Years and years ago — certainly before he died, anyway — Orson Welles was talking about the prospect of being in hell and having to choose one single scene from a film that you’d be able to watch for eternity. That was it. That was all you could have — one scene from one film. If memory serves, Welles chose a scene from Citizen Kane (1941), which probably comes as no surprise in itself. More of a surprise was that it was not a scene that showcased his directorial panache. Instead, it was a simple scene that had been written for the film by his co-writer, Herman J. Mankiewicz.
The scene in question involves Everett Sloane as Bernstein telling a story about a girl he saw in passing years and years ago on a ferry (“A white dress she had on”) and how “not a day goes by” that he doesn’t think of her. If you know the film (and if you don’t, keep it to yourself), you probably remember the scene. It’s a lovely little scene and I understand its appeal, though if I had to pick a single scene from Citizen Kane for this purpose, I’d try to cheat by opting for the ending credits, which I’ve always found endlessly entertaining — even on those occasions when I wasn’t in the mood for the film itself.
In the intervening years, I’ve toyed with this idea on more than a few occasions, though it’s always been my belief that if hell exists, my fate will be watching an endless loop of Lucille Ball and Vivian Vance and that damned candy conveyor belt from I Love Lucy. And, oh, what a miserable swine Satan will be if that turns out to be true — and we’ll know why there’s no show called I Love Lucifer.
I have not, however, come to any single conclusion — though I will admit that the scene where Tchaikovsky (Richard Chamberlain) and Madame von Meck (Isabella Telezynska) see each other on the roadway in Ken Russell’s The Music Lovers (1970) has always been a heavy contender. But it presupposes that I’m in a reflective frame of mind. On another day, I might be feeling a bit more extrovert and in need of the “1812 Overture Fantasy” from the same movie. It’s a quandary.
However, even a fantasy quandary might be capable of some solution. With that in mind, I’m going to pretend that ol’ Scratch is a bit of a sport and will allow us our 10 favorite clips. I’m just foolhardy enough to attempt such a list, too — as witness below.
Number One. In that I started out with the aforementioned clip from The Music Lovers, I might as well put it forth first. For those not up on their Tchaikovsky, Madame Nadedja von Meck was his patroness, and a very strange relationship it was. Part of her agreement to support him rested on the condition that they should never meet — the Romantics had a very peculiar sense of humor. It was probably all for the best, since Tchaikovsky’s homosexuality made an epistolatory romance more convenient for them both. And so far as we know they never did meet. (There’s a story that they nearly met at a concert, but that the nearsighted — and too vain to wear glasses — Mme. von Meck would never have known it.)
In an outburst of lyrical romanticism of his own, Russell gave them a kind of chance meeting in the film. It’s a relatively simple scene that has Tchaikovsky walking along the road on the von Meck estate when suddenly the lady in question appears in an open carriage and they glimpse each other through the trees as she’s driven past. Simple, yes, but as presented it’s a moment of something sublime. With the second movement of the Tchaikovsky Second Symphony (one of those pieces that can only be described as an outpouring of Tchaikovskian emotion) on the soundtrack accompanying the the intercut shots of the two seeing each other from a distance, it’s perhaps the most rivetting piece of romanticism ever committed to film. I cannot imagine growing tired of it.
Number Two. There are so many fine things in Peter Medak’s The Ruling Class that it’s hard to settle on the single moment that defines the film for me, but I’m going with “The Varsity Drag” musical number — though musical digression might be a better term. This is perhaps colored by the fact that this scene was my first exposure to the film — under far from ideal circumstances. I was a student at the University of South Florida at the time and I was vainly trying to wrangle in a signal — via rabbit ears — from a TV station in Orlando that was showing Leo McCarey’s The Awful Truth (1937). Anyone who knows Florida geography and rabbit years knows this was doomed to grotesque and horrible failure. (Hey, I was 18 and very determined.)
What I got instead was bleed-through from a Tampa station of The Dick Cavett Show with Peter O’Toole promoting The Ruling Class. The first thing I saw was “The Varsity Drag,” which caused me to stop in my tracks and watch. They never did identify the film by title after this point, but I knew I had to see it. It took me about a year to figure out what it was and catch up with it. Well, who would have imagined that there’d be a 1927 DeSylva, Brown and Henderson song in a movie called The Ruling Class?
