Aviation Movies x5: To the Wild Blue Yonder

Kathy and I saw the new Top Gun: Maverick movie recently at The Grand in Stamford. I thoroughly enjoyed it, and it got me to thinking about other classic movies dealing with aviation, planes and pilots. All of these movies listed here were made before there was any such thing as computer-generated effects, so when it looks like the pilots are performing amazing feats of aerial daring-do, they really are.

As always, I’m not saying these are the best films ever made, and it’s certainly not an exhaustive list of aviation movies. And remember this is for “Classics,” which for our purposes applies to movies that are at least 30 years old. Otherwise, I might have to include 2004’s The Aviator with Leonardo Di Caprio and Cate Blanchett, or 2012’s Red Tails with Cuba Gooding, Jr, Terrance Howard, and Michael B. Smith.

But I digress.

5. Top Gun, 1986 – Tom Cruise stars as “Sierra Hotel” naval aviator Pete Mitchell, call sign “Maverick.” He gets sent to the Navy’s elite school for air-to-air combat, learns what it means to be part of a team, struggles with great personal loss, and finds love along the way. Tragically, veteran stunt pilot Art Scholl was killed while filming a flat-spin maneuver for this movie. Also with Anthony Edwards, Kelly McGillis, Meg Ryan, Val Kilmer, and Tom Skerritt, and directed by Tony Scott.

4. The Right Stuff, 1983 – Who’s the best pilot you ever saw? Okay, yes, the book by Tom Wolfe is better, but this is still pretty good. The movie opens with Chuck Yeager (Sam Shepherd) breaking the sound barrier and goes on to cover the development of the American space program, the origins of NASA, and choosing the first seven Mercury astronauts. Also with Scott Glenn, Ed Harris, Dennis Quaid, and Barbara Hershey.

Robert Redford stars in 1975’s The Great Waldo Pepper, one of my favorite movies about planes and pilots.

3. The Great Waldo Pepper, 1975 – Robert Redford stars as a barnstorming pilot in the 1920s, a veteran flyer of World War I, who struggles to find the same honor and chivalry on the ground that he knew in aerial combat. Directed by George Roy Hill, and co-starring Susan Sarandon, Edward Herrmann, Bo Svenson, and Geoffrey Lewis. Most of this movie was filmed in (and above) the Texas Hill Country, and the aerial shots were not filmed in a studio – that really IS Robert Redford out there, climbing out of the cockpit, without a parachute.

2. The Blue Max, 1966 – Young George Peppard plays handsome but obnoxious pilot Lt. Bruno Stachel. Disliked as lower-class and overly ambitious, he tries to gain acceptance among his fellow pilots in the German Air Force of 1918 by earning the “Blue Max,” the highest German medal awarded for aerial combat, given for shooting down 20 enemy planes. Also starring Ursula Andress, Jeremy Kemp, and James Mason. This movie has a number of absolutely amazing aerial sequences.

1. The High and the Mighty, 1954 – Written by aviation writer Ernest K. Gann from his novel, and directed by William Wellman. What does it really mean to be a “pilot,” to push the envelope and test the limits? John Wayne stars as the First Officer on a commercial flight from Honolulu to San Francisco, under airline Captain Robert Stack. Also with Claire Trevor, Paul Fix, and Phil Harris. This movie would become the template for every big disaster picture made in the 60s and 70s, and Robert Stack would parody his character in the 1980 spoof, Airplane! But this is truly a classic.

Five more favorite films about flying –

Wings, 1927 – Winner of the first Academy Award for Best Picture, and the only silent movie ever to win it. Clara Bow, Buddy Rogers, and Gary Cooper star in a great flick about pilots who fall for the same nurse.

Only Angels Have Wings, 1939 – Cary Grant as a pilot trying to run an aerial cargo service in South America and deal with Jean Arthur and Rita Hayworth. Also starring Thomas Mitchell (1939 was a busy year for him!) and directed by Howard Hawks.

The Memphis Belle: A Story of a Flying Fortress, 1944 – A documentary about an actual B-17 bomber successfully completing 25 combat missions over Europe; directed by noted filmmaker William Wyler.

Twelve O’Clock High, 1949 – Gregory Peck as the tough-as-nails commander of a “hard-luck” squadron of B-17s in World War II. This is an awesome story of real leadership. Dean Jagger won an Oscar for Best Supporting Actor and Hugh Marlowe co-stars.

The Spirit of St. Louis, 1957 – Jimmy Stewart stars in a docudrama about Charles Lindbergh’s first successful trans-Atlantic flight. Directed by Billy Wilder.

Well, that’s about it, so now please return your seat backs and tray tables to their full upright and locked positions and prepare for landing. And save me some popcorn.

AND MORE of the Movies, Times 5

If you have free time during the summer, how do you like to spend it? Everyone is different, of course, and we all have our personal favorite activities, passions, likes, and dislikes, but for me, I really enjoy watching a good movie. I don’t think I’m the only one – there’s a reason why movie theaters were one of the first categories of businesses to feature air conditioning for the comfort of their customers.

