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 one of his few romantic comedies, 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.
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.