Rupert Pupkin Speaks: Favorite Underrated Dramas - Jim Healy ""

Thursday, June 27, 2013

Favorite Underrated Dramas - Jim Healy

Jim Healy is Director of Programming at the Cinematheque at the University of Wisconsin, Madison, as well as Director of Programming of the Wisconsin Film Festival. From 2001-2010, he was Assistant Curator, Exhibitions in the Motion Picture Department at George Eastman House in Rochester, NY. Prior to that, he was a Film Programmer for the Chicago International Film Festival. Jim is also currently the American Programming Correspondent for the Torino Film Festival in Turin, Italy.
UW Cinematheque is on Twitter here:
https://twitter.com/uwcinematheque

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I’m not even sure that “drama” is a genre. When Blockbuster Video was still around, their shelves marked “Drama” were the places where you found all of the movies that weren’t westerns, comedies, horror or action movies. So, this is a list of movies that would probably end up on those “Drama” shelves at Blockbuster, but really, they’re just films that move me and are told in exciting styles. They’re also movies that should be better known.


CHILD OF DIVORCE (1946, Richard Fleischer). This was the frequently underestimated Fleischer’s first feature film, made for Sid Rogell’s low-budget unit at RKO. At 63 minutes, it’s a breathlessly efficient and heartbreaking portrait of two selfish parents (Regis Toomey & Madge Meredith) and the emotional pain they inflict on their daughter (9-year old Sharyn Moffett) when the wife’s infidelity leads to divorce. Moffett, who was being groomed by RKO to become the next Shirley Temple or Margaret O’Brien, is quite good and ultimately, her performance is why the film works. The writer and producer is the accomplished Lillie Hayward, and she and Fleischer and Moffett teamed again the following year for another RKO cheapie, BANJO. That one’s not half bad either even though Fleischer writes pretty disparagingly of it in his memoirs. More underrated Fleischer dramas: VIOLENT SATURDAY, ARENA, 10 RILLINGTON PLACE, THE NEW CENTURIONS. I could go on.


HOUSEKEEPING (1987, Bill Forsyth). Forsyth’s moving and extremely faithful adaptation of Marilynne Robinson’s great novel has more than its share of absurd or light moments, but it’s the most melancholic of all the films in Forsyth’s decidedly melancholic oeuvre, so I tend to not think of it as a comedy as I would all of his other offbeat features. The story is set in the Pacific Northwest in the early 1950s, where two orphaned sisters (played by Sara Walker and Andrea Burchill) come under the care of their whimsical, charming, but decidedly unstable aunt Sylvie (the role of a lifetime for Christine Lahti). As Sylvie’s eccentricities and neglectful behavior increase, one of the girls makes a break for normalcy, while the other finds herself drawn more and more into the whirlpool of her aunt’s madness. This is pretty haunting stuff, made all the more effective by Forsyth’s great use of location and attention to detail in the period setting. It got made during a very brief period when David Putnam (who had produced Forsyth’s best known film, LOCAL HERO) was head of production at Columbia Pictures. It barely got released even in Chicago where it received rave reviews from Roger Ebert and Jonathan Rosenbaum. You can buy it now on an MOD and you should. Here’s a great idea: somebody hire Forsyth to adapt one of Robinson’s other novels.


THE PURSUIT OF HAPPINESS (1971, Robert Mulligan) Of all the late 60s/early 70s studio movies that try to capture the Zeitgeist of the counter-cultural movement in the U.S. (GETTING STRAIGHT, THE STRAWBERRY STATEMENT, et al), this one is maybe my second favorite after ZABRISKIE POINT. A disillusioned university student from a wealthy family (Michael Sarrazin) accidentally hits a pedestrian on the streets of New York on a rainy night and he finds that his social position cannot entirely extricate him from a jail sentence. What he also discovers is that prison is not entirely different from life on the outside, which leads him to a final and surprising act of defiance. Never heavy-handed and beautifully acted (the cast also includes E.G. Marshall, Barbara Hershey, William Devane and a memorable Arthur Hill), this is a genuinely offbeat and unpredictable movie about a society on the verge of a nervous breakdown. Mulligan was on a roll when he made this one, having come off the excellent western THE STALKING MOON and just about to make three more excellent 70s movies (THE OTHER, SUMMER OF ’42 and THE NICKEL RIDE). Sony inexplicably issued this as one of their “Martini Movies” on DVD a few years ago. Whatever. I’m glad it’s available.


THE MIND READER (1933, Roy Del Ruth) This might be my favorite of all Warner Bros. pre-code movies, and that’s saying a lot. As such, it has quite a bit of humor and is told in the typically breakneck WB house style, so it frequently feels like a thriller, but the situation is primarily serious, so I guess it could be considered a “drama.” The brilliant, fast-talking Warren William has the greatest of all his morally ambiguous leading roles as the title character, a carny huckster who falls in love and goes straight for a while, but then falls back into his con artist ways. You’re right if you think this sounds like NIGHTMARE ALLEY and if you’re a fan of that one, you’re gonna love this one too. That wonderful and ubiquitous WB character actor, Allen Jenkins, delivers the marvelous last line.

Also worthy of more attention:


TESTAMENT (1983, Lynne Littman)
THERE’S ALWAYS TOMORROW (1956, Douglas Sirk)
LILY TURNER (1933, William Wellman)
REMEMBER MY NAME (1978, Alan Rudolph)
I WALK THE LINE (1970, John Frankenheimer)
LADYBUG, LADYBUG (1963, Frank Perry)
THE COBWEB (1955, Vincente Minnelli)
WELCOME HOME SOLDIER BOYS (1971, Richard Compton)
KING OF THE HILL (1993, Steven Soderbergh)

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