New Year, Old Films

Mid-20th-century must-sees: Part I

New Year, Old Films

About three years ago, some good friends told me they had just seen Otto Preminger's Laura and loved it. This seemed to me such an established classic that I was a bit surprised they had never really heard of the movie. Film tastes and cultural accessibility shift over time, however, so I realized there were scores of extraordinary films – screwball comedies, dramas, and noir (as well as softer mystery stuff) from the 1930s through the 1950s – that were just not that well known. I'd figured most people had to be aware of them, but realized that few actually knew them. When repertory/arthouse/museum programming was the only way besides television to see old films – in other words, when I came of age as a devotee of the medium – the films I was thinking about were staples, as they were such guaranteed crowd-pleasers. Rental stores still carry many of these titles, but they're no longer featured in the way they once were. Often, you have to track them down.

The following list – primer, guide, whatever – is what I came up with for my friends. These films are of interest in many ways, but, unlike certain green vegetables that are nutritious but often unenjoyable, they're all desserts. Don't worry: Their textual and cultural strengths are barely noticeable unless you're looking. No "watch it, it's good for you" urging here; only sheer pleasure. In particular, the screwball comedies – which originated during the Depression, designed to mock the wealthy and satirize class difference while also normalizing it – are rich in brilliant dialogue and resonate more than ever today.

Most of what you'll find below are black-and-white. They are best seen that way: Beware of and avoid colorized versions of many of these films (various DVD companies present versions of many of them as they were intended; we've attempted to note the most recent releases). All of them are Hollywood Studio sound films. Many probably seem very obvious, and this list leaves out far more than it includes, so think of it as Part I. There are no Westerns, animation, socially responsible dramas, documentaries, or Jean Harlow films; no Hitchcock or Hepburn and Tracy. No comic teams: Laurel and Hardy is not to everyone's taste, and the Three Stooges sometimes offend. And if you haven't seen Laura, well, that, along with The Thin Man and My Man Godfrey, for instance, is a great place to start on a cold New Year's Eve spent amid candlelight, loved ones, good food, and a few bottles of wine.

The Thin Man (1934; on DVD: Warner Home Video, $59.98) is probably the most obvious place to start – especially with The Complete Thin Man Collection, which came out in August – but if by some fluke you haven't seen it, it remains the gold standard. Starring William Powell and Myrna Loy as Nick and Nora Charles, a witty, loving couple that invariably become involved with murder. The first installment, based on the last novel by Dashiell Hammett and written and directed by W.S. Van Dyke II, is, of course, the best of the six films in the series. They all have much to recommend them, even the last two wherein there's far too much cute-dog focus on their beloved Asta.
The new box set is about as much fun as an older married parent can still handle. The charm of the film is the deep affection and genuinely witty banter between Powell and Loy, one of the few couples in contemporary fiction that actually liked each other, as Lillian Hellman has pointed out. The chemistry between Powell and Loy is so electric that it's no wonder it's long been assumed and even written about that they were married at one point. They weren't. Nora is a wealthy heiress with absolutely proper grooming who is not only fascinated by her ex-private detective husband but can hold her own drinking with him. Nick, though he can pass in high society, knows every cop, pickpocket, and low-level hood he bumps into during the films. If you, even secretly, wish you were somehow more debonair, witty, self-assured, and loved as well as loving, these will knock you out. Note: The films (The Thin Man; After the Thin Man, 1936; Another Thin Man, 1939; Shadow of the Thin Man, 1941; The Thin Man Goes Home, 1945; and Song of the Thin Man, 1947), which fade considerably after a few, are essentially mistitled after the first: The thin man of the title is not the detective, but the victim.


All About Eve (1950; on DVD: 20th Century Fox, $14.98): If you haven't seen this, stop reading, do not pass Go, and head to the video store. Brilliant Bette Davis heads an equally skilled cast in a film that is insightful as it is bitchy. Fasten your seat belts! Written and directed by Joseph L. Mankiewicz, it won six Oscars, including Best Picture, and was adapted for Broadway as Applause.

