One of my favorite childhood memories was a weekly television series in my home town of Chicago called Family Classics, hosted by local children’s TV star Frazier Thomas. My family watched it together each week, and that made it extra special. It was the beginning of my interest in old movies.
I thought of that series when I heard that Turner Classic Movies has announced Essentials Jr., a family-friendly companion piece to its superb “Essentials” series of classic films. Starting just as school lets out for the summer, this is a wonderful opportunity for families to sit down together with Blackberrys, iPods, cell phones and everything else turned off and enjoy the films together.
TCM Essentials Jr. will offer parents the perfect opportunity to introduce their kids to such classics as National Velvet (1944 – airing June 1), The Courtship of Eddie’s Father (1963 – June 15), Harvey (1950 – June 29) and Meet Me in St. Louis (1944 – July 13). The new showcase demonstrates TCM’s ongoing commitment to cultivating the next generation of classic movie fans. Like the network’s popular Essentials franchise, TCM Essentials Jr. will provide background on the movies and what makes them a must-see for people of all ages.
It is co-hosted by Chris O’Donnell (“Scent of a Woman”) and Abigail Breslin (“Little Miss Sunshine,” “Nim’s Island”), who both appear in the new film, “Kit Kittredge: An American Girl.”
It opens tonight with one of my very favorite films for families, “National Velvet,” starring Elizabeth Taylor and Mickey Rooney. Enjoy!
Dad does not need a new tie! Make him some breakfast in bed and a hand-made card and then how about some DVDs the family can share and enjoy together?
If Dad is in his 50’s, he’ll enjoy some of the television shows from his childhood collected in Hiya Kids! A 50’s Saturday Morning Box. It includes “Kukla, Fran And Ollie,” “Howdy Doody,” “Flash Gordon,” “Lassie,” “Annie Oakley,” “Ding Dong School,” “Time For Beany,” “The Paul Winchell Show,” “The Roy Rogers Show,” “Captain Z-RO,” “The Rootie Kazootie Club,” “Winky Dink And You,” “Super Circus,” “Andy’s Gang,” “The Cisco Kid,” “Sky King,” “The Magic Clown,” “Kids And Company,” “Juvenile Jury,” “The Pinky Lee Show,” and “Sheena, Queen Of The Jungle.” At least a couple of them are guaranteed to bring back memories.
As promised, here is my follow-up to the list of great movie professors, great movie high school teachers. Another list of grade school teachers is in the works so stay tuned.
10. Dead Poets Society Robin Williams inspires his students not just with the thrill of poetry but with the thrill of independent thinking.
9. To Sir, With Love Sidney Poitier stars in this fact-based story of a teacher in a poor neighborhood in the East End of London. He teaches them the importance of respect for themselves and each other, starting with calling him “Sir.” You can also see Poitier as part of an unruly class with a dedicated young teacher in Blackboard Jungle.
8. Coach Carter What makes this fact-based story different from the usual inspiring-coach-shows-underdog-team-how-to-work-hard-and-help-each-other is that all that is just the beginning of the story. The team is undefeated on the court, but Coach Carter (Samuel L. Jackson) benches them all because their academic performance is not up to his standards.
7. Up the Down Staircase Sandy Dennis is the young, idealistic teacher almost swallowed up in an enormous New York high school, based on the fact-based novel by Bel Kaufman.
6. The Trouble with Angels Jane Trahey’s memoir of her experience in a Catholic girls’ boarding school inspired this rollicking story of rebellious students (Hayley Mills and June Harding) and the Mother Superior (Rosalind Russell) who understands them better than they thought. See also: Whoopi Goldberg teaching parochial school students played by future stars Jennifer Love Hewitt and Lauren Hill in “Sister Act 2.” The wonderful Mary Wickes appears as a nun in both movies.
5. Mr. Holland’s Opus Like many of the teachers in these films, Mr. Holland (Richard Dreyfuss) does not let the bureaucracy and his own conflicts about whether he wants to teach prevent him from touching the lives of a generation of students. Watch for Terrance Howard in a small role. And I dare you not to cry in that last scene.
4. Goodbye, Mr. Chips Robert Donat beat Clark Gable’s performance as Rhett Butler for the Best Actor Oscar in his role as “Mr. Chips,” who overcomes his initial shyness and reserve to become an inspiring figure in the lives of three generations of boys.
3. October Sky Another real-life story, this time based on a book by the grateful student who was so inspired by the science teacher (played by Laura Dern) in his tiny mining town school that he became a NASA rocket scientist. Be sure to wait for the clips of the real-life teacher during the ending credit sequence.
