French Postcards (1979)

“I’m not talking about school — I’m talking about life!”

Synopsis:
A group of American college students (Miles Chapin, David Marshall Grant, Blanche Baker, and Debra Winger) experience life and love while studying abroad at an institute in Paris.

Genres:

Review:
A minor cult favorite among those with fond memories of watching it years ago, this coming-of-age tale is, unfortunately, a real miss. Writer/director Willard Huyck (who wrote the screenplay for American Graffiti, a clear inspiration) can’t seem to find an appropriate tone or pace for his film, which veers wildly from sophomoric situational humor to romantic tenderness and introspection, and never manages to establish a strong sense of cohesion among the characters. The most engaging narrative thread follows the travails of nerdy Miles Chapin, who falls for and successfully woos a Parisian shopgirl (appealing newcomer Valérie Quennessen); the film should have focused on their story exclusively. Instead, we’re forced to sit through the much less convincing — and infinitely more irritating — storyline involving Grant’s crush on the exchange institute’s sexy director (Marie-France Pisier), who (for selfish and entirely unethical reasons of her own) encourages his fantasies. (NB: Jean Rochefort as her philandering husband is essentially a cameo.)

Meanwhile, the screenplay’s other purported protagonists are given surprisingly short shrift. Blanche Baker (Carroll Baker’s daughter) shows up sporadically throughout the first half of the film, but only in voiceover, valiantly dictating cheerful postcards to a phantom boyfriend back at home while actually having a miserable, lonely time. When she’s finally given some screentime later in the film, she’s reduced to playing a potential rape victim in a series of ludicrously tasteless scenes with Mandy Patinkin (playing a lecherous Iranian travel agent). And while film fanatics may be mildly curious to check this film out simply to see Debra Winger in one of her earliest roles, be forewarned: her character is literally almost non-existent.

Redeeming Qualities and Moments:

  • Valérie Quennessen as Toni

Must See?
No; definitely feel free to skip this clunker.

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Jungle Princess, The (1936)

“Devils are as real to these people as leopards and pythons are to us — as real, and a lot more terrifying.”

Synopsis:
While visiting Malaysia with his fiancee (Molly Lamont) and her father, a scientist (Ray Milland) is attacked by a tiger in the jungle, and rescued by a beautiful native girl (Dorothy Lamour) who falls in love with him.

Genres:

Review:
This innocuous tale of a native “wild child” who falls in love with the first (white) male she encounters after years of surviving on her own in the jungle is pure Hollywood fantasy all the way. There’s little in the silly narrative that’s either unique or interesting, and the “love triangle” element (between Milland, Lamour, and Lamont) is handled so tepidly that Milland’s character actually says at one point (with deadpan British politeness), “I’m terribly sorry, dear, but I’m afraid I seem to be in love with her.” This hard-to-find title is clearly included in Peary’s book simply because of its notoriety as Lamour’s breakthrough role, and she is indeed sumptuous to look at: all wide eyes and innocent giggles, with flowing brown hair and tinted skin, she would forever after be associated as the exotic, sarong-wearing love interest, most notably in the “Road To…” films with Bob Hope and Bing Crosby (no less than five of which are listed in Peary’s book!).

Redeeming Qualities and Moments:

  • The impressive opening elephant stampede sequence — but watch Chang (1927) instead for an even more satisfying variation on this scene (and a much better film overall)

Must See?
No; this one is only must-see for diehard Dorothy Lamour fans.

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Miracle on 34th Street (1947)

“Christmas isn’t just a day — it’s a frame of mind.”

Synopsis:
A cynical young girl (Natalie Wood) who doesn’t believe in Santa Claus befriends an older man (Edmund Gwenn) who claims to be Kris Kringle himself.

Genres:

Response to Peary’s Review:
Peary lauds this heartwarming family favorite as a “marvelous adaptation of Valentine Davies’s [short story],” noting that it’s appropriate “for children and adults (who will better appreciate the social satire) — every Christmas season”. He accurately notes that the film possesses “excellent acting down to the smallest parts”, as well as “off-beat humor, sharp satire, tremendous warmth, and scenes that will have you choking up”. He argues that George Seaton’s “intelligent, skillfully plotted Oscar-winning” screenplay “zeroes in on the American character”, given that the film’s characters have “become so ambitious in their careers, [so] power-hungry, and [so] interested in money, that they have suppressed their finer values” — just in time for Kris Kringle to show up and put “life in perspective” for them.