The Big Sleep (1946; on DVD: Warner Home Video, $19.97): A masterpiece of a detective story with Humphrey Bogart and Lauren Bacall at their most brilliant. Howard Hawks' direction is crisp though supposedly even Raymond Chandler, who wrote the screenplay based on his novel, couldn't explain at least one of the murders.

Bringing Up Baby (1938; on DVD: Turner Home Entertainment, $26.99): Bookish zoologist Cary Grant, heiress Katharine Hepburn, and her pet leopard tangle, romance, and misunderstand in one of the greatest screwball comedies.

Mildred Pierce (1945; on DVD: Warner Home Video, $19.98): It wasn't just wire hangers that made Joan Crawford notorious; she won an Oscar for this film about a housewife turned successful entrepreneur who ends up in terrible conflict with her neglected daughter. Dark version of James Cain's dark novel, directed by the doomed to be underrated Michael Curtiz.
My Man Godfrey (1936; on DVD: Criterion, $39.95): Powell again, this time with Carole Lombard in easily one of my all-time favorite films. Powell is a hobo picked up by a rich family in a scavenger hunt. Soon, he's almost one of the family, if you can say that about a butler.

The Philadelphia Story (1940; on DVD: Warner Home Video, $26.98): This is a given, isn't it? Katharine Hepburn is very rich, though she isn't sure she wants to be; Cary Grant is her ex-husband; and Jimmy Stewart is an overly earnest tabloid reporter who would rather be writing novels. An adaptation of Philip Barry's Broadway play deliciously directed by George Cukor.

To Have and Have Not (1944; on DVD: Warner Home Video, $19.98): During a game of golf, director Howard Hawks bet Ernest Hemingway that he could make a movie from his worst novel. He made a great one. Still married to his third wife, 45-year-old Warner Bros. star Humphrey Bogart meets 19-year-old ingenue Lauren Bacall making her screen debut: The rest came naturally, on screen and off. "You know how to whistle, don't you, Steve? You just put your lips together and ... blow."

The Women (1939; on DVD: Warner Home Video, $19.98): Again, this is probably obvious, but on the off chance you haven't seen it, this is the rarest of Hollywood films in that it is almost an all-female production. The star-studded film consists entirely of women and includes Rosalind Russell, Norma Shearer, Paulette Goddard, and Joan Crawford (viciously catty in a comic drama). Based on Clare Booth's hit stage play (later, she would add Luce to her name), it was scripted by Anita Loos and Jane Murfin. Only the most churlish, pedantic, and repressed would even suggest that director Cukor's testosterone marred the finished product in any way, shape, or form.


The Awful Truth (1937; on DVD: Sony, $24.95): The Marx Brothers' Duck Soup director Leo McCarey helms. Cary Grant and Irene Dunne, divorced and planning to remarry others, each try to wreck the other's new relationship.

Ball of Fire (1941; on DVD: HBO Home Video): Barbara Stanwyck is a streetwise nightclub singer/dancer who, on the run from gangsters, ends up hiding out in the home of eight uptight, very proper professors (led by Gary Cooper) working on an encyclopedia. They are thrilled with her, begging her to stick around to help them define "slang." Written by Billy Wilder and Charles Brackett. One of the strangest riffs on Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs ever. Stanwyck is hot!

Champagne for Caesar (1950; on DVD: Image Entertainment, $24.99): Early spoof of TV or spoof of early TV: It's up to you. Quiz show host Vincent Price freaks out when genius Ronald Colman starts getting every answer right. Price sends Celeste Holm to seduce Colman.

Dance, Girl, Dance (1940): Directed by Dorothy Arzner, the only major female Hollywood director of the Thirties and Forties. I love this movie. Others feel it is less than it could be. Arzner directed two of the sexist films of the time: Christopher Strong, starring Katharine Hepburn as an aviatrix who, though independent, is devoted to her man; and Craig's Wife, starring Rosalind Russell as the worst shrew housewife, such a sexist portrayal that one would love to call it subversive – as many have. Here, Maureen O'Hara and Lucille Ball star as working girls, in the older sense of those words. O'Hara wants to be a ballerina but ends up in burlesque, leading to one of the archetype-defining scenes of American cinema. Ball is wonderful!

