Tilting at Windmills || Man of La Mancha

If I haven’t mentioned it before, my gateway drug into classic film was the movie musical. My Father, a trained psychologist, used them to entice his daughters away from a glut of cartoons and into the world of “live-action.” I admit, with all honesty, that I was once terrified by this prospect. I’m not sure precisely what traumatized me about non-animated cinema (I suspect I glimpsed something that I shouldn’t have and my young brain just kind of shut down on the matter), but for years any film that occupied more than two-dimensions gave me a deep sense of unease. 

My Father, however, was undaunted by the challenge, determined to share with us the (age-appropriate) films he loved. A clever man (I learned early-on the significance of Dr. Jeffrey’s Ph.D.), Dad noticed how I relished my Disney Sing-Alongs. Music then (no-imminent-pun-intended), was the key to getting little-Meg to watch something other than Aladdin for the ninth time. We started with Singin’ in the Rain, then Hello Dolly!, and then moved on to the Rodgers and Hammerstein collection. By the time I left my single-digit years behind, I had fallen in love with cinema’s song-and-dance-men (and women).

One afternoon, I recall Papa telling my sister and I to go to our rooms and see what was on our beds. Scurrying down the hallway, I discovered the double-VHS version of Camelot, while my sister, who was a devoted fan of Wishbone, in particular the episode entitled “The Impawssible Dream,” found Man of La Mancha (1972) propped up on her pillow. As summarized on the film’s IMDb page: “The story of a mad, but kind and chivalrous, elderly nobleman, who, aided by his squire Sancho Panza, fights windmills to save his Dulcinea.” 

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Knowledge is Power || Raiders of the Lost Ark

Many an elementary school child has been asked: “what do you want to be when you grow up?” It is only later, however, when they discover the challenges that come with being a space explorer, a princess, or a marine biologist (I just wanted to swim with dolphins, but noooooo, I had to take advanced statistics). The future (8-year-old me was certain), was full of the same possibilities I saw projected up on the silver screen. After my parents broke the news that I might not make “Jedi Master” by the time I turned 18, I next considered going into archeology. After all, I looked good in Dad’s fedora, and learning how to sling a whip seemed like a lot of fun.

Judging by the myriad adult males I saw dressed as Indiana Jones last weekend at PAX, it seems I am not alone in my admiration for the titular hero of 1981’s Raiders of the Lost Ark. This film, as they say, is the one that started it all (although it draws inspiration from other adventurers like Tarzan, Tintin and Allan Quartermaine). Here is Harrison Ford at his finest; Steven Spielberg at his funnest; and John Williams… well, John Williams is amazing as always. As summarized on the film’s IMDb page: “In 1936, archaeologist and adventurer Indiana Jones is hired by the U.S. government to find the Ark of the Covenant before Adolf Hitler’s Nazis can obtain its awesome powers.”

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Life Could Not Better Be || The Court Jester

My sense of humor is an acquired taste; the kind that makes people double over with laughter or with groans of deeply-felt-suffering (sometimes both). My favorite jokes involve puns, wordplay, and linguistic misunderstandings. I’m also a great fan of slapstick and “mugging” (pulling faces); as a trained singer, silly voices are my forte (ba-dum-tssh). I owe this comedic inheritance largely to one man: Danny Kaye.

My first lesson in comedy (other than the singing orange on Sesame Street) was Kaye’s performance as the clown to Bing Crosby’s Mr. Cool in White Christmas. About five years later, shortly after my family had moved to Maryland, my dad brought home a copy of The Court Jester (1955). He promised that it was the perfect film to watch during the Thanksgiving Break, as there was plenty of “turkey” to go around; thus proving that my parents were not entirely blameless in the creation of my silly sensibilities. As summarized on its IMDd page: “A hapless carnival performer masquerades as the court jester as part of a plot against an evil ruler who has overthrown the rightful king.”

