Olivia de Havilland

The Outstanding Classic SF Film of the Fifties

The Day the Earth Stood Still (1951) is an important movie to me, despite the fact that I only saw it for the first time a few days ago.  My mother’s cousin, a wonderful man who always had time for annoying children, told us the story of this one when I was seven or eight or something.  It’s one of the few stories from my childhood that stuck with me.

That cousin died earlier this year after a long illness, at much too young an age, but it was fun to remember him by watching the film, one of the 1001 movies we’ve been going through here.

The Day the Earth Stood Still (1951).jpg

I still vividly remember his description of the robot, and the main misgiving I had when we started watching was that the film might be slower and more boring than modern flicks and ruin the memory.

I’m happy to report that it is none of those things.  The SF elements are woven with suspense and romance elements, which is the key to making the film fun.  It needed to be diluted because the moralistic elements of the main plot – an alien comes to show humanity the error of its ways and develop an ultimatum – are spectacularly heavy-handed in a way that only the 1950s can deliver with a straight face.

But it works.  The film is a fun movie despite the messaging–which, as we’ve discussed here, and as anyone who’s read modern science fiction of the critically-acclaimed type, is very hard to do).

And that’s pretty much all you need to know about the movie.  As the first major Hollywood science fiction motion picture, it showed that a movie with aliens in it could be a “real” film as opposed to a B-Movie special.  It plays the part well, and still holds up today, unless the cold-war style messaging and Christ-figure of the main character puts you off.

A warm hello to Billy Gray, who played the son of the female lead in this one, and was an important part of the plot.  He’s still with us and, as a child actor when this was produced, is still relatively young compared to other survivors from the era (and we must take the opportunity to mourn the recent passing of Olivia de Havilland).

Anyway, if you like SF or classic cinema, this one is a must-watch.  Even if you don’t, you should be entertained.


Gustavo Bondoni is a science fiction writer whose novel Outside explores issues facing the 21st century, as seen from far in the future.  An exploration book and a thriller, outside will appeal to everyone who enjoys thinking about where we are going.  You can check it out here.

It’s not new… the Oscars have always gotten it wrong

When my wife and I watch films in the 1001 movies to watch before you die list, we try to do so with no clue about the movie.  Sometimes, like in Gone with the Wind or The Wizard of Oz, this is impossible.  These movies are so beloved, so well-known and so talked about that, in the unlikely event that you haven’t already seen the film, you will certainly have an impression of the movie in your head.

But the great majority of films never went on to become beloved classics, so we can watch those without any preconceptions.  Many of them are a complete surprise.

The Heiress (1949), starring Olivia de Havilland (who is alive, so hello, Olivia, if you happen to be reading!), is one of those forgotten films that was considered immortal in its time, but hasn’t been a staple of afternoon TV since… which means that it has fallen out of favor with regular audiences.

The Heiress Movie Poster

Before I tell you about the film itself, I want to take a second and give you our reaction to it.  My wife said: “Why is this one even on the list?” and I replied “It probably won the Oscar for Best Picture.”

So when doing the research for this post after watching the film I verified that, yes, this unsatisfying sludge did win four Oscars, albeit not Best Picture, and was nominated for another bunch (including Best Picture and Best Director). I have no real issue with the Oscars it won–Olivia de Havilland was both unattractive and boring in this picture, intentionally so, which makes her a brilliant actress, as she is usually magnetic on film.  She deservedly won Best Actress.  But a Best Picture nomination?  Ugh.

Why ugh?  The film was professionally produced, with a cast of excellent actors, but the story behind it is… I guess we’ll just have to go with “unfulfilling”.  Basically, an heiress is courted for her money.  Everyone knows he’s after her money except for her.  Her father tells her about it–while dealing with his own grief–and she never speaks to him again, even when he’s on his death bed.  Then she says no to the suitor, the film ends and we’re supposed to applaud.

Obviously, the Academy at the time felt it was worthy of several nominations and exuberant praise… which isn’t surprising to anyone who followed the modern Oscars, especially seeing how they ignored better films from this year’s Best-Picture-winning director and then gave it to one that is deficient for what looks like political reasons but might just be cluelessness.

In 1949, I don’t think it was politics (it might have been cluelessness), but more likely it was navel-gazing.  This is a film that seems deep while being perfectly shallow.  It follows the tendency for making art that evokes nothing but reality.  That’s fine, I guess, but don’t expect your film to become a classic.

The one argument I can find is that it perfectly reflects how a lot of people are–a disillusion will turn them into inflexible, bitter shrews (of whatever gender)–so this film represents a good chunk of humanity.

That’s true, but those people are boring.  Keeping them away from literature and film is for the best.

In the meantime, TCM will continue to give much more air time to Gone with the Wind and The Wizard of Oz.  Films with emotions people actually want to feel.


Gustavo Bondoni is an Argentine novelist and short story writer whose book Love and Death is a study of emotions people actually want to read about. No boring, bitter people here (well at least not among the protagonists).  You can buy it here.



We’re All Mad Here

If I were to tell you that I watched a film about a woman’s struggle with mental illness, I think most of you would yawn and write it off as another opportunity for Hollywood to show off its capacity for melodrama and cheap emotional body shots.

But what if I told you I enjoyed the hell out of it?

Let me explain.  The first data point you need to know is that the film is from 1948.  The more knowledgeable among you will be nodding at this point.  Hollywood was a little less banal back then.

The second thing that made this one good was a truly spectacular performance from Olivia de Havilland.  Again, the knowledgeable are nodding along.  Those who know about planes because Olivia was the daughter of the magnate of Mosquito fame, and those who know about classic film because you already know I’m talking about The Snake Pit.

The Snake Pit Film Poster

de Havilland, who is still alive and more than a hundred years old, navigates the film in a fog of confusion and uncertainty, and we never know her ultimate fate until a few moments before the end.

The madness on screen is understated, avoiding the grotesque and the exaggerated in favor of a lighter touch which is, in the end, much more effective.  Even the asylum politics aren’t harped upon but left for the viewers to understand on their own terms.

Once more, it begs the question: were viewers in 1948 more sophisticated than those in 2019?  Or was it simply a case of filmmakers creating for intellectually superior portion of their audiences?  In a world saturated by least common denominator communication in every sphere, where literature and film seem more intent on teaching the consumer their political and moral ideas in bite-sized, easily digestible oversimplifications of a complex reality, old movies (and old books) are a breath of fresh air.

The Snake Pit Crowd Scene

They take people as they are.  Heroines are flawed, they are imperfect, and many of their troubles are self-inflicted, they DON’T overcome their failings over the course of the piece–they are still as imperfect at the end as at the beginning–and yet they are still sympathetic characters.

Best of all, these films show us the world as it really was, not the way the political activists who want to rewrite history think it should be portrayed.  The bits that make modern audiences uncomfortable are still there.  Hooray!

All in all, it makes for an entertaining film as opposed to one designed to be suffered through for your own good.

A final note on de Havilland’s performance.  She was nominated for the Best Actress Oscar that year, but didn’t win…

If you need me, I’ll be on Google investigating who did win that year.  It must have been a performance for the ages.


Gustavo Bondoni is a novelist and short story writer whose book Love & Death is a collection of linked lives in paper (and electronic) form.  You can check it out here.