I’d like to preface this by saying that although I’ve been a classic film fan since I was a small child, I’ve only been active in the classic film Twitter community since the end of last year, and I only started my blog this year. So I still have many films to discover. And while I discovered so many gems 💎 this year thanks to the wonderful classic film fans on Twitter, the Mad About Musicals course hosted by TCM and Ball State University, and some of my own tireless digging, these are the ones that left the largest impression on me.
From the pre-code to the Western to the film noir and musical, these films expanded my insights into the classic film era and also exposed me to some very memorable performers. These are in no particular order as I’m not very good at countdowns, so I like to think of it as a list that could really be in any order.
I’ve always adored Joan Crawford, but I really came to appreciate her enormous talent this year, and that’s largely because of this film. Her performance is absolutely flawless. It’s also very satisfying to know that this was her triumphant return to MGM after they’d railroaded her a decade before. This film is also an anthem for older women, because it shows that when you’re over forty, you haven’t shriveled up and died and are still desirable. It also shows that older women make far more compelling lead characters than doe eyed young ingenues.
I wrote a more detailed analysis of the film here.
A Woman’s Face
While we’re on the subject of Joan, I’d like to rewind to twelve years before Torch Song, and discuss a film that Joan said was the reason that she finally won an Oscar for Mildred Pierce. While I think that Joan’s performance as Mildred warranted an award on its own, I understand Joan’s point. This is the film that really seemed to cement her iconography as a serious dramatic actress who was prepared to challenge her glamorous persona. And while some disparaging commentators have recently said that “going ugly” guarantees critical acclaim for beautiful leading women, I feel that playing characters that are not glamorous or are physically scarred like Joan’s in this film, show a willingness to strip away one’s star persona for the sake of one’s craft.
This film also contains remarkable performances by Conrad Veidt and Melvyn Douglas. And the story is expertly crafted by director George Cukor, who was extremely adept at telling meaningful stories that centered around women. If you’re a Joan fan, and a fan of great films in general, definitely give this one a watch.
I wrote about Conrad Veidt’s role as a homme fatale here.
Alan Ladd is an actor who I only discovered this year, and he has fast become my favourite classic film actor. This was his last film opposite frequent costar, Veronica Lake, and they absolutely shine together. If you follow me on Twitter, you’ll have heard me wax lyrical about this film, but I really can’t recommend it enough.
I wrote a more complete post about the film here, where I fully explain why I love this film so much, but to suffice it to say, you really should give this one a go, especially if you loved Ladd and Lake’s other outings together.
I also wrote about Alan’s other film noir performances here.
The Red Shoes
I had heard of Powell and Pressburger in the past, but I really became interested in them this year thanks to both Twitter and the Attaboy Clarance podcast (which I can’t recommend enough). If you are a classic film fan you’ve probably at least heard of this film, if not already seen it.
This is one of the best films I have ever seen. It is dreamlike and beautiful. The ballet sequence is, arguably, the greatest one ever filmed, because it was from the point of consummate artists, Hein Heckroth and Jack Cardiff. Moira Shearer, Anton Walbrook and Marius Goring all give absolutely spellbinding performances, which drive the film until events reach a screaming, shocking crescendo.
I will never look at a pair of ballet shoes in the same way again.
I’m No Angel
My knowledge of pre-code cinema is sadly limited and so over the course of December I’ve been trying to watch as many classic pre-code films as I can. I could not leave off both of Mae West’s saucy classics. While I very much enjoyed She Done Him Wrong, and a very young and pretty Cary Grant, the premise of I’m No Angel was even more daring and wonderful. Mae West plays an unashamedly sexually independent woman (hell yeah!) who will not be shamed by men or other women about how she chooses to live her life and make her living, whether it’s with her head in a lion’s mouth or by “mmming” her way into a man’s heart.
The courtroom scene is absolutely amazing, with Mae saying “I’m done with this one, Judge” after she cross examines each of her lying, pompous ex lovers who are trying to put her in her place and failing miserably. I have a feeling that Joe Pesci may have watched this scene in preparation for My Cousin Vinny and taken a leaf out of Mae’s wonderfully colourful book.
