I know I was too verbose in Pt. 1, so I will try to be more concise here in listing my #11 through #20. But it’s hard! These movies are so good!
11. Cinderella Man
Ron Howard hit it out of the park when he directed and produced the true story of one of boxing’s most underrated champions, James J. Braddock. The movie which screened in 2005 focuses on the up and coming Braddock (Russell Crowe) who was forced to give up boxing after he had a series of injuries in the ring. This was a tragedy especially considering the promise he had shown early on in his career. The main problem came via multiple breaks to his right hand on multiple occasions. This, in tandem with the Great Depression that was in full vigor at the time, caused Braddock to spiral downward, not able to find enough work as a laborer on the docks of New Jersey, a bar keep, shoveling coal, or anything else he could find. He was very limited as to what he could do without any skills beyond that of a simple laborer. And he had very little education.
As an ex-fighter down on his luck during the Depression, he reached such lows that he was forced to beg in order to feed his family. He even went back to his old manager and trainer to beg, which was a terribly humiliating affair for him.
With his life falling apart, and on the verge of losing everything, providence opened the door for him when a leading contender for the heavyweight crown, Corn Griffin, had a last minute cancellation of a fight due to an injury to his opponent. Braddock took the fight on two days notice, and without any training whatsoever (and hardly any food!), because he desperately needed the money to feed his family, and truly accomplished the impossible. Now that he was truly fighting for his family’s very survival, he was a new man. Braddock stunned the world when he knocked out Griffin in the third round, putting him back on the boxing map.
The $250 he won for this fight was quickly spent and he, once again, found himself and his family in desperate straights.
At this point Braddock was very much ashamed, but had to go on welfare at a meager $6 and some change per week. Later, after winning the heavyweight championship he would head back to that same welfare agency that had given him the money and pay back every penny! Is there a message in here anywhere for our modern-day entitlement mentality?
At any rate, because of his victory over Griffin, he was able to fight and win two more crucial fights over leading contenders (he was the heavy underdog in both of those fights), which would set him up to fight for the heavyweight championship of the world against the heavy-hitting Max Baer (Craig Bierko).
The movie accurately portrays Baer (Craig Bieras) not wanting to take the fight not because he thought he would lose to Braddock, but because he thought he would hurt him or worse. Baer had already killed two men in the ring with his devastating punching power. It was feared the same might happen to Braddock, whose injury-ridden body was feared to have seen its best days. So Baer urged Braddock not to take the fight.
Needless to say, James J. Braddock accomplished the unimaginable. He upset the reigning and seemingly unbeatable Max Baer and became the heavy weight champion of the world in what is, even to this day, considered one of the greatest upsets in boxing history. He truly was “the Cinderella Man.”
Cinderella Man portrays well Braddock’s Catholic Faith that kept him faithful to God and his family even during the worst of times. There is a touching scene where one of Braddock’s sons steals a loaf of bread from the local grocery store because they didn’t have food to eat at the Braddock household. Braddock tells his son, “We don’t steal,” and goes back with his son to the grocery store to return the loaf of bread. This brings Braddock to the breaking point and to his knees in prayer.
Braddock’s wife, Mae (Renee Zellweger), is also powerfully portrayed as the devout and loving wife and mother she truly was, who is torn between the realities of their impoverished situation and a love for her husband who refuses, at times, to accept their need for assistance. Perhaps Braddock’s absolute low point came when his wife had to take the children away from him and from their home for assistance when they could no longer afford heat in their home and when one of their children became deathly ill as a result. This was not long before his prayers would be answered and his family would be spared what appeared to be certain dissolution.
After What is Portrayed in the Movie – An Added Bonus
After winning the title in 1935, Braddock held it until he met a dynamic and powerful young fighter named Joe Louis, in 1937. Once again, even though he was champion, he was the heavy underdog. But even though Braddock’s right hand was already arthritic because of its many breaks, and his body was no longer able to do what it once could, he was able to knock the great Joe Louis down in the first round before being knocked out himself in the eighth.
After round six, Joe Gould, Braddock’s trainer, wanted to stop the fight, but Braddock refused. He told Gould he would never speak to him again if he stopped the fight. He was champ, he said, and he would not give up his championship until he was on the canvas.
