What’s Opera, Doc?

(USA 1957)

“Kill the wabbit! Kill the wabbit! Kill the wabbit!”

— Elmer Fudd

Many consider What’s Opera, Doc? a masterpiece — the greatest Merrie Melodies cartoon, ever. It frequently makes “best of” lists for animated shorts, sometimes at the top.

What’s Opera, Doc? is classic dopey Elmer Fudd (Arthur Q. Bryan) hunting flippant, nonchalant Bugs Bunny (Mel Blanc), complete with trickery, potstirring, and the latter in drag. This one, however, is notable because it’s not particularly violent, and — spoiler alert! — Elmer actually catches Bugs in the end. He feels bad about it, too. To quote Bugs, “Well, what did you expect in an opera — a happy ending?”

Written by Michael Maltese and directed by Chuck Jones, What’s Opera, Doc? is an irreverent parody of composer Richard Wagner’s works, and I think I hear songs from Die Walküre. It really takes the piss out of him and high fallutin’ culture (those viking hats, egads!). It’s also a parody of the Elmer Fudd and Bugs Bunny formula. Its visually impressive Technicolor layouts are big and downright gorgeous, resembling a Salvadore Dalí painting at times.

For all it has going for it, though, What’s Opera, Doc? isn’t my favorite Bugs Bunny cartoon. Honestly, it’s not even close. But I see why it’s highly regarded.

In 1992, the United States Library of Congress deemed What’s Opera, Doc? “culturally, historically, or aesthetically significant” and selected it for preservation in the National Film Registry (https://www.loc.gov/programs/national-film-preservation-board/film-registry/complete-national-film-registry-listing/).

Production: Warner Brothers

Distribution: Warner Brothers

7 minutes
Not rated

(Vimeo) B

The Wizard of Oz

(USA 1939)

“For twenty-three years, I’ve been dying to tell you what I thought of you! And now… well, being a Christian woman, I can’t say it!”

—Auntie Em


“Toto, I’ve a feeling we’re not in Kansas any more.”



“I’ll get you, my pretty. And your little dog, too!”

—The Wicked With of the West


“Only bad witches are ugly.”



“Why, anybody can have a brain. That’s a very mediocre commodity. Every pusillanimous creature that crawls on the Earth or slinks through slimy seas has a brain.”

“Hearts will never be practical until they can be made unbreakable.”

“You are under the unfortunate impression that just because you run away you have no courage; you’re confusing courage with wisdom.”

—The Wizard of Oz

Growing up when I did, The Wizard of Oz aired on TV every year, and only once a year. It was a special event. I distinctly remember it being on Thanksgiving, but digging around online contradicts me—while some sources back me up, others say Easter, February, and even Christmas. Whatever. I’ve seen it so many times, I know it by heart. So do many people. Like Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory (https://moviebloke.com/2016/03/26/willy-wonka-and-the-chocolate-factory/ ), The Wizard of Oz is a celluloid relic from my childhood that still stirs something in me.

This annual tradition stopped sometime in the ’90s, probably because home video and cable allowed one to see it anytime. So, I was downright thrilled to see a screening near me over a different holiday weekend this year: Memorial Day. I’ve only seen this film on the big screen once or maybe twice before, so I couldn’t resist.

This is where I usually launch into the story, where I might get into some of the details of Dorothy (Judy Garland) and her weird Technicolor odyssey to the Emerald City after a tornado lifts her, Toto (Terry), and her farmhouse out of Kansas and drops her somewhere over the rainbow in Munchkinland—right on top of the unseen Wicked Witch of the East, whose crazy striped socks and shriveled feet are permanently etched in my memory—provoking the ire of the Wicked Witch of the West (Margaret Hamilton) thanks to a pair of ruby slippers.

Let’s be honest, though: we all know the story. Does anything more need to be said about The Wizard of Oz, which is probably the best known and most seen film, ever? Classic and iconic, it set a cinematic benchmark that hasn’t been surpassed nearly a century on, and probably never will be. Loaded with character, song, color, and cool props, it’s a one of a kind spectacle. Its magic continues to inspire.

Harold Rosson’s cinematography is top notch. Seeing it today, I was wowed by the sepiatone Kansas scenes, which were plain old black and white on TV. I always feel a rush when Dorothy opens the door after she crashes, but seeing Munchkinland on the big screen is so much more awesome. So is that scene in the poppy field, and so is the Emerald City with its otherworldy green glow—like paranormal depression glass. Marvelous!