The Proud Rebel
While Shane is considered the best western of Alan Ladd’s career, I’d like to submit this film for closer examination by classic film and western fans. Alan plays a similar character to Shane, but in this film he is even quieter and more world weary. He has been trekking across the country in the hope that some doctor can cure his son’s (played by his real son, David, who looks like his dad’s mini twin) “speechlessness”, which seems to be less physical than psychological. Alan’s character, John Chandler, is a Southerner displaced, dispossessed and disillusioned by the American Civil War, who, after being wrongfully convicted of inciting a fight with ruthless cattle ranchers, goes to work for Linnett Moore, played to perfection by Olivia de Havilland, an independent woman who is trying to stop the ranchers from buying her land.
Alan and Olivia are incredible together. Olivia’s intensity perfectly matches Alan’s signature calm and inner turmoil. Their slowly growing love for one another is shown expertly because their love is a mature one, but it is no less passionate and intense. The importance of home and family, both blood family and family found, is a very important element of this film, and Michael Curtiz’s direction really makes the viewer appreciate how vital it is to find both of these things. How home and family can save you from many things, most importantly loneliness.
I don’t think this is one of the best known films of either actor’s career, but please do yourself a favour and seek it out, because it contains two of the best performances that I have seen from either Alan or Olivia, and David is really lovely and earnest in his portrayal, too.
Ladies They Talk About
Another pre-code gem, this time starring a very sassy and unimpressed Barbara Stanwyck. I only really know Barbara from her 1940s era films and her later power role in The Thorn Birds, so watching her in this film was really fascinating, because it shows what an amazingly versatile actress she was. While her turn in Baby Face is rightfully copiously praised, I think that her performance in this film is just as compelling, especially how she interacts with the other female inmates when she goes to prison. It was also very interesting to see such a young Preston Foster, who plays a decidedly different role to the one I first saw him in in The Harvey Girls.
The way the prison is represented in the film was an endless source of fascination for me. Instead of all of the inmates being women who were wrongfully imprisoned, they were all pretty much hardened criminals, who had been convicted for murder, trafficking and serious theft. And this made it far more interesting, because none of the women are shrinking violets, waiting for men to save them. Barbara’s character is out to use Preston’s, and even at the end of the film, you know she’ll never really repent, which I have absolutely no problem with.
Two Years Before the Mast
Made in 1945, this was another Paramount vehicle that was especially chosen and tailored to the studio’s biggest male star, Alan Ladd. And no I didn’t just enjoy this film because of the copious shots of Alan’s bare torso. Although that did help somewhat. The film was, quite rightly, a massive success when it was released, closing out 1946 as the tenth most popular film of that year.
Alan plays the dissolute son of a wealthy shipping merchant who is shanghaied on one of his father’s ships, The Pilgrim, which is captained by the ruthless Howard Da Silva, who also co starred with Ladd in The Blue Dahlia, The Great Gatsby and Duffy’s Tavern. At first, the ship’s crew dislike Alan’s character, and think he is a spoilt rich boy, which he kind of is, before he proves his worth later on in the film by standing up for the other men and wooing the beautiful Esther Fernández.
This isn’t just a swashbuckling film, it deals with real issues, such as the lack of rights afforded to sailors and the megalomaniac tendencies of captains who wanted to break records whilst breaking the backs of their crews. The entire cast gives stellar performances, and the film ends on a decidedly satisfying note.
The Big Combo
Thanks to the wonder that is #Noirvember, I discovered some wonderful film noirs I had never seen before, but this film really stood out for me. I first saw Richard Conte in House of Strangers and Cornell Wilde in Leave Her To Heaven, so seeing them as a villainous crime lord and a hard boiled cop definitely made a change! And boy oh boy are they both fabulous in this film. I’d also like to give Lee Van Cleef a shoutout for one of the most splendid shirtless scenes in cinema.
Jean Wallace also gives a great performance as Conte’s abused and desperately lonely mistress, who was so coolly beautiful, that I think she would’ve made a brilliant “Hitchcock blonde”.
The film’s plot is intricate, but not exhausting to keep up with, and it builds to a climax that has been cited as one of the greatest of film noir for good reason.