Indeed, the film’s Christmas-time setting is apt, given that this is when the “good-versus-greedy battle within each person” is especially evident — as epitomized by the scene involving Thelma Ritter’s harried mother, whose son wishes for a certain toy she can’t find anywhere (the more things change, the more they stay the same!); it’s up to Kringle to manifest the true spirit of Christmas by breaking allegiance with Macy’s and telling her precisely where she can go to find one. Of course, one could argue that Kringle’s brilliant “marketing scheme” — co-opted immediately by all of Macy’s significant rivals — merely perpetuates the commercialism so rampant during the holidays. Yet tapping into the power of the “Christmas spirit” is also shown to signify a potentially deeper change of heart: for Maureen O’Hara (Susan’s mom, a cynical divorcee), it means opening herself up to both new romance (with suitor John Payne) and a life outside of the corporate ladder; for Wood, it means learning how to fantasize, dream, and “make-believe” for the first time in her young life.

Part of the film’s success lies in the fact that we (especially adult viewers) never really know how much of the story is fantasy versus a manifestation of Kringle’s highly creative take on reality. As a result, we’re left to wonder — is Kringle “really” Santa Claus? And if so, what does that mean, pragmatically speaking? Why would Santa be living in a halfway home in New York, rather than at the North Pole? The mere fact that we’re led to contemplate these questions, however, speaks to the strength and veracity of Seaton’s screenplay — and of the stellar performances given throughout. O’Hara and Payne are well-cast in critical supporting roles, and the entire ensemble cast provides “splendid characterizations”, with “no one play[ing] their parts tongue-in-cheek”. Gwenn, of course, is notoriously “perfect” as Santa (Peary opens his review by stating, “Yes, Virginia, there is a Santa Claus and, using Edmund Gwenn’s SAG card, he gave a convincing performance as himself”). Perhaps most impressive, however, is Natalie Wood, who gives one of the single best child performances ever — watch how convincingly she portrays young Susan as alternately cynical, hopeful, playful, dejected, and overjoyed.

Redeeming Qualities and Moments:

  • Natalie Wood as Susan
  • Edmund Gwenn as Kris Kringle (nominated by Peary as Best Actor of the Year, rather than Best Supporting Actor, in his Alternate Oscars book)
  • Maureen O’Hara as Susan’s mother
  • John Payne as Fred Gailey
  • Fine supporting performances by the entire cast


  • George Seaton’s heartwarming script

Must See?
Yes, naturally, as an enduring classic. Nominated by Peary as one of the Best Pictures of the Year in his Alternate Oscars.

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Christmas Carol, A (1951)

“Go and redeem some other promising young creature, but leave me to keep Christmas in my own way.”

Synopsis:
Miserly Ebenezer Scrooge (Alastair Sim) is visited by the ghost of his former business partner (Michael Hordern), as well as the spirits of Christmas Past (Michael Dolan), Christmas Present (Francis De Wolff), and Christmas Yet To Come (C. Konarski), all of whom attempt to help him mend the error of his ways.

Genres:

Review:
This mid-century British version of Dickens’ classic Christmas-time parable is viewed by some critics — including Peary — as the best of numerous cinematic adaptations. It’s notable primarily for Alastair Sim’s definitive performance in the lead role as Ebenezer Scrooge, a widely disliked miser who undergoes a tremendous change of heart during the most terrifying and life-altering night of his existence. Sim manages to effectively humanize Scrooge to the extent that we eventually sympathize with this notoriously miserable codger — a man who (according to Peary in Alternate Oscars) “is initially heartless and friendless, as stingy with kindness as he is with money”, who “curses Christmas, shoves aside young carolers, and refuses to accept Christmas cheer or give money to help the unfortunate through the holidays”. Noel Langley’s literate screenplay largely respects Dickens’ overall vision and words — though an attempt to explain Scrooge’s cynicism via back stories of his sister’s death during childbirth (just as Scrooge himself was the cause of his own mother’s death) doesn’t quite convince. Narrative quibbles aside, however, this remains a visually sumptuous and heartwarming historical fantasy, one which film fanatics are sure to enjoy.

