Tag Archives: American Film Institute

Director: John Huston

John Huston was a talented director, having produced films such as The Maltese Falcon and The Treasure of the Sierra Madre. But he was also an outstanding actor and screenwriter. Uploaded by seetimaar.blogspot.com.

With the ease of editing using today’s technologies, it’s not unusual for directors to shoot a lot of scenes, a lot of takes per scene, and then to make the movie in the editing suite. That’s not how John Huston worked. He sketched each scene before shooting it, placed the actors deliberately, and made his movies as he was filming them. His pictures usually came in under budget as well.

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From his first movie in 1941 to his last in 1987, he set a standard for excellence. Among his films:

  • Maltese Falcon (1941 – writer)
  • The Treasure of the Sierra Madre (1948 – writer)
  • Key Largo (1948 – writer)
  • The Asphalt Jungle (1950)
  • The African Queen (1951 – writer)
  • Moulin Rouge (1953 – writer)
  • The Misfits (1960)
  • The Night of the Iguana (1964 – writer)
  • The Man Who Would Be King (1975 – writer)
  • Prizzi’s Honor (1985)

In addition to his direction duties, Huston also wrote many of his films. He won the Oscar for Best Director and Best Screenplay for The Treasure of the Sierra Madre. He was a skillful actor as well, having parts in several dozen films. Huston received the Life Achievement Award from the American Film Institute in 1983.

Film: Schindler’s List

Schindler's List is the most expensive black and white film ever made. Without adjusting for inflation, though, it's also the highest-grossing b/w film ever made. Uploaded by scenicreflections.com.

Schindler’s List is Stephen Spielberg’s masterpiece. And that’s quite a statement. It tells the true story of German businessman Oskar Schindler, a not particularly sympathetic character at first who exploits cheap Jewish labor in his factory. However, he comes to see the true horror of the holocaust, and saves the lives of some 1,100 Jews.

Spielberg (Great American Things, July 22, 2009) directed Schindler’s List to have  a documentary look. He said he “got rid of the crane, got rid of the

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Steadicam, got rid of the zoom lenses, got rid of everything that for me might be considered a safety net.” Shot in black and white, it’s said that no green items were allowed on the set because green didn’t look good on black and white film.

The film earned Best Picture honors and Spielberg was selected Best Director in the 1994 Academy Awards. It also took home five other Oscars. The American Film Institute’s list of 100 Years…100 Movies put Schindler’s List at number 8 – the only movie made since 1980 to place in the top 20.

Actor: Buster Keaton


When Keaton was a boy, he performed in a vaudeville act with his father. He loved doing the act, but noticed he got fewer laughs when he showed his enjoyment, more when he showed no expression. He carried that knowledge into his films. Uploaded by 2ndstorylaughter.com.

Is Keaton an excellent actor who could also direct, or an excellent director who could also act? I think of him first as an actor, whose stoic visage is second only to Charlie Chaplin’s “Little Tramp” as an icon of the silent film era. But he’s revered among film cognoscenti as a director, not just one of the best of his age, but of all time.

Photo by Ruth Harriet Louise.

Keaton had writers for his films, but conceived of most of the comedic bits himself. Working without a stuntman, he often took great physical risks. In one memorable scene in the movie Steamboat Bill Jr., Keaton had to stand in an exact spot. Then, the several-ton façade of a building fell on him, leaving Keaton uninjured because he stood where an open window landed. It was a huge risk with an incredibly small margin for error, but typical of the physical comedy he loved.

Keaton’s masterpiece was The General, a comedy/drama set during the Civil War. It didn’t perform that well at the box office, because people were still uncomfortable laughing at the Civil War – and because many of its good guys were Confederates. Even so, a 2002 poll by the British film magazine Sight & Sound named The General as the 15th best film of all time. And in an interview, no less of an expert than Orson Welles called the movie the best comedy of all time, and maybe the best film. Entertainment Weekly named Keaton the seventh-best director of all time, and the American Film Institute placed him as 21st on its list of the greatest male actors of all time.

Watch these clips. Brilliant.

Actress: Greta Garbo


Garbo is noted for her quote, "I want to be alone." In 1954 she won an honorary Oscar for her screen career, but didn't show to get the statue. I guess she really did want to be alone. Uploaded by wallpapermenu.com.

Few actors or actresses made the transition from silent films to talkies while maintaining their popularity. Greta Garbo was a clear exception. Born in Sweden as Greta Gustafsson, she made several hugely popular silent movies, including Flesh and the Devil (1926) and A Woman of Affairs (1928). She feared her Swedish accent would be her undoing with sound, but she needn’t have worried. The publicity campaign was “Garbo talks!”, and she became the queen of MGM throughout the 1930s.

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Did she ever say, “I want to be alone”? Yes, in the 1932 film Grand Hotel. The American Film Institute voted it the 30th most popular movie quote of all time. Though she was certainly a private woman, she disputed the characterization of her by the press as an eccentric . “I never said, ‘I want to be alone,'” she explained. “I only said, ‘I want to be let alone.’ There is all the difference.”