Here are a couple of movie categories we haven’t talked about before, and some of my favorites of each. Just a reminder – I’m not saying these are necessarily the BEST of these, but that these are some that I have enjoyed and can recommend for you.

Favorite Musicals – Hollywood doesn’t make very many musicals anymore, and I agree that having characters burst out in song at various moments is at least a little strange. But, oh man, sometimes the songs are so amazingly wonderful, and here are some favorites.

5. White Christmas (1954). The story and title song are reruns from Holiday Inn, but our family really loves this movie. My favorite is “Count Your Blessings” with Bing Crosby and Rosemary Clooney. Danny Kaye and Vera-Ellen also star, and don’t miss Dean Jagger and Mary Wickes in strong supporting roles.

4. Stormy Weather (1947). This movie features an all-black cast and was marketed back in the days of segregation, but I think it’s as entertaining as it can be. Bill “Bojangles” Robinson, Cab Calloway, Dooley Wilson, and Lena Horne head an all-star cast. And don’t miss the Nicholas Brothers doing their unbelievable dance number up and down the stairs.

3. The Wizard of Oz (1939). My mom once told me that when she went to the theater as a young girl in the early 1940s to see this picture, there were audible gasps from the audience when Dorothy opens the door to discover that she is in “Munchkin-land.” And remember, there’s no place like home.

2. The Sound of Music (1965). Loosely based on a true story. When I was in the fifth grade, we took a field trip to the theater to see this movie. It has so many really memorable songs it’s hard to pick a favorite, but I always enjoyed the puppet-show song, “The Lonely Goatherd.” And of course, “Edelweiss.” Julie Andrews and Christopher Plummer star.

1. Meet Me in St. Louis (1944). Another movie with a really strong cast. Leon Ames, Mary Astor, and Harry Davenport are all great, but Judy Garland just shines under the direction of her future husband Vincente Minnelli. And of course, there are several great songs, but when Judy sings, “Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas” to her on-screen little sister Margaret O’Brien, it’s a moment of heartwarming charm and grace.

Tom Hanks in an image from Apollo 13, directed by Ron Howard.

Favorite Tom Hanks Movies – Okay, I have to break one of my own rules. When I consider movies for inclusion here, they generally need to be pre-1990, but for this guy, I’ll make some allowances. Tom Hanks has been called the “Jimmy Stewart” of his generation because of his ability to play any part, make it believable and win over the audience. I don’t disagree.

5. The Green Mile (1999). Tom Hanks as the guard captain of a penitentiary’s Death Row – then he meets a very large and very strange inmate (Michael Clark Duncan, RIP) with an unusual gift. With David Morse, Bonnie Hunt, James Cromwell, and Patricia Clarkson. Caution for language and thematic material.

4. Forrest Gump (1994). A wonderful story about a mentally challenged man whose decency and simple kindness enable him to overcome numerous challenges. Sally Field, Gary Sinise, Robin Wright, and Haley Joel Osment co-star. Some cautions for thematic content.

3. A League of Their Own (1992). Co-starring Geena Davis, Rosie O’Donnell, Madonna, and Garry Marshall, and directed by Penny Marshall. Tom plays a washed-up, alcoholic ex-baseball player who is forced into managing a team of women ballplayers while the men are away at World War II. There’s no crying in baseball.

2. Saving Private Ryan (1998). Also with Matt Damon, Tom Sizemore, Barry Pepper, Vin Diesel, and many more, and directed by Steven Spielberg. Tom plays Captain Miller, a schoolteacher forced into a leadership role in World War II, as his unit makes the Normandy landing on D-Day and is then assigned to rescue a paratrooper far behind enemy lines. STRONG caution for graphic battle sequences and language.

1. Apollo 13 (1995). Directed by Ron Howard, and co-starring Gary Sinise, Kevin Bacon, Bill Paxton, Ed Harris, and Kathleen Quinlan. “Houston, we have a problem.” This is the true story of the April 1970 moon mission that suffered a catastrophic failure in space, and the efforts to get the crew safely home. This movie manages to be gut-wrenching and suspenseful even if you know how the mission ended, and the character and resourcefulness shown here are truly inspiring. Just remember, “Failure is not an option.”

Here’s hoping to see you at the movies!

MORE of the Movies Times Five

I was visiting with a friend the other day, and we got to talking about some favorite movies, and who starred with whom in a particular film. And that made me think about doing another salute to classic movies of different categories. As always, I’m not saying these are necessarily the BEST movies of these types of films, just that these are some that I enjoyed.

Favorite Hitchcock Movies – Alfred Hitchcock was a very well-known director with a distinctive style of movie making. His career began in the 1920s, late in the era of silent films, and then flourished well into the 1960s. He also created a very successful television program. He was known for suspense movies with an unexpected twist in the story. Here are five of my favorites of his –

5. Rope (1948). Farley Granger and John Dall think they have committed the perfect murder. Then Jimmy Stewart starts asking questions.

4. To Catch a Thief (1955). Cary Grant stars as a retired jewel thief who is wrongly accused of stealing a fortune in precious stones and has to catch the real bad guy in order to clear his name. Grace Kelly is always so easy on the eyes.