Note: This is the only cinematic version of A Christmas Carol listed in Peary’s book; are there others that might be considered “Missing Titles”?

Redeeming Qualities and Moments:

  • Alastair Sim as Scrooge (Peary votes him Best Actor of the Year in his Alternate Oscars book)
  • Mervyn Johns as Bob Cratchit
  • C. Pennington-Richards’ cinematography
  • Fine period sets

Must See?
Yes, for Sim’s performance, and as an enjoyable Christmas classic. Listed as a film with Historical Importance and a Personal Recommendation in the back of Peary’s book.

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Girlfriends (1978)

“You don’t know me at all anymore; you really don’t.”

Synopsis:
An aspiring photographer (Melanie Mayron) struggles to create a new life for herself when her long-time roommate and best friend (Anita Skinner) gets married.

Genres:

Review:
Writer/director Claudia Weill’s indie debut film, while presenting a refreshing female perspective in 1970s cinema, is unfortunately not all that memorable. Despite her best efforts, Mayron’s critically-lauded central performance is hampered by Weill’s overly simplistic screenplay, which fails to authentically develop any of its several storylines. Mayron’s new relationship with a young professor (Christopher Guest), for instance, simply follows the predictable arc of giddy new romance souring over time (though I do like the discomfiting authenticity of the early scene in which they first meet at a party and go home together, only to part ways for months before meeting up again). Meanwhile, Mayron’s attempts to “make it” as an artist/photographer are laughably unrealistic: her repeated assertions that she’ll no longer need to take on jobs as a photographer-for-hire at bat bitzvahs and weddings once she’s lucked into showing her work at a small gallery simply make her come across as an utter moron. (And it’s frustrating that we never really see evidence of her talents as a photographer; her compositions are fine, but not earth-shattering). Finally, the sudden dissolution of her friendship with Skinner — ostensibly the main focus of the film, per its title — comes so quickly that we’re not yet invested in their fates.

Note: Watch for Eli Wallach in a small role as the rabbi Mayron develops a crush on.

Redeeming Qualities and Moments:

  • A heartfelt look at feminist concerns in 1970s New York

Must See?
No, though it’s worth checking out. Listed as a Sleeper and a Cult Movie in the back of Peary’s book.

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X: The Man With the X-Ray Eyes (1963)

“We are virtually blind — all of us.”

Synopsis:
A doctor (Ray Milland) develops a serum which gives him x-ray vision, but soon finds that his new power causes him more trouble than glory.

Genres:

Response to Peary’s Review:
Peary refers to this “philosophical sci-fi film, directed by Roger Corman for AIP”, as “competent”, arguing that the “story is predictable but Milland makes a good lead — a man who’s not entirely sympathetic”, and accurately noting that the “final few seconds are powerful”. I actually disagree that it’s merely “competent”, however, given that Robert Dillon and Ray Russell’s smart script effectively exploits the clever concept of what might happen to a person blessed (or cursed) with x-ray vision. The timbre of their screenplay shifts from the giddy delight experienced by Milland as he engages in pleasant voyeurism at a party, to the ethical dilemma he faces when he knows without a doubt that his medical colleague’s diagnosis of a patient is wrong, to the (perhaps) inevitable downward spiral of a man who has so clearly become a “freak” of nature (albeit a self-created one) — and by the end, it manages to argue that a man who can see “everything” may have access to universal secrets best left untapped.

With that said, in many ways the film is typically low-budget Roger Corman fare — though it should be noted that his budget and the production values are clearly higher than what he was working with for his more outrageously campy earlier sci-fi outings in the ’50s. The special effects are occasionally laughably cheap (i.e., when Milland sees through flesh to drawings of people’s innards), but at other times are remarkably chilling — most notably the final physical transformations that take place in Milland’s eyes. And while there’s a smattering of awkwardly handled dramatic moments (c.f. the pivotal “murder” scene that drives Milland underground, or Milland’s tentative flirtations with his colleague, Diana van der Vlis), other scenes hit surprisingly hard — such as Milland’s interactions with Don Rickles as a manipulative carnival manager who recognizes Milland as a lucrative cash cow.

