The B+ Movie Guide: Part VI

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:


Gone With the Wind (1939)


Obviously. (1)


There’s nothing to be said about this. If you haven’t seen this movie, you have time management issues. 

Goodbye Mr. Chips (1939)


Big movie. Also pretty famous, as I’m sure you can tell. Very classy, and more entertaining than Wuthering Heights, which could also be considered. It would fit in perfectly, but it might not be as fun as some of the other ones I mentioned. But it’s definitely a top ten for 1939, which, after all, is the golden year. So that’s saying something. (2)


The weird thing is, I hadn’t heard of this movie until Mike gave me the list. That’s why this was such a great project for me — movies like this that seem so obvious to me now, but were complete unknowns only a short time ago. It’s not too often that movies do a biography that spans more than half a century like this anymore. The jumps in time from 1870 to 1928 cover a lot of history, too, which adds to the tragedy when his Austrian friend, played by Paul Henreid, is killed during WWI. Great performances, and the only movie on this list to feature a Zeppelin bombing, unless I’m mistaken.

Mr. Smith Goes to Washington - 102

Mr. Smith Goes to Washington (1939)


To me, this is Frank Capra’s masterpiece. You can show this to a four year old and they’ll understand every second of it. This holds up better than most movies from this era. It’s perfect. The filibuster is one of the best sequences in all of cinema history. Everyone needs to have seen this movie. If I had to narrow cinema down to 100 movies, this would be one of them. (1)


To anyone who enjoys politics, this is essential. To anyone who enjoys movies, this is essential. To anyone, this is essential. Aside from being probably the most inspirational film about American democracy, it really demonstrates why an idealist within the system should be considered simultaneously naive and admirable. The cast is just about as perfect as you can get, too — if anyone’s going to play the cynical-turned-repentant politician, it’s Claude Rains. And just like in Dodsworth, we’ve got Jean Arthur playing the sharp woman who thinks the leading man is a moron until she comes to understand him. I’ve said before that I wouldn’t want to watch a whole lot of Capra all the time, but this is one of the few cases where I would actually put it on pretty much anytime. 

Ninotchka (1939)


Classic comedy. They repeated this story a few times. One of the few times Garbo did comedy (“Garbo laughs!”). Of course, she plays straight for most of it, but it’s still a great movie nonetheless. This became the template for a lot of later romantic comedies. (2)


The joke of this is that Soviets are robots. This whole movie is just a lot of laughs at how asexual and stiff Soviet Greta Garbo is, and then what happens when she has champagne and gets drunk. Now, when you think about any modern movie with a harsh female character who never smiles and threatens violence, you have to trace it back here. Even during our Fun with Franchises Marvel run, I got this vibe from Zoe Saldana in Guardians of the Galaxy. It’s that same dynamic, where the man is attracted to her and trying to romance her as she constantly rebuffs him and tries to get down to business. The only difference is that Garbo is funny about it and eventually loses the Soviet thing. Imagine Cate Blanchett from Kingdom of the Crystal Skull, but not intolerable or insane.

Only Angels Have Wings (1939)


Hawks. Grant. Arthur. Great shit. Not wholly essential, but amazing. This is one of those Hawks movies that everyone overlooks as one of his best, but it is one of his best. It’s just got that atmosphere about it that works. Even non-film buffs can enjoy this one. (2)


This is the movie that basically gets turned into a Western as Rio Bravo later on, and shares elements with To Have and Have Not. I enjoyed watching it simply for that comparison, and for the understanding of how Hawks sets up his movies. This is Cary Grant instead of John Wayne, but the general setup is the same. There’s a small, remote community of working men based (lawmen in Rio Bravo, pilots in this) around the lead actor, who leads with skill and tough love. There’s an older guy whose age prevents him from performing the same tasks that the leader does (Thomas Mitchell here, Walter Brennan in the other two films), a guy who needs to redeem himself through right action, and the woman who arrives from somewhere and falls in love with the lead actor — Jean Arthur here, Lauren Bacall with Bogart and Angie Dickinson with John Wayne. The movie is worth watching on its own, but if you appreciate Hawks’ films in particular, this is one that you want to add to your collection for the common themes and the way he recalls old script elements. The most astonishing to me was the Jean Arthur line when she tells Grant at the end of the film, “I’m hard to get, Geoff. All you have to do is ask me!”  You may recognize that in To Have and Have Not, when Bacall tells Bogart, “I’m hard to get, Steve. All you have to do is ask me,” or from Rio Bravo, when Dickinson tells Wayne, “I’m hard to get, John T. You’re going to have to say you want me.” I think those other two get a lot more attention than this, and I enjoy them both more than this one, but they’re all related and it’s nice to watch them all for a chance to get inside Hawks’ head.


