We’re so bombarded by new entertainment from so many sources that it’s easy to forget classic films. But like great art, great music and great literature, the really good motion pictures from each genre and each decade not only entertain, they also reveal the sensibilities and ethics of their day. While I could give you at least a hundred entries for the following categories, I’ll list only three. Ah, but what a threesome.
IT'S A MAD, MAD, MAD, MAD WORLD (1963)
A non-stop laugh-a-thon as a group of motorists learn of a fortune buried 200 miles away. Besides all the visual and verbal gags, and its constellation of comic greats, Mad World also contains some of the best car chases and stunts ever filmed. They had me with the visual of dying Jimmy Durante actually kicking the bucket.
DR. STRANGELOVE, OR HOW I LEARNED TO STOP WORRYING AND LOVE THE BOMB (1964)
Peter Sellers, George C. Scott. Definitely adult subject matter here, but the powerful “absurdity of war” theme and outstanding droll comedic performances from Sellers, Scott, Keenan Wynn and Sterling Hayden, make this perhaps the best example of movie satire (along with Network and The Hospital).
THE PARTY (1968)
Peter Sellers stars as a good-hearted bumbler who accidentally destroys a movie set, and then manages to do the same to a fancy party given by the film’s producer. There are a few risqué moments, but it is pretty tame by today’s standards. And extremely funny and good-natured. Sellers is terrific.
TO KILL A MOCKINGBIRD (1962)
Horton Foote's winning screenplay of the Harper Lee novel about rural life, justice, honor and bigotry as seen through the eyes of a nine-year-old girl. It’s a beautifully photographed black-and-white movie with a haunting score by Elmer Bernstein. Oscar winner Gregory Peck as Atticus Finch was never better.
JUDGMENT AT NUREMBERG (1961)
A U.S. judge presides over wartime criminal trials. Outstanding performances from all-star cast, including Spencer Tracy, Maximilian Schell, Burt Lancaster, Judy Garland, and Montgomery Cliff. Oscars went to Schell and screen writer Abby Mann. Well crafted by director Stanley Kramer.
HOW GREEN WAS MY VALLEY (1941)
Tender-hearted adaptation of a devoted family in a Welsh coal-mining community. Winner of five Oscars, directed by John Ford and starring Maureen O'Hara, Barry Fitzgerald, Walter Pidgeon and Donald Crisp. Man, this is a good film.
THE ADVENTURES OF ROBIN HOOD (1938)
Errol Flynn, Olivia de Havilland, Basil Rathbone, Claude Rains. Several years ago, Kevin Costner attempted to portray the legendary bandit in an updated remake. Several accomplished actors have attempted this role, but Errol Flynn was Robin Hood. He personified the word swashbuckler. Unsurpassed, the 1938 version is an impressive spectacle with polished dialogue, exciting sword-play, colorful sets and costumes, and one of the best musical scores of all time. The royal entrance into Sherwood Forest where Robin swings from one tree to another proclaiming, “Welcome to Sherwood, my lady" – now that's movies!
LAWRENCE OF ARABIA (1962)
Peter O'Toole. I first saw this Best Picture of 1962 on TV and was disappointed. Years later I saw the restored version in a Los Angeles theater and was knocked out. Like Hitchcock, Ford, and Bergman, director David Lean is very visual. His work has to be seen on the big screen to catch all he's saying. My advice: Look for Lawrence at revival houses. This one's too great to be imprisoned on television.
GUNGA DIN (1939)
Cary Grant, Victor McLaglen, Douglas Fairbanks, Jr. One of the first and best “buddy” films, with three British soldiers trying to defuse an uprising in India. Great action scenes! Stirring ending as we discover “you're a better man than I am, Gunga Din.”
12 O’CLOCK HIGH (1949)
A brilliant WW2 epic about stressed-out flyers based in England, this film successfully shows men dealing with stress and finding meaning. Stars Gregory Peck, with Dean Jagger giving an Oscar-winning performance for his supporting role.
Van Johnson and James Whitmore head an impressive ensemble in this reflective account of the Battle of the Bulge. Oscars went to the writer (Robert Pirosh) and cinematographer (Paul C. Vogel). Engrossing and very moving.
THE LONGEST DAY (1962)
An All-star cast, including the Duke of Hollywood, John Wayne, is featured in Darryl F. Zanuck’s detailed take on the invasion of Normandy. It is considered by many reviewers to be one of the best of the war films. Haunting score, great cinematography and solid direction.
