Five Favorite Classic Film Stars

In honor of National Classic Movie Day I’m participating in the Five Stars Blogathon hosted by the Classic Film and TV Cafe. Be sure to check out the other fine contributors here.

Ask any two classic film fans to name the film stars that opened their mind to cinema of the Golden Era and neither answer would be the same. In doing this list I decided to skip some of the bigger stars in favor of celebs who have personal resonance for me. Here are my five favorite stars and a few films to get a crash course. Feel free to share your five favorite stars in the comments below.

Veronica Lake

Long time readers of the site shouldn’t be surprised to see this lovely lady drop in first. Veronica Lake isn’t the actress who got me into classic film – it wasn’t until I was in college I even saw one of her films – but she’s so magnetic I had to learn more about her. Thus I started a quest that hasn’t let up in over three years to learn about her life and career. There have been highs and lows; Veronica is the apotheosis of complicated. No matter the flaws in her personal life, it’s impossible to ignore her amazing film output. Lake came to symbolize the ’40s noir femme with her blonde peekaboo hairstyle, but she was also adept at romance and comedies. (I’d argue she’s a better comedienne than she is as a serious actress.) Some films worth your time: I Married a Witch (1942), Sullivan’s Travels (1941) and This Gun for Hire (1942).

Image result for esther williams

Esther Williams

Again, not a surprise to see aquatic beauty Esther Williams on a list of my favorite classic film stars. Williams’ bubbly effervescence buoys her film’s plots as much as her swimming skills. (I’m done with swimming puns, I swear.) Hollywood attempted to transition athletes into stars several times and Williams herself was a response to the success of figure skater Sonja Henie. I haven’t seen a Henie film but I doubt she could give me the sheer joy I experience watching Williams glide like a mermaid. Her films are predictable, but there’s an inner strength to Williams’ characters that doesn’t get its due. And did I mention that those underwater sequences nearly killed her? She suffered for her art! Some Williams films to watch: Dangerous When Wet (1953), On an Island With You (1948) and Thrill of a Romance (1945).

James Garner

I’m all for A-list leading men like Bill Holden or Humphrey Bogart, but there’s no truer man’s man for me than James Garner! Like Steve McQueen he exuded a confidence that’s intoxicating and jumps off the screen. He was tough enough to start as hard-boiled detectives, cowboys and action heroes, and charming enough to steal the hearts of several leading ladies. He also had some excellent comedic timing, starring as the straight man in several hilarious comedies. He worked in practically every genre, short of horror. (If there’s a James Garner horror film out there, please let me know!) Everytime I see him on-screen I swoon. Stare at the beauty of James Garner in Victor Victoria (1982), The Thrill of It All (1963) and The Americanization of Emily (1964).

Miriam Hopkins

Miriam Hopkins is my blonde haired cookie full of arsenic, to borrow from Burt Lancaster. Hopkins was a difficult woman. There’s a reason she should toe-to-toe in a long-standing feud with Bette Davis – worse than anything Davis and Joan Crawford had going on. And yet, Hopkins is so damn cute in everything. She was a pre-Code darling who playing prostitutes, con artists, rape victims, you name it. Her characters still seem shocking and provocative today, yet Hopkins’ high-pitched voice lends everything an air of acceptability. Like James Garner, she can be serious, funny, evoke tears, or seduce, all in equal measure. Some Hopkins films worth checking out: Trouble in Paradise (1932), The Mating Game (1951) and The Smiling Lieutenant (1931).

Ann Miller

I gotta close things out with my favorite song and dance gal, Ann Miller! Miller isn’t the best actress but she was touted as the fastest tapper ever, and I can believe it. Many of Miller’s characters were little girls content to show off her talents, either for attention or to distract from brewing trouble. You know you’re in for some rapid-fire dance the minute Miller lifts her skirt above her knees. And you have to respect how costumes were often altered to allow her to dance unimpeded. Watching Ann Miller dance can solve any problem. Enjoy Ann Miller in Kiss Me Kate (1953), On the Town (1949) and Stage Door (1937).

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13 thoughts on “Five Favorite Classic Film Stars

  1. Pingback: copied: | My little simple thought

  2. Nice out of the main choices, though I’ve never been very fond of Esther Williams-the aquatic parts of her films are often amazing.

