1955 - directed by Anthony Mann - starring James Stewart, Arthur Kennedy, Donald Crisp, Cathy O’Donnell - ranked #1787 by 319 users
The Anthony Mann-James Stewart cycle of westerns in the 1950s is second in renown only to the Ford-Wayne cycle of westerns, and truth be told, perhaps it should be first, as it gives us a series of complicated heroes in often murky situations, thematically pointing the way toward the coming revisionism of westerns in the 1960s and beyond. Usually Winchester ’73 is the first one people think of if they think of them at all, but I have a particularly high view of The Man From Laramie, which see Stewart coming into a town quietly trying to find out who’s been selling rifles to the Apache, and soon gets crossways of the town’s cattle baron and his troublesome son. What I like so much about it is how unwilling Stewart is to get involved (he’s not a white-hat-on-his-sleeve kind of moral hero), and his doggedness against the bad guys feels almost casual. I’m a fan of heroes who end up doing the right thing but aren’t super moralistic about it, and that’s what Stewart creates here.
1946 - directed by Michael Powell & Emeric Pressburger - starring Wendy Hiller, Roger Livesey - ranked #1420 by 375 users
When you think of Powell & Pressburger, you probably think of their Technicolor extravaganza The Red Shoes or their (also Technicolor) psychosexual drama Black Narcissus. Or maybe even their wartime romances. Most people don’t necessarily think of this storm-tossed B&W romance set on the Scottish Hebrides where headstrong Wendy Hiller is headed to meet the man she’s going to marry, a rich industrialist. Waylaid by a storm, she ends up on a nearby island with fellow traveler Roger Livesey. She knows where she’s going all right, and it isn’t with Roger Livesey. OR IS IT. Okay, she doesn’t know where she’s going, but you do. Despite that slight element of predictability, this is a charming and underseen gem of a film, showcasing Powell & Pressburger at their most intimate.
1945 - directed by Edgar G. Ulmer - starring Tom Neal, Ann Savage - ranked #1136 by 613 users
If the essence of noir is desperate men caught in an inescapable situation by cruel and unforgiving women, marked stylistically by defeatist voiceovers and high-contrast lighting, then Detour is perhaps the quintessential noir. A nearly no-budget film made on Poverty Row by Edgar G. Ulmer (a Weimar filmmaker who, like Fritz Lang, Billy Wilder, Robert Siodmak, and others, escaped from Nazi Germany to make films in the US), Detour tells the story of a loser who never has — or never takes — a chance to improve his life, but ends up caught in the web of a truly nasty piece of femme fatale work. It’s presumably a coincidence that the actress’s last name is “Savage,” but in the deterministic world of noir, is it? Some argue that she isn’t really a femme fatale, as she doesn’t seduce him so much as simply trap him. Noir is not simply a matter of following a formula, but for the gritty, hard-hitting, take-no-prisoners kind, there are few that match Detour.
1954 - directed by George Cukor - starring Judy Garland, James Mason - ranked #1032 by 716 users
I feel relatively sure this was in the Top 1000 last time it showed up on TCM, because I remember feeling disappointed that I wouldn’t get to write about it. Well, it must have fallen on the global chart, and now I get to feature it in this post, but it should never have happened because the movie is great. Judy Garland’s triumphant return to the screen after four years recovering and doing concerts is simply tremendous, even though it depends on the twenty-year show business veteran playing the part of a newcomer. The “Born in a Trunk” number is almost autobiographical. The story isn’t new (in fact, you can watch the 1937 version of A Star is Born on April 27 at 11:30am, and I recommend you do), but it is somewhat timeless; after all, a very successful remake came just last year. I maintain that this 1954 one is the best version, thanks to show stopping numbers like “The Man Who Got Away,” which elevate the film far above the story of relationship between a wannabe and a has-been. Judy Garland had many ups and downs throughout her career, but this is definitely one of the ups.
