Classic films made 2020 bearable, and I don’t think I’m the only one saying that. This year has been terrible and if you’ve heard TCM hosts talk before, they’ve mentioned how many people have sought solace in the fantasy world of the Hollywood dream factory of old. Even now, as Christmas arises (and COVID cases) there’s something about turning on an old movie that gives me a respite from reality, if only for 90-120 minutes. The movies I included here are the ones I loved watching for the first time and that have stuck with me over the last 12 months. Feel free to share your new-to-you movies in the comments!
Please note, these are in no particular order. Classic is defined as anything released prior to 1970 or so. If it aired on TCM it’s fair game. If you’re interested in purchasing anything — and want to help Ticklish Biz keep the lights on — feel free to click the title links. All Amazon purchases kick back a small percentage to us.
Honorable Mentions: The Song Remains the Same (1976; I know TCM took some flack for showing rock docs….I loved every second), The Gazebo (1959), The Sign of the Ram (1948), Mr. and Mrs. Smith (1941), Daughter of Shanghai (1937), In a Lonely Place (1950), The French Line (1953), The Hustler (1961), Three Little Girls in Blue (1946), Kiss of Death (1947), Repeat Performance (1947), The Glass Bottom Boat (1966)
You’ll Find Out (1940)
I’m always fascinated by how Hollywood of this era was happy to give anyone with a public persona a chance at making movies, from athletes, to musicians, to band leaders. You’ll Find Out is an old dark house murder mystery with its star being famous band leader Kay Kyser. Kyser is a solid straight man and the movie gives him a compelling reason for being involved in the plot. It also explains why the movie takes out significant time for musical numbers. But what really makes the movie fun is the cadre of famous horror masters Peter Lorre, Boris Karloff, and Bela Lugosi as the trio of baddies trying to off the famous heiress who invites Kyser’s band to play her birthday party. Karloff, in particular, has a blast.
I spent this year indulging my newfound obsession for Mexican actress Lupe Velez. What can I say? She was beautiful, underappreciated, and died tragically. That’s the time of Old Hollywood star I gravitate towards. That being said, I’d never actually seen one of Velez’s star-making features. The Mexican Spitfire series is silly and formulaic, but Velez gives them her all. The first in the eight-feature series sees Velez as Carmelita, the new bride to American boy Dennis (Donald Woods). Unfortunately, Dennis’ mother and ex-fiancee want Carmelita gone. Thus starts 67-minutes of mistaken identities, disguises, and Velez cursing in two different languages. If you have only seen Velez as the salacious exotic sidekick in something like Kongo (1932) you’re missing her true talent.
Get used to seeing Paul Newman on this list because if 2020 was anybody’s year (at least in my house) it was his. I went through so many Newman movies my Letterboxd says he’s one of my most watched stars this year. I already laid out a lot of what I enjoyed about Harper in my original review of the Warner Archive Blu-ray. But to add onto it this is a bopping late-’60s Los Angeles noir that has as many beautiful images of the City of Angels as it does the cast. And what a cast it has, including the late Pamela Tiffin who is utterly beautiful.
After our Ticklish Business episode on Anna May Wong I wanted to check out more studio era portrayals by the few Asian actors working at the time. One of the biggest productions was this Henry Koster-directed musical starring Nancy Kwan and the incomparable duo of Miyoshi Umeki and James Shigeta. At the time, Flower Drum Song boasted the largest cast of actual Asian and Asian-American actors and, more importantly, is interested in placing them in positions of classic Hollywood romance. The movie navigates the waters of not just being an Asian immigrant, in the case of Umeki’s Mei Li, but also the problems in being an Asian-American with parents interested in the old ways, as is the case with Shigeta’s Wang Ta. I’ll talk more about Shigeta later on down this list but….god, that man should have been in more romantic features.
