In this Q&A, author Larry Swedroe reveals his favorite movies and why it’s yes to Rowling, but no to Tolkien.
By Laura Latragna
Larry Swedroe is known for his lifelong bond with books as both a prolific author and voracious reader. But he’s equally fierce about the movies that have defined Hollywood’s golden era of filmmaking.
In this BAM ALLIANCE interview, Swedroe goes on the record about what he considers to be the greatest films of the past century and why he’s seen “West Side Story” more than 30 times.
Which movies do you consider to be the greatest?
My favorite movies break down into categories. For me, the best adventure movie is “Gunga Din” followed by “Captain Blood.” I would rate “High Noon” as one of the two greatest Westerns with “Shane” as a slight favorite.
In a category all on their own would be the Marx Brothers. “Duck Soup” and “Horse Feathers” rank as two of their best. But as much as it pains me not to name a Marx Brothers movie, my all-time favorite comedy is Billy Wilder’s “Some Like It Hot” with Tony Curtis, Jack Lemmon and Marilyn Monroe.
Which movies did you see in the theater when you were growing up?
My father worked in the motion picture industry. He was head of concessions for United Artist Theatres. He’s the person you can blame for the big sizes at the movies. He changed the nature of the business by going to jumbo everything: popcorn, candy, franks.
He would take me with him on the weekends when he drove out to inspect different theaters and their concessions. I could either watch the movies or work the concession stand. Over the course of a couple of weeks, I saw “West Side Story” about 30 times and worked the candy stand during the film’s intermission. I watched it over and over. It still holds up as a great movie.
Concessions taught me sales techniques and customer service from an early age. Customers would order popcorn, and I’d suggest, “The large?”
How much was a movie ticket?
At that time, it was something like $2.00, and kids got in for less. For some comparison, we sat in the bleachers at Yankees games for 75 cents. If my father was in the mood to treat us, we’d sit in the Grandstand right behind home plate for $1.50.
Editor’s Note: In 2014, the average movie ticket price was $8.17, according to the National Association of Theater Owners. The current ticket price for a seat in Yankee Stadium in the upper deck behind home plate is $37.80.
Did your father influence your taste in different movie genres?
Yes, he was a big fan of certain actors, so he’d keep me up late, and even wake me up at 11 o’clock at night to watch a movie with Clark Gable, Errol Flynn, Spencer Tracy, Cary Grant, Bette Davis or Katharine Hepburn. I’ve probably seen “Gunga Din” more than 100 times, and when I watch it now, it reminds me of my dad.
Have you ever walked out of a movie before the end?
Twice, actually. The 1991 comedy “Grand Canyon” directed by Lawrence Kasdan had a great cast, but we thought it was awful and left two-thirds of the way through. Still, I love his other movies, and he made “Silverado,” the last, really good Western.
I’ve also walked out of an Ingmar Bergman picture. Sitting there in the theater, it was like watching a tree grow. All six of us were waiting for the first person to say, “Let’s go!” Eventually, we all walked out.
I tend to be patient about movies unlike my wife, who often gives up on a movie after 10 minutes. I’m the same with books. There are only two books I haven’t finished reading. You could say that I’m a compulsive finisher.
What is your favorite sci-fi film series?
“Star Trek,” of course, I’m a big “Star Trek” fan. I saw all of the movies in the theater, and I watched the original television series and “Star Trek: Enterprise.” Throughout, they’ve kept the focus on people, not technology. While my favorite character is Spock, I love McCoy, too. And that fourth guy they sent on missions in the original series, he died every time. It was tough to be that fourth guy. You just waited for that character to be vaporized.
Thinking about classic science fiction, “The Incredible Shrinking Man” is very well done. It was the inspiration behind the book The Incredible Shrinking Alpha, which I co-authored this year with Andrew Berkin.
I did see the first set of “Spiderman” movies and Christopher Nolan’s Dark Knight trilogy. Sometimes, the technology can wow you, but it’s the story that carries you. A great example of this would be “Gravity” with Sandra Bullock and George Clooney.
What is your favorite Alfred Hitchcock film?
I’m a big Hitchcock fan. It’s tough to choose just one. I’d say “North by Northwest,” although “Vertigo” would be right up there along with “Lifeboat.” Most people know Alfred Hitchcock had a cameo in every one of his films. But how was he in “Lifeboat”? (The film was set in a lifeboat on the ocean.) His photo appears in an ad in a newspaper that is among their belongings.
What makes John Ford and Frank Capra two of the greatest American directors?
Better than anyone, Frank Capra captured the spirit of ordinary Americans. All of Capra’s films portrayed the nature of doing the right thing and overcoming adversities in difficult times. Every time I watch “It’s a Wonderful Life,” I tear up at the end. I’ll watch “Meet John Doe,” “Mr. Deeds Goes to Town” and “Mr. Smith Goes to Washington” whenever they’re on.
John Ford captured the spirit of the country, and he doesn’t get enough credit for films that are not Westerns. In “The Quiet Man,” Ford showed everyone that John Wayne could actually act, not just be John Wayne.
Do you like when movies are adapted from books?
Sometimes, the movie is better than the book. The movie version of “The World According to Garp” was better than the book. I’ll see a movie even if I read the book and know the outcome, or read a book after I see the movie. In my opinion, the movie version should closely follow the way the book was written. Why do you think your story is better than the original?
Regarding historical fiction, there is no reason to make up facts that we know aren’t true. For those who don’t read history, they might assume that what they see in the movie is what actually happened. It doesn’t mean you can’t take some literary license, but I’d much rather they stick to the script.
Harry Potter: The books or the movies?
I read all of the books along with my kids, and I loved the movies. I thought the movie adaptations were well done because they focused on the characters, and that’s what made the books good.
On the other hand, I’ve tried to read The Hobbit twice. I got 100 pages in and then stopped on two different occasions. And, I rarely give up on books. I guess I’m just not a Tolkien fan.
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