1949 - directed by Stanley Donen & Gene Kelly - starring Gene Kelly, Frank Sinatra, Vera-Ellen, Betty Garrett, Jules Munshin, Ann Miller - ranked #1400 by 578 users
This one always catches me when I’m putting these posts together. I’m pretty good at guessing which films will go in which section, based on global ranking and # of users, but I routinely guess that this fabulous precursor to Singin’ in the Rain is ranked higher than it is. The demographics of Flickchart users aren’t particularly kind to musicals. This is one of the first major studio musicals to be shot on location — the controlled environment of a soundstage was usually preferred, but New York City is such a crucial part of On the Town that it just had to be shot in the city. The story, which admittedly gets a little silly, follows three sailors on leave in NYC for one day. One of them (Frank Sinatra) wants to see all the sights, one (Jules Munshin) wants to get all the girls, and one (Gene Kelly) wants to find that special girl. It’s a lot to accomplish in one day, but determination and chutzpah are on their side. The movie is filled with ecstatic tap dancing, adorable meet-cutes, and irrepressible joy.
25 Years of TCM - April 29, 8:00pm
Throughout out the years, TCM has done many interviews with people from the classic film world. Some of them were filmed at TCM’s studios, others recorded live during the TCM Classic Film Festival. All evening and overnight on April 29, the channel is rerunning some of the best interviews they’ve done, including Liza Minnelli, Sophia Loren, Norman Lloyd, and a special tribute to Robert Osborne. If you love TCM (and come on, you’re reading this post), this is a great chance to catch up with some of their best original programming.
1936 - directed by W.S. Van Dyke - starring William Powell, Myrna Loy, James Stewart, Elissa Landi - ranked #1258 by 486 usersThe Thin Man, the first in the long-running detective series, is playing on April 17, but this second in the series doesn’t really depend on having seen it, and it’s a damn good movie in its own right. Nick and Nora Charles return to her home, an upper-class milieu where Nick feels decidedly out of place, but lo and behold, there’s a mystery to be solved, and that’s definitely his place. Besides a good story, a crackling script, and the continually delightful characters of the Charleses, this one also gets a boost from a very young James Stewart in a supporting role.
1993 - directed by Woody Allen - starring Woody Allen, Diane Keaton, Anjelica Huston, Alan Alda - ranked #1443 by 1618 users
This movie is not to be confused with Manhattan, the 1979 film written and directed by Woody Allen and also starring Allen and Keaton. Manhattan Murder Mystery is much more of a romp, more in line with the pre-Annie Hall “funny Woody” than the more earnest movies he made later, with married couple Allen and Keaton suspecting their new next-door neighbor has murdered his wife. It's a Rear Window scenario, but really zany. This was the last film Allen and Keaton made together; in fact, Allen had written the part for his then-wife Mia Farrow, but by the time production started, they were embroiled in a nasty custody battle that you surely know about, and that would’ve made for an uncomfortable set. I fully understand having trouble watching Allen films these days, but if it doesn’t bother you, this is a pretty fun and inconsequential time.
1943 - directed by Carl Theodor Dreyer - starring Kirsten Andreasen, Sigurd Berg - ranked #1145 by 215 users
Carl Theodor Dreyer didn’t ONLY make movies about religious folk, but between this and The Passion of Joan of Arc, it seems clear that it was a subject that interested him quite a bit and that he was very skilled at bringing to the screen. In this case, the main character Anne is married to a much older pastor, having married him after his intervention saved her mother, an accused witch, from the stake. The pastor has a son from a previous marriage who just happened to be of an age with Anne, and you can bet where that heads, but there’s also the pesky little thing where witchcraft was thought to be genetic, so let’s just say Anne has a few things in her life she should be worried about. The film is quite austere, but also perfectly constructed and filmed by Dreyer, with images that will stick in your head long after the film is over.
