Home theater: Our critic offers his favorite feel-good flicks

United Artists/Album
Tony Curtis (left), Jack Lemmon, and Marilyn Monroe, on ukulele, star in the 1959 film “Some Like It Hot.”

“There is no Frigate like a Book,” wrote Emily Dickinson, but that was before movies were invented. Movies can transport you just about anywhere, and these days, more than ever, we all crave a safe harbor. I can’t think of many better ways to boost the spirits than by watching wonderful movies that make us feel good all over. I’ll kick things off with three of my favorites, all readily accessible for home viewing, in what I hope will become an ongoing column of pandemic picker-uppers.

[Editor’s note: As a public service, all our coronavirus coverage is free. No paywall.]

“Some Like It Hot”

Why We Wrote This

In times of uncertainty, we value a good laugh. Film critic Peter Rainer recommends a selection of his favorite feel-good choices to help. “Movies can transport you just about anywhere,” he says, “and these days, more than ever, we all crave a safe harbor.”

Let’s start with “Some Like It Hot” the classic 1959 Billy Wilder comedy, co-written with his frequent collaborator I.A.L. Diamond, and starring Tony Curtis and Jack Lemmon in top comedic form. They play Joe and Jerry, low-rent Chicago jazz musicians who witness a gangland shootout and, fearing mob retaliation, flee, in drag, to Miami with an all-girl band. Gender confusions abound. “Daphne” (Lemmon), despite her rebuffs, is wooed by millionaire playboy Osgood Fielding III (the great Joe E. Brown, with his mile-wide smile). “Josephine” (Curtis), adopting a second disguise as “Junior,” the Shell Oil heir, falls for Marilyn Monroe’s Sugar Kane Kowalczyk, the band’s singer and ukulele player. The plot thickens when the mob boss who engineered the Chicago massacre, George Raft’s “Spats” Colombo, checks into the same Miami hotel for a gangland summit.

If you’ve never seen this movie before, I truly envy you. It’s one of the funniest films ever made – maybe THE funniest. And if you’ve seen it more than a dozen times, as I have, rest assured it remains as hilarious as it was the first time. That’s partly because, knowing what’s coming, we can savor the best moments when they arrive on schedule. As Junior, Curtis sports a note-perfect Cary Grant accent. Lemmon, one of the rare actors who could play high comedy and serious drama with equal conviction, has never been more giddy than in the scene where he dances the tango with Osgood until dawn. Soon after, he announces to a stunned Joe that he and Osgood are engaged.

United Artists/IFTN/Newscom
Steve Martin and Daryl Hannah star in “Roxanne” (1987).

Monroe is also at her dreamy comedic peak here. Whatever diva difficulties Wilder may reportedly have had directing her on set (which was actually the famed beachside Hotel del Coronado near San Diego), nothing of that shows up in the film.

As seen through the eyes of Joe and Jerry, “Some Like It Hot” really plays up the ways in which men can be flabbergasted by women, with how they look and talk and move. The plot, especially for 1959, may be risqué but the tone throughout is heedlessly innocent. And, of course, with the possible exception of “Casablanca,” it boasts the best closing line in all of movies. I’ll resist – just barely – the impulse to give it away. (Rated PG)

“Steamboat Bill, Jr.”

If you, or any children you know, have never experienced the great Buster Keaton, there is no better place to start than “Steamboat Bill, Jr.,” the 1928 film he co-directed with Charles Reisner. Keaton, whose trademark deadpan was actually quite expressive – look closely! – plays the citified college graduate son of a tough-as-nails Mississippi steamboat owner (hulking Ernest Torrence). Dad disapproves of his son’s foppish ways, but Junior proves himself the better man in an astonishing whirlwind storm sequence at the end. Its most famous gag, shot without a stunt double, has the façade of a house falling over Keaton, framing him in the rectangle of a window. Don’t try this at home – or anywhere else. If this film gives you a hearty appetite for more Keaton, try “The General,” “The Navigator,” “Sherlock Jr.,” and “Seven Chances.” All masterpieces. (Unrated)

“Roxanne”

The actor who learned the most from Keaton about physical comedy was Steve Martin. He is at his peak in Fred Schepisi’s 1987 “Roxanne,” the “Cyrano de Bergerac” update that he also wrote. He plays C.D. Bales, the long-nosed fire chief in a Washington off-season ski resort town who pines for Roxanne (Daryl Hannah), a starry-eyed astronomy student. When the film was first released, I wrote that it was one of the most elating romantic comedies ever made in this country. I still feel that way. It makes you feel unreasonably happy, as if you were watching colors being added to a sunset. (Rated PG) 

I wish you all happy viewing.

These films are available for rent from Amazon’s Prime Video, YouTube, and Google Play. “Some Like It Hot” also airs on the Turner Classic Movies (TCM) network on March 25, and is leaving Prime on March 31. 

You've read  of  free articles. Subscribe to continue.

Dear Reader,

About a year ago, I happened upon this statement about the Monitor in the Harvard Business Review – under the charming heading of “do things that don’t interest you”:

“Many things that end up” being meaningful, writes social scientist Joseph Grenny, “have come from conference workshops, articles, or online videos that began as a chore and ended with an insight. My work in Kenya, for example, was heavily influenced by a Christian Science Monitor article I had forced myself to read 10 years earlier. Sometimes, we call things ‘boring’ simply because they lie outside the box we are currently in.”

If you were to come up with a punchline to a joke about the Monitor, that would probably be it. We’re seen as being global, fair, insightful, and perhaps a bit too earnest. We’re the bran muffin of journalism.

But you know what? We change lives. And I’m going to argue that we change lives precisely because we force open that too-small box that most human beings think they live in.

The Monitor is a peculiar little publication that’s hard for the world to figure out. We’re run by a church, but we’re not only for church members and we’re not about converting people. We’re known as being fair even as the world becomes as polarized as at any time since the newspaper’s founding in 1908.

We have a mission beyond circulation, we want to bridge divides. We’re about kicking down the door of thought everywhere and saying, “You are bigger and more capable than you realize. And we can prove it.”

If you’re looking for bran muffin journalism, you can subscribe to the Monitor for $15. You’ll get the Monitor Weekly magazine, the Monitor Daily email, and unlimited access to CSMonitor.com.