Sean Paul Murphy, Writer

Sean Paul Murphy, Writer
Sean Paul Murphy, Writer

Tuesday, October 27, 2009

20 Movies, or, Confessions of a Misspent Youth

(The Arcade Theater located in the northeast Baltimore neighborhood
of Hamilton. It has been converted into a church.*)

This is not my list of the twenty best or greatest films ever made. Who needs to see another list of films topped by Citizen Kane, Casablanca, The Godfather or 2001: A Space Odyssey? Consider this list instead a film-going biography. It is a collection of films that helped inspire my interest in motion pictures in one way or another. Not all of the films are great, some aren't even good, but they all had an impact on me.

1). LAUGHING GAS (1914) d. Charlie Chaplin. Before there was DVD there was video, but, before video, if you wanted to be a film collector you actually had to collect film itself. My family took Super 8mm home movies, so we had a projector. The next step was simply to start buying the films. I believe this Mack Sennett produced short was the first film I bought at the E.J. Korvettes store in Towson. It was a terrible 50 foot Atlas Films print, but it was cheap and introduced me to the world of film collecting and the great silent comics who are too little seen today. As for the film itself, this early Mack Sennett short can't compare to the great shorts Chaplin would be making for Mutual two years later, like EASY STREET and THE IMMIGRANT, or the features he would make in the twenties and thirties, but it started him on the path toward them.

2). MA AND PA KETTLE (1949) d. Charles Lamont. Sunday morning was a good time for comedy in Baltimore during the late-60's. WBAL, Channel 11, ran an eclectic list of films including the Ma & Pa Kettle series, the MGM Laurel & Hardy features, and the Paramount W.C. Fields and Joe E. Brown films. WJZ, Channel 13, ran comedies that included the Blondie and Francis The Talking Mule series. The bulk of the comedies they ran were more or less low-brow studio programmers than classics, but it was nonetheless a good comic education. My hat's off to the programmers at those stations! (And let's not forget The Three Stooges shorts that WBFF, Channel 45, used to run before school every morning.)

3). THE BRIDE OF FRANKENSTEIN (1935) d. James Whales. If Sunday morning was the time for comedy, Friday and Saturday nights were the time for horror. I grew up during the classic period of horror hosts. In the Baltimore Washington area we had Sir Graves Ghastly, Count Gore DeVore and Chiller. There was nothing like staying up late and watching an old B&W horror movie. The first time I saw THE BRIDE OF FRANKENSTEIN, I was spending the night in my grandmother's house sleeping in the room my great-grandfather had recently died in. Talk about getting into the mood! I loved this film: Karloff's performance, the gothic sets, the photography. I still enjoy it. It was on these Friday and Saturday nights that I first began to notice the difference between studios and production companies. I knew if I saw the Universal logo before a film that it would be good, and that if I saw the American International logo before a film it probably wouldn't be as good. I was confused about the Universal films that I watch that had the Universal International logo. I thought it was a combination of the two companies.

4). THE GOLD RUSH (1925) d. Charlie Chaplin. I first saw Chaplin's classic tale of the tramp during the Alaskan gold rush on WBAL. (They used to run a silent film from the Paul Killiam collection once a month.) I must've missed Bambi in the theaters because this film, not that Disney classic, was the first film to make me cry when the Tramp is stood up by Georgia Hale on New Years Eve. This film remains my sentimental favorite of Chaplin's features, though CITY LIGHTS might be a better film. I would also like to commend PBS for another silent film series called The Silent Comedy Film Festival, hosted by Herb Graff. It was a great introduction to the lesser known comics like Lloyd Hamilton. In the afternoons, PBS also ran great old films like....

5). M (1931) d. Fritz Lang. Watching foreign films in their native language? In Baltimore? Cool beans. I was really riveted by Peter Lorre's performance as a child murderer being hunted by police and the underworld in this German classic. It is still an influence on me. Thank you Channel 26 for introducing me to so many classic foreign films.

6). TWO TARS (1928) d. James Parrott. Laurel and Hardy had a long career in the talkies, but, amongst aficionados, their late Hal Roach produced silent shorts show them at their best. This is one of their symphonies of slow-boiling mass destruction as motorists in a traffic jam take out their frustrations on their fellow motorists and their vehicles. I bought my print of this film mail order from Blackhawk Films. I waited anxiously each month for their catalog. The three films on the front pages were usually on sale for half price. This was one of them. This was around the time I began to toy with the concept of getting into the movie business. I was inspired by the books I read about the atmosphere of the Hall Roach studios which produced shorts by Laurel & Hardy, The Little Rascals and Charley Chase, among others. I thought it would be cool to recreate that environment.

