The B+ Movie Guide: Part V

In May of 2012, Colin said I should make a list of movies that need to be seen, because he felt there were huge gaps in what he’d seen, and wanted something to do. The idea was that I’d make up a list, as “homework” for him, and he’d use that as things to watch.

So we came up with a giant list of 500 movies that worked, and Colin went about finishing it. And now that it’s finished, we’re gonna write it up. Because you don’t watch a giant list of movies without documenting that you did it.

We’re going through the entire list, little by little, for posterity’s sake. And here’s the next set:

Grand Illusion - 40

Grand Illusion (1937)


I fucking love this movie. I saw it in 310 (intro to film class). It’s genius. An absolute masterpiece. It’s kind of like Stalag 17, only as a straight drama. A meditation on class differences in war. POW shit. It’s terrific. This is one of those foreign films that translates really well for most audiences. (3)


This is such a great World War I movie for reasons that separate it from the rest. I thought that it, more than many other movies, outlined the demarcation in class relations that the war became. A lot of other movies, like All Quiet on the Western Front or Paths of Glory, contrast the plight of the poor foot soldier with the zeal of older men. Grand Illusion is a great look at how this was the last war of the aristocracy, during which the honor of nobility clashes with and ultimately falls to the terrors of total war. If you’re going to watch movies about this war, you should start with Interwar Period films, and this and All Quiet are the two most essential. Three years after this movie came out, there were Nazis in Paris, and “The Great War” became simply “The First World War.” Can’t beat these two for context.


Make Way for Tomorrow (1937)


This is another one I’m gonna fight like hell for to get more recognized. It’s a fucking masterpiece. Leo McCarey won Best Director for The Awful Truth, but even he said in his acceptance speech — he really won it for this movie. It’s so beautiful and heartbreaking. This is one of those perfect movies that nobody knows about, and I say everyone needs to see it because it needs to be out there as the masterpiece that it is. (2)


Heartbreaking is the word for this. Victor Moore and Beulah Bondi are an elderly couple who get split up because of a house foreclosure. Again, it’s the Depression, so everyone knows what this is. Their kids are caught up in their own lives and don’t want to deal with their parents, so they get tossed around and treated as burdens. The ending is so wonderful and devastating at the same time. It’s sort of like the old people version of the happy scenes in Sunrise. And then, this movie was so good that a Japanese screenwriter used it as the inspiration for the script that became Ozu’s Tokyo Story, which is pretty consistently called the best Asian film ever made. I guess it goes back and forth with Seven Samurai. But that’s why this is on the list. Film people know and love Tokyo Story (and rightly so), but fewer people talk about this now. What a great movie this was.


Shall We Dance (1937)


Nobody danced better than Fred and Ginger. Four movies on here for them, and they’ve earned every spot. Trust me when I say you will enjoy all of them. (2)


This the fourth and final Fred and Ginger movie on the list and I have very little left to say on them. Watch them. This one features Astaire as a danseur noble in a Parisian ballet company, under the false name of “Petrov,” and Rogers as a tap dancer. He likes her, she hates him, then she likes him, but he screws up…it’s all just another one of those plots. You’ve got “Let’s Call the Whole Thing Off” as the pair tap dances on roller skates and “They Can’t Take That Away From Me,” in case you needed more iconic Gershwin. The final sequence is dozens of women in Ginger Rogers masks dancing with Astaire. Not their best, but come on.


Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs (1937)


I’ll just blanket say that almost all the Disney stuff should be considered essential. We all understand this. These are essential for just life. Not even movie watching. Everyone should strive to see all the Disney animated movies. I’m only gonna include the ones I consider really essential, just because I don’t need to take up spots needlessly. This one, though, being the first, and being as important as it is for film history, had to be on the list. (1)


The funny thing is that I grew up generally disliking Disney. I watched Lion King and Aladdin, sure, but I wasn’t going out of my way to watch all the Disney movies. Of course I’d seen Snow White, but it had been probably 15 years, so I decided to go back and watch it again. It’s gorgeous. I’m still a Warner Bros. animation guy forever, but we’re not comparing shorts with features. That’s why this is here and why the rest of the Disney movies that really should be on the list are left off — we’re elevating them to the status of…”Well, duh, I’m going to waste my time trying to tell people that Disney should be watched.” 

