The power and the glory

“American Auteurs” screens Hollywood’s highlights

Gabriel Shapiro

History can be studied in classrooms or in libraries filled with dusty volumes on this war and that scandal. The history of human endeavors, natural developments and almost anything is written in a book somewhere for you to find. But there is a more secret history class being given every time a classic movie plays. The history told through old movies includes both a fascinating look into the time a film was made and a visual transport to the time in which the movie is set. It’s two history lessons for the price of one, and at the Oak Street Cinema you can see some of the greatest films ever made as they were meant to be seen, in glorious big screen presentation in an auditorium full of strangers, not in your living room on a television.

The “American Auteurs” series that began this weekend brings together some of the highlights of the big studio era. Big directors such as John Huston, Howard Hawks and Stanley Donen. Big stars such as Bogey and Bacall, James Dean, Rock Hudson and Elizabeth Taylor. The history lessons here are too good to miss.

Hollywood got into just about everything in its heyday: great epics, sprawling westerns, lavish musicals – there was something for everyone. During the golden age the big studios turned out some of the most elaborate motion pictures ever undertaken. This was, of course, before the rise of the media conglomerates and the multinational corporations that will kill us all someday. This was when John Wayne could speak sentences with a stare. James Dean didn’t need a computer-generated explosion going off to show the tortured soul of youth. Writers wrote, actors acted and the great directors carved gorgeous monuments to the human condition from the raw materials of life.

Highlights of this series are hard to pick because nearly every movie is a classic in the truest sense, but there are a few you’d be crazy to miss:

“My Darling Clementine” is John Ford’s roundup of the OK Corral/Wyatt Earp legend, and for those of you who know the story well, this one has some special nuggets of love. As for the rest of you, heck, this is a story worth knowing, full of cowboys and wild-west action all masterfully shot with Ford’s eye for detail. Shows Monday at 9:30 and Tuesday at 7:30.

John Huston and Orson Welles join up in a Hollywood masterpiece based on a masterpiece of literature. “Moby Dick” is, as you might know, the tale of a captain’s revenge against the whale that cost him his leg. This is one of Huston’s most memorable films, and a powerful commentary on revenge and obsession. Recently departed actor Gregory Peck also stars. Shows Wednesday at 9:40 and Thursday at 7:30.

Nicolas Ray’s “In a Lonely Place” stars Humphrey Bogart as a tortured and temperamental writer who finds himself accused of murder. His lovely neighbor (Gloria Grahame) provides an alibi and a love interest, but there are still some twists and turns before they go skipping into the sunset. One night only! Thursday, July 17 at 7:30 and 9:30

And finally, for those of you who love a bit of song and dance, there is “It’s Always Fair Weather.” This Stanley Donen/Gene Kelly co-directed CinemaScope spectacle stars the always wonderful Gene Kelly and a young Michael Kidd. The story centers on three GIs who meet 10 years after returning from World War II only to find American culture is more than they can handle. This movie features the “trash can dance,” one of the most famous dance numbers in all of Hollywood. Considered a flop at the time, this movie is a great example of the critical ability of the musical, a genre too often seen as the lightest of the fluff. Shows Monday, July 28 at 9:30 and Tuesday, July 29 at 7:30.

There are oodles of other huge pictures showing, including “Rio Bravo,” “Giant,” “The Maltese Falcon,” “What Ever Happened to Baby Jane” and “The Day The Earth Stood Still,” so check them out too. These are some of the most outstanding examples of the movies that made Hollywood famous. The products of the golden age are, by any standard, great filmmaking on a grand scale and they provide a window into our pasts. Look back and let your mind wander; it certainly will prove a more rewarding viewing experience than the mental junk food that today’s Hollywood eye-candy can provide.

“American Auteurs” through July 31, Oak Street Cinema, (612) 331-3134 or www.oakstreetcinema.org

Gabriel Shapiro welcomes comments at [email protected]