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In Sleep He Sang to Me… || The Phantom of the Opera (1943)

It was summer in Cheyenne, and I was bored. There was nothing on TV; I was too old for Sesame Street, and too young for Maury. My focus wandered from the black-screen to the glass-fronted case containing my parents’ vinyl records. I had enjoyed looking at their cover art in the past, so I army-crawled across the living room and started flipping through the cardboard sleeves; Michael Jackson in a glowing white suit, the rock-and-roll-fueled-fantasies of Meat Loaf, and then a title rendered in letters of shattered glass: The Phantom of the Opera. I had heard (although I couldn’t tell you where or from whom) that this was supposed to be “a good musical.” I put the first record on the turntable and listened. I put on the second record and listened. Then I listened to both of them again.

My mother smiled, and said Dad would enjoy hearing, when he got home from work, how I had done something “so cultural.” What she had yet to realize, however, was that I was past the Point of No Return. Like Christine Daaé, I was on the other side of the looking glass, spellbound by this strange masked-man. During our next visit to the public library, I rifled through the card-catalogue in search of everything they had, including a VHS of Universal Studios’ 1943 film. As summarized on the movie’s IMDb page: “a disfigured violinist haunts the Paris Opera House.”

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Panache || Cyrano de Bergerac (1950)

“The course of true love never did run smooth,” or so Shakespeare tells us. In fact, I am one for whom the course of any type of love tends to be shot through with a few rapids. In general, love is a tricky thing, because life is more complicated when other people get involved. There are also many unknowns in love; things that seemed certain and solid can suddenly shift into forms more akin to those squiggly lines from Fantasia.

Fairy tales and rom-coms taught me love was something that I would recognize on-sight (more or less). I’d be unable to keep myself from bursting into song (which is suspiciously how I am most of the time), flowers would smell a little sweeter, and so-on. However, on both occasions when I thought I had stumbled upon my “one,” it turns out that, although it quacked like a duck, and waddled like a duck, it was in reality a confused porcupine. It is fitting then, that one of my would-be-someones first shared with me my favorite cinematic version of Cyrano de Bergerac. As summarized on its IMDb page: “The charismatic swordsman-poet helps another woo the woman he loves in this straightforward version of the play.”

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Here’s Lookin’ at You || Casablanca

“Everybody Comes to Rick’s” … At least that is what I assume was written on the invitation.

My first experience with Casablanca was a fancy-dress housewarming party, thrown by my parents after they had finished constructing our new home in Cheyenne, Wyoming. The event took place in our spacious, fully-furnished basement, and neither my sister nor I were invited. It was after our bedtime, but I remember our doorbell ringing, adults strolling in wearing trench coats or elegant gowns. They looked different from the grownups I was used to, many of them having traded their Stetsons for Fedoras. This was because, I later learned, the party was Casablanca-themed (my parent were such nerds). Today, the only momentos of that dreamlike occasion are the movie poster that hangs on Robin’s wall (my Dad, Richard, invited all the guests to sign the back of the frame), and the peacock-blue, bejeweled dress that hung for years thereafter in my mom’s closet.

This was “the start of [my] beautiful friendship” with the quintessential Hollywood flick. As summarized on its IMDb page: “A cynical nightclub owner protects an old flame and her husband from Nazis in Morocco.”

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Comedy, in the Conservatory, with the Candlestick || Clue

In the days before streaming, good ol’ fashioned channel surfing exposed the kid sis and me to a variety of movies (some good, many mediocre, and a few really terrible ones starring Steven Seagal). We first saw the second half of Clue (1985) on Comedy Central one evening while I was babysitting. The lack of parents in the immediate vicinity probably explained how we got away with watching the flick, and although a few jokes whizzed over our tender, young heads, the slapstick and sight gags kept us glued to the couch, even during commercial breaks.

We were also huge murder mystery buffs, having devoured Conan Doyle and Christie throughout middle school, and we regularly teased our brains playing (and sometimes cheating at) the eponymous board game. After our initial truncated viewing, during which we sobbed with laughter, we wanted more. Fortunately, Comedy Central had a repeat showing, enabling us to see the entire film the next day. And it was So. Much. Fun. As summarized on its IMDb page: “Six guests are invited to a strange house and must cooperate with the staff to solve a murder mystery.”