The scene itself is a classic case of something that seems just amazingly — and delightfully — spontaneous, though, of course, it’s really anything but. After all, the scene is carefully designed and choreographed and is even pretty specifically laid out in Peter Barnes’ source play. The paranoid schizophrenic 14th Earl of Gurney (O’Toole), who thinks he’s Jesus Christ, has just come down off the cross he “hangs” from in moments of repose. After a few moments of often nonsensical (but with an undercurrent of bitterness) yammerings about the plans for his new ministry, he announces, “Arise! Shine — for my light has come and the glory of the Lord has risen upon thee!” and promptly breaks into the song in question. At this point, the butler (Arthur Lowe) enters to announce the arrival of two ladies (Kay Walsh and Patsy Byrne) from the village, whereupon the four of them form a chorus line and complete the song. It’s wonderful, shocking in its incongruity and remains fresh.
Number Three. I’m pretty sure that I’d want to have what we can call the “Danny Boy” sequence from the Coen Brothers’ Miller’s Crossing (1990). As with everything else on this list, I’d take the whole movie if I could get it, but it’s this one scene that hooked me on the Coens. I’d seen Blood Simple (1984) and thought it was clever. I’d seen Raising Arizona (1987) and pretty thoroughly disliked it — even while admitting that the boys sure knew how to throw a camera around. So I really wasn’t expecting anything from Miller’s Crossing. In fact, I hadn’t bothered with it in the theaters and only caught up with it on HBO or Showtime or wherever. For that matter, I wasn’t really watching it — it was just on off to the side.
Then suddenly, there was this just amazing sequence where gang boss Leo O’Bannon (Albert Finney) is attacked in his home by thugs sent by rival gangster Johnny Caspar (Jon Polito). Leo’s in his bedroom listening to a record of “Danny Boy” on a gramophone when the attack occurs. The results — set both to and against the music — are the Coens at their most exuberantly creative. It’s not just non-stop gunplay, though the Tommy-guns fire fast and free. The Coens aren’t that easy. Not content with some of the most beautifully choreographed — and photographed — action you could hope for, they actually burn down the house and take time to set up a wonderful characterization touch involving Leo and his cigar. It’s all absurd, over-the-top and utterly mesmerizing.
Number Four. I’ve loved Charles Chaplin for as long as I can remember, but it was something that was cemented when his entire oeuvre from Shoulder Arms (1918) through A King in New York (1957) were released in a block in 1974 and I got to see all those films on a week-by-week basis on the big screen. My personal preference tends to lean toward Chaplin at his more serious. Unfashionable as it is (and always will be, I imagine), I have a deep love for Chaplin’s last three starring films — Monsieur Verdoux (1947), Limelight (1952) and A King in New York. Yet while I considered choosing either the scene where he tells Claire Bloom what it’s like to be in front of an audience, or the scene where he prays that she’ll get through her ballet debut from Limelight, I settled on a scene from one of his earlier films,
The Circus (1928), for my fiery furnace entertainment.
Even then, it wasn’t an easy choice. Is there a scene more touchingly Chaplinesque than the ending of The Circus where he sits there looking at the torn paper star? Probably not, but my final choice has to be the tightrope scene where everything goes impossibly wrong. First, his safety wire comes loose so that he’s actually having to walk the tightrope, but then he’s set upon by a troop of monkeys. While two of them proceed to pull his pants down, another pair — one of whom insists on sticking his tail in Chaplin’s mouth — cavort across his shoulders and around his head. Now how can anyone face eternity without this?
Number Five. Leo McCarey’s Ruggles of Red Gap (1935) is an odd choice for me. I tend to be pretty resistant to Americana. Few things will send me scampering from the room faster than Meet Me in St. Louis (1944) or any film version of Eugene O’Neill’s Ah, Wilderness!. And there’s no denying that this comedy about an English valet, Ruggles (Charles Laughton), being won in a poker game in Paris and dragged to the wild and woolly west of Red Gap, Washington is pure Americana. Hell, it even turns Laughton loose on reciting the “Gettysburg Address,” and I have to admit that the presentation is undeniably moving. That, however, is not what I want from this film. Nor, for that matter, am I after any of the moments in the film dealing with the principal characters.
