There are plenty more than five worth seeing, but references to these films remain a part of popular culture. Watching them is still a pleasure.
I’ve reviewed each of these on my classic film blog, Classic for a Reason, and linked to those reviews. Click on the title. If you’re a fan of films from the Golden Age of Hollywood (the 30s, 40s and early 50s), you’re invited to visit that blog and look up some of your favorite movies.
References to Nick & Nora still abound, and they were first introduced to us in this sophisticated blend of comedy and mystery. Nick’s a retired detective who’d rather drink himself under the table than take on a new case, but others persuade him to look into the disappearance of an old friend. Before long there are three murders to solve, and who better than this master of sharp one-liners and droll observations? William Powell and Myrna Loy are one of Hollywood’s all-time great couples (and they have fourteen movies together to prove it).
One of Humphrey Bogart’s first roles as a leading man as well as John Huston’s directorial debut, The Maltese Falcon has so many layers you can watch it a dozen times and see a new story every time. The intrigue of this jewel-encrusted small statue still captivates, as do Mary Astor, Sydney Greenstreet and Peter Lorre.
A pre-code film with plenty of innuendo and a cast that brings depth and perception to a diverse group of characters. Not to mention an intricately woven set of circumstances that culminates with the titular meal. Look for Jean Harlow in her signature gown as well as a performance by John Barrymore that reflects his real-life decline.
An over-the-top story and performance by Cary Grant separate this tale from most Frank Capra films. Admittedly, it runs a little long and the best lines are in the first half of the film, so if you find yourself losing interest in the end, don’t worry, you’ve seen what you need to see.
Nothing I can say that hasn’t already been said. If you haven’t seen this one, make the time to do so. Try keeping track of all the marvelous lines that would never fly today yet work perfectly in this story.
This classic stands out as one of the best holiday films ever. The cast is clearly as charmed by the story as the audience, and it reminds us that maybe–just maybe–there really is a Santa Claus.
Macy’s employee Doris Walker, a single mother who doesn’t believe in fairy tales, is in charge of the Macy’s Thanksgiving Parade. Much to her chagrin, the man playing Santa Claus shows up drunk. She enlists a reluctant bystander to replace him, a man who turns her whole life upside down, for he claims–with utter sincerity–to be the real Kris Kringle.
Maureen O’Hara and John Payne remained proud of their connection to this film for the rest of their lives, with Payne going so far as to write a never-published sequel. Their pride was justified.
This one will catch some of you off guard. Not because of a remarkable storyline–rather, it’s pretty formula–but because of the cast. Robert Mitchum stars in (as far as I know) his only romantic comedy, with a very young Janet Leigh as the object of his affection. Despite the predictable nature of this film, it’s a pleasure to watch, in large part because of the performances of Mitchum and Leigh.
She’s a secret shopper scoping out the competition; he’s the salesperson who recognizes what she’s up to, but doesn’t report it as required. When he loses his job because of his inaction, the two meet up and start getting closer in a manner that soon disrupts the comfortable relationship she has with her would-be fiancé. They’re not the only ones with a stake in what happens — she has a son from her previous marriage to a soldier who died in combat.
As I said, a formula plot, but a charming movie. Mitchum’s brooding loner persona translates well to this light romantic comedy, and Leigh’s youth and gentle spirit is a welcome contrast.
A movie for the times it was made. War hero Jefferson Jones (Dennis Morgan) longs for a home-cooked meal. In a publicity stunt, magazine publisher Alexander Yardley (Sydney Greenstreet) arranges for such a meal, a holiday meal, no less, with his popular writer, Martha Stewart-like Elizabeth Lane (Barbara Stanwyck). Elizabeth exemplifies the perfect wife of her time with her culinary and creative skills in the home. Problem is, she is lying with every word she writes. She not only isn’t a wife and mother, she can’t cook, sew or change a diaper.
The world was changing when this film was released. With so many men off to war, women were joining the work force in larger numbers than ever before. There are some who say Elizabeth’s career exemplifies one of the few socially acceptable options for a working woman at the time–make a good living as a housewife.
The rest of us say, phooey. Don’t analyze it. This is a fun movie with a creative twist on the standard comedy formula of confused identity. If it reflects the standards of the times, then consider how films of today might be viewed in fifty years, and enjoy the fun.
Cary Grant is Dudley, the debonair angel who visits Bishop David Niven and his wife, Loretta Young. Sent to set the floundering couple’s marriage right and steer the Bishop back on course with his life’s work, Dudley starts up a romance of sorts (but not quite) between himself and the lonely woman.
How the Bishop comes to see the truth about his life, as well as the poignant struggle his wife faces with her lot, makes for a heartwarming tale. This film moves a little slower, and includes some beautiful performances by a boy’s choir, as well as a moving sermon near the end of the story. But it’s not a religious tale — it’s a love story.
