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Stanford Theatre: One-way ticket to Hollywood’s golden age

Courtesy of United Artists

The Stanford Theatre’s fall program of classic American films kicked off with a bang on Wednesday, first featuring the fantastic Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers 1930s musical, “Top Hat” (Oct. 12-14). Like most musicals, the plot is just an excuse for phenomenal song-and-dance numbers set to many wonderful and famous Irving Berlin tunes (like “Cheek to Cheek” and “Top Hat”), but this one does have the best plot of the Astaire and Rogers films. As these films go, Astaire and Rogers meet; he falls in love yet she hates him; he sings and dances his way into her heart. Although the film was shot over 70 years ago, the dance numbers are still some of the best to ever be captured on film. There’s also the added pleasure of hilariously terrible Venetian sets and the ever-helpful butler Bates, who refers to himself in the plural as “we.” “The Gay Divorcee,” another Astaire and Rogers picture, is equally well packed with fabulous dance numbers, but its lackluster plot makes it a close second to “Top Hat.”

Robert Mulligan’s “To Kill a Mockingbird” (1962, Oct. 15-16) is another must-see. This reasonably faithful adaptation of Harper Lee’s novel stars Gregory Peck in an Academy Award-winning performance as Atticus Finch, upstanding lawyer and loving father. Though the film leaves out some of the best bits of the novel, Peck’s strong performance more than makes up for the exclusions.

December features two must-see Katharine Hepburn films that remain inspirational to feminists even today. John Huston’s 1951 film, “African Queen” (Dec. 3-4), pairs Hepburn with Humphrey Bogart, the captain of a boat, to deliver mail during World War I. When an enemy sets the local village on fire, Hepburn escapes on Bogart’s boat and decides they ought to attack the enemy while they’re at it. Her performance is more mature than her earlier work, and the romance with Bogart is surprisingly modern for the time.

Courtesy of Columbia Pictures

The second Hepburn screening is the wonderful but under-appreciated 1937 film, “Stage Door” (Dec. 14-16), about aspiring Broadway actresses in a boardinghouse in New York City. Ginger Rogers co-stars in a role that proves she is, in fact, a serious actress. “Stage Door” is a wonderful comedy with hilarious dialogue spoken by strong, gutsy women that could equally well belong in contemporary society.

Fans of Orson Welles can catch “The Third Man” (1949) and “Citizen Kane” (1941) on Oct. 15 and 16. The first is a classic of film noir and offers a tour of 1940s Vienna, while “Citizen Kane” is Orson Welles’s technical masterpiece in every way.

The Stanford Theatre will also feature more cinematic classics such as Frank Capra’s “It Happened One Night” (1934, Nov. 16-18) which features a naive heiress (Claudette Colbert) and a reporter (Clark Gable) who meet on the road and eventually fall in love. It’s an outdated story but has influenced films from “Roman Holiday” with Gregory Peck and Audrey Hepburn–where it’s a day in Rome and she’s a princess, not just an heiress–to Rob Reiner’s “The Sure Thing” with John Cusack, also featuring a couple who falls in love on the road.

And now the ones to avoid: “The Shop Around the Corner” (1940, Dec. 21-23), on which Nora Ephron’s “You’ve Got Mail” is loosely based, is about a pair of lovers (including James Stewart) who fall in love while writing love letters to one another, unaware that they’ve already met. It’s too old-fashioned and corny to be bearable for a modern audience, as is the 1934 film “Little Women” (Dec. 14-16) with Katharine Hepburn as Jo March. The film is a melodramatic interpretation that takes all kinds of liberties with the story and manages to completely pluck out the revolutionary gutsiness of Jo March, in which the heart of the story lies.

Yes, you can rent most of these from Green Library, but seeing classic films on the big screen is a completely different experience: you won’t be interrupted by laundry or emails and can get lost in the film instead. And if you have to watch it for a class, seeing it in the theater means you can’t turn it off halfway through, which for the aspiring cinematic scholar can be reason enough to drag yourself out to downtown Palo Alto to see it.

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