WISDOM UNDER THE MARQUEE
Near the end of Amor Towles’ best selling novel A Gentleman in Moscow it becomes obvious the author has gone to great lengths and used his considerable talents to allow one of his characters to say, “Gather up the usual suspects.” This iconic line from the classic 1943 movie Casablanca, which captures the corruption and cynicism of people trapped in war, started me thinking about why lines from movies have stayed in my mind.
One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest released in 1975 remains my favorite movie. While there are many memorable moments in this biting satire of life in a psychiatric ward, based upon the Ken Kesey novel, the scene where Jack Nicholson’s character, Randle Patrick McMurphy, offers a stick of gum to the silent Chief as they are waiting for their electroshock treatments resonates the most to me.
“Mmm, Juicy Fruit.” intones the heretofore mute Chief much to McMurphy’s surprise and delight. As McMurphy extols, Chief fooled them, he fooled them all. This appeals to my sense of putting something over on everyone who is oppressing you. Chief had been making a statement by not making a sound.
One of the main conceits in Steve Martin’s witty 1991 movie, L.A. Story is an electronic freeway traffic sign which mystically begins giving life and love advice to Martin’s character, Los Angeles television weatherman Harris K. Telemaker. After dispensing life changing riddles and prods to Telemaker throughout this delightful romp, when love conquers all the sign sparks out one final observation before returning to the mundane task of traffic control, “What I Really Want To Do Is Direct.” The perfect bon mot in a film which skewers the pretentiousness of life in the Los Angeles bubble of mini-celebrity. It also, contradictorily, expresses the universal desire to do something else, something glamorous with our lives.
When femme fatale Magenta gives the newly minted Rocky a lukewarm review of
“He’s ok.” in the 1976 cult hit The Rocky Horror Picture Show, Rocky’s creator Dr. Frank N. Furter, played to ludicrous perfection by Tim Curry, snarls his response, “I didn’t make him for you. (Pause) I made him for me!” This perfectly phrased rejoinder shows that even a mad scientist from Transylvania can bristle at criticism of their life’s work. Sometimes you just have do things to please yourself.
1964’s Dr. Strangelove or: How I learned To Stop Worrying And To Love The Bomb showcases Peter Sellers’ acting skills as he plays three wildly disparate characters. However, it is Sterling Hayden’s portrait of deranged General Jack D. Ripper which stays with me to this day. After erroneously releasing war planes armed with nuclear bombs towards Russia, General Ripper rants to one of Sellers’ characters, “Fluoridation is the most monstrously conceived and dangerous plots we have ever had to face.” It only gets more bizarre from here in this send up of cold war paranoia and the insanity which can reside in people placed in powerful positions.
Reviewing my above choices of movies I seem to have gone to great lengths and used my modest talents to describe films about; mental illness, accidental nuclear war, transvestite chicanery and lives filled with vanity. To lighten my screed I’ll conclude by retrieving the earliest verbal movie memory I still retain.
Walt Disney’s 1946 release of the part animation, part actors film Song of the South was not without controversy. Some viewers and critics saw the movie as condoning the subjugation of blacks, but, the lead black actors in the project disagreed. What the toddler boy I was then came out of the theater with was the catchy, upbeat refrain from a song, “Zippa-dee doo da zippy dee day plenty of sunshine heading my way.” sung by James Baskett. Our current time in history warrants a tenacious, stubborn clinging to such optimism in the face of potentially grave adversity. We must still pursue “wonderful days”.
Six very diverse movies and I can’t say for certain why these particular lines still resonate with me. Perhaps that is just part of the magic of movies.
For now, I’m heading to an afternoon matinee at the Avon. That will “Make my day!”
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