THE WIZARD OF OZ (1939)
The classic Judy Garland musical’s Great Oz is not all he should be - and yet, he’s more. Great storytelling, it is a fantastic visual feast for the eyes – and the soul.
A MATTER OF LIFE AND DEATH (1946)
(also known as Stairway to Heaven). As his plane is going down in flames during WW2, pilot David Niven “meets” the love of his life (Kim Hunter) over the radio. He miraculously survives the crash, but no sooner do they meet than he is informed by a messenger from the hereafter that he should have died in the crash. But he’s not ready to give up life. A trial will determine his fate. Though not much on real theology, it is a moving parable and one of the most beautiful-looking films I’ve ever seen. Made by renowned filmmakers Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger.
TO CATCH A THIEF (1955)
Cary Grant and Grace Kelly star in this romantic adventure about a retired rogue suspected of a rash of recent robberies on the Riviera, and run after by racketeers, regulators, and a ravishing, radiant, rich rubbernecker. I use this film as an alternative to a lot of caper films of today due to the fact that although the lead character had been a thief, he now sees the error of those ways. But even more than that, my suggestion comes from the fact that it is one of the most elegant movies ever made. Not only are Mr. Grant and Ms. Kelly about as good-looking as humans can get, but the film itself is quite stunning. The look, the sound, and the use of Monaco’s location are elements each superior to just about any film I can think of. Add to that Alfred Hitchcock’s tight, sophisticated direction and the audience finds itself totally immersed in the story. While Hitchcock presents some rather sexy encounters between his stars, he’s suggestive but never vulgar. It proves more alluring than today’s more graphic handling of screen sexuality. There’s something more captivating here, more mesmerizing than any of Hitchcock’s films. I’m not saying it’s a better film than “Vertigo” or “North by Northwest,” or “Rear Window,” but it is his most hypnotic work. It exemplifies that indefinable something that makes an auteur superior to a mere director.
THE SEARCHERS (1958)
John Wayne, Jeffrey Hunter, Natalie Wood. Considered by many critics to be one of the finest films ever, it tells the story of Ethan Edwards returning home several years after the Civil War. Soon his brother's family is murdered by a Comanche raiding party who kidnap his young niece (played as a little girl by Natalie's younger sister, Lana). Years later, Wayne's character rightly fears the girl is now one of the chief's wives. Will the “Injun-hatin” Ethan kill Debby rather than see her become a “squaw"? In this reviewer's opinion, this is John Ford's most complex western and certainly the most visually majestic. A powerful look at the emptiness of hatred and bigotry. The perfect western.
THE MAGNIFICENT SEVEN (1960)
Yul Brynner, Steve McQueen, Eli Wallach. Derived from the Kurosawa "eastern," “The Seven Samurai,” it concerns seven gunmen defending a poor Mexican village against bandits. Every part perfectly cast and Elmer Bernstein's music is outstanding. Filmmaker John Carpenter states in the film’s “making of” featurette, “Is it the greatest western of all time – no. Is it the most transforming western of all time – no. Is it the most fun – yes!” I must agree.
RIO BRAVO (1959)
John Wayne did four films with “Rio” in the title. This is the one to see. Wayne and director Howard Hawks did the film in response to “High Noon.” Duke had turned down that role because he believed it showed the town’s people in a bad light, portraying them all as cowards. Here, several members of the community want to help him face insurmountable odds. Dean Martin is terrific as his one-time deputy, now the town drunk. Great score. Great color. Great film.
A MAN CALLED PETER (1955)
A sensitive performance by Richard Todd highlights this account of Peter Marshall, a Scotsman who became the U.S. Senate chaplain. Tinged with a bit of schmaltzy Hollywood biography, the film comes alive with the recitation of actual sermons given by this devout man of God. You will be inspired by these sermons and be astonished at how well they relate to the times in which we live.
STARS IN MY CROWN (1950)
One of my favorite films, with Joel McCrea as an 1800s minister dealing with the problems of his church members. A gentle, episodic tale for the whole family. It is a fine example of how our daily walk can eventually affect the lives of others.
IT'S A WONDERFUL LIFE (1946)
James Stewart’s George Bailey is given the opportunity to see what his community would have been like if he had never been born. Director Frank Capra reminds us that our compassion and responsibility make a difference in the lives of those with whom we come in contact.
Yes, they are all old films, hence the title “Favorites of the Golden Age.” But believe it or not, I do like many movies of this century. Come back next time for This Movie Critic’s Favorites of Today.
For an extensive collection of the Best of the Best, go to THE BEST MOVIES THIS CRITIC EVER SAW.