Last month the Siren went up to Syracuse University to speak to Lance Mannion's delightful honors seminar, which he teaches with professor, author and poet Steven Kuusisto. It’s called “Public Intellectuals and the Digital Commons” but Lance likes to call it “Blogging for Fun and Profit.” The Siren had a wonderful time with his hugely intelligent, delightful students.
However. These are not film majors. And when we started discussing what my blog is about, Lance asked the group if anyone had ever seen a Bette Davis movie.
What followed was the most terrible 30-second silence of my life.
One woman (bless her) said she'd seen and liked Mildred Pierce, and someone else cited some John Ford films. And several mentioned love for Audrey Hepburn, especially Roman Holiday.
Still, this is a situation that hurts the Siren’s evangelical little heart, where beats the conviction that almost anyone can be a classic-movie fan. It’s purely a matter of seeing the right films. As a thank-you to Lance and the students who were so welcoming and attentive, the Siren decided do a post recommending films for people who have seen little or nothing of pre-1960 American cinema. The idea being that a person could pick out one and watch it recreationally, and maybe afterward, consider watching some more.
The Siren picked ten films that are sophisticated enough to appeal to these whiz kids, modern enough in attitude to be approachable, and embodying what's best in the filmmaking of their time. Nine of them are permanent, canonical classics; one of them, in the Siren’s considered opinion, should be, and she adds that it’s barely been a couple of years since she saw it. One thing about loving old movies: There are always fresh ones to discover. (Below, in a sidebar, you can see what happened when the Siren posed this question to some fellow cinephiles.)
Nothing was picked for Film 101 reasons. This list intentionally resembles a syllabus not one itty-bitty little bit. These films were picked because they are easy to love.
All were and remain influential. All have great dialogue; to head off an occasional question, no, nobody spoke exactly like that back then or at any other point in history, and isn’t it wonderful. The Siren thinks most conversations only benefit from having Billy Wilder or Joseph Mankiewicz to write them.
Most American studio-era films are designed down to the last doily on the last sideboard. Years ago, in the 1980s, there was a brief flutter about “colorizing” movies. You took some then-new technology and presto! Casablanca in color! There were just a few problems. One was that colorized movies looked like crap. The colorizers had trouble with small parts of the image like lips, with the result that from medium-shot to close-up, Ingrid Bergman’s lipstick varied to a degree that would have given the actress a nervous breakdown. And colorization somehow emphasized the phoniness of everything--the fake palm trees, the sets.
The most important point was made at the time by directors like John Huston and Orson Welles. The two color movies on this list were carefully, gorgeously visualized that way. The eight black-and-white movies, on the other hand, were not designed in everyday real color with the idea that what the heck, it was bound to look good in black-and-white too. Every costume and set and location and light and angle was calibrated to use that film stock’s possibilities to the fullest.
These movies are all beautiful by design, and fabulous forever.
Sherlock Jr. (dir. Buster Keaton, 1924)
Silent film is its own art form, and a glorious one, with many masterpieces that are (contrary to popular belief) very accessible; but the Siren stuck to one, otherwise she’d need another list. (And if you want another list, hey, JUST ASK.) This movie, the story of a lovelorn movie projectionist (Buster Keaton, of course) who dreams of becoming a detective, was selected because when the Siren saw it at the Film Forum in front of an audience of children and parents, it went over like gangbusters. The film has everything that makes Keaton a genius: the wildly inventive use of all the possibilities of film; the comedy ranging from subtle to manic slapstick; the athletic stunts, one of which could have paralyzed Keaton. Excessive description tends to kill comedy, so the Siren is leaving it at that; but trust her, this is no quaint antique. (Above, Buster Keaton is...well, it’s complicated.)
My Man Godfrey (dir. Gregory La Cava, 1936)
Carole Lombard, one of the greatest comediennes of all time, plays heiress Irene Bullock, for whom the term “madcap” might have been coined. During a scavenger hunt, Irene turns up a “forgotten man” (i.e., hobo) Godfrey, played by Lombard’s real-life ex-husband William Powell. He winds up as the butler at her mansion (“Can you butle?” she asks Godfrey). Godfrey helps her dizzyingly eccentric family get a grip on life, and far from coincidentally, what’s going on in Depression-era America right under their privileged noses. A supreme example of the style known as screwball comedy, the film’s atmosphere is summed up by Irene’s father (Eugene Pallette): “All you need to start an asylum is an empty room and the right kind of people.” The many, many treats include beautiful Gail Patrick as Irene’s sister, whom Godfrey characterizes as “a Park Avenue brat”; character actor Mischa Auer doing an alarmingly accurate monkey imitation; and an attitude toward the idle rich that skewers their every foible, yet never devolves into anger or preachiness. (Above, Lombard and Powell get ready to play their big love scene.)