Design for Living (1933; on DVD: MCA Home Video, $26.98): Based on Noel Coward's stage play; the great Ernst Lubitsch directs. Fredric March, Gary Cooper, and Miriam Hopkins compose a love triangle that features more innuendo than one might expect from a Thirties film.

Easy Living (1937): Edward Arnold throws his wife's mink out the window, where it lands on working girl (and absolutely transcendent comic actress) Jean Arthur, and everything flows from there. Written by Preston Sturges.

The Ghost and Mrs. Muir (1947; on DVD: 20th Century Fox, $14.98): Cheating here, as I didn't like it when I saw it (several generations ago), but most everybody else swears by this fantasy of a widow romanced by the ghost of a sea captain. Directed by Joseph Mankiewicz and starring Gene Tierney (Laura), Rex Harrison, and George Sanders.

Gilda (1946; on DVD: Sony, $19.94): If you've never gotten Rita Hayworth's reputation, watch this and you will. The plot loses steam, but Hayworth just keeps getting hotter!

The Glass Key (1942): There's a 1935 adaptation of Dashiell Hammett's novel with George Raft, but this 1942 version starring Alan Ladd, Brian Donlevy, and Veronica Lake is just so much better. The film still holds up as a surprisingly sophisticated political murder story. The Coen Brothers remade this as Miller's Crossing. Kurosawa claims this was an inspiration for Yojimbo, but that film was really more an adaptation of Hammett's novel Red Harvest. (Sergio Leone's A Fistful of Dollars starring Clint Eastwood and Bruce Willis' Last Man Standing bear that same heritage.)

The Great Man Votes (1939): Kind of lightweight. Garson Kanin directs John Barrymore as a washed-up professor fighting for custody of his kids who finds his status changed at election time. Ends up as an unintentional argument for redistricting.

Heaven Can Wait (1943; on DVD: Criterion, $29.95): Another great directed by Lubitsch. Don Ameche explains to the Devil why he should be let into hell. If nothing else, he had already been to heaven, as Tierney plays his wife in the role that convinced Preminger to hire her for Laura.

Holiday (1938; on DVD: Sony, $49.95): Cukor directs this adaptation of Philip Barry's play. A little stagey, but great screwball about Cary Grant's self-made nonconformist trying to fit into a fancy NYC family in order to marry Doris Nolan, while unconsciously falling for Katharine Hepburn, her eccentric sister.

In a Lonely Place (1950; on DVD: Sony, $24.95): A romantic, dark, and surprisingly adult drama featuring Humphrey Bogart in one of his best performances as a bitter screenwriter who drinks and fights more than he works. Then he falls for Gloria Grahame. "I was born when she kissed me. I died when she left me. I lived a few weeks while she loved me." Grahame is vivid, evidently off screen as well, marrying director Nicholas Ray before leaving him for his son.

It's a Wonderful World (1939): Lesser-known screwball is delightful with Claudette Colbert, Jimmy Stewart, and a terrific supporting cast. She's a runaway poetess; he's on the lam from the police.

The Killers (1946): The first 10 minutes or so are a straight adaptation of Hemingway's famous short story, easily the most faithful film ever made of his work. The rest of the movie, directed by Robert Siodmak and starring Burt Lancaster, is a noir that clarifies the opening. Remade for television in 1964 with Ronald Reagan as the bad guy, it was rejected as too violent, especially because one scene was vaguely reminiscent of Kennedy's assassination. So, it played theatres.

The Lady Eve (1941; on DVD: Criterion, $39.95): Preston Sturges deserves his own list, but I had to include this classic, in which con artist Barbara Stanwyck first tries to take and then falls for clueless heir Henry Fonda. He finds out and turns on her, so she turns it back on him.

The Lady From Shanghai (1947; on DVD: Sony, $24.95): Lesser known and lesser Orson Welles helmer, in which he also stars, still has more brilliant moments than most films. A thriller about adventurer Welles hooking up with Everett Sloane and wife Rita Hayworth on their yacht for a Pacific cruise.

