If "they don't make 'em like they used to" isn't officially a cliché yet, then it soon will be. Sure, it's about as accurate a maxim as they come -- times inevitably change, and culture as well -- but while it usually laments an era bygone, it often ignores the fact that change has often been equal to a sense of improvement and progress.
The 1954 musical Seven Brides for Seven Brothers (henceforth SBSB), the 1964 cartoon The Incredible Mr. Limpet and the 1979 sci-fi adventure The Black Hole are each fair representations of entertainment from their time periods, little capsules of innocence the likes of which are unmatched today, but these passing years suggest that maybe they were just right for just then, best left to steep in nostalgia... Let's kick things off with the best of the bunch. The Black Hole is essentially 20,000 Leagues Under the Stars, as the maniacally brilliant Maximilian Schell, having hung around said black hole in order to harness its energy, decides that he will soon travel through it -- a plan which sounds much more maniacal than brilliant to his newly boarded guests (Anthony Perkins, Robert Forster, Yvette Mimieux, Ernest Borgnine, Joseph Bottoms and Roddy McDowall as the voice of their trusty robotic sidekick, V.I.N.C.E.N.T.).
This was Disney's first PG-rated feature, and the edge remains for at least the first act, when the crew's exploration of the long-lost ship generates some genuine tension and intrigue. From there, who's good, who's bad and who's expendable isn't hard to guess, and it's only a matter of time before the special-effects laden climax, costly and impressive at the time, easy to admire now. (There is one particular shot that I love, where our heroes are trying to out-race an oncoming meteor on foot. I don't know how there is still gravity or oxygen on a ship that has meteors flying through it, but it's a nifty shot all the same.)
I'm also partial to the ending, more abstract than one could expect from a Disney outing. (Spoiler alert? Fine, spoiler alert.) Once Schell is crushed by the ship he so loved as it's torn toward the black hole, the protagonists take refuge in a probe that he'd recently sent through the hole and back. The only problem with this is that the probe is still programed to travel through the hole, which the crew promptly does.) We see Schell and his chief robot minion embrace before taking their place in what would appear to be Hell, and then our heroes go either to or through Heaven (an angel flies down a glassy corridor) before emerging on the other side of the black hole.
Again, it's a little trippy for what was ostensibly a family-friendly action-adventure. I can only hope that the forthcoming remake ends with an equally unexpected touch.
Equally unexpected would be a remake of something like The Incredible Mr. Limpet, what with its lovable lump (Don Knotts) turning into a fish and serving his country by calling out U-boat locations during WWII. Could you see a seagull voiced by Adam Sandler calling out snipers and squadrons in modern-day Baghdad? Better yet, could you see that movie turning up twenty years from now?
That may be the strangest thing about Limpet. Not that our hero has a freakish obsession with aquatic life, not that our hero seemingly transforms as an arbitrary result of said obsession and nothing else, but that this movie came out in 1964, after the Allied victory had been set in stone and as if the win would be any sweeter or more amusing if we all found out a fella like Limpet had turned the tide, as it were.
But it is every bit as innocent as entertainment in the '40s and '60s was, unfathomable to modern eyes and yet untainted by modern sensibilities (read: not a fart joke in sight). Maybe that's really what makes the idea of a remake seem so out of the question; at this point, though, I wouldn't put anything past Hollywood.
Speaking of not putting anything past Hollywood, how about a musical about six out of seven frontiersmen stealing themselves a wife each and keeping them kidnapped until everyone makes nice and gets hitched? That's exactly what SBSB is all about, albeit with a song here and a dance there to stop anyone from dwelling on a pretty creepy premise, one that -- again, admittedly -- probably didn't seem so strange in 1954 (it must not have if it racked up a Best Picture nod among others), let alone 1850 Oregon, where it's set.
But then you get a sequence like the barn-burning barn-raiser number, and all that Stockholm Syndrome seems to slip away. They may not make 'em like they used to, but hey, at least they were made at all.