The Adventures of Robin Hood (dir. Michael Curtiz, 1938)
When the Siren showed this ravishing Technicolor spectacle to her family, her 9-year-old son announced at the end, “That was the best movie I’ve ever seen.” Certainly this tale--wherein Robin Hood (Errol Flynn) robs the rich, gives to the poor, and battles Prince John (Claude Rains) and Guy of Gisbourne (Basil Rathbone) on his way to winning Maid Marian (Olivia de Havilland) and restoring King Richard to the throne--appeals to the kid in everyone. It is also a model of how to structure and pace an action movie. (One key expository scene that the Siren can’t get enough of shows Maid Marian in the background of the shot, creeping down a winding stone staircase to listen in on a nefarious plot. She’s right out there in the open, the staircase doesn’t even have a banister. But the castle set is so vast that of course the Prince and Sir Guy wouldn’t notice her at first.) And if you look closer, to Robin Hood’s explicit plea for human rights and democratic government in a year where the world was sorely lacking in both, that diminishes the joy not one bit. (Above, Rathbone and Flynn cross swords.)
Stagecoach (dir. John Ford, 1939)
There was no way the Siren would compile this post without a Western, and she’s still debating whether this is the ideal choice. Then again, of course it is. This movie has everything you could want in a great Western: John Ford, Monument Valley, John Wayne so young and handsome it almost hurts to look at him. And there’s a climactic action sequence so dangerous its centerpiece stunt (performed by Yakima Canutt--remember that name) would be hard to recreate today without resorting to computer trickery. It’s a simple tale of a motley group of passengers on a stagecoach going to Lordsburg. They include John Carradine as a Southern gentleman turned gambler; Louise Platt as a gently bred belle, pregnant and going to join her husband; Claire Trevor as a prostitute who’s been run out of town; and Thomas Mitchell as an alcoholic doctor. (He won a Supporting Actor Oscar in a year where almost anything that wasn’t nailed down went to Gone With the Wind.) Within this small group, John Ford tells a bustling, exciting story, while looking at class differences and community in a way that remains frank and touching. (Above, the shot that arguably made John Wayne a star at the age of 32.)
His Girl Friday (dir. Howard Hawks, 1940)
One of the rare instances where the remake of a great film (1931’s The Front Page) turns out better than its predecessor. Hawks turned the reporter Hildy Johnson into a woman (Rosalind Russell) and came up with a comedy that’s striking in its feminism. Hildy wants to marry Bruce (Ralph Bellamy) and settle down to raise babies “and give them cod-liver oil and watch their teeth grow,” she sputters. But her ex-husband, newspaper editor Walter Burns (Cary Grant), knows better: “You’re a newspaper man,” he tells her. To that end, he tricks and cons Hildy repeatedly so she’ll help save an innocent man from execution--and, more importantly, sell some papers in the process. The jokes fly so fast that when you see this in a theater, some good lines get drowned out by laughter. The script makes sharper digs at corrupt Chicago politics and ruthless newshounds than many a latter-day thriller. (Above, after Russell lets fly with that bag, Grant tells her, "You're losing your arm. You used to be better than that.")
Double Indemnity (dir. Billy Wilder, 1944)
Insurance salesman Walter Neff (Fred MacMurray) gets more trouble than he dreamed of when he knocks on the door of Phyllis Dietrichson (Barbara Stanwyck), the discontented wife of an older man. Together they plot to bump off Mr. Dietrichson in a way that will allow them to collect double his life insurance premium, the “double indemnity” of the title. Edward G. Robinson plays Neff’s boss, a man who prides himself on his ability to snuff out a bad claim. There are earlier examples of the style known as film noir, and goodness knows many later ones, but this is echt noir. “I didn’t get the money, and I didn’t get the girl,” Neff announces at the opening; as Brian De Palma observed, you can’t get much more noir than that. It’s often very funny, and intentionally so; Billy Wilder, who co-wrote the script, never made a humor-free movie in his life. But it’s also tragic, with a killer fadeout, and it’s a great introduction to the peerless Stanwyck and Robinson. Also, if anyone’s parents had them watch some old Disney films, this vision of Fred MacMurray retains some shock value. (Above, MacMurray, Stanwyck, and a car.)
