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Learning a new way to see old movies on YouTube

Learning a new way to see old movies on YouTube

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Stephen Sondheim The New Yorker Festival 2014 - Stephen Sondheim In Conversation With Adam Gopnik

You can watch "Take Me to the World," the 90th birthday celebration of Stephen Sondheim, in its entirety on YouTube. (Getty Images)

It seems I've been doing it wrong - all wrong.

I've been misusing YouTube, you see. Not AB-using it, just using it incompletely. I have underestimated the website grievously. In all the new things I'm learning with regularity during enforced home confinement courtesy of Covid-19, one of the happiest in sad and maddening circumstances is that the world of YouTube is far larger than I thought.

It's not just for videos of my daughter and grandson throwing snowballs at the camera. And for classic Charles Mingus recordings (with static video) that I want to link to my Facebook site. Or to find last night's "New Rules" segment on Bill Maher's HBO talk show Saturday morning. Or for fondly remembered short scenes from movies and TV shows or for research into extant videos of classic American performers from Jolson and Paul Robeson to Ersel Hickey.

What the quarantine of the last month has been teaching me is how often I should have checked with YouTube first whenever I was curious about something.

Did, for instance, Sunday's "Take Me to the World" - the 90th birthday celebration of Stephen Sondheim - start late and have technical problems? Well, all you had to do was check in an hour later and watch it straight through. The whole celebration was full of acolytes from American Theater's First Church of Stephen Sondheim.

We're not just talking about lesser known but magnificent theater performers like Elizabeth Stanley and Melissa Errico, we're talking about such venerables as Nathan Lane, Bernadette Peters and Mandy Patinkin. Would you believe Jake Gyllenhaal, Jason Alexander and a trio composed of  Meryl Streep, Christine Baranski and Audra McDonald doing Sondheim's "Ladies Who Lunch" with their glasses quite possibly full of their own wine and booze? This was television not just from the heart but from the hearth and home.

Sondheim's, to be sure, is a self-selected audience of people devoted to American musical theater and their own devotion to American musical theater. Those who watched got more than a little preciousness and more than a few emotionally souped-up performances despite exploring the repertoire of the American songwriter whose greatest genius resides in his poetic and matter-of-fact naturalism.  ("Loving you, is not a choice/it's who I am./ Loving you is not a choice/and it's not much reason to rejoice." One of the more startling quatrains I know in the Great American Songbook.)

If you missed this show, it's available in perpetuity on good old YouTube. It's a classic piece of American all-star television and one that was, if anything, only enhanced by this period requiring everyone possible to confine themselves at home including its own performers. Patinkin performed a song from "Sundays in the Park With George" in what looked like an abandoned park - on a Sunday.

The great thing about seeing the whole two hour and 20 minutes classic on YouTube is that the fast forward button is available to rescue YouTube watchers from whatever tries their patience. If a song or a performer doesn't enthrall, one can skate right through with the aid of fast forward, one of technology's greatest gifts to American entertainment.

What really opened my eyes to a new way of looking at YouTube is the discovery of how many great and/or worthy movies - classic and otherwise - can be seen in the best available prints and circumstances, courtesy of public domain. (One of them, hilariously, showed a screening room with the movie projected onto a screen on the room's right side and, on the left side, row upon row of empty seats where a screening room audience was intended to sit. Has inside studio piracy ever been more blatant?)

What I discovered accidentally is that at least a quarter of the films Eddie Muller is currently showing on his marvelous "Noir Alley" series on TCM at midnight Saturdays and 10 a.m. Sundays is also available 24/7 on YouTube including the recent "Wicked Woman" starring the immortal six-foot siren of movie studios' poverty row, Beverly Michaels.

Michaels isn't the only personal favorite available free on YouTube for any use at all any time. Don Siegel's 1968 "Madigan" - one of the all-time great New York cop movies starring Richard Widmark, Henry Fonda and Buffalo's James Whitmore - is there for the asking any time, complete with the amazingly violent performance of the all-too-short-lived Steve Ihnat as the psychotic bad guy.

So too is a milestone of cinema history, Buster Keaton's "The General." Plus Howard Hawks' "His Girl Friday" with Cary Grant and Rosalind Russell. And Grant again, later, in his sleek middle-aged masterpiece with a young Audrey Hepburn "Charade." And Hepburn in Wyler's masterful "Roman Holiday" with Gregory Peck.

Would you believe Spike Lee's "Do The Right Thing?" And Douglas Sirk's "Written on the Wind" with Rock Hudson as the intermediary between spoiled heirs Dorothy Malone and Robert Stack? And "Battle Hymn" and "How to Marry a Millionaire?" OK, you believe that - how about Barbra Streisand's only film as director/star "Yentl?"

Two of my favorite relatively obscure Westerns are free on YouTube after years of my shilling for both to disbelieving ears - Henry King's revenge number "The Bravados" starring Gregory Peck and Burt Kennedy's "Hannie Caulder."

Avenging rapes figure in both. Add a wife's murder in "The Bravados." "Caulder" gives us the most creditable performance of Raquel Welch's career but also the most authoritative and likable performance ever by Robert Culp, as the saturnine gunslinger who sympathetically teaches her how to be a gunslinger too.

No longer do I have to describe to incredulous people that it's a weird amalgam of revenge western and educational romance. I can simply tell people a little bit about it and let them find it where it waits for them to be seen for free.

We don't have to wait to see what's on offer from cable or streaming. We can give into good old free YouTube and create our own classic film festivals as good as any others you'll find anywhere in America.


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