I have been a David Lean fan for many a year, thanks largely to his beautiful film, Ryan’s Daughter. But I was unaware of Brief Encounter, which came to my attention due to the Reel Britannia podcast (another one I highly recommend).
This film is one of the most beautifully, heartbreaking and realistic films I have watched. One of my followers on twitter rightly described Celia Johnson as having “lamplight eyes”, which is such a fitting description, as she conveys all of her tumultuous emotions, kept undercover because of her social status, and social mores, through her incredible gaze. It is very fitting that she and Trevor Howard, who is so incredibly tender and attractive in this film, meet because she gets a bit of soot in her eye.
This film explores the quiet desperation that we experience in our everyday lives because of routine and loneliness, and the desire for a meaningful, passionate connection to another human being who knows our suffering and wants the same connection. These are two lovers who meet because they need to meet, because there needs to be a moment in their lives where they can realise such a connection.
This is not a fairytale, there is no “happy” ending as we may like it, but it has the only ending that could exist in the real world. And that’s why this is such an incredible film. Because it’s real.
A Matter of Life and Death
I have loved David Niven ever since I saw him in Ask Any Girl opposite Shirley MacLaine. Frequent Powell and Pressburger collaborator, Roger Livesey, was originally supposed to play the part of Peter Carter, and as much as I love Roger, David manages to capture so many wonderfully subtle elements of Peter’s character, from his childlike wonder at meeting June (played by Kim Hunter) to his passionate desire to stay with her, even if he has to defy the forces of Heaven.
MaddyLovesHerClassicFilms wrote an awesome post about Marius Goring for the What A Character! Blogathon, and she mentioned how wonderful he is as Conductor 71. I have to agree most enthusiastically. I don’t think the film would’ve been quite the same without his wonderfully witty portrayal.
While Brief Encounter is a film of the real, A Matter of Life and Death is a film of the unreal, of the gorgeously Technicolored, with flowers that are almost exquisitely painful in their pinkness and June’s hair the colour of shimmering brown with flecks of gold. And a Heaven that is saturated in black and white, showing the passion of Earth in comparison to the ultra efficiency of the afterlife.
I have never seen a film like this one, perhaps the only one that comes close is The Red Shoes, but even then I cannot really compare the two, because they are both so incredibly unique, children of the minds’ of two men who saw the world in a way that I want to see it, too.
I had not heard of this film until #Noirvember came around the corner brandishing a gun, and people were talking about what a departure the film was for Robert Mitchum after Out of the Past. The film was made due to Mitchum being arrested for marijuana possession in order to rehabilitate his image, which wasn’t really necessary because movie goers ate up his bad boy persona and went back for seconds.
But this film is a must see around the festive season. Janet Leigh plays a young widow with a small son, Timmy (played by the adorable Gordon Gebert), who is almost busted for being a comparative shopper by Robert Mitchum, a clerk at a large department store. Their paths are intertwined when Mitchum is fired for letting Leigh off the hook, and despite Leigh being pretty much engaged to the rather uptight Wendell Corey, the pair begins to fall in love, although Leigh wants to act as if no such thing is happening. But Timmy wants to make sure that Mitchum ends up as his stepdad rather than Corey.
While this definitely was a departure for Mitchum in terms of genre, he still plays a man outside of society, as he did in Out of the Past. But instead of tragedy, Mitchum finds family, in a film that actually deals with the many dislocations and complications caused by the Second World War, such as the death of a large portion of a generation of young men, and the difficulty people had in moving on from such a life changing historical event.
The film perfectly combines drama and comedy, producing a wonderful kind of poignancy that is enriched by Mitchum and Leigh’s wonderful chemistry, and the earnestness of the film’s message.
The Bishop’s Wife
Another Christmas film and another one to star David Niven, this is one of the best Christmas films ever made, in my humble opinion. It also stars Cary Grant as an angel who wants to help David Niven’s money obsessed pastor remember the true meaning of Christmas, and how special and devoted his beautiful wife, played by Loretta Young, is.