Note: Milland gives a believably tortured performance here as the fatally obsessed title character, perhaps his best since his Oscar-winning role in The Lost Weekend (1945) nearly 20 years earlier.

Redeeming Qualities and Moments:

  • Ray Milland as Dr. Xavier
  • Don Rickles as Crane
  • A smart, suspenseful script

Must See?
Yes, as a cult classic by Corman.

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Carnival of Souls (1962)

“I feel sorry for you and your lack of soul!”

Carnival of Souls Poster

Synopsis:
After emerging from a fatal car crash, a young woman (Candace Hilligoss) travels to her new job as a church organist in Utah, but remains haunted by the presence of a ghoulish man (Herk Harvey), and unable to emotionally connect with anyone around her.

Genres:

Response to Peary’s Review:
Peary refers to this low-budget cult classic as a “sleeper that moviegoers always mention as one of their personal discoveries”. He comments on its “many clever ‘eerie’ scenes”, such as the two times when “Mary [Hilligoss] finds that she can’t hear anything and that people neither hear nor see her” (reminiscent of a “Twilight Zone” episode); the scene when she “climbs onto a bus, only to find that it is full of ghouls”; and the creepy finale at a deserted carnival pavilion. Indeed, for such a low-budget venture by a relatively novice director (this was Herk Harvey’s first and only feature-length narrative movie after a career in industrial film production), it possesses a surprising amount of atmosphere and panache, with striking b&w cinematography, creative direction, and a particularly noteworthy organ score by Gene Moore.

In his review, Peary argues that “rather than being a straight horror film, [Carnival of Souls] delivers a message similar to the one in Invasion of the Body Snatchers about how we are turning into pod people”, given that “Mary is such a passive, uninvolved (soulless) character”. (Interestingly, the Strasberg-trained Hilligoss apparently complained about this very description, and attempted to inject even more life into her protagonist.) Unfortunately, Peary’s review glibly gives away spoilers, as do other online reviews — so be duly forewarned; but chances are you’ll find yourself guessing the truth about Mary’s “situation” long before the end. Remade in 1998 by Wes Craven.

NB: According to TCM, Carnival of Souls was restored and revived in theaters in 1989, and made available on home video the following year, thus entering into mainstream moviegoers’ cultural consciousness just a few years after Peary’s GFTFF was published.

Redeeming Qualities and Moments:

  • Candace Hilligoss as Mary
    Carnival of Souls Hilligoss
  • Many genuinely frightening images
    Carnival of Souls Imagery
  • Striking cinematography by Maurice Prather
    Carnival of Souls Cinematography
  • Effective use of pre-existing locales
    Carnival of Souls Locations
  • Creative direction and editing
    Carnival of Souls Direction
  • Gene Moore’s organ score

Must See?
Yes, as a genuine cult classic.

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House of Dark Shadows (1974)

“I have found my Josette — and this time, there will be that wedding.”

House Dark Shadows Poster

Synopsis:
A recently unleashed vampire (Jonathan Frid) woos a young woman (Kathryn Leigh Scott) who looks eerily like his long-lost love; meanwhile, a female doctor (Grayson Hall) with a crush on Frid attempts to “cure” him.

Genres:

Review:
Based on the cult daytime television series “Dark Shadows” (1966-1971), this gothic horror tale is essentially an extended take on one of the show’s most popular storylines: a 235-year-old vampire named Barnabas Collins (Frid) who emerges from a centuries-long imposed slumber to wreak havoc on his modern-day descendants. It’s fairly standard fare, without much to distinguish it — though the sets are atmospheric, there are a few effectively scary sequences (including the graphic death of one newly “turned” vampire), and impressive make-up is used to age Collins (see still below). However, only true fans of the vampire genre — and/or fans of the original T.V. series — need bother seeking this one out. Watch for Joan Bennett in a small role as the family’s matriarch; she starred in the television series as well.

