New York Times Essential Library: Children's Movies: A Critic's Guide to the Best Films Available on Video and DVDby Peter M. Nichols
An indispensable guide for parents from a leading expert on children's film
For years Peter M. Nichols has been offering vital advice and information for parents about current movies in his regular "Taking the Children" column. But parents need the same kind of guidance when renting or buying videos and DVDs for their family. They may know that movies/p>/b>
An indispensable guide for parents from a leading expert on children's film
For years Peter M. Nichols has been offering vital advice and information for parents about current movies in his regular "Taking the Children" column. But parents need the same kind of guidance when renting or buying videos and DVDs for their family. They may know that movies such as Toy Story and Chicken Run are good choices for their children, but Nichols helps parents go beyond the obvious choices to more unconventional movies like The African Queen and Some Like It Hot. From the classics of animation to a host of great comedies and dramas, Nichols provides a knowing and illuminating guide to one hundred great cinematic works.
Each brief original essay not only explains why the children will enjoy the film but also allows Nichols to offer timely bits of film history and to discuss certain films in a larger cultural context. Nichols's knowledge and understanding of films is broad and deep, and many of his choices-especially of films that we might not have thought of as "children's films"-will surprise and delight readers.
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The New York Times Essential Library
Children's Movies: A Critic's Guide to the Best Films Available on Video and DVD
By Peter M. Nichols
Henry Holt and CompanyCopyright © 2003 The New York Times Company
All rights reserved.
ABBOTT AND COSTELLO MEET FRANKENSTEIN
Bud Abbott, Lou Costello, Bela Lugosi, Lon Chaney Jr., Glenn Strange, Lenore Aubert, Jane Randolph
DIRECTED BY CHARLES T. BARTON 1948. 83 minutes. Black and white. No rating
That title needs a little expanding upon. Chick (Bud Abbott) and Wilbur (Lou Costello) meet Frankenstein all right (more accurately, Frankenstein's monster), but their main challenge is Dracula, played to the hilt by that Dracula of movie Draculas, Bela Lugosi. Wolfman, portrayed by Lon Chaney Jr., is also a threat. Frankenstein's creation does put in an appearance, of course. Boris Karloff declined the role in this film (he was sick of it), but there is little falloff with Glenn Strange, a huge man and by all accounts one of the sweetest people ever to disappear under monster makeup.
When the film opened in Australia, the three creatures proved so upsetting that they were cut out of it almost entirely — which must have left very little movie. Kids today will love them all, and that includes little kids, once they realize it's all a spoof. Abbott and Costello should please them, too, though some of their patter, honed over years of vaudeville and radio routines, could confuse them. Costello: "I work sixteen hours a day." Abbott: "A union man only works eight hours a day." Costello: "I belong to two unions." You have to be at least seven to follow that.
In this scenario both Dracula and Frankenstein have been brought from Europe to the McDougal House of Horrors, run by the obnoxiously curt McDougal (rousingly played by Frank Ferguson, an extremely busy character actor who reportedly appeared in thirteen movies in 1948 alone). One day Wilbur, a McDougal shipping clerk, gets a call from a man named Talbot (Chaney) who warns them that Dracula and the monster are on the way and must be stopped. Talbot would stop them himself, but he turns into Wolfman when the full moon comes out, which in this flick is every night.
It seems that Dracula wants the simplest of human brains (Wilbur's) to install in the monster. In true Abbott and Costello fashion, only Wilbur lays eyes on Dracula, the monster, and Wolfman. Chick, the straight man, always arrives seconds too late to see anything. The kids will be amused by the old pivoting dungeon wall trick with Wilbur spinning in and out of perils that Chick just misses.
Wild chases ensue through some impressive sets at Universal. Prior to 1946 the studio was churning out a movie a week — Abbott and Costello comedies, Deanna Durbin musicals, Maria Montez exotica, horror movies, serials, shorts, cartoons — but later the studio decided to go highbrow with films like Hamlet, with Laurence Olivier, which won the Oscar in 1948. By then, though, Universal needed money and again turned to Bud and Lou.