Based on L. Frank Baum’s 1900 children’s book The Wonderful Wizard of Oz, the film’s history behind the camera is every bit as colorful as…well, Munchkinland. Victor Fleming is credited as director, but The Wizard of Oz actually had five: Norman Taurog, Richard Thorpe, George Cukor, Fleming, and King Vidor (https://www.shmoop.com/wizard-of-oz/director.html ). Over a dozen writers contributed to the screenplay (http://oz.wikia.com/wiki/Wizard_of_Oz_Screenwriters ). Although the munchkin suicide is by all accounts nothing more than a rumor, Hamilton was burned badly (https://www.thevintagenews.com/2016/09/06/priority-margaret-hamilton-wicked-witch-west-wizard-oz-suffered-3rd-degree-burns-face-hands-scene-munchkinland-exits-ball-flame/ ). Buddy Ebsen was initially cast as the Tin Man, but he dropped out of the film when he suffered a severe allergic reaction to the aluminum makeup used on his face (http://oz.wikia.com/wiki/Buddy_Ebsen ). However, his voice remains in the scene where Garland, Ray Bolger as the scarecrow, and Jack Haley, Ebsen’s replacement, sing “We’re Off to See the Wizard” after the Tin Man is reanimated with oil.

Legend has it (though it’s probably exaggerated) that the actors who played the munchkins were worse than drunk sailors, holding sex parties and trashing the hotel where they stayed in Culver City (http://www.seeing-stars.com/Hotels/CulverHotel.shtml ) (http://www.mirror.co.uk/tv/tv-news/wizard-oz-mucnhkins-didnt-just-9782402 ) (http://www.independent.co.uk/arts-entertainment/films/features/dogged-by-rumour-the-riddles-of-oz-1766264.html ). Garland allegedly claimed that she was repeatedly accosted by a number of them (http://people.com/celebrity/teenage-judy-garland-was-repeatedly-molested-by-munchkins-on-set-of-wizard-of-oz-says-her-ex-husband/ ). What a world, what a world!

In 1989, the United States Library of Congress deemed The Wizard of Oz “culturally, historically, or aesthetically significant” and selected it for preservation in the National Film Registry (https://www.loc.gov/programs/national-film-preservation-board/film-registry/complete-national-film-registry-listing/).

With Frank Morgan, Bert Lahr, Billie Burke, Charley Grapewin, Clara Blandick, Pat Walshe, Charles Becker, Buster Brodie

Production: Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer/MGM

Distribution: Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer/MGM, Warner Brothers

102 minutes
Not rated

(ArcLight) A+


Phantom of the Opera

(USA 1943)

I confess, I rolled my eyes when I found out that a print of Phantom of the Opera was chosen for a screening at the Nitrate Picture Show. I was totally unenthusiastic about seeing yet another version of something I’ve already seen more times than I care to admit. The trailer calls it “[a] story the world can never forget,” but that’s only because Gaston Leroux’s damned story won’t go away.

As it turns out, I quite enjoyed Arthur Lubin’s version. He switches gears with Eric Taylor and Samuel Hoffenstein’s screenplay, ditching horror in favor of romance and melodrama. In the process, he brings a really nice camp factor to the whole thing—I didn’t expect that. His version is a sillier, more fun soapy affair than what I’m used to.

Claude Rains is sympathetic as Erique Claudin, the downsized middle-aged composer who becomes the masked phantom after his publisher (Miles Mander) “steals” his new composition. One of my favorite moments of the entire film is the publisher’s exasperated secretary (Renee Carson) throwing acid from a baking pan in Claudin’s face. It’s so bizarre, it’s actually funny. Even with his acid face, Claudin has a crazy plan for making beautiful young soprano Christine Dubois (Susanna Foster) a star, even if she’ll never return his love. Her female rivalry with diva Biancarolli (Jane Farrar) stews while Anatole (Nelson Eddy), the baritone knight in shining armor, combs the Paris Opera House for the malformed monster (that would be Claudin) who murders anyone in his way. Things get dicier the closer Anatole gets to Claudin.

Phantom of the Opera is a treat for the senses, which makes it perfect for a nitrate print. A rich Technicolor dream, it won Oscars for cinematography (W. Howard Greene and Hal Mohr) and art direction (John B. Goodman, Alexander Golitzen, Russell A. Gausman, and Ira S. Webb) (https://www.oscars.org/oscars/ceremonies/1944). Edward Ward’s score is lovely.

With Edgar Barrier, Leo Carrillo, J. Edward Bromberg, Fritz Feld, Frank Puglia, Steven Geray, Barbara Everest, Hume Cronyn, Elvira Curci, Kate Lawson

Production: Universal Pictures

Distribution: Universal Pictures (USA), General Film Distributors (GFD) (UK), Motion Picture Export Association (MPEA) (Netherlands), Realart Pictures Inc. (USA), Universal Filmverleih (West Germany)

92 minutes
Not rated

(Dryden Theatre) B-

Nitrate Picture Show

Anchors Aweigh

(USA 1945)

“What a time we had tonight, mmm!” In his 1945 New York Times review, Bosley Crowther called Anchors Aweigh a “Gay Musical Film” (http://www.nytimes.com/movie/review?res=9F0DE3DC103BEE3BBC4851DFB166838E659EDE). Well, duh!

