I hear this question all the time – “What’s your favorite movie?” – and the response never changes though it does tend to take some people aback when I give them my answer. As a getting-to-know-you exercise, I’ve always thought that this would be a great question to pose. I think you’d be surprised as to what you can learn about a person based on their choice of favorite film and their explanation why. So many factors go into why someone holds a film like Breakfast at Tiffany’s near and dear to their heart, while others cite Dr. Zhivago, The Breakfast Club or The Shawshank Redemption as the one they could watch again and again, never tiring of it, continuing to be moved or inspired by it. Equally important are the personal connections one brings to a film. Perhaps one’s affinity for a certain movie is due to the fact that it happened to be a favorite of a deceased relative and seeing it brings back fond memories of that person. Or perhaps it simply is a film that was first seen by someone during a formative time in their lives and it spoke to them in a way that no other book, movie or person ever had before.
On Friday, May 10th, Turner Classic Movies is devoting the entire day to films featuring the winner of the Best Actor Oscar from 1935 – 1941. The final feature of this mini-festival, starting at 4:30 pm CST is my favorite film, Sergeant York starring Gary Cooper. Again, there are many reasons beyond the obvious quality of the movie that makes it my favorite but the bottom line is that this inspirational true story and Cooper’s powerful performance continues to move me even after having seen it I don’t know how many times.
At the time it was made, biopics were very much in vogue, especially at Warner Brothers where York was made. The story of Alvin York was one that studios had wanted to make since the 1920’s but the war hero resisted all overtures to having his life turned into a major motion picture. Hailing from the back hills of Tennessee, York was a hellraiser in his younger days who ultimately found religion. A devoted member of his local church, he registered as a conscientious objector when he was drafted into the army, citing that his religious beliefs forbade him from taking another human life. After a lengthy appeal process, York’s request was denied; he went through basic training and was sent to the frontlines. Having honed his hunting skills as a young man, the reluctant soldier proved to be a crack shot, something that came in handy on Oct. 8, 1918 when York’s unit came under fire in Chatel-Chehery, France, which wiped out nearly all of his brothers-in-arms. With his wounded comrades pinned down by German fire, York worked around to higher ground and proceeded to kill 28 German soldiers, take out 32 machine gun nests and with seven of his able-bodied comrades, capture 132 others. He ended up being the most decorated American soldier in World War I and returned home to an incredible degree of unwanted attention.
York did not feel as though he should profit for his heroic deeds, thus he had no problem rejecting the many offers that came his way from Hollywood. However, producer Jesse Lasky was the most persistent of the lot and York eventually agreed to let him tell his story on the big screen but he had three conditions that he insisted be met – one was that he be paid enough to build an interdenominational Bible school in his home town of Pall Mall, Tennessee; second that no cigarette smoking actress could play his wife; and finally, that he be portrayed on screen by Gary Cooper.
When Cooper was informed of this, his immediate reaction was to reject the role. He felt that he wasn’t capable of properly portraying a man of York’s stature, someone who was only eclipsed by Charles Lindbergh at the time as far as national heroes were concerned. However, Lasky arranged a meeting between the two and after spending an afternoon together, the actor realized that he had a great deal in common with the veteran and agreed to tackle the role under Howard Hawks’ direction. The film ended up being one of the more accurate biopics of the age primarily because the studio feared being sued by York and other surviving members of his company, as this is the first time that a biographical film was in production while its subject was still alive.
The movie does have its fair measure of narrative invention, particularly the sequence concerning York’s religious conversion. Shamelessly patriotic, as York’s reticence to fight mirrored the nation’s own indecisiveness regarding entering World War II, the film resists mythologizing its subject, instead building a moving portrait of a common man who finds the will to transform himself through hard work and moral strength. It was the message the country needed at the time and the film proved to be a resounding hit for Warner Brothers.
It also had a profound effect on Cooper’s career as it brought him his first Oscar. During his acceptance speech, the actor said, “It was Sergeant Alvin York who won this award; shucks, I've been in this business sixteen years and sometimes dreamed I might get one of these things. That's all I can say! Funny, when I was dreaming, I always made a good speech."
That the film is touching, exciting, humorous and genuinely moving are just some of the reasons why it’s my favorite movie. But it also brings back memories of my father whenever I watch it. I was introduced to the world of cinema through him and I fondly remember watching classic films of the ‘30’s and ‘40’s with him and being introduced to the likes of Gable, Cagney, Stewart, Fonda, Davis, Crawford, Garbo and Cooper. As with any favorite, it works on a variety of levels for me and while I don’t expect anyone to respond to it just as I do, I hope you’ll set your DVR to record it and give it a glance.
After doing so, drop me a line and let me know what your favorite film is and why. I’m sure the responses will be as varied as the movies themselves.