Stranded at home for days and weeks on end, the inevitable question arises: “What should I watch?” This is a conundrum with the potential for major domestic unrest. In trying to come up with suitably ‘uplifting’ titles for hermits I’m having to face the brutal realisation that everyone likes totally different stuff.
Tell your families or housemates what movies you’d like to watch and these are the likely responses: “Too old. Too long. Too boring. Too depressing. Too silly. I’ve seen it already. Your taste sucks…” and so on. You’re left wondering if it’s necessary to revise your tastes or your companions.
Laughter may have a naturally uplifting effect on the psyche but there are lots of other ways films play on our emotions. My most recent experience in this regard was 1917, which made leaving the cinema feel like an escape from the battlefields of Flanders. For the purposes of this article I’ll put that cathartic feeling to one side and concentrate on movies that induce more positive vibes.
I’ll be avoiding anything deemed a ‘feel-good’ film, as such films make me feel bad. There’s a difference between a movie that touches our hearts and one that invites us to wallow in treacle. The cinema is packed with long-suffering wives, thoroughly decent chaps, wise and patient grannies and adorable children, but too many induce a mild sensation of nausea.
To begin at home there are a handful of Australian films that make the grade. No-one could leave The Castle (1997) off the list, with its tale of the triumph of the little man. Then there’s The Sapphires (2012), one of the very rare films that present an upbeat story about indigenous life; and Ladies in Black (2018), Bruce Beresford’s seductive homage to the urban Australia of the early 1960s. But if I had to choose only one uplifting Australian movie it would be Baz Luhrmann’s Strictly Ballroom (1992) – a satire of perfect timing and immaculate razzle-dazzle. If only Baz had stopped there…
“Rarely, rarely, comest thou, Spirit of Delight,” wrote Shelley, who would have made an excellent film critic. But when it comes you know it. One of the most purely delightful moments in the history of the cinema, is Marilyn Monroe singing ‘Diamonds are a girl’s best friend’ in Howard Hawks’s Gentlemen Prefer Blondes. It’s a scene that never loses its edge. It’s tempting to say that any movie in which Monroe stars, notably Some Like it Hot and The Seven Year Itch, are good bets for a night in front of the box.
Another actor with a brilliant comic presence was Cary Grant, who featured in two of the best Hollywood screwball comedies, both directed by Howard Hawks. In Bringing Up Baby (1938) he’s a starchy paleontologist engaged to a free-spirited socialite, played by Katharine Hepburn. Baby is her pet leopard. In His Girl Friday (1939) Grant is the editor of a newspaper who spars with one of his leading journos, Rosalind Russell, who also happens to be his ex-wife. In these movies the dialogue is so fast and funny it leaves one pondering the banality of so many of today’s Hollywood scripts.
Most of the films that might be considered ‘uplifting’ are either musicals or comedies – genres that invite broad divisions of taste. There are those who loathe musicals, being unable to accept the inherently ridiculous idea that characters might burst into song and dance in the middle of a story. This has never been a problem in Bollywood, where almost every film is a musical. In fact, when Ritesh Batra screened his debut feature, The Lunchbox (2013), his mother told him he’d be ruined because the film had no songs. With or without the tunes, Batra’s gentle comedy deserves a spot on the uplifting lists.
Audiences were riven by Damien Chazelle’s La La Land (2016). People loved it or hated it. A third category, of which I claim membership, went along with trepidation and came away charmed. One of the most provocative aspects was the lack of musical talent displayed by stars, Emma Stone and Ryan Gosling. It gave the movie a congenial amateurism, as if the duo were just ordinary people who fell spontaneously into song and dance routines.
For connoisseurs of classic musicals there was no comparing La La Land to the spectacular, kaleidoscopic choreography of Busby Berkeley in films such as Footlight Parade (1933), with its synchronised swimming sequence; or the dancing grand pianos of Gold Diggers of 1935. For the greatest dance duo, nothing gets past Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers in movies such as Top Hat (1935) and Swing Time (1936). One of the most successful of all musicals is Robert Wise’s film of West Side Story (1961) which was nominated for 11 Academy Awards and won 10. Steven Spielberg was due to release a remake later this year but delays should be expected.
The musical that seems to top everybody’s list is Singin’ in the Rain (1952). Even that old sobersides, David Stratton, has pronounced it his favourite movie. It owes its lasting success to Gene Kelly’s renowned perfectionism, some catchy tunes and a bright, witty script. Two other musicals that deserve attention are Jacques Demy’s French new wave features, The Umbrellas of Cherbourg (1964) and Young Girls of Rochefort (1967).
The former is what is called a “sung-through” musical, meaning there is no dialogue, only songs and recitative. The three aspects of the movie that have ensured its immortality are the luminous beauty of the young Catherine Deneuve in the lead role, Demy’s adventurous use of colour, and the music of Michel Legrand. The film’s greatest fan is Damien Chazelle who made La La Land under its influence, obviously noticing that Deneuve is no singer.
