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Saturday, March 29, 2008

The Buccaneers (originally published 12/02)

In "A Pirate Looks at Forty," Jimmy Buffett bemoans the fact that he was born "200 years too late" to pursue his calling as a pirate. Imagination is timeless, however. Although piracy in the classic, swashbuckling sense has passed into history, it seems that the retelling of a good pirate story never will.

The recent release of "Treasure Planet" seeks to transplant Robert Louis Stevenson's "Treasure Island" into a futuristic setting, but its modest box office performance seems to indicate that audiences still prefer their pirate stories in their original setting. If you went to see "Treasure Planet" and found yourself wishing for a good old fashioned pirate movie instead, here are a few titles to look for on home video.

"The Black Pirate" (1926). Douglas Fairbanks, who had essentially invented the swashbuckling movie genre with "The Mark of Zorro" (1920), waited until relatively late in his career to weigh in with a pirate movie. When he finally made one, he made sure that it had everything. It was a compendium of every pirate tale that Fairbanks had ever loved, and he had loved most of them.

"Old Ironsides" (1926). Inspired in part by the Oliver Wendell Holmes poem of the same name, this silent classic portrays the U.S.S. Constitution, not in its fabled exploits during the War of 1812, but in its earlier service against the Barbary Pirates. The film begins with Jefferson's "millions for defense, but not one cent for tribute" speech and ends with Stephen Decatur's burning of the captured U.S.S. Philadelphia to render it useless to its pirate captors.

"Treasure Island" (1934 and 1950). Stevenson's classic novel has, of course, been translated to the screen many times before its current science-fictional incarnation. It's easy enough to narrow down the choices to two, but beyond that it's just impossible to make a clear recommendation. The 1934 version is probably the better movie, with Jackie Cooper as Jim Hawkins and Wallace Beery as Long John Silver. Still, it's hard to resist the wonderfully hammy performance of Robert Newton as Long John in the 1950 Disney version. Newton chews the scenery, creating the pirate characterization that remains the basis for all pirate parody ("arrr, Matey...") to this day. If you're a fan of Stevenson's book, you really need to see both versions. And if you're not a fan of the book, better check for a pulse.

"Captain Blood" (1935). This was the film that made stars of Errol Flynn and Olivia de Havilland. In this adaptation of the Rafael Sabatini novel, Flynn plays Peter Blood, a physician who falls afoul of the tyrannical King James II. In 1865, the rebellion against James has just been crushed at the Battle of Sedgemoor. When Blood is caught treating the wounds of one of the rebels, he is arrested along with his patient. Both are sold into slavery as punishment. Just when things look hopeless, the Spaniards invade, allowing Blood and his fellow prisoners to escape in the chaos. They seize the Spanish ship and become buccaneers on the Spanish Main. Reproduced below is the film's promotional trailer, courtesy of Turner Classic Movies.

"The Buccaneer" (1958). In 1938, Cecil B. De Mille had mythologized the contribution of Jean Lafitte and his freebooters to the American war effort at the Battle of New Orleans. The original, amazingly enough, has not been released on video, but the 1958 remake was released on VHS, and used or rental copies can still be tracked down. The remake was supervised by De Mille, but by then he was too ill to direct it himself. He delegated the director's chair to his then son-in-law, Anthony Quinn. Yul Brynner plays Lafitte opposite Charlton Heston as Andrew Jackson.

"The Crimson Pirate" (1952). For a good-natured, spirited, tongue-in-cheek send-up of the pirate movie genre, you can't do better than this lively romp. Burt Lancaster stars as Captain Vallo, the leader of a thoroughly scurvy band of pirates. They become involved with a revolution against Spanish rule on a small Caribbean island, but the plot is really of secondary importance. The main attraction is the outlandish acrobatic action, drawing on Lancaster's background as a circus acrobat.

One way or another, there seems to be little doubt that Hollywood will always remain committed to preserving the buccaneer spirit. You can see it on the screen, and you can feel it in your wallet each time you walk up to the box office and scan the ticket prices.

The Good Teachers (originally published 11/02)

One of the perennial joys of being a student is slandering your teachers. When I was in grade school, a hundred years ago, I seem to recall that we delighted in making up rude songs about our least favorite teachers. Times have changed, of course -- these days, a disgruntled student is as likely to register his grievances with gunplay as with satire - but the basic impulse remains essentially the same.

