"Casablanca" (1942), probably the best known of all vintage movies, is a perfect choice for Valentine's Day. But for the many readers who know that film inside out, allow me to suggest some lesser-known gems that will brighten your holiday.
"The Voice of the Turtle" (1947): Our only entry that, alas, is not available on video, offers the most interest to Claremont readers. "The Voice of the Turtle" features one of Ronald Reagan's two most notable movie performancesthe other is, of course, the better known "Kings Row" (1942). In both films, Reagan displays the same natural, easygoing charm that we remember so fondly from his presidential years.
Reagan plays Sergeant Bill Page, who is visiting wartime New York on a weekend pass and thinks he has a date with the hard-edged, man-hopping Olive (Eve Arden). But she stands him up for a Navy commander, which leaves him in the hands of Olive's friend, Sally Middleton (Eleanor Parker). Sally is the opposite of Olive: a young, aspiring actress, endearingly innocent and daffy, she has forsworn men and love after breaking up with a theater producerand an older man. (Miss Parker, who is probably best known as the countess in "The Sound of Music" , is possibly the most under-rated and highly accomplished actress of the '40s and '50s.) Because of the wartime hotel shortage, Bill has no place to bunk for the night, so he winds up on Sally's living-room sofa...for the entire weekend! And they do have to occupy themselves after all, even if Bill is still after Olive and Sally just isn't interestedso there they are dining at Sally's and the producer's favorite romantic French restaurant, and at their special table, no less!
Needless to say, readers will know what happens in this truly sweet, very charming little movie. It is worth noting that, due to the Production Code, nothing ungentlemanly ever happens as the unlikely pair fall in loveand that is precisely what lends poignancy to their blossoming relationship. Perhaps the most memorable scene comes near the end, when Sally has an audition with a prominent, older actor who is known for his way with young actresses. We see Bill pacing alone through Central Park, very anxious indeedthis scene, with beautiful understatement, dramatizes his deep affection for Sally. Not to worry, though: the film ends with Sally and Bill, now having confessed their mutual love, back in her apartment, holding hands over milk and cookies, as Max Steiner's light score chirps its charming coda.
"The Voice of the Turtle" (as well as most of the other selections here) can be seen on Turner Classic Movies under its television title, "One for the Book." The title comes from the Song of Solomon, Chapter 2: "Rise up, my love, my fair one, and come away. For, lo, the winter is past, the rain is over and gone; The flowers appear on the earth; the time of the singing of birds is come, and the voice of the turtle is heard in our land." (The turtle is the turtle dove.)
"The Clock" (1945): Here's another movie set in romantic wartime New York, when couples could stroll in Central Park at night and not worry about boarding the wrong subway train.
The clock is the landmark of the late, great Astor Hotel in Times Square, under which Alice the secretary (Judy Garland in her first straight dramatic role), agrees to rendezvous with another soldier on a two-day pass, a country boy named Corporal Joe Allen (Robert Walker). The couple had met in Pennsylvania Station when her high heel tripped over his leg. Alice is wary about going out with a strange man, but, after all, he is a serviceman in wartime and all she has agreed to do is to show him the sites.
The film was directed by the great Vincente Minnelli, who had lived and worked in the New York theater world for many years before Hollywood beckoned him. His love for the city is what makes this story stand out. New York City is really the third star of the moviethe couple becoming separated on the subway platform; (another) charming little French restaurant; the romantic backdrop of Central Park at night when they declare their love for one other; the milkman with whom they find themselves making his early morning deliveries through the cavernous streets; and the awful, depressing license and marriage bureau, where they are wed by hard-bitten bureaucrats, then suffer through their wedding dinner at the automat.
This sets up a masterly Minnelli scene, characteristic of his art, as the forlorn, disappointed newlyweds ("It was sooo ugly," Alice cries) find their way into a church that had just hosted a big wedding service. Here they sit alone, surrounded by empty pews, and together quietly recite the wedding service. Now they have truly experienced the bliss of joining hands as one. Minnelli shoots the scene mainly from a distance, with a singular camera angle; like John Ford and the other masters (of the screen and canvas), Minnelli knew how to use distance to heighten emotion. (One is reminded of the Jan Vermeer painting "Lady At Virginal with Gentleman (The Music Lesson)" [1662-64]: in the rear of the frame, at the end of a long parquet floor, we see the girl seated at the musical instrument as the gentleman, standing beside, looks down on herthe distance creates a tension that conveys the silent communion of the lovers. This is one example of many how the greatest motion picture directors applied time-honored principles of Western art in a popular medium.)