Stagecoach (1939)


When Orson Welles was asked to name his favorite directors, he named his top three: “John Ford, John Ford and John Ford.” He watched this endlessly as he shot Citizen Kane. This is as a western and as a film, classic, and essential for any film person. This movie made John Wayne a star. (2)


I just saw this on a big screen for the third time in my life. What a perfect Western this was. There are so many reasons to love it — its cast, the way it explores American archetypal characters at the time of the Depression, how it plays with democracy and chivalry, or how each character in their way has something to provide when the time comes for it. Thomas Mitchell as the drunken doctor, Donald Meek in his best role ever as a whiskey drummer, John Carradine as a disgraced Confederate soldier-turned-gambler, Andy Devine as…well, as himself, as far as I’m concerned. And then you’ve got John Wayne before he was really John Wayne, which is great. You can see Ford advancing the Western genre with every little bit of this movie, and how it’s still not quite the sort of Western movie we all think of. The Lordsburg sequence at the end is straight out of German Expressionism and John Wayne’s still using a rifle instead of a revolver for the shootout, but that all adds to the character. I’d say that any 10 minutes of this movie would make it worth watching, the unbelievable Apache chase scene with Yakima Canutt stunts most of all. 


The Wizard of Oz (1939)


If you haven’t seen this, they shouldn’t allow you in school. (1)


Seriously. Knowledge of this movie should be the test for whether you’re a pod person or not.


Fantasia (1940)


Like I said, only really essential Disney movies are making this list. This is one that everyone needs to have seen, even before you get to the other ones. You can make it to 20 and still not have really seen Bambi or Dumbo. This is one everyone needs to have seen. It’s a brilliant movie and really represents the beauty that fearless experimentation in animation can bring about. I know a lot of people don’t love this, as Disney movies go, but this is arguably Disney’s most important movie of all. (1)


I hadn’t seen this all the way through before the list, and that’s embarrassing. You really need to have seen this for the iconic imagery and music that came out of it. As I watched it, I was thinking about why I liked Warner Brothers shorts more than Disney growing up, and it was because of what they were willing to do with animation and musical accompaniment that I hadn’t seen from Disney. There’s nothing wrong with a straight Disney musical with some princess singing songs about whatever, but getting a little more abstract and playing with the medium is what I’ve always preferred. That’s what makes this movie so great and why I’ll still gladly give it a spot on the list.

Oh no, we’re in the 40s now. How time flies.

The Grapes of Wrath - 5

The Grapes of Wrath (1940)


Any self-respecting film buff wouldn’t hesitate to call this essential. This is another one of those perfect movies. An American classic. (2)


Steinbeck is easily my favorite American writer, but I don’t like how he’s taught in schools. I don’t know about all of you, but I was assigned Of Mice and Men in the ninth grade, which is hardly the book or the age to hook someone on Steinbeck. The thing with him is, you start on the more lighthearted stuff like Cannery Row and Tortilla Flat and work your way up to Grapes of Wrath and East of Eden from there. The lighthearted stuff is great to read, but I can see how his serious works are better suited to film (oh, John Malkovich, no!). Henry Fonda is the quintessential well-meaning American man down on his luck and Jane Darwell is — surprise surprise — an older woman named “Ma.” Like many films on this list, it’s an essential movie based on an essential book. Both are great.

The Great Dictator

The Great Dictator (1940)


Chaplin talks. And makes perhaps his most profound statement on film. (2)


How can this be Chaplin’s best film ever? At the same time, how can it not be? I don’t put it in with his rest because it’s a new era and a new motivation. But then, he fills it with that familiar combination of satire, comedy and somberness that we see in most of his films. The last scene and the speech he gives are enough to make anyone want to get up and vote or volunteer or do something toward the betterment of the human condition. To think that it began with him watching Triumph of the Will and laughing his head off, you’d be forgiven for expecting something goofier. Just the fact that he made this movie before the war with Nazi Germany began makes it significant enough — you’ve got to respect the film and admire the man who conceived of it.

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Final Thoughts:


This is something close to a perfect list. That’s 10 American classics right there. There’s nothing for me to say about this one. Pretty much anything involving 1939 and 1940 is gonna speak for itself.

Everyone needs to see Gone With the Wind, Wizard of Oz, Mr. Smith Goes to Washington and Fantasia over the course of their life. Simple as that. If you like movies, you need to have seen Stagecoach and Grapes of Wrath. These re the kinds of movies that are borderline 1s, outside of the fact that I wouldn’t fault someone who just doesn’t watch movies for not having seen them. If you’re barely into movies, they’re essential. The Great Dictator is right there too. Then, Only Angels Have Wings, Ninotchka and Goodbye Mr Chips are movies you need to see as a movie buff, but they’re not as immediate as the other three. You are allowed time to get to them. But you need to get to them.


Today’s article is really easy. The “least” essential films on this list are a Lubitsch comedy with Greta Garbo and a Hawks drama with Cary Grant. What’s going to happen when we get to the 60s and 70s and I have to write about movies I didn’t absolutely love?

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More movies tomorrow.

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