Classic Film and TV Café in honor of National Classic Movie Day which is celebrated on May 16th. It's the 2nd annual observance of this much-deserved -- we were going to say "needed" but that sounds too desperate -- nod to an art and entertainment form beloved by so many of us. "Classic" here is defined as silents to the seventies and we're going to have no trouble fitting in there. We've got a thing for classic movies and our list is just a tiny sample of so many favorites that we watch over and over again. Even as I'm typing this intro I'm thinking of movie after movie that I didn't put on this list. The possibilities are truly endless.
We have an list that includes representatives from our favorite genres -- fantasy/horror, western/adventure, mystery, drama and musical/comedy. As it turns out we're going deep into classic territory with a selection of films none past the 1940s but all retaining a vibrancy that belies their release dates. Here we go and not in any order of favoritism --
The Best Years of Our Lives -- 1946
I was just watching an old episode of The Merv Griffin Show where saluting director William Wyler -- the show was from 1973, I believe -- and Wyler himself showed up after being lauded by Bette Davis, Olivia DeHavilland, Walter Pidgeon and Samantha Eggar. He was amusing, nearly retired and loving it, and said that the film he was most proud of was this one. We agree. He had served in WWII and was determined to get this story right, that of returning veterans trying to adjust to civilian again, a situation that continues to affect all who serve including today.
Based on work by MacKinlay Kantor and dramatized for the screen by Robert Sherwood, The Best Year of Our Lives centers around three vets from the same city who served in different branches of the service and came from very different backgrounds back in their previous lives. Former matinee idol Fredric March played a prosperous banker who had been an infantryman during the war, actor Dana Andrews played a guy from the wrong side of the tracks who advanced to being a decorated airman, and first time actor and real life double amputee Harold Russell was the all-American football hero/boy-next-door who loses his hands while serving his country. Different guys, different expectations, different dreams but all indisputably changed by the war as would be all of their families and friends.
The movie is a full of intimate scenes featuring in addition to the three aforementioned actors an ensemble cast that shines every moment: Teresa Wright as March's daughter who finds herself attracted to the troubled Andrews, Cathy O'Donnell as Russell's girl-next-door steady who is pushed away by the injured Russell; Myrna Loy as March's wife who is loyal but charmingly awkward as she watches her husband slip back into his old life; Virginia Mayo as Andrews' gold digger wife who married a man in uniform but doesn't like him so well in civvies; musician Hoagie Carmichael as a cool cat bar owner uncle of Russell's who offers a safe haven and so many more characters in performances that never fail to be utterly natural and effective.
If you haven't ever watched this movie you ought to. It's long -- nearly three hours -- but never dull, always insightful, frequently amusing, often touching and completely entertaining from beginning to end. Winner of 7 Academy Awards -- Picture, Actor (Fredric March), Supporting Actor (Harold Russel who also won an Honorary Oscar that year), Director, Screenplay, and Score -- it is worth watching again and again.
The Wizard of Oz -- 1939
TWoO is in this list because it's more than just a childhood favorite; it's a delightful and undeniable foundation piece of popular culture that has withstood the march of time and continues to amaze. It has a little bit of everything -- excitement -- tornadoes, anyone? Scariest ever! -- witches, a solid moral core, a vivid depiction of friendship among a diverse collection of acquaintances, top-notch production values, a wonderful score and brilliant and frequently hilarious performances by a unique collection of Hollywood talents topped by Judy Garland.
She's perfect as Dorothy, as are all the other cast members, from the liquid-limbed Ray Bolger as the beloved Scarecrow to Jack Haley as the dreamy Tin Man to Bert Lahr as the bullying crybaby Cowardly Lion to Frank Morgan as the blustery play-acting Wizard to Margaret Hamilton as the vindictive Wicked Witch of the West to Billie Burke as the glittering Glinda. Let's not forget the careworn presence of Clara Blandick and Charley Grapewin as Aunt Em and Uncle Henry, beaten down by the Depression as were the audiences at the time of the film's initial release.
What's still great about it? Munchkins, The Lollipop Guild, Toto, Dorothy falling into the pigpen, the squished witch's feet shriveling away under Dorothy's house, flying monkeys, Oz's face projection, the witch's Winkies, the Yellow Brick Road, poppies, "I'm melting!" and so many other great moments. Not to be missed anytime it's on!
Shadow of a Doubt -- 1943
An Alfred Hitchcock masterpiece set in an average American town, Shadow of a Doubt was reportedly his own favorite film of his career. Though perhaps not as well known as some of his other titles, SoaD is perfect in its depiction of the evil that can lurk inside a placid exterior and what it takes to bring it down. Simple. Brilliant.
