Friday Film Festival 001: My Top Ten Movies

It’s still (barely) Friday as I write this, so this will have to count as the inaugural edition of the Friday Film Festival here at Things Saved From The Wreck. What I intend to do in the future is to watch three (or so) movies grouped together on whatever pretext I can muster, then talk about them here; but I thought for this first run-through I’d let you know where I’m coming from, filmwise.

I’ve labeled the following list as my Ten Favorite for convenience’ sake, but I also love plenty of more recent movies, some far more some that show up here. But this is the era I’m most comfortable in (roughly 1930 to 1950), the era I’ve thought and read most deeply about, and I thought I’d rather have a list unified in its thematic coherence than have to work a little more to think about what else I like and why.

These are all black and white movies made not only before I was born but before my father was born. That kind of thing makes up the bulk of my film collection, both on DVD and torrented. If you’re not interested, then fuck you, Debbie. (Please tell me you get the reference.) Meanwhile, here’s what I think about ten movies I like more than most others I could have named:

10. The Thin Man
(USA) W. S. Van Dyke · 1934

Detection enlivened by boozy drawing-room comedy, almost entirely faithful to Dashiell Hammett’s snappy novel, and featuring the bantering husband-and-wife team that dreams are made of. Nick and Norah Charles are still the gold standard for successful marriages in modern fiction; how often do you watch a murder mystery wishing the plot would go away so you could just hang out with the detectives?

9. It Happened One Night
(USA) Frank Capra · 1934

The usual line about this movie is that it’s an early precursor to Screwball Comedy; but my preference is to think of it as the Great American Romance. Capra’s populist cheerleading is tempered by Gable’s prickly exterior and Colbert’s aristocratic hauteur; but even in the middle of Depression-era starvation, we’re forced to remember that the rich are people too.

8. Stage Door
(USA) Gregory La Cava · 1937

George S. Kaufman and Moss Hart wrote the stage play, and the screen positively sings with their flashing wit, particularly in any of the boarding-house scenes, where men are unwelcome and not missed. But the backbone of the film is the performances: Ginger Rogers’ no-shit-taking working girl, Katharine Hepburn’s coolly arrogant Dramatic Actress, and down the line to Andrea Leeds’ luminous, heartbreaking has-been.

7. Trouble In Paradise
(USA) Ernst Lubitsch · 1932

Lubitsch was the greatest of Hollywood’s “sophisticated” directors in the early Golden Age, a man who could slip more than most past the censors due to his handiness with misdirection and implication. They called it the “Lubitsch touch” at the time, and if that touch can be so light as to be nearly imperceptible today, his way with witty, loaded dialogue was never given better voice than by Herbert Marshall’s cultivated thief, Kay Francis’ voluptuous millionaire, and Miriam Hopkins’ jealous accomplice.

6. My Man Godfrey
(USA) Gregory La Cava · 1936

This has a far better claim to being called the First of the Screwball Comedies, and it features the Queen of the Screwballs, Carole Lombard, in a giggly, shrewdly airheaded masterpiece of a performance that would set the standard for Irene Dunne in The Awful Truth, Katharine Hepburn in Bringing Up Baby, and Marilyn Monroe in anything. William Powell, trying nobly to star in a much more serious picture about money, class, and disappointment, has about as much chance against her as a levee in a hurricane.

5. The Bride Of Frankenstein
(USA) James Whale · 1935

Perhaps the first ever sequel that turned out to be better than the first movie, this is unquestionably the greatest fantasy film of the studio era. And make no mistake, it is pure fantasy — for all Henry Frankenstein’s dippy, conflicted monologues about “science,” it’s Dr. Pretorius who really knows what’s up. A new world of gods and monsters indeed; and the Bride’s own brief, five-minute lifetime remains one of the most indelible images ever committed to celluloid.

4. Top Hat
(USA) Mark Sandrich · 1935

But then fantasies come in so many different forms. Musicals require their own special suspension of disbelief — and the magic of Fred Astaire dancing is as incredible and impressive as any CGI monster, greenscreen vista, or wire-fu battle. The story is even slighter than average for an Astaire-Rogers pairing, which only makes the wait between numbers that much more entertaining; the only time to take them seriously is when they dance.

3. The Philadelphia Story
(USA) George Cukor · 1940

The play was written by Philip Barry explicitly as a comeback vehicle for Katharine Hepburn after a string of flops got her labeled “box office poison.” It was a triumph; a film version was inevitable. But opposite Cary Grant and Jimmy Stewart? Hepburn came more fully to life than she had done yet on screen, her portrayal of the brittle, insecure “goddess” Tracy Lord running the gamut from A to at least C, possibly even E. The screenplay’s insistence on humanity at all costs would even find an echo in Robert Altman’s humanist manifesto Gosford Park, which borrows a line of dialogue as true today as it ever has been: “The time to make up your mind about people is never.”

2. Casablanca
(USA) Michael Curtiz · 1942

Even if were the most dull-witted, sentimental, hackneyed, muddily-shot, and weakly-acted movie in history, it would retain its potent iconicity through the handful of lines and moments everyone knows: “I stick my neck out for no one.” “Play it, Sam.” “Of all the gin joints in all the world, she walks into mine.” “Here’s looking at you, kid.” “The problems of three little people don’t amount to a hill of beans in this crazy world.” “Round up the usual suspects.” “I think this is the beginning of a beautiful friendship.” But it’s not; it’s full of delight, clear-eyed, unusually brave, beautiful, and even its minor characters are masterfully weighted and portrayed. It’s perfection, the single movie where all the elements that were supposed to work together in the assembly-line movie-a-week studio system without any singular guiding vision at work, aligned into this one jewel-like pattern of a film, then drifted away again. And there’s never been a more beautiful woman than Ingrid Bergman. Ever.

1. Sullivan’s Travels
(USA) Preston Sturges · 1941

And yet when you come down to it is there any replacement for that singular guiding vision? Preston Sturges’ movies did well at the time, but it’s only within the last ten to fifteen years that they’ve really come into their own, seen as part of the major fabric of Hollywood filmmaking rather than a weird side tributary. Sullivan’s Travels is the American epic in miniature, a movie that tackles everything its pretentious title character wants to — social conditions and injustice and greed and despair and death and the inhumanity of man to man — but without the pretension, going through the wisecracking studio paces to find a deeper humanism than any grim fistfight between Capital and Labor could possibly approach. It’s no mistake that the Coen Brothers borrowed the title of Sullivan’s imaginary screenplay for their own cockeyed caravan through the motions of a literary classic: their own humanism is also fueled in its primary instance by the fierce drive to entertain. Laughter is a sacrament — and what is all myth, all religion, all history but tell us a story . . . with a little sex.

My film education is woefully incomplete — I haven’t seen, for example, anything directed by Francis Ford Coppola or Martin Scorcese or Jim Jarmusch or Clint Eastwood or Akira Kurosawa or Federico Fellini or Harold Ramis or Michael Bay. I don’t particularly intend to rectify those omissions, either: out of all the major art forms, cinema is the one that interests me the least. Like all those guys who think of themselves as music nerds but never listen to jazz or classical or country or hip-hop or electronic or teen-pop, I have a fairly specific taste in film and not much interest in branching out; but unlike some of them, I don’t pretend that my vision of cinema is the only coherent or worthwhile one available.

It is, nevertheless, mine; and for whatever it’s worth, here it will continue to be. See you next week. Sorry about the wait; I’ll try to get the room reserved in advance next time.

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