After this fight, Braddock said he did not want to end his career on a loss, so he set up a fight with the up and coming #1 contender, Tommy Farr, in 1938. And guess what? Braddock was once again the heavy underdog to the younger and stronger Farr. And guess what? James Braddock once again he did what he did so many times before. He beat the unbeatable odds and won his final fight.
What a man! And what a story!
12. Mr. Deeds Goes to Town
Frank Capra was at it again! He won the Academy Award for Best Director in 1937 for this masterful Romantic Drama/Comedy. Gary Cooper played “Longfellow Deeds,” a simple and good-hearted guy from a small town in Vermont (the fictional “Mandrake Falls”), who was co-owner of a tallow works, a part-time writer for greeting cards, and a tuba player in the town band, who inherited 20 million dollars from his late uncle, Martin Semple, who had died in a car crash.
This is a beautiful story of how this simple man travels for the first time in his life to the big city to inherit this money and encounters all sorts of dishonesty and corruption that had surrounded his uncle and his uncle’s money. Deeds quickly discovers that everybody wants a piece of the action.
On the surface, Deeds is inept and naïve, however, in reality, and eventually all will discover, he’s the smartest guy in the room. Longfellow Deeds is always two steps ahead of all who try to take him for a ride. The worst of the lot is his uncle’s former attorney who had been pilfering funds for years from his uncle’s estate, John Cedar (Douglas Dumbrille). Cedar thought he could continue the scam without a problem now that this simple country bumpkin had inherited his former boss’s money. But he was in for a surprise!
Longfellow seemed to be steaming full steam ahead until he got taken by the gorgeous star reporter Louise “Babe” Bennett (Jean Arthur), who was not so much after Deeds’s money; rather, her angle was she was after his story to enhance her career. Bennett finds out about Deeds’s romantic fantasy of rescuing a damsel in distress and then masquerades as a poor girl, “Mary Dawson,” and pretends to faint from hunger and exhaustion after walking all day “trying to find a job.” All the while, she just wants “in” so that she too can use Deeds for her own purpose, just as just about everyone else was trying to do, only most were doing it just for the money. And btw, “Babe” just happened to “pass out” right in front of Deeds’s front gate!
And yes, she not only got “in,” but Deeds falls in love with her!
As the story progresses we see how Deeds becomes more and more jaded by all of the hypocrisy and greed around him. He doesn’t realize it, but his own humanity is ebbing away as well until he encounters a man from the streets and languishing in the poverty of the Depression who comes to Deeds’s newly inherited mansion to confront Deeds about the real world outside of his mansion’s doors where real people are suffering and starving while he toys around with his millions.
Deeds gets a heavy dose of reality that brings him back to his small-town senses and he determines he is going to give away the $20 million to those in need.
And that is where the story really begins!
John Cedar, the wicked and greedy attorney, can’t let Deeds give away all of his uncle’s money for obvious reasons so he concocts a plan to take Deeds to court and prove he’s insane–unfit to handle his uncle’s money. Of course, the money should stay in his uncle’s foundation to continue to be handled by Cedar and his crooked crew.
The Court scene at the end of the movie is brilliant. Watch as Deeds is reduced to rubble and seems to give up in the face of an onslaught of “evidence” against him to which he refuses to respond. It seems all is lost. Deeds is publicly crucified in the image of Christ. But at the last minute, as is so often the case with Capra movies, there is also resurrection in that same image of Jesus Christ. I will leave it there. You have to see the movie!
13. It Happened One Night
You may have figured out by now that I like Frank Capra. Three of my top 12 are Capra movies and there are two more coming soon!
But this one is special. A “must-see” among must-sees. In 1934, it was the first movie to ever win all five major categories of Oscars (Best Picture, Director, Actor, Actress, and Screenplay). Capra here created the genre of the Romantic Comedy, and to this day it has never been equaled within the genre.
