Ten Oldie But Goodies That Everyone Should Watch At Least Once
This is my top ten list of great old movies, mostly from the 30’s through the 40’s. There are so many great classic movies from this era that I found it difficult to narrow them down to just ten. I finally did it, but I decided to pick some lesser known movies over the more popular ones like Gone With the Wind. Even if you are not an old movie buff, like I am, these are movies that everyone can thoroughly enjoy. Don’t pooh-pooh them simply because they are black and white and old, because this is the stuff that forged the foundation of the movie industry.These are the great actors and actresses who had to rely on sheer talent for success. These are the stars who knew how to stir emotions into audiences with a simple raise of the brow or a crook of a smile. And these are the wonderful movies they made.
10. Hush… Hush, Sweet Charlotte. Okay, so I am starting off with a horror movie that was made in 1964 but this is a real goody. It was a toss-up between this movie and Whatever Happened to Baby Jane? (1962). Both of these movies feature outstanding performances by Bette Davis. After all, nobody plays crazy like Bette Davis does. She has a way of taking characters that would normally be campy and unrealistic and making them believable and human by injecting a bit of pathos and frailty into them. While Baby Jane is better known, I chose this movie because Bette’s performance is a little more understated. Additionally, there are some excellent performances by the supporting cast including Agnes Moorehead and Olivia de Havilland. In fact, the movie is worth the watch just to see Olivia play a deliciously sweet villain…
9. All About Eve. Yes, another Bette Davis movie! Filmed in 1950, the story revolves around a popular but aging stage star Margot Channing (Davis) and an all-too willingly helpful young fan Eve Harrington (Ann Baxter) who worms her way into Channing’s life, disrupting both her career and her personal life. The movie features some delightful supporting performances from Celeste Holmes and the always very slimy George Sanders, who was the voice of Shere Khan the tiger in Disney’s Jungle Book movie. Nominated for 15 Oscars, All About Eve walked away with 6 including best picture. Look for a small, bit role played by a young and then unknown actress by the name of Marilyn Monroe.
8. Rebecca. This 1940 Academy Award winner was Alfred Hitchcock’s American directorial debut. Starring Laurence Olivier as Maxim de Winter and Joan Fontaine as his much younger second wife, the story revolves around what happens when the newlyweds return to Maxim’s mansion atop a cliff looking down at the ocean. This is where the nervously new bride encounters the late first wife’s dedicated housekeeper, Mrs. Danvers, played to eerie perfection by Judith Anderson. Bombarded by Mrs. Danvers’ constant reminders that she will never live up to his first wife, Rebecca, the new Mrs. de Winter frantically attempts to compete with her predecessor’s memory. Adding to the confusion is Maxim’s violent reactions to anything regarding his first wife, leading the new wife to assume he’s ridden with grief over Rebecca’s death. The ending has a wonderfully Hitchcockian twist. Look for another slimy supporting role portrayed by George Sanders.
7. Dinner at 8. This 1933 pre-code comedy of manners features a wonderful ensemble cast including John and Lionel Barrymore, Bille Burke, Marie Dressler, Wallace Beary, and Jean Harlow. Wikipedia describes it as a romantic comedy that is also “a study of people during the Great Depression. The movie addresses topics like wealthy people dealing with the loss of money and prestige; relationships between men and women involving power, blind love, selfishness, and unselfishness; and relationships between the wealthy and those who work for them.” Bille Burke (Glinda the Good Witch from the Wizard of Oz) is delightful as the ditsy wife trying to put together a “society dinner” that somehow seems to go wrong at all levels while Jean Harlow struts her stuff proving why she was the biggest draw of her day. My favorite part is the very last scene where Harlow and Dressler are discussing a book. I laugh just thinking about it.
6. Arsenic and Old Lace. I love this movie and not just because I played Mortimer in Woodbury Sketch Club’s production of the play by the same name. (Like the plug?) Anyway, this 1944 screwball comedy directed by Frank Capra stars a very young Cary Grant as Mortimer Brewster. Mortimer is a recently married drama critic who makes a visit to his two elderly Aunts (who rent rooms to elderly bachelors) and his brother Teddy, who thinks he’s Teddy Roosevelt and is digging the “Panama Canal” in the basement. Mortimer discovers a corpse in the window seat. Thinking his brother Teddy has killed someone, he reveals his find to his Aunts. To his surprise, the Aunts confess that they killed the man as one of the “charities” they do for lonely, old bachelors. To make matters worse, Mortimer’s Boris Karloff look-a-like creepy brother shows up with his alcoholic side-kick accomplice, a plastic surgeon played by Peter Lorre. It’s so much fun to watch Mortimer’s attempts to keep his new bride away from the house while trying to deal with the bodies in the basement and the threat of his dangerous brother. As a side note, Boris Karloff played the brother on Broadway but was not available for the film.