A perfect blend of sentiment and sophistication, director Ernst Lubitsch later called this “the best movie he ever made,” which is saying a tremendous amount given his legacy. It’s no exaggeration, either, for this is one of the finest romantic comedies ever made.
James Stewart and Margaret Sullavan are sparring co-workers with one thing in common: each is corresponding with someone they believe to be their ideal mate, even though they’ve never met. It’s Stewart who realizes the truth first, and the gentle way he handles first hiding, then revealing, the truth to Sullavan is immensely satisfying.
It’s a simple story with so much more going on than what you see at first glance, and one you don’t have to wait until December to enjoy. But it is December.
Every Cinderella has her midnight, and Claudette Colbert meets her deadline in fine form. While her romantic co-star is Don Ameche–and he’s good in this role–it’s John Barrymore, her “fairy godmother,” whose performance stands out in wit and charm. The script is by Billy Wilder and Charles Brackett, an incomparable team, and it’s one of the last scripts of Wilder’s before he began directing his own stories. Also co-starring Mary Astor.
Yep, another Claudette Colbert vehicle (hey, she was good), this time in a film written and directed by Preston Sturges. This is my favorite of Sturges’ films, and it always goes too quickly for me. Claudette and Joel McCrea are at a crossroads, and she leaves him to find a wealthier husband. She hasn’t forgotten her soon-to-be ex’s dreams, however, and insists any new man in her life fund his predecessor’s latest invention, This is a witty, sexy, sly film (all within Production Code standards, of course), with offbeat characters and a quirky ending. Co-starring Rudy Vallee, Mary Astor.
Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers were an incomparable team, but he’s just as magnetic with Rita Hayworth–and she was a mesmerizing dancer. This is a witty film with a somewhat unpredictable plot line, at least if you’re familiar with similar films of the era. The music is beautiful, with songs by Jerome Kern and Johnny Mercer. Set in Argentina (although there’s absolutely no element of that culture in the movie), there’s romance in spades here.
This is a sweet movie, no other way to say it. It was directed by Ernst Lubitsch, who was generally known for edgier comedies, but it still has that “Lubitsch touch.” Margaret Sullavan and James Stewart are perfectly cast as the sparring co-workers who, unbeknownst to either, are pen pals, each falling for the other through their correspondence. If it sounds familiar, it’s been remade a time or two, including the 1998 updated take on the premise, “You’ve Got Mail.” It’s just plain satisfying to watch this movie.
James Stewart in another great role–that of Elwood P. Dowd, whose best friend is a six-foot invisible rabbit. His sister wants him committed, but when she admits she’s seen Harvey herself, she ends up institutionalized. Elwood is oblivious to the doubt and scorn of others, and his child-like faith is ultimately what saves them all.
Okay, never say never. But it seems unlikely these films could be made today, for the reasons I’ve listed.
I’ve added one film that was limited by the restrictions of yesteryear (and perhaps some bad choices by the producers, directors, screenwriters and/or actors). Still, the story is worth telling, and if the right people took it on…
All of these films have been reviewed on my other blog, Classic for a Reason. Click on the title to see the individual reviews, and if you get the chance, check out these movies!
A single woman rents out the spare room in her apartment to two strange men? It was a controversial idea at the time, but today it likely would be nixed because of the danger factor, not the sexual one.
A man suspected of seducing an underage girl is sentenced to date her? While there would be outrage at the concept now, Cary Grant and Shirley Temple (with the able assistance of Myrna Loy) make it plausibleand–really funny.
This is an incredible story based on the Pulitzer Prize-winning novel of the same name, and the movie is good, but it should be great. There is so much going on it actually would make a good multi-part series (you know, six episodes on HBO, that sort of thing). Bette Davis and Olivia de Havilland alone make it worth watching, and it was John Huston’s second film (after The Maltese Falcon), but it just doesn’t quite reach its full potential. And, I’d suggest they change the names of the lead characters. Stanley and Roy are simply not great names for women.
If I live to see 100, make that 101, let me live it like Olivia de Havilland, with class, humor…and in Paris.
Just last week, days before her birthday, she was given a damehood by Queen Elizabeth II for her services to drama. She is the oldest woman to receive this honor.
Dame Olivia was one of the top actresses of her time, with a career that spanned decades. She gained the respect of audiences and colleagues alike. But she represented more than just glamour and success. Through the influence gained by her talent, she fought for others, those without a voice, and changed lives as a result.
A working woman in a sexist environment, she held her own against those who would pull her down and managed one of the most successful long-term careers in Hollywood history.
I’m far from the only one to take note of Dame Olivia’s qualities, now and then. In February 2016, The Oldie magazine, a satirical publication from London fighting ageism, named her “Oldie of the Year.”