3. Rear Window (1954). Jimmy Stewart as a New Yorker who enjoys looking out of his apartment window and watching his neighbors, until he sees one of them commit a murder. Grace Kelly plays his skeptical fashion-model girlfriend.

2. Psycho (1960). Janet Leigh embezzles money from her boss, then learns the hard way about the dangers of taking a shower. Also with Anthony Perkins and Vera Miles.

1. North by Northwest (1959). Cary Grant again, this time as an advertising executive who is mistaken for a notorious spy and has to run for his life. James Mason is the main villain, and Eva Marie Saint is the lady trying to help him. Or is she also one of the villains?

Cary Grant stars in Alfred Hitchcock’s 1959 classic, “North by Northwest.”

Five other great Hitchcock flicks – The Birds, Dial “M” for Murder, The Lady Vanishes, Strangers on a Train, Vertigo.

Favorite Train Movies – Okay, yes, I love trains. And of course, I love movies. So what could be better than movies in and about trains? All aboard!

5. Emperor of the North (1973). Ernest Borgnine plays a vicious freight train conductor in the Pacific Northwest who enjoys throwing hobos off of moving trains, trying to injure them as much as possible. Lee Marvin plays a hobo nicknamed “A Number 1,” who makes it his mission to ride on that train. Based on an uncredited short story written by “Call of the Wild” author, Jack London.

4. Human Desire (1954). Glenn Ford is an engineer returning to railroad work after his service in the Korean War. Gloria Grahame is the boss’s wife, who tries to seduce him into helping her start a new life. Broderick Crawford is the thoroughly despicable boss. A well-made film noir.

3. The Train (1964). In this World War II story based on true events, Burt Lancaster stars as a locomotive engineer who is actually a member of the French Underground, trying to prevent the Nazis from stealing a trainload of French art treasures. The problem is, how do you stop the train without blowing it up and destroying the art that you are trying to save?

2. Silver Streak (1976). Gene Wilder is a book editor trying to get from Los Angeles to Chicago, when he meets Jill Clayburgh on the train. Comedy and romance follow, but then it’s murder. Richard Pryor is a good-natured thief who becomes Wilder’s friend. The music by Henry Mancini is also gorgeous.

1. Union Pacific (1939). A lot of people – myself included – think that 1939 was Hollywood’s best-ever year for movies. In this sprawling epic directed by Cecil B. DeMille, Joel McCrea and Barbara Stanwyck are trying to help the Union Pacific complete America’s first transcontinental railroad, while Brian Donlevy, Robert Preston and Anthony Quinn work to stop it. Mr. DeMille knew how to tell a big story with a broad, sweeping setting, and this is a good one.

Five more favorites – The General, Shanghai Express, The Narrow Margin (1952), The Great Locomotive Chase, Murder on the Orient Express (1974).

Do you have a favorite type of film you’d like to talk about, or maybe, a favorite classic movie director? Just drop me an email at haskellstarnews@gmail.com. And please be sure to save me some popcorn.

Celebrating Lincoln

It’s interesting to me that Abraham Lincoln, our sixteenth president, has not been the subject of more well-made movies. But with his birthday coming up this weekend (February 12), I wanted to mention a couple that are worth your time, if you’re a fan of good movies.

The first is Young Mr. Lincoln, a 1939 movie directed by John Ford and starring Henry Fonda. The two of them would work together on a number of other films going forward, including 1940’s The Grapes of Wrath, but this was their first movie together. Fonda does a great job playing Lincoln as a gangly twenty-something young man, trying to make his way as a lawyer in Springfield, Illinois – short on formal education but long on common sense and simple decency. Among his first clients are two brothers accused of murdering a man. The trial in which he defends the brothers gives Fonda the opportunity to show Lincoln as a great storyteller and observer of the human condition, which he, in fact, was. The story is loosely based on an actual case of Mr. Lincoln’s.

Henry Fonda as “Young Mr. Liincoln,” in John Ford’s 1939 movie of the same name.

According to IMDB.com, Henry Fonda did not want to portray Lincoln and originally turned down the role, saying that he was not worthy to play the great man. John Ford convinced him to do a screen test in full make-up and costume, and it was only after he saw the performance on the screen that Fonda relented and accepted the part.

In addition to Henry Fonda, the film also features a young Ward Bond as one of the eyewitnesses. He became one of Hollywood’s busiest and most versatile character actors, and went on to work with John Wayne, Humphrey Bogart, Gary Cooper, Jimmie Stewart, and many others. In addition, in the 1950s, he starred in Wagon Train and other TV productions.

A second and more recent Lincoln movie that I would recommend is 2012’s Lincoln, starring Daniel Day-Lewis, and directed by Steven Spielberg. But be advised – this is NOT a movie for people who watch a movie for the special effects or like to see stuff blown up. There’s an actual story here. Also, if you don’t like movies where you have to pay attention to dialogue, then this is probably not a film you will enjoy. But if you enjoy history, if you like movies where words matter, if you enjoy seeing incredible actors at the top of their craft, then you owe it to yourself to see this, or maybe watch it again.

