Thomas Jefferson (1996)
America has always been more of an idea and an experiment than a physical location or an ethnic group. Thomas Jefferson, a feature-length PBS documentary, examines how The Declaration of Independence embodies that idea in the life and personality of its author. Director Ken Burns (Jazz and The Civil War) presents Jefferson as a young lawyer from a prosperous Virginia family whose thinking was transformed by the Enlightenment and the fire of the American Revolution. Novelist Gore Vidal and historians Daniel Boorstin, Joseph Ellis and John Hope Franklin (plus, unfortunately, Garry Wills, author of Papal Sin: Structures of Deceit) offer their perspectives while actors Sam Waterston and Ossie Davis read the founder's words. Burns uses location shots of Jefferson's famed estate Monticello and period drawings and paintings to illustrate his story.
The contradictions between Jefferson's eloquent belief in equality and his ownership of slaves is honestly confronted. But as the movie was produced before the DNA evidence about Sally Hemmings was released, it doesn't explore the controversy about their relationship in any depth.
The Absent-Minded Professor (1961)
Hollywood's present-day special effects wizardry is awesome. But earlier effects-driven movies were often forced to be more imaginative because their technical capabilities were limited. The Absent-Minded Professor relies on comic invention and charm to carry its family-friendly fantasy about an eccentric academic who discovers flubber, a gooey kind of rubber with sustainable energy. Ned Brainard (Fred MacMurray) is so distracted by his scientific experiments he forgets to attend his own wedding. He's too busy attaching flubber to his old Model T automobile which he discovers makes it fly.
Brainard rushes to share his excitement with his long-suffering fiancee (Nancy Olsen), who's gone to a basketball game with a jealous colleague (Elliot Reid). The eccentric professor secretly puts flubber on the soles of the home-team players' sneakers, and they score an upset by being able to fly. However, a local tycoon (Keenan Wynn) schemes to steal the substance to get rich off it. The 1997 remake with Robin Williams, Flubber, is technically more adept but not half as much fun.
The Lavender Hill Mob (1951)
The immediate post-war era produced a series of uniquely British films that highlighted eccentric characters in whimsical escapades with great wit and a touch of farce. The best is The Lavender Hill Mob, one of the Vatican's top 45 films. Henry Holland (Sir Alec Guinness) is a government clerk with a reputation for honesty who supervises the delivery of gold bullion to banks. He falls in with Alfred Pendleberry (Stanley Holloway), a manufacturer of tourist souvenirs, who has a foundry like the government plant which molds gold into heavy bars. Together they decide to rob the truck that carries the bullion and turn the gold into one of Pendleberry's products, a miniature Eiffel Tower paperweight.
Part of the charm of this comedy of errors is watching Holland, whom everyone underestimates, outwit his betters. Both he and Pendleberry are quite conscious of having succumbed to “temptation,” and morality eventually asserts itself. But not before we get to laugh with a pair of underdogs as they enjoy their brief moment on top.