September 7, 2001
The September issue of American Heritage, one of my favorite magazines, is now being delivered to subscribers throughout the land, and it contains the editors' annual compilation of the Most Overrated and Most Underrated in a variety of subjects. This feature is always amusing, sometimes thought-provoking, and (of course) frequently debatable. I disagree with several of their choices.
For instance, guest writer Arthur Schlesinger Jr. is responsible for choosing the Most Overrated and Most Underrated movies of all time. I don't envy him. Everyone has his or her own choices in those categories and most of us are prepared to go to war in defense of the titles we like. But Mr. Schlesinger's choice of Gone With the Wind as the Most Overrated movie really angers me. In my own personal list of choices, GWTW stands alone as the greatest movie ever. I have seen it many times, and in each instance I have been moved by the drama, romance, adventure, baring of human foibles, and faithful retelling of America's shame in slavery. Lately there has been a tendency to ridicule the novel by Margaret Mitchell and the movie itself by self-appointed arbiters of good taste. I can only testify to my own reaction to the original book and the movie. I found both of them to be wonderful. Who can forget the performances of Clark Gable, Leslie Howard, Vivien Leigh, Olivia DeHavilland, Thomas Mitchell and Hattie McDaniel? All of them, plus the director, Victor Fleming, were super stars in their own right.
As for Mr. Schlesinger's choice of the Most Underrated movie, he nominates a worthy World War II comedy, To Be or Not to Be, starring Jack Benny and Carol Lombard, for this award. Part of his rationale is the fact that the film was directed by Ernst Lubitsch, who produced "a gallery of wonderful movies." I can't argue about this one because the film and the director happen to be among my own favorites. But there's another film classic that is my personal choice for Most Underrated. That would be The Best Years of Our Lives, a post-World War II story with a dynamic cast that included Fredric March, Myrna Loy, Dana Andrews, Teresa Wright, Virginia Mayo and Cathy O'Donnell. It also introduced us to Harold Russell, who lost both his hands in war-time action and went on to win an Oscar for his role. The director was William Wyler, another giant in his field.
So, those are my choices for consideration alongside those of Mr. Schlesinger. Sad to say, few if any of the movies I've seen during the past 30 years are notable enough to be possibilities for Most Underrated or Most Overrated. They are, mostly, just junk. I think the movies need to quit disgorging the trash they've been producing and return to some of the themes that audiences will remember decades from now. But, let's face it. As long as we buy tickets to see sewage on the screen, that's what they will be giving us.