After its debut on The Tracey Ullman Show on 19 April 1987, Matt Groening’s The Simpsons has gone on on to become the longest-running American sitcom of all time. With its insights into family life, surreal humour, superb characters, touching drama and vibrant animation, it was unlike anything else on mainstream television. A sharply written celebration of popular culture, with guest stars, parodies and cineliterate references, the show itself became culturally significant and a shining example of a programme that could be loved by everyone.
As it now reaches the grand old age of 30, we look back at how one of the most iconic of all television programmes showed its cinematic side and taught a generation about film.
The film: Citizen Kane (1941)
The episode: Rosebud (season 5, episode 4)
A rare moment of sympathy for Charles Montgomery Burns as he pines for his childhood bear ‘Bobo’. The opening is almost shot-for-classic-shot with the Orson Welles original, with the addition of a ‘Free Kittens Inquire Within’ sign on the electrified ‘Burns Manor’ fence as we zoom in on him dropping a ‘Nev-R-Break’ snow globe in his troubled sleep.
The film: Bram Stoker’s Dracula (1992)
The episode: Treehouse of Horror IV (season 5, episode 5)
Echoing Francis Ford Coppola’s overblown 1992 adaptation, in which the shadow of Gary Oldman’s Dracula acts menacingly of its own accord, here it’s Mr Burns as the famous count, his sinister shadow whipping out a yo-yo in one of the funniest Treehouse of Horror episodes.
The film: Rear Window (1954)
The episode: Bart of Darkness (season 6, episode 1)
The Hitchcockian thriller comes to Springfield when Bart breaks his leg during the summer vacation and is forced to watch the fun from his window, until he spies mysterious happenings at his neighbours’ – the Flanders’ – through his telescope. With touches of Bernard Herrmann’s score and a cameo from Jimmy Stewart’s L.B. ‘Jeff’ Jefferies character, there are nods all over the place.
The film: The Shining (1980)
The episode: Treehouse of Horror V (season 6, episode 6)
The first but not the last Kubrick reference in our list comes in The Shinning (“You mean Shining.” “Shush, you wanna get sued?”). The Simpson family head off to work as caretakers at Mr Burns’ spooky winter lodge, but “No TV and no beer make Homer go crazy”, and he goes on a murderous rampage.
The film: Raiders of the Lost Ark (1981)
The episode: Bart’s Friend Falls in Love (season 3, episode 23)
This episode opener has Bart stealing Homer’s change jar and adventuring through the house to escape. Homer rolls down the stairs, boulder-like, chasing him. He slides out of the garage, but not before swiping his hat at the final second before the door closes. Homer shouts incomprehensibly after him, in reference to the angry natives in Spielberg’s original.
The film: Thelma & Louise (1991)
The episode: Marge on the Lam (season 5, episode 6)
Marge becomes friends with her neighbour Ruth. After a few wild nights out in Springfield in Ruth’s blue (stolen!) convertible, they find themselves in a dramatic car chase, pursued by Chief Wiggum and Homer. In contrast to Ridley Scott’s classic road movie, however, it’s Homer and Wiggum who fly into the chasm as they fail to brake.
The film: 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968)
The episode: Lisa’s Pony (season 3, episode 8)
Homer dreams he is an ape in the legendary ‘The Dawn of Man’ scene from Kubrick’s sci-fi masterpiece. As we hear Richard Strauss’s monumental Also Sprach Zarathustra, the other apes tentatively stroke an alien monolith, while ape Homer leans against it and scratches his back before waking up, reclined in his chair at work.
The film: An Officer and a Gentleman (1982)
The episode: Life on the Fast Lane (season 1, episode 9)
A lovely Marge and Homer moment in this final scene of an episode focused on their marriage. Marge visits Homer at the power plant, with the Joe Cocker theme ‘Up Where We Belong’ playing throughout. As Homer carries Marge out of the building she puts his hard hat on her extremely tall blue hair and they walk into the sunset.
The film: The Great Escape (1963)
The episodce: A Streetcar Named Marge (season 4, episode 2)
Maggie is a silent comedy master. Here, she’s put in ‘the box’ after trying to free the locked away dummies at the Ayn Rand School for Tots. She bounces her ball against the sides like Steve McQueen’s Cooler King. Later, with an elaborate escape to that oft-repeated theme, her plan is successful and the dummies are released.
