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Monday, June 2, 2008

Stormy Weather (originally published 9/03)

People used to say that everyone talks about the weather but no one does anything about it. More recently, it seems that people have stopped talking about the weather and started watching it for entertainment. Most especially, it is weather in its most violent and catastrophic aspect that has captured our collective attention. The Weather Channel, for example, offers a whole line of documentary videotapes featuring violent weather. Sales are apparently brisk, because video stores have begun stocking similar items.

As I write this, the storm du jour is Hurricane Isabel, which is bearing down ominously on the East Coast. If you're fascinated by horrendous weather, and if coverage of Isabel on the Weather Channel hasn't been able to satisfy your curiosity, don't go out chasing real storms. Instead, look for these titles on home video. Each one tells a story in which some form of spectacularly bad weather is prominently featured.

"The Wind" (1928). The astonishing visual imagination of director Victor Seastrom runs gloriously wild in this silent classic. Lillian Gish stars as a young woman who leaves her home in Virginia to live with relatives out west, where the wind never seems to stop blowing. The climax of the film is built around a spectacular desert sandstorm. It is one of the great sequences in American cinema, using the fury of nature to externalize the hysteria of the main character. Once seen, it is not easily forgotten.

"Steamboat Bill, Jr." (1928). Silent comic Buster Keaton stars as the dandified, milksop son of a grizzled old riverboat pilot. Home from college, Buster visits his father, "Steamboat" Bill Canfield, from whom he has been estranged for years. Dismayed by the foppish behavior of his son, the elder Canfield disowns him and sends him away. Before he can leave, however, a massive windstorm blows through the town. As buildings collapse and boats sink, young Canfield proves himself worthy of his father's name after all.

"San Francisco" (1936). This story of San Francisco around the turn of the century would be entertaining enough if it only had colorful characters portrayed by an outstanding cast. Clark Gable and Spencer Tracy each have a field day, Gable as a reprobate gambler and Tracy as the tough talking priest who hopes to reform him. But director W.S. Van Dyke and his special effects team have a big finish up their sleeve, topping off the film with the climax to end all climaxes - the 1906 San Francisco earthquake.

"The Hurricane" (1937). On a beautiful South Sea island, the lives of the natives are disrupted by a cruel and corrupt European governor, played by Raymond Massey. When the heavy hand of his "justice" blights the lives of a young native married couple, it seems as if he has brought divine retribution down on the island in the form of a raging hurricane. Interestingly, this film was directed by John Ford, who is best remembered as a director of westerns.

"I Know Where I'm Going" (1945). The renowned British filmmaking team of Emeric Pressburger and Michael Powell gave us this lyrical little Scottish tale. Joan Webster (played by Wendy Hiller) is a headstrong young woman with only one goal in life: to marry into money. She's on her way to a small Scottish island to do just that, but a fierce gale prevents her from crossing over to meet her wealthy fiancee. As the days pass and the gale refuses to abate, she becomes acquainted with the locals and inconveniently falls in love. The most spectacular sequence in the film finds her battling the gale in a small boat with a young man whom she has bribed to attempt the crossing against all good judgment.

"Key Largo" (1948). Director John Huston's adaptation of Maxwell Anderson's play is blessed with a dream cast: Lionel Barrymore as the owner of the Key Largo Hotel, Lauren Bacall as his daughter, Humphrey Bogart as a disillusioned veteran, and Edward G. Robinson as the gangster who holds them all hostage. As tensions run high in the little hotel, a harrowing tropical storm thunders its way through the Keys outside.

By the time you read this, Isabel will have blown herself out and passed into meteorological history. The cinematic storms described here, on the other hand, will continue to rage as long as there are movie fans and video stores.

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