Garbo was nominated for four Academy Awards (Romance, 1930; Anna Christie, 1930; Camille, 1938; and Ninotchka, 1940) but never won. She did receive an honorary Oscar in 1955 for her lifetime of performances. (She didn’t show up to receive the award.) Daily Variety voted her Best Actress of the Half Century in 1950. And the AFI named her number 5 in its list of Greatest Screen Legends. Garbo, who worked in the USA most of her life and lived in New York after retiring from films, became a naturalized U.S. citizen in 1951.

Film: It’s a Wonderful Life


In the movie's climactic scene, George Bailey runs to his family down the street of Bedford Falls in the snow. But the performers suffered - it was 90 degrees the day the scene was filmed. Uploaded by movieforum.com.

(Originally posted December 1, 2009)

This movie is shown on TV at Christmas, but it’s not really a Christmas movie. It just happens that its climactic scenes take place during the season. It’s a film about – well, about the goodness of ordinary people. And second chances. And sacrifice.

It’s a Wonderful Life was originally planned as a vehicle for Cary Grant. But he was never pleased with the scripts developed, and decided to make another

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Christmas movie, The Bishop’s Wife, instead. Frank Capra then bought the rights, but still had a difficult time getting a script he liked. Though he may not have known it at the time, when he cast Jimmy Stewart (Great American Things, April 8, 2009) as George Bailey, he ensured that his film would be revered forever.

The box office wasn’t kind to the movie, however. It had the bad fortune to be released one week after The Best Years of Our Lives (Great American Things, May 25, 2009), which turned out to be the highest-grossing film of the decade, and which also took most of the Academy Awards for which It’s a Wonderful Life was nominated.

The American Film Institute named it number 11 in its 100 Years…100 Movies awards. And Jimmy Stewart’s performance was chosen as the eighth greatest performance of all time by Premiere magazine. Both Stewart and Capra said that It’s a Wonderful Life was their favorite film. “The film has a life of its own now,” Capra said in 1984, “and I can look at it like I had nothing to do with it. I’m like a parent whose kid grows up to be president. I’m proud… but it’s the kid who did the work. I didn’t even think of it as a Christmas story when I first ran across it. I just liked the idea.”

Film: Miracle on 34th Street


The American Film Institute has named Miracle on 34th Street number 9 on its list of most inspiring films, and the number 5 fantasy film. Uploaded by katiethoughts.wordpress.com.

Does Santa Claus really exist? Edmund Gwenn has made believers out of generations of movie lovers thanks to his performance as Kris Kringle in Miracle on 34th Street. This film, which also starred Maureen O’Hara and a very young Natalie Wood, is in the pantheon of Christmas classics that are a must-see every Christmas season. For me, the other movies in that category are Scrooge (the musical with Albert Finney), It’s a Wonderful Life, A Christmas Story, and White Christmas.

Uploaded to Flickr by djabonillojr.2008.

20th Century-Fox studio head Darryl F. Zanuck was not enthusiastic about making this movie. It seemed just too corny for him. Director George Seaton eventually won him over, but only after agreeing to direct the next three films of Zanuck’s choosing. Zanuck also believed that the largest audience for movies is in the summer, so in spite of Miracle on 34th Street’s content, he dictated that it be released in May. The studio’s  marketing department had to promote the movie without letting on that it took place at Christmas. Watch the trailer below to see how they accomplished this.

Miracle on 34th Street won four Academy Awards, losing out for Best Picture to Gentleman’s Agreement. The American Film Institute ranked it number nine in its list of inspiring movies, and as the number five fantasy movie of all time.



Film: Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs


Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs featured a lot of firsts: first American full-length animated film, first in Technicolor, first to have a soundtrack recording, first to have merchandising. Uploaded by images2.fanpop.com.

Computer animation can be a marvelous thing, and studios such as Pixar have taken it to a new level of excellence. So it’s hard to imagine what a marvel Snow White was when it was released in 1937. It was the first American full-length animated feature, and the first ever produced by the master himself, Walt Disney (Great American Things, April 14, 2009). It’s the first to have a soundtrack released, and the first to have merchandising support.

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Also hard to believe today is that most of those closest to Walt Disney tried to talk him out of making the film, including his brother Roy and his wife. “No one’s going to pay a dime to see a dwarf picture,” she said.  Walt thought it would cost $250,000 to produce, and ended up as a then unheard of $1.5 million. Disney had to mortgage his home to get the picture finished. The industry called it “Walt Disney’s Folly.”

But audiences loved it. It became the highest-grossing film of all time, a distinction it held for one year (Gone With the Wind). The movie earned Disney an honorary Academy Award “as a significant screen innovation which has charmed millions and pioneered a great new entertainment field.” The American Film Institute has named it number 34 in its 100 Years…100 Movies series, and the number one animated film of all time.

