Memo To: Website browsers, fans & clients
From: Jude Wanniski
Re: No. 7 "A Night at the Opera”
Continuing with the “movie list,” here is number six of the ten films that most shaped my life. These are not my favorite films. They are the movies I’ve seen that have had the greatest influence on my thinking, my character, my life. Some are favorites that I enjoy watching over and over again, which you can tell as you read each entry. Try to think of your own experiences with films and how they influenced the course of your life. It makes life more interesting to be aware, as you live it, to know how things such as books and films and magazine articles alter your path in significant ways. Sometime last year the Sunday NYTimes “Arts and Leisure” section had a piece on how difficult it is to think of a movie that may have changed history. The only movie they could think of was a silent film by D.W. Griffith, "Birth of a Nation," which had a scene about the KuKluxKlan that the author believes changed national thinking about the KKK. How silly. Each of the ten films listed here changed my history, and if I had not seen them, I would not have helped change history in the ways that I have. Films don’t move masses. They move individuals who move masses.
7. “A Night at the Opera” (1935) This Marx Brothers picture was made the year before I was born, but I discovered it via my Uncle Vince, my mother’s younger brother, the same fellow who introduced me to baseball, chess, classical music and a lot to do with politics. He was a left-winger who never quite forgave me for becoming a Republican. In my teenage years, the humor of the Marx Brothers absolutely convulsed me. I could not get enough of it after seeing this first of several the boys produced. My closest friend, Leslie Nathanson, and I would get the NYTimes to see where in the city a theater was playing a Marx Brothers film. I remember trekking from Borough Park in Brooklyn to 96th Street in Manhattan one Saturday, and literally rolling in the aisle with laughter. I’ve seen all the films a dozen times, but the “Night at the Opera” -- with Harpo suddenly selling peanuts and popcorn down the aisle of the Met, while the orchestra broke out into “Take Me Out to the Ballgame” -- was the craziest of all. Bob Bartley, editor of The Wall Street Journal, once told me I had taught him “the art of the outrageous” in presenting editorials traditionally written with lofty pomposity. It was Groucho, Chico and Harpo who taught me.
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1. “The Ox-Bow Incident.” (1943) This is the movie that most changed my life, instilling in me a fear of injustice that is produced by lynch mobs. That came to be one of my distinguishing political characteristics. As you will notice I am attracted to the defense of those who nobody else will defend. My mother took me to see this when I was seven years old and I even remember sitting near the rear of the Borough Park Theater in Brooklyn, N.Y. Henry Fonda is part of a posse chasing men who killed a rancher in the course of stealing some of his cattle. The thieves, including Dana Andrews, Anthony Quinn and an old man, insist they did nothing wrong, but after a quick tree-stump trial in the woods, they are pronounced guilty -- with Henry Fonda voting “not guilty” -- and hung. On the way back to town, the posse meets a man who tells them the rancher was not killed at all, but was alive and well. The men who had been hung were innocent after all. I cried bitterly, not only in the theater, but for many nights thereafter. For years it came back to me in dreams. I can’t watch it when it shows up on late-night television. I hate lynch mobs.
2. “Rashomon.” (1950) There are several foreign films I saw as a boy that made me think of how different people were in other parts of the world. "Rashomon," from the Japanese director Akira Kurosawa, was about the universality of human nature -- the elusiveness of truth everywhere in the world. There are four people involved in an event that occurs in the middle of a forest in 16th century Japan. There is a nobleman, his beautiful consort, a bandit, and a bystander. There is conflict, a sexual episode between the woman and the bandit, and a murder. The heart of the film consists of the same event played out four different ways, according to the recollections of the four participants. This troubling film taught me that there is no such thing as objective fact or pure objectivity and built upon the lesson of "The Ox-Bow Incident." It made it easy for me to see how Clarence Thomas and Anita Hill told the truth, although their stories were 180 degrees apart. It also enabled me to appreciate the conflicting stories of President Clinton and Kathleen Willey. People sometimes remember what was in their mind at the time of a stressful situation because it really was in their mind.
