Tuesday, August 24, 2010

Our Vines Have Tender Grapes

Our Vines Have Tender GrapesImage via Wikipedia
To the best of my mother's memory, Our Vines Have Tender Grapes was the first movie I ever watched.  I was four years old.  To this day it is one of my favorites, and I believe that this movie is so good that it may be the best film that was ever made.  

I really mean it, so I'll say it again.  Our Vines Have Tender Grapes may be the best film that was ever made.  

I use the word "may" because I recognize that no consensus has ever been or will ever be reached on any matter of this sort, but I believe that the people who have seen the movie (not many) would be able to agree on its greatness.  It is truly remarkable.

Imagine, if you will, a step away from the computer generated effects, a pause from the deep rumbling of sound effects, a break from fantasy and imagination and busyness and clatter.  What would it be like to view a film that very simply, beautifully, peacefully, enchantingly, but realistically told a story? What if that story were about characters so genuine, so human, and so sympathetic that you could relate to them better than to your neighbors?  And if that story packed a punch so strong that it took you by the collar and held your rapt attention in its commanding grip for a full 105 minutes, at four years old?... That film would be Our Vines Have Tender Grapes

Why?  Because this film is the definitive masterpiece of filmmaking at its finest.  Filmmaking, at its essence, is the art of telling stories; it is the simple act of committing to a reel of film (digitally these days) a story. Storytelling is the art of telling a story, and "story" has been defined as "a narrative, either true or fictitious, in prose or verse, designed to interest, amuse, or instruct the hearer or reader; tale."  I can't think of any story that has been more successful at interesting, amusing, and instructing the viewer than this film.  It is the triple threat of filmmaking. And the key to its greatness is simply this: its moral instruction.  

Edward G. Robinson with
"daughter"Margaret O'Brien and
"nephew" Jackie"Butch" Jenkins
Most movies express some kind of moral.  Sometimes they are obvious, sometimes you have extrapolate them, and some movies are so stupid they don't have one at all (and in those cases the moral of the story is found in the act of watching it). Our Vines Have Tender Grapes does not have a moral; it is a series of moral lessons, from start to finish.  Subtly, gem after moral gem shimmers and gleams, then fades, through the dialogue and action of the story.  

The beautiful and morally exceptional thing about this is that it is up to you, the viewer, to grasp them. You are not being hit over the head with them; there are no significant pauses or "looks exchanged."  The act of moral instruction is only valuable when the one being instructed is an active participant in gleaning the teachings, and if you are engaged while watching this movie, you will be surprised how much is packed into it. 

"A wise man will hear, and will increase learning; and a man of understanding shall attain unto wise counsels." - Proverbs 1:5

Incomparable acting, pretty scenery, entertaining and comedic moments, timeless lessons and truths.  Our Vines Have Tender Grapes.

The Basics
Directed by Roy Rowland and based on the novel by George Victor Martin (many, many thanks go to him), this 1945 release stars Edward G. Robinson (famous for his gangster roles but unmatched in this tender performance), Margaret O'Brien (the world's best child star), Agnes Moorehead (later Endora of Bewitched), Jackie "Butch" Jenkins (the typical boy), James Craig, and Francis Gifford.  Produced by MGM in black and white at 105 minutes running time. 

The Plot
Martinius and Bruna Jacobson (Robinson and Moorehead) are raising their daughter, Selma (O'Brien) in the Norwegian community of rural Wisconsin.  She and her cousin, Arnold (Jenkins), learn life's lessons and share life's joys throughout the summer, fall, winter, and spring of 1944-1945 in the small town of Benson Junction.  

Martinius and Selma spend quality time
together over a game of checkers.
Martinius, a farmer, day dreams of a new barn over his evening pipe. Bruna, the gentle housewife with a spirit of iron, wants to see her husband happy, but fears that the stress of constructing a new bar, and the debt it would incur, would be too burdensome for him.

