With so much work in my life, I always feel bad looking at my classic film lists; I just don’t get to watch as much as I used to. But this year I did my best to buckle down and do better, and I almost made it to 80 films, pre-1981, this year. A feat like that deserves a Best of the Year list, right? Now, all of these movies are listed as “classic era,” either in the sense of being made during or about the studio era, or being over 35 years old (which, if it’s older than me, I’d consider it a classic). So, let’s look at the movies that knocked me for a loop this year.
Note: These aren’t ranked, just placed in the order in which I watched them.
Made for Each Other (1939)
Made for Each Other makes my list in how it plays with the typical familial melodrama. Carole Lombard and Jimmy Stewart, already two characters you wouldn’t necessarily think of together, are a young couple navigating the world of being in love. But where director John Cromwell knocks us out is emphasizing the darkness of love’s harsh realities. When their son is ill, it’s filmed with all the terror of a noir. You might call this a tonal issue, but it goes a long way towards presenting the fear of being a new couple, new parents, new everything.
9 to 5 (1980)
I know I’m incredibly late to this party because in the year of our Lord, 2019, I finally saw the feminist classic, 9 to 5. This story about three put-upon women determined to get revenge on their sexist boss remains a rallying cry for women everywhere. It’s actually sad that much hasn’t changed since 1980 when it comes to gender, but that’s a topic for another time. Watching Lily Tomlin, Jane Fonda, and Dolly Parton work together is pure joy, especially since they make you truly believe they’d go to the ends of the earth for each other. It’s just the perfect movie and I’m kicking myself that it’s taken me this long to get to it. Guess I need to watch it at least 100 times to catch up.
There’s always one classic film documentary a year that I enjoy, last year it was Making Montgomery Clift and this year it’s Pamela Green’s comprehensive documentary on silent film director Alice Guy-Blache. Be Natural tells the story of Guy-Blache’s career as one of the first directors, female or otherwise, in silent filmmaking. It’s a story that no director today knows, as Green shows in a series of talking-head interviews, and yet the director proves how Guy-Blache’s work has inspired so many directors (and even the invention of YouTube) today. When people say women weren’t directing during the silent era, this documentary proves it to be false. If you want to dive into a fantastic world of directing, this is the documentary for you.
Mad Love (1935)
There weren’t many TCM Classic Film Festival movies that stuck in my head this year and that’s always disappointing. But one that I couldn’t not include was seeing Karl Freund’s Mad Love. The story is as kooky as the trailer above, in that Peter Lorre plays a doctor who puts the hands of a murderer onto the body of a pianist he’s trying to save (the pianist also happens to be the husband of the woman Lorre’s character is obsessed with). Add in the world’s most ridiculous costume, bizarre sexual obsession, and a wax figure and you have the recipe for one of the most fun horror movies of all time. This one holds a special place in my heart because during this year’s TCM Film Festival, actor Bill Hader introduced it. Hearing him do his Peter Lorre impression is absolutely superb!
My Brilliant Career (1979)
I missed this when it played at TCMFF and I will forever kick myself. I’ve loved Gillian Armstrong, predominately for her work on the 1994 adaptation of Little Women. But I’d never actually seen any of her other features. Thankfully, Criterion released My Brilliant Career this year and it’s become a favorite. Judy Davis plays a wayward girl who doesn’t fit the social norm; think of her as an Australian Jo March. She’s sent to live with fancy relatives and comes to fall for Harry Beecham (Sam Neill). There are a lot of commonalities to Little Women I won’t pour over here, but suffice it to say Neill and Davis are pure swoon. Every sequence, from the way they grouse at each other, to a pillow fight, is sweat-inducing. If you didn’t already have a crush on Sam Neill – and if so I don’t know if I want to know you – this will do the trick. Such a fantastic, old-fashioned romance told with such energy.
The Long Hot Summer (1958)
So, I’m going to confess something that might require I turn in my classic film card: I’m not big on Paul Newman. This declaration led to quite an argument with friends who recommended I watch The Long Hot Summer and if I still didn’t “get” Newman after seeing it, they’d understand. This Martin Ritt-directed drama follows a conman, played by Paul Newman, who ingratiates himself into a wealthy family with a host of problems all their own. The cast here is stacked, and that’s not talking about Paul Newman. You also have Joanne Woodward, Lee Remick, Orson Welles, Angela Lansbury! Okay, and as far as Newman goes, I definitely get it. The man excels at being a charming con who has “seduction” as his middle name. I now have this movie on Blu-ray, I think that says enough.
Old Acquaintance (1943)
When I reviewed The Old Maid (1939) I believe I mentioned confusing it for this film. Having now seen both movies that paired Bette Davis and Miriam Hopkins together, I can see why this is the better remembered one; Bette does famously choke out Miriam here. But I think I give the edge to The Old Maid. That being said, Old Acquaintance is a lot of fun, with Davis and Hopkins playing warring writers who, in many ways, mimicked their own acting styles. It’s a film with hidden depths, even if you are waiting for the two to finally come to blows.
The Mad Miss Manton (1938)
I just love Barbara Stanwyck. Anytime I discover a new movie of hers I’m guaranteed to love at least her performance. I saw two new-to-me movies of Stanwyck’s this year, the other being 1943’s Cry Wolf, but The Mad Miss Manton is my favorite. Stanwyck plays a daffy society dame who stumbles onto a murder and it’s pure hilarity for the entire runtime. Stanwyck plays her usual straightforward self but with an added edge of glamour and cool. She’s followed along by a group of heiresses, all of whom have just as good comedic timing as she does. And her love interest this go-round is Henry Fonda who, if you haven’t seen him in a comedy, make this your entry. He is so lovesick over Stanwyck it’s amazing, particularly as she holds most of the cards in their relationship (as she’d do in all her features). And his line reading of “what are you trying to do? Haunt my couch?” still makes me smile.
Between Two Worlds (1944)
You had to know a John Garfield movie would end up somewhere on this list. Between Two Worlds falls into the category of classic films wherein characters and death interact on a literal plane. In this case, a group of passengers on a ship realizing they’re sailing to their literal “final destination.” It’s always strange to me how many movies John Garfield made where his character either knows he’s dying or is literally engaging with death. It’s almost like he knew he wasn’t long for this world. Garfield isn’t the lead, that’s reserved for Paul Henreid, who is great as the sensitive pianist who’s turned to suicide. The entire ensemble is made up of fantastic character actors, almost all of whom you root for. They all deserve a nice, long life and the sad fact is none of them will get it. The ending is hokey, understandably so, but this is John Garfield at his finest.
Four’s a Crowd (1938)
I have a full review coming of this but I absolutely loved this screwball comedy. Errol Flynn and Olivia de Havilland show that their chemistry is undeniable, even if they aren’t meant to end up together. De Havilland, especially, steals the show outright as a squealing, dizzy socialite. This is just such a pure encapsulation of joy that’s worth watching.
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A freelance film critic whose work fuels the Rotten Tomatoes meter. I've been published on The Hollywood Reporter, Remezcla, and The Daily Beast. I've been featured in the L.A. Times. I currently run two podcasts, Citizen Dame and Ticklish Business.