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Underdog Classics

Underdog Classics

The film community has their debutantes—To Kill a Mockingbird, The Apartment, Rocky—which they give white gloves and throw parties for with cringe-worthy consistency (see: every AFI list ever). But who’s making a big deal over the underdogs? Here are two yet-to-be-crowned classics. See them for yourself, and spread the news.

Hopscotch (1980) (R)

Brian Garfield, who adapted Hopscotch from his novel, describes it as an exciting adventure story in which “nobody gets scratched, let alone killed.” There is not a moment of danger or even doubt at how it will end; it defiantly challenges the viewer’s very reason for watching. In spite of this, or because of this, it is one of the most entertaining balances of spoof and straightforward ever made.

Miles Kendig (Walter Matthau), a CIA agent who tends to do things his way rather than the agency’s, is suddenly demoted. Rather than sweating out his time until pension behind a desk, Kendig visits an old flame and former agent, Isobel (Glenda Jackson). While staying at her Austrian chateau, he begins writing a tell-all memoir that pulls down the pants of every intelligence agency in the world, which he sends out one chapter at a time. Everyone of every nationality wants him dead. The globetrotting, cat-and-mouse game is on.

There’s a class of films that construct impossibly clever situations featuring impossibly clever people, and—because an impossibly talented group of artists execute it so well—we’re weightless with a kind of reverent joy. It’s the soul of filmmaking. Hopscotch does this. So does Charade. So does The Thin Man.

And like William Powell and Myrna Loy, Walter Matthau and Glenda Jackson have an almost telepathic chemistry. In their first scene (suggested by Matthau), they have a conversation about wine, and within seconds, we already know everything about them.

Along the way Kendig makes some playfully pointed observations of American policy: “Whose bright idea was it to send the box of poisoned cigars to Castro?” and “Ridiculous attempt to assassinate Francois Duvalier by bombing the presidential palace.”

But through it all you can’t take your eyes of Matthau; he’s an actor who always seems to be getting away with something. Without him, the movie’s just comedy. With him, it’s classic.

Love Me Tonight (1932)

To watch Love Me Tonight is to watch the invention and reinvention of the modern musical. It features a Stomp-like rhythm sequence and characters that half-speak, half-sing the songs. The camera films in front of mirrors and slides through huge on-location crowds—common conventions for Gene Kelly and Stanley Donen, but this is 1932, just six years after the creation of sound, and the musical is an infant taking its first steps. Love Me Tonight turns cartwheels.

The pre-screwball plot concerns the rakish Maurice Courtelin (Maurice Chevalier, one of musical history’s male elders), a Parisian tailor who has made a new set of suits for the Viscount Gilbert (Charles Ruggles), a high-class, low-morals heel who has yet to pay him. When a credit manager informs Maurice that no one in their right mind would make anything for Gilbert without having him pre-pay, Maurice decides to take the suits to Gilbert’s chateau himself and demand payment.

On the road to the chateau, Maurice meets Princess Jeanette (the supernaturally-gifted soprano Jeanette McDonald) and is taken with her, while she is mostly taken aback: “Aren’t you a little insane?” “Yes. Let me sing for you.” “You are insane.” When Maurice arrives at the chateau, Gilbert is floored but quickly introduces him as a friend (of royal blood) to avoid his uncle’s wrath. The entire family becomes infatuated with Maurice, save the reluctant Jeanette. But how long can she resist? And how long can Maurice and Gilbert keep up the act?

This parade of visual firsts is what’s initially impressive, but technical wizardry does not a musical make (a principle Gene Kelly and Stanley Donen wrestled with). At best, it’s the ribcage around the heart. In Love Me Tonight’s case, the heart’s even bigger than the ribcage.

The very motivation for music—emotion—is captured here for the first, and maybe best, time. The cast actually bursts into song, in whatever voice they have, for the indescribable exhilaration of living, loving, losing. It helps that they’re performing one of the finest scores ever written for film: the music is by Richard Rogers (yes, that Rogers) and Lorenz Hart.

The score blends music and plot so indistinguishably that it’s one continuous thought; at one point, Maurice Chevalier begins singing “Isn’t it Romantic?” and the tune proceeds to travel onto the street, into a cab, on a train, with a group of marching soldiers, into a gypsy camp and up a balcony to Princess Jeanette’s ear. In that moment, Love Me Tonight becomes more than a musical: it becomes the essence of music.

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