The B+ Movie Guide: Part VII

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:

his-girl-friday

His Girl Friday (1940)

Mike:

What a perfect movie. If your tastes even overlap 30% with mine and Colin’s, you will love this movie. This may not be a #1 level essential (like, Citizen Kane or The Wizard of Oz), but this is like 2.00001. It’s real close. It’s a perfect movie. A comedy of remarriage, a perfect example of Howard Hawks dialogue, and just an all-around classic of cinema. It’s hard to not love this movie. (2)

Colin:

How many women did Cary Grant remarry in this five year span? Personally, I don’t think you’re ever going to do better than Philadelphia Story and Bringing Up Baby, but this is about as close as you’ll get to accomplishing that. Ralph Bellamy is the real hidden treasure of this movie, playing Rosalind Russell’s boring fiance. I also like the way they play reporters in this movie. For whatever reason, my journalist’s sensibilities — if I even have them — aren’t offended by 30s and 40s journalist stereotypes. This movie is worth it on dialogue alone. I might pause writing this and go put it on. That’s what’s happening as I write all these up. I’m thinking, “Man, I should go put that on.”

rebecca-36

Rebecca (1940)

Mike:

Hitchcock’s first American movie. It’s great, it’s Hitchcock and it won Best Picture. Not essential essential. But if someone’s seen the majority of the list, this is one they should see next. And it’s also really good. It’s not the Hitchcock most people know. (3)

Colin:

Olivia de Havilland’s had all the attention on this so far. Now it’s Joan Fontaine’s turn, finally. I guess it isn’t essential essential, but it’s another movie that I’m ashamed to say I only knew of in passing before I got the list and watched it. Hitchcock is one thing, but Laurence Olivier in the 40s is entirely another. What a messed up movie this was, and how messed up Hitchcock was earlier in his career. I guess it’s not really what I’m going to put on, but in terms of the movies that you’re watching with bated breath, it’s up there.

The Philadelphia Story - 49

The Philadelphia Story (1940)

Mike:

Great movie. Stewart, Hepburn, Grant. Top of their games. Comedy of remarriage. Terrific movie. If you like movies, you’ll get to this one pretty quickly. (2)

Colin:

This is one that’s already come up a few times during this feature and already once during this article. This is pretty much the movie by which I measure screwball comedies and romantic comedies. Katharine Hepburn as Tracy Lord, the Philadelphia socialite divorcee who’s marrying outside her class to the chagrin of her ex-husband C.K. Dexter Haven, played by Cary Grant. If you ever want to spend 90 minutes or so watching rich people be REALLY rich…I mean, they could have subtitled this movie “First World White People Problems.”

What really makes it is that Jimmy Stewart and Ruth Hussey are tabloid reporters undercover for the wedding, and he falls in love with Hepburn. Meanwhile, Cary Grant is causing problems for everyone by being smarmy and clever and turning up at the wrong times. If I were ever to make a top five list of comedies, this is probably on it. You also get to hear Jimmy Stewart drunkenly sing “Over the Rainbow” one year after The Wizard of Oz came out, which is great. Most people remember “Mary” when they think of Jimmy Stewart exclaiming a name, but I often find myself thinking of him saying, “C.K. Dexter Haven! Oh C.K. Dexter HA-VEN!” Man, I love this movie.

The Shop Around the Corner (1940)

Mike:

Classic. This became You’ve Got Mail. Only it’s better. (2)

Colin:

What a surprise this was. I went into this knowing nothing about it and absolutely loved it. Lubitsch does it perfectly in this little shop in Hungary, where Jimmy Stewart and Margaret Sullavan are inexplicably American sounding in a community of Eastern Europeans. The story is so tight that there’s little to say about it — Stewart and Sullavan fall in love as pen pals and work at the same store, not knowing each other’s identity. They hate each other for the whole movie until the end. Like You’ve Got Mail. Only it’s better. Take that story and add the cheeriness and heart of a movie from 1940 and you’re in the vicinity of how great it felt to watch this movie.

The Thief of Bagdad - 71

The Thief of Bagdad (1940)

Mike:

For those of you who have never heard the names Powell and Pressburger, you’re in for a real goddamn treat. These two made some of the best and most beautiful looking movies of all time (and appear… quick count… six times on this list. Five together and one with just Powell). This movie was remade a bunch in early cinema. It’s basically Aladdin. The story isn’t what’s interesting. It’s how they tell it. The early tricks. And the color. My god, the color. This movie is gorgeous, and this is one you can show a child now and they’ll love it. It’s so good. Be ready to enjoy cinema. This is movie magic. This movie will make you remember why you love movies. (3)

Colin:

It’s shocking how many people don’t know these guys, but I didn’t until Mike mentioned them in college. This is not only better than the 20s movie it’s based on, it’s better than most fantasy films of its time.  Conrad Veidt as Jaffar, the evil Grand Vizier. That’s the only role you really need to know, because the rest is amazing color and halfway decent practical effects considering that the movie was made in 1940. It’s probably less fun if you haven’t seen Aladdin, but this is the most fun of every Powell and Pressburger movie on this list (and definitely more fun than the one movie that was just Powell) and still looked great. People at the time put this on the level of Fantasia and Ebert said it was on the level of The Wizard of Oz. I’m not going that far, but it’s damned good and pure wonderment on film. Do yourself the favor.

Citizen Kane - 53

Citizen Kane (1941)

Mike:

Well fucking really. (1)

Colin:

This is a movie one sees.

