1. The Magic School Bus Oh, if only every school field trip could be as exciting and informative as the ones the indefatigable Miss Frizzle goes on with her students. From the farthest reaches of the solar system to the smallest cells of the human body, Miss Frizzle and her students take us with them.
2. Miss Nelson Has a Field Day Miss Nelson is a sweet-tempered soul, but when students do not behave, watch out! Miss Viola Swamp is the substitute teacher. Between them, they teach their students many very important lessons.
3. High School Musical Go Wildcats! Jocks and brainiacs find common ground in singing and dancing in these tuneful, irresistibly disarming instant classics from Disney.
4. Lucas Everyone — yes everyone — feels like an insecure outsider at some point in school. I like the way this film shows us from the beginning that while its main character may still be a caterpillar, we know he will be a butterfly long before he does. Great performances by all, including a young Charlie Sheen, and props to the film-makers for staying far away from easy stereotypes.
5. Mad Hot Ballroom A program to teach ballroom dancing to New York City 5th graders in Brooklyn, the Bronx, and Queens sounds like the last thing in the world that would be interesting or relevant to today’s 5th graders. But the beauty of this movie is the way that it shows that grace, dignity, elegance, and pride in mastering a skill are important, thrilling, and transformational.
Ellen Leventry’s list of post-1990 angels on movies and television got me thinking about some of my favorites from the old days. Hard to believe that performers from Jack Benny to Cary Grant to Donald Duck have taken on an angelic role. Angels have appeared in comedies, dramas, cartoons, television series, and even in musicals. They are usually in the story to guide the main character, but quite often they end up learning something, too.
1. Claude Rains and Edward Everett Horton in Here Comes Mr. Jordan. This was the first version of a story later remade with Warren Beatty in “Heaven Can Wait” and Chris Rock in “Down to Earth.” Robert Montgomery (father of “Bewitched’s” Elizabeth Montgomery) plays a boxer whose soul is prematurely taken by an apprentice angel (Horton). Mr. Jordan (Rains), the supervising angel, has to help find a new body for the boxer’s soul. This gentle comedy has a sweetness and kindness that makes it touching as well as entertaining.
2. Clifton Webb in “For Heaven’s Sake.” The impeccable (if slightly fussy) Webb plays an angel who is sent to earth on an important task. There is a special place in heaven for the souls of babies waiting to be born, and two of them are getting anxious. Their prospective parents are postponing parenthood because they are too wrapped up in themselves. Webb appears as a rancher and another kind of angel — a theatrical backer — to get them to change their minds. It is fun to see the ultra-urbane Webb trying to look like a cowpoke and the story is charming.
3. The invisible (except to a little girl) baseball players in Angels in the Outfield. The 1994 remake has its pleasures, but I still prefer the 1951 original with Paul Douglas as the temperamental manager of the Pittsburgh Pirates and Janet Leigh as the reporter who befriends him after a little girl from an orphanage announces that she sees angels on the baseball diamond. Douglas is wonderfully appealing as he tries to learn to control his temper and finds himself falling for Leigh.
4. Henry Travers in It’s a Wonderful Life. Probably the most-loved angel in the history of movies is Clarence, who has a very unconventional way of helping George Bailey (James Stewart) — by showing him what life would have been like if he had not been born. Travers has just the right warmth and twinkle to make us believe that every time a bell rings an angel gets its wings.
5. Cary Grant in The Bishop’s Wife. The handsomest angel in movie history is Grant’s Dudley, who arrives at Christmas to guide a clergyman (David Niven) who has neglected his family and his faith and become too caught up in the effort to build a cathedral. The most touching moments come from the look in Dudley’s eyes as he understands that even heaven does not match the pleasures of home and family.
6. Gordon MacRae in Carousel. A carnival barker who is desperate for money to care for his pregnant wife dies in a failed robbery attempt. He is sent back to earth to help his teenage daughter, now graduating from high school, to let her know she will never walk alone.
7. Henry Jones in “The Twilight Zone” episode “Mr. Bevis.” Even angels make mistakes. And in this charming episode of the Rod Serling classic television show, Orson Bean plays a lovable loser whose guardian angel (Jones) offers to turn him into a “normal” upright citizen with a responsible job and a solid credit rating. But once Bevis becomes “normal,” he isn’t Bevis anymore, and he and the angel learn that the only way to be happy is to be yourself.
8. Jack Benny in “The Horn Blows at Midnight.” Benny loved to make jokes about this film and considered it a low point of his career. But it is actually a lot of fun. Benny plays a trumpet-player who dreams that he is the angel Athanael, who has been ordered to blow his horn at midnight to signal the end of the earth. Two fallen angels try to steal it from him so they can continue to experience earthly pleasures. The story is softened a bit from the studio-added dream structure, but it still manages some sharp observations and endearing characters. The celestially beautiful Alexis Smith makes a fine angelic companion as well.