On the set Costello liked to spray seltzer, start food fights, and set fire to things. The production is said to have laid out $3,800 for pies to throw. In the view of some on the film crew, the real monsters were Abbott and Costello. The movie was directed by Charles T. Barton, a former vaudeville performer himself who made almost every kind of movie imaginable. His recollections of Costello, passed along on the DVD, are of a hotheaded tyrant. Abbott had epilepsy and a drinking problem that often incapacitated him by 4 P.M. Otherwise, they were pros who got the job done.
Lugosi was already famous, but he had grave money problems and badly needed the work. On the set, the constant clowning irritated him, but he worked hard, seemed to enjoy himself, and lent good support and tutelage to the rest of a cast not accustomed to working with vampires. Chaney was renowned himself. His father, the silent star Lon Chaney, had played the hunchback of Notre Dame and the deformed creature in Phantom of the Opera, among many roles, but he died before he might have portrayed Dracula in Tod Browning's talkie in 1931. (The role went to Lugosi.)
Chaney Jr. played about every name monster, including Frankenstein's and the Mummy, during a career that ran some 150 films. His drinking reportedly far exceeded Abbott's, though he always rallied on the set. Being Wolfman was an ordeal, requiring staying stock-still during hours of time-lapse photography as the transformation from man to monster progressed. "I didn't relish putting glue all over his face when he was a little high," a makeup woman says on the disc.
After the huge success of this movie in 1948, Bud and Lou went on to "meet" about everybody: the Killer (played by Karloff, who didn't object to appearing with the boys as long as it wasn't as Frankenstein), the Invisible Man, Captain Kidd, Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, the Mummy, the Keystone Kops.
In 1948 the monster horror tradition of Dracula and the like was about to give way to the atomic age and the giant bugs and aliens of the 1950s. Meet Frankenstein was described as a cross between American folklore and Transylvanian burlesque. Chaney said that good horror involves thought and feeling, and that Abbott and Costello ruined it by making it funny. Perhaps, but horror is no more immune to parody than anything else, and here a good, silly time dresses up in not a bad-looking production.
Dracula and the rest are hardly threatening to even the very small ones. To make sure, brief them beforehand and while you're at it tell them where all this fits in the monster parade over the decades.CHAPTER 2
THE ADVENTURES OF ROBIN HOOD
Errol Flynn, Olivia de Havilland, Claude Rains, Basil Rathbone, Alan Hale
DIRECTED BY MICHAEL CURTIZ AND WILLIAM KEIGHLEY 1938. 102 minutes. No rating
"In our hearts Theseus continues to slay the Minotaur, Beauty charms the Beast, and Robin Hood steals from the rich to aid the poor," wrote the British critic Damian Cannon in a recent re-review of Michael Curtiz's film. Robin ran around Sherwood Forest, of course, but in 1938, Curtiz had Errol Flynn bounding about Bidwell Park in Chico, California. A couple of years earlier Flynn raced through Curtiz's Charge of the Light Brigade in Chico, about a hundred miles north of Sacramento. Obviously it was a good town for an action film.
More than sixty years later, The Adventures of Robin Hood is still a first-rate film for kids and families — fresh, vibrantly colorful, full of life. In 1938, Warner wanted a rollicking costume adventure to add punch to a lineup of films severely restricted by the production code, which was enacted in 1930 and strictly enforced by 1934. Some good clean fun in the woods and at the court of the leering, insidiously evil Prince John (Claude Rains), albeit with some swordplay and more than a hard knock or two, was innocent enough.
"It seems almost ungrateful, churlish perhaps, even to mention the total lack of consequence on display," Cannon wrote. That's a roundabout way of saying no one seems to get hurt. "Chests are struck by longbow arrows, yet there's no blood, heads are tapped by swords and the loser topples, even traitors are only banished and not beheaded. Perhaps this is legacy of our gory age, making one sensitive to the inherent dichotomy."
Sanitized violence is common in movies deemed suitable for kids, of course, but here it's performed in high style. As the dashing, good-natured Robin, Flynn leaps and soars and defies Prince John and John's hatchet man, Sir Guy of Gisbourne (Basil Rathbone), who is so ruthless he's kind of funny. Robin of Locksley has been the subject of nearly thirty movies over the decades. The great Douglas Fairbanks was Robin in the 1922 silent film, and, for some actual bloodshed, Kevin Costner was in Sherwood's treetops in the quite dark and violent Robin Hood: Prince of Thieves (1991), which isn't a bad movie but certainly isn't for small children.
