One Dozen Interesting FANTASY FILMS You May Have Missed
If you don’t know me personally, just ask my family: when it comes to sad (or incredibly beautiful) scenes in films, I can leak like a sieve. One of my ten favorite films of all time (which happens to be a fantasy film) is Frank Capra’s It’s a Wonderful Life. Hell, I’ve seen that film so many times that I cry now in anticipation of scenes. Looking over the list below, I can spot at least five that will trigger some weepiness on my part.
1) On Borrowed Time (1939)
Lionel Barrymore is crazy about his grandson Pud. When Pud’s life is suddenly threatened by an accident, Gramps traps Death (Cedric Hardwicke) in a tree. As long as Death is in the tree, nothing in the world can die. The sentimental (some might call it maudlin — but not me) end of this film always gets me — more so now, probably, since I have grandkids.
2) The Blue Bird (1940)
This Technicolor fantasy extravaganza stars an adolescent Shirley Temple and was meant to rival the previous year’s fantasy extravaganza, The Wizard of Oz (in fact, Shirley Temple was briefly considered for the role of Dorothy). She (Mytyl) and her brother Tyltyl, both spoiled brats, must find the Blue Bird of Happiness in this adaptation of Maurice Maeterlinck’s 1908 fantasy play. They travel through fantasy worlds with their deadly sneaky cat Tylette (Gale Sondergaard) and loyal pet bulldog Tylo (Eddie Collins). My favorite land is the place where children are waiting to be born. There, Shirley and her brother meet the boy who will become Abraham Lincoln. That scene always triggers the waterworks.
3) Hellzapoppin’ (1941)
If Harvey Kurtzman’s and Will Elder’s MAD comic book stories could be successfully put to film, they would probably look a lot like Olsen & Johnson’s Hellzapoppin’. Perhaps the wackiest movie ever made, it also boasts the most incredible jitterbug sequence (courtesy of the gravity-defying Congeroo Dancers) ever to appear in a movie. Martha Raye is at her best. The cast also includes the great Elisha Cook, Jr., Shemp Howard and Mischa Auer. The second half is not as dazzling as the first half — but that first half is like nothing you’ve ever seen on film.
4) Once Upon a Time (1944)
Cary Grant plays a down-on-his-luck Broadway producer who finds a little kid on a street corner with a phenomenal new act in his little peep holed shoe box. Let the story escalation begin! The scene where Cary commits a very un-Cary act is shocking and does me in every time.
5) The Enchanted Cottage (1945)
A serviceman (Robert Taylor) deformed in the war meets a homely maid (Dorothy Malone) in an enchanted cottage that magically transforms their physical selves upon their falling in love. The scene resulting from his parents’ thoughtless observations and interference always gets me. Herbert Marshall is terrific, as always. I was scheduled to be the production designer of a remake back in the 1980s (with Steve Miner directing) but the project never found funding.
6) Stairway to Heaven (aka A Matter of Life and Death) (1946)
I just re-watched this last night. In the five minutes it takes for an English WWII pilot’s (David Niven) plane to crash, he and the American dispatcher (Kim Hunter) he talks to on the way down fall in love. Heaven screws up and doesn’t collect Niven. Niven finds the dispatcher. A French angel is sent down to collect Niven — but Niven claims, “Sorry — too late! You had your chance, hesitated, and I fell in love. Everything’s changed. So, I’m not going.” Heaven is in black and white; earth is in Technicolor. Written, directed and produced by the great team (The Red Shoes, Black Narcissus) of Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger; shot by the amazing Jack Cardiff (I was fortunate to work with Jack on Conan the Destroyer). Raymond Massey plays Heaven’s prosecutor.
7) Portrait of Jennie (1948)
Painter Joseph Cotton meets a girl dressed in old-fashioned clothes (Jennifer Jones). He sketches her. The drawing launches his art career. Every time he encounters Jennie, however (with whom he has fallen in love) she seems to be growing up at a very accelerated rate. She also acts as if many years-old events only just happened. Ethel Barrymore plays Cotton’s art dealer. This was Dave Stevens’ favorite film.
8) Ilya Muromets (1956)
This Soviet fantasy about a Russian folk hero boasts a cast of 106,000 (plus 11,000 horses) — basically, a big chunk of the Soviet Army. There’s a cool dragon and a roly-poly little guy who can puff up his cheeks and blow gale force winds. Directed by the incredible Soviet film fantasist Aleksandr Ptushko, this was the first Soviet film to be shot in CinemaScope (how else to fit that many people and horses on the screen?) with four-track stereo sound. Watch the original Soviet version — not the butchered (sorry, Roger) and re-edited US (The Sword and the Dragon) or UK (The Epic Hero and the Beast) versions.
9) The Ruling Class (1972)
Peter O’Toole is an English aristocrat who thinks he’s Jesus. Why? Because when he prays, he finds he’s talking to himself. His family works hard to “cure” him. They succeed — oh, brother, do they succeed. It’s rumored that this film was banned in the UK for decades (I could find nothing on the internet to back this up) for its outrageous portrayal of the hypocritical and absurd Olde Guarde English aristocracy. The UK attempted to blacklist and prevent the showing of all subsequent films by producer Jules Buck. Peter O’Toole described this movie as “a comedy with tragic relief”. Original running time: 2 hours 34 minutes.
10) The Rapture (1991)
Man, oh, man — this one sure didn’t go where I thought it would! Mimi Rogers plays a bored L. A. sexual swinger who eventually marries David Duchovny (pre-X-Files) after coming upon some life-changing information. Very haunting and extremely disturbing.
11) Human Nature (2001)
Leave it to my uniquely talented fellow Pasadenan Charlie (Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, Being John Malkovich, Adaptation) Kaufman to come up with a story about a mad scientist (Tim Robbins) trapping and studying a feral child (Rhys Ifans). Robbins’ fur-covered (!) girlfriend (Patricia Arquette) fights to preserve the young man’s feral nature.
12) Sky Captain and the World of Tomorrow (2008)
This movie pushed all my buttons. It should have been a hit. A return to the feeling of the sci-fi serials of the 1930s, this flick’s got giant Fleischer Superman robots, Nazis, King Kong references, Angelina Jolie in an eyepatch and a perfect sepia-ized Art Deco environment. Plus: Jude Law, Gwyneth Paltrow, Giovanni Ribisi and Laurence Olivier!
13) The Fall (2006)
Filmed in 18 different countries by director Tarsem Singh, The Fall is an unusual cross between a David Lean-style epic and a mad Terry Gilliam fantasy. Tarsem’s other films come nowhere near this labor of love in quality. Catinka Untaru, the actress who plays the little girl, is the find of the decade. Spectacular costumes by Eiko (Bram Stoker’s Dracula). You will not be able to guess the object of this film’s tribute until it’s revealed at the very end. Because of the scale (again, think David Lean) and scope of this film, it should be seen on the big screen if at all possible.
Watch ’em and lemme know what you think…