I doubt Crowther meant “gay” in the current sense of the word, but he certainly wasn’t wrong either way: between all the singing, dancing, handsome sailors in tight pants, and a very young and wide-eyed Frank Sinatra acting out a creepy attachment to Gene Kelly, the only thing that could make Anchors Aweigh any gayer would be an appearance by Judy Garland. Or a raunchy sex scene with all those sailors and the admiral who, in one number (“We Hate to Leave”), said he would beat them with a whip. I half expected and kinda wanted it to happen, but of course it didn’t. Oh well.

As a reward for their bravery, Navy seamen Joe Brady (Kelly) and Clarence Doolittle (Sinatra) are given a four-day leave in Hollywood. Joe plans to hook up with his dame, Lola. After stalking him on the streets of Los Angeles, sweet and naive ex choir boy Clarence asks the apparently more experienced Joe to teach him how to meet girls.

Enter Donald (Dean Stockwell, whom most of us know as a middle-aged man from his many ’80s and ’90s movies), a little tyke who’s running away from home to join the navy. Our boys take him home, where Donald lives with his Aunt Susie (Kathryn Grayson), a nice girl trying to get into the movie industry—if only she could catch a break. Clarence immediately falls head over heels and enlists Joe’s assistance in wooing her, which provides the story here.

Even though (and probably because) the characters, plot, and dialogue are totally corny, Anchors Aweigh is truly a frothy blast—it’s exactly the kind of film that comes to mind when I think of classic Hollywood. A vivacious affair, director George Sidney keeps everything about it big: the sets, the songs, the dance numbers. I was particularly taken by one sequence involving Kelly and various animated figures—it culminates in an awesome song-and-dance with none other than Jerry Mouse of Tom and Jerry cartoons. Flawless!

The whole spectacle is tied up in an amazing Technicolor bow; Charles Boyle and Robert Planck’s color palette is gorgeous, and seeing it on a nitrate print literally left me breathless. From a sensory perspective, Anchors Aweigh was hands down my favorite film at this year’s Nitrate Picture Show.

As a side note, I must confess that one thing threw me for a loop: Kelly and Sinatra (and Grayson, for that matter) are young and beautiful here—not the old timers I’m accustomed to seeing having grown up when I did. They’re actually hot, even by today’s standards. Kelly upstages Sinatra throughout the entire film, which I found bizarre and quite amusing.

With José Iturbi, Pamela Britton, Grady Sutton, Rags Ragland, Billy Gilbert, William Forrest

Production: Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer

Distribution: Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer

143 minutes
Not rated

(Dryden Theatre) A-

Nitrate Picture Show

The Tales of Hoffmann

(USA 1951)

OMG, what the fuck is this? Yes, it’s the operatic epic of Hoffmann (though I still have no idea who the fuck he is) and three of the loves of his life. But…dude, man, FUCK!

Written, directed, and produced by famed Brits the Archers–Michael Powell and Emetic Pressburger–The Tales of Hoffman is an old school movie they just don’t make anymore. Visually, a stunning Technicolor wet dream complete with elaborate dance numbers, lavish costumes, and big trippy-ass sets. It’s serious eye candy with a major gay sensibility (I have no idea whether Powell and Pressburger were gay or not). It’s impressive for its scale alone, and certainly is unlike anything I’ve ever seen.

But what the fuck just happened? Clocking in at just over two hours, I thought The Tales of Hoffmann would never end. It’s pretty, but it’s long–it seems longer than it is. For me, it was probably sensory overload with not enough plot. Did I mention, what the FUCK?

(Music Box) D


Funny Girl

(USA 1968)

Barbra Streisand classic: ugly duckling Fanny Brice (Streisand) makes her way to the top via the stage. In the process, she meets a hot mystery man (Omar Sharif) who is not what he seems. A lengthy Technicolor melodrama in some ways was ahead of its time.

Despite its merits, I got bored: Funny Girl is long, winding, and corny. Plus, Babs gets on my nerves after about an hour and a half. I’ll stick with Madge—her movies suck, but she’s more fun and has more bite.

In 2016, the United States Library of Congress deemed Funny Girl “culturally, historically, or aesthetically significant” and selected it for preservation in the National Film Registry (https://www.loc.gov/programs/national-film-preservation-board/film-registry/complete-national-film-registry-listing/).

(Evanston Century) C+

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