For those who don't know, today is National Classic Movie Day. Started by Classic Film and TV Cafe, today was started as a grassroots movement to celebrate the classics "from the silents to the seventies." While I have no affiliation with the website or its production today to run several articles as part of its blogathon (more information at link), I have decided to take part in my own way by listing two of my favorite films from each decade. The one catch is that instead of picking the familiar favorites, I am choosing to pick those that haven't been nominated for Oscars, if just to give you a better understanding of who I am as a film fan. So please, check out their writing as well as mine and leave your own favorites in the comment section below.
Shoulder Arms (1918)
While Charles Chaplin would become better known for his work on the World War II masterpiece The Great Dictator, he started his career with a series of shorter films, including this World War I film all about trench warfare. Clocking in at under an hour, the film embodies the chaos of war while also delivering a lot of great sight gags that play to Chaplin's strengths. While his iconic Tramp character was only three years old at this point, he played characters with confidence that proved why he was able to withstand the test of time and become a legend as well as just a really good performer. He may have done more impressive films, but Shoulder Arms is still an interesting look at how assured the performer always was.
It is hard to go wrong with any Harold Lloyd film. While he isn't as immediately recognizable as Charles Chaplin or Buster Keaton, he was the underdog for the silent generation. Few films embodied his charisma and his shtick as well as The Freshman, which sent the young comedian to college and gave him countless gags and pratfalls that worked because we wanted him to succeed. Stick around for the scene in which a simple dinner jacket leads to an awkward situation. While Safety Last! has the more iconic moments, this is a film that is both just a solid (if now familiar) story as well as proving the charisma of a performer that we should be talking about more.
Steamboat Bill Jr. (1928)
If forced to ask what the greatest silent film of all time was, this would be the easy front runner. While there have been more emotionally wrenching films (see: Charles Chaplin), there have been few that have been so awe-inspiring yet insane as the work of Buster Keaton; a mad man who was tossed around like a rag doll for majority of this film's running time. The fact that it looks like he's going to die at every turn is a testament to the artist's ability to orchestrate disaster. He was a bold performer that pushed boundaries and while this film mostly is memorable for its set pieces and the famous collapsing house, it is very entertaining and unique in ways that no filmmaker has been able to imitate before or since.
Not only the best horror film, it is one of the best in general. While there's worthy debate on if its sequel is mightier, I choose to go with director James Whale's original because of how concrete and iconic it is. With a career-defining performance by Boris Karloff as The Monster, he manages to not utter a single coherent thought while also becoming one of the most sympathetic of Universal Horror's icons. It is a story of man playing God, which doesn't end in the most convenient of ways, but creates a profound and disastrous thesis on why this was a bad idea. It also helps that Whale was also a theater director who managed to translate the style to film both visually and tonally. It is a masterful look at how horror can be psychological while still commenting on bigger societal issues related to outcast culture.
|Left to right: Zeppo Marx, Chico Marx, Harpo Marx and Groucho Marx|
Duck Soup (1933)
If you want to watch the funniest and weirdest war film in mainstream American cinema, then you should check out Duck Soup. Focusing on the inimitable geniuses of The Marx Brothers, the story follows a dictator who runs Freedonia and is a royal jerk to everyone. There's espionage at every turn and with the troupe's anarchic comedy style, there's so many jokes piled in that it's hard to not laugh. It may be light on actual war commentary, but the premise is enough to allow for crazy antics and large musical numbers that compensate. It is a hilarious film with some of early comedy's best as the top of their games. There's not much more to say. Just watch it. You'll thank me later.
|Left to right: Rosalind Russell and Cary Grant|
His Girl Friday (1940)
One of the popular tropes that people like to do when it comes to old cinema is to imitate the screwball comedy style with fast talking and exaggerated emotions. It may sound like a ridiculous prospect, but His Girl Friday pulls it off impressively with a film that shows Cary Grant at the top of his game as he tries to solve a crime over the course of an evening. There's progressive gender politics, a memorable use of dressers, and nauseatingly fast dialogue. It's funny, full of suspense, and just plain endearing. It is a film that is so well orchestrated that the satire is put to shame for its inability to do anything nearly as charismatic or fun as this.