The loss of Olivia de Havilland this year hit me hard, as I’m sure it did to many others. Thankfully, TCM had us covered by honoring Livvie with some programming. This John Huston-directed melodrama is wonderful, and shocking to me it wasn’t recognized by the Academy. De Havilland plays the good sister in an affluent family whose husband is stolen by her bad sister, played by Bette Davis. To be a fly on the wall during filming of this movie. Huston captures the venality of family so wonderfully, and the script is equally incisive. De Havilland is great but it’s no surprise that Davis has the meatier role, one that looks at race relations in a way that’s highly different for the time.
My good friend Lara Gabrielle recommended this awhile back and was finally able to watch it. This is such a sweet story of mother love and one of the franker discussion of mental disability I’ve seen at the time. De Havilland plays a mother who travels through Europe with her developmentally delayed daughter, played by Yvette Mimieux. But when the young girl falls in love, her mother has to wonder if she’ll be able to have a normal life. As someone who writes a lot about disability portrayal in media, I often see movies about how disabled people are infantilized and/or unable to live normally. Light in the Piazza isn’t perfect, but it brings up questions of trust and the need to support one’s children, even if they’re different. Both de Havilland and Mimieux make the mother-daughter relationship feel real and lived in. This one made me cry.
One of my biggest joys this year was watching Summer Under the Stars’ tribute to Goldie Hawn. As someone who has grown up with her movies, I realized that I still had so many to see. Foul Play sees Hawn as a shy librarian wrapped up in a murder mystery involving the Catholic Church. I’m not big on Chevy Chase in general, but Hawn’s effervescence and sprightly nature made this such fun to watch.
Speaking of Hawn, this is another comedy discovery, one that holds many commonalities to my favorite Goldie feature, 1980’s Private Benjamin. Protocol sees Hawn plays a woman appropriately named Sunny. When Sunny stops a political figure from being assassinated she’s “rewarded” by being made director of government protocol, only to discover she’s a patsy meant to be sold as a gift to a foreign country. The story is weird but has so much to say about the role of government, our desire for someone to cut through the red tape and be truthful, and how women are often rendered invisible if they’re perceived as dumb. Considering the year we’ve had, I saw similarities to something like Mr. Smith Goes to Washington (1939) in Sunny’s desire to just find honesty in government. And Chris Sarandon wears nerd glasses and sweaters, so another bonus.
Last Goldie Hawn movie, promise. Actually, Swing Shift might go down as my favorite new discover of 2020. This Jonathan Demme-directed feature feels like it would have easily belonged in the world of 1944, as opposed to 1984. Hawn plays a housewife turned aircraft factory worker during WWII. Along the way, she discovers her own independence and quest for her identity. This is the movie, most famously, where her and Kurt Russell got together, and it’s no surprise that their chemistry just crackles off the screen. On top of that, there’s a fantastic subplot involving Christine Lahti as a lounge singer. Her and Hawn’s friendship in the film feels like something ripped directly out of a George Cukor feature. If you enjoy nostalgic throwbacks (and Mank doesn’t do it for you) just go out and purchase this directly from Amazon. I loved it so much.
Yes, it took me till this year to finally watch this Howard Hawks classic. I actually did a video review on my Instagram but I doubt it really captured the essence of the movie. For me, this modernized take on Snow White is all about Barbara Stanwyck as Sugarpuss O’Shea, one of the best character names to ever exist. Her brassy nightclub singer and gangster’s moll is so warm, sexy, and fun. You can see what a stiff like Gary Cooper would fall for her. (Though you’ll never get me to like Gary Cooper, sorry.) I’ve also got to shout-out Dana Andrews, who plays the villain. I’ve always felt Andrews didn’t get to play villains enough because he’s ridiculously good at it, and it’s weird to say that he’s incredibly hot in this movie. I’m still gobsmacked. Is this something everyone just knew?
I need more people to see this movie because holy crap is it timely! I’m honestly surprised this was made with studio players in 1951. Ginger Rogers plays Marsha Mitchell, a woman visiting her sister (Doris Day). But on the day Marsha arrives she’s witness to a murder committed by various members of the KKK, one of whom is her sister’s husband. For 1951, the era of mom, pop, and apple pie, this is an incredibly frank portrayal of racism and the Klan. Sure, the movie doesn’t dive deep into the real problems of the time, but for a movie to confront it at all….that’s a big deal. On top of that, Day and Rogers are just fantastic!