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“The Force Will Be With You. Always.” || A New Hope

There was really no other movie I could have written about this week. What can I say about Star Wars? That it’s the movie(s) I most associate with my father? That John Williams’ soaring, celestial score is practically imprinted on my genes? Or perhaps I should admit how, even if I wrote 100 posts on this film, I would still not be able to say all that I want to about that galaxy far, far away…

If I’m being honest, I can’t recall the first time I watched Star Wars with my father. It was just always THERE. Every Christmas, Birthday, and Father’s Day, Dad would inevitably receive a Darth Vader-themed present from my sister and I. He had shelves full of mugs, figures, books, and novelty-items (a lightsaber pen, for example) featuring the Dark Lord. The reason why Star Wars had always been with us, my mom later explained, was because it had always been Dad’s “thing.”

I joke that without Star Wars, I wouldn’t exist. When it debuted in 1977, mom and dad went to the theatre for their first official (solo) date. This went well, so they had another, and another, until finally they had me (there was some other stuff that happened in between). Long after a farm boy, a princess, and a scoundrel first traversed the galaxy, the Force remained strong in my family. And it continues to, even though my father is no longer with us on this particular blue planet. As I near the fourth anniversary of his passing, it only feels right to share my thoughts on Star Wars Episode IV: A New Hope. As summarized on its IMDb page: “Luke Skywalker joins forces with a Jedi Knight, a cocky pilot, a Wookiee and two droids to save the galaxy from the Empire’s world-destroying battle-station, while also attempting to rescue Princess Leia from the evil Darth Vader.”

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Buckle and Swash || Scaramouche

Around the time that I turned 10, I was on a quixotic quest: finding a sport in which I did not feel like a clumsy giraffe. My height was well-suited for basketball and volleyball, but I never took to them. Mastery of the games’ mechanics was beyond my elementary-school patience and, being of a capricious nature, I abandoned these athletic pursuits for artistic ones. It was not until my freshman year of college when the desire to do something physical once more reared its head. Why? Because I was presented with the opportunity to do something of which I, as a child who loved swash-buckling, had longed dreamed: Fencing.

As I learned the basics of swordplay, I began to see myself less as a graceless stork, and more as a nimble combatant, whose height gave her a greater reach and deeper lunge than her opponents. My instructors were patient as they led us through our drills, but when I clashed with them during practice matches, they did not hold back (actually I’m sure they did, it just REALLY did not feel like it). They would spring forward with disarming (pun intended) speed, and always five moves ahead of their students. At the end of my first year, I felt like a Jedi padawan, with much to learn, but with a new-found confidence in myself that would serve me well as I began adult-ing.

Inspired by my enthusiastic reports, my father found a fencing salon back east, and he and I would spar with each other during breaks. I remember one occasion where the snow blanketed our yard, gleaming as white as our fencing uniforms, our breath visible as it puffed out from the mesh of our masks. Thanks to my father, who had first shown me classic movies like Scaramouche (1952), movies that kick-started my imagination and a desire for thrilling heroics, I had found a zeal for swordplay that eventually overwhelmed my reluctance towards physical recreation.

As summarized on the film’s IMDb page: “In France during the late 18th Century, a man sets out to avenge the death of his friend at the hands of a master swordsman.”

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“Murder is my favorite crime” || Laura

Some films are like coming home; this home sits at the end of a dark, dank alley.

We know the characters so well, they become family; this family is host to a killer.

And the script is imprinted upon our memory until the dialogue drips from our lips without thought, for indeed, they have become our own thoughts.

One of these films for me is Laura (1944). Like the eponymous heroine, this elegantly crafted Film Noir leaves an indelible impression with every viewing. As summarized on its IMDb page: “A police detective falls in love with the woman whose murder he is investigating.”

Directed by one of the “Old Hollywood” greats, Otto Preminger, Laura is a classic ‘whodunit’? A beautiful dame has been killed, a gumshoe-with-gumption starts asking questions, skeletons rattle in their proverbial closets, and then the first act ends, and nothing is what it seemed.

Remember, spoilers are tagged in blue.

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