Spoiled heiress Ellie Andrews (Claudette Colbert) is determined to free herself from the controlling clutches of her billionaire father, Alexander (Walter Connolly). As the movie begins, the father is demanding that she annul her brand new marriage to King Westley (Jameson Thomas), whom his father believes only wants her for her money. Ellie seems she is more interested in her marriage to spite her father than truly out of love for her husband. But the battle between father and daughter rages.
Alexander has her daughter on his yacht and is turning the screws on her when she literally jumps off the ship and swims for shore to get away from her father’s control. She is then forced to take a bus across the country, while hiding from her father who has put out an “all-points bulletin” to find her mind you, to get back to her husband when she encounters Peter Warne (Clark Gable), a newspaper reporter and man of the world, with whom she is about to have the adventure of her (and his, I might add) life.
The story takes them through many turns, ups, and downs, and not only on the bus. They begin not being able to stand each other. She especially despises him. But over time and circumstances they are brought to what at first seems the unthinkable conclusion of falling in love with each other. Yes, she gets the annulment. And yes, they do get together!
There are so many memorable scenes in this movie you are guaranteed to never forget, I could write a book here. But there is one aspect to this movie that really jumps to the fore for me every time I watch it. And I actually discovered it not by watching the movie, but by reading Frank Capra’s autobiography, “The Name Above the Title.” Discussing this movie, Capra makes the point that as sexually charged as this film is (and it is!), Peter Warne and Ellie Andrews actually never lay a glove on each other throughout! When I first read that, I mentioned it to my wife and we had to watch the movie again to see if it was so.
It was so.
In fact, they hardly touch, other than the famous scene on the bus when Ellie’s head accidentally ends up on Peter’s shoulder when both fell asleep on the bus. And this was during her “I can’t stand him” phase!
Capra had a remarkable ability to create sexual tension, not by the removal of clothing a la the modern movie where the art of storytelling has almost disappeared, but by creating situations and dialogue that lead you up to the proverbial water without having to throw you headlong into the trough!
They actually leave things to the imagination! Can you imagine that?
If you haven’t seen the movie, remember this line, “Behold, the Walls of Jericho!” The “walls” symbolize the divide of classes (rich and middle class) between them, the divide of personalities, temperament, world-view… just the divide that is between them in general. That “wall” would be broken down over the entire movie creating a truly sexy movie without sex! And when the “walls” represented by “the wall” finally come down? Well, you’ll just have to see it, folks!
And you’ll see what I mean by sexy without sex!
Nominated for five Academy Awards, and winning three, including Best Actor in a Supporting Role (Denzel Washington), this 1989 film is based on the true story of the first all-black volunteer military unit to fight for the Union during the Civil War, the 54th Regiment of the Massachusetts Volunteer Infantry. It consisted of all black men except for its officers.
The screenplay, written by Kevin Jarre, is based on the actual letters written by Colonel Robert Gould Shaw (played by Matthew Broderick) to his family telling the story of this heroic group of African American men whose bravery became legendary. Denzel Washington plays “Private Trip,” an escaped and hardened slave who is understandably suspicious of all white people, including Shaw, and this leads to difficulty between them.
Morgan Freemen plays a wise and elderly grave digger, promoted to Sergeant Major, John Rawlings, the highest ranking enlisted member of the 54th, who serves to mediate between Colonel Shaw and the men. Andre Braugher plays a bookish free African American from a privileged and highly educated background, Corporal Thomas Searles. And Jhimi Kennedy plays a timid freeman, Pvt. Jupiter Sharts, a symbol of the underdog who becomes a hero. Fearful and handicapped by a very serious stutter, Pvt. Sharts, along with the entire “54th,” performs remarkably–heroically–against all odds.
The main story among the many stories in the story (say that five times fast!), develops between Colonel Shaw (Matthew Broderick) Pvt. Trip (Denzel Washington), Sergeant Major Rawlings (Morgan Freeman), and Corporal Searles (Adre Braugher).
When Pvt. Trip comes to despise Corporal Searles, Sergeant Major Rawlings has to mediate between the two. Trip doesn’t trust any white man, including Shaw, nor does he trust the privileged Searles who he considers to be a dupe of the white man. And when Colonel Shaw steps into this situation and others that would be spawned through this interplay, the beauty of the story unfolds.
