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The Comfort of Classics: Five Favourites

The human soul is naturally inclined towards seeking comfort, that lovely feeling of reassurance that the world holds hope and wonder, that things once broken can be mended, that not all that is lost, is lost forever.

As a child, my comfort film was Gone with the Wind. It was a film that filled me with the sense that no matter how awful things became, there was always hope in tomorrow, that you can reshape your life from the ruins. Gone with the Wind is still one of my absolute favourite films, and definitely still a comfort film for me. But in this article, I thought I’d discuss five others that I have added to my “comfort collection” over the years.

Charade (1963)

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I am a lifelong fan of Audrey Hepburn thanks to my mother’s borderline obsession with her (which I fully support and enable). And one of my early discoveries of her’s, and probably my second favourite film in which she starred, is Stanley Donen’s spy thriller: Charade, in which Audrey plays Regina Lambert, who realises that she never knew her husband at all, and that she’s now being tracked by a motley crew of dangerous characters, who think she knows where money Charlie supposedly stole from them, is. Throw in the fact that she falls in love with the mysterious Peter Joshua, played by Cary Grant, who may not be called Peter Joshua at all, and a CIA operative (played by Walter Matthau) who’s recruited her to spy for him, and you have a very confused Audrey, who keeps comfort eating.

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What I adore about this film is that it manages to combine utterly disparate genres in a truly wonderfully witty way, and also casts Audrey in a role that is entirely removed from anything she’d done previously. It’s also incredibly self aware, and casts Cary in a role that is a very conscious nod to the ones he played in Hitchcock’s thrillers. But Donen’s direction and Peter Stone’s whip-smart screenplay, turn all of the usual conventions on their head so that you’re simultaneously fretting for Regina, and laughing at the ridiculous antics of the characters, such as Cary taking a shower with all of his clothes on.

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Without giving too much away, and belabouring the point, I will say that this is arguably the best film that Hitchcock never made. It’s perfect when you’re at a loose end, feeling in need of sparkling wit, and just looking for a cracking film all round.

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An Affair To Remember (1957)

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Yet another Cary Grant film, proving that he is indeed the captain of my heart. A remake of the 1939 film, Love Affair starring Charles Boyer and Irene Dunne, An Affair To Remember is considered one of the most romantic films of all time, and came in at number five in AFI’s 100 Years…100 Passions list. It is a film that will make you believe in soulmates and love at first sight, and the power of love to conquer all trials and tribulations. It will make you hope and pray that on some enchanted evening, you will indeed see stranger, but not across a crowded room, but on a luxury liner. A stranger who has your cigarette case, and with whom you exchange witticisms and hope and dreams. Someone who paints you as an angel in a veil, and becomes a better person all for you, because they love you.

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I’m quite tearful as I write about this movie, as Rita Wilson is in Sleepless in Seattle, a homage to Affair, when she describes the final scene of the film. The entire film is magical, from Cary and Deborah’s characters pledging to meet at The Empire State Building in six months so that they may marry, to the final act, where despite all of the misunderstandings and heartbreak, and poignant longing, our lovers are reunited to finally share their lives with one another.

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If you haven’t experienced the staggering beauty of this film, then you simply must. There will be tears, but tears of joy and hope. Your belief that people are intrinsically good and that life is a thing of hope and beauty, will be restored by Leo McCary’s poetic direction, Hugo Friedhofer’s lilting, dreamlike score, and the magical pairing of Cary Grant and Deborah Kerr.

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How To Steal A Million (1966)

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Yes, this is indeed a second Audrey Hepburn film, but I did warn you about my undying love for her already, so I’m sure you’re not surprised. How To Steal A Million is my favourite Audrey Hepburn film for multiple reasons, but mostly because it’s a film in which she gets to show her enormous comedic talents, and one in which she is costarred with her ideal leading man: Peter O’ Toole. After usually being cast as either the young ingenue or mostly being paired with much older men, Million provides Audrey with the opportunity to play a sophisticated cosmopolitan woman who falls in love with someone as sexy as she is.

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The film follows Nicole Bonnet, played by Audrey, who is trying desperately to steal back the Cellini Venus that her father has donated to a famous Parisian art museum. So far so strange, but there’s a very good reason for Nicole trying to steal her own family property: the Cellini is a fake, as is the rest of her father’s world renowned collection, because her father is a master art forger. If the Cellini is tested and found to be a creation of the Bonnet family and not Benvenuto Cellini, their goose, or sculpture in this case, is cooked. Cue Simon Dermott, who Nicole believes to be an art thief after catching him supposedly trying to steal a painting from the Bonnet home. And so Nicole propositions him with trying to steal the statuette back. The only problem is that Simon isn’t really a thief but an art insurance investigator. However, he goes along with the plan because he’s just mad about Nicole (who can blame him).

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William Wyler directs with his usual overarching wit and panache, and if you enjoyed Charade, you’ll love this film, as it shares the same fast paced, imaginative construction. Except instead of a spy thriller-come-comedy, this is a comedy heist film that is, in my controversial opinion, superior to The Italian Job in its humour and plot pacing.