Still, most of us can also fondly recall at least one or two teachers who had a positive influence on our lives. These important teachers who touch us deeply have long been a favorite subject of filmmakers. The recent release of "The Emporer's Club" is the current example, but if you'd like to see how earlier films have treated the theme of inspiring teachers, look for these titles on home video.

"Goodbye, Mr. Chips" (1939). This sentimental film is set in a British boys' school in the late 1800s. Charles Chipping, magnificently played by Robert Donat, is in many ways the dramatic prototype of the teacher who makes a positive difference in young lives. We follow him through his long career, as he molds the lives of several generations of youngsters over more than half a century. We meet him initially as a young and callow new Latin instructor, shy by nature and with no conception of how to connect with his charges on a human level. He learns that secret later, primarily from his gregarious wife, played by Greer Garson, who brings out his humane side, allowing him to make the all-important transition from tutor to mentor.

"Blackboard Jungle" (1955). Glenn Ford stars as Richard Dadier, a new high school teacher who is inevitably rechristened as "Daddy-0" by his wiseacre students. He's beginning his teaching career on very tough turf, a New York City school for boys. Confronted with a disruptive nucleus of hard core juvenile delinquents who are spoiling the learning experience for everyone, Dadier ultimately opts for a more subtle approach than direct confrontation. Recognizing that the troublesome students do not represent a unified adversary, he reasons that if he can drive a wedge among their ranks, he can undermine the ringleaders' sway over their peers. The key turns out to be an African-American student, played by Sidney Poitier, who is as resentful of the student body in-crowd as he is of the school's authority figures.

"To Sir, With Love" (1967). Speaking of Sidney Poitier, his turn on the other side of the desk came in this British film of the 1960s. As Mark Thackeray, he's an unemployed engineer who turns to a teaching position for sustenance when no engineering positions are available. The school is in London, and his students are rowdy East Enders, rough as a cob and resentful of authority figures. He receives all manner of advice on how to handle the youngsters, with recommendations ranging from cracking the whip to trying a little tenderness. Instead he decides to treat them with respect and require the same of them. He addresses them formally, and makes it clear that he expects responsible, adult behavior from them because he believes them to be capable of it. Slowly, painfully, he manages to win their respect and allegiance.

"Conrack" (1974). In the late 1960s, a young, idealistic fellow named Pat Conroy took on the job of teaching the African-American schoolchildren of an island off the coast of South Carolina. He subsequently wrote a book about the experience called "The Water is Wide," which was filmed as "Conrack," with Jon Voight as Conroy. This same Pat Conroy would later go on to great success as a novelist with works such as "The Prince of Tides." Back in the '60s, however, as the film shows us, he had his hands quite full enough with the challenge of bringing the joy of learning to Yamacraw Island. These kids, he quickly learned, had been taught only one thing: that they weren't worthy of being educated. Against opposition from all sides, he poured all of his considerable energy into undermining the lie that had crippled the self-image of these children.

The bottom line for teachers seems to be that there are those who care only about their assignments and those who care about their students. Apparently, it all comes down to whether you'd rather be the subject of a scurrilous song or a major motion picture.

Thursday, March 20, 2008

The Clowns (originally published 11/02)

Having conquered prime time television with a show about nothing, Jerry Seinfeld has now mounted his assault on the big screen with a movie about being a standup comic. It's likely to do well, of course, because it features Seinfeld, but there is every reason to believe that it might have made a respectable showing at the box office even without his lucrative name attached to it. Movie audiences have always enjoyed movies about the people who make us laugh, whether documentary or fictional. To see how earlier films have portrayed the lives of comics, look for these titles on home video.

"Top Banana" (1954). This film was adapted from a hit Broadway play, which is certainly nothing unusual in itself. What is unusual is that the filmmakers decided just to stage a production of the play itself, on a stage, in a theater, and record the performance with movie cameras. It would be an extremely silly way to adapt most stage plays to film, but in this case there is a certain logic to it. Both the play and the film starred Phil Silvers as the lead comic (or "top banana") of a successful television show. There's a plot in there somewhere - something about the top banana playing matchmaker to keep a sponsor happy only to fall for the young woman he has paired off with someone else - but it hardly matters. The heart and soul of the play/film is the steady stream of burlesque comedy bits. If you want a taste of what burlesque comedy was really like, performed by some of the people who knew it firsthand, this is the movie to see.

