Who can resist listing fave picks? Of course, what galvanizes and inspires my imagination probably makes yours snore. Even so …
THE HEIRESS, staring Olivia de Haviland & Montgomery Clift. I love the sets. The parlors filled with antiques are magnificent, if you happen to like pre-Civil War furniture and architecture. Beyond that, the story itself is compelling, with nuanced characterization. None of the three principal players is drawn simplistically. You expect stereotypes, but you don’t get them.
THE WOMEN, starring Norma Shearer, Rosalind Russell, Joan Fontaine, Joan Crawford, and Marjorie Main. Although there’s a newer version of Clare Booth Luce’s story now on film, nothing beats this version. These actresses deliver their zingers, barbs, and witticisms with awesome skill. The humor balances the drama of a once-happy marriage that’s breaking up. The fact that no men appear on the screen at all is amazing.
CASABLANCA, starring Humphrey Bogart and Ingrid Bergman. I would say, who hasn’t seen this wonderful movie? Except I keep meeting people who haven’t. One of the best WWII movies ever made (not to mention one of the best films ever), it offers a solid central story plus charming–sometimes heartbreaking–little overlapping subplots. A magnificent film.
THE LITTLE FOXES, starring Bette Davis and Teresa Wright. I like almost all of Bette’s movies because she rarely chooses a flat or simple role. The title of this movie is taken from the Biblical verse about the little foxes that spoil the grapes. Bette and her brothers are horrid, greedy people eager for her invalid husband to die so they can get their hands on his fortune. The best moment in the film is a shot of her expression as she lets her husband die without trying to help him.
THE HUNCHBACK OF NOTRE DAME, staring Charles Laughton, Cedric Hardwicke, Maureen O’Hara. It’s an early film, and the staging of the story reflects that. Even so, Laughton’s portrayal of Quasimodo is compelling, especially once the hunchback falls in love with Esmeralda and realizes he’s too monstrous-looking for her to ever love back.
MEET ME IN ST. LOUIS, staring Judy Garland, Mary Astor, Margaret O’Brien. Simple story filled with bright musical numbers and gentle family dynamics. I want to live in that house. I want to be a member of that family. It’s a feel-good film, like wrapping up in Granny’s quilt.
MIDNIGHT, staring Claudette Colbert, John Barrymore, Mary Astor, and Don Ameche. A sophisticated little romantic comedy about an American chorus girl masquerading as a baroness in Paris. Light, sparkling, witty. Oh, to have those clothes!
A PORTRAIT OF JENNIE, staring Jennifer Jones, Joseph Cotton, and Ethel Barrymore. A surreal, haunting love story based on one of Robert Nathan’s wonderful novels. The concepts of alternative dimensions, time relativity, people caught in endless loops of tragedy are all here. Even better, woven through the love story is the struggle of a young artist trying to find his inspirational subject.
REAR WINDOW, staring Jimmy Stewart, Grace Kelly, and Raymond Burr. Forget that it’s considered a cinematic masterpiece and just let it slowly pull you in as it builds suspense frame by frame.
PALM BEACH STORY, staring Claudette Colbert and Joel McCrea. If you’ve never seen a Preston Sturges film, then you’re in for a comedic treat of rapidfire plotting, zany characters, unpredictable twists, and masterful dialogue.
AMADEUS, staring Tom Hulce and F. Murray Abraham. When this film first hit the theaters, I went and saw it seven times. Never mind that I love Mozart’s music. The contrasts of raw genius packaged in stupid vulgarity versus mediocrity wrapped in so much yearning to achieve more are just sublime.
ALL THIS AND HEAVEN TOO, starring Bette Davis and Charles Boyer. A terrific love story between two honorable people deeply attracted to each other in an era when divorce isn’t possible.
IN NAME ONLY, starring Cary Grant and Carole Lombard. Despite the casting, this isn’t a comedy. Instead, it’s another love story between a woman of conscience and a man unable to get a divorce. (Looks like I’ve got a common theme running here! The two films are set 100 years apart, but human nature doesn’t change.)
TOVARICH, starring Claudette Colbert, Charles Boyer, and Basil Rathbone. A comedy about exiled White Russians taking jobs as a butler and maid in Paris. It turns serious near the end, when the grand duchess must make an important decision. This film’s a bit hard to find, but well worth the search.