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Audrey and Peter’s chemistry is off the charts, and the closet scene, if you’ve seen it, you’ll know what I mean, and if you haven’t, you’re in for a treat; is better than any out and out love scene I’ve watched on film. According to The New York Post, the pair was supposed to have had a real life affair, with Peter falling madly in love with his leading lady. Whether this is true or not, one cannot say, but it is fairly believable given the crackling spark between them throughout this delightful film.

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I Walked With A Zombie (1942)

For most people, a film about a young nurse who goes to a former slave island to look after a comatose woman, is not exactly comfort film material. But throw in absolutely marvellous direction from Jacques Tourneur, cinematography by J. Roy Hunt and a fabulous script by Ardel Wray, Inez Wallace and Carl Siodmak, and you have a wonderfully rich, atmospheric gothic film that explores love, obsession, the importance of cultural beliefs and the power of historical legacies.

Frances Dee’s performance as the young, conscientious nurse, Betsy, provides a perfect anchor for the viewer as the film slowly, but deliberately moves through a world that neither Betsy nor the audience is familiar with. This film’s strong suit is that it does not fall into stereotypical traps about islanders or voodoo rituals. It shows both the native people of Saint Sebastian as being intelligent and compassionate, and voodooism as being far more than just some silly form of hocus pocus that European characters raise an eyebrow at.

The film’s ambiguity also allows the viewer to come to their own conclusions about how the story has actually unfolded, and gives the audience enough credit to be able to handle relatively complex philosophical ideas about personal belief and environmental influences. This is bolstered by the stellar performances of the cast, almost all of whom had either or would go onto star in other Val Lewton productions. I particularly like Tom Conway’s performance as the husband of Betsy’s comatose patient, who tries to maintain strict social and moral mores, but finds himself drawn to Betsy’s sweetness and compassionate nature. Conway embodies Paul Holland in a quiet, controlled manner that shows so much of his inner turmoil, and makes him a sympathetic, if frustrating character.

My favourite parts of the film are when the famous Calypso singer Sir Lancelot sings “Shame and Scandal in the Family”, which Tourneur frames in an incredibly chilling way, heightening Betsy’s feelings of alienation and confusion about Saint Sebastian and the Holland family. When Betsy realises that she loves Paul, and stands upon the rocks, staring out at the foaming surf, I love how Frances Dee is heard narrating Betsy’s feelings of consternation and longing. This scene does more to show us what kind of person Betsy is, than some three hour epics manage.

I Walked With A Zombie is a film that will live with you long after you watch it. It may not be very long, but it wastes no time in making you ask serious questions about the human condition, and what we will do when we believe that we are no longer within the constraints of “general” society.

The Sound of Music (1965)

In my humble opinion, The Sound of Music is one of the greatest musicals ever filmed. For all Christopher Plummer calling it “the sound of mucus” and people poking fun at it, its place in popular cultural is indelible and incalculable. The image of Julie Andrews running along the verdant Austrian mountains at the beginning of the film is so synonymous with the film, that even people who haven’t watched the movie, recognise it.

What I love most about Music, is that it’s really a feminine Bildungsroman at heart, as the person who you root for and become attached to is Maria, that passionate, patient and wonderful novice (in more ways than one) who faces personal and international trials and tribulations, but always has a song for every occasion. You cannot deny that “My Favourite Things” is not a song that really does chase the blues away and cause your fears to evaporate.

But this isn’t just a film about family bonds or personal maturation, and it certainly isn’t the silly musical some like to label it as, it’s a movie about the ramifications of war and social change. It scrutinises how we as human beings behave when we are faced with the end of one life and the need to adapt to a new one. It explores how we respond to our personal beliefs being threatened, as well as how brave we can be in the face of tyranny. It’s a film that makes you feel proud of loving ones country, but recognising that nationalism can be incredibly dangerous when used for nefarious purposes.

The Sound of Music is about having a song in your heart when it seems that there’s no music left in the world. It’s a film about hope and bravery and knowing that things may seem like they’ll never improve, that there will always be darkness, but that there is hope and a new day just over the mountains, if you have the patience and perseverance to walk, or even run, towards it.

This is my contribution to the Classic Movie Blog Associations’ wonderful Classics for Comfort Spring Blogathon. Please visit their website for more information and to read everyone else’s awesome tributes to the healing power of classic cinema.

11 thoughts on “The Comfort of Classics: Five Favourites”

  1. Your comments on The Sound of Music brought tears to my eyes.

    A thought: How many movies would be better if Sir Lancelot sang us some of the plots or commiserated with us on some of the character’s behavior? Now, think about Sir Lancelot roaming about in unexpected places. I know I’ll be amused for hours.

    Take care and good luck with all things.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. I was with you all the way – Audrey, Cary, Peter O’Toole – and then you threw me a curve ball – I Walked With a Zombie! But, then you brought me back down to my cozy, comforting film blanket with Christopher Plummer. Was there anyone else in hat movie? Only kidding – so much fun reading your post.

    Liked by 1 person

  3. One glimpse at your list with all the Audrey films and Cary films is enough to comfort just about anyone. I agree that Stanley Donen did an amazing job of channeling Hitchcock with Charade. And Audrey seemed to do well in terms of chemistry with so many of her leading men, but seemed to really sizzle with Mr. Grant and Mr. O’Toole.

    Liked by 1 person

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