"The Comic" (1969). Dick Van Dyke portrays a silent film comedian named Billy Bright. The character is fictitious, but the events of his life are gleaned from the true stories of a number of comics of that era who lived to see their glory fade and who ultimately died in poverty and obscurity. Billy Bright brings much of his hardship on himself by being a self-centered, conceited jerk. The film was written and directed by Carl Reiner, the creator of Van Dyke's enormously successful TV show. If you have a low tolerance for schmaltz, you may be put off by one or two scenes, but the film does have some genuinely fine moments.

"Funny Girl" (1968). Barbra Streisand made her movie debut in this story of the early career of Fanny Brice. It was one of the last of the big budget Hollywood musicals. Those massive explosions of show biz excess had enjoyed a revival in the 1960s, in a kind of last ditch effort to compete with television by filling the big screen with spectacles such as "West Side Story" (1961), "The Sound of Music" (1965), and "Camelot" (1967). By the time "Funny Girl" was released, the trend had pretty well run its course. The film has very little to do with the actual life story of Ziegfeld Follies comedienne Fanny Brice and everything to do with showcasing the talents of Streisand, but as long as you know that going in there's no harm done. It's a very entertaining story paralleling Brice's early show business success with the failure of her marriage to professional gambler Nick Arnstein (Omar Sharif).

"The Comedian" (1957). This one isn't actually a movie. It's a kinescope of a 90-minute live TV show from the period known as the "golden age of TV drama." The script was written by Rod Serling for an anthology series called "Playhouse 90." Mickey Rooney gives an intense, fiery performance in the title role, playing a character named Sammy Hogarth. He's the star of a hit television variety show, a man who brings joy into the lives of millions of viewers. But to the people who have to work with him, he's just a big pain in the neck. Feet of clay? This guy is mud from the neck down. The video release includes interviews with cast members and director John Frankenheimer, placing the show in historical perspective.

The great British tragedian Edmund Keane is reported to have said on his deathbed that "dying is easy; comedy is hard." Laughter, like anything of value, exacts a price. Luckily for us, from Phil Silvers to Jerry Seinfeld, there are always those who are willing to pay the price on our behalf.

The Good Book (originally published 10/02)

Besides being the foundation of two of the world's great religions, the Old Testament is a repository of some of humanity's most enduring stories. Regardless of whether you are a religious person, your life has undoubtedly been touched by these stories, and probably molded by them. Needless to say, this treasure trove of timeless tales has provided the inspiration for a great many movies through the years, the latest of which is the VeggieTales version of the story of Jonah and the whale, which is currently playing in theaters nationwide. For a sampling of how earlier films have adapted stories from the Hebrew Bible for the screen, look for these titles on home video.

"Samson and Delilah" (1949). Without a doubt the filmmaker who is best known for turning biblical stories into big box office is Cecil B. DeMille. One of the great grey eminences of Hollywood, it is not an exaggeration to describe DeMille as one of the founding fathers of the American film industry. Fancying himself something of a biblical scholar, he had been drawing story material from holy writ since the silent film days. With "Samson and Delilah," however, he told his Bible tale for the first time in full Technicolor, a process he had experimented with decades earlier for selected scenes of his silent production of "The Ten Commandments." (1923). Rock-jawed Victor Mature plays the part of Samson opposite Hedy Lamarr as Delilah. Don't be put off by DeMille's somewhat ponderous style. It's old fashioned, to be sure - indeed, it was old fashioned even in 1949 - but DeMille knew how to tell a story.

"David and Bathsheba" (1951). Another Hollywood veteran dating back to the silent film days was director Henry King. This is King's interpretation of how King David's lust for Bathsheba brought the wrath of God down on his kingdom. This is the prototype for a plot that has been a favorite of storytellers for centuries, the story of sin and redemption. Gregory Peck stars as King David and Susan Hayward plays the part of Bathsheba.

