High Museum of Art: Films

Revisiting the Depression on Screen by Linda Dubler

by Eleanor Ringel Cater

Now that some of us are experiencing the worst depression since THE Depression, I figured I’d offer up some thoughts on a few more-or-less contemporary films set during the period. (Currently on view at the High is the exhibition, American Scenes: Art From the Depression Era, works from our permanent collection.)

In the new movie, Amelia, starring two-time Oscar-winner Hilary Swank as famed aviatrix Amelia Earhart, there’s a brief glimpse of a soup line as she cruises by in her expensive car. She’s on her way to make another commercial (for which she’ll be paid big bucks). She says something like, “Oh, those poor men.” The movie is similarly superficial, and not just about the Thirties.

Annie had much more luck on stage than on screen, but the movie version isn’t all that bad. Unfortunately, the TV version is more often shown. It’s an entertaining, very old-fashioned musical, with Albert Finney as Daddy Warbucks and Carol Burnett as the comically villainous Miss Hannigan. They give the picture more than enough professional gloss to overcome John Huston’s (!) apparently disinterested direction. Annie‘s real problem is numbers — not just the much-publicized production costs, but the elephantine production numbers, which are all show-stoppers — as in stopping the show dead in its tracks. But when the screen is cleared of the zillion dancing clowns and butlers and maids and Rockettes, this story of the blank-eyed orphan (Aileen Quinn) who finds happiness – if not a compatible hairstyle – with billionaire Daddy Warbucks (Finney) is pleasant enough. A good kids’ choice, if nothing else.


Nicholson and Streep in Ironweed

Though riddled with flaws, Ironweed‘s overall effect is poignant and powerful. Provided, that is, you’re willing to sit out its two-hour plus of sepia-toned seediness. Francis Phelan (Jack Nicholson at the top of his game) is a former ace ballplayer, now boozed-up bum, who has returned home to Albany, the city he fled decades ago after accidentally killing his infant son. Based on William Kennedy’s best-seller, the picture is essentially a couple of days in the lives of a couple of lost souls (Meryl Streep, equally good, plays Nicholson’s flophouse mistress). True, the movie moves at a snail’s pace, but the stars are both phenomenal, showing us a sodden spiritual sadness – a kind of DTs of the soul. And you have to admire a movie made during the feel-good Reagan years dares to be a bummer about bums. Both stars were Oscar-nominated.

Do you have a favorite?


On Our High Horse by eleanor33

A horse is a horse.

Of course.

But a horse isn’t just a horse once you’ve glimpsed the immense sculpture that’s lately taken up residence smack in the middle of the Woodruff Arts Center’s Sifly Piazza.

A “re-imagining”, as they say in Hollywood, of a statue Leonardo Da Vinci planned but never completed to honor Francesco Sforza, the Duke of Milan, the stallion prances and preens, as if he knew his A-list heritage. Da Vinci worked 17 years on the piece, making numerous small sketches analyzing equine anatomy (apparently, he didn’t have a horse of his own, though Michelangelo did). It’s believed the animal was meant to be an Andalusian, a horse  with a notably thick arched neck because that was the breed favored by his patron.

Passing by it every day has put me in a horse-y frame of mind. Here are some movie suggestions to help your own inner equine soar.

Spirit: Stallion of the Cimarron

Spirit: Stallion of the Cimarron

Spirit: Stallion of the Cimarron

In this animated feature (part hand-drawn, part CGI),  a spirited wild mustang finds friends and foes –and love — on the wide prairies of the Old West. Unlike  many other animated  characters, from Lady and the Tramp to Bambi,  these animals don’t talk. Rather, Matt Damon provides a folksy narration that’s reminiscent of  The Vanishing Prairie.  The animation is quite wonderful, including an out-of-control train hauling logs that’s as breathless as anything in an Indiana Jones movie. And it’s blessedly free of Shrek-ian jokiness and double entendres. If anyone asks, the model for Spirit was a three-year-old Kiger stallion named Donner.

White Mane

White Mane

White Mane

Recently given a brief theatrical run as a companion piece to another unforgettable French short,  The Red Balloon, this lesser-known live-action film from the same director,  Albert  Lamorisse offers its own enchantments. Filmed in 1953 in the Camargue, it is a more rigorous movie than The Red Balloon, and considerably darker. A fisherman’s young son befriends a wild white stallion and tries to protect him from hunters. But as in Into the West, wild white stallions don’t come without risks.

The Man From Snowy River

Except for the occasional “mate” and mustangs called “brumbies,” you’d hardly  know this endearingly straightforward and unabashedly old-fashioned western was made in the ’80s in Australia instead of the ’30s in Hollywood. The name star is Kirk Douglas, double-cast as two feuding brothers (one bearded and one-legged; the other beardless and 2-legged). But the movie is really about an orphan’s coming-of-age in the Outback in the late 1800s. It’s a handsome movie with lots of fresh air atmosphere and a veritable tumult of horses streaming by the camera like a subway train with no brakes. Again and again. When was the last time you saw a movie in which a stallion actually reared on a cliff?  Spin and Marty couldn’t do it better.

Black Beauty

Black Beauty

Black Beauty

A true beauty. This classy adaptation of Anna Sewell’s 1877 novel is a delight for animal lovers of all ages. An equine-eye view of a horse’s life in Victorian England, the movie follows Beauty from idyllic run-wild-run-free foalhood through a series of owners good, bad and indifferent. Some, like the poor but good-hearted cabbie played by Harry Potter’s David Thewlis, treat animals with kindness and respect. Others, like the spoiled society matron played by Eleanor Bron, willingly break the animal’s back, neck and spirit in the name of fashion. Screenwriter Caroline Thompson (everything from Edward Scissorhands to The Secret Garden) doubles as director, capturing both the period flavor and the non-human perspective of the book. And while horses may be less central to our lives these days, there’s a timelessness about Beauty’s story—along with the expected enchantment of horses running through a meadow. Parental guidance: some scenes of animal mistreatment may disturb the very young.

The Black Stallion

Like nothing you’ve ever seen and better than almost anything you have. This is a stunning movie whose unique appeal is rooted in the pure visual power of film itself. The plot: a boy (Kelly Reno) and a savage stallion survive a shipwreck, establish a mystical bond on an island paradise and return home to win the Big Race. However, a plot summary says nothing of the adventure and romance, the poetry and mystery which are what the movie is really about. A film to cherish. And see again.

Into the West

Imagine The Black Stallion with a mystic Celtic lilt and you’ll have some idea of the tone of this wondrous film. Directed by Mike Newell (Enchanted April) and written by Jim Sheridan (My Left Foot), the movie is about two young brothers who flee the appalling squalor of their Dublin tenement  and ride west on the back of a magical white horse. In pursuit are their dad, Gabriel Byrne, a sodden, embittered widower who’s forsaken his traveler’s roots; a gypsy tracker (Ellen Barkin) who cares for Byrne and his boys; a greedy businessman who wants the horse as a show jumper; and half the country’s police force. Superbly balanced between gritty realism and fantastical lyricism, the movie is both poignant and unexpectedly funny. And, as anyone who knows the legend of  the Kelpie, a bit chilling  This is NOT a kids-only picture. Treat yourself.

Eleanor Ringel Cater