Note: According to TCM, House of Dark Shadows has the distinction of the being the only feature-length film based on a daytime soaper.

Redeeming Qualities and Moments:

  • Atmospheric sets
    House Dark Shadows Sets
  • Effective aging make-up
    House Dark Shadows Aging

Must See?
No. Listed as a Cult Movie in the back of Peary’s book.

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Mr. Blandings Builds His Dream House (1948)

“You’ve been taken to the cleaners, and you don’t even know your pants are off.”

Mr. Blandings Poster

Synopsis:
A city slicker (Cary Grant) and his wife (Myrna Loy) purchase a run-down house in Connecticut, against the advice of their well-meaning lawyer friend (Melvyn Douglas).

Genres:

Review:
Cary Grant and Myrna Loy were at the peak of their popularity when they starred together in this amiable comedy (based on the bestselling novel by Eric Hodgins) about an urban couple hoodwinked into purchasing an “idyllic” country home. The storyline is simple, and ripe for empathetic chuckles given its very topic: anyone who’s purchased a home — or longed to live in a place where the grass is presumably greener — will relate at least somewhat to their travails. My favorite scene (highlighted by many fans as well — see this message board thread on IMDb) shows Myrna Loy meticulously outlining her preferences in color schemes for various rooms, only for the painter to label her choices simply as “red, green, blue, yellow, white”. Given its comedic potential, however, Mr. Blandings… unfortunately never emerges as anything more than a series of mildly amusing vignettes. A would-be romantic rivalry subplot involving Melvyn Douglas (who also narrates the film) falls flat, and the story builds to a surprisingly slight pay-off. While it’s certainly recommended for one-time viewing (and Cary Grant fans will doubtless want to check it out), this isn’t must-see for all film fanatics.

Redeeming Qualities and Moments:

  • Several charmingly humorous scenes
    Mr Blandings Colors
    Mr Blandings Plans
  • A number of memorable one-liners:

    “I refuse to endanger the lives of my children in a house with less than four bathrooms.”

Must See?
No, but it’s recommended. Listed as a Personal Recommendation in the back of Peary’s book.

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Not of This Earth (1957)

“This killer is a fiend of the most diabolical kind, interested in only one thing: blood.”

Not of This Earth Poster

Synopsis:
A dying alien (Paul Birch) travels to Earth to secure blood for the inhabitants of his planet, hiring an increasingly curious doctor (William Roerick), personal nurse (Beverly Garland) and valet (Jonathan Haze) as his assistants.

Genres:

Review:
A clear inspiration for John Carpenter’s cult classic They Live (1988), this low-budget sci-fi/horror flick by director/producer Roger Corman remains one of his most enjoyable early outings (and just one of NINE films he made that same year!). Tautly edited and scripted, it tells a quick but surprisingly effective tale of alien vampiric forces invading Southern California, for greater purposes that are only gradually revealed. At only 67 minutes long, the story (co-written by Charles B. Griffith and Mark Hanna) speeds along at a fast clip, barely giving us a chance to chuckle over the campy effects (note the brief, incongruous presence of a jelly-fish-like predator used to kill one nosy character) and gaping plot holes (why, for instance, would Birch leave his “nutrient-rich” drink out on his breakfast tray for Garland to conveniently swipe for analysis? and why bother having his valet make him meals every morning that he refuses to touch?). Such quibbles aside, we’re kept in suspense throughout about the true nature of Birch’s mission — and once he encounters a fellow alien (Anne Carroll) in distress, our sentiments towards this presumed villain palpably shift. Watch for Garland’s especially camp-worthy response when she learns who Birch really is: this is mid-century female strength and presence-of-mind at its best!

P.S. Film fanatics will doubtless note that the special effects used here for Birch’s eyes (“lacking any visible aperture on the optical tissue”) were likely an influence on Corman’s later X: The Man With X-Ray Eyes (1963).

Redeeming Qualities and Moments:

  • Creative opening titles
    NOTE Opening Credits
  • An enjoyably pulpy sci-fi/horror plot
    NOTE Birch
  • A clever ending shot
    NOTE Closing Shot

Must See?
Yes, as one of Corman’s best early features.

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