7). THE JUNGLE BOOK (1967) d. Wolfgang Reitherman. This was the first Disney animated feature I remember seeing in a theater and it remains a favorite today. I saw the film at the Northway Theater at the corner of Harford Road and Northern Parkway. The theater later scandalized the neighborhood by becoming the first X-rated movie house in the area. I must confess that I tried, with no success, to sneak inside through the back door.

8). FIVE CARD STUD (1968) d. Henry Hathaway. With this film let me begin my praise of my local neighborhood theater: The Arcade. If I am a filmmaker today it is because of all the Saturday afternoons I spent in that theater. Nowadays, I can look back and see that it was a second-run house. It seemed to change films every week, and frequently had double features. (Once, they played six movies back-to-back, including the MST3K favorite RING OF TERROR.) Looking back, I think my parents started letting me go to the movies alone, or with my siblings, when I was quite young. Back in the late 60's, they played a lot of westerns like this one featuring Dean Martin or BANDOLERO featuring Dean Martin again (and Jimmy Stewart) and the late John Wayne features.

9). DESTROY ALL MONSTER (1968) d. Ishiro Honda. I wasn't a gigantic fan of the Japanese monster movies, but this monster free for all will always hold a special place in my heart. For a number of years, the Arcade would have a free Halloween matinee screening of this film. The place would be filled to the brim. Kids filled the seats and the aisles. (Talk about a safety hazard!) Trust me, there was more action in the aisles than on the screen.)

10). 2001: A SPACE ODYSSEY (1968) d. Stanley Kubrick. Although the Arcade was a second run house, our local drive-in, The Timonium, was a first run theater. When my parents wanted to see a film (with the kids) we saw it there accompanied by grocery bags full of homemade popcorn. I remember seeing this movie and being fascinated by it, although I doubt I understood it. I do remember my mother saying of my computer programming father: "Only you would like a film about a computer." I would see this film in revival many times in the future; often on the giant screen of the Senator Theater.

11). LO CHIAMAVANO TRINITA aka THEY CALL ME TRINITY (1970). d. Enzo Barboni. It seemed like this spaghetti Western comedy about two brothers, one a slacker and one an outlaw, played at the Arcade a couple times a year and that was fine with me. I really enjoyed this film and its sequel a great deal. It made me wish me and my older brother could wander around the West righting wrongs. Sadly, if my brother saw it, the film didn't have the same impact on him. Plus, we didn't have any guns, and we lived a long way from the West. So much for righting wrongs. Still, this is a film I would love to remake.

12). VANISHING POINT (1971) d. Richard C. Sarafian. I also saw this desert car chase flick at the Tinomium Drive-In. It was the second film of a double feature. I think my parents must've thought we were all asleep in the backseat, or hoped so. It was an R-rated film. (Actually, back then it was probably rated M for Mature Audiences.) It was my first "adult" film and it had a scene with a topless girl riding a motorcycle. I don't remember much more of the movie than that, but I do remember that.

13). THE NIGHT STALKER (1971) d. John Llewellyn Moxey. Yes, a made-for-TV movie. They made quite a few good ones back in the early-70's, including Steven Spielberg's feature debut DUEL. I really loved this movie and considered it one of the best vampire movies ever. I still see shadows of this film, and HOUSE OF DARK SHADOWS, in some of my horror stories and scripts. (BTW, if you're like me and watched Dark Shadows when you were a little kid do yourself a favor: Don't get the recently-released DVDs. The show doesn't hold up. Not at all.)

14). THE DOBERMAN GANG (1972) d. Byron Chudnow. What can I say? This is the best film ever made about dogs trained to rob a bank. This film helped usher in a decade of B-movie schlock at the Arcade. Enjoyable schlock. They seemed to play this film all the time as part of double features, often with its own sequels. Years later I managed to get a 16mm print and most of my backyard film festivals start with the last reel of this film -- the robbery. To me, one of the sad things about the movie business is that they keep remaking great films that you don't want to see remade. What they should do is remake films like this one that could be really great with a little honing and some better acting. If I had the power, I would do it. Hard to believe, but this film hasn't even been released on DVD yet.

