One of my favorite haunts in Los Angeles is Musso & Frank – the celebrated restaurant that’s been in continuous operation in Hollywood since 1919. Legend has it Dashiell Hammet wrote The Maltese Falcon at the bar. In the years that followed, he and Humphrey Bogart drank there together. Sometimes Lauren Bacall joined them. F. Scott Fitzgerald frequented the place during his Hollywood sojourn. Orson Welles had his own table. Being in the heart of Hollywood near the venerable Stanley Rose Bookshop, Musso & Frank became the intersection where the brightest lights and biggest names in American Cinema and American Literature crossed paths in the 1930s and 40s.
Musso’s current executive chef is only its third since opening. You can order the fish or chicken but don’t. It’s a steak, potato and Scotch kind of joint – but it’s no dive. It’s a place of comfort, class and style from its dark paneled décor to the formal uniforms worn by the middle aged and older male wait staff. And while it may have fallen in and out of fashion many times in the last ninety-five years, it remains a spot that locals frequent and tourists seek out for a quintessential Old Hollywood experience. The standards are high, the food is excellent, and the experience is memorable. But nothing there suggests anyone is trying to break new ground. They’re not trying to start trends at Musso & Frank. They’re striving to continue a tradition with excellence, integrity and pride in their work.
THE MONUMENTS MEN is the Musso & Frank of movies. It’s a straightforward, solid, Old Hollywood entertainment about a Big Idea. It’s made with all the modern technology but favors traditional elements from big time movie stars and memorable character actors right down to the film’s vintage score. (I’ll grant you the difference between dated and vintage is in the eyes and ears of the beholder.) If the film had been more thoroughly considered in this light – as an intentionally old fashioned movie, I feel it might have gotten a more admirable nod from the critics who panned it. Even so, I’m at a loss to understand how anyone thinks “there’s no there there” or that the film “never gets started.”
THE MONUMENTS MEN’s greatest sin against modernity seems to be that it is not an orgy of violence with no consequences, dripping with irony, driven by an incomprehensible plot, slathered over with physics-defying CGI. In other words, they don’t make ‘em like this anymore. Except they did kind of make one like this recently. To be more precise: Quentin Tarantino made one like this with the exception that his was on an acid trip. And as much as I’d hate to confirm this hunch, I suspect INGLORIOUS BASTERDS might have shaded the way THE MONUMENTS MEN was received by tastemakers.
INGLORIOUS BASTERDS is the only movie Quinten Tarantino has made that I care to see again. I don’t mean to damn it with faint praise. There’s a lot about that movie that I genuinely love and am still blown away by. But let’s be honest, INGLORIOUS BASTERDS is a twelve-year-old boy’s fantasy. I don’t know Tarantino personally so it’s not for me to say who he is or what he’s like as a person. As a filmmaker he is a precocious, perpetual twelve year old — an uber talented enfant terrible. He got off on answering the biggest “what if” wish fulfillment scenario he could think of. As such, INGLORIOUS BASTERDS can only be taken seriously as a film. (Not that there’s anything wrong with that.)
THE MONUMENTS MEN can be taken seriously as a film and as an effort to shine light on a little known story, while posing a relevant question: what would have happened to the human spirit if all the art stolen by the Nazis from France, Italy, Poland, Brussels, etc, had been destroyed?
MONUMENTS is the movie version of a true story about a volunteer squad of art historians on a mission in the last months of World War II, to reclaim and return art stolen by the Nazis. It’s the same kind of heartfelt, high-minded entertainment that was de rigueur of the studio system. From the early days until its demise, the Studio System put out all kinds of content but it prided itself on telling stories that inspired our better angels to aspire to ideals of beauty, fairness, courage… and all that jazz. When The Moguls ran The Studios, they could be persuaded to make a picture because it was important for people to see and hear what the film was about.
“If you want to send a message, call Western Union” is a quote often attributed to legendary producer (and co-founder of MGM) Samuel Goldwyn. But he didn’t say it. I’m confident he didn’t say it for two reasons: 1) his biographer, Scott Berg, has found no evidence that he ever said it and 2) the movies he chose to make were full of messages – universal themes of human ideals and foibles. THE BEST YEARS OF OUR LIVES is arguably the crowing achievement of Goldwyn’s producing career. It is a message movie if ever there was one.
I saw THE MONUMENTS MEN at my neighborhood theater (it’s still my favorite way to see a movie) with my wife (still my favorite person to see a movie with) on Valentine’s night. We both enjoyed it very much. The theater was three quarters full on this, the movie’s second Friday night. Saturday morning’s numbers showed that MONUMENTS was only experiencing a 28% drop in Box Office from it’s opening weekend. That’s an impressive, enviable hold for any film. I think that demonstrates there’s an audience hungry for this kind of movie. MONUMENTS had already opened stronger than expected the weekend before. I suspect it will have a longer, better life than the chances given it by those who’ve called it corny.
Having read some of the dismissive criticism of MONUMENTS before I saw the film, I couldn’t help but think of Frank Capra after seeing it. Today it might be easy to see why some consider Capra’s work corny. But here’s the kicker: they called it corny when he was making it in the 30s and 40s. MR. SMITH GOES TO WASHINGTON, IT’S A WONDERFUL LIFE — “Capracorn” they called it.
The thing is, MONUMENTS is both homage and manifesto. It’s made in the tradition of classic American filmmaking and it makes a statement not just about the beauty of art but the essential nature of art to culture and the human experience. We already know what Tarantino would do with the basic subject of the Nazis manipulating an art form for their own twisted purposes. Scorsese might have made a three-hour epic with nary an hero in site. I’m not saying either would have been better or worse than the movie Clooney made. I’m just saying it appears Clooney made the movie he wanted to make. I’m glad he did.
I have a favorite booth at Musso & Frank. I love walking in and seeing waiters who’ve been on the floor since the late ‘50s. Old men who, when they were younger, waited on John Wayne, Marilyn Monroe, Jimmy Stewart and Rita Hayworth. And I have many fond memories of sharing meals with friends there. The place reminds me of something about our past and it inspires me to respect certain classic lines of continuity in our culture. It’s the same feeling I get when I watch a classic movie – or a new movie made in the classic tradition.