The evils of slavery and prejudice create one obstacle after another that drives a wedge between not just the White Colonel and his black regiment, but between the men themselves as they are, bit by bit, brought closer and closer together in their mutual desire to end the war and the slavery that is the underlying evil they all want to eliminate.
More and more the men come to see the pure motives of Colonel Shaw, and each other, in their common fight for liberty, but it would be the night before the final battle of the 54th under Colonel Shaw, the battle for Fort Wagner, on Morris Island, South Carolina, on July 18, 1863, that all seems to come together in the context of the men singing old Afro-American “spirituals,” as they are called, and making spontaneous prayer requests while the rest of the unit voices their support.
And that prayer service becomes the catalyst for the final scene that is moving beyond words. The 54th basically offer themselves as a collective sacrifice for the cause of freedom.
How fitting it is that the most important scene in the entire movie is unaccompanied by dialogue. No words could ever speak what is spoken in silence. Shaw and Trip never really come together in life. At least, not completely. Great gains are made through various situations and various experiences, but there were never any words that could ever bring about a true and complete reconciliation. In the words of Pvt. Trip, he says of slavery, the war, and everything, “It stinks. And we all caught up in it too. Ain’t nobody clean…”
Shaw agrees without comment.
However, the real healing, and the real unification between the races comes only in death. It came only when Shaw took the lead of the 54th, with sword drawn in full charge, into what was a virtually impossible task of taking Fort Wagner–a Fort that would never actually be taken throughout the remainder of the Civil War–and gave his life in full view of his men preparing to charge behind him. This act of selflessness sparked heroics that have literally gone down in the history of the annals of war as truly heroic.
But the healing would come, as I said, in death. After the battle, when the massive numbers of casualties were being pushed together for identification and ultimate burial, Shaw and Trip’s bodies fall together, united, absolutely equal, and equally honored for the great “men” that they were… no, that they are.
Again, in the words of Private Trip on his final night on this earth, during the 54th’s prayer service, “We men ain’t we… We men…”
Yes, they were. They all were.
One of the great final scenes in motion picture history.
15. Meet John Doe
Another Frank Capra movie. That’s right! This 1941 classic stars Gary Cooper and Barbra Stanwyck, along with Edward Arnold, Walter Brennan, James Gleason, Regis Toomey, and more.
Ann Mitchell (Barbara Stanwyck) gets laid off from her newspaper job and is “ordered” to write one final column even though the deed was already done. She was livid at the indignity of it. She decides to vent about the injustice she has experienced by venting about the injustice that so dominates the world of the depression-era 1930’s.
She decides to print a letter from a fictional down-on-his-luck character of her own creation she names “John Doe.” But she claims he is real. She creates this character who is unemployed himself and desperate and threatens to commit suicide on Christmas Eve as a protest against the injustice of society against “little guys” like him.
The letter causes such a sensation that the editor who had earlier laid off Mitchel, Henry Connell (James Gleason), is forced to re-hire her. They concoct a scheme to increase subscriptions to their paper by trying to find the anonymous “John Doe.” But when they invite “him” to come to their office a whole host of unemployed and homeless men show up to try and claim the title “John Doe.”
From the lot of characters who show up at the office and claim to have written the letter, they hire John Willoughby (Gary Cooper). He is a former up-and-coming baseball pitcher who hurt his arm, ruining his career. He needs money to get a surgery that could revitalize his hopes of being a major league baseball player.
Mitchell then creates a series of articles, claiming to be penned by Willoughby, that fleshes out more and more of the injustices of society that have kept the good Willoughby down and that keep down multitudes of other good men like him. This leads to a movement that begins to spiral into a national craze.
At first Willoughby is happy with it. He goes from dead broke to $50, a new suit, and a suite in a hotel with his friend from the streets “the Colonel” (Walter Brennan), and on to a proposition from the newspaper’s powerhouse publisher, D.B. Norton (Edward Arnold, who always plays a great bad guy!), to lead a national movement.
And Mitchell is happy as well because she not only gets her job back but is given a big raise to write speeches for Willoughby!