Here’s the story: It is January 1865. The American Civil War is in its fourth year, and Lincoln has just been reelected. Two years earlier, he had issued the Emancipation Proclamation, but now he is seeking to abolish slavery once and for all through the proposed 13th Amendment. The amendment has passed the Senate but does not have the necessary two-thirds majority to pass the evenly divided House.

When his advisers are whining because they’re still two votes down, Lincoln thunders, “The abolition of slavery by Constitutional provisions settles the fate, for all time, not only of the millions now in bondage, but of unborn millions to come – a measure of such importance that those two votes must be procured. I leave it to you to determine how it shall be done but remember that I am President of the United States, clothed with immense power, and I expect you to procure those two votes.”

Daniel Day-Lewis in his Oscar-winning performance as “Lincoln,”
Steven Spielberg’s salute to the sixteeenth president.

Daniel Day-Lewis is simply phenomenal to watch in this Oscar-winning role, and he is surrounded by tremendous talent, including Sally Field, David Strathairn, Tommie Lee Jones, and the late Hal Holbrook, just to name a few. The private, screaming fight between the President and Mrs. Lincoln is one of the most amazing scenes ever filmed and shows two truly great actors holding nothing back. I also love the way Spielberg structures the storytelling here. The movie opens with remembrances of Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address and closes with his Second Inaugural.

With malice toward none, with charity for all, with firmness in the right as God gives us to see the right, let us strive on to finish the work we are in, to bind up the nation’s wounds, to care for him who shall have borne the battle and for his widow and his orphan, to do all which may achieve and cherish a just and lasting peace among ourselves and with all nations.

I’m telling you, words matter, and they absolutely shine in the hands of this director, this script, and these actors. “Lincoln” is a gem.

The Movies Times Five: Film Noir

As a big fan of classic movies, I have often written about my favorite films in different categories – Favorite Westerns, Best War Movies, Great “Chick Flicks,” and so forth. One category that I have enjoyed more as I have gotten older is what is known as “Film Noir.” The name comes from French movie critics in the 1940s, and literally means, “dark movie.” Dark: as in made in black and white with lots of shadows, and dark: as in a pessimistic subject and cynical characters.

Noir movies have more to do with a film’s style rather than its storyline – they are often crime movies, but they don’t have to be. The classic period was from the early 1940s to the late 50s, and they were made in black and white, with high-contrast lighting and deep shadows. The style of storytelling involves a lot of flashback scenes with one of the characters serving as a narrator. The main character is usually a private detective or a plain-clothes police officer – sometimes a crooked one, or one that at least looks the other way about things. He’s tired, world-weary, and cynical. There was a time when he cared and wanted to make a difference, but life has just beaten him down, and now he’s just trying to get through his day.

Another common element – the “femme fatale.” A female character and possible love interest for the main character, but she has her own agenda, and is willing to use any means necessary to get what she wants. In many cases, the main guy gets dragged into the story against his will, either by the femme fatale or some other factor, and he ends up risking, and sometimes losing, everything to make it right. Other frequently used cinematic devices include unusual camera angles; the use of extreme close-up shots; “Venetian blind” shadows; plenty of crackling, sharp dialogue; lots of alcohol and smoking, including use of dramatic fog, smoke, or steam; and the use of voice-over narration to set up and advance the plot.

These silouetted figures from 1955’s The Big Combo are typical of the Film Noir style.

World War II was a driving force behind this type of movie, especially the war’s effects at home, and the difficulty that some GIs experienced in re-adjusting to civilian life. The disillusionment and disappointments that were very real for some former servicemen provided great material for Hollywood storytellers to explore.

Here are five of my favorites –

Double Indemnity (1944) Fred MacMurray, Barbara Stanwyck, and Edward G. Robinson; directed by Billy Wilder. Long before he was such a wonderful dad in “My Three Sons,” MacMurray played an insurance salesman who is seduced into committing murder and fraud. His character, Walter Neff, says, “I killed him for money and for a woman. I didn’t get the money… and I didn’t get the woman.”

Laura – (1944) Gene Tierney, Dana Andrews, Vincent Price, and Clifton Webb; directed by Otto Preminger. Dana Andrews plays a cynical, weary police detective summoned to a luxury Manhattan apartment to investigate a brutal murder. The beautiful victim (Gene Tierney) is featured in a gorgeous portrait in her living room, and as the detective (and the audience) get to know her through flashbacks, he falls in love with her through the painting.

Sunset Boulevard – (1950) William Holden, Gloria Swanson; directed by Billy Wilder. An up-and-coming screenwriter forms a dangerous relationship with a has-been movie star who is determined to make a comeback. Deadly consequences ensue. Famous for Miss Swanson’s line, “All right, Mr. DeMille, I’m ready for my close-up.”

The Maltese Falcon – (1941) Humphrey Bogart, Mary Astor, Peter Lorre, Sydney Greenstreet; directed by John Huston. Considered by many to be the first film noir: San Francisco private detective Sam Spade (Bogart) is on the trail of a priceless bejeweled statuette. The murder of his partner and the presence of three eccentric criminals and a beautiful liar make it all more difficult. “The stuff that dreams are made of.”