The same restraint is applied to the newlyweds' first night togetherin the morning-after breakfast scene. In their bathrobes, the actors convey all that is necessary, making the scene more vivid by leaving the details to our imagination. Compare this civilized sensibility with our own time, as exemplified recently in the film "Cold Mountain"interestingly, New York Times critic A.O. Scott invoked the old Production Code in bemoaning the explicit love scene of the hero and heroine when they are rejoined after their three-year Civil War separation. It actually ruins the entire emotional climax that the movie has been building toward for two hours.
Another memorable scene in "The Clock" is the wartime railway station departure. As in another classic railway departure scene, in "Since You Went Away" (1943), Minnelli's camera takes us past a number of different ethnic families bidding their good-byes to men headed off to warincluding a black family. Such scenes reflected the new, more tolerant, inclusive attitudes that were inspired by the war, and foreshadowed the path-breaking movies of the later '40s, especially "Gentleman's Agreement" (1947), "Crossfire" (1947), "Pinky" (1949) and "Home of the Brave" (1949). (See "Elia Kazan: America's Greatest Living Director.")
"Love Affair" (1939): The next three recommendations require a box of kleenex, as they are three of the top soap operas of all time. But they employ the conventions of the genre with such sincerity and professionalism that they still move us with some genuine, lofty emotions about love and life. Today, lofty emotions seem to bring embarrassment to many.
"Love Affair" was so popular it was remade twice: as "An Affair to Remember" (1957), with Cary Grant and Deborah Kerr, and "Love Affair" (1994), with Warren Beatty, Annette Bening, and Katharine Hepburn in her swan song. It also inspired "Sleepless in Seattle" (1993), in which the heroine (Meg Ryan) is seen watching "An Affair to Remember" on television before she meets her ideal, Tom Hanks.
In the original, Terry McKay (Irene Dunne) finds herself on an ocean liner en route to meet her fiancé. She meets international playboy Michel Marnet (Charles Boyer) who also is engaged. The most notable scene in the film is their visit together to Michel's Grandmother Janou (Maria Ouspenskaya) at her hilltop home looking down on one of the Spanish islands in the Atlantic, which they are visiting during a pause in the voyage. They find her in her private chapel, praying; director Leo McCarey infuses this entire sequence with a spirituality and preciousness that glows from behind the dialogue, and which becomes the source of the blessed bond that now joins Terry and Michel. McCarey, a devout Catholic, had a special ability to dramatize the religious spirit on the screen: Note how the quiet, isolated setting of the chapel contrasts with the shipboard and urban bustle of the rest of the film. Five years later, McCarey directed the much-loved best picture of 1944, "Going My Way," with Bing Crosby as the model priest, Father McNally. (McCarey, who also wrote "Love Affair," loved it so much he directed the remake, "An Affair to Remember," two decades later.)
On their arrival in New York, Terry and Michel decide not to see each other for six months, when they will rendezvous atop the Empire State Building (the point in the city closest to Heaven, they agree). In the interval they can get their lives in order and test their devotion: this will let them be certain about their future together. Such self-abnegation would of course be incomprehensible to a contemporary audience. Of course, fate intervenes. Will their love conquer in the end? Watch the movie and you see for yourself.
"Now, Voyager" (1942): Produced at Warner Brothers the same year as "Casablanca," "Now, Voyager" almost matches the Bogart-Bergman movie in the over-the-top melodrama that was one of the studio's specialties. Its kitsch is baked so elegantly and served up with such professionalism and panache that, like "Casablanca" and so many other gems of the period, it captures our hearts unreservedly. Charlotte Vale (Bette Davis in one of her most renowned roles) is a plain Jane spinster who was driven into a mental institution by her repressive Boston Brahmin mother (Gladys Cooper). There she has been tenderly treated by the kindly Dr. Jaquith (the great Claude Rains), who encourages her to assert and discover herself by going out into the worldhence the title, from Whitman's Leaves of Grass: "The Untold Want/By Life and Land Ne'er Granted/Now, Voyager/Sail Thou Forth to Seek and Find."
On a cruise to Rio, she meets the unhappily married Jerry Durrance (Paul Henried, the Victor Laszlo of "Casablanca"). They have an innocent romance. Jerry's wife won't give him a divorce and she is mean towards their little girl, Tina, who finds herself placed in the same institution where Charlotte had been treated. Not knowing who is the girl's father, Charlotte, on a visit to the place, befriends Tina, with whose problems she can certainly empathize. Charlotte becomes almost like her surrogate mother and helps Tina to become transformed, as Dr. Jaquith had helped to transform her.
Well, Charlotte learns Jerry is Tina's father and there they area family in their mutual love, even though it can never be consummated. The final scene is among the most famous in all Hollywood annals: Standing at the open long window, Jerry wants to go away permanently with Tina so that Charlotte can find another man with whom she can enjoy a normal, happy life. But Charlotte will have none of this; she has already found the ultimate bliss with Tina and Jerry as they are; she and Jerry recognize they will have to remain friends only, and channel their feelings into their love for the child. (Here is one movie that could never, ever be remade today.) Whereupon Jerry chivalrously lights two cigarettes in his lips, removes one and gives it to Charlotte and, as Max Steiner's immortal love theme sings out its impassioned tune and the camera turns upward, toward the night sky, Charlotte says: "Oh, Jerry, don't let's ask for the moon. We have the stars."