Film: A Few Good Men

Jack Nicholson is wonderful as the arrogant Col. Jessup. Uploaded by i.cdn.turner.com.

Jack Nicholson is wonderful as the arrogant Col. Jessup. Uploaded by i.cdn.turner.com.

I’m a big fan of Aaron Sorkin’s writing. (You’ll eventually see a couple of his TV series in this list.) And A Few Good Men is, above all else, a wonderfully written film.

It starred Tom Cruise back when we liked him. And a wonderfully pompous Jack Nicholson. Even the minor parts were wonderfully cast, with Cuba Gooding, Jr., Kiefer Sutherland, Noah Wyle, Christopher Guest, and J.T. Walsh demonstrating why they would go on to be bigger stars.

Uploaded by japattie.info.

Uploaded by japattie.info.

A Few Good Men is essentially a courtroom drama that climaxes in the famous “I want the truth!” “You can’t handle the truth!” confrontation between Cruise and Nicholson. “You can’t handle the truth” was selected as the 29th greatest movie quote of all time by the American Film Institute. The AFI also ranked the movie as the fifth greatest courtroom drama ever.

Oh, one story that’s the kind of lore we love about movies. A defendent that Tom Cruise’s character Lt. Kaffee defends was Lance Corporal Harold Dawson, played by Wolfgang Bodison. But Bodison never tried out for the part – he was working as a location scout for the film. Director Rob Reiner thought he looked like a Marine, and suddenly Bodison had an acting career.

Film: The Maltese Falcon

Bogart and Astor on the poster, not Lorre and Greenstreet. Duh. Uploaded by content.artofmanliness.com.

Bogart and Astor on the poster, not Lorre and Greenstreet. Duh. Uploaded by content.artofmanliness.com.

Dashiell Hammett wrote the book. John Huston directed the film. And Humphrey Bogart made it memorable.

The Maltese Falcon, which premiered in 1941, is usually considered the first entry in the film noir genre. It was Huston’s directorial debut, and also marked the first film appearance of the corpulent Sydney Greenstreet. Also in major parts were the lovely Mary Astor and the supremely creepy Peter Lorre.

Uploaded to Flickr by SonomaPicMan.

Uploaded to Flickr by SonomaPicMan.

The movie was made with three variations from typical filmmaking techniques that would amaze the modern movie maker. First, the entire film was shot in sequence, which the actors loved. Second, production was so meticulously planned that almost no lines of dialogue were cut. And third, much of the dialogue was taken directly from the novel. Imagine that, respecting the source material.

The film was nominated for three Academy Awards, but didn’t win. It battled for Best Picture against Citizen Kane (Great American Thing No.: 110), Here Comes Mr. Jordan, Suspicion, and the winner, How Green Was My Valley. The American Film Institute named it the number 32 Greatest Movie of All Time, and number 6 in the Mystery genre.

Film: The Sound of Music

I want to visit Austria and stand in this very field. Uploaded by 1.bp.blogspot.com (Gannett News Service/Fox Video).

I want to visit Austria and stand in this very field. Uploaded by 1.bp.blogspot.com (Gannett News Service/Fox Video).

There aren’t many good musicals made anymore, probably because they don’t typically involve explosions, aliens, or extensive computer graphics that appeal to males under 25. But there was a time, not that long ago, when musicals were among the best movies made. Singin’ in the Rain. Oliver. And one of the best of all time, The Sound of Music.

Based on the stage musical by Rogers and Hammerstein (Great American Things No. 92) The Sound of Music tells the story of Austria’s von Trapp family as they broke in a new governess (Julie Andrews) and reclaimed a brokenhearted father (Christopher Plummer). It’s filled with wonderful songs – “Climb Every Mountain,” “Do Re Mi,” “Edelweiss,” “My Favorite Things,” and of course, “The Sound of Music.”

"Do we have to sing Do-Re-Mi again?" Uploaded by theage.com.au. One bit of trivia I find interesting is that “Edelweiss” is not the traditional song of the Austrian homeland as portrayed in the movie. In fact, it was written by Oscar Hammerstein and was entirely unknown in Austria before the movie. The country has embraced it wholeheartedly now, as you might imagine.

Other casting facts: Although Mary Martin originated the role on Broadway (that’s some resume, along with South Pacific and Peter Pan), Audrey Hepburn was the first actress considered for the role of Maria… Sean Connery and Richard Burton were considered for the role of Captain von Trapp… Actors who auditioned for one of the child roles include Richard Dreyfuss, Kurt Russell, Patty Duke, and most of the Osmond family.

Adjusted for inflation, The Sound of Music is the third-highest-grossing film of all time, behind Gone with the Wind and Star Wars. The film was nominated for ten Academy Awards and won five, including Best Picture. In 2007, The American Film Institute’s 100 Years…100 Movies ranked it number 40 all time, and gave it the number four spot on its 100 Musicals list.