Welcome to SpeciaLists, a new weekly feature here at WhatCulture. SpeciaLists differ from our regular articles in the fact that they’re extremely specific and take a far more intimate approach to niche topics. This week, we take a look at classic scenes involving those immortal distance-bridging devices we couldn’t live without: stairs.
February is the month of love. It is a time for heart-shaped cards, over-priced flowers, cheeky one-night stays in cheap hotels, and lung cancer. That’s right: every February, after all the loveliness of Valentine’s Day, the next thing on our minds should be lung cancer, because February is also the month of “Hustle Up The Hancock,” a charity endurance event to raise funds for cancer research.
Details of the event can be found here, but essentially, the last Sunday of every February is when over 4,000 people climb 94 floors (nearly all 1,632 steps) of the John Hancock Tower in Chicago, Illinois for this great cause. So in honour of this generous effort – and in the true spirit of this month and its unusual number of days – I give you 28 classic film scenes featuring stairs…
28. “I’m Up Here” – Home Alone (1990)
There are three brilliant moments featuring stairs in this Christmas classic. The first is Marv (Daniel Stern) slipping on an icy exterior stone decline; the second involves tar, bare feet and a nail (ouch!). But the third (and potentially most memorable) moment sees Harry (Joe Pesci) and Marv getting a face full of paint cans.
It is a very ordinary joke that would, when compared to some of the other cracking ‘hits’ of the film, normally just raise a slight chuckle. But Pesci and Stern sell the moment so perfectly, that when they systematically get smacked right in the mug, you really feel their pain, and it inspires mirth of Santa chuckling proportions. John Williams’ playful score adds an element of cheeky playfulness to the moment, and Columbus’ steady direction helps put us right in the middle of the twang.
Home Alone is a film littered with outstanding physical comedy, and some of the best moments of ’90s family cinema. But that scene, and those moments must have inspired some highly dangerous and massively humorous copycats in homes around the world. Climbing the stairs was a very dangerous endeavour after 1990.
The film is considered as a National symbol of importance at Christmas time in Poland, and no Christmas Eve is complete in my household without an annual viewing. The paint scene remains a highlight of the film, and is a great example to get this list started.
Were the stairs a necessary addition to the scene? You damn right they were.
27. “Not Tonight” – Gone With The Wind (1939)
The scene begins with Scarlett O’Hara (Vivien Leigh) trailing down the huge red stairwell from the darkness of above, and ends with her relenting in the arms of her drunken husband Rhett (Clark Gable); they ascend to make love. Frankly my dears, it’s one of the most iconic sequences in film history.
Despite the rapey undertones of the moments prior – “I will smash your skull like a walnut” – this key sequence from the epic Gone With The Wind still (goodness knows how) carries an element of romanticism. But what makes it so is not the dialogue or even the score, but the grandiose fairytale staircase that frames and bookends the scene like a glamorous curtain on the stage of their lives.
That whole “kiss me now, or lose me forever” fell is heightened by the rugged “hero” swooping his distant wife up in his arms and whisking her off into the darkness above; their endeavours therein are a private matter.
If one were to be so bold as to read metaphors within the use of such a staircase; it might be suggested that Scarlett is descending from her lofty abode, to dwell in the depths of jealousy and despair with the man she has driven to breaking point. After their heated dialogue and bickering, she attempts to abandon him once more, but he is stronger now.
He lifts her up, taking away her control of the situation, and they ascend the stairs; thus elevating their relationship. The colour red, synonymous with passion, runs through the visual palette as though almost no other colour exists. Erotic stuff.
On a side note, it boggles the mind how Gable was able to complete the scene without putting his back out, or indeed dropping Leigh down the entire staircase. She must have weighed all of 5 stone. It is a steamy scene that has inspired generations of filmmakers and films, from Blade Runner to Titanic.
26. “Are You A God?” – Ghostbusters (1984)
“Are you a God?” asks Gozer (Slavitza Jovan). We all now where it goes from there, and Ernie Hudson (not Bill Murray, for once) gets one of the best lines in the film. In a double whammy of stair usage, Ghostbusters shows us the suspect physicality of the fearsome four ascending countless floors of the Ivo Shandor building, and then coming face-to-face with the androgynous monster atop a substantially smaller flight of stairs, on the roof.
Gozer’s elevation atop a pyramid of steps, and sandwiched between the devil-dog forms of Dana (Sigourney Weaver) and Louis (Rick Moranis) add to her mysterious presence. Ray’s (Dan Aykroyd) gradual movements toward her denote a sense of bravery within the character that mirror’s the film’s opening sequence of “get her!” Whether it was intentional or not, what director Ivan Reitman does here is use the steps to great effect in literally ‘raising’ the stakes for the Ghostbusters, and shows a development of competence and confidence within the team.
According to IMDB, in reality, the apartment building used for the film is only 20 stories high and is located at 55 Central Park West in New York City. The use of matte paintings added a much-needed level of elevation to the building. And for the architects among you, the fictional top of the building is modelled on the Continental Life Building in St. Louis, Missouri. So any time you are in Missouri, why not pop up to the roof and utter the famous words: “When someone asks if you are a God, you say yes!”
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