My mom tried very hard to get me into the disaster movie genre this year, probably because this year was a living disaster. But if you have to see one of Irwin Allen’s extravagantly destructive features you can’t go wrong with The Towering Inferno. [Best Stefon voice] This movie has everything: Paul Newman, Faye Dunaway, a ginormous office building with not enough fire exits. Robert Wagner. And is that Jennifer Jones and Fred Astaire? Yes, and they’re the only ones not using this office building to sleep with their co-workers!
Speaking the 1970s, I also crossed this Robert Redford political conspiracy thriller off my to-watch list. Three Days of the Condor starts with a brutal series of murders and from there it’s a riveting thriller watching Redford, the lone man left alone, try to unravel why his colleagues ended up dead. It also has 1970s Cliff Robertson rocking a very of-the-era coat. More importantly, this movie has a reverence (some might say sentimentality) for the strength of the popular press to get to the bottom of government intrigues like this. Can’t say I wasn’t watching movies that have aged well.
This Paul Newman feature was one I hadn’t planned on putting up here, but as the year progressed I found myself thinking on it more and more. I’ve even watched it twice by this point. I know Newman wasn’t a huge fan of his studio work, but this one is top-notch. Newman plays the love child of an upwardly mobile young woman and a working class man. As he, himself, rises up the ranks he discovers that the dichotomy between the haves and have-nots might work against him. Newman walks the tight-rope between being a working-class good boy and the more venal, “do whatever I have to in order to succeed” type. I’ll also say, I think Newman gets one of his sexier studio roles here. His scene opposite Alexis Smith is sweat-inducing. On top of that, Barbara Rush, who plays the young woman desperate to get Newman for herself, is so beautiful.
We’re back to celebrating James Shigeta! This Samuel Fuller-directed noir sees two detectives, one of whom is Asian-American, investigating the death of a stripper in the Japanese section of Los Angeles. Outside of Shigeta being such a powerful performer, Fuller allows him to fully inhabit the noir world. He knows the locals and is a gumshoe on par with the likes of Sam Spade and Phillip Marlowe. Fuller also doesn’t have an issue with giving Shigeta the girl at the end, who is a white woman. The poster plays that up a bit too exploitative, but don’t let that dissuade you from one of the best noirs out there.
I said it when I reviewed Mr. Hobbs Takes a Vacation (1962), Jimmy Stewart’s previous comedy with director Henry Koster: I love Stewart when he was allowed to play a crotchety, out-of-touch dad. In Take Her, She’s Mine he’s the ultimate out-of-touch parent, dealing with a college-bound daughter who happens to be “a dish,” played by Sandra Dee. Stewart’s character goes through all manner of bizarre situations as his daughter navigates boyfriends, protests, and more. The best part is he’s telling this story to a group of board members, culminating in one of the funniest exchanges I can recall this year; “I pay $5,000 dollars for that lummox to play a flute!” For someone who has finished college, and has heard my mother complain about my siblings’ college experience, I felt seen by this movie.
I’d heard about how weird The Silver Cord was when it played during one of the TCM Classic Film Festivals. I didn’t catch that screening but ended up watching it during an airing on TCM. And, yep, you all were right about this. Joel McCrea plays the ultimate mama’s boy, who is torn between his mother (an utterly terrifying Laura Hope Crewes) and his fiancee (Irene Dunne). Mother’s love takes a literal turn and it’s all sorts of creepy and compelling.
We’re back to the world of Paul Newman in a Tennessee Williams adaptation I’m surprised we don’t hear more about. Newman’s Chance Wayne is a local boy meant to have made good in order to marry the beautiful Heavenly (the late Shirley Knight). But when he returns to his hometown it’s as a gigolo courting a fading star played by the utterly amazing Geraldine Page. Page absolutely blew my away, playing a typical Williams character — that of a blowsy fading beauty — and elevates her in a way that you feel you’re watching live theater, and Newman meets her beat for beat. And, again, the sexiness from everyone is on full display. I’ve gotten some of my favorite Newman gifs from this feature.