"Penny Serenade" (1941): Julie (Irene Dunne) likes records. She tenderly places one on the victrola, playing her favorite song, as the camera takes us through the spinning label back into Julie's lifeher life with Roger (Cary Grant) and their frequent struggle to attain just the simple blessings of children, a decent home, security and domestic happiness.
Julie meets Roger in a record shop, where she is a salesgirlhence the plot device of the record. Director George Stevens and screenwriter Morrie Ryskind take us back through the central episodes of their life: Roger's sudden proposal to her on the fire escape at a New Year's Eve party amidst the revelry of their friends, as the falling snow decorates the scene and the clock strikes midnight. Later: the loss of their baby to a miscarriage. Their subsequent adoption of a baby. The insecurities resulting from Roger's hard road owning a small town newspaper, and how it threatens their marriage. All their heartbreaks along the way.
Even by the sentimental standards of the Hollywood of the time, George Stevens ("Alice Adams" , one of Katharine Hepburn's best roles; "Gunga Din" , one of the greatest adventure movies; "I Remember Mama" ; "Shane" , "The Diary of Anne Frank" ) was a very romantic director. But there is a big difference between sentimentality and true sentiment, as the great director George Cukor once noted. In this and his other films, Stevens dramatizes honestly and richly the true sentiment of quotidian life, the conventional and the commonplacethe qualities that were celebrated by so many great movies in the Golden Age of the '30s, '40s, and '50s.
The two most memorable scenes in "Penny Serenade" are Julie and Roger's nervous and clumsy attempt to give baby Trina her first bath, only to be instructed in the proper delicate way by their gruff older friend, Uncle Applejack (Edgar Buchanan). Stevens directed some of the longest takes in Hollywood, and he lingers most lovingly over this extended scene. The second is Roger's plea to a judge to allow him and Julie to keep Trina after he has lost his job; Cary Grant, best known as the dapper, light-hearted hero, rivets us with his impassioned, tearful plea in this, by far the greatest scene of his magnificent career. (He was nominated for the best actor Academy Award, losing to Gary Cooper in "Sergeant York.")
"Marty" (1955): Readers won't need their hankies for this one. Marty (Ernest Borgnine) is an unattractive, thirty-something Bronx butcher who lives at home with his first-generation Italian mother and has given up on finding Miss Right. "Whatever it is women like, I ain't got it," he insists. He is cheerful with his customers by day and mopes by night with his no-account friends, who ritually call out every time they meet, "Whatta ya doin' tonight, Marty?"
One evening he is persuaded, against his better judgment, to go with his friend Angie to a mixer, held in a large dance hall; this being before the Sixties, the men are dressed in jackets and ties, the women wear dresses, and they dance arm-in-arm. By chance he meets a homely schoolteacher named Clara (Betsy Blair), who had come with a girlfriend but has just been cruelly dropped by the blind date that had been arranged for her. Marty, a good-hearted guy, doesn't like seeing anyone hurt and tries to cheer her up.
Marty and Clara prove to have quite a good deal in common. They talk all nightat the dance hall, in a restaurant, walking in the street, even in his apartment, before he escorts her home to Brooklyn.
The film is as simple as that against the objections of Marty's relatives, including his possessive mother, the pair quickly fall in love. Tenderly written by Paddy Chayefsky (who later wrote "Network" ) and adapted from his original television script, this modest movie was the big Academy Award winner of 1955best picture, best actor, best director (Daniel Mann) and best screenplay. There is no greater example of the paramount importance of honest characters, superbly realized, and a simple, truthful story. Seen today, the film is also memorable for the ambience of the urban ethnic neighborhoodsthe small family shops (Marty is worried about the competition from the new supermarket), the neighborhood bar and gathering place, the people out on the streets at night, running into friends. Filmed on the streets of New York, "Marty" is something of a time capsule of urban life in the '50s.
Finally, space allows only a mention of the greatest of all musical love themes: David Raksin's famous score for "Laura" (1944): A hard-bitten New York detective (Dana Andrews) falls in love with the portrait of the beautiful woman (Gene Tierney) whose murder he is investigating.
And, if you prefer having a good laugh, comedies suitable for the holiday include: "It Happened One Night" (1934); "Hands Across the Table" (1935); "The Awful Truth" (1937); and "The Shop Around the Corner" (1940).
Readers may have their own Valentine's Day favorites, which we'd be happy to share if you send them in.