Cat People (1942)
Cat People isn't a horror film that most people immediately think of. It could be that as a franchise, it has produced a tonally unrelated sequel or a sexually charged Paul Schrader remake. However, the original is one of the best not because it has as great effects as its peers, but that it is a mixture of horror and film noir in ways that are compelling. With a story focusing on Simone Simon and her mysterious case, there's conversation about body image while also allowing for mystery as to how to cure the strange case. It's also full of excellent photography that cuts around any problematic areas, emphasizing the tension. It isn't violent, but it definitely is scary and unique in the best ways possible.
|Left to right: Jane Russell and Marilyn Monroe|
Gentlemen Prefer Blondes (1953)
If one wants to talk about classifying the ideal role of women in 50's cinema, Gentlemen Prefer Blondes is likely a highlight. While there's the famous "Diamonds Are a Girl's Best Friend" song that comes in the third act that suggests the shallowness of women, it is part of a richer subtext about how women use their intellect to fool men into obeying their orders. Thankfully, it is rich with physical comedy and features one of Marilyn Monroe's best performances. It is a film that is progressive in slight ways, choosing never to lose focus on the fun in the process. If you are thinking that this film is another dumb blonde film, think again. It's more of a counterargument as to why you're dumb for thinking that.
Rio Bravo (1959)
It may seem mightily unfair to have THREE films from director Howard Hawks on this list. However, it's more impressive that each of the entries are in their own genres and are considered the high points of them. In this case, he delivers one of the best westerns with a film that features John Wayne, Ricky Nelson, Dean Martin and my favorite Walter Brennan performance as Stumpy. It may be long, but it's full of humor, song and dynamite throwing. It embodies everything about the genre that is great, including its beautiful cinematography and study of masculine friendship. As a whole, this film mostly works because of how enjoyable the central cast is and how willing they are to go along with anything.
Jules and Jim (1962)
The 60's marked the boom of the French New Wave scene, predominantly with two forces: Jean-Luc Godard and Francois Truffaut. Where the former found pleasure in experimenting the form, Truffaut went on to make it personal and touching. It was a celebration of the medium and still told a great story about an odd romantic entanglement. It is a film that along with its beautiful score by Georges Delerue was full of sentiments and passion that made it not only one of the movement's best, but just one of the best love stories of the decade and in film culture. While Godard is still alive and making even stranger work like Goodbye to Language, Truffaut died with plenty of potential still left in him. However, his work lives on with this beautiful film that celebrates life and love in profound ways.
While Roman Polanski would gain success in the following years with Rosemary's Baby, it's this French horror film that really explains his dark brilliance. As Catherine Deneuve begins to suffer from psychological stress, the world takes on a more physical and haunting presence. The film is wrought with tension and features some of the best visual metaphors for stress and mental decay that have been put to screen. It is a film full of strange moments that will leave you unnerved and make you wonder why we didn't see more from this side of Polanski as his career progressed (though Chinatown was great).
|Left to right: Diane Keaton and Woody Allen|
It is interesting to watch early Woody Allen in relation to his later and more mature work that would show up as soon as Interiors five years later. However, there was something brilliant to early Allen because of how he wore his interests on his sleeve. In Sleeper, he turns sci-fi on its head by parodying the culture with overgrown fruit, strange experiments, and an orb that gets you intoxicated. Along with his muse Diane Keaton, the antics make for one of his best slapstick films to date and one that may as well sue Futurama for stealing its premise. Even then, this is pure Allen doing what he does best, and it is great stuff that we're not likely to get ever again from him.
The Jerk (1979)
There have been few comedians as brilliant as Steve Martin. However, his cinematic outings haven't been consistent nor has one reached the hilarious heights of his leading debut. With absurd gags galore, the film is nonstop jokes that follows an illogical plot line of the titular jerk as he goes from rags to riches to rags again. If that doesn't make sense, don't worry. It's one of the best nonsensical films ever made, and it is one that you'll have trouble watching just once. It is a great film that makes you wonder why Martin wasn't able to maintain that lightning in a bottle brilliance for the remaining decades of his career.