As winter strikes its blows, it's time to settle back on the couch with a beverage of choice and snacks, to watch films that run well past the usual two hours. Here are a few golden oldies well worth the time spent on them:
THE GREATEST SHOW ON EARTH (1952, 153:00) is for lovers of Cecil B. DeMille epics - in this case, displaying a lusty triumph of circus showmanship and movie skill not to be equaled. The story is of a "big boss" with sawdust for blood who puts his shows as always coming first, despite internal conflicts among his high aerialist, an elephant trainer, a clown with a past, and others - with a roller coaster of highs and lows in consequence. The scene involving a train crash is among the most startling ever filmed. Cornel Wilde, Betty Hutton, Charlton Heston, Dorothy Lamour and James Stewart highlight the cast of thousands.
THE LEOPARD (1963, 165:00) made by famed Italian filmmaker Luchino Visconti, starring Burt Lancaster in the lead, tells of an aristocrat who tries to come to terms with the unification of Italy. It's grand, according to one critic, as it has "sentiment and sadness whispering through it like the soft Mediterranean breeze that flutters the curtains in the windows of the palace in the stark Sicilian hills." With all its romantic conflicts, its historic drama and its onrush of brilliant pictures illuminating the scenes, the movie has become an Italian masterpiece about the freeing of the middle class during the 1860s. Nina Rota's music (heard so often in many Fellini films) dazzles along with the opulence of Visconti's luxurious settings. Lancaster (his voice dubbed into Italian) comes across handsomely as the princely leopard of the title.
INN OF THE 16th HAPPINESS (1958, 158:00) presents Ingrid Bergman in the true story about an English servant who, despite her lack of credentials, realizes her dream of becoming a missionary in China. Warmly directed by Mark Robson in the pastel style of early color films and abetted by Malcolm Arnold's lovely music, the movie is uncomplicated in the telling of a simple story made memorable by Bergman's excellent portrayal, with Robert Donat providing an equally fine portrayal, especially in the final, emotional scene.
BIRTH OF A NATION (1915, 186:00) is the one American silent classic that remains as a must for anyone who wants to see the stirring Civil War film that spawned filmic techniques still used today by Hollywood's finest directors. Without a script, southern filmmaker D.W. Griffith follows two families from North and South through the war and its aftermath with an eye toward epic battle scenes, blood-and-thunder characters and a messed-up historicism that celebrates the KKK as the saviors of the Reconstruction South. Rent the version that accurately provides the original hand-tinted images with a fully orchestrated score.
THE SEVEN SAMURAI (1954, 141 minutes) is Kurosawa's most sophisticated epic - a Japanese Western - with rousing comic tone, but also with depth of feeling. Villagers hire seven samurai to protect their homes from marauding bandits, while the samurai with their rigorous code of moral behavior and unflinching notions of dignity and compassion work for a handful of rice a day. Magnificent battle scenes and excellent directing make this an unforgettable classic (if it's an American version you want, check out THE MAGNIFICENT SEVEN, with an all-star cast as paid American gangsters fight bandits in a small Mexican town. It's shorter, made in 1960, but just as thrilling from start to blazing finish - Western style).
THE GREAT ZIEGFELD (1936, 176:00) is the grand-daddy of musicals, an extravaganza that proves you don't need color to light up the screen. This Oscar winner tells the super-lavish story about a Broadway impresario (William Powell) whose life is chronicled dramatically and musically as he proves his prowess on stage and in his private romantic life - along the way revealing some of the most spectacular numbers including the stunning "A Pretty Girl is Like a Melody."
Rotten Tomatoes average: "Mission Impossible - Ghost Protocol," B+)