Years ago, Vanity Fair magazine began running a series of articles on film. Perhaps the most popular was “The Film Snob’s Dictionary,” a mini-series that eventually became a small bookIet contained cheerful, mirthfully malicious entries that were both real and humorous. It lampooned the fact that many film (or cinema, but never movie) fans all knew the “right” films and “right”. Among the entries was, of course, one for The Criterion Collection. The book proclaimed the Collection as being “achingly tasteful.”
Since Criterion has always been closely affiliated with the prestigious foreign film and domestic independent film distributor Janus Films, it’s not too surprising that many think of this company as an over the counter film school. It is true that many great films, many staples of film studies everywhere, are available in decent editions with copious extras (something Criterion actually started) only due to this company. However, this is not all there is to the Criterion Collection.
Listed below are some surprising and unexpected choices that Criterion has presented to the video buying public.
1. Make Way For Tomorrow (1938)
The great French director Jean Renoir declared Leo MacCarey to be among the greatest of all Hollywood film directors because “he deeply understood people”.
This may surprise many since Leo MacCarey is best remembered today for his superb comedies (he directed Laurel and Hardy, W.C. Fields, Mae West, Harold Lloyd, and the Marx Brothers in some of their best films including Duck Soup and Ruggles of Red Gap) and for some of the schmaltziest films ever made (Going My Way in 1944 and its sequel The Bells of St. Mary’S in 1945) and the soggiest weeper of them all, An Affair to Remember, the high gloss 1957 remake of MacCarey’s own superlative 1939 hit Love Affair.
He had some high highs and awful lows (avoid the Red-baiting My Son John from 1952). One great film combined the two qualities and it is in the Collection. 1937’s Make Way for Tomorrow has had the critics raving since the day it was made. How many Hollywood films get compared to the best work of the great Japanese director Ozu (and favorably at that)? Too bad that the critics are virtually the only ones who seem to have ever seen this beautiful but painfully honest film.
The story finds an aging couple in dire straits due to the Depression as well as some ill-conceived choices, mostly on the husband’s part. They lose their home and none of their children can or will take them in. With no place for the couple to go, the film comes to an unbearable but highly believable solution.
McCarey wouldn’t compromise on anything in making this film, including giving the leads to two fine character actors with no box office appeal: Victor Moore and Beulah Bondi, with Thomas Mitchell, Fay Bainter and a host of other familiar faces in the cast. The result was that the director was asked to vacate the Paramount lot, his longtime professional home.
He rebounded in record time with his next film, made for Columbia, the comedy classic The Awful Truth. He won that year’s best director Oscar for that film and in his acceptance speech thanked the body but informed them that he had been awarded for the wrong film.
2. The Mikado (1939)
Sometimes one good film can reawaken memories of another. Criterion was one of the first DVD companies to include relevant older films as extras. Often these were alternate versions of the same basic story but The M film was paired with director Mike Leigh’s Topsy Turvy (1999), a delightful version of the events surrounding the original production of Gilbert and Sullivan’s “The Mikado,” an operetta set in the quaintest feudal Japan ever.
Since the play in seen only in glimpses, Criterion included a lovely 1939 version directed in England by American Victor Schertzinger and starring popular American radio singer Kenny Baker along with cast members of the famed D’Oyly Carte Opera Company.
The film was created in stunning color with marvelous sets and, most importantly, it was a real film, not merely a record of the play. Schertzinger was a successful songwriter and composer in addition to being a director and he handles this film with an eye towards balancing the two components, which he does well. The G&S purist may not like it due to the pruning away of a large portion of the score, but it is a great piece of eye and ear candy for others.
3. Riot in Cell Block 11 (1954)
This film had a strange inception. The producer, Walter Wanger, had been sentenced to short term in after he shot (but didn’t kill) his actress-wife’s agent. He was appalled, if fascinated, by the conditions he saw while in prison and decided to make a film on the subject. He chose that most proletarian of auteurs, Don Siegel, then early in his directorial career, and screenwriter Richard Collins to create a story centering on the events that lead up to a deadly prison riot.
It wasn’t a big budget effort but the cast of characters actors (headed by Neville Brand) was perfectly chosen and quite genuine, as certainly was the setting: Folsom Prison made its debut in this film. Siegel was always an ace at action films and this one, with an attached social message, emerged as one of his best.
4. The Atomic Submarine (1959)
If Criterion were as stuffy as some would like to picture it, this film would be nowhere in sight. One of the company’s more…well, interesting, items was part of a four-film box set entitled “Monsters and Madmen.”
The Atomic Submarine had a director virtually no one knows and a cast of strictly B players (Arthur Franz, Dick Foran, Bret Halsey, Joi Lansing, Tom Conway and Bob Steele). The plot has the title vehicle cruising near the Arctic circle where it finds extraterrestrial invaders working on something mysterious from their underwater ship.