5. The Philadelphia Story. This 1940 comedy stars Katherine Hepburn, Cary Grant, and James Stewart. It revolves around the wedding of socialite Tracy Samantha Lord Haven (Hepburn). Mrs. Haven was originally married to CK Dexter Haven (Grant) but she divorced him because he did not meet up to her standards. Dexter is blackmailed into joining forces with tabloid reporter Mike Conner (Stewart) and his photographer, Liz Imbrie (Ruth Hussey) who want to report about the wedding in Spy magazine. Of course, confusion ensues and eventually the Havens reunite. The movie was nominated for 6 Academy Awards and won 2. It also helped jump-start Hebpurn’s ailing career, who at the time of filming was considered “box office poison.” I absolute adore the banter between Hepburn and Grant who starred two years earlier in the less-popular Bringing Up Baby. Although a somewhat predictable plot, the acting is absolutely superb.
4. His Girl Friday. I love Cary Grant when he’s doing screwball comedy and this 1940 remake of the play The Front Page starring Rosalind Russell is one of his best. The film was changed slightly from the play as the role of Hildy Johnson was rewritten as a woman for Rosalind Russell. Known for its quick dialogue, the film centers around two newspaper people Walter Burns (Grant) and his ex-wife Hildy (a very young Russell). When Hildy decides to leave the newspaper business and marry a boring insurance salesman (played with bland innocence by Ralph Bellamy), Burns does everything he can to stop the couple from leaving town. When a crooked mayor and sheriff get involved in the publicity of an upcoming execution, Burns sees the chance he needs to draw Hildy back to the newspaper business and into his arms as well. The chemistry between Grant and Russell is pure magic.
3. The Women. This 1939 ensemble comedy starred Norma Shearer, Joan Crawford, Rosalind Russell, Paulette Goddard, Joan Fontaine, Ruth Hussey, and Hedda Hopper, to name just a few. Although this movie has been remade, the original still remains the best. From Wikipedia “The Women follows the lives of a handful of wealthy Manhattan women, focusing in particular on Mary Haines (Norma Shearer), a cheerful, contented wife of Stephen and mother of Little Mary. After a bit of gossip flies around the salon these wealthy women visit, Mary’s friend and cousin Sylvia Fowler (Rosalind Russell) learns from a manicurist that Mary’s husband has been having an affair with a predatory perfume counter girl named Crystal Allen (Joan Crawford). A notorious gossip, Sylvia delights in sharing the news with Mary’s other friends; she sets up Mary with an appointment with the same manicurist so that she hears the same rumor about Stephen’s infidelity.” Eventually Mary decides to divorce Stephen and heads off to Reno to spend a few weeks “in residence” until the divorce is final. Although a dated story line, the acting is superb. Crawford is wonderful as the young, lovely, and very tough “other” women while Russell is hysterical as the busybody who stirs up all the trouble.
2. The Thin Man Series (1934 – 1944). One of the great semi-comic detective series of all times, these 6 films feature the famous detective team of Nick and Nora Charles deftly portrayed by William Powell and Myrna Loy. Along with their sleuthing dog, Asta, the pair seem to somehow fall into one murder mystery after another. Powell nails it as the martini-drinking but soft-hearted ex-detective while Loy is absolutely delightful as his wide-eyed, overly eager to get involved socialite wife. The Thin Man provides witty dialogue, plot twisting story lines, and comedic scenes involving Nora trying to nose her way into the mystery while Nick is trying to solve the mystery without Nora’s help. The chemistry between the two is simply the best that Hollywood has to offer.
If I had to pick a favorite from the series, I would have to go with the original The Thin Man from 1934. Featuring a young and unknown Jimmy Stewart, this is the flick that started it all. For a synopsis of the film, check out the Wikipedia link.
1. Mr. Smith Goes To Washington. This is my all time favorite movie and it’s the movie that helped make Jimmy Stewart a star. Considered controversial for its portrayal of the American government, it’s actually as feel good patriotic as you can get. Stewart plays Jefferson Smith, a small town everyman who heads up a local boys group known as The Boy Rangers. When a corrupt political governor needs to pick a replacement senator, he chooses what he believes to be a lame duck bumpkin in Smith. Smith is taken under the wing of the publicly esteemed, but secretly crooked, Senator Joseph Paine (Claude Rains in a wonderfully solid performance), who was Smith’s late father’s oldest and best friend. The corrupt political team behind the appointment decides to promote Smith as the “wholesome replacement” while they try to push a dam building graft scheme through congress. To keep him busy, they suggest Smith work on a bill. When he comes up with a bill for a Boy Rangers park paid for donations from Boy Rangers and using the same land as the graft scheme, the corrupt team turns against him and frames him. Stewart gives the performance of a life time and the movie is worth the watch alone just to see his filibuster scene.
There you have my top ten favorite golden oldie films. I could have included lots more and I am sure many of you have your own lists. Probably when I’m all done, I’ll think of several that I should have added but I don’t know what I would have cut. Whichever of these you haven’t seen, I honestly suggest you go out and rent them. And if you can, get the wide-screen versions if available. You can’t imagine how much you miss when you watch a movie in full screen.