"The Ten Commandments" (1956). The capstone of DeMille's illustrious career was this gargantuan remake of his silent classic based on Moses, the Lawgiver. The silent film had told the story of Moses in parallel with a modern story illustrating the price one pays for flouting the Ten Commandments. For the remake, however, he abandoned this idea in favor of devoting the entire film to recounting the life story of Moses, played by Charlton Heston. Everything about this production is big, from its length (over three and a half hours) to its budget to its cast. Rarely has such a roster of Hollywood luminaries been assembled to perform in a single film. DeMille's bombastic style was by this time quite old fashioned indeed, but, once again, it did not - and does not - matter. The man was such a natural storyteller that he could hold the attention of audiences for twice the length of most films in spite of a flamboyant directorial flair that dated back to stage melodramas from the turn of the century.

"Sodom and Gomorrah" (1962). The story of Hebrew leader Lot (Stewart Granger) and his ill-fated wife (Pier Angeli) is rendered here as a big, sprawling tale of unfortunate political alliances against a backdrop of sin and corruption writ large. Lot strikes a deal with the queen who rules Sodom and Gomorrah to be given land in exchange for defending the queen's people against their enemies, the Helamites. Eventually, however, he realizes that he has placed his people's souls in jeopardy with this misconceived bargain. Director Robert Aldrich, taking his cue from DeMille, makes no attempt at subtlety.

Speaking of taking cues from DeMille, perhaps you've noticed a trend by now. It was DeMille, way back in the silent movie days, who caught on to the fact that biblical epics provide filmmakers with a way to eat their cake and have it too. What better way to maximize sex and violence on the screen, which is good for the box office, without being seen as prurient, which is bad for the industry's image, than to pull salacious and violent content from the Old Testament, which offers plenty of both? It is the lack of these mainstays, and not the casting of Jonah as an asparagus, that represents the new VeggieTales movie's most radical break with Hollywood tradition.

Friday, March 14, 2008

Mothers and Daughters (originally published 10/02)

Of all the allegiances forged by society or ordained by nature, none is more potent than the bond between a mother and daughter. When it is healthy and flourishing, it can grow into a tightly woven cocoon of mutual nurturing that can justly be described as nature's masterpiece. When it goes wrong, however, it can degenerate into a nightmare.

The newly released "White Oleander," based on the novel by Janet Fitch, relates a sobering tale of a mother-daughter relationship gone tragically awry and the daughter's struggle to cope with the daunting task of defining herself without a mother's guidance. It's a harrowing story, but by no means a new one. Indeed, troubled relationships between mothers and daughters are as old as humankind. Naturally, "White Oleander" is far from being the first film to deal with the subject. To see how earlier filmmakers have portrayed dysfunctional mother-daughter relationships, look for these titles on home video.

"Autumn Sonata" (1978). Ingmar Bergman's grim meditation on mother-daughter alienation stars Ingrid Bergman as the mother and Liv Ullman as the daughter. Mom is a celebrated concert pianist who hasn't seen her daughter in seven years. When they do meet again, they are almost like strangers. Then old resentments begin to reassert themselves, culminating in a long night of revelations and recriminations. It's a virtuoso performance by two of the screen's finest actresses under the guidance of world cinema's most unrelenting interpreter of emotional pain.

"Gypsy" (1962). If you prefer something a bit less emotionally intense than Bergman, let Gypsy Rose Lee entertain you with this musical version of her early years under the influence of the ultimate stage mother. Gypsy is portrayed by Natalie Wood, while Rosalind Russell plays her mother, Rose Hovick. Rose is herself the product of a rocky mother-daughter relationship, and now she's determined to take over the lives of her daughters by being single-handedly responsible for their success.

"Now, Voyager" (1942). This Bette Davis soaper is remembered primarily for the love story that develops between Davis and Paul Henried. The early scenes, however, present one of the most chilling examples of an unhealthy mother-daughter relationship in any film. Gladys Cooper plays Davis's cold and distant mother. She is acidly and unrelentingly critical of her daughter and sternly withholds any glimmer of affection on any level. With Davis's character on the verge of a nervous breakdown, the psychiatrist who is called in immediately recommends an ocean voyage to remove her from her mother's influence.