3. “An American in Paris.” (1951) There is no motion picture I’ve watched more than this MGM classic musical, easily a hundred times without exaggeration. Gene Kelly and Leslie Caron in a love story that made me dizzy when I first saw it in raging adolescence (15). The music is George Gershwin, my entry point to classical music. If I had to have one movie on a desert island, this would be it. It is flawless. There is no scene in it that is less than the others, no number I can decide is my favorite of all. Oscar Levant is priceless in a supporting role. George Guetary’s “I’ll Build a Stairway to Paradise,” stoked my raging adolescence with every step. Gene Kelly plays a GI who stayed in Paris after the war to learn how to paint. When he sees Leslie Caron in a smoky nightclub, he is hit by the old lightning bolt, and pursues her until the movie’s glorious finish. When she asks why, if he says he is such a great artist, he is not famous, he asks her to be patient. “Civilization,” he says, “has a natural resistance to improving itself.” In the years that followed, whenever I’ve been discouraged about my progress in moving the world in the direction I wish it to go, I think of that line and why it must be so.
4. “The Big Country” (1958) Another picture that I can watch at least once a year, never tiring of its strong men and beautiful women of the old west against gorgeous scenery and magnificent music. Gregory Peck and Charlton Heston are protagonists, with Chuck Conners thrown in for added manly tension. At another level there is the conflict between two older men, Burl Ives and Charles Bickford, ranchers who fight over the water of the Big Muddy. Jean Simmons and Carroll Baker are the beauties. Some critics saw this superb western as a metaphor for the Cold War, with Ives representing the proles, Bickford the capitalists. You can bear this in the back of your mind, although I didn’t see it at first. The scene that most affected me, telling me it was okay to be a leader even if no one would follow, was Bickford riding into Blanco Canyon alone, when none of his men would follow him to what seemed certain death. Charlton Heston finally said “what the hell,” and the rest came along too. It sounds like a man’s movie, but it plays to all genders and ages.
5. “Laura” (1944) I was only eight when I first saw this mystery/romance, but that was enough to make me a life-long fan. It featured Gene Tierney and Dana Andrews and Clifton Webb and Vincent Price and Judith Anderson. It isn’t the mystery that shook me up, but the romance. Gene Tierney is on my all-time list of gorgeous movie ladies, a very classy lady. I, of course, identified with Dana Andrews, who plays a detective who probably came from a working class family much like mine. While the high society types are sipping their wine and chewing on canapes, Andrews is playing with a handheld pinball game while he investigates “Laura’s” murder. What knocked me out was that he winds up getting the classy lady once he finds out she has not been murdered after all. Impossible dreams can come true and in Laura there are two in combination. Throughout this era, there were hundreds of movies where the shopgirl winds up with the worldy man of means. This one was for me, the son of a coalminer. The theme song can still make me dreamy about Genie.
6. “The Grapes of Wrath” (1940) I was only four when this Henry Fonda flick hit the silver screen, and I rather doubt I saw it then, but did see it the first of many times before I was 10. Fonda was my maternal grandmother’s favorite actor, not least because he almost always played a fellow who tried to help the poor folks and bravely confronted social injustice. (Note he also stars in Movie #1 on my list, “The Ox-Bow Incident.” “Grapes of Wrath” is a Great Depression story, about down-and-out Okies leaving the dustbowl in search of the land-of-milk-and-honey in California in a rickety truck. They encounter ups and downs along the way and find the going rough even when they get to California. The scene that hit me hardest, as a little kid, takes place in a highway diner where they stop to buy half a loaf of bread, as I recall. One of the little Okie kids asks a waitress for a penny candy, because that’s all he has. She looks at the ragamuffin and sells him a candy, while two husky truckdrivers look on waiting to pay their bill. They tip her a dollar, with one telling the waitress that he knows the candy she gave the kid cost a nickel. As the men walk out, she shakes her head and smiles: “Truckdrivers!” From that moment, it’s a film moment that still occasionally inspires me to sudden impulses of generosity and a definite bias toward the Teamsters Union.