Million Dollar Legs (1932): Loved this one since Len Maltin and I saw it at MOMA when we were kids. Might seem a little silly. A bit like Duck Soup, if not as inspired. A traveling brush salesman (Jack Oakie) talks the president of a small country (W.C. Fields) into entering the Olympics because of the entire population's natural athletic talents. Featuring a host of minor comedians including Hugh Herbert, Andy Clyde, Billy Gilbert, and cross-eyed Ben Turpin.
Murder, My Sweet (1944; on DVD: Turner Home Entertainment, $19.98): Director Edward Dmytryk tackles Raymond Chandler's Farewell, My Lovely with Dick Powell reinventing his career by playing Philip Marlowe. A hard-boiled noir sprinkled throughout with great character roles.

Nothing Sacred (1937; on DVD: Westlake Entertainment Group, $14.95): Fredric March is a big-city reporter who exploits Vermont girl Carole Lombard's fatal exposure to radium for its tabloid value in this comedy (trust me). Remade as Living It Up with Jerry Lewis in the Lombard role (don't ask). Unfortunately, often overlooked these days, Lombard was a beautiful and truly inspired comic actress.

Out of the Past (1947; on DVD: Turner Home Entertainment, $19.98): Classic noir drips atmosphere with Robert Mitchum discovered hiding out in a small rural town after he double-crossed crime boss Kirk Douglas over Jane Greer. As the femme fatale, Greer is a revelation (not exactly as an actress). The film is in stunning blacks and whites.

Road House (1948; on DVD: Anchor Bay, $14.98): This film really runs out of steam by the second half, becoming a pretty standard melodramatic programmer. Club owner Richard Widmark is out to get old friend Cornell Wilde because he's become involved with singer Ida Lupino. The whole movie is worth it for Lupino singing "One for My Baby (and One More for the Road)."

The Shop Around the Corner (1940; on DVD: Warner Home Video, $19.98): Tom Hanks and Meg Ryan recently remade this as You've Got Mail. Still, Ernst Lubitsch directing James Stewart and Magaret Sullavan in the tale of two-co-workers who don't like each other but are engaged in an amorous lonely-hearts correspondence is so much more charming.

Sitting Pretty (1948): Laura's Clifton Webb is an arrogant genius who accepts a job as live-in babysitter for Robert Young and Maureen O'Hara's suburban family. First, he tames the family; then, he upsets the community. Very funny and a favorite of my family's.

This Gun for Hire (1942; on DVD: MCA Home Video, $14.98): Alan Ladd is a hired gun looking for revenge who hooks up with Veronica Lake in her hair-falling-over-one-eye magnificence in this adaptation of Graham Greene's novel.

Trouble in Paradise (1932; on DVD: Criterion, $39.95): Two jewel thieves fall in love until he takes a shine to one of their female victims. Sophisticated, fresh, and brilliant, as director Ernst Lubitsch's work so often is.

Twentieth Century (1934; on DVD: Sony, $19.94): Producer John Barrymore makes radiant Carole Lombard into a Broadway star. Taken for granted, she leaves him, so he does everything he can to woo her back on a cross-country train trip. Script by Ben Hecht and Charles MacArthur with an outstanding supporting cast.

You Can't Take It With You (1938; on DVD: Sony, $29.95): Frank Capra brings Moss Hart and George S. Kaufman's play about lovable eccentrics to the screen with a great cast including Jimmy Stewart, Jean Arthur, and Lionel Barrymore. Stagey, but the characters are so great!


Detour (1945; on DVD: Alpha Video, $7.98): Insane, transcendent B movie after which Richard Linklater named his production company, has fate screwing hitchhiking musician Tom Neal at every turn. Also thumbing a ride, otherworldly Ann Savage just acting naturally proves to be as much a monster as any make-up-wearing creature in the history of cinema. Ironically, Neal later committed a murder similar to one in the movie.

Gun Crazy (1949; on DVD: Warner Home Video, $19.98): Peggy Cummins and John Dall are Bonnie and Clyde-esque in this B movie written by the blacklisted Dalton Trumbo despite the script credit. The two love guns and, it turns out, each other. Famous for director Joseph Lewis' shooting a bank robbery and getaway in one beautifully choreographed, very long take. end story

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