Everything begins to unravel, however, when a rival paper suspects fraud and offers Willoughby $5,000 to admit to it. Willoughby is an essentially good and innocent man who has been caught up in the whole affair in a moment of weakness and does not know what to do. He decides to turn down the offer from the rival paper and deliver a speech to an enormous crowd of supporters. Willoughby had reached the zenith of support among the masses.
Meanwhile, the evil Norton wants to use “John Doe” for his own political purposes. When Willoughby’s popularity is at its pinnacle, the plan is, he will throw his support to Norton, and ultimately, Norton’s presidential campaign.
The problem here is Willoughby is a man of conscience who begins to become conflicted about the morality of what he was doing. He runs away with his friend the Colonel. Things really get difficult, however, when he is recognized in a diner by a fan and brought to a meeting with Bert Hanson (Regis Toomey). Hanson informs Willoughby that he has started a “John Doe Club” that espouses the “John Doe Philosophy” to friends and neighbors. And this “John Doe Philosophy” takes the nation by storm. How can Willoughby let all these people down? Once again, he doesn’t know what to do!
Willoughby returns though he remains conflicted. The movement he sparked with the slogan, “Be a better neighbor” seemed to be so much bigger than him, he was compelled to go along with what is a ruse at his foundation. But his conscience is killing him!
Everything comes to a head when Norton’s secret plan is brought to light. When a massive “John Doe Rally” consisting of small “John Doe Clubs” from all across is organized, Norton decides to make his move. Norton orders Mitchell (who is falling in love with Willoughby) to include in Willoughby’s speech an announcement of the creation of a new political party with Norton as the head of the ticket.
Willoughby cannot bring himself to go along. He knows Norton is using him not to “be a good neighbor,” but to be the exact thing the “John Doe movement” is against. Norton is just another politician trying to use “the little guy” in order to consolidate his own hold on power.
All hell breaks loose when Norton discovers that Willoughby is going to expose him at the rally. Norton speaks first and exposes Willoughby as a fraud, and that he, Norton, had been deceived just like everyone else, leaving Willoughby powerless to try and speak the truth when it is his turn to speak. The crowd turns on him and he has to leave in disgrace.
All seems lost and so Willoughby decides the only thing to do is to carry through with the original fictional letter that got this entire movement started. He would commit suicide by jumping off of the roof of City Hall on Christmas Eve. And so he goes. Norton (the image of Satan himself), actually goes to the roof of City Hall as well encouraging “John Doe” to end it all. All seems lost.
As in most Frank Capra movies, “John Doe” becomes a Christ-figure. He’s honest and pure at his core in the midst of a relatively few evil men who have moved “the mob” against him. He seems to have failed at every turn, and to have let “the people” down.
But as is also the case in most Capra movies, a woman comes to the rescue in the image of the Blessed Virgin Mary. Mitchell rushes to the roof of City Hall and attempts to talk him out of jumping. Her speech is remarkable. In essence, she tells him there has already been another “John Doe” (Jesus Christ!) that has already died for all of humanity. There is no need for him to die. He needs to live! And then Hansen and a whole slew of “neighbors” come to the rescue as well. They arrive on the scene encouraging Willoughby against the wishes of the evil Norton. They will re-start the “John Doe Club” and even in the face of impossible odds, they will rebuild.
The final scene is most powerful with Mitchell fainting in Willoughby’s arms, but not before “John Doe” is convinced to carry on and live! It would be “the Colonel” who would say directly to Norton as this newly “resurrected” Willoughby and the “John Doe Movement” began to leave the roof of City Hall to begin to do the necessary work of restoring justice to society:
There you are, Norton! The people! Try and lick that!
16. The Bell’s of St. Mary’s
Released during the Christmas season of 1945, this Leo McCarey classic stars Bing Crosby (Fr. Charles “Chuck” O’Malley) and Ingrid Bergman (Sr. Superior Mary Benedict) and is a movie we Staples watch every Christmas. It was nominated for 8 Academy Awards, and surprisingly only won 1. Written by Dudley Nichols and based on a story by Leo McCarey about a “progressive” priest (“conservative” for our times, “unconventional” for 1945), Fr. O’Malley (Bing Crosby), who is tasked by his bishop to come into a parish and school, “St. Mary’s,” to assess whether the school should be closed. It is old and faltering.