Curtiz's film is by far the best of them, a stew of ancient Robin Hood stories, ballads, and even parts of Sir Walter Scott's Ivanhoe, which also dealt with Norman oppression of the Saxons. With no worries about historical accuracy, it also borrows from an operetta in which Robin and Sir Guy vie for Maid Marian (Olivia de Havilland), adding the necessary romantic ingredient.
We begin in the 1190s. On his way back to England from the Crusades, Richard the Lionheart (Ian Hunter) is detained by the Austrians, giving John an opportunity to seize the throne. In the forest beyond John's walls, Robin Hood, a Richard loyalist, puts together a rebel band featuring two of history's renowned recruits, the rotund Friar Tuck (Eugene Pallette) and Little John (Alan Hale), who sends Robin cartwheeling into a stream in the famous duel with staffs.
Apart from the derring-do, this Robin Hood stays relaxed about himself. He treats everyone fairly and honestly and doesn't mind when the laugh is on him. His feelings are plain and direct, his convictions deeply held. But this is primarily a film of action and flourish. Trumpets proclaim everything, blown in great blasts at every opportunity and especially at the tournaments Prince John designs to lure Robin from hiding and into imprisonment. Robin and his men are forever sneaking into these affairs, sometimes shrouded in monk's robes. Not one to avoid an archery contest, Robin taunts John with his laughing disdain and narrowly escapes. Flynn is perfect for this kind of thing, a big Peter Pan at the head of his Lost Boys.
Teach the kids a new word: swashbuckler. The Fairbankses, father and son, were great swashbucklers, as was Burt Lancaster. A natural athlete with a big personality, Flynn might be the greatest swashbuckler of them all. In another case of Hollywood envisioning somebody else for a part, Jack Warner wanted James Cagney, whose performance in A Midsummer Night's Dream (1935) put Warner in mind of Fairbanks's old Robin. Cagney certainly could have summoned plenty of attitude for verbal tiffs with John, but it would be hard to imagine him flying through the woods quite like Flynn. Anyway, Cagney got into a row with Warner over money and quit the studio.
Flynn had just made Captain Blood (another good swashbuckler for kids seven and up) and Charge of the Light Brigade. Curtiz directed both of those films, which also starred de Havilland, who is about as fresh and beautiful as one could want. (Note her horse in Robin Hood. Later Roy Rogers named it Trigger.) Flynn made eight films with de Havilland and twelve with Curtiz, who was Jack Warner's action man and one of the most versatile and prolific of the studio directors of the '30s and '40s (Yankee Doodle Dandy, Mildred Pierce, and Casablanca — his one Oscar amid four nominations). As with Howard Hawks and Preston Sturges, Curtiz's career tailed off after the war, though artistically he never equaled the other two.
For Robin Hood, he shared the director's credit with the workmanlike William Keighley, who was brought in because of his experience with full, three-strip technicolor. Later, Jack Warner wanted livelier action and assigned Curtiz. Nominated for best picture, Robin Hood lost the Academy Award to Frank Capra's You Can't Take It With You. It did win Oscars for editing and art direction. If kids grumble about grungy old movies, the colors here remain beautifully textured. "They just don't make movies with this level of tonal saturation anymore, and that's the truth," Mr. Cannon wrote.
Bloodless as it is, there is still a good deal of violence. Some small children might be bothered. Otherwise, we have a clean bill of health, with no big scares or traumas.CHAPTER 3
THE AFRICAN QUEEN
Humphrey Bogart, Katharine Hepburn
DIRECTED BY JOHN HUSTON 1951. 105 minutes. No rating
This is a grand film for kids who are getting acquainted with the movies. The special effects are antiquated, but there is plenty of action (shooting rapids and the like) and a story that thrives on natural excitement without digital pumping up. Children will relate to opposite types being thrown together in German West Africa at the start of World War I. Charlie Allnut (Humphrey Bogart), an unkempt and reluctant steamer captain, drinks his gin mixed with the dark waters of the Ruiki River. Rose Sayer (Katharine Hepburn), a starchy spinster missionary, looks as if she'll pass out with consternation. Together they battle the bush, the Germans, and, until they fall in love at the helm of a thirty-foot scow, each other.
