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FLAWLESS CINEMA

A Short List of Perfect Movies


By Walker Joyce


Right after Thanksgiving, I went to my garage and pulled out a stack of Christmas programs, which I’ve preserved on VHS cassettes over the last couple of decades. Yes, I’m a proud Luddite who still watches—and records—on video tape.

Amassing a private library has been my quest and delight since the VCR was introduced. I wanted to have shelves full of favorites I could watch anytime, and in the case of Christmas not have to re-record every December.

Hence, I can watch vintage TV broadcasts, documentaries, and of course classic films whenever I like. I don’t watch everything every year, and rotating titles keeps everything fresh. For instance, I retired It’s a Wonderful Life for a few yuletides, having “O. D’ed” on it in prior winters

This season, I resurrected The Bishop’s Wife, a Christmas evergreen since its theatrical debut in 1947. As the last few moments unspooled, I had the usual lump in my throat and tears happily welled in my eyes.

“That’s a perfect movie,” I said out loud, as it rewound. And that got me to thinking about what constituted one, and how many I could name.

Here’s my definition:

A PERFECT MOVIE is one that has stood the test of time and countless viewings. It has a story-driven plot with no dull patches, delightful characters who’ve been perfectly cast, top-flight production values, and achieves its goals, i.e. to make an audience laugh, cry, shudder, thrill—or all of the above. In shorthand, a perfect movie is one you’d take to the proverbial desert island.

Let’s dispense with the usual choices from the AFI’s Top 100 list, e.g. Citizen Kane or Gone With the Wind. Instead, I’ll stress personal favorites, and the more eccentric the better.

The aforementioned The Bishop’s Wife: Generically, this is a romantic comedy, though it’s also a Christmas film and a fantasy. Cary Grant plays an angel sent to help Loretta Young and the other title character, David Niven. The three stars were at their peak, and everything clicked when the two men switched parts shortly after shooting began! The supporting actors, Monty Woolley, Elsa Lanchester and the Wonderful Life kids, are equally fine, and the script is full of humor, whimsey and surprises. It’ll make you want to go ice-skating too!

Jeremiah Johnson: An offbeat western from the 70s, sometimes called Hollywood’s 2nd Golden Age. Based on a real mountain man’s life, its sympathy for native Americans anticipates Dances With Wolves 18 years later. I think it’s Robert Redford’s finest performance, as the dialogue is minimal and he plays against his golden boy image. Breathtaking scenery, and a completely unique music soundtrack that fits the picture like a glove.

The Time of Their Lives: Abbott & Costello’s finest hour (and 22 minutes)! Made when the men’s relationship was strained, they only appear in a few scenes together. Lou teams with the beautiful, under-rated Marjorie Reynolds instead, and Bud plays a duel role. It’s reminiscent of Noel Coward’s Blithe Spirit in that it involves ghosts, a séance, a rarified setting and some comedy of manners. But there’s also a bit of A & C slapstick, some American history, special effects that were state-of-the-art back in 1946, and a very funny coda at the fade-out. Going back to its showing on TV’s Million Dollar Movie in the 60’s (the broadcast equivalent to a VCR or DVD back then—Google it), I’ve literally seen this flick a hundred times or more.

House on Haunted Hill: From schlockmeister William Castle’s canon, it’s a textbook example of 1950s B-movie horror. Vincent Price stars as our narrator/hero/villain, alongside future TV hunk Richard Long and veteran character weasel Elisha Cook. A classic haunted house tale, with some jolt-scares that still hold up 59 years later! As is also true of The Bishop’s Wife, beware of the lame remake!

Raiders of the Lost Ark: I’ll close with a more conventional choice. This first film in the Indiana Jones franchise was the best by far. The movie equivalent of a roller coaster ride, it was released in 1981, just before the VCR revolutionized home viewing. Hence, it holds my personal record for the movie I paid the most often to see. It struck the perfect balance between old-time serial corn, swashbucklers and WW II propaganda adventures, with lots of laughs too.

So, this winter, when the weather traps you inside, find these pics on YouTube or your NetFlicks feed, and see if you agree with my assessments.

Enjoy!