While we’re supposed to be rooting for Niven and Young to reconnect, we’re all really secretly (well not so secretly on my and my mother’s part) hoping that Young and Grant will end up together. While that doesn’t happen, we are still treated to incredible chemistry between the two leads. And it was this film that introduced me to Loretta Young, who like Celia Johnson, had the most incredible eyes.
I love this film because it really does make you realise how important Christmas is in terms of family and ritual. While it is unlikely that an angel will come down and remind us of how we should be kind and giving to others always, not just at Christmas, The Bishop’s Wife does the job just as well.
Broadway Melody 1940
Thanks to the Mad About Musicals course hosted by TCM and Ball State University, I watched Broadway Melody of 1929, which was fascinating because it was the first complete movie musical made. It spawned several sequels, which were all called Broadway Melody and ended in the years they came out: 1936, 1938 and 1940.
While I enjoyed the other sequels, 1940 is special because it is the only onscreen pairing of two of the greatest dancers to ever live: Eleanor Powell and Fred Astaire. Astaire purportedly didn’t want to star in any more films with Powell because she was too powerful and he had difficulty leading her. It’s such a pity that he felt that way, because they look absolutely spellbinding together. Their tap dance to Cole Porter’s Begin the Beguine is one of the best dance routines to ever be captured onscreen, with Astaire and Powell in absolutely perfect synchronisation. They look as if they are dancing on some other plane, a cloud perhaps or stardust.
As I said, thanks to #Noirvember I watched some incredible film noirs, but none of them were like Gun Crazy, which I have read is considered an important precursor to classics such as Bonnie and Clyde and À bout de souffle. I have to agree, Gun Crazy is an intense and heartbreaking portrayal of the all consuming capacity of obsessive love and the love of violence and excitement. It also shows how women who are unimpressed with the gender roles of mother, wife and secretary are driven mad by a male dominated society that do not want them to be anything else.
Peggy Cummins and John Dall give incredibly moving performances as the young lovers on the run who find themselves in increasingly desperate situations until they can run no more. It’s difficult to describe why this film is so important in the history of film noir and films in general, because it has so many elements that have since been copied and paid homage to. It’s a film that stays with you for a long, long time after you watch it, because it makes you wonder what it would’ve been like if Dall hadn’t gone to that carnival and met a beautiful, but deadly expert shooter. And it also makes you think what our society would be like if we weren’t alternately drawn to and repulsed by our own insatiable capacity for violence.
She Done Him Wrong (1933): The first of the pair of Mae’s cheeky, sexy comedy mega hits that catapulted Cary Grant to star status, and solidified her place in pop culture.
And Now Tomorrow (1944): Which stars Alan Ladd as a brilliant young doctor trying to cure Loretta Young’s deafness, whilst falling in love with her and making her realise her own easy privilege in the world.
Hell Drivers (1957): Stanley Baker plays a man with a criminal past who tries to start anew at a truck yard run by corrupt and violent men, most notably Patrick McGoohan, and trying not to betray his new best friend, Herbert Lom, by falling in love with his girlfriend, Peggy Cummins. Notable for its myriad of James Bond connections.
True Grit (1969): Having really enjoyed the Coen brothers remake, I knew that it was essential that I watch the original that garnered John Wayne the Oscar for best actor, and featured a classic theme song by Glen Campbell. And I’m so glad I made the effort, because this is a film that features one of the best leading performances by a young actress I have seen in Kim Darby who plays Maddie. It’s also wonderful because of its exploration of an alternate female figure in a male dominated genre.
Call Her Savage (1932): Clara Bow’s penultimate film has its problems, such as rampant racism in the belief that white people are the only race that isn’t intrinsically “savage” and violent. But Bow gives such an enjoyable performance, and proves that she could have been a big star in talkies if given the right support and roles. I really can’t imagine anyone playing this role as well as she did, and her chemistry with Roland Gilbert is phenomenal.
Well there we have it, folks. My Top 15 (with a few others sneaked in) Classic Film Discoveries if 2018. I hope you enjoyed my take on the films, and that maybe this post exposed you to some films you’d like to seek out and watch for the first time, or maybe a few you’ve forgotten and want to rewatch. What were some of your favourite classic film discoveries of the year? I’d love to know.