Sr. Mary Benedict (Ingrid Bergman) is a stalwart nun who is determined, along with all of the sisters at the school, to save it from any thought of dissolution. The story centers on the rivalry and disagreements between Fr. O’Malley and Sr. Benedict that develops into a friendship, but not without some serious problems rooted in misunderstanding.
The film is actually a sequel to “Going my Way,” the 1944 classic (and my #17 in the list – see below) and winner of 8 Academy Awards including Best Actor for Bing Crosby.
It’s really not a Christmas movie, per se, but it has come to be associated with Christmas due to a very touching Christmas scene in the movie and the fact that it was originally a Christmas release, as I said above, in 1945.
Very much like the prequel, “Going My Way,” the movie centers on Fr. O’Malley, but it’s really not about him so much as it is about the lives around him that he touches through his self-less ministry. Fr. And Sr. will disagree about how to run the school, or how to help the soul in their care, but in the end they prove to be the perfect pair to bring God’s love and life to all involved.
All of Fr. And Sr.’s rivalries and disagreements come to a pinnacle when Sr. Benedict contracts tuberculosis and her doctor recommends it be kept from her and she be sent to a dry climate so she could better heal. When Fr. O’Malley obliges, Sr. thinks he’s having her sent away to spite her. There is a beautiful scene where Sr. kneels before the Blessed Sacrament and prays that God would “remove all bitterness” from her heart and that he would help her “to see [God’s] holy will in all things” with tears streaming down her face.
They just don’t make ’em like this anymore folks!
I will leave the ending for you to see. But keep some hankies close!
17. Going My Way
It was difficult for me to determine which of the two “Fr. O’Malley” movies to rank first. Both are so good! Bells of St. Mary’s won in a coin toss. But both are must-sees! “Going My Way” was released in 1944, starring Bing Crosby (Fr. O’Malley) and Barry Fitsgerald (Fr. Fitzgibbons), and was nominated for a whopping 10 Academy Awards, winning 7! And it was deserving of every one of them!
In this picture, Fr. O’Malley is sent by his bishop to be the administrator of a parish pastored by the aging and soon-to-be-retired priest (though he doesn’t know it!), Fr. Fitsgibbons.
Fr. O’Malley is the “unconventional” priest who had been a sportsmen, musician, singer, and quite “worldly” before he became a priest, while Fr. Fitzgibbons plays the more conventional and unbending priest. Fr. O’Malley masterfully maneuvers through the landmines of disagreement with Fr. Fitsgibbons, never letting on that he was to be the pastor’s replacement until the very end when the two had become fast friends.
Just as with “The Bells of St. Mary’s” the movie is really not about its star, “Fr. O’Malley.” In fact, you only get hints of his background throughout the movie. The movie is really about how Fr. touches each person, from the parish secretary, to some “ruffian” kids at the parish, to Fr. Fitsgibbons himself. I will tell you there is a touching scene where Fr. O’Malley arranges for Fr. Fitsgibbons’ mother to come all the way from Ireland to visit Father who hasn’t seen his mother whom he loves and often speaks of in decades. Their reunion is a real tear-jerker!
There is such beauty in “Going My Way” and such a positive portrayal of the Catholic Faith, and faith in God in general, that one cannot help but ponder how far our culture has fallen since 1944. I highly recommend you watch and enjoy!
What say we bring back a culture of faith, hope, and love that could produce such beauty once again!