"Stella Dallas" (1937). Olive Higgins Prouty, who wrote the novel on which "Now, Voyager" was based, was also the author of this film's literary source. Barbara Stanwyck gives one of her best performances as Stella, a working class woman who marries into a well-to-do family. They have a daughter, whom Stella loves dearly, but ultimately the differences in their backgrounds prove fatal to the marriage. As they go their separate ways, the daughter, gravitating toward the upper class lifestyle of her father, begins to think of her lower class mother as an embarrassment. Thus the stage is set for one of those noble sacrifices that are a fixture in the three-hanky genre. This is an oft-filmed story, adapted for film both before and since this Samuel Goldwyn production, but the Stanwyck version remains the definitive interpretation.

"Mildred Pierce" (1945). This is a fascinating film on all kinds of levels. It's primarily remembered for the remarkable feat of combining the soap opera genre with the dark and morally ambiguous film noir genre. The effect of this synthesis on the film's mother-daughter relationship is striking, combining the soapiness of "Stella Dallas" with the venom and bile of "Double Indemnity." Mildred (Joan Crawford) is a successful businesswoman who obsessively dotes on her daughter, Ida (Ann Blyth). But when young Ida becomes romantically involved with Mildred's second husband, the plot really starts to thicken.

William Shakespeare probably had the best line on the special intensity of the mother-daughter relationship. "Thou art thy mother's glass," he wrote, "and she in thee calls back the lovely April of her prime." But movies are also a kind of mirror. And as long as humans look into that mirror, it will always reflect the somber warning that a mother's love, one of nature's finest blessings, retains the frightening potential to morph into something as poisonous as oleander.

The Psychos (originally published 9/02)

He's back. Hannibal Lecter, the psychopath we love to hate, once again haunts our screens in the "Silence of the Lambs" prequel, "Red Dragon." We just can't seem to get enough of the guy.

In truth, however, psychopaths have always been popular with movie audiences. Take a thoroughly vicious head case of a character, find a good actor to incarnate him on the screen, and you can be guaranteed that ticket sales will be brisk. Anthony Hopkins's portrayal of Lecter certainly qualifies as one of the great examples. Here are some earlier classic psycho portrayals to look for on home video.

Robert Mitchum in "Night of the Hunter" (1955). In this extraordinary piece of work, the only film ever directed by famed actor Charles Laughton, Robert Mitchum portrays an ex-con posing as a clergyman in order to seduce the widow of his former cellmate. The man had been executed for killing two people while robbing a bank, but the money he stole had never been found. Mitchum's character is determined to find it, and he is the sort of twisted sicko who will go to any lengths at all to get what he is after. This is the film in which Mitchum sports tattoos on his fingers spelling out L-O-V-E on one hand and H-A-T-E on the other.

Richard Widmark in "Kiss of Death" (1947). This was Widmark's first screen role, and what a debut it was. His character is so mean and rotten and takes such delight in his own nastiness that he routinely bursts out laughing while committing sadistic acts. In what is probably the film's most famous scene, he pushes an old woman down a flight of stairs. Pretty nasty, right? But in fact it's even worse than that: the old lady he pushed was in a wheelchair.

James Cagney in "White Heat" (1949). I know I'm going out on a limb saying this, but this just might be Cagney's greatest role. He is a gangster with such an intense mother-fixation that he continues to converse with his mom after she is dead. When he can't cope, he is stricken with piercing, intense headaches. You can imagine what this does for his disposition. He is an utterly remorseless killer. In one scene, he closes a man up inside the trunk of a car. When the fellow makes the mistake of begging to be let out because he can't breathe in there, Cagney remedies the situation. He fires his gun into the trunk to make air holes - his little joke. If you've never seen this one, give it a try; I promise that you'll never forget the ending.

Arch Hall, Jr. in "The Sadist" (1963). For sheer out and out meanness, it's hard to top the nasty piece of work portrayed by Hall in this film. Three people on their way to a football game stop at a lonely rural gas station only to be held at gunpoint and mercilessly tortured by the ultimate angry young man. It doesn't seem to matter that they are perfect strangers. He's pretty much mad at everybody. It's not a great film by any means, just a low budget thriller that hasn't aged all that well, but Hall is convincing and the tension builds up quite effectively.