    I’d agree that while Veronica Lake was good in dramas and noirs her underutilized gift for comedy was her strongest ability. One viewing of I Married a Witch should convince anyone of that.

    Ann Miller could be a bit much but she was an astonishing dancer. Jim Garner had that open handed warmth, it’s easy to see why he had great success on TV you felt comfortable with him the minute he showed up on screen.

    I read a Miriam Hopkins biography and the woman was her own worst enemy but she could be enchanting on screen and when she was under control quite compelling.

    Hmmm, the five that got me into films. Well the first three were easy but I had to ponder the last two for a minute.

    First and foremost is Linda Darnell. I fell for her hard when I was a kid in Blackbeard, the Pirate though looking back on it now it’s hardly her best but derring-do and a lady in distress are what a kid looks for in a film. Best films: A Letter to Three Wives, Summer Storm, No Way Out, This is My Love, Fallen Angel, Hangover Square, The Lady Pays Off and Everybody Does It.

    Next would be Susan Hayward. Again when I was young there was a series called The Movie of the Week where they played the same film three times a day for a week. I happened upon her film The President’s Lady where she and Charlton Heston played Andrew and Rachel Jackson, I was fascinated by her mixture of toughness and vulnerability and watched the film as many times as I could. By happenstance the next week’s film was With a Song in My Heart where she played Jane Froman and I was hooked for life. Best films beside those two: They Won’t Believe Me, Deadline at Dawn, The Lusty Men, I’d Climb the Highest Mountain and I’ll Cry Tomorrow.

    John Garfield-First saw him in the allegorical Between Two Worlds and while the rest of the cast was excellent he fairly burst off the screen with his dynamic personality. Though the years I’ve managed to see all his films and he remains my favorite actor. Best films: The Breaking Point, Under My Skin, Dust Be My Destiny, Body & Soul, The Postman Always Rings Twice and Humoresque.

    My next is probably someone who would be more universally sited, Judy Garland and for one simple reason-The Wizard of Oz. The film and her dilemma are so relatable to children I won’t be surprised if she was the number one answer along with the fact that she was one of the most talented women who ever lived. Best films outside of Oz-A Star is Born, Meet Me in St. Louis, I Could Go on Singing, The Clock and Easter Parade.

    Lastly I’d have to say Thelma Ritter. She’s kind of a two-fer with Susan Hayward. Her no-nonsense astringent fortitude as the nurse Clancy in With a Song in My Heart captivated me and I’ve been a devoted fan ever since. I’ll see anything she’s in and she’s never disappointed. Best films: Rear Window, The Mating Season, Pickup on South Street, Titantic, Pillow Talk, How the West Was Won….I’d say All About Eve but while she’s terrific her role is so small.

    • I can’t blame those who don’t care for Williams. Even she said if you saw one you saw them all, haha. I need to see more Darnell movies; she’s captivated me in the few I’ve watched. Garland is utterly amazing! I’d love to do a full look at her filmography sometime in the future. Thelma is also wonderful.

  3. Ooh, I’m a big fan of James Garner and Miriam Hopkins and have been working my way through their filmographies. I love that you have them on your list as I think they often get overlooked

  4. I find myself nodding with satisfaction at your choices. I’m a long time student of the cinema world (became addicted in the early 1940’s with Tarzan, westerns, war, action/adventure, mysteries: suspense and serials preferred but from the get go appreciated movies as an art form with a collaborative team responsible for any movie that would keep you entertained, likely to remember what you saw and heard and would definitely want to view it again. My early stokers of the coals would be Gary Cooper, William Holden, John Wayne/Randolph Scott, Alan Ladd and Ingrid Bergman (her magnificent blue eyes and cut short hair In FOR WHOM THE BELL TOLLS sealed that opinion permanently). Somewhere along the way Humphrey Bogart and Burt Lancaster took a place

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    • Some great choices here, Kristen! I’ve always liked Veronica Lake, but it took a recent viewing of THIS GUN FOR HIRE to remind me that she could be a very good actress. I didn’t appreciate James Garner until later in life, but he has become one of my faves over the last five years. In addition to the films you mentioned, I have a soft spot for CASH McCALL, THE CHILDREN’S HOUR, 36 HOURS, and MURPHY’S ROMANCE.

  5. I am delighted to see James Garner on your list! I can watch him with Doris Day in “The Thrill of It All” over and over again. And, yes, he is quite easy on the eyes, too! – Toto

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