The Big Heat – (1953) Glenn Ford, Gloria Grahame, Lee Marvin; directed by Fritz Lang. Glenn Ford plays tough guy cop Dave Bannion who is on the trail of a very powerful and very well-connected crime syndicate boss. When the case gets personal for the cop, he has to decide how far he will go to get the bad guy.

Five others I really like as well – Gilda, The Postman Always Rings Twice, Key Largo, The Naked City, Out of the Past.

See you at the movies.

Welcome Home, Exes, and Other Random Thoughts

Scatter-shooting while thinking about sports columnist Blackie Sherrod and the great articles he used to write for the Dallas Times Herald

Welcome back to all the Haskell, Mattson, Weinert, and Rochester exes! We are glad you are here and hope you enjoy your visit. No doubt you will notice some new things, here in Haskell and elsewhere – there are several new businesses on the square and around the community, and others that have moved from their familiar locations to new sites (including the Haskell Star offices, now at 112 North Avenue E, and in with the DCOH and the Chamber!). From the football game to the street dance, to the various programs and class activities, we extend best wishes for a safe and enjoyable time with classmates, family and friends. We also pause and remember all those we have lost to Covid and other causes since the last homecoming.

Speaking of football – I love hearing and singing the National Anthem before the start of the games and wish more folks would sing out. I know it’s not an easy tune to carry, but I for one love those lyrics and the true story they tell: how Francis Scott Key was being held on a British warship after negotiating the release of a doctor who had been captured. The Brits were engaged in a fierce naval bombardment of Fort McHenry outside of Baltimore, in preparation for invasion, and Mr. Key was being held on the enemy ship and was literally up and down all night. He was watching by “the rocket’s red glare,” to see if the American flag was still flying over the fort, or if enemy forces had captured it.

By the next morning, at “dawn’s early light,” of course, it became apparent that the fort still held firm – and our flag still flew. Our daughter Brittany lives in Baltimore, and a couple of years ago, we got to visit Fort McHenry. I know we are all proud and thankful to be Americans, so let me encourage us ALL to sing those patriotic words – even if we’re not the best vocalists.

Here’s a tip of my cap to my friend Steve Allen Goen from Wichita Falls. Steve is an authority on Texas railroads and their history; he’s also an author and photographer with several books to his credit. Many of his books are beautiful “coffee table”-style collections of gorgeous color photos of different railroads around Texas. He has just released the third in a new series about railroad passenger trains – and this one will be about the Burlington Route, including the Fort Worth & Denver and the Wichita Valley railroads that served Haskell. And he tells me one chapter in this newest book will be about the Doodlebug that operated between Wichita Falls and Abilene.

I have spoken with folks from the Friends of the Haskell County Library, and they may be able to host an “author’s book-signing” later this year, so Steve could come and sell copies of his new book. Watch this space for more details.

For my birthday, my family took me to a showing of No Time to Die, the new James Bond film. I have enjoyed actor Daniel Craig’s tenure as 007. He says this will be his final appearance as the British agent, and if so, it was pretty good.

Maybe that’s an idea for a future column – rating the various Bond movies and the different actors who have portrayed author Ian Fleming’s suave agent. You can start a pretty good argument among fans of the series, wrangling over Sean Connery or Roger Moore, Pierce Brosnan or perhaps Daniel Craig, as their favorite actor-spy.

I have written before about how much I enjoy sitting on my back porch, watching and listening to all the birds as they fill the trees. It’s still something that I love to do, and especially watching the different species of avian friends who come and go with the changing seasons. Now we have new guests – monarch butterflies. These travelers are making their semi-annual visit to our area, and I love to see them as they fly around. It seems especially appropriate with the colors of the fall season, and this close to Halloween, for them to appear in their orange-and-black markings! And thank You, Lord, for the beauty in all of Your creation.

Here’s Looking at You, Kid




The Warner Brothers classic Casablanca is showing this weekend at the Paramount Theatre in Abilene.

Kathy and I are celebrating our anniversary this week – 43 years, to be exact. She suggested that we mark the occasion by visiting one of our favorite places, the Paramount Theatre in Abilene, to watch one of our favorite movies, Casablanca.

Originally built in 1930, the Paramount is a beautiful example of the nostalgic “atmospheric” movie theatre. If you have been there, you know it was built in an era when movie-going was meant to be a grand experience that transported you to another time and place. The theatre’s main auditorium space was designed to re-create a Spanish / Moorish courtyard at night, complete with projected clouds passing over a neon-lit night sky fitted with twinkling stars.

In 1987, the hall was saved from the wrecking ball through the donation of a generous benefactor, listed on the National Register of Historic Places, and fully restored. It now boasts a state-of-the-art projection and sound system. Certainly, there are many wonderfully restored theaters around the area – Stamford’s Grand Theatre is a great place to watch a movie – but there’s just something special about the Paramount.

So when you combine that location with my favorite movie, agreeing to her suggestion was a no-brainer. Why do I enjoy that movie so much?

