Category Archives: Watching movies

My Favorite Ghost Stories

There are more things in heaven and earth, Horatio,
Than are dreamt of in your philosophy.
Hamlet (Act I, Scene v, Line 918)

I was at a writers conference this past weekend (Love is Murder in Chicago) and, on the first night, they had guest speakers from a paranormal investigative team. An extremely interesting topic with great examples of EVPs (Electronic voice phenomena), but the presentation itself was a little dull.

I believe in ghosts. There, I said it. Whether you agree or not is not important. I’ve never actually experienced a paranormal event, but I love ghost stories and when you hear stories of ghosts, there are things that just can’t be easily explained away.

And all that got me thinking about some of my favorite films that feature ghosts. I’m not a particular fan of horror-ish ghost stories. I prefer my ghosts to be more genteel and/or romantic and/or just plain funny.

In no particular order of importance, here are some of my favorites:

The Univited (1944) – Brother and sister Roderick and Pamela Fitzgerald (Ray Milland and Ruth Hussey) purchase a beautiful seaside home on the Devonshire coast, and the purchase cost is well below market value. I love the fact that we never see the ghost, but hear her sobs and her presence is always known by the aroma of mimosa. The home holds dark secrets but the film has a few lighter moments, too. And a bit of a surprise ending!

Topper (1937) – Cary Grant and Constance Bennett play George and Marion Kirby, a rich and carefree couple, who are killed when their car careens into a tree. They decide they need to do a good deed in order to get into Heaven and set their sights on helping the staid Cosmo Topper (Roland Young), the president of the bank on whose Board George was a director. They set out to infuse a little spontaneity and, well, “life” into his life.

The Canterville Ghost (1944) – Charles Laughton is the cowardly Sir Simon de Canterville who, in 1634, fled rather than fight a duel. Simon forever haunts the castle halls until a descendent can prove themself in combat. He hasn’t had much luck until a platoon of American soldiers, including Cuffy Williams (Robert Young), are billeted in the castle. Cuffy is Simon’s great-great-great-etc. nephew and agrees to perform a heroic deed — but can he? Also stars Margaret O’Brien as young Lady Jessica de Canterville.

The Ghost and Mrs. Muir (1947) – you really can’t a better ghostly romance than this film. Widow Lucy Muir (Gene Tierney) and her daughter rent Gull Cottage in Whitecliff. The house, they are warned, is haunted and Lucy does experience ghostly manifestations. But she refuses to be scared off and demands the ghost reveal himself and it is Captain Daniel Gregg (a very debonair Rex Harrison), the cottage’s original owner. At first, they are hostile towards one another, but they develop a mutual respect and admiration for each other.

Heart and Souls (1993) – A 1959 bus accident leaves four souls (Charles Grodin, Alfre Woodard, Kyra Sedgewick, and Tom Sizemore) attached to a young boy born that same night (who grows up to be Robert Downey Jr.). Years later, they discover that their special attachment to this human was intended to help them finish their business here on earth before moving on, but the amount of time they have to complete their tasks is growing short. Humor and pathos mix beautifully in this film.

If you don’t go for horror, what are some of your favorite ghost stories?

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God Bless You, Mr. Scrooge

During the holiday season, I’m positively glued to the television to watch all of the Christmas movies that start somewhere in the middle of November and continue all the way up to Christmas Day. With apologies to the producers, many of these aren’t very good (although that doesn’t stop me from watching them). And I can’t wait until one channel or other finally shows a version of Charles Dickens’ A Christmas Carol – not adaptations like A Diva Christmas Carol or An American Christmas Carol (which are all fine in their own way) – but the REAL Christmas Carol, complete with Ebeneezer Scrooge, the Cratchits, Jacob Marley, and Spirits of Christmas – Past, Present and Christmases Yet to Come.

I’ve seen nearly every version ever filmed and can quote much of the dialog from memory. So consider yourself warned if you ever watch them with me.

I’m always fascinated how each actor interprets the role of Scrooge. Scrooge is a crotchety old man, that’s for sure, but as we go through his past with him, we see a little more of how he came to be the way he is. Whether it’s Reginald Owen (1938), Alastair Sim (1951), Patrick Stewart (1999 – and I even had the pleasure of seeing his one-man stage show as well – twice!) or even an animated Mr. Magoo (1962, with wonderful music by Jule Styne) or Jim Carrey (2009) to name just a few, we go along for the ride and we rejoice when Scrooge comes to realization that he has an opportunity to benefit mankind or just his own little corner of the world.