2. OT:OUR TOWN. A Famous American Play in an Infamous American Town This is not based on a real-life story — it is a real-life story, a documentary about a teacher who has her inner-city students put on a production of those most venerable (if white-bread) of American plays, Thornton Wilder’s “Our Town.” Watching the students really make the story their own makes this a mesmerizing film and as we watch, we, too, become part of the lucky classroom of teacher Catherine Borek. Other great documentaries about real-life teachers include “He Makes Me Feel Like Dancin'” and the follow-up Who’s Dancin’ Now?, “Small Wonders,” which inspired the Meryl Streep movie “Music of the Heart,” and the magnificent French film about a one-room schoolhouse, To Be and to Have.
1. Stand and Deliver Edward James Olmos is electrifying as Jaime Escalante, the teacher who insisted that the inner-city students everyone else had given up on could excel in calculus.
Dedicated to “Mr. Laurel and Mr. Hardy,” this movie is both a spoof and a loving tribute to the silent classics, with good guys, bad guys, romance, adventure, slapstick, music, wonderful antique cars, and the biggest pie fight in history. The opening credits are on a series of slides like those in the earliest movies, complete with cheers for the hero and boos for the villain, and a flickering old-fashioned projector that at one point appears to break down. Always dressed in impeccable white, the Great Leslie (Tony Curtis) is a good guy so good that his eyes and teeth literally twinkle. His capable mechanic and assistant is Hezekiah (Keenan Wynn). The bad guy is Professor Fate (Jack Lemmon), assisted by Max (Peter Falk). Like Wile E. Coyote, Fate’s cartoonishly hilarious stunts to stop Leslie inevitably backfire.
After a brief prologue, in which Fate tries to beat Leslie in breaking various speed records, literally trying to torpedo him at one point, they both enter an automobile race from New York to Paris. So does a beautiful reporter (Natalie Wood as Maggie DuBois) trying to prove she can get the story — dressed in an endless series of exquisite ensembles designed by Hollywood legend Edith Head.
The race takes them across America, through the Wild West, to a rapidly melting ice floe in the Pacific, and into a European setting that is a cross between a Victor Herbert operetta and “The Prisoner of Zenda,” where a spoiled prince happens to look exactly like Professor Fate and it takes all of the stars to foil an evil Baron (Ross Martin) who wants to use Fate to take over the throne.
This is a perfect family movie, just plain fun from beginning to end. It may also provide an opportunity for a discussion of competition and sportsmanship. At the end, Leslie deliberately loses as a gesture of devotion to Maggie DuBois. Professor Fate, after all, shows some sense of honor — apparently it is all right for him to cheat to win, but not all right to win by having Leslie refuse to compete. “You cheated — I refuse to accept!” Modern adults may wince a bit at Dubois’ notion of how to attain equal opportunity — she ultimately succeeds by showing her leg to the editor, who becomes too dazed to argue further. But like “Mary Poppins,” it provides a chance to remind children that when their great-grandparents were children, women did not even have the right to vote.
Questions for Kids:
Should Leslie have let Fate win?
Why wasn’t Fate happy when he beat Leslie?
Why was Fate so jealous of Leslie?
Why did DuBois want to be a reporter so badly?
Connections: Curtis and Lemmon also appeared together in one of the greatest comedies of all time, “Some Like it Hot.” Children who enjoy this movie might like to see some of the silent classics it saluted, like “Two Tars,” in which Laurel and Hardy create chaos in the middle of an enormous traffic jam. They might also enjoy “Those Magnificent Men in Their Flying Machines” or “Those Daring Young Men in Their Jaunty Jalopies.” Children who have enjoyed Ed Wynn as Uncle Albert (who “loves to laugh”) in “Mary Poppins” may like to know that his son, Keenan Wynn, plays Leslie’s assistant Hezekiah.
“Meerkat Manor: The Next Generation” starts on Animal Planet June 6. And tonight, families can prepare by watching “Meerkat Manor: The Story Begins,” a feature film narrated by Whoopi Goldberg about the early story of Flower, before she became the Manorâ€™s famous first lady, from her birth and early years as a young, inexperienced meerkat to a family leader, guiding her mob (family) in one of the harshest deserts on the planet.
As with March of the Penguins and other nature documentaries, some of the harsh realities of life and death are confronted by these wonderfully alert little creatures. Parents should be prepared to talk to children about these issues and about the way that the meerkat mob (a community of families) works together to take care of each other.