THE UNINVITED, starring Ray Milland and Ruth Hussey. It’s often billed as the best ghost story ever filmed. I have to agree. Some terrific special effects, considering it was made in 1944. There’s also a nice love story plus the most gorgeous house. I want to live there–without the ghosts, of course!
THE AFRICAN QUEEN, starring Humphrey Bogart and Katharine Hepburn. Setting: Africa at the start of WWI. Situation: a boozy Canadian and a prim English missionary must escape the Germans along a dangerous river. Objective: turn a modest river craft into a floating torpedo and sink the German ship terrorizing Lake Victoria. A love story woven with terrific adventure, featuring truly indomnitable characters.
DOUBLE INDEMNITY, starring Barbara Stanwyck and Fred MacMurray. Novelist James Cain knew how to write about nasty people you wouldn’t want to meet under a rock. Watch Fred MacMurray succumb to Stanwyck’s evil seduction; then wait for the plot to start twisting!
STEEL MAGNOLIAS, starring Shirley Maclaine, Sally Fields, Julia Roberts, Dolly Parton, Darryl Hannah, and Olympia Dukakis. A terrific women’s story about friendship, both comedic and tragic.
SCARAMOUCHE, starring Stewart Granger and Mel Ferrer. The best kind of old-fashioned swashbuckler centered around love triangles, revenge, and the search for identity. It features a marvelous sword duel at the finish.
A ROOM WITH A VIEW, starring Maggie Smith, Helena Bonham Carter, and Daniel Day Lewis. Filled with enchanting sets and costumes, this love story is set amidst a charming comedy of manners.
THE WINSLOW BOY, starring Rebecca Pigeon and Jeremy Northam. Based on a true story, this film is about a man’s quest to achieve justice for his young son.
LITTLE BOY LOST, starring Bing Crosby. Neither a musical nor a comedy, this story will tug at your heart as an American searches the orphanages of post-war France for his young son.
A LITTLE PRINCESS, starring Shirley Temple and Arthur Treacher. What can I say? I love this story in all its versions, book and film. Shirley does a good job coping with the cruelty of Victorian England. But the Wonderworks mini-series is even better.
LITTLE LORD FAUNTLEROY, starring Freddie Bartholomew and C. Aubrey Smith. This pair of fine actors really make this simple story shine. Look for a small role played by Mickey Rooney.
MRS. MINIVER, starring Greer Garson and Walter Pigeon. Greer is a marvelous actress. This story is about a family trying to get through WWII, and yet it offers so much about kindness, decency, courage, and conscience.
PRIDE AND PREJUDICE, starring Elizabeth Garvie and David Rintoul. Although there are numerous versions, my preference is this older, BBC-produced mini-series. The casting is perfect, and their performances really capture the satirical wit of Jane Austen.
WITNESS FOR THE PROSECUTION, starring Charles Laughton, Marlene Dietrich, and Tyrone Power. Billy Wilder was a genius, and here he serves up a stunning courtroom drama with some plot twists that will astonish you.
GALAXY QUEST, starring Tim Allen, Sigourney Weaver, and Alan Rickman. “Never give up! Never surrender!” A brilliant parody of the original STAR TREK and its continued popularity at science-fiction conventions, this film is not only funny but very well written. You don’t have to be a Trekkie to enjoy the jokes. An additional bonus is that it’s the kind of movie that makes you walk around, spouting lines of dialogue. (My favorite: “Whoever wrote this scene should DIE!”)
MIRACLE ON 39TH STREET, starring Maureen O’Hara, Edmund Gwen, and Natalie Wood. Do you believe in Santa Claus? Natalie Wood steals the show as a sophisticated little girl who doesn’t believe in fairy tales of any kind . . . until she meets a charming old gentleman. Is he really Santa Claus? (I believe . . . I believe . . . I believe.)
STALAG 17, starring William Holden. Another Billy Wilder film, this story centers on a German prison camp where successful sabotage maneuvers and escapes are being masterminded by the American inmates. But someone is a snitch, in league with the Germans. A fascinating array of characters.
I suspect this list might well stretch to infinity if I let it, so I’m stopping even while I’m tempted to keeping adding just a few more (PHILADELPHIA STORY, A TOUCH OF MINK, DRUMS ALONG THE MOHAWK, MCCLINTOCK, BALL OF FIRE, GILDA, CHRISTMAS IN CONNECTICUT, etc). My list may contain some of your favorites or perhaps it will lead you to some films you haven’t seen before. Happy viewing!