In film history, the anthology genre is the most challenging. Episodic films often have several directors and screenwriters which gives them an inconsistent tone and quality. But the genre’s pitfalls haven’t stopped such filmmakers including Akira Kurosawa (“Dreams”), the Coens (“The Ballad of Buster Scruggs”), Frank Miller and Robert Rodriguez (“Sin City”); Woody Allen, Francis Ford Coppola and Martin Scorsese (“New York Stories”); and Joe Dante, John Landis, George Miller and Steven Spielberg (“Twilight Zone: The Movie”).
Wes Anderson joined them with his latest film “The French Dispatch,” which received a nine-minute standing ovation at the Cannes Film Festival. The comedy brings to life three stories from an American magazine published in a fictional French city and features his stock company of actors including Bill Murray, Jason Schwartzman, Adrien Brody and Owen Wilson.
If you are a fan of the genre, here are the best anthology movies that were made between the 1930s and the 1960s.
“If I Had a Million” (1932)
Do you remember the old radio and TV series “The Millionaire,” in which a mysterious man gives people a cool million from a wealthy unknown benefactor? That show was based on this classic anthology film featuring Paramount’s top stars and directors. In each of the eight episodes, a dying millionaire randomly selects recipient of $1 million each. Gary Cooper, Charles Laughton, George Raft, Jack Oakie, Charlie Ruggles, Frances Dee and W.C. Fields (who appears in the best sequence) star. Directors include Ernst Lubitsch, James Cruze, Norman Taurog and Norman Z. McLeod. A young Joseph L. Mankiewicz wrote the Fields’ story.
“Tales of Manhattan” (1942)
Several foreign film directors spent World War II in Hollywood including Julien Duvivier, best known for his exceptional 1937 noir “Pepe Le Moko” starring Jean Gabin. One of the five films he made in the U.S this clever anthology film which follows several characters who come to own an allegedly cursed tailcoat. Charles Boyer, Rita Hayworth, Henry Fonda, Ginger Rogers, Charles Laughton, Edward G. Robinson, Paul Robeson and Ethel Waters star. The Robeson sequence, in which the actor and Waters play sharecroppers, was met with controversy over the racial stereotypes. The actor, who was later blacklisted for his social activism and political views, tried to make changes in the script to no avail. He stated he found the sequence “very offensive to my people. It makes the Negro childlike and innocent and is in the old plantation hallelujah shouter tradition … the same old story, the Negro singing his way to glory.” He never made another film. “Tales of Manhattan” was the first film shown in theaters in Paris when the City of Light was liberated by the Allies in 1944.
“Flesh and Fantasy” (1943)
Duvivier followed up “Tales of Manhattan” with this production featuring three occult stories. Charles Boyer, Robert Cummings, Edward G. Robinson and Barbara Stanwyck star. The New York Times referred to it as uneven entertainment adding “it starts lamely, and ends in the same condition, via a prologue wherein Bob Benchley tries to overcome a case of jitters engendered by conflicting glimpses of the future as revealed to him, first by a seer and later in a dream.”
“Dead of Night” (1945)
This British horror masterpiece is the “Citizen Kane” of anthology films. Best to watch with someone or with the lights on. Basil Dearden, Alberto Cavalcanti, Charles Crichton of “A Fish Called Wanda” fame and Robert Hamer directed the six vignettes including “The Christmas Party,” starring a young Sally Ann Howes as a girl who encounters a strange little boy while playing hide-and-seek; “The Hearse Driver,” featuring Anthony Baird as a race car driver who has nightmares after an accident of a hearse driver telling him “there’s room for one more”; “The Haunted Mirror” with Googie Withers relating the horrifying tale of her husband’s obsession with a mirror; and the best known of the six, “Ventriloquist’s Dummy” starring a superb Michael Redgrave as a ventriloquist with an evil dummy. It’s spooktacular.
W. Somerset Maugham (“Of Human Bondage,” “The Razor’s Edge”) is the host of this acclaimed British anthology film based on three of his short stories. The film was so popular, two sequels were made-1950’s “Trio” and 1951’s “Encore.”
“La Ronde” (1950)
Winner of the BAFTA for best film and recipient of two Oscar nomination including best writing, this French film directed by Max Ophuls based on Arthur Schnitzler’s 1897 play of the same name, “La Ronde” presents 10 tales of amour with one character from the previous episode appearing in the next. Anton Walbrook plays master of ceremonies introducing these vignettes. Simone Signoret, Serge Reggiani, Simone Simon, Jean-Louis Barrault and Gerard Philipe star.
“O. Henry’s Full House” (1952)
With the success of the Maugham anthology films, Twentieth Century Fox pulled out all the stop for its episodic film based on five short stories by the legendary O. Henry including the popular “The Ransom of Red Chief” and “The Gift of the Magi.” Stars include Charles Laughton, Marilyn Monroe (who is only in the film for about a minute), David Wayne, Richard Widmark, Anne Baxter, Fred Allen, Oscar Levant and Jeanne Crain. None other than influential best-selling American author John Steinbeck appears offering a biographical prologue on O. Henry, the pen name of William Sydney Porter, as well as introducing each tale. “Ransom of Red Chief” didn’t receive good reviews in its initially release and was cut before opened wide. It was edited back in when the film went to television.
“Tales of Terror” (1962)
The fourth in the eight Roger Corman–Edgar Allan Poe AIP series from 1962 based on the author’s “Morella,” “The Black Cat,” “The Cask of Amontillado” and “The Facts in the Case of M. Valdemar.” Vincent Price, who stars in the film, provide the narration. Peter Lorre, Debra Paget and Basil Rathbone also star. Richard Matheson penned the adaptations and Floyd Crosby (David’s dad) was the cinematographer.
“Yesterday, Today and Tomorrow” (1963)
Director Vittorio De Sica and Sophia Loren created movie magic. He directed the Italian superstar in several films, guiding her to a best actress Oscar for “Two Women,” which was released in the U.S. in 1961, and a best actress nomination for 1964’s “Marriage Italian Style.” He also directed Loren and the actress’ frequent leading man Marcello Mastroianni in this 1963 comedy anthology (it was released here in 1964) which won the Oscar for foreign language film. The comedy features three short stories about couples who live in Naples, Milan and Rome. The film was produced by Loren’s hubby, Carlo Ponti.
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