The Breaking Point (dir. Michael Curtiz, 1950)
Perhaps the Siren should have gone with Elia Kazan’s On the Waterfront, as she tried to diversify her list with Method acting and the social drama that so dominates independent filmmaking in our own era. Certainly On the Waterfront is a capital-G Great Movie. But this is the Siren’s list, and she’s doing it her way, and the Siren truly thinks that this dark, tense movie has great appeal for a modern audience. Plus, the Siren loves John Garfield, the revolutionary actor who came from a tough New York neighborhood and was ultimately destroyed by the House Un-American Activities committee. He was enthrallingly sexy, and his subtle playing only underlines his boiling emotion. This underseen film (available on Warner Archive) is based on the Hemingway novel that Howard Hawks filmed as To Have and Have Not, but where Hawks is dashing and adventurous, here Michael Curtiz is melancholy and fatalistic. Garfield plays a California fisherman with a family to support and no work coming in. To make ends meet, he agrees to pilot his boat for gangsters as they run in some illegal immigrants. Also notable for the African American actor Juano Hernandez, giving a tremendous performance as a fellow fisherman. Hernandez’s role is written with dignity and feeling; the part was beefed up at Garfield’s insistence, which tells you a lot about the man. The final shot is one of the most heartbreaking in all classic film. (Above, Hernandez and Garfield.)
All About Eve (dir. Joseph Mankiewicz, 1950)
Eve Harrington (Anne Baxter) becomes a star, by latching onto Margo Channing (Bette Davis) and working her lying, conniving wiles on not just Margo, but everyone around her. Siren obsession George Sanders won his only Oscar for playing Addison de Witt, the ultimate poison-pen critic and one of only two people who twig to Eve right away. The other is Birdie, Margo’s sharp-eyed maid, played by Thelma Ritter. Davis gave many great performances in her incredible career, but Margo is generally acknowledged as her crowning achievement. Margo is a star, and got there in part because she’s a smart cookie. How and why she is taken in by Eve’s act contains a great deal of existential truth about human behavior (and pointers on how to spot Eves in your own life; believe me, that skill comes in handy). Margo’s a diva, but the biggest betrayal in the movie comes not from her, or even Eve; it’s via sweet housewife Karen (Celeste Holm). Joseph Mankiewicz wrote an endlessly quotable script, not so much laugh-out-loud funny as it is scalding. With Marilyn Monroe in one of her earliest roles; watch the perfection of Monroe’s timing at the ripe old age of 24. (Above, Margo salutes Eve; Hugh Marlowe is on the left and Gary Merrill, who became Davis’ fourth husband, is in the middle.)
Rear Window (dir. Alfred Hitchcock, 1954)
Photographer L.B. "Jeff" Jefferies, laid up with a broken leg, becomes obsessed with watching his neighbors across a Manhattan courtyard. There’s a heat-wave going on, and the open windows (and lack of air conditioning) mean he can usually hear what they’re saying as well. Together with his girlfriend Lisa Fremont (Grace Kelly) Jeff becomes convinced that neighbor Lars Thorwald (Raymond Burr) has murdered his shrieking harpy of a wife. The Siren herself ranks Rear Window well above Vertigo (which recently dethroned Citizen Kane as the Greatest Movie Ever Made in the once-a-decade Sight and Sound poll) as one of the best movies Hitchcock ever made. Rear Window takes a teeming, diverse group of New Yorkers and gradually reveals every life arrayed around that courtyard. James Stewart’s grumpy character isn’t as far from his nice-guy persona as he’d get with Vertigo, but it’s close. Grace Kelly wears an Edith Head-designed wardrobe that actually elicited a few audience gasps when the Siren saw this in a theater. There are plenty of moral quandaries to chew on. And there’s Thelma Ritter, still dispensing cranky common sense four years after All About Eve. (Above, anybody can give you Grace Kelly. The Siren is giving you a new world in pet transportation.)
P.S. This was posted in haste and corrected at leisure; sincere thanks to all who pointed out my howlers.
P.S. This was posted in haste and corrected at leisure; sincere thanks to all who pointed out my howlers.