I was talking to a friend this week about how, when I taught, a lot of my students didn’t have a concept of what the world was like before they were in it. I did a lot of pop culture and media studies in my classes, and they wanted to write papers about how The Backstreet Boys were the first boy band or whatever. As a teacher, I couldn’t just let that slide, so I confessed to being a New Kids on the Block fan years before The Backstreet Boys even existed. Once a kid named Max made an interesting point about Janis Joplin, and one of his classmates actually got irritated that he was brining up some person she’d never heard of.
When I started watching old movies for The Celluloid Project, I felt confident that I had a decent sense of pop culture history. I learned a lot from Nick and Nite and AMC, plus I’ve read quite a bit on the subject. I know about the Hayes Code and I can tell you that the costume designer for Streetcar Named Desire made Marlon Brando’s jeans super tight by sculpting and pinning wet denim onto his naked body. What I’m saying is, I’m aware of things that happened in films that predate The Goonies, but I still have a lot to learn. Also? That costume designer had a pretty sweet gig.
I did a little research after I watched Laura and learned a lot about the film’s score but the thing I found most fascinating about that movie was that the dopey playboy was played by Vincent Price. Vincent Price! The man who used to terrify me as a child, the guy whose voice alone made me want to burst into tears had a hunky past! I saw his name in the credits and spent the first half hour of the film trying to pick him out, and when I finally eliminated all the other men in the film, I realized he was the tall, dish-y dude. He also wrote cookbooks, which I find incredibly endearing for someone who used to haunt my dreams.
I sat down this weekend with Agatha Christie’s Ten Little Indians, and as the plot unfolded, I thought, “Isn’t this basically Clue?” It is. And before both of those films there was a movie called And Then There Were None (which I haven’t seen) that’s based on the same story. I always thought Clue had a clever plot for a movie inspired by a board game, and now I know why. Seeing the movies out of order, though, created an interesting situation because it made the original feel familiar even though I’d never seen it and made the later film seem new because I’m suddenly aware of the ways it’s been modified from the earlier version. So, bits that I’ve seen several times, suddenly feel fresh. I will say that Ten Little Indians has only one ending and doesn’t have Madeline Kahn’s fabulous “flames on the side of my face” speech—or a sense of humor at all really—so it comes up a little short for me. Still, there’s a lot to like about the original. It had enough misdirection to keep me guessing, I didn’t anticipate the ending, and when I found out whodunit, I wanted to re-watch it and look for clues that I missed the first time around. All of which are pretty good traits to have in a murder mystery.
The last movie that really surprised me was Harold and Maude. I picked this one myself, and I was worried it would be one of those things where I knew so much about the story that it would feel like I’d already seen it. That happens for me with things that have been heavily parodied or alluded to like A Christmas Carol or Rear Window, and reading or watching the original feels more like déjà vu than discovery. With Harold and Maude, I knew it was the story of a teen who is obsessed with death until he falls in love with a much, much older woman. I knew it was a dark comedy, but I kept getting surprised by how dark and how funny it was. Mostly how dark. I found his fake suicides more disturbing than I expected to (because…I guess I was expecting some hilarious suicide attempts? I don’t know), and the ending had both Harold and I screaming, “WHAT?!” at the same moment. I didn’t hate it, but I must admit I’ve never completely related to “old person with a young spirit who embraces life” type characters because that is not my experience with older people. The old ladies I know don’t go dancing or boost cars or rescue trees by transplanting them into the wild. They make crafts and cheat at cards. Seriously, do not mess around at the poker table because they will cut you. I’m glad that I’ve seen it, and even more pleased that it wasn’t exactly what I expected, but I can’t say it’s a new favorite for me.
What other classics should I be watching to fill in the gaps in my movie knowledge?