1939 - directed by William Wyler - starring Merle Oberon, Laurence Olivier, David Niven - ranked #1538 by 572 users
1939 is widely considered one of the if not THE finest year in all of cinema history, with a high number of masterpieces coming out that year. The one that won most of the awards was Gone with the Wind, but you also had contenders like Mr. Smith Goes to Washington, The Wizard of Oz, Stagecoach, and many more. Wuthering Heights, based on the windswept novel by Emily Bronte, had many Oscar nominations but only won B&W Cinematography. However, it received the top accolades from the New York Film Critics Circle; in urban legend, the New York critics couldn’t decide between Gone with the Wind and Mr. Smith Goes to Washington, so they chose Wuthering Heights. That may sound inauspicious for the film at hand, but it is a very classic and solid story, and it’s well-told here with a lot of atmosphere (thanks, Gregg Toland!) You could do worse choosing a best film from 1939.
Ready to dig a little deeper? This section is for you. None of these films have been ranked by more than 200 people on Flickchart, and this month we have a particular lot of them that haven’t even been ranked by 20 people! Obscurities indeed, but I can personally vouch for nearly all of them.
1933 - directed by Rouben Mamoulian - starring Greta Garbo, John Gilbert - ranked #3662 by 174 users
Greta Garbo is TCM’s Star of the Month in April, and they’re front-loading her films every primetime for the first several days in April. It’s a great time to binge-watch the work of this remarkable star whose iconic status arguably eclipses her films themselves. Her own innate qualities quite often transcend pedestrian projects, but they’re worth watching anyway for glimpses of that transcendence. Queen Christina is a great place to start. It's based on the life of a 17th-century queen of Sweden, who became queen as a child and was expected to marry well to solidify her power and produce an heir. The Spanish envoy she falls in love with doesn’t quite fit the bill. This is the last of several films Garbo made with John Gilbert, and the only sound one; there’s a myth that Gilbert’s star declined in the sound era because he had a poor speaking voice, but you can see here, that is not really the case. The movie is solid, and has one of the greatest closing shots of all time, a close hold on Garbo’s inscrutable face that contains everything you need to understand her iconic status.
1953 - directed by Don Weis - starring Donald O’Connor, Debbie Reynolds - ranked #16121 by 13 users
Just so you know what you’re getting into here, there’s a musical number in this movie where Debbie Reynolds plays a football. On the scale of MGM musicals, this one is decidedly on the silly/slight side, but maybe because it’s so unabashedly silly/slight, it’s pretty undeniably delightful. Reynolds is an aspiring actress from a solid middle-class family, and Donald O’Connor is a photographer’s assistant from a fashion magazine who might promise her a LITTLE more than he can guarantee in terms of coverage in the magazine. It’s all very cute. Debbie Reynolds movies are playing most of the day, so if you need even more adorableness in your day, you’re all set.
1938 - directed by William Clemens - starring Bonita Granville, John Litel - ranked #14196 by 17 users
There’s actually a new Nancy Drew movie coming out very soon, though it hasn’t been getting a lot of press. If you grew up with these books like I did, it’s kind of surprising in a way that the character has never been mined to any great degree in other mediums. There is, however, an almost completely forgotten trilogy of Nancy Drew movies from the 1930s, very close to when the books were originally written. They’re all good, very family-friendly fun. They’re pretty even in terms of quality and don’t depend on each other at all, so this is as good a place to start with them as any.
1932 - directed by Victor Fleming - starring Clark Gable, Jean Harlow, Mary Astor - ranked #5687 by 95 users
There are many great and quintessential Pre-Codes, but this one has a special place in my heart, and I do think it’s an excellent example of the Pre-Code sensibility: sensual, sweaty, and languorous due to its setting on a rubber plantation in the tropics. Plenty of opportunity for plantation foreman Clark Gable to be in his undershirt and seduce the wife of an engineer while also carrying on with the unabashed hooker played by Jean Harlow. This was early in Harlow’s short career, and maybe one of the first films where she was actually cast perfectly, and she lights up the screen. John Ford would remake the film 20 years later as Mogambo with Gable in the same part, and that version is solid, too, but this one has that special Pre-Code charm. There are several other Pre-Codes playing today as well, plus take note of Red-Headed Woman, another great Harlow film, playing April 28 at 9:30pm.