The Young Girls of Rochefort repeats the dose to good effect, featuring Deneuve and her sister, Françoise Dorléac; more colour, more Michel Legrand, and Gene Kelly to boot.
When it comes to comedies I’m inclined to begin with Buster Keaton, the greatest deadpan clown of all-time. If you’re willing to delve back into the early days of the cinema, Keaton’s The General (1926) is a good place to start. Other comedy landmarks, sadly neglected nowadays are the films of the Marx Brothers. Perish the thought of a world that can forget movies such as Duck Soup (1933) or A Night at the Opera (1935).
The sophisticated comedies of Ernst Lubitsch are in a class all their own, as exemplified by as Design for Living (1933) or The Shop Around the Corner (1940). I’ve already mentioned Howard Hawks, but there are a dozen of his peers who made excellent screwball comedies. Take a look at The Lady Eve (1941), a Preston Sturges movie in which Barbara Stanwyck is a seductive con artist, and Henry Fonda her wealthy gull.
In 1967 Mel Brooks made his directorial debut with The Producers (1967), a tale of two Jewish Broadway impresarios, played by Gene Wilder and Zero Mostel, who need to engineer a flop but have an accidental smash hit with a musical about Adolf Hitler. The film positively tingles with broken taboos and bizarrely hummable tunes about the Nazis.
Peter Sellers will always be remembered for The Party (1968), Blake Edwards’s non-PC masterpiece about an accident-prone Indian actor who unleashes anarchy at a Hollywood soirée. In 1979 Sellers would go one better in Being There, the Hal Ashby comedy in which he plays a simpleton who finds himself an advisor to the President of the United States. Nowadays it doesn’t seem so far-fetched.
In Stardust Memories, Woody Allen has a scene in which aliens tell him: “We enjoy your films, particularly the early funny ones.” This piece of self-satire has come to seem prophetic, as those early funny films such as Take the Money and Run (1969), Bananas(1971), and Sleeper (1973) still hold up well, while much of Allen’s later work is unbearable.
The Japanese are not known for their sense of humour but Juzo Itami’s Tampopo (1985) is one of the most original comedies ever made, based entirely around food. Another great one-off is Bruce Robinson’s Withnail and I (1987), a tale of Bohemian squalor that saw the screen debut of Richard E. Grant. Even today, every time I see a sink full of dirty dishes I remember the line: “I think there’s something living in there.”
An honourable mention to Rob Reiner, who has made at least two comedies that will never fade: This is Spinal Tap (1984), the ultimate satire on the music industry; and When Harry Met Sally (1989), a rom-com full of unusually honest and searching scenarios. The scene when Meg Ryan fakes orgasm in a diner has become justly famous.
Most contemporary comedy seems to rely on expletives and fart jokes to get a laugh, so ours is not a golden age. The shining light is Wes Anderson’s unique, bizarre body of work, which is unclassifiable but mesmeric. I’d recommend any of Anderson’s nine features, but the most seriously underrated is Moonrise Kingdom (2012), in which the adults act like children, and the children like adults. His magnum opus is Grand Budapest Hotel (2014) – part slapstick comedy, part fairy tale.
While there must always be a comic element in the ‘uplifting’ film, there’s also room for a considerable amount of drama. Of all directors, no-one tried harder than Frank Capra when it came to making movies that touched and inspired ordinary people. The sequence of populist films Capra produced from 1936, with Mr. Deeds Goes to Town, to It’s a Wonderful Life in 1946, reflected the hopes and beliefs of millions of Americans. The best of the lot was Mr. Smith Goes to Washington (1939), in which Jimmy Stewart plays an idealistic new Senator who battles against entrenched political corruption. Forget West Side Story, this is the film crying out for a remake.
In It’s a Wonderful Life, Stewart plays another idealist – George Bailey, a small-town banker who sacrifices his lifelong dreams for the good of a small community. As he is ready to give way to despair and take his own life an unorthodox angel arrives who shows George what the town would look like had he never been born. This nightmare vision is enough to restore George’s faith. The film ends with all the people he had helped, coming to help him. Capra’s message is that humans are fundamentally good, willing to return one kindness for another. God is on our side. If we all stick together we can overcome anything.
It’s corny but irresistible. James Agee, writing as a film critic, called the movie “one of the most efficient sentimental pieces since A Christmas Carol”. No matter how much we might groan at this positivistic portrayal of human nature, or feel that George is a bit too good to be true, it would take a monstrous cynic not to be touched by Capra’s finale. The director evades the sceptical intelligence and appeals to the viewer’s emotional investment in the story and the characters. He leaves us thinking: “Would I act any differently?” and lets our self-esteem do the rest. The success of the film, if not Capra’s entire career, is based on one simple idea: when times are bad we need to feel good about ourselves.
Published in the Australian Financial Review, 11 April, 2020