Speaking of Tennessee Williams, I had to include this Christmas-themed domestic comedy starring the weirdly dynamic trio of Jane Fonda, Jim Hutton, and Anthony Franciosa. Fonda and Hutton play a newly married couple who end up at the house of a friend going through marital problems of his own. What director George Roy Hill and screenwriter Isobel Lennart produce is a movie that looks at the gender dynamics of the time and the hilarity that ensues when one couple witnesses how much worse another couples’ problems are. Fonda became the bigger star of the movie, in hindsight, but this is such a great vehicle for the underrated Franciosa. The way he tries to keep Fonda calm while having his own relationship implode is a lesson in restrained acting, and he’s funny to boot.
The Lady Takes a Sailor (1949)
I try my hardest to promote physical media, so I’m always upset when I talk about a movie that isn’t available to buy. Such is the case with this Michael Curtiz-directed feature I caught thanks to TCM. Jane Wyman, who is becoming a welcome sight to me in comedies, plays a Consumer Reports woman known for being honest. While she’s out boating a submarine capsizes her boat, leaving captain Bill Craig (Dennis Morgan) to save her life. Unfortunately, Bill has to keep the sub, and his government work, a secret and leaves Wyman’s Jennifer on the beach with a scrambled memory. When Jennifer tries to explain what happened to her she’s disbelieved, leading to hilarity. This movie has such great one-liners, with Wyman being game for all manner of physical comedy. Eve Arden plays Jennifer’s friend, increasing the humor. Someone release this on DVD, please.
I’ve been meaning to see the two noirs Jane Russell and Robert Mitchum starred in together and saw both this and Macao (1952) this year. But I have to give the edge to John Farrow/Richard Fleischer’s His Kind of Woman. Mitchum plays a down-on-his-luck gambler hanging out in a Mexican resort who gets wrapped up in the arrival of a criminal gangster. Russell plays the woman in the middle, while Vincent Price plays a flamboyant actor who dreams of living the life of the characters he plays. His Kind of Woman is definitely an oddball movie that takes its time developing a plot, but what it gives us is such fun. Russell and Mitchum are sexy, with the former getting to sizzle in all manner of elegant gowns. But it’s really Price who steals the show, treating every line like it’s Hamlet. By the time he and Mitchum are working together in a shoot-out, the movie’s plot may be gone but the entertainment remains.
I watched this William Wellman-directed drama early in the pandemic and it certainly let me more emotional than I’d have been had I watched it before. I’ve talked before about how religious themes in movies of the studio era might seem very inaccessible, but I gravitate to them. (My favorite remains The Song of Bernadette.) This film tells the story of what happens when God himself starts communicating with people through the radio. Joe and Mary (James Whitmore and Nancy Davis) are one such American couple trying to figure out what it all means. What I appreciated about this movie is that there’s no definitive answer made about what the radio communications are. Are they a prank? Are they truly God? The audience decides. At the same time, this God’s messages are relatable to everyone, with no discussion about a specific religion. It’s as neutral a movie as one can be that deals with God. For the early days of the pandemic, this movie cut through the uncertainty and provided a ray of hope.
You Can’t Fool Your Wife (1940)
This is another feature I’m sad isn’t available on physical media, especially considering it stars a legend: Lucille Ball. I watched this with my mom and about 30 minutes in we both believed Ball borrowed this movie for I Love Lucy. The plot is simple: Clara and Andrew (Ball and James Ellison, respectively) are college sweethearts who have been married for five years. But as Andrew’s job keeps him away from home more and more, Clara starts to think there’s more to it, leading her to go to great lengths to reinvigorate her marriage. Suffice it to say, this movie sees Ball playing dual roles, including a spicy dish meant to tempt Andrew. She’s so lovely with great comedic timing. If she did draw from this movie for I Love Lucy it was a great decision.
