Quarantine Cinema – 2

Sharing a few more movies that I love, and hope you will, too.

Random Harvest (1942)

I fell in love with this movie (and with its star, Greer Garson) when I was a kid. I’ve never fallen out of love with Greer Garson, I’ve seen Random Harvest eight or nine times, and it keeps getting better. Ronald Colman plays a British soldier suffering from amnesia as World War I draws to a close. Amid Armistice Day celebrations, he wanders out the unguarded door of the asylum and into town, where he befriends Paula (Garson), a dance hall singer. Since he doesn’t know his name she takes to calling him John Smith, or “Smithy.” Before long they are married and living an idyllic life in a country cottage. But when the ex-soldier takes a trip from home, he is injured in an accident that restores memories of his previous identity, while erasing “Smithy”—and Paula.

The balance of the movie follows Paula’s quest to restore her husband’s memory of the years they shared—even as he, unaware, resumes his previous life as an industrialist. I can’t speak to the medical accuracy regarding amnesia. But MGM was the elite studio during Hollywood’s golden age, and Random Harvest hits all the marks you expect from a great tearjerker. What makes it so special is Paula’s quiet strength, steadfastness and enduring love. The movie is based on a novel by James Hilton, who wrote two other novels that became wonderful movies: Lost Horizon (starring Colman) and Goodbye, Mr. Chips (starring Garson).

Groundhog Day (1993)

No one needs a special reason to re-watch Groundhog Day. It’s as funny and inventive today as when it came out 27 years ago. Bill Murray was born to play Phil Connors, the dyspeptic Pittsburgh weatherman living the same day over and over in Punxsutawney, Pennsylvania. Andie McDowell is his perfect counterpart as Rita, his guileless producer. Every time I watch the movie I marvel at how director Harold Ramis and screenwriter Danny Rubin manage to weave together all the intricate threads of characters replaying scenes time and again, with slight but important changes.

Now may be a better time than most to give Groundhog Day a view, when many of us are waking each morning to the prospect of another day very much like the day before. Phil Connor’s challenge mirrors our own right now. He moves from disbelief to frustration to, finally, accepting a situation he can’t control and focusing on what he can – opening his heart, helping others and emerging when the spell lifts as a better person.

The Best Years of Our Lives (1946)

This is my favorite movie of all and to my mind belongs on any short list of the greatest ever made. It captures the difficult adjustment of soldiers returning to civilian life at the end of World War II. Al (Fredric March), Fred (Dana Andrews) and Homer (Harold Russell) meet on a transport plane carrying them home to Boone City — Anytown, USA. Al, a middle-aged sergeant in the infantry, comes home restless and questioning his comfortable life and his job at the bank. Fred, a dashing captain and bombardier, finds that when the uniform comes off the world sees him as the same drugstore soda jerk he was before the war. Homer, a former high school quarterback, has lost both hands in the war and doesn’t know how his family and his childhood sweetheart will respond. All three actors are superb, including novice Russell, a veteran who lost his hands in a training accident.

But it is the women—Myrna Loy as Al’s wife, Milly, Theresa Wright as their daughter, who falls for Fred, and Cathy O’Donnell, as Homer’s sweetheart—who give The Best Years of Our Lives its underlying strength. The interlocking love stories are told with grace and humanity. Give yourself some time to enjoy this movie. The Best Years of Our Lives comes in at nearly three hours long, and under William Wyler’s sensitive direction there scarcely a false note in this uniquely American story. 

Quarantine Cinema

In times of worry I’ve always found refuge in movies. 

With so many of us spending time around the house these days, I thought I’d share some personal favorites, starting with two today and with more to come until this crisis passes—as surely it will. I’m not a professional critic or film historian, and I speak only on the authority of more than half a century of watching and loving movies.

There are great ones from every era, and I’ll start with two from the 1950s. The first is a classic love story, the second a great western. Both are in black and white. If black and white has been a hurdle for you in the past, give it another try now. You may find it helps transport you out of this troubled moment. 

I hope you enjoy these suggestions. And please share your own!


Roman Holiday (1953)

Let’s start with a love letter to Italy in happier times. Audrey Hepburn plays Princess Ann, a foreign dignitary on a diplomatic visit to Rome. Struck by the beauty of the city and longing for a taste of ordinary life, she skips out on her royal handlers and is soon wandering the streets at night, anonymous and alone. There she meets a down-on-his-luck American correspondent named Joe Bradley (Gregory Peck). 

The princess, who hides her identity for fear of being sent back to the dreary formality of her other life, and Joe (who secretly recognizes her) can’t let on that he’s a reporter, for fear of losing a career-saving story. This tale of mutual deception blossoming into love unfolds among the landmarks of Rome. Hepburn, in her first major role, seems impossibly young. Her chemistry with Peck is perfect, their romance handled with grace, and the city is alive and splashed with sun and happiness and optimism. We can’t visit Italy right now, of course. Most of us can’t do much but batten down our own hatches and send heartfelt thoughts to a country under full lockdown. Until the day when visitors can return, this charming movie offers a couple of hours of pure escapism and joy. 

High Noon (1952)

On their wedding day, Marshal Will Kane (Gary Cooper) and his Quaker bride, Amy (Grace Kelly), are set to leave Hadleyville, the town Kane cleaned up. He has pledged to find a more peaceful occupation somewhere else. But as they roll off, word comes that Frank Miller, a man Kane sent to prison, is just out of prison and returning with his gang to seek revenge. 

Kane knows that if he doesn’t stay and face the gang now he’ll run for the rest of his life. One by one, upstanding townsfolk rationalize their unwillingness to help. They urge Kane to leave and even blame him for having stirred up the trouble with Frank Miller. Their arguments are just plausible enough that we think, briefly, they have a point. But that only sharpens the power of Kane’s decision to take his stand. The movie plays out in real time, with clocks on various walls ticking ominously towards the noon showdown.

High Noon was filmed against the backdrop of McCarthyism sweeping Hollywood and the United States in the early 1950s. But what makes this movie so timeless (not to mention timely right now) is that it’s not the external threat, however real, that is the greatest danger—it’s what happens when contagious fear overcomes reason. And it’s about the power of individual courage to set things right.