All of these performances are good but, for me, the absolute best redemption scene belongs to Alastair Sim. Once he awakens and knows he has not missed Christmas, he bounces around his bedroom, not quite knowing what he should do first. You can tell that the man is not accustomed to smiling and you can almost see his muscles crack from the strain of years of constant scowling.

But as most movie fans can probably tell you, one of the great film flubs also occurs in Sim’s redemption scene. If you have a chance to see it this holiday season – watch the mirror over Scrooge’s wash basin. As Scrooge deliberates what to do next, you can see a stage hand in the mirror’s reflection. Someone must have alerted him that he’s in the shot and he casually backs away.

Happy holiday viewing to all!

Deserted Island Movie List

As I noted before, my love of movies comes from my mother.  It’s not uncommon for us to have long telephone conversations while watching the same movie.  A few years ago, we started a game:  if you were stuck on a deserted island (and, naturally, had access to electricity or could have the Professor from Gillian’s Island build you something), what 10 films would you want to have with you, i.e., what movies could you watch over and over and over again and never tire of them?

Depending on my mood, my list may vary slightly, but there are five titles I ALWAYS have.  These are, in no particular order of preference:

  • Singin’ in the Rain – a great satire of the advent of sound to motion pictures, and some of the best dancing on screen; it’s not uncommon for me to rewind Moses and watch it once or twice again (which makes up for always fast-forwarding through You Were Meant for Me and some portions of Broadway Melody)
  • Casablanca – just about a perfect film; six – count ‘em 6 – of AFI’s  100 best movie quotes are from Casablanca (see the full AFI list by clicking here)
  • 1776 – I was hooked in 1971 when my dad took the family to see the stage version in Chicago and we nearly wore out the original cast album; I often annoy family no end by reciting lines verbatim
  • Pride and Prejudice – this absolutely must be the Colin Firth version (but if that one weren’t available, the 1940 version with Laurence Olivier would place a VERY close second, even if it’s not exactly accurate to the book)
  • The Life and Adventures of Nicholas Nickleby  – but it has to be the 8½ hour filmed version of the Trevor Nunn’s theatrical extravaganza ; I’ve watched it at least three dozen times (yes, all the way through) and even seen it twice in the theater; like 1776, I know most of this by heart (complete with dialects)

These are the movies that, when on television, I get suckered into watching even though I own them on DVD and (with the exception of Nickleby) are also on my iPad.

Think about it and get back to me. Which movies would YOU list??

Mr. Capra Goes to War

American film director Frank Capra died on this day (September 3) in 1991 at age 94.  There are those who refer to his films as “Capra-corn,” a reference to the fact that his films will often have themes of man’s basic goodness.  But they’re just good films.  I dare you to watch It’s a Wonderful Life and not get just a little teary-eyed when James Stewart decides he wants to live again.

Capra was nominated six times for the Academy Award for Best Director and won three:  It Happened One Night (1934), Mr. Deeds Goes to Town (1936), and You Can’t Take it With You (1938).  Six of his films have been included in the Library of Congress’ National Film Registry:

  • The Strong Man (1926)
  • It Happened One Night (1934)
  • Mr. Smith Goes to Washington (1939)
  • Why We Fight Series of seven films (1942)
  • It’s a Wonderful Life (1946)

But what has always amazed me was his work on his film series, Why We Fight, created during World War II.  I had the opportunity to watch these films in college as part of an Art History class – American Film as Art.

But I need to provide a little background first….. (Okay, I’m a librarian, so this kind of trivia is in my blood.)

Shortly after the Japanese attacked Pearl Harbor on December 7, 1941, Capra – aged 44 – quit Hollywood (and resigned as President of the Screen Directors Guild) to join the US Army.  At that time, the Army’s Signal Corps traditionally created documentaries for the Armed Forces.  But Chief of Staff George Marshall assigned Capra to create films that “will explain to our boys in the Army why we are fighting, and the principles for which we are fighting …” (from his autobiography, Frank Capra, The Name Above the Title: An Autobiography ; Macmillan, 1971).

What was unique about that series is that Capra took EXISTING footage, much of which were confiscated films from Germany and Italy.  All he did was change the narration and you get a TOTALLY different film – many of the shots of Adolf Hitler were taken from Leni Riefenstahl’s Triumph of the Wills.  Added to that, the Walt Disney Company was enlisted to create some of the animations and Capra had some of the best film composers scoring the films, including Alfred Newman and Dimitri Tiomkin.  These were NOT your average Army documentaries.

It’s no wonder these are part of the National Film Registry.  If you’ve never seen these films – at the very least, Prelude to War – you need to high-tail it to your local library.  If they don’t have this series, try to get them through interlibrary loan – it will be worth it.

What’s your favorite Frank Capra film?