18. The Fighting Sullivans
I consider myself an evangelist for this wonderful movie! And I am amazed at how many today have not seen it. If you are one of these, you must rectify the situation ASAP! This 1944 tear-jerker tells the true story of the five Sullivan brothers who died together on the USS Juneau during WWII (the Juneau was sunk off the Solomon Islands and they all perished November 13, 1942). The five brothers were the sons of Thomas (1883-1965), played by Thomas Mitchell, and Alleta Sullivan (1896-1972), played by Selena Royle, raised in the small town of Waterloo, Iowa. The brothers and their ages at their passing were:
George Thomas Sullivan, 27 (born December 14, 1914, played by James Cardwell) Francis “Frank” Henry, 26 (born Feb. 18, 1916, played by John Campbell) Joseph “Joe” Eugene, 24 (born Aug. 28, 1918, played by George Offerman) Madison “Matt” Abel, 23 (born Nov. 8, 1919, played by John Alvin) Albert “Al” Leo (born July 8, 1922, played by Edward Ryan)
The portrayal of the lives of these five heroes is priceless! Raised by a blue collar, working class rail-worker, who is big on discipline, and in a devoutly Catholic household, and add a doting and saintly Catholic mom, and older sister “Gen” (six kids total), and you have the stuff of endless and heart-warming family stories that we can all relate to. Especially if you are from a large family. I know I grew to love each and every one of these “fighting Sullivans” along with their whole family.
The nickname, “the Fighting Sullivans,” did not come from their military service. Let’s just say they met “the fighting Irish” stereotype perfectly. They were fighters. At their core, they were good and upstanding boys, but you didn’t want to mess with them. Because if you mess with one of them, you are going to get all five of them!
There is a great scene in the picture where the youngest Sullivan (little “Al”) is going to church for his first confession with his four brothers in tow. Sure enough, as he is confessing, some “bad boys” challenged “the fighting Sullivans” because of their reputations right outside of the church. And in short order, off they went to fighting! Just as little “Al” exits the confessional, he hears the commotion and knows immediately what’s happening. Of course, he has to first genuflect and bless himself with holy water, but out into the fray he goes to help his brothers in the fight!
They would later have to go to confession with their priest, “Fr. Francis” (played by Roy Roberts) who takes care of their sins holding back a smile when he hears the story! Believe it or not, the priest is actually portrayed as a strong man! When’s the last time you saw that from Hollywood?
The stories of their tight-knit family, strong father, loving mother, and much more, really serve to make their deaths all the more painful as you watch. Trust me, by the time these boys-become-men make the ultimate sacrifice, your insides are shredded! Get the tissues ready! Director Lloyd Bacon, and writers Edward Dougherty and Jules Schermer really know how to break the strongest of us who think we can get through this movie dry-eyed.
I am tempted to write a book here, but I will refrain myself as promised and leave you with one last tidbit. Every day, when their father left for his job as train engineer, the young Sullivan boys would sprint to and climb up on a water tower that overlooked the train tracks so they could waive to their dad as his train made its way down the tracks. Well, all those years later, after Lt. Commander Robinson (played by Ward Bond) brings the news of the deaths of all five of their sons home to Mr. and Mrs. Sullivan, dad is obviously in shock. While mom and sister “Gen” are weeping, you can see it just does not really sink in for dad. He is at a loss, but it just doesn’t seem real yet to Thomas Sullivan. The news came early in the morning just as Thomas was getting ready to leave for work, so in his state of shock he decides to just carry on. He decides to just go to work as “normal.” It would be what the boys would have wanted, right?
There is no doubt at all when it comes to the moment Mr. Sullivan really “felt” the news as real. It would be when his train begins to slowly roll out of the station and he looks over at that old water tower where hundreds of times before he would have seen his five boys waiving.
Did I mention you should get the tissues ready?
I really cannot believe this movie was only nominated for one Academy Award (best writing, original screenplay). It should have won multiple in my humble opinion.
19. Yankee Doodle Dandee
Nominated for 8 Academy Awards, winning 3 of them (Best Actor – James Cagney, Best Sound Recording, Best Musical Score), this is one of three musicals I had to include in my top 30, along with “The Sound of Music” (my #7), and “Singing in the Rain” (my #20 below). There are numerous memorable performances here including, of course, Cagney’s playing of George M. Cohan to perfection. Walter Huston plays Cohan’s father, Jerry Cohan, and was nominated for an Academy Award. Jerry Cohan’s dying scene with his son at his side is extremely moving. Joan Leslie plays Cohan’s wife, Mary, wonderfully, as does Rosemary DeCamp play George’s mother, “Nellie” Cohan. And then there were the performances of Cagney’s real-life sister, Jeanne, playing his on-screen sister, George Cohan’s sister, Josie, and Eddie Foy, Jr., playing his father… you guessed it Eddie Foy, Sr. in a cameo. There are a ton of memorable scenes in this movie. Far too many to recount here.