My Ticklish Business cohost, Samantha Ellis, had mentioned this movie as one of her favorites last year so I decided to check it out. Boy, was I blown away! Next to Swing Shift, this is another top favorite of the year. Margaret Sullavan leads an all-star cast of women as a group of hospital volunteers working in Bataan during WWII. This is easily one of the most unrelenting looks at the war from a female perspective. There’s nothing glamorous and romantic, though the women yearn for a return to those things. In its place is fear, anxiety, and everything we’ve associated with this year. Each of the actresses assembled gets a chance to shine, from Sullavan — an actress who I’ve never particularly liked — to Joan Blondell, my noir favorite Ella Raines, and Marsha Hunt. The ending is a gut-punch if you know history, but just seeing the strength and determination of the women will leave you a mess.
The folks at FX Movies don’t get enough credit for attempting to dust off the Fox catalog of classics and air them, even if it is early mornings before noon. If it weren’t for them I’d have never seen The Model and the Marriage Broker. This movie gives long-time character actress Thelma Ritter a role that should have netted her an Oscar; it was only nominated for Best Costume Design. Ritter plays Mae Swasey, a matchmaker who becomes consumed with trying to find a husband for model Kitty Bennett (Jeanne Crain). Ritter was so perfectly sensitive and sweet, you’ll wish she was given more opportunities to be a leading lady.
Our last Paul Newman is what many consider one of his bests. Hud is a dark, unrepentant look at masculinity, the American Dream, and the fading West. I know young Brandon de Wilde is the star, and Melvyn Douglas is heartbreaking, but I was captivated by the dynamics between Newman and Patricia Neal. Neal, herself, would win an Academy Award for her role as maid Alma Brown and does she deserve all the love. This movie also has one of the blackest endings out there. This isn’t a feature, it’s a slice of life.
I’m such a sucker for the classic film genre of princess features. If Hollywood taught us anything it was that every pretty woman was actually the heir to a foreign country! In this case, the princess in question Princess Maria, played by Olivia de Havilland. When Maria meets a regular American pilot named Eddie (Robert Cummings), she has to navigate with telling him about her responsibilities. Not only is de Havilland just wondrous in this movie — her comedic timing is impeccable — the movie gives her a chance to have it all. Unlike something like Roman Holiday (1954), the movie wants to look at how this American/foreign union can be good from a standpoint of alliances. For Eddie, the hardest thing for him to deal with is being less important than his wife. But their union is never in doubt and, in the end, Maria remains a princess. Such a great romantic comedy!
I don’t believe there was a star who looked more beautiful in Technicolor than Lucille Ball, and the proof is in Du Barry Was a Lady. This silly musical comedy sees Ball as the object of affection for both Gene Kelly and Red Skelton, culminating in the trio being plopped into the middle of Napoleon’s court. This movie is such madcap fun with exquisite production design. But there’s nothing like looking at Ball with her gorgeous red hair coming through so richly. This movie is a pure feast for the eyes.
Last year I discovered the delightful Olivia de Havilland comedy Four’s a Crowd (1938). Watching It’s Love I’m After gave me the same feelings as watching that film. Both star de Havilland as a lovestruck young woman, but where that former feature shows Errol Flynn at his roguish best, this feature will turn Leslie Howard naysayers (like me) into believers. He plays a spoiled actor who finds his life upturned by de Havilland’s starstruck superfan. Watching Howard, de Havilland, and Bette Davis (who plays Howard’s long-suffering girlfriend) play out this comedy of errors is just bubbly perfection.
This was the last classic film I saw in a theater and, boy, what a movie to go out on. I talked a lot about it in my original review, but Dorothy Mackaill is such a unique presence. There’s something so fresh and modern about her acting that keeps you watching. It’s also a pre-Code so there’s an added dose of salaciousness, and a story that’s very forward-thinking in how women are disbelieved when claims of abuse come up.
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.