Part 3

The Classics You Should Have Seen By Now

by PopMatters Staff

28 July 2009


Buster Keaton and more

Alec Guiness Kind Hearts and Coronets (Robert Hamer, 1949)

In a career noted for multiple characterizations, Alec Guinness had his finest hour in the dryly hilarious Ealing Studios comedy Kind Hearts and Coronets where he portrays eight members of the D’Ascoyne family: The Duke, The Banker, The Parson, The General, The Admiral, Young Ascoyne, Young Henry and Lady Agatha. All stand in the way of the disinherited Louis Mazzini (Dennis Price) who is determined to restore his family’s honor and claim the Dukedom of Chalfont which should be his. And why was he disinherited? Because his mother defied her aristocratic family and married for love—worse, she married a penniless Italian opera singer. Young Mazzini decides to murder his way to the Dukedom, and down go the D’Ascoynes in a variety of colorful scenarios: dispatched by poison, swept over a waterfall during a Victorian dirty weekend, blown up in a darkroom, saluting on the bridge as the ship goes down, shot in a hunting accident, crashing to earth in a punctured hot air balloon. Of course there has to be a catch: Louis is convicted of one the murder of one of the D’Ascoynes who died without his assistance. He gets off from that charge only to realize that the memoir he’s been writing so assiduously contains details sufficient to convict him six times over. It’s a wickedly grand satire on English snobbery and Guinness outdoes himself by creating eight distinct characters using only a little makeup and a lot of acting. Sarah Boslaugh

Dustin Hoffman Tootsie (Sydney Pollack, 1982)

Among the seminal ‘80s comedies, many overly-soaked in teenage absurdities, only a handful can be considered good adult comedies that stand the test of time: Tootsie tops this list, mainly in thanks to Hoffan’s iconic cross-dressing performance that echoes the comic bliss of Jack Lemmon in Some Like it Hot. Hoffman plays Michael Dorsey, a talented New York actor struggling to survive while holding onto to an integrity which he deems paramount to his craft, a trait that also prevents him from making any money. He is the archetypal “struggling actor”, but even so, as it usually goes in the film business; women still have it tougher than men. Dorsey sets out to find out which gender is the more lucrative of the two, transforming into the scrappy, feminist Dorothy Michaels in order to land a part in a major day-time soap opera. Hoffman gives an incredibly creative performance as an actor who must play a woman, who also must act. The incredible physical comedy demands of the role are daunting on paper.

Though nominated for an Academy Award, Hoffman had the misfortune that year of going up against Paul Newman, Jack Lemmon, Peter O’Toole and Ben Kingsley (winning for Gandhi). The film nonetheless received nine other nominations including a Best Supporting Actress win for Jessica Lange, a nomination for co-star Teri Garr, and a veritable filmic launching pad for the lunacy of Bill Murray, understated in a role sandwiched between his peak comedy work in Caddyshack, Stripes and Ghostbusters. Surrounding himself with such talent, however, only makes Hoffman even better. His passionate speech to his agent (played by Tootsie director Pollack) about playing a tomato in a commercial is still comedic gold: “Nobody does vegetables like me. I did an evening of vegetables off Broadway!”  Tim Basham

Buster Keaton The General (Clyde Bruckman & Buster Keaton, 1927)

By 1927, a then 32-year-old Keaton was already a titan, a confirmed filmmaking genius and the star of nearly 30 shorts and eight features. So it makes sense that Keaton would take a chance with his next project, a large scale adventure centering on the Civil War and the Great Locomotive Chase of 1862. Taking the reigns as both leading man and comic rube, the “Great Stone Face” took audiences on a journey that was both dramatic and romantic, with the standard slapstick and physical gags tossed in for good measure. Unfortunately, The General was not well received at the time, and flopped on the strength of some very harsh reviews. Many just couldn’t buy their famed funnyman in an inventive ‘action’ mode. While the movie is now considered a masterpiece, few seem to suggest that Keaton’s performance is the key. But outside all the dangerous stunts and spectacle, the film’s heart clearly belongs to the man offering no recognizable expression of emotion whatsoever. Bill Gibron

Gene Kelly Singin’ in the Rain (Stanley Donen, 1952)

The Fred Astaire style musicals of the 1930s gave way to Kelly and his Technicolor song and dance films of the ‘40s and ‘50s. Singin’ in the Rain is the quintessential example of the genre and top’s AFI’s list of best musicals for good reason: Kelly every move drips with talent here, not only singing and expert dancing, but also co-directing. Set in the late ‘20s, Kelly plays a popular film star, Don Lockwood, whose producer decides to alter their latest silent film to fit the popular demand, as the newest rage is “talkies”. Don, along with characters played by Debbie Reynolds and Donald O’Connor, save the film by turning it into a candy-colored musical. Some stories say Kelly’s legendary puddle-dancing scene for “Singing’ in the Rain” was filmed in one take, while others say it took a full two days to shoot. The one thing historians seem to agree on is that Kelly was sick with a high fever while shooting the scene, and in true trouper fashion, insisted the show go on. The greatness and easy-going nature of this beloved scene may overshadow the other classic musical numbers in the film like “Make ‘Em Laugh”, “You Were Meant for Me”, and “All I Do is Dream of You” and it may even pale in comparison to Kelly’s incredibly inventive jazz/ballet choreography with the great Cyd Charisse, yet if you sing the first few bars of the title song, chances are someone will be able to sing the next verse. It is one of the most iconic sequences in film. Tim Basham

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