June 11, 2012

Happy 100th, Paramount!

As you may or may not know, this year (and this month) marks the 100th anniversary of Paramount Pictures. Being a Paramount employee, I am especially aware of this fact, and have been observing the occasion in high style - from on-lot events to special screenings. The company just unveiled their anniversary "group photo," a gathering of 116 Paramount stars of past and present that was taken last winter. (I got to work the event and Mark Wahlberg waved at me. It was awesome.) Below is a preview, but I'd strongly recommend going to Vanity Fair's website where you can mouse over and enlarge each part.

They also distributed these super-cool posters to all employees (including me!) with little icons representing a slew of Paramount films. See if you can name 'em all!

But you don't have to be an employee to get in on the fun. There's been several new Blu-Ray releases of Paramount's catalog titles, including a gorgeous restoration of Wings (1927) that is not to be missed. And at least in the Los Angeles area, there's been a number of retrospectives, including a sidebar at the TCM Classic Film Festival back in April. Unsurprisingly, however, the films mentioned tend to be the obvious choices - your Godfather, Breakfast at Tiffany's, Forrest Gump, and so on. So for those who want to dig deeper, I've compiled a list of lesser-known Paramount titles for you to dive into and explore, one for each decade of the studio's existence. All are available on DVD unless otherwise noted.

The Cheat (1915)
Many people don't realize that Cecil B. Demille was actually a founding father of Paramount - his partnership with New York theater producer Jesse Lasky created the studio's inaugural hit, The Squaw Man, in 1914 and started the mass migration to Hollywood. Demille remained extremely prolific throughout the silent era, cranking out up to a dozen films per year. The Cheat was among them, and proves that he was already lightyears ahead of many of his contemporaries. The plot about a society woman falling prey to a predatory Asian man is a bit uncomfortable today, but that doesn't take away from the incredible atmosphere created by dramatic lighting and intense performances. To quote Kevin Brownlow, it features "the favorite DeMille mixture of sex, sadism and sacrifice" - not a bad way to spend an hour.

The Docks of New York (1928)
And speaking of atmosphere, we move on to Paramount rock star Josef von Sternberg. Best known today for his collaborations with Marlene Dietrich, he did some stunning work in the silent era. For those who think silent films can't grip you by the throat, think again. Docks features a fascinating array of richly rendered blue-collar types, from the rough-and-tumble dock worker to the suicidal floozy he falls for. The mise-en-scene could give Orson Welles a run for his money, and the realistic romance might wring tears from even the most jaded viewers. 

Island of Lost Souls (1932)
Universal was unquestionably the biggest name in horror in the 1930s, but that doesn't mean that other studios didn't give it a whirl. Paramount made a notable entry to the genre with 1931's Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, featuring an Oscar-winning performance by Fredric March that still resonates today. Island is somewhat of a gleefully demented cousin to Jekyll, featuring a delicious performance by Charles Laughton as one of the more atypically suave and bemused mad scientists you'll encounter (he supposedly based the character on his dentist). Bela Lugosi chips in a small but memorable role that he allegedly took due to bankruptcy, and you won't forget Kathleen Burke as the Panther Woman!

The Big Clock (1948)
Clock is a bit of an odd duck. It's largely classified as a noir, but noirs don't typically feature such a varied and unusual cast of characters or a sense of humor. The premise is simple: a crime reporter (Ray Milland) is both the hunter and the hunted in a murder frame-up. But the clues, twists, and character development in this adaptation of an equally excellent novel never let up. Charles Laughton lends his considerable talents once again to the role of the nefarious employer, while his real-life wife Elsa Lanchester is hysterical as a daffy artist. Even the kooky bartender shines. Consider it the cure for the common noir.

The Mating Season (1951)
I discovered this film a couple years ago by virtue of TCM. I figured that with the likes of Thelma RItter, Gene Tierney, and Miriam Hopkins and a screenplay by frequent Billy Wilder collaborator Charles Brackett, it had to be a winner - and I was right. It's like a blend of Lubitsch and Hawks with a dash of sugar. Tierney proves to bean adept comedienne, playing nicely off the always-great Ritter, the mother-in-law the former mistakes for a maid. The domestic confusion and misunderstandings might seem a bit contrived, but isn't that the case for most comedies? And when it's this much fun, does it even matter? (Not available on DVD, but it's on Netflix Instant)