The scene I want concerns the man who lost Ruggles in the poker game, the Earl of Burnstead (Roland Young), being taught how to play the drums by one of Red Gap’s less reputable citizens, Nell Kenner (Leila Hyams), whose specialty seems to be holding “beer busts” for the men of the town. It’s a simple scene. There’s nothing flashy about it. Both Young and Hyams beautifully underplay their roles and it feels totally real — and completely charming to a degree that it seems touched by a little bit of magic.
Number Six. Eternity with nothing by Josef von Sternberg would be intolerable, but again this is one of those almost impossible choices. Since my tendency with Sternberg is to turn to Shanghai Express (1932) — a movie that serves as cinematic comfort food for me — that’s the only reasonable choice. But what to pick from this 80 minutes of something as close as you’re likely to get to cinematic perfection? The scene where Dietrich reveals to Clive Brook that “it took more than one man to change my name to Shanghai Lily,” or the scene where the missionary (Lawrence Grant) urges her to go pray (“God remains on speaking terms with everybody!”)? Or the scene on the back platform of the train between Dietrich and Brook? Or the immensely silly and strangely moving reconciliation where Brook poses the immortal question, “What good is a watch without you?”
All of those would be terrific choices from this remarkable film that sets out to be sophisticated, cynical and artificial, yet winds up being a moving drama about love and faith in spite of itself. (Scratch a cynic and you’ll find a wounded romantic sentimentalist underneath.) But if I’m choosing one thing, it would be the final encounter between Dietrich and Brook on the titular train that climaxes with Dietrich leaning against the door of a darkened compartment smoking a cigarette — her hands trembling from either emotion, or possibly just the vibration of the train. Yep, that’s it.
Number Seven. OK, I’ll admit it — I’m a hardcore Deanna Durbin fan. There. I’ve said it, and I don’t care. A lot of people probably don’t even know who Deanna Durbin is today, but at one time (1936-1939) she was all that stood between the “New Universal” Pictures and bankruptcy. She started out as a child star, but by 1939 was being moved to adult roles at the age 17. In First Love (1939) she got her first such role — with a very young (20) Robert Stack as her romantic interest. It’s a charming movie — a variation on Cinderella that has a nice edge thanks to the supporting cast (Eugene Pallette as her uncle is marvelous). It helps a lot that Durbin managed to be sweet and innocent without ever hinting at gooey or saccharine.
Since Durbin was largely know for her operatic singing voice (W.C. Fields claimed to have bought a rifle when she moved in near him in case she ever practiced singing within earshot), my pick simply has to be her climactic rendition of Puccini’s “Un Bel Di” (“One Fine Day”) from Madama Butterfly — sung in a very nice English translation. Director Henry Koster makes the most of the scene — leavening the sweetness of it all with some amusing cutaways to the audience and interpolating the performance into the resolution of the plot. He doesn’t skimp on the emotionalism, however, and I defy just about anyone to escape this scene dry-eyed. There’s an especially nice touch involving Kathleen Howard as Durbin’s music teacher. Classic comedy fans know Howard mostly as W.C. Fields’ shrewish wife in It’s a Gift (1934) and Man on the Flying Trapeze (1935), but Howard had once been an opera singer herself. Watch her during the scene and you’ll see her mouthing the words Durbin’s singing.
Number Eight. It was inevitable that Julie Taymor’s Across the Universe (2007) was going to make it in here, I suppose. The problem — the recurring problem — was deciding on what I wanted. “Hold Me Tight,” “I Want to Hold Your Hand,” “I’ve Just Seen a Face,” “Dear Prudence,” “Across the Universe,” and “Happiness Is a Warm Gun” were all strong contenders. The strongest of these was probably “Across the Universe,” which I actually think I like better in the movie than I like the Beatle recording. (Yes, that’s blasphemy.) That to one side, however, I’m going with something pretty much out of left field and not on that list — “Hey Jude.”