Joseph Cotten in "Shadow of a Doubt" (1943). On the subtle side, there is this subdued but thoroughly unnerving Alfred Hitchcock film in which Cotten portrays a beloved uncle who comes to visit his niece in her idyllic little home town. Only gradually does she come to realize that he is in fact the man known to the police as the "Merry Widow Murderer." There is virtually no violence in the film, but Hitchcock doesn't need violence to get you biting your nails and squirming in your seat. Cotten's performance, quite simply, is inspired. Just watch the scene in which he sits at the dinner table and quietly, calmly explains why some people don't deserve to live, and see if the little hairs on the back of your neck don't stand on end.

And, speaking of Hitchcock, let us not forget the granddaddy of all movie psychopaths: Anthony Perkins in "Psycho" (1960).

By the time you've watched these films, you will be primed and ready for "Red Dragon." But you may not want to unlock your front door to go out and see it.

Saturday, March 8, 2008

Splitsville (originally published 9/02)

Last week we were looking at vintage wedding movies. I mentioned then that weddings have become almost synonymous with happy endings in our dramatic tradition. At the same time, we know that real life weddings too often fall short of the "happily ever after" expectations we place on them. So pervasive is this reality that even the airy and whimsical fantasy world of the romantic comedy has had to acknowledge and incorporate the hard realities of divorce.

The most recent example is "Serving Sara," which chronicles the misadventures of a hapless process server caught in the middle of a nasty divorce. But the current generation is by no means the first to know the pain of divorce, despite the efforts of certain politicians to portray the good old days as an unbroken tapestry of storybook marriages. For the sake of closure, then, let's take a look at some classic divorce movies.

"The Awful Truth" (1937). Just as "Father of the Bride" holds an exalted place in the annals of wedding pictures, "The Awful Truth" reigns supreme as the movies' greatest divorce comedy. Cary Grant and Irene Dunne star as Jerry and Lucy Warriner, a couple whose marriage has hit the skids. Their divorce, however, ultimately proves even less successful than their marriage. Both of them pursue other romantic interests, but neither can resist trying to sabotage the other's courtship. Dunne and Grant are scorchingly brilliant, taking clever dialogue and elevating it to the comedy stratosphere with Swiss-watch timing.

"The Gay Divorcee" (1934). When Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers made their film version of a play called "The Gay Divorce," the studio wasn't prepared to countenance the idea that a divorce could be an occasion for happiness on any level. They were, however, just barely willing to admit that a divorced woman might possibly find happiness, and so the title was adjusted accordingly. Rogers plays a woman who wants a divorce, and is willing to go to elaborate lengths to secure one. She travels to a resort where she has arranged to be seen with a paid co-respondent, a sort of home wrecker for hire. Astaire's character is attracted to her, but she mistakes him for her hired escort and reacts to his overtures with scorn. Reproduced below is the film's promotional trailer, courtesy of Turner Classic Movies.

"Divorce - Italian Style" (1962). Somewhere in between his brilliant performances for Fellini in "La Dolce Vita" (1960) and "8 1/2" (1963), Marcello Mastroianni made this edgy little comedy. He portrays a frustrated man whose exasperating wife has driven him to distraction. Unfortunately, divorce isn't an option under Sicilian law. If, however, a husband catches his wife with another man, he can kill her and be absolved in those same Sicilian courts on the grounds that he was defending his honor. Pursuing the only viable option available to him, then, Mastroianni's character tries to arrange a compromising situation between his wife and an old flame of hers. With this memorable performance, Mastroianni demonstrated that his comic talents were fully equal to the dramatic skills he displayed under Fellini's direction.

"In Name Only" (1939). For a more serious treatment of divorce, you can't do much better than this elegant melodrama of love and betrayal. Cary Grant plays the husband, but the similarity with "The Awful Truth" ends there. His wife, played by Kay Francis, married him only for his family's money and social standing. When Grant's character falls in love for real, with a widow played by Carole Lombard, his wife strings him along with promises of a divorce that she doesn't really intend to agree to.