Arnold is too young for school and is lost when his principal playmate and cousin, Selma, begins the first grade. 

The editor of the local paper sees it as his duty to enlist.  A young school teacher from the big city learns to love the virtues of the small town.

The community learns the meaning of true generosity and pours out blessings on an unfortunate neighbor.  And it is all to do with Selma, the little girl with a heart of gold and a stubborn streak who learns wisdom from her pa and increases in understanding under his guidance. 

It is a sight to behold.

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Wednesday, August 11, 2010

Poll Results

President Dwight D. Eisenhower.Image via Wikipedia
My last poll, asking you what your favorite movie genre is, concluded with a tie between Adventure/Thriller and "I can't decide."  More of you need to make those tough decisions! Just kidding, I had trouble myself.  

Bad news: if you missed that poll, it's too late to vote in it.

Good news: there is a new one now! Take it in the left sidebar!
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The Tin Star

Cropped screenshot from the Trailer The Tin St...Image via Wikipedia
I recently realized that of all the major film genres out there, "Western" is just about the only one that has not been featured on Reel Revival yet.  My husband and I decided to correct that by watching The Tin Star, a Western that I remembered as being very good (and the one closest to the top of the heap in the video bins).  We were not disappointed. 

Let's get right down to basics...
Filmed in 1957 and directed by Anthony Mann (Spartacus, The Naked Spur, The Man From Laramie, among many others), The Tin Star stars (haha) a 52 year old Henry Fonda and a 25 year old Anthony Perkins in only his fourth significant film role.  Lee Van Cleef is also featured as one of the bad guys.   The Tin Star was nominated for a Best Writing Oscar and was filmed out of Paramount Studios at a running time of 93 minutes.  

The Plot
Morgan Hickman (Fonda), a bounty hunter, rides into town to turn in the body of a wanted outlaw and collect his reward.  He is not welcome in town, but he won't leave until he gets what is coming to him.  The man in charge of reimbursing him is Ben Owens (Perkins), the young sheriff who has a good heart but is woefully unprepared for his dangerous job.  Case in point below.

Hickman has to spend a day or so in this town, which is troubled by bullies who push the young sheriff around and self-righteous town leaders who have him under their thumb. In the time that Hickman spends there his life undergoes remarkable changes as he forges relationships with the most unlikely people: a "half breed" boy and his mother, town outcasts, and the young sheriff himself, who is tired of being walked on.  

The result of those relationships also changes that dusty town for good.  

The Highs
  • This film, like many of the great Westerns, was filmed in black and white. There is a beautiful, dusty quality to the film here that can't be found in those done in Technicolor.  
  • We get some very good performances out of the actors here, particularly Henry Fonda, who teases the depth of character and emotion out of the Hickman character.  At this point in his career, Fonda was not interested in doing more Westerns - he was 52 and felt that  his Western days were over - but he ended up accepting the role because he saw the potential for expression in the character. 
  • Suspense.  This film is not cliche.  Even if you feel yourself able to predict what will happen next most of the time, the staging and acting will make you a little nervous.  There are some perilous twists and turns that had me wincing.  
  • Relationships.  This film isn't about gunfights and stand-downs, though there are plenty of them; it is about people.  The human interest of the film comes through those black and whites colorfully (haha).  
The Lows
  • Physically, Fonda does not fit his character to a T.  His characteristic droopiness about the shoulders and back amplified as he aged, and at times he doesn't look straight and strong enough to be a world-wise'nd bounty hunter.  And he doesn't really swing his arms when he walks, which makes his gait a bit amusing.  But these are merely technicalities. 
  • I can't think of anything else to say to this effect. 
The Tin Star is not among the most frequently mentioned or well known Westerns, and I think that is because it has been overlooked.  It is a quiet film but it packs a punch, and it is well worth the 93 minutes it runs.  

Find the Film
Check your local library.  Netflix carries it and Amazon has it for only $6.55.
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