A great cast brings this dark tale to life: Teresa Wright as the ennui-stricken young woman Charlie who longs for some excitement, Joseph Cotten as her mysterious charismatic namesake Uncle Charlie, Patricia Collinge as Charlie's sweet mother and brother to Uncle Charlie, Henry Travers as the father, Hume Cronyn as eccentric neighbor Herbie, MacDonald Carey as a detective and most delightfully child actress Edna May Wonacott as Charlie's bookworm little sister Ann. Everyone is perfect as they weave together the threads of life in small town America, family love and loyalty, disturbing and perverted impulses, and the will to survive. Sometimes brutal, sometimes hilarious, sometimes touching, often terrifying and all put together with an inescapable sense of almost out-of-sight dread,
SoaD really grows on you. If you've never seen it, seek it out. Highly recommended!
King Kong -- 1933
Though often imitated and often remade, nothing comes close to the original King Kong, at least for those of us old enough to remember when it was run on TV -- at least in Los Angeles where I grew up -- a LOT and always thrilled. In fact, when I first started working in TV, my brilliant programmer boss was quoted somewhere as saying that the one movie he would liked to have had in our station movie library was King Kong, and this was in the late 1970s. The movie was still an audience-pleaser even at that time as more than forty years old. Timeless!
What's great about it? Everything, starting with the characters: King Kong himself, the snappy show biz bravado of Robert Armstrong as Carl Denham, the lean heroic stance of Bruce Cabot as Driscoll, the extreme courage and ethereal beauty of Fay Wray as Ann, Frank Reicher as Capt. Englehorn.
Some of my favorite moments from the movie? The great opening New York sequence where poor starving Ann has to steal an apple so she doesn't starve as the Depression grinds down everyone and kills a nation's dreams; the revealing of Skull Island; the natives' ritual dance; Denham whistling "St. Louis Woman" as his group gingerly back away from almost getting slaughtered by those same dancing natives; Ann's harrowing and sexy screen test on the ship dressed in that iconic gown as she throws her hands over her eyes and screams; Ann being tied to the stakes and Kong approches; the battle between Kong and the T-Rex when he kills it with a sickening crack of its jaw...and just everything, as I said above.
Kudos to Peter Jackson for trying to keep the flavor and verve of the original in his remake of a couple of years ago but there is nothing like the real thing. King Kong lives!
The Treasure of the Sierra Madre -- 1948
This movie always feels a little like a western to me, though it's set in 1925, in Mexico, and there are probably more burros than horses in it. And what a movie! A morality tale, a high adventure, a psychological thriller, a comedy, a crime thriller -- The Treasure of the Sierra Madre has it all. From the opening bars of its incredible Max Steiner musical score to the very last scene, TTotSM is unstinting, desperate, scary and exciting. And did we mention entertaining?
What a cast they picked to play the three men very different men bound together in a hunt for riches! Humphrey Bogart is by turns sympathetic, craven, pure 100% mean, psychotic, selfish, pathetic -- what a job he does as Fred C. Dobbs. As Howard, the crafty old man who's been through a gold strike before and understands the pitfalls of their unholy alliance, director John Huston's actor/father Walter Huston is so much fun that you almost forget that's he's the movie's true wise man. The understated Tim Holt is excellent as Curtin who falls in with Dobbs and is swept along as they all decide to seek their fortunes as miners.
This is a truly masculine movie in the sense of being action-laden to the hilt yet made with keen emotional insight and touches of poetry and irony that raise it above the standard adventure tale. This is a story with a greedy and dark human heart in the person of Dobbs at its center, making any easy resolution of the story impossible, all the better for us. The touches of violence, the moments of humor, the antics of Howard, the searing power of the Mexican sun pounding down relentlessly on the trio, not to mention the gila monsters, all make TTotSM a completely riveting viewing experience. Even the unexpected idyll when the old man is waylaid by villagers needing assistance is fraught with uncertainty -- what will happen? what can happen? Anything, in this movie.
Once you've seen The Treasure of the Sierra Madre you will know that the hyperbole in the trailer is absolutely true. So great!
To think that this list is only five movies long! What about Bonnie and Clyde? What about Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid? What about Sunset Boulevard? What about A Place in the Sun? What about The Song of Bernadette? What about Portrait of Jennie? The Court Jester? The Big Country? Some other list, some other time!
Be sure to visit The Classic Film and TV Cafe by clicking here and continue your journey into many great Movies on an Island lists (participants and links available here). This might spur you onto making your own list but beware -- once you start thinking about it it's nearly impossible to stop!
Enjoy and Happy National Classic Movie Day -- Monday May 16th and everyday!