The choice was a difficult one, but it has so many things to recommend it. There’s the connectivity between Max (Joe Anderson) and Jude (Jim Sturges) that bridges the Atlantic Ocean for starters. What better comment is there on the impact of the Beatles on U.S.-U.K. relations? There’s the charming moment where Jude’s mother (Angela Lounsey) gets to sing the one line of the song, adding to the dramatic impact. There’s the brilliant business of working Paul’s “Judey, Judey, Judey” outburst from the original recording into a dramatic point for Max upon Jude’s arrival. But I think what finally sells me on this one sequence is Luke Cresswell as the tramp drumming on garbage cans as Jude comes by. I don’t know that I’ve ever encountered such a succinct statement on the power of rock music to invade one’s very being than this seemingly uncontrollable outburst of becoming overtaken by the rhythm of the song.
Number Nine. There’s no way I’m going to hell if I can’t take something from Rouben Mamoulian’s Love Me Tonight (1932) along with me. It’s that simple. I’m just refusing to go. Period. And since I’ll get my most generous serving with the “Isn’t It Romantic?” sequence, it’s my pick. Even folks who don’t like musicals will recognize the Rodgers and Hart song, because Paramount Pictures (who apparently still own the rights) was still using it for dance music on the soundtracks of their films as recently as School Ties (1992). The list of movies it appears in would probably be longer than this article!
It’s also a sequence that I’ve never seen fail to win over the anti-musical contingent — especially when it makes mock of its own musical conventions by being given over to a group of soldiers (and changed to a march rhythm for the purpose). The idea was taken by Mamoulian from a Russian fairy tale about a prince who finds a scarf — turns out, of course, it belongs to a princess — and decides that he’ll marry whoever it belongs to. The movie turns it into a song, which tailor Maurice Courtellin (Maurice Chevalier) sings for a customer (Bert Roach), who takes the song into the street by humming it. There it’s picked up by a taxi driver (Rolfe Sedan), who whistles it so that it’s picked up by the composer (Tyler Brooke) riding in his cab. The composer continues working on it on the train where the soldiers latch onto it, carrying it into the fields with them. A passing gypsy takes the melody back to his camp and plays it on his violin where it’s overheard by Princess Jeanette (Jeanette MacDonald), who sings it in the version we know today. Yeah, it’s silly, but it’s perfect in its silliness (partly because it recognizes its own absurdity). It’s part of the reason why a 1932 critic commented that he wished he had a copy of the film to take out on rainy days to cheer himself up. Sounds like a good thing to have with you on the bad side of the River Styx.
Number Ten. This one brings us back to Ken Russell — only this time it’s not classical Ken, it’s from Tommy (1975). It’s almost a no-brainer. It’s the final sequence from the film, “Listening to You.” In a sense, it doesn’t entirely work out of context, since, among other things, it helps to realize that these last seven shots mirror the film’s first seven shots. That knowledge makes it clear that while the sun was setting on Captain Walker’s (Robert Powell) world at the beginning of the film, it was rising on his son Tommy’s (Roger Daltrey) world at the end of it.
Still, it’s an exhilirating sequence that fully gets the good out of Pete Townshend’s amazingly shrewd (it’s a perfect concert-ending piece because it can be effortlessly drawn out as long as the audience energy dictates) song. There’s also a completely accidental (read: I hadn’t planned it like this) aptness to the choice as the climactic one here. Why? Because the scene — and the film — essentially denies the existence of hell, focusing on the concept of universal salvation. (The shooting script, in fact, had the chorus coming in with “We shall all be saved.”) What better place to end such a selection?
And, wouldn’t you know it? I’m already disastisfied with the list! What happened to the “Never Gonna Dance” number from George Stevens’ Swing Time (1936)? I intended it to be on here. And there’s no James Whale on the list. That’s unthinkable. Eternity without the creation of the Monster’s Mate in Bride of Frankenstein (1935). That’s just wrong. Where’s The Black Cat (1934)? Where’s the ending of The Horse’s Mouth (1958)? Where are so many things. Thank Clapton, this is all just a game — for now at least.