A Star is Born (1937)


Classic of cinema. The story, anyway. It’s been made three times, and they’re trying to get a fourth going now. Of the three, this one everyone should see to get the story down and to see early color. And then the Judy Garland version is worth it for all the flourishes. Streisand — ehh, take it or leave it. I like this one best because it’s all story. Most people I imagine would prefer the ’54 version. Either way, see one version of this story, because it’s one of the classics of cinema. (3)


The original is great to watch. I have to agree here because even though Garland is incredible and James Mason is James Mason, I’ve got a soft spot for 30s Technicolor and classic stories. Something about the story works so much better in 30s Hollywood than it did in 50s Hollywood. So even though you can say that Garland and Mason had better performances, the backdrop and cinematic quality are better here. But like Mike said, you watch both. You watch My Fair Lady for the performances and set pieces and stuff, but you have to go back to Pygmalion too. 

The Adventures of Robin Hood - 87

The Adventures of Robin Hood (1938)


We’re coming up on 80 years since this movie was released and they still haven’t topped it. There has not been a version of Robin Hood better than this one. Ever. Bar none. You also haven’t seen color look as good as the color in this movie looks. A perfect film. (2)


What a brilliant movie this was. I put this on thinking, “Okay, it’s a late 30s color adventure film with Errol Flynn. Should be fun.” You know, expecting it to be like Dodge City but with more tights. I can’t really call something this famous a hidden gem, but people really need to watch it. It’s so much fun, and nothing looks this good. There are movies on this list that do great things with color — anything by Powell and Pressburger, the 40s and 50s dramas like Leave Her to Heaven or Written on the Wind, and then later, less pleasant stuff like Don’t Look Now. This movie has them beat — including the Powell and Pressburger stuff, in a way — because the way The Adventures of Robin Hood looks makes you wish the world looked that way in reality. Powell and Pressburger have the more visually striking films, but I’m not sure I could handle the color of Black Narcissus or The Red Shoes for more than a few days before going insane. This movie’s colors make you happy. On top of all that, it’s probably the best cast you could hope for in a movie like this. Flynn, Olivia de Havilland, Claude Rains as Prince John, Basil Rathbone as yet another guy Flynn has to fight and Eugene Pallette (who I loved in My Man Godfrey) as Friar Tuck. The fight with Rathbone is the highlight of the film. The guy is positively diabolical — in Captain Blood and Robin Hood, he reminds me of a British John Carradine. Or a British Vincent Price. Anyway, this is probably in my top ten percent of movies I hadn’t seen before the list. Watch this and prepare for enjoyment.  

Angels with Dirty Faces (1938)


It has great Cagney performance (though it’s bogged down a bit by the presence of the Dead End kids). A classic of the gangster genre, and the influence for “Angels with Filthy Souls,” and giving people to the count of ten to get their lousy, lyin’ no-good, four-flushing carcasses out your door. But mostly it’s the Cagney performance. Not as essential if you really boil it down, but it’s an awesome movie. Stick with the awesome movie over the boring “essential” movie (at least from the film school side of the equation). (2)


Though it wasn’t as good as the early 30s gangster movies, you can’t really go wrong with Cagney, can you? I’ll admit, it didn’t come off as massively essential as I watched everything else, but it’s short and enjoyable enough to find a place on the list for some context. Put it this way — if The Public Enemy and Going My Way were to ever mate, the offspring would look something like this movie. Oh, and did I mention that it’s got Humphrey Bogart as a corrupt lawyer?