Like many genre films of the 1950s, this one is an allegory of the political world of the day and the way narrow-minded thinking made enemies of anything foreign. Maybe not one for the books, but an interesting example of how a low budget and a little imagination can produce an interesting, if not supreme piece of movie making.
5. Carnival of Souls (1962)
Art does not always come with a capital A. A good example of this may well be a low-budget independent film which A) was created by a producer-director of industrial films who had never made a feature film before,B) starred an actress who had never made a film before, C) was made on threadbare though well-chosen locations , and D) was a horror film, not the most respected of genres.
To add insult to injury, Herk Harvey, the producer-director, didn’t copyright the film and it fell into the public domain, so that many a cheap video label now features it. However, scrape away all of that and Carnival of Souls is a well made, high effective film of its type.
The story probably inspired by the classic short story, “Incident at Owl Creek Bridge”concerns a church organist (played by Candice Hilligoss) who seems to miraculously survive a plunge off a bridge in her car. However, her survival seems problematic and forces from the supernatural realm appear to be reaching out for her, especially in an eerie, deserted pavilion where some sort of elaborate ritual is taking place manned by otherworldly forces.
It may not be a work of one of the world’s great master directors but this film is a tour de force of how inventive people can work wonders with a little imagination and talent.
6. The Tale of Zatoichi (1962)
Film cultists, and certainly Criterion fans, have been flocking to the many, many Japanese films that were unknown in this hemisphere until recent years. Among the most popular are samurai films, films that tell adventurous tales of noble swords for hire in feudal Japan. Many of the best were directed by Akira Kurosawa (e.g. The Seven Samurai from 1954) but not every samurai film was made by so profound an artist as Kurosawa.
On a more earthbound, but very entertaining, level is The Tale of Zatoichi and the 25 sequels following it up until 1989. The series follows the adventures of the title character, who appears to the world as a blind masseur, dice player, singer, healer and whatever enables him to live as he roams the less than hospitable climate of ancient Japan. He is also a highly skilled swordsman, once an infamous yakuza, now fighting for good.
Yes, this is Batman in ancient Japan but, as recent films in that series prove, these tales not only have entertainment value but much of importance to say to their audiences. Japan may seem a world away but the best Japanese films show how similar we all are as human beings.. The way these films have taken the Criterion audience by storm is proof of that.
7. Robinson Crusoe on Mars (1964)
Science fiction had a rough time in film history until recent years. High-handed critics considered the genre (often lumped in with horror) to be juvenile and lacking in any real dramatic value. Thankfully, a new generation of critics caused the stock of some films to soar.
One such is Robinson Crusoe on Mars, a film that pretty much takes its story from the classic Daniel Defoe novel. Though not a literal retelling of the story of the survival of a lonely shipwreck victim and his eventual discovery of a native companion, it is an excitingly inventive revision.
In the film, an astronaut is stranded on the angry red planet with a monkey and, eventually, a humanoid alien. Together they must learn to navigate a difficult but inhabitable foreign environment. The script is good but the real glory of the film are the effects, which are very good for the day and which, combined with well researched ideas, created a a believable depiction of Mars.
Many seeing the film today acknowledge that this it a rediscovered gem. This is not surprising considering director Byron Haskin not only came from a special effects background, but also directed George Pal War of The Worlds and Conquest of Space.
8. I Am Curious Yellow/Blue (1967)
Some films are cultural landmarks regardless of quality. One of the most indelible of art house touchstones is the first of this pair of Swedish experimental films. Grove Press had long been a bulwark in presenting daring, serious material for discerning adults (the company had presented “Lolita” to the American public).
When Grove Press decided to branch out into film distribution in the mid 60s they went looking for a film that approximated their literary endeavors. They found it when they stumbled upon an experimental Swedish film that happened to feature frank, but not prurient, sexual scenes.
The story told the adventures of a budding young sociologist (Lena Nyman) who seeks to learn about class structure in her homeland, mostly by having sex everywhere and as often as she can. U.S audiences began to hear about how “hot” this film was due to the myriad legal battles it endured.
These went all the way up to the Supreme Court.where the film was NOT vindicated. Once people saw the film, however they realized that the sex scenes were serious even though the rest of the film was very time and location specific.. Many do not know that there is a companion film which mostly retells the same events covered in the first film but from a slightly different perspective (the colors, by the way, refer to the colors of the Swedish flag).
But for Criterion, I Am Curious Yellow/Blue might be nothing today but an historical reference/ However, the Collection gives modern viewers a chance to not only judge the film but the sexual mores of the U.S during the 1960s and how badly this film upset that system.