First of all, the basics. Casablanca is a 1942 production directed by Michael Curtiz, and starring Humphrey Bogart, Ingrid Bergman, and Paul Henried. It also features Conrad Veidt, Peter Lorre, Sidney Greenstreet, and Dooley Wilson. The film is set in the Moroccan city of Casablanca during World War II. The North African city is controlled by the French Vichy government, which means it is ultimately under the rule of the Nazi government.

Bogart plays Rick Blaine, the American owner of a nightclub known as “Rick’s Café Américain.” He is a cynical, world-weary guy with a mysterious past, who says he is determined to look out only for himself – that is, until Ingrid Bergman’s character, Ilsa, shows up. She is married to the Czech Resistance leader Victor Lazlo (Paul Henreid), but she and Rick once had an intense but brief love affair – and still care deeply about each other. She and Lazlo are trying to escape Nazi-controlled Europe, so that Lazlo can get to America, to organize Resistance efforts against the Germans.

What will Rick do? Will he help Lazlo and his former lover escape? Or will his passion for Ilsa force him to follow his heart and reclaim her?

Casablanca won Academy Awards for Best Picture (1943), for Michael Curtiz as Best Director, and for brothers Julius & Philip Epstein and Howard Koch, for Best Adapted Screenplay.

My favorite thing in this movie might just be the redemption of Rick’s character. We learn that he had risked his life fighting fascism during the 1930s, in both Ethiopia and Spain. He was understandably tired of the struggle, tired of seeing good people on the losing end of fighting totalitarian leaders, and especially tired of seeing the evils of fascism being victorious. He wants nothing more to do with it. Let the Nazis do as they want.

That is, until one transformational moment when he makes the decision to take a stand. Rick and Victor Lazlo are talking upstairs in Rick’s office, when the Germans in the café downstairs commandeer the piano and bully their way into singing one of their anthems. Lazlo immediately heads down the stairs and tells the house band to play “La Marseillaise” – the French national anthem. The band members look to Rick for his approval, and he nods his head. As they play, all the people in the club stand and sing as one, and together, they overwhelm the Germans in the “battle of the anthems.”

Remember, many of those actors were displaced Europeans; several really had been imprisoned by the Nazis; others had been refugees, including the actress Madeleine Lebeau, who shouts “Vive la France! Vive la democratie!”

Remember, too, that when this movie was made, who would win the war was still very much in doubt, so the emotion Miss Lebeau and the crowd exhibit is quite real. And later, when Lazlo tells Rick, “Welcome back to the fight; this time, I know our side will win,” it was an outcome that, in 1942, was still very much up for grabs.

So, Friday night, Kathy and I will get some popcorn and a Diet Coke and find our seats in that plush, gorgeous theatre. One more time we watch Rick and Ilsa; we will listen to Sam “play it again,” and we will root for the good guys in their fight against the Nazis.

Here’s looking at you, kid.

Baseball and the Movies

I love baseball. And I love good movies! Regular readers of these articles are aware of both of these passions of mine. So I suppose it’s inevitable that I write about Baseball Movies!

Baseball and movies have been a natural partnership since the early days of both. The oldest known movie dealing with the sport is The Ball Game, an 1898 documentary with highlights from a game between the Reading Phillies and the Newark Bears. There were plenty of silent films about baseball in the “pre-talkie” days, including 1917’s Baseball Madness, a comedy starring Gloria Swanson, and 1920’s Headin’ Home, with Babe Ruth portraying himself. And there were numerous films from the 1930s of every category dealing with baseball – comedies, musicals, dramas, murder mysteries, and more.

But I guess it was during the 1940s that baseball movies really began to become popular, with three movies that stand out to me. The first is Pride of the Yankees from 1942, starring Gary Cooper as Lou Gehrig and featuring Babe Ruth again as himself. Even if you haven’t seen the entire movie, you’ve probably seen the clip, based on actual newsreel footage, where Gehrig, dying from the disease that today bears his name, stands before the crowd at Yankee Stadium and declares, “Today, I consider myself the luckiest man on the face of the Earth.” Two other good pictures from that decade, both from 1949, were The Stratton Story, starring Jimmy Stewart and June Allyson, and Take Me Out to the Ball Game, starring Frank Sinatra and Gene Kelly as ballplayers who – surprise! – sing and dance.

The 1950s through the 1970s was something of a drought for good baseball movies. One that I like is 1958’s Damn Yankees, a musical starring Gwen Verdon and Tab Hunter. It tells the story of a middle-aged Washington Senators fan who sells his soul to the devil for a chance to beat the Yankees and win the pennant. Don’t miss Ray Walston as the devil. Another good one is Bang the Drum Slowly from 1973. Michael Moriarty (who would later become well-known in the original iteration of “Law and Order”) plays a big-league pitcher dying of cancer; his best friend is his catcher, played by the then-unknown Robert De Niro.