9. Donald Duck in “Donald’s Better Self.” Even the irascible Disney duck can be persuaded to listen to what Abraham Lincoln called “the better angels of our nature.” In this animated short Donald is a schoolboy who is tempted by the devil to skip school and try smoking but is rescued by the angel, who has not only a shining (and waterproof) halo but a righteous punch.
10. Conrad Veidt in “The Passing of the Third Floor Back.” Awkwardly filmed but still very moving, this film is based on the story by Jerome K. Jerome of a stranger who changes the lives of the residents of a boarding house. Veidt often played bad guys, but here he truly shines as a character whose quiet dignity and courteous kindness bring warmth, self-respect, and inspiration to the other tenants.
Another unexpected pleasure I came across on cable recently is a light romantic comedy with some shrewd and audacious commentary on race and gender, whose full title is “I’m Through with White Girls (The Inevitable Undoing of Jay Brooks).” Anthony Montgomery (Ensign Mayweather on “Enterprise”) plays an African-American man who creates graphic novels and uses a cigarette holder. After a series of bad experiences dating white girls (they break up with him and berate him for being inconsiderate), he decides that he should date an African-American girl, calling his quest “Operation Brown Sugar.” The first group of contestants don’t seem right. And then he meets Catherng (Lia Johnson), a writer with magnificent dreds who turns out to be “Halfrican-Canadian.”
What makes the usual romantic comedy complications so fresh and engaging here is the way all of the characters subvert stereotypes. Though Catherine’s book is very successful due to her voice as an author, her literal voice, which she describes as sounding like a Valley Girl, especially when she is nervous, makes her afraid of promoting the book at readings. Jay creates graphic novels (he keeps correcting people who refer to them as comic books), a field with few African-Americans. Meanwhile, his white roommate has to pretend to be (and then become) an expert in hip-hop in order to impress the girl he likes.
Johnson (who co-produced) and Montgomery are enormously appealing performers with real romantic spark. The conventional structure and understated tone help the racial and gender issues a part of the story rather than a political statement. But both the romance and the themes make this a neglected gem, well worth watching.
Parents should know that this movie has some mature material including sexual references and non-explicit situations.
In honor of Eddie Murphy’s new release, “Imagine That,” Father’s Day, and the two best dads I know, my own dear father and my darling husband, here’s a list of great movie dads and daughters.
1. A Little Princess I love all the film versions of the classic novel by Frances Hodgson Burnett about the girl who is mistreated by her school headmistress after the death of her adored father but holds on to her dignity, her integrity, and her imagination. The BBC miniseries is the most authentic, but the 1995 film directed by Alfonso CuarÃ³n is beautifully done.
2. To Kill a Mockingbird Atticus Finch (Gregory Peck) is not just a dedicated lawyer and a crack shot, he is one of the best fathers in movie history. Listen to the way he gently explains the importance of courtesy to his daughter and the look on his face as he watches her to make sure she understands.
3. “Our Vines Have Tender Grapes” Edward G. Robinson took a break from his usual tough guy roles to play the loving father of a little girl (Margaret O’Brien) in this gentle story of a Norwegian immigrant farm family living in Wisconsin. The movie is based on a book inspired by the childhood of the author’s wife.
4. Father of the Bride The original has Spencer Tracy as the disconcerted, sometimes choleric, but always devoted father of radiant bride-to-be Elizabeth Taylor.
5. A Tree Grows in Brooklyn The mother is the strong one in this story, based on the life of author Betty Smith, but her most precious relationship is with her father (Oscar-winner James Dunn), a weak man in some ways but one whose belief in his daughter never wavered.
7. Paper Moon Real-life father-daughter team Ryan and Tatum O’Neal played two con artists in this classic Depression-era comedy/drama.
8. Love in the Afternoon Grown-up daughters need their fathers, too, and in this Parisian romance Audrey Hepburn plays the daughter of a private investigator (Maurice Chevalier), who knows more than he would like to about the dangers of romantic entanglements.
9. Monsoon Wedding At the heart of a multiple-storyline saga centering on a big wedding, the bride’s father (Naseeruddin Shah) must make a painful decision.
10. The Game Plan Duane “The Rock” Johnson plays a pro quarterback who finds out that he is the father of a little girl and that he has a lot to learn about little girls, about parenting, and about what really matters.
The wonderful Warner Archive has released another movie I remember fondly, Bye Bye Braverman. Director Sidney Lumet, showing the same feel for the city evident in his other films like “Dog Day Afternoon” and “Serpico,” made this film about four New York Jewish intellectuals on their way to a funeral. They bicker, they get lost, they consider the meaning of life. Not much happens, but a lot happens.
It’s not a classic by any means, but it has moments of enormous richness and poignancy and beautiful performances by everyone involved, especially Phyllis Newman, Zohra Lampert, and Godfrey Cambridge in smaller roles. And of course New York City playing the lead.