The Lady Eve (1941)

Mike:

Another classic screwball. You can’t go wrong with any Sturges. (And he’ll feature fairly prominently on this list too. As his comedies are just incredible.) This one is probably his biggest, next to Sullivan’s Travels, since it’s Stanwyck and Fonda. And Charles Coburn, who is just amazing in everything. (2)

Colin:

This is probably more fun than Sullivan’s Travels, though I go back and forth. I love Charles Coburn, which — here’s a fun thought experiment: think of every Charles Coburn movie and switch him with Charles Laughton. And vice versa. That could be its own genre. Anyway, Henry Fonda is good at playing the awkward lead, which you see in Young Mr. Lincoln and gets perfected in My Darling Clementine. The guy had a string of great movies that lasted a while. And leading women have never been as compelling or enjoyable to watch as they were in the 40s. Stanwyck has a smarter, savvier character than anyone now.

maltese-falcon-8

The Maltese Falcon (1941)

Mike:

Do I need to say anything past the name? (2)

Colin:

The noir doesn’t really get better than this for me. I grew up with Bogart films in a Bogart household, so noir has always been this and The Big Sleep, which I also love. It never gets quite so perfect as it is here, though, does it? You’ve got the Bogart cast of characters, with Peter Lorre, Sydney Greenstreet, Elisha Cook Jr., Mary Astor — and then there’s Ward Bond on the side and Walter Huston even has a cameo as a guy who shows up and dies on the spot! Noir has never been my favorite genre because you don’t usually get a hero.

Bogart’s Sam Spade isn’t a perfect guy and he might not be a happy guy, but he gets through the film and you can see how this could be serialized. That they didn’t go that route is a credit to everyone involved in the film, but I guess I loved this because it wasn’t so over the top that everyone loses everything and you realize that “the city was the protagonist all along,” or something like that. You need Bogart to solve it and end the movie just about the same way he started — only now you see why he is the way he is and what determines the code of conduct he lives by. I can watch this anytime. 

Sergeant York - 36

Sergeant York (1941)

Mike:

The name may not mean as much now, but man, this movie was one of those really essential movies for a long time. The name still holds up as a big one. At this point, it’s practically propaganda, but it’s great. (2)

Colin:

This is one of the first movies on the list that I wasn’t head over heels for. There are a number of these biographical pictures that come out around this time, whether as propaganda or as straight entertainment. The worst of them has to be Tyrone Power in Brigham Young, but you get some great stuff, like Jesse JamesYankee Doodle Dandy, which has Cagney’s music, and Pride of the Yankees, which is really the Gary Cooper biopic from the early 40s that I think about first. Sergeant York certainly isn’t bad, but it’s a little on the nose and it lacks those elements that make the others really worthwhile. Essential, yes, but I don’t see myself watching it again for a very long time.

Sullivan’s Travels (1941)

Mike:

Perfect movie. Probably Sturges’ best. A must for any film fan. (2)

Colin:

This movie was amazing, though it made me wonder why it hadn’t been made like five years earlier. It’s a total class relations story about a rich guy who pretends to be poor for a while to see what it’s like. Veronica Lake is gorgeous as his travelling companion throughout the film. It’s a funny movie to be sure, but there are also those elements you remember from the 30s — a little of My Man Godfrey here, some of I Am a Fugitive From a Chain Gang there. The whole thing is really pulled together by all the character actors who show up in it, like Porter Hall (who makes everything better) and Eric Blore, the British actor and regular fixture in Astaire-Rogers musicals. 

– – – – – – – – – –

Final Thoughts:

Mike:

That’s the great thing about classical Hollywood. I get older… no, wait.

Look at this list. They’re all classic, amazing movies. My final thoughts part is easy as shit. It’s just — look at them. They’re essential, and they’re great.

Rankings: Citizen Kane is practically a 0 it’s such a 1. The rest are pretty much 2s. If you like movies, you watch them. The Maltese Falcon is practically a 1. It probably should be a 1. The only reason Thief of Bagdad and Rebecca are 3s is because they aren’t the first ones you get around to when you get into movies. They’re in that next level deep.

Colin:

This part of the list includes The Maltese Falcon and Citizen Kane, so yeah, I think we have a case to be made for the essentials. I sort of wonder how essential Shop Around the Corner is in context, but it’s good to have more Lubitsch and I enjoyed it way more than I expected to.

Right here, as we enter the 40s, is where things begin getting less fun. They stay good, yes — but they don’t have the fun that a lot of the 30s films did. I’m probably going to watch My Mad Godfrey again before I watch Sullivan’s Travels a second time.

You do start seeing things that are going to set things in motion for new trends and people on the list, though. The Thief of Bagdad starts us off with Powell and Pressburger, and Rebecca gets us going with Hitchcock in America. Nothing wrong with either of those things at all.

If I had to pick two from this group to watch again and again, I’d choose Philadelphia Story and Maltese Falcon. To me, those are both perfect movies on opposite ends of a spectrum.

– – – – – – – – – –

More movies tomorrow.

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One response

  1. I totally agree with you on how great Powell and Pressburger are (I might pick Black Narcissus as the greatest film ever made), but Thief of Bagdad is NOT Powell and Pressburger. It’s barely Powell. He was one of three directors involved, and the whole thing was Alexander Korda’s baby. So as great as it is, it’s definitely not an Archers film.

    July 15, 2015 at 4:56 pm

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