the Lion (Powerful adventure. East vs West. Sean Connery)

 

This is just a taste. Any suggestions? I’m open. *Speak up – talk to each other!

 

Onward.

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References.

All the movies on this list are available on DVD, for purchase or for rent.

  1. Amazon www.Amazon.com
  2. Turner Classic Movies www.TCM.com
  3. Blockbuster www.blockbuster.com
  4. Netflix www.netflix.com