"An Unmarried Woman" (1978). This Paul Mazursky film provides a more contemporary dramatic treatment of divorce. Jill Clayburgh is excellent in the title role as a woman whose husband announces without warning or preamble that he is leaving her for a younger woman. Having built her whole identity around her role as this man's wife, she must now return to square one and reconstruct her sense of herself from scratch.

There is an interesting irony here. The trend toward incorporating feminist consciousness-raising into divorce movies traces back to "An Unmarried Woman." It was, however, necessarily the work of a male filmmaker, because there were, at the time, no female filmmakers with enough industry clout to get such a film made. Now that there are, the pendulum has swung back to portraying the male perspective on divorce, as in the testosterone-drenched "Serving Sara." That's show biz, I guess.

The Wedding Pictures (originally published 9/02)

Like most people, I suppose, I first encountered Shakespeare's plays when I was still much too young to comprehend 99 percent of their riches. Even so, I caught on to one concept right away: the tragedies were the ones that ended with funerals and the comedies were the ones that ended with weddings. In time, of course, I would come to understand just how central an icon weddings are, not only to Shakespeare, but to all drama, and to our culture as a whole.

Movies are certainly no exception to this rule. A small but heartfelt picture called "My Big Fat Greek Wedding" is even now well on its way to joining the ranks of the most profitable films ever released. (Lots of films have made more money, but they also cost far more to make.) If you've seen this charming comedy and would like to see how earlier films have woven comedy out of matrimony, look for these titles on home video.

"Father of the Bride" (1950). The 1991 remake with Steve Martin was fine, but there's really no substitute for the original version of this granddaddy of all wedding movies. Spencer Tracy is brilliant as the exasperated father struggling to experience his daughter's wedding as the deeply meaningful event it is supposed to be. Instead, he finds himself systematically isolated from the emotional and spiritual significance that the occasion is presumed to carry. Drowning in logistical trivia, not to mention bills, he can only commiserate with us in a hilariously forlorn voice-over narration.

"The Philadelphia Story" (1940). In its original incarnation as a play, this story of high society romance rescued Katharine Hepburn's capsized career. The film version likewise erased her reputation as "box office poison." In a role written especially for her, Hepburn plays the wealthy and insufferably snooty Tracy Lord. She's about to be married to an upper crust stuffed shirt, much to the dismay of her ex-husband, C.K. Dexter Haven, played by Cary Grant. To Tracy's very great annoyance, the upcoming nuptials are being covered by a reporter and photographer from a scandal sheet called "Spy" (some things never change, it seems). James Stewart plays the reporter, Mike Connor, who has no more use for the pretensions of the upper class than Tracy has for him. Not at first, anyway. With such a high octane cast and director George Cukor at the helm, it's hardly surprising that the result became one of romantic comedy's most enduring classics.

"Royal Wedding" (1951). Fred Astaire and Jane Powell star as a brother and sister dancing team who take their act to England at the time of the wedding of Elizabeth II to Philip Mountbatten. Each pursues a romantic interest, leading to the sister's decision to break up the act. It seems that she, too, will be marrying into the British nobility. This is the film in which Astaire dances on the walls and ceiling, with the help of some deft camera trickery. Even more impressive to me, though, is a dance number in which Astaire converts a coat rack into a supple and graceful partner. No camera trickery here; just Astaire's consummate skill weaving its magic. By the way, the story line vaguely mirrors the real life career of Astaire and his sister Adele. She also broke up their act to marry a nobleman.

"A Wedding" (1978). When Robert Altman completed work on his film, "Three Women" (1977), he was asked what he planned to do next. Sarcastically, he replied that he'd like to photograph a wedding. The more he thought about it, however, the more it started to sound like a good idea. In his classic "Nashville" (1975), he had hit upon the formula of juggling many different characters with an ensemble cast. Here was a perfect way to repeat that formula, by portraying a large wedding. He created an overblown ceremony that brought together two mismatched families, one old-money and one new-money. There wasn't really room to squeeze in a plot, but if character-driven movies appeal to you, this one is not to be missed.

As entertaining as these wedding movies are, another film in current release reminds us that weddings are not always the happy endings they are meant to be. Too often there is a specter at the banquet. Next time we'll bag the rice and drop the other shoe.