Her response to that honor was delight and delightful. Over the years, her wit has shown in so many of her personal appearances, with a smile and a wink at life.
My fascination with and appreciation of Dame Olivia de Havilland began when I was high school, at the same school she had graduated from in 1934, Los Gatos High School in Los Gatos, Calif.
The summer between my junior and senior years I had a job working in the school library, and my tasks included repairing older books. One of those was the school’s 1934 yearbook, and the librarians turned a blind eye as I spent a little too much time looking for all mention of her. Even then, she stood out from her peers in her poise and class in front of a camera.
Classic movie fans, indeed anybody familiar with her work,
will know her best for two roles, as Melanie in Gone With the Wind and as the dashing Errol Flynn’s most frequent leading lady.
She was nominated for an Academy Award as Best Supporting Actress for her work in Gone With the Wind in 1939, but it wasn’t until she starred in the phenomenal film To Each His Own in 1946 that she won her first Oscar, for Best Actress in a Leading Role. That was followed three years later by the same award for one of my favorite of her films, The Heiress.
In between those two wins, she received a Best Actress nomination for The Snake Pit, a ground-breaking film about the treatment of the mentally ill. Bringing those images to the screen created public awareness of the plight of millions, and those who suffer from mental illness today can be thankful for her work in what I hope & pray is now a long-outdated portrayal of institutionalization.
She had one sister, the late Joan Fontaine. Miss Fontaine was a year younger, and the two are the only sisters in Academy Award history to each win an Oscar for Best Actress.
For those who aren’t aware,
in Hollywood’s early years what was known as the studio system reigned, in which actors and actresses were under contract and controlled by the strict standards and seeming whims of the studio executives. Dame Olivia took her studio, Columbia Pictures, to court in 1943 and won, and the resulting decision changed labor laws, greatly reduced studio power and began the decline of the contract system.
As a result it was almost impossible for her to find work for a couple of years, but at the end of that time she began a comeback that reduced that gap in her work to a non-entity in her overall career.
Perhaps there were times in those years when she wondered if she should have been the one to take that stand. Even if she never wavered in her pride in her decision, she likely cried or otherwise railed over the blacklisting of her talent. I don’t know enough about her to know what her reaction may have been, except it would have been human.
She has stood her ground again, and filed a lawsuit against the FX network, suing for infringement of common law right of publicity, invasion of privacy and unjust enrichment. Her claim is based on the “inherently untrue” portrayal of her as a bitchy gossip-monger, something records readily available to producers would show to be false.
She was, rather, known to be gracious and kind, a woman who refrained from gossip and treated all with respect and dignity.
Although she is an American citizen, Dame Olivia has lived in Paris since 1960. She continued to act until the 1980s, and her last major public event was in 2008 when she was presented with the National Medal of Arts.
Our high school has an annual award, “The De Havilland Cup,” given to a student for a monologue performance. That tradition has lasted more than 70 years, and I expect it will continue for many more to come. It is a fine tribute to her talent and dedication to her craft, for it takes both those qualities to win this award.
Dame Olivia de Havilland was a force in Hollywood, and remains a strong & gracious woman. She is one of the last living stars from the Golden Age of Hollywood, that wonderful era from the 30s to 40s.*
Happy 101st birthday, Dame Olivia, and congratulations for a long and marvelous career, for your dignity and poise, for representing the best for working women everywhere.
*Those familiar with the “Golden Age of Hollywood” know that much of the work created during that time was a product of the studio system. It was a wonderful era for film, but not so much, perhaps, for many of the actors and actresses.
Here are some memorable–although not always admirable–moms in honor of Mother’s Day this Sunday.
Most of these women are flawed, but doing their best, which is all we can ask from anyone, right? And admittedly, perfect moms often (but not always) make boring characters on screen. Still, for the most part, these women have their redeeming qualities. And a few are down-right saints.
So if you can’t be with your mom this weekend, or even if you can, check one of these movies out.
Some of these films have been reviewed on my other blog, Classic for a Reason, and I’ve conveniently linked to those posts.
A single mom who will sacrifice anything for her ungrateful daughter, Mildred Pierce will have you screaming, “Are you kidding me?” at various points throughout the film. Each of the characters has his or her own flaws, and several of them aren’t ashamed to use them against the others. Joan Crawford won an Academy Award for her performance, and it’s one of her best roles, ever. The film was remade for HBO several years ago, and I hear good things about that version as well, although it is decidedly different.
Ginger Rogers’ seasonal job is about to end when she discovers an abandoned baby during her lunch hour. A series of misunderstandings lands that baby in her apartment, and to keep her job, she has to “admit” the baby is hers. David Niven plays opposite her in this charming comedy about getting what you want while going after what you think you need.
