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best of the ’60s: LADY and the MAN

1960s musical extravagance possibly reached its height with the two films which serve as the subject for this post — My Fair Lady and The Music Man. One is costumey, over-the-top, jaunty fun, and the other is silly, Iowan, heavily-choreographed fun. Firstly, let’s talk Eliza Doolittle. Thanks to Audrey Hepburn‘s classic Hollywood brilliance, her performance transcends whatever musical goofiness ensues around her, of which there is quite a bit. Sure, it’s jam-packed with great musical numbers (“Wouldn’t it Be Loverly,” “I Could’ve Danced All Night,” and “The Rain in Spain,” to name a few), but it definitely has its downsides — ugh, someone take out Freddy stat. Rex Harrison‘s famous speak-singing is an amusing trifle, to be sure, but was it really more worthy of the acting Oscar than Hepburn’s performance, which was neglected for a nomination entirely? Ah, the great mysteries of the academy’s decisions past. But fighting through the obvious sexism and ignorance in every subtext of the big costume musical, there’s the slightest hint of female empowerment, and I think Maria von Trapp would be proud of her singing sister, Eliza.

Call me crazy (or at the very least biased due to my Midwestern upbringing and my penchant for participating in marching band), but I thoroughly enjoy the film version of Meredith Wilson’s The Music Man every time I see it. I fully understand that it’s not a great cinematic piece of art, but the spectacle of it all it hard to fight. From Shirley Jones‘ fantastic voice in “Goodnight My Someone” to my favorite scene in the movie, “Marian the Librarian” (totally ’60s and totally amusing choreography), a great deal of the movie is nothing to sneeze at. Throw in little Ronny Howard as impedimenty Winthrop, and it’s at the very least worth a view. Now between this and My Fair Lady, it’s a tough call as to which one is the superior film. Though I’d say The Music Man offers more for quality musical numbers (I could’ve done without most of the men’s numbers in My Fair Lady), the 1964 romp offers a stronger story and a more endearing heroine.

best of the ’60s: JULIE ANDREWS

Sugar-coated, sing-songy, appropriate-dancing fun for the whole family — no other movie best fits those words quite like The Sound of Music. So forgive my undying love of all things do re mi for a moment, and move past all the cynical, blind hatred you may hold for the happiest little movie that ever was so that you can take a step back and admire the awesomeness of Julie Andrews and her ragtag crew of spoiled rich kids. Now, repeat viewings at my grandparents’ house at least once a year certainly helped fuel my love for the 1965 musical, but I ask you to come up with a more iconic and more well-loved musical. And let’s be honest, the hilltop opening has got to be one the top 5 most recognizable movie moments in filmdom. Now add to all of this the fact that it’s chockfull of delightful song and dance numbers including the title song, “So Long, Farewell” (Who didn’t reenact that at least a few times as a child?), and, a personal favorite of mine, “The Lonely Goatherd.” If this is what I’m to be subjected to, then bring on the Andrews-led yodeling.

And the smile-fest doesn’t end there for the Julie Andrews ’60s musical rundown. Just a year earlier, 1964’s Mary Poppins was released. Though I’ve never been quite as fond of this one as many people seem to be (it was never on regular rotation at my house), it does contain some prime Andrews congeniality in “Spoonful of Sugar” and “Supercalifragilisticexpialidocious” (yep, I checked the spelling). It seems my lack of closeness to the picture, though, allowed me to enjoy that funny horror movie trailer mash-up more than a Poppins-phile probably did. So thanks to the winning smile and insane vocal range of Ms. Andrews, the ’60s were a little bit brighter. Although, having recently discovered the later work of the actress (namely 1982’s Victor/Victoria), there’s certainly something to be said for her saucy, less plucky side as well.

best of the ’60s: ALFRED and TIPPI

One of a string of blonde bombshells that served as the muse of famed director Alfred Hitchcock, Tippi Hedren was the beautiful girl from small-town Minnesota who became a 1960s icon through her back-to-back performances in two of Hitchcock’s films during the decade — The Birds and Marnie. Before she was mothering Melanie Griffith, Hedren played socialite avian magnet Melanie Daniels and disturbed klepto Marnie Edgar. And though the deal struck between the director and the newcomer ended up souring her career (he kept her under a tight contract that she was eager to be released from), these two performances are the clear highlights and added her to a list accompanied by the likes of Janet Leigh, Grace Kelly, and Kim Novak.

As Melanie in The Birds Hedren founder herself following a dapper gent she met in a pet store back to his hometown, Bodega Bay. Once there she finds herself in the midst of a brutal attack by migrating birds. Though the film has its somewhat unintentionally funny moments (the schoolchildren chase scene, anyone?), the crows in the playground scene preceding it is unmistakably eerie, even 45 years later. Hedren plays the done-up, well-to-do Daniels with great ease (she and Mad Men‘s January Jones‘ character Betty are dead ringers for each other!), and her transformation from delicate flower to unlikely action heroine is entirely believable. She brought delicate grace to what could’ve been a bombastic performance. The Birds is definitely one of Hitchcock’s most enjoyable films, and Hedren took center stage like an old pro, besides it being only her second film performance.