15). THE LADY VANISHES (1938) d. Alfred Hitchcock. By the time I saw a 16mm print of this film at an Enoch Pratt Library off Sinclair Lane, I had already seen most of Alfred Hitchcock's American films on television, but I was ignorant of his British films. This one blew me away, and it remains my favorite of his British films. I sw this film with a friend Bob Kuzyk. As soon as it was over, his father picked us up and rushed us home because he didn't want us to miss something historic that was about to happen. The date: August 8, 1974. The event: The resignation of President Richard Nixon. (Note: Bob Kuzyk told me that he thinks we might've seen Buster Keaton's THE GENERAL that say instead. All I can say for sure was that Gerald Ford was President later that day.)

16). ANIMAL CRACKERS (1930) d. Victor Heerman. I was already a gigantic Marx Brothers fan by the time I saw this film. In fact, this was the last of their films I saw. It ha some kind of copyright problem and it was out of circulation for years. When it was reissued in 1974, it had a limited theatrical run and I saw it was the Towson theater. It was a beautiful print and a wonderful experience seeing it for the first time in a theater with a large audience. The experience was further enhanced by the fact that they showed a beautiful 35mm print of Laurel & Hardy's HELPMATES before it. That was great too. Actually, my early childhood fascination with the Marx Brothers taught me something I had never expected. I always assumed the actors mde up the stuff they were saying, but when I read some books about the team, I learned that their lines were written by other people. Frankly, I was a little disillusioned, but I quickly got over it. My first attempt at screenwriting was trying to combine a number of Marx Brothers routines into a new film.

17). JESUS OF NAZARETH (1977) d. Franco Zeffirelli. Sorry, Mel, but this TV mini-series remains the best depiction of the life of Christ -- although Mel can certainly stage an impressive crucifixion. This film became my favorite Easter perennial on TV, replacing THE TEN COMMANDMENTS, which we used to watch every Easter for as long as I could remember. (How long did we watch it? I seem to remember watching it before we even had a color TV. Color helped.) Ah, the perennial film... You always counted on the yearly showing of THE WIZARD OF OZ, and the seasonal Charlie Brown specials. Locally, WBFF, Channel 45, was the king of the perennial film. They always played THE LONGEST DAY every day during the whole week of June 6th. They would also always play A NIGHT TO REMEMBER on the April 14th anniversary of the sinking of the Titanic. Cool.

18). STAR WARS (1977) d. George Lucas. Here it is, God help us, the CITIZEN KANE of my generation. It played in Washington at least a week before it came to Baltimore. I remember seeing the ads on the DC television stations and I was dying to see it. I still remember waiting in an impossibly long line at The Towson. And, I must confess, I loved it. But, nostalgia notwithstanding, I do draw the line at Jar-Jar Binks.

19). NIGHT OF THE LIVING DEAD (1968) d. George Romero. This zombie masterpiece was totally off my radar screen until my friend Bob Kuzyk lent me a Super 8mm print of it in 1979. I found it stunningly effective with its once state of the art gore and gritty documentary feel. I still think the first reel is one of the best and tightest I've seen in any film. Stong enough to make you forgive some of the bad acting that followed. This was also the first film i watched with a girl who would soon be my first girlfriend, who was a friend of my sister. She later said she was disappointed that I didn't walk her home that night after showing her this scary film. I did, however, ask her out soon afterwards to see the sequel DAWN OF THE DEAD. I believe that was May 8, 1979 at the Golden Ring Theater. It was, perhaps, not a fortuitous choice for a first date. Years later, I had better luck with the DVD of LA CONFIDENTIAL. I ended up marrying that girl.

20). APOCALYPSE NOW (1979) d. Francis Ford Coppola. In the fall of my first semester at Towson State University, I saw Coppola's heady Vietnam masterpiece. This film, more than any other I had sen up to that time, demonstrated the raw power of film. Now I started studying the classics, but the joys of my B-movie youth never quite left me. As a friend Jim Proimos once said, "CITIZEN KANE is a great film, but if I had my choice I'd rather be watching HORSEFEATHERS." Amen, my brother.

*Interestingly, just as the movie house of my youth found religion, I, too, have been making my mark in faith-based films.

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