Bringing Up Baby - 13

Bringing Up Baby (1938)


If you haven’t seen this, this is honestly one of the funniest movies ever made. Classic screwball. I guaranteed a 90% success rate with The Awful Truth. I’ll guarantee an even higher one with this. I remember showing this to someone junior year who was notoriously known for hating every movie. Loved this one. It’s a perfect comedy that sets up joke after joke and pays them all off on top of one another to hilarious effect. (2)


Okay, here’s one that I was a fan of from day one. What a perfect movie this is. I didn’t really know until I had watched more movies that I was such a fan of the screwball comedy, but there’s not really a better type of comedy, is there? I really go back and forth between this and The Philadelphia Story for a few reasons. That has Jimmy Stewart, which gives you massive points, and it also has lots of booze and Cary Grant as the conniving charmer. This has a leopard and makes fun of old Connecticut society, which — I know something of new Connecticut society, being from Connecticut myself. I guess even though Cary Grant is constantly out of his element, that only makes Hepburn better to watch in this. That’s what it is: you watch this for Hepburn, and you watch Philadelphia Story for Grant and Stewart. Anyway, I can put this on anytime, and it’s one of the movies that I’ve shown people who’ve never seen something older than Star Wars and pleases them every single time. When they’re out looking for the leopard and Hepburn loses her shoe and starts walking around lopsided, you just lose it.

Pygmalion (1938)


Because it’s great. And because I don’t like people skipping this and just watching My Fair Lady and saying that’s okay. This is the ’37 Star Is Born to the ’54 version. My Fair Lady has all the music and the bells and whistles. This is the straight story version of Pygmalion, and it’s great. Leslie Howard is terrific as Higgins. (3)


I didn’t realize that Pygmalion was here and that Mike would make the comparison to A Star is Born when I did the same thing above. That’s exactly what this is — you have to watch it for Leslie Howard more than anything else. Believe me, I have nothing against Rex Harrison, but if you’ve seen Leslie Howard in stuff (particularly other comedies like my favorite of his, The Scarlet Pimpernel), you have to hand it to him. The guy can handle comedic roles really well. So watch this and enjoy it for the straight period comedy it is instead of overlooking it in favor of the musical remake that everyone knows and loves.

You Can't Take It With You

You Can’t Take it With You (1938)


Another one of those perfect Capra films. It starts off as pure zany comedy, a bunch of weirdos in a house, and turns into this brilliant meditation on what is really important in life. When Capra is on, you can’t help but feel all warm and fuzzy inside in the end. This is sentiment done right. (2)


So, everyone’s seen It’s a Wonderful Life. This felt weirdly like the dry run. Jimmy Stewart and Lionel Barrymore in a Capra movie that celebrates love’s triumph over greed. Then there’s Jean Arthur and Edward Arnold, who are both great. Film fans will catch Donald Meek, and Ward Bond, who has a cameo. It’s not a movie I’ve put on again since I saw it because I don’t tend to watch Capra like that, but I think I’d definitely watch it again before I put on It’s a Wonderful Life one more time.

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Final Thoughts:


Another list without much for me to say. They pretty much all speak for themselves. Make Way for Tomorrow is another one that I’m fighting to get on the list of all-time great films. Pygmalion and A Star Is Born are essential for their stories, but theoretically could be left off if one were so inclined (but why? They’re awesome). Everything else is just great 30s stuff.

Ratings: Snow White is a clear 1.  Grad Illusion should be a 2, but I’ll leave it as a 3. Pygmalion is a 3 because movie buffs are more likely to see My Fair Lady. Same for A Star Is Born. People are more likely to get to the ’54 version. I hesitate to not make Adventures of Robin Hood a 1. It’s close. The rest are solid 2s.


The only non-essential here is probably Angels With Dirty Faces, when you consider that it’s only a fun Cagney film with a great supporting role for Bogart. It’s funny how both Pygmalion and A Star is Born made it on here and how we both made cases for them. Make Way for Tomorrow was one of the most heartbreaking movies on the entire list and needs to be seen. The Adventures of Robin Hood and Bringing Up Baby are on the short list of movies for a desert island, and the rest are all essential as can be.

If it sounds like I’ve been gushing every day so far, that’s because we’re still in the 30s. When am I disappointed by the 30s?

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More movies tomorrow.

One response

  1. 1939 is probably gonna get its own post

    July 12, 2015 at 3:31 pm

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