The movie begins with Cohan having been invited to the White House at the very beginning of WWII for President Franklin Delano Roosevelt to give him the Congressional Gold Medal, the highest ranking award (along with the Congressional Medal of Freedom) that can be given to non-military persons because of his contributions to World War I morale, and in particular for his songs “You’re a Grand Old Flag” and “Over There.” At the end of the picture, it portrays well that fact that already his music was being used for the build-up to and overall national effort to win WWII that had just begun.
In fact, the final scene gets me every time. Just after leaving the White House after receiving his reward from FDR, he happens upon a parade complete with bands, soldiers, and the whole enchilada, and they just happen to be playing his son, “Over There.” With tears in his eyes, he begins to march with the soldiers when one of them (Frank Faylen, whom you’ll remember as “Ernie Bishop” the cab driver from It’s a Wonderful Life that would be made four years later) says, “What’s the matter, old timer, don’t you know the words?”
Cohan says, “Yes, I know the words!” And with tears streaming he begins to march and sing. Wow!
I know his songs, “Give My Regards to Broadway,” “Yankee Doodle Dandee,” “Over There,” and “It’s a Grand Old Flag” bring back memories for me personally. We learned these songs in elementary school in the late 60’s and 70’s. They truly bring tears to my eyes whenever I hear them. Well, maybe not “Give My Regards,” but the other three bring on the tears.
But the beauty of this movie is the back-story that begins when FDR asks Mr. Cohan about his past. The substance of the movie is George’s recounting of his family’s career as “the Four Cohans” from the time he was a cocky kid until he flourished both with and after he performed with his family. This story really pack it in. You have kind of story within the story in this movie. Everything from romance, to father/son and every other kind of family relationships, drama, war, and of course, the unforgettable song and dance routines of George M. Cohan and “the Four Cohans.” Absolutely beautiful!
From an Irish-immigrant family, George wore his patriotism on his sleeve most especially, but you will also hear in his songs hints of his love of God and family as well. A Catholic who died within the bosom of Holy Mother Church (even though he did have some problems early on, like a divorce in his very young years), his entire life was given to his country, to his family, and to his God right up until he died an untimely death of cancer shortly after receiving the Congressional Medal that opens the movie. He was only 64 years old.
One thing is certain, and you will know it to be true when you see this movie and hear even some of his lengthy list of songs. That music and the spirit of the music of George M. Cohan will live forever!
20. Singing in the Rain
This is my kids’ favorite musical. Neck-in-neck anyway with “the Sound of Music.” Starring the unbelievably talented trio of Gene Kelly (Donald Lockwood), Debbie Reynolds (Kathy Selden), and Donald O’Conner (Cosmo Brown), this is the story of these three “hoofers” devising a plan to Don Lockwood’s career from tanking after a difficult transition, shall we say, from silent films where Don was a star, to “talkies” where his first attempt is a bomb.
The level of talent in his movie is off the charts. And not just what is probably the most famous musical number in motion picture history, the “Singing in the Rain” scene where Gene Kelly dances through a downpour, but number after number in this picture will leave you breathless and reaching for the remote “rewind” button.
My favorite is the famous “make ’em laugh” scene where Cosmo Brown takes that old vaudeville song to new heights with his incredible physical comedy as he sings the song. Check it out here:
C’mon! You’ve got to watch it just for that! But this movie really has it all. You have off-the-charts song and dance, romance, nostalgia, a great little story, as well as a great performance by the anything-but-ditzy Jean Hagen playing “ditzy Lina Lamont,” Millard Mitchell playing a “ditzy” studio executive, R.F. Simpson, and a cameo by a not even legal Rita Moreno.
And then, I must mention, there is the amazing Cyd Charisse who plays an unnamed dream dancer. Well, you just have to see it. I’ll give you a hint. It’s CYD CHARISSE. So you can see why it involves a dream sequence!