It started as a Facebook game: over a period of ten days, share photos from ten favorite movies—without any explanation or comment. OK, I was in!… and as we got further interested, I got a lot of questions. What movies are these? And why on earth would this be a favorite?? I promised an explanation, so here we go…
A Hitchcock movie was a foregone conclusion from the start, but which one? My first thought was Strangers on a Train, which I adore. But Shadow of a Doubt, done in 1943—eight years before Strangers—to me is even kinkier, in part because it’s so superficially normal. The perfect American family, living in charming Santa Rosa… what could go wrong? So, so much. I won’t spoil it, but it’s insightful, funny, and often truly shocking. Add to that Joseph Cotton playing wildly against type; the great Irish stage actress Patricia Collinge in one of her relatively rare film appearances; and lines like this: “What does he do? Oh, he’s just in business… you know, the way men are.” As it turns out, this wasn’t such a hard choice at all.
Are you getting a theme here? I’ll cut to the chase—yes, I love movies from the ‘40s and ‘50s that throw a wrench into comfortably smug American suburban life. And few movies do that with the panache of The Bad Seed, which opened in 1956, the year I was born. (Coincidence? Maybe; maybe not.) Anyway, dramatist Maxwell Anderson had fashioned a tight, well-made play out of William March’s brilliant novel, and the film happily preserves some of the original Broadway performances, which vividly illustrate a now nearly-extinct but highly effective tradition. Nancy Kelly, creepy Henry Jones, and, of course, the electrifying Patty McCormack—they’re all terrific. But Eileen Heckert’s Hortense Daigle will really break your heart.
The first color film in my list, and it’s truly eye-popping. I don’t just mean Jayne Mansfield, though of course her celebrated figure is, er, front and center throughout. It’s as much about Frank Tashlin’s almost cartoonish direction, which ratchets up a domestic comedy into something almost surreal. This satirical look at male lust is every bit as biting now as when it was made. Tom Ewell made a specialty of it, and he’s as good here as in the more famous Seven Year Itch; and Mansfield herself is a masterful comedienne. That’s enough to justify it—but TGCHI is also a musical treasure trove, showcasing Julie London, Fats Domino, Little Richard, The Platters, and more.
As with Hitchcock, it was a given that there would be Douglas Sirk movie among my ten… but which one? All That Heaven Allows, Written on the Wind, and Imitation of Life are probably all more luridly “Sirk-ian” than Magnificent Obsession. But in many ways, this remains my favorite. First, I can’t get over the notion of a heroine blinded in a reckless speedboat accident caused by a careless playboy. MO is also the first and freshest teaming of Rock Hudson and Jane Wyman, whose unlikely chemistry is such a treat. But most of all, I’m beguiled by the weird culty-religious subtext that, reworked from Lloyd C. Douglas’s novel, really plays into my interest in kinky Americana. If that’s not enough for you, get an earful of Frank Skinner’s overwrought musical score, which somehow makes a piano concerto mashup from Beethoven’s 9th and several Chopin etudes.
What kind of gay man would I be if I left off Cobra Woman, where the indecipherable but stunning queen of technicolor, Maria Montez, reigns supreme in not one but two roles: twin sisters Tollea (good) and Naja (bad). To see Montez and her female attendants strut their way across the wilds of Universal’s backlot is to understand camp at its most distilled. And the dialogue! A test I regularly administer to potential friends: if they give me a blank look when I say, “Give me that cobra jewel!,” I make no attempt to further the relationship. If Cobra Woman was good enough for Gore Vidal—who formulated two novels from it—it’s good enough for me.
Well, that does it for now. But I’ve seen a lot of movies and strong feelings about many of them, and I expect you’ll be hearing from me again on this topic before long…