And in 1964’s Marnie, Hedren’s character is vastly different, playing a mentally disturbed woman who is blackmailed into a marriage to Sean Connery‘s character because of her tendency to steal from work (seeing parallels to Psycho‘s Marion Crane?). Though the performance is less subdued and more dramatic than its predecessor, Hedren’s Marnie steals the attention away from Mr. Bond himself, no easy feat considering Connery’s typical scenery-chewing. The swarm of birds has been replaced by a morbid childhood memory, and Hedren seems more rattled by the latter. For this ’60s bombshell, a few pecks she can stand, but the line is drawn at murderous memories.

best of the ’60s: the DECADE in DISNEY

After hitting their stride with the big success of 1950’s Cinderella, Disney seemed to hit the fritz for several decades until stumbling upon the new era with 1989’s The Little Mermaid. But upon careful analysis of its offerings during the 1960s, the three feature length animated flicks from the company weren’t all so terrible, though they don’t often rank in the tops in terms of prestige.

101 Dalmatians (1961)
The most successful of the three (probably due to Disney’s safe haven of talking animals as an audience go-to), this one has been successfully revived for future generations, something some other of the studio’s films has had trouble doing. It can’t hurt that the film boasts one of the most memorable and most loathsome villains in the Disney arsenal. People to this day can still remember at least a portion of the song “Cruella de Vil.” Along with a 1990s resurgence in the form of a sort of brilliant live action interpretation featuring talented screen star Glenn Close definitely didn’t hurt its legacy. Though there are some clear signs of aging in the snippets of anti-feminist notions toward female dog Perdy, it at least reinforces Disney’s uncanny ability to make their female villains far more striking, effective, and powerful than their male counterparts.

The Sword in the Stone (1963)
Easily the most forgotten of the three releases of the decade, this somewhat limp interpretation of the King Arthur tale most likely suffered from the boy-skewing conundrum — that is, Disney is most successful when presenting gender-neutral, girl-skewing, or talking-animal pictures. It’s efforts toward catering to pre-teen boys have mostly failed (see: Atlantis: The Lost Empire and Treasure Planet). It is a fittingly admirable effort otherwise. The animation is attractive and the lead character is endearing. It suffers in areas where its fellows are typically strong, however. It’s song score is mostly forgettable, and its sidekicks aren’t show-stealers. But perhaps a little bit of nobility and calm is what makes this much more relaxed movie (other than the wizarding antics) an appreciable effort years later.

The Jungle Book (1967)
The final of the three 1960s Disney animated features seemingly took the strengths of its predecessors and built a successful adaptation of the Rudyard Kipling story. Though it centers on a young male protagonist, it also features a bevy of entertaining talking animals and a delightful song score (including “The Bare Necessities” and “I Wanna Be Like You,” still catchy to this day). Buoyed by its fame as the last picture produced by Walt Disney himself, nostalgia plays a role in its ability to last beyond the ’60s. And the 1990s Disney Afternoon series TaleSpin, which featured most all of the animal characters in modern aviation roles, certainly didn’t hurt its appeal. Bottom line — Baloo is still easily one of Disney’s most lovable lugs.

best of the ’60s: BAD GIRLS of 1962

Angela Lansbury as Mrs. Iselin in The Manchurian Candidate

The term “momma’s boy” has never been quite so vindictive, spiteful, creepy, and absolutely captivating as Lansbury‘s performance as the wife of a Senator in The Manchurian Candidate.  She parades her own son around for political gain and plays mind games all the way.  Lansbury was very clearly robbed of the Academy Award that year, giving one of the best film performances of all time.  And though Meryl Streep was the only choice to cover the performance in the 2004 remake, it absolutely pales in comparison to the gut-wrenching bad girl original.  Who would’ve thought she’d be so lovable as Jessica Fletcher and Mrs. Potts years later?  Take a look for yourself:
Bette Davis as Baby Jane Hudson in What Ever Happened to Baby Jane?
What better way for Bette Davis and Joan Crawford to duke out their off-camera cattiness than by casting them as aging actress sisters who are unendingly jealous of each other in What Ever Happened to Baby Jane? Davis certainly takes the cake here as the former child star whose now-wheelchair-bound sister’s career overshadowed her own.  Let’s see… a dead thing on a dinner plate and a little shove down the stairs later, and you’ve got the true essence of this bad girl performance.  And it’s pretty difficult to get that cackle out of your mind once it leaves Davis’ mouth:

best of the ’60s: JOHN WAYNE in McLINTOCK! (1963)

As part of an ongoing project of cataloging the best of the best in the decade of change, here is my first bit of reverence.

John Wayne in McLintock!
Though it isn’t the first flick you think of when someone says John Wayne (see: The Searchers, Stagecoach), it certainly was my first, and probably favorite, performance of one of the most prolific actors in Hollywood history.  As George Washington McLintock, Wayne was embracing his comical side, partnering up with equally matched The Quiet Man co-star Maureen O’Hara.  Sure, the ultimate message in the movie is highly archaic (an uppity woman deserves a good spanking?), but it’s amazing how much of a joy it was to see Wayne in a comedy.  And to top it off, his character, though misogynistic, has a rather obvious soft spot for his neighbors, the Native Americans that got their first.

Now, I’m not saying McLintock! is any picture of tolerance as far as films go, but it was a highly enjoyable foray into the ’60s for Wayne and his typically “cowboys vs. indians” motif.  If it weren’t for its Taming of the Shrew overtones (and that pesky coal shovel paddling that O’Hara’s character endures), perhaps it would’ve been a less objectionable comedy.  Looking past its glaring anti-feminist stances, McLintock! is Wayne’s best example of action comedy, and it simply can’t be topped in terms of entertainment value by anything else in his filmography.