Seconds (1966)
Despite producing classics like True Grit, The Odd Couple and a slew of Jerry Lewis comedies, the 60s were a rough time for Paramount. The studio was trying to find its identity as it transitioned out of the studio era, and neared bankruptcy late in the decade before whiz-kid producer Robert Evans greenlit a series of hits. One of the results of that identity crisis was the trippy and disturbing Seconds. A man is lured in by a shadowy agency's promise of a new life, and they deliver at first, with head-to-toe plastic surgery and a new identity. But can you ever really start over? Not when director John Frankenheimer is masterminding your downfall, Jerry Goldsmith is providing the creepy score, and James Wong Howe is delivering warped, almost experimental cinematography. The casting of Rock Hudson in the lead came as a surprise to many, but he turns in a career-best performance. While I'm not sure I agree with the film's original tagline claiming it's too intense for even strong stomachs, it definitely feels like a nightmare, start to finish.

Play it Again, Sam (1972)
If it walks and talks like a Woody Allen movie, then it is one, right? Not the case with Sam, one of a handful of films that Allen wrote but didn't direct. You get just enough Woody-ness, but for those who don't like his shtick, it's not as overwhelming as in some of his other films. It features the typical Allen trio of himself, Diane Keaton, and Tony Roberts caught in a Casablanca-esque love triangle. Taking the analogy further, Allen's character is haunted/mentored by the spirit of Humphrey Bogart (character actor Jerry Lacy, in a performance so uncanny I had to look up whether they digitally reincarnated Bogart somehow). It's light stuff, but for a film fan, it's to hard to beat a mashup of Casablanca and Allen.

Top Secret! (1984)
A lot of lesser-known 80s flicks are that way for a reason (who could forget the Paramount classic Gatorbait II: Cajun Justice?). So Top Secret! isn't exactly unknown, but it does hold a pretty low place in the canon. The creative team of Zucker-Abrams-Zucker is far more known and appreciated for Airplane! and The Naked Gun, but I think Secret deserves to sit proudly alongside those two. Part of what makes the ZAZ movies work is the deadpanning of the straight man, typically Leslie Nielsen. But the straight man here is played to the hilt by Val Kilmer, in the role of an Elvis-like pop star. I constantly quote the line "I know a little German...he's right over there!" and based on the blank stares I get, maybe this movie IS kinda obscure.

A Simple Plan (1998)
The 90s were a time for blockbusters at Paramount, including three Best Picture wins for Forrest Gump, Braveheart, and a little movie called Titanic (shared with Fox). But among all the epics and franchises was this little gem of a crime thriller by Sam Raimi. It features the 90s-tastic trio of Bill Paxton, Bridget Fonda and Billy Bob Thornton in the leads, and falls into the subgenre of "simple thing that goes horrifically wrong in every way imaginable for everyone involved." The snowy setting evokes comparisons to Fargo, but there's no laughs here. Just a well-constructed, chilly exploration of morality.

Wonder Boys (2000)
This is one of those films where each actor just shows up and does their trademark thing to its full potential. Michael Douglas has a midlife crisis, Robert Downey Jr. bounces around and makes witty remarks, Frances McDormand is headstrong, Katie Holmes plays jailbait. But it's Tobey Maguire who really steals the show - turns out he's a comedic genius. His chronically depressed prodigy James is the linchpin of the whole operation, and it's doubtful that any writer or director will ever use him this well again. Despite the guns, pills, theft of Marilyn Monroe's wedding coat, dog violence, and RDJ's appetite for transvestites, the film has a heart of gold at its center and never feels forced.

Shutter Island (2010)
Naturally, no film I pick from the last two years is going to be terribly obscure, especially since Paramount's output has become rather limited in recent years. So I'll focus instead on one I feel was unjustly overlooked. Scorsese's work here is no Raging Bull, sure, but why do we even bother comparing everything a director does to their highest achievements? It was an unusual move for him to dive into horror, but it's so much more than that. It's a mystery, it's a thriller, it's a drama about sanity, memory, and grief. The plot and acting can be a bit overheated at times, but this isn't a documentary - it's an exploration of a fractured mind. Leonardo DiCaprio gives an incredible performance, as does the illustrious supporting cast, and the aesthetics are painstakingly perfect. Give Shutter Island another shot without forcing it into the restraints of what you'd expect from Scorsese, and I think you'll be surprised.

Here's to the next 100 years! What overlooked Paramount films do you love?