Stella is coarse and uncouth, and lucky enough to marry a society catch while he’s on the rebound. She’s not a particularly good wife, but her dedication to her only daughter is unparalleled. Barbara Stanwyck gives a wonderful performance in this tearjerker, one that raises more questions than it answers.
The World of Henry Orient
Tippy Walter, Merrie Spaeth–no, they’re not playing moms, but their mothers are memorable characters in this marvelous film.
Okay, this one isn’t about moms–nor is about Henry Orient, played by Peter Sellers. It’s about two young teen girls, played by Tippy Walker and Merrie Spaeth in their first film roles. The girls, Val and Marian, are, to use one of their own words, fantabolous in this heartwarming story. But adding to the charm are Phyllis Thaxter, as the compassionate, generous mom of Marian, Bibi Osterwald as her live-in best friend (by some accounts, Marian has two moms), and Angela Lansbury as Val’s self-absorbed, socially-conscious mother. Tom Bosley plays Lansbury’s long-suffering husband and father of Val. This is a wonderful film you will want to watch again and again.
Myrna Loy, Teresa Wright–the women who held the men, and each other, together
Myrna Loy took a step down to a supporting character role in this post-war classic, but her portrayal of the long-suffering wife of alcoholic husband Fredric March and mother of love-struck daughter Teresa Wright makes her one of the most beloved moms of classic films. This movie shines in every aspect, and Myrna Loy is one of the brightest spots.
Here are seven classic movies with messages that still resonate, with one or two seeming darn near prescient.
Of course dozens of other films from the same era these were produced are as relevant, funny, touching or otherwise worth watching today.
It should be noted all of these movies were made during the time the Production Code was firmly in place, making them conservative and downright tame by today’s standards. Still, the women are strong, something characteristic of many of the female roles of the 30s and 40s, yet ironically an element that began to be lost when the Code was phasing out.
And yes, this is blatant cross-promotion for my other blog, Classic for a Reason, with links to the full reviews you’ll find there. Thank you for visiting that blog, and for that matter, thank you for visiting this one!
The film which brought Katharine Hepburn and Spencer Tracy together. Their chemistry is palpable, but that isn’t the only thing that makes this movie noteworthy today. Hepburn plays a highly capable, skilled woman who has a hard time adjusting to marriage, and Tracy is the long-suffering husband with the wisdom that could save their relationship. Wisdom that still means something in the 21st century.
This film was released in 1954, but it predicts today’s phenomenon of “being famous for being famous.” Judy Holliday plays the not-so-dumb blonde who wants more in life than what she sees as her inevitable lot, and makes the questionable decision to have her name splashed across giant billboards throughout New York City. Also starring Jack Lemmon in his first major screen role. A delightful tale, written by Garson Kanin.
The first film to depict alcoholism in a realistic manner, close to everything in this movie rings true today. There are a few stylistic elements that date the film, and perhaps a handful of aspects of the story line are distinctly from the era, but overall, this film is as timeless as, sadly, the plight of the alcoholic appears to be.
The tale of three serviceman adjusting to civilian life after serving in WWII, it is, in a larger sense, the story of anyone adjusting to a major change in his or her life. Subtle details fill out an already expansive story. While the starring roles all went to men, the supporting cast has several strong performances from top-notch actresses, including Myrna Loy. Winner of nine Academy Awards (with two of them going to Harold Russell, the only time an actor has won two Oscars for the same performance) and one of the best pictures of the 1940s.
Not the weak 2008 remake, but the original from 1939, it looks at a tale as old as marriage and all the ways women can influence each other in their choices. Witty, sharp and sometimes biting, this is a classic like none other, with an all-female cast that includes many of the top actresses of the day. Based on the racy play by Clare Boothe Luce and made acceptable for Code standards by two clever screenwriters, Jane Murfin and Anita Loos.
This not-so-well-known film starring Bette Davis and Olivia de Havilland is not among director John Huston’s finest works. Still, it is worth the watch, if for no other reason than the performance of Ernest Anderson, who plays a young black man unjustly accused of a violent crime he had no part of, and the raw truth, then and now, of racism in our legal system. In fact, the movie was banned from release overseas because of its overt realism dealing with racial issues. Based on the Pulitzer-Prize winning novel by Ellen Glasgow.
And a seventh film I featured in an earlier similar post, but it’s worth repeating…we all know an Eve Harrington, and this is one of the greatest films of all time…
Sweet, baby-faced Eve isn’t who she first seems to be, and Margo Channing is faced with losing her status as the darling of the theatre-going public to this conniving up-and-comer. Bette Davis in one of her finest roles, with a great cast, including an Oscar-winning performance by George Sanders and a brief, yet memorable, appearance by Marilyn Monroe.