Classic Film Starter Kit

Classic Film Starter Kit

I typically ‘hate’ top 10 lists especially movie top 10 lists because I’ve found that it’s nearly impossible to narrow down almost any large category to such a finite number. However I have recommended AFI’s original top 100 list as a good place to begin. Even though I don’t agree with all the choices on the AFI’s list(s) and certainly not the rankings therein there are a lot of quality titles to chose from and most are available on DVD. That being said I’m frequently frustrated by their demonstrable myopia with regards to Academy Award winning movies (or nominees) a malady from which I also frequently suffer. Still while there seems to be a near cottage industry of Oscar bashing one can’t ignore the quality of many (most?) of Oscar’s choices. But to limit one’s selections to only those films which received an Academy Award (or a nomination) would be to ignore movies like those on the list I compiled earlier this year.

So I started with my list of 440 essential films and began paring it. For my first cut I tried to eliminate the most dated ones biographies (not just because most are inaccurate but because there are usually other competing materials with the same information) and movies with limited appeal: silents any that were too focused (e.g. with a political agenda) or from genres with specific audiences. My second try which pared the list to 57 eliminated even more ‘message’ movies as well as those which were too long – I didn’t want to lose anyone with a short attention span – too sophisticated (requiring one to ‘think’ too much) or have been remade recently (in case the person has seen the remake). I decided that it was important not to ‘show off’ with selections like Dodsworth (1936) or Kind Hearts and Coronets (1949) and also to avoid obvious choices like The Wizard of Oz (1939) and Casablanca (1942). Sticking to mainstream and readily available titles (I was able to pare my list to 53 by excluding 4 which aren’t yet on DVD) I wanted all to be good stories first but if they highlighted a particular classic movie actor or actress so much the better (if the requestor wants to see more then I’d have their filmographies available). I should mention that I’d already cut out everything newer than 1969 – remembering the purpose of the list – and though I didn’t intend to end up with a final listing that included only black-and-white movies it just worked out that way. With 53 remaining (and needing to get to 10) I forced myself to be brutal and found that I had to impose artificial limits once I got down to 37: to get to 5 from 1930s 10 from the 40s 10 from the 50s and 5 from the 60s – a top 30 list! At this point I decided to categorize the remaining titles by genres and even eliminated some of my favorites if the actors or directors were already featured elsewhere within the list. Finally even by forcing myself to include all but the sci-fi and horror genres I still ended up with selections that are predominately comedies and dramas (oh well).

Here are twelve (I just couldn’t do ten;-)

  • The Thin Man (1934) is not just a terrific comedy; it also introduces the viewer to one of classic movies’ most enduring series (and endearing onscreen couples – William Powell and Myrna Loy)
  • Top Hat (1935) – in lieu of Singin’ in the Rain (1952) I thought this Fred Astaire-Ginger Rogers classic was one of the best choices to represent the musical/dance genre.
  • The Little Foxes (1941) – so many Bette Davis classics any starter kit that doesn’t include at least one of her films from 1938 through 1945 is a sham.
  • The Maltese Falcon (1941) – my second selection from writer Dashiell Hammett (he wrote The Thin Man also) is also one of Humphrey Bogart’s best; John Huston’s directorial debut led to five more collaborations with the actor. Plus the supporting cast in this early noir detective drama is one of the great assembles ever.
  • Double Indemnity (1944) – One of the best film-noirs stars Fred MacMurray? That’s right! Directed by Billy Wilder it features one of the most insidious femme fatales in Barbara Stanwyck and an Oscar worthy supporting performance by the Academy’s most overlooked actor: Edward G. Robinson.
  • Notorious (1946) – I know many of you have probably been wondering when I was going to include one from the Master of Suspense – Alfred Hitchcock. Well here it is. Finally come mid-October this one will be available on DVD. Cary Grant in one of his many underappreciated as well as dramatic roles (he made it look too easy) opposite a thirty year old Ingrid Bergman and the immortal Claude Rains.
  • Adam’s Rib (1949) – much like The Thin Man (1934) it’s a classic comedy that features one of the screen’s most legendary couples – Spencer Tracy and Katharine Hepburn – in their prime while at the same time it introduces arguably its best not-so-‘dumb blonde’: Judy Holliday.
  • A Place in the Sun (1951) – although I was tempted to use Random Harvest (1942) one of my favorites in this romance drama category I thought that this beautifully shot classic (one of Robert Osborne’s favorites) would have wider appeal. It features both Montgomery Clift and Elizabeth Taylor in their most alluring and iconic years and exhibits the talents of Shelley Winters and director George Stevens.
  • High Noon (1952) – the best Western? Perhaps not but it’s certainly worthy of this list. Gary Cooper stars as the man who must decide whether to face up to evil or run. Actually he never had to decide because he knew what he must do despite the odds and the lack of support he received from everyone else. That’s my kind of role model!
  • Roman Holiday (1953) – My second William Wyler directed selection is not The Heiress (1949) which sadly means that I’ve left Olivia de Havilland off my list but this one in order for me to fill the romantic comedy slot. Of course the fact that it stars “Mr. Reliable” – the trustworthy and dependable Gregory Peck – and features the incredible lead acting debut of Audrey Hepburn had nothing to do with it.
  • 12 Angry Men (1957) – so many great courtroom dramas to choose from but this one features actors that are more familiar to people today than Tyrone Power Marlene Dietrich Charles Laughton and Elsa Lancaster from the Billy Wilder directed classic that same year (Witness for the Prosecution (1957)).
  • Dr. Strangelove (1963) – it kills me to have the sole representative from the 1960’s not be one from that great year of 1962 especially because this hilarious black comedy is about as political as they come (at least it’s from an era gone by for now) but I can’t think of anyone who wouldn’t enjoy its caricatures.

I realize that I’ve neglected to include performances from some of my favorite actors – Cagney Stewart Holden Douglas and Lancaster – and actresses – Garbo Colbert Dunne Garson and MacLaine – and haven’t included a single film from some of my favorite directors – Capra Ford Lubitsch and (Preston) Sturges – but I know that I’ll have a plenty of additional selections for anyone that this list entices.

© 2008 Turner Classic Movies – this article originally appeared on TCM’s official blog

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