Two of the best recent baseball films are 2012’s Moneyball, starring Brad Pitt, who tries to turn around the fortunes of perennial losers, the Oakland A’s; another is 42, from 2013, starring Chadwick Boseman as the legendary Dodgers infielder, Jackie Robinson, who wore number 42. Don’t miss Harrison Ford as Dodgers’ owner, Branch Rickey, and Christopher Meloni (best known for Law and Order: SVU) as manager Leo Durocher. And it’s not a movie, but if you love the game, be sure to watch Baseball, by acclaimed documentary filmmaker, Ken Burns – it’s a comprehensive history of the sport, originally produced for PBS.

What are some of my favorite baseball movies? In alphabetical order –

Bull Durham – 1988. A romantic comedy starring Kevin Costner, Susan Sarandon, and Tim Robbins. Warning: the dialogue is heavily laced with profanity, but if you can tolerate that, this is a great look at life in the minor leagues and players trying to get to “the show.” Have you ever experienced that sense of wonder – the awe – of walking into the stands of a big-league park, coming up the stairs, and there in front of you, is that beautiful green expanse of a baseball field? This movie captures that feeling.

Field of Dreams – 1989. Kevin Costner again, this time as an Iowa farmer who hears voices telling him to build a ballpark out in his corn field. James Earl Jones co-stars as a cynical writer from the 60s; also with Amy Madigan, Ray Liotta, and Burt Lancaster, in his final film appearance. “Oh, people will come, Ray; people will most definitely come.” Full of great moments.

A League of Their Own – 1992. A fictionalized account of the All-American Girls’ Professional Baseball League of the 1940s, starring Geena Davis and Tom Hanks. And just in case you were wondering, there’s no crying in baseball.

The Natural – 1984. Robert Redford portrays an aging rookie, trying one last time to break into the bigs. Glenn Close is the lady in white; Kim Basinger is the woman in black. “I believe we have two lives,” says Glenn Close’s character at one point. “The life we learn with, and the life we live with, after that.”

The Sandlot – 1993. A group of mostly unknown child actors, with Karen Allen, Denis Leary, and James Earl Jones as the grown-ups. This is a wonderful movie about kids growing up in the summer of 1962, playing ball and experiencing life together. “You’re not in trouble; you’re dead where you stand!”

Good stuff.

Movies x5, The Sequel

Regular readers of these columns may remember that back in October, I did an article entitled, “The Movies Times Five.” It’s a little game I play with friends of mine who are movie fans, where someone throws out a category, and you have to come up with five good movies in that category. We’ve looked at favorite John Wayne, good war pictures, best Christmas movies, etc.

Are you a movie fan? And especially, are you a fan of the classics? You can play along. And by the way, I heard the other day that with Abilene’s COVID hospitalization rate coming down, the Paramount Theatre was planning to re-open; their first showing is scheduled for this weekend, Breakfast at Tiffany’s. (Not one of my favorites, but hey, to each his or her own!)

FAVORITE COURTROOM DRAMAS – Courtroom movies deal with life-and-death issues, and always, the search for truth. No wonder they remain such a vehicle for great storytelling! Two other favorites: Inherit the Wind and A Few Good Men.

  • 5. Anatomy of a Murder. Jimmy Stewart and George C. Scott face off in a murder trial of an Army officer. Lee Remick somehow manages to be both gorgeous and innocent at the same time.
  • 4. The Caine Mutiny. There has never been a mutiny on board a US Navy vessel. This movie plays, “What if?” Humphrey Bogart, José Ferrer, and Van Johnson sta
  • 3.  To Kill a Mockingbird. All aspiring actors (and trial lawyers, for that matter) should have to watch Gregory Peck’s closing argument to the jury.  This is how it’s done.
  • 2. Twelve Angry Men. Oh my, what a cast.  A tense, real-time drama of a jury that votes 11-1 for a conviction.  Then Henry Fonda starts asking questions.
  • 1. The Verdict. Paul Newman’s greatest performance, ever. A washed-up, alcoholic, ambulance-chaser has one final chance to do the right thing. James Mason and Jack Warden co-star.

FAVORITE ROBERT REDFORD MOVIES – My wife has had a thing for Redford since before I ever knew her. I really wanted to NOT like the guy, just out of spite, but I have to confess, I’m a fan. Honorable Mentions: The Natural and The Great Waldo Pepper.

  • 5. All the President’s Men. Redford is often at his best when he is co-starring with someone good; Dustin Hoffman more than rises to the occasion. Don’t miss the late Hal Holbrook as Woodward’s secret informer, Deep Throat.
  • 4. The Sting. One of two “buddy” pictures he made with Paul Newman (see #3 on this list for the other). Two con men try to get their revenge on a gangster who murdered a friend of theirs.
  • 3. Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid. A very special movie for several reasons: It was the movie Kathy and I went to see on our very first date; also, I’m a big fan of Katherine Ross.
  • 2. The Electric Horseman. Gorgeous scenery of a cowboy trying to “un-screw up his life.” With Jane Fonda and co-starring Willie Nelson, who also supplies several songs for the soundtrack.
  • 1. Three Days of the Condor. He’s a book-reading analyst for the CIA. That’s all he does: read books. Then one day while he’s at lunch, someone murders all of his co-workers. He tries to figure out how to stay alive. And is there anyone he can trust? Faye Dunaway and Max von Sydow co-star.