The film: Psycho (1960)
The episode: Itchy & Scratchy & Marge (season 2, episode 9)
At the start of this brilliant episode about conservative values and censorship, baby Maggie attacks Homer with a mallet in a perfect shot-for-shot pastiche of Hitchcock’s famous shower scene. Marge then goes on to blame children’s cartoon show Itchy & Scratchy for her child’s violent act.
The film: Westworld (1973)
The episode: Itchy & Scratchy Land (season 6, episode 4)
Bart and Lisa convince Homer and Marge to take them to the Itchy & Scratchy Land theme park, but the park robots go rogue and try to kill all the visitors. A great episode to re-watch in light of the fantastic recent HBO reboot of Michael Crichton’s original 1970s sci-fi western.
The films: Vertigo (1958) and Gone with the Wind (1939)
The episode: Principal Charming (season 2, episode 14)
In another tip of the hat to a Hitchcock thriller, Skinner’s planned proposal to Marge’s sister Selma involves a lovingly animated recreation of the iconic zoom from the top of the bell tower in Vertigo. Later he vows to get his school back from Bart’s control (he’s neglected it during his affair), and, as the camera pulls out, he’s silhouetted against the scarlet (O’Hara) sunset.
The film: Dr. Strangelove or: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb (1964)
The episode: Homer the Vigilante (season 5, episode 11)
While Homer is out buying weapons for his new vigilante group, Herman Hermann (owner of Herman’s Military Antiques) shows him a small nuclear bomb built by the government in the 1950s to “drop on beatniks”. Homer daydreams of himself as the Major Kong character from Kubrick’s Cold War satire as he rides the bomb, rodeo style, towards doom.
The film: The Graduate (1967)
The episode: Lisa’s Substitute (season 2, episode 19)
Lisa has developed a crush on her kind and thoughtful substitute teacher Mr Bergstrom (voiced by Dustin Hoffman under a pseudonym). In this scene she spies Mrs Krabappel trying to seduce him in a classroom, with the inclusion of the under-the-knee shot made famous in Mike Nichols’ original 1960s classic.
The film: A Clockwork Orange (1971)
The episode: Dog of Death (season 3, episode 19)
Mr Burns adopts the Simpsons’ family dog, Santa’s Little Helper, who he transforms into a vicious attack dog by forcing him to watch footage of dogs being abused with the torturous, Ludovico Technique from Kubrick’s cult adaptation of Anthony Burgess’s dystopian novel. We even hear in the background “a bit from the glorious ninth, by Ludwig van”.
The film: Mr. Smith Goes to Washington (1939)
The episode: Mr. Lisa Goes to Washington (season 3, episode 2)
An episode questioning American values and political morality that’s worthy of Frank Capra himself – and still as relevant as ever, 26 years since its first broadcast. Lisa is the disillusioned James Stewart character as she discovers corruption in Washington on a trip to DC in one of the show’s most sharply satirical outings.
The film: One Flew over the Cuckoo’s Nest (1975)
The episode: Stark Raving Dad (season 3, episode 1)
Due to his laziness, Homer neglects to fill out a psychiatric quiz, and – after letting Bart do it – he’s sent to the New Bedlam Rest Home for the Emotionally Interesting psychiatric institution. Here he encounters many of the characters from Milos Forman’s Oscar-winning drama, including the reticent Chief and Nurse Ratched.
The film: Goldfinger (1964)
The episode: You Only Move Twice (season 8, episode 2)
Homer is blissfully unaware that his charismatic new boss, Hank Scorpio, is actually an evil supervillain. He’s also oblivious when Scorpio is holding a ‘Mr Bont’ captive on the same laser torture device used by Goldfinger. Homer puts a stop to his escape by tackling him to the floor, and Bont is shot to death by Scorpio’s henchmen.
The film: North by Northwest (1959)
The episode: Kidney Trouble (season 10, episode 8)
A quick wink towards Hitchcock’s mistaken identity adventure. Homer gets cold feet after agreeing to give a kidney to his father, Grampa. On fleeing the hospital he’s nearly run over, in a sequence perfectly echoing the end of the crop-duster scene, in which Cary Grant’s Roger Thornhill is almost hit by truck.
The film: Planet of the Apes (1968)
The episode: A Fish Called Selma (season 7, episode 19)
The greatest animated stage musical film parody ever. ‘Stop the Planet of the Apes, I Want to Get Off!’ stars Troy McClure and climaxes with a song that includes the lyrics: “I hate every ape I see, from chimpan-a to chimpan-z, no you’ll never make a monkey out of me.”