With Rose at the tiller, the wheezing old craft slides downstream on its supposedly impossible journey through rapids and over waterfalls to a lake and a confrontation with the German warship the Louisa. Behind the scenes it was still the great old days of Hollywood, albeit on wild and remote locations in the Belgian Congo and Uganda. On-screen young viewers encounter a few "screen legends," as reflected in the title of Hepburn's book about the experience, The Making of the African Queen: Or How I Went to Africa with Bogart, Bacall and Huston and Almost Lost My Mind.
Actually the resilient, outspoken Hepburn kept her wits about her very nicely, but there were some dangerous, trying moments laboring in the jungle. Bogie was splendid to work with, she wrote. Ten years earlier he became famous as a trapped killer in High Sierra and as the hard-boiled detective Sam Spade in The Maltese Falcon, also directed by John Huston. Charlie Allnut, by contrast, is a fine children's character. As Rose steers the boat, Bogie does some terrific monkey and hippo imitations, almost falling down laughing at himself.
Kids can develop soft spots for supposed tough guys. In Casablanca (1942), children of about ten or so should meet Bogie as the noble, world-weary saloon keeper Rick Blaine. Bogart's characters often wanted no part of the situations they found themselves in, but got involved anyway because of principle and a sense of responsibility. In The African Queen it's Rose's idea to blow up the Louisa with homemade torpedoes. Charlie thinks it a foolish idea, but sees it as his duty to help her accomplish the mission and persists even after she becomes discouraged. "Never say die. That's my motto!" Allnut tells Rose enthusiastically. One could almost say we have Bogie in his family-movie mode.
Hepburn's Rose warms as her repressed standoffishness gradually gives way to Charlie's openness and honesty. By this time Hepburn was midway through a film career that would include four Oscars (for Morning Glory, Guess Who's Coming to Dinner, The Lion in Winter, and On Golden Pond) and eight more nominations, one of them for The African Queen. The daughter of a prominent New England family, she never bothered with the Hollywood crowd, preferring a small, more erudite circle. Some described her as arrogant. In any event, she didn't appear to be the best match for a shoot in the jungle.
"We lived in bamboo bungalows," she told Bogart's son, Stephen. "Half the time we didn't know what we were eating, and we didn't want to know. I found a snake in my toilet." She and the rest became quite ill. But her own account is full of enthusiasm and anticipation for the project, which began with her insistence on authentic period clothing she dug up in the Museum of Costume in London before the troupe decamped for the Congo.
As she tells it in her book, foremost in her mind at that point was how she would get along with the fabled John Huston. "Well, maybe he's great," she wrote. "But he makes me uneasy. I feel all hands and feet and I simply can't imagine being directed by him. Frankly, I think he's one of the overly masculine boys who fascinate themselves and the New York critics by being great guys, and, oh well, I hope I'm wrong."
Army cavalryman, magazine editor, painter, expatriate hobo wandering Europe, hunter, Greenwich Village actor, boxer, Huston made his first mark as a filmmaker with The Maltese Falcon in 1941 (a fine introduction to film noir for children of eleven or twelve). By the time they all got together in Africa he and Bogie had also made The Treasure of the Sierra Madre (1948), which won Huston Oscars for direction and screenplay, and Key Largo (also 1948). As an actor, of course, we remember Huston as the jaded, silkily lethal Noah Cross in Chinatown (1974).
Excerpted from The New York Times Essential Library by Peter M. Nichols. Copyright © 2003 The New York Times Company. Excerpted by permission of Henry Holt and Company.
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Meet the Author
Peter M. Nichols has written about film and video for The New York Times since 1988, and for the column "Taking the Children" since 1994. He has also written and edited articles on the subject for numerous publications. He lives in New York.
Peter M. Nichols is a film critic for the New York Times and has contributed to The Best DVDs You've Never Seen Just Missed or Almost Forgotten.
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