FIVE COMEDIES – Let’s lighten up and have some fun. LOTS of honorable mentions for this category, but especially don’t miss Tootsie, Arsenic & Old Lace, and Bringing Up Baby.

  • 5.  Harvey. Jimmy Stewart and his imaginary friend. Who’s really the crazy one here?
  • 4.  Blazing Saddles. Mel Brooks makes fun of westerns, as well as everything else.
  • 3.  Some Like It Hot. Jack Lemmon & Tony Curtis witness a mob hit. Things get a little weird.
  • 2.  What’s Up, Doc? Barbra Streisand and Ryan O’Neal in a classic farce about mixed-up luggage.
  • 1.  It Happened One Night. Clark Gable and Greta Garbo. She’s a spoiled heiress. He’s a hard-boiled newspaper man. Time for Joshua to blow his trumpet.

As a preview of coming attractions, in future columns we will look at favorite baseball movies, Bogart’s best, Film Noir, and more. And until then, as Siskel & Ebert used to say, I’ll see you at the movies.

Christmas at the Movies

I was excited when I learned that the theme for this year’s Haskell Chamber of Commerce Christmas parade was going to be “Christmas Movies.” Because I love movies. And I love Christmas! So naturally, I love Christmas movies. (By the way, the parade this year is scheduled for Saturday, December 12, leaving from the Civic Center at 6:30 pm, and following the usual route.)

Now, I don’t want to start any arguments about whether a particular film should or should not be included in the Christmas movie list – I’ll leave that up to you, gentle reader. If you want to include Die Hard or Home Alone on your list, that’s perfectly fine and entirely up to you. And with that disclaimer, in alphabetical order, here are some personal Christmas movie favorites.

A Christmas Carol (Made for TV, 1984) “Old Marley was as dead as a doornail. This must be distinctly understood, or nothing wonderful can come of this story I am going to relate.” So begins my favorite version of this familiar story by Charles Dickens. It is a British-American production, released to theaters in Great Britain, and on television here. George C. Scott plays the miserly, lonely Ebenezer Scrooge, with David Warner as his faithful employee, Bob Cratchit; and Roger Rees, as the good-hearted nephew, Fred Holywell. Scott does a masterful job of making Scrooge into a believable bad guy, so that the audience is genuinely happy for him after he is visited by the ghost of his late partner, Jacob Marley, and the three Christmas spirits, and experiences a change of heart.

Holiday Affair (1949) This is probably the least well known of any of these films, but I just love this little movie. It stars Robert Mitchum and a very young Janet Leigh (only 22 at the time), who plays a war widow with a young son. She is already engaged to one man, but when she meets Mitchum, she can’t deny the attraction she feels. Robert Mitchum is sensational in a break from his usual film noir tough guy roles. It’s a terrific story with a strong supporting cast; look for a young Harry Morgan (Col. Potter on M*A*S*H) as an exasperated police lieutenant trying to sort things out at one point.

It’s a Wonderful Life (1946) If “Holiday Affair” is one of the least-known Christmas movies, this may be one of the best known. Jimmy Stewart stars in this classic tale of an ordinary man who discovers the difference his life has made in the lives of so many others. It was the first movie he made after coming back from World War II, and he and director Frank Capra wanted it to be a good one. Donna Reed, Lionel Barrymore, Ward Bond, and Gloria Grahame are just a few of the others who help make this a movie for the ages. “No man is a failure who has friends.” Attaboy, Clarence.

Miracle on 34th Street (1947) Maureen O’Hara, Edmund Gwenn, and an 8-year-old Natalie Wood star in this whimsical fantasy about an old gentleman who is hired to be a department store Santa; the only problem is, he thinks he is the real Kris Kringle. The scene where Santa meets a young orphan from Holland who can’t speak English, and he begins to converse with her in perfect Dutch, is wonderful, as is the movie’s climactic courtroom scene.

White Christmas (1954) This may be our family’s favorite Christmas movie. And yes, I know that it’s basically a remake of “Holiday Inn,” but I like this version better. Bing Crosby and Danny Kaye play war buddies who have become show business producers, when they meet a sister act featuring Rosemary Clooney and Vera-Ellen. My personal favorite moment is when Bing sings to Rosemary, “When I’m worried and I can’t sleep, I count my blessings instead of sheep, and I fall asleep, counting my blessings.” Screen veterans Dean Jagger and Mary Wickes co-star.

Finally, I realize that there are a LOT of really good – and some very popular – Christmas movies that are not on this list. I’m not saying my list contains the finest holiday movies ever made; they just happen to be my personal picks. I had to make some hard choices to cut it down to only five, so if I have omitted your favorite, I’m sorry. Polar Express. A Christmas Story. Elf. The Shop Around the Corner. Christmas in Connecticut. There are LOTS more to pick from.

If you want to read more about any of these, I’d suggest Christmas in the Movies – 30 Classics to Celebrate the Season, by Jeremy Arnold, published by the Turner Classic Movies channel. And no, they’re not paying me to say this, but it’s a great look at some terrific holiday films, and I highly recommend it for any movie fan on your Christmas gift list.

Save me some popcorn.