Saturday morning programming
Whenever TCM is doing interesting and fun programming things, I like to call attention to it, even if there aren’t any specific films I want to highlight. The periodic Disney Vault nights are one of these, and I’ve noticed in the past couple of months that they’ve been doing very conscious “Saturday morning programming”, with a couple of B-movies, often westerns, plus a segment of a serial, interspersed with cartoons and shorts (a lot of Popeye ones this month). This may not be quite what us ‘80s kids have in mind when we think of Saturday morning programming, but it IS what would likely have played at a Saturday morning matinee at the movies in the '30s and '40s. I couldn’t tell you a lick about most of the individual features playing during these blocks, but the concept itself is enough to hook me.
1940 - directed by Wesley Ruggles - starring Jean Arthur, Fred MacMurray, Melvyn Douglas - ranked #13400 by 18 users
A few months ago I featured a film called My Favorite Wife about a woman who’s shipwrecked and then returns after seven years just as her husband is marrying someone else. This is basically the same idea, except gender-swapped. Here, the man has disappeared for several years and the woman is about to get remarried when he returns. The crazy thing is both these films came out the same year! My Favorite Wife has remained the better known film by a lot, likely because Cary Grant has maintained a stronger star presence than either Fred MacMurray or Melvyn Douglas, but I have to say that having Jean Arthur, a bright comedienne who should be much better known than she is, is a major bonus for this film. Nothing against Irene Dunne, the star of My Favorite Wife, as she is also great, but Arthur is always a delight. What I’m saying is, if 1940 can make two films with the same story, we in 2019 can watch and enjoy them both — in fact you can do so this month, as My Favorite Wife is playing again on April 4 at 7:30pm.
1933 - directed by Clarence Brown - starring John Barrymore, Clark Gable, Lionel Barrymore - ranked #14931 by 13 users
This was such an obscurity when it played at TCM Fest several years ago that even Robert Osborne (may he rest in peace) hadn’t seen it when he introduced it, and he qualified the screening with a lot of phrases to the effect of “even if it’s not good, it’ll be interesting to watch all these great cast members in the same film.” Well, guess what? The film is actually pretty great! The premise is a fleet of mail planes that doesn’t fly at night because it’s too dangerous, but in order to get an edge and try to deliver the mail more quickly, they’re starting to try night flights. We’re so used to planes flying all the time that it takes a bit to realize how dangerous this really was back in the 1930s, but the film does a great job of conveying the danger on many levels thanks to this varied and wonderful ensemble cast. It’s said John Barrymore hated working with his brother Lionel, because he knew Lionel would steal every scene he was in. John was not wrong about that.
1926 - directed by King Vidor - starring Lillian Gish, John Gilbert - ranked #10765 by 38 users
It initially seems strange to base a silent film on an opera by Puccini, but of course the broad emotional strokes inherent in many operatic stories play well on the silent screen. This one tells a story of starving artists and those in their sphere struggling to pay rent, write plays, and survive. The story is also the basis for the musical RENT, which is likely a more familiar reference to most folks these days. In any case, you can’t go wrong with a film starring Lillian Gish (she plays Mimi, whose character’s name didn’t change between this story and RENT), and if you are unconvinced by John Gilbert in the talkie Queen Christina (see above), maybe his silent work here will be more pleasing.
1953 - directed by Ida Lupino - starring Edmond O’Brien, Frank Lovejoy - ranked #4238 by 156 users
The only female director working in Hollywood in the 1950s was Ida Lupino, and her major genre of choice was one that’s typically very male-driven, film noir. And though some of her films are more explicitly about women’s concerns (as in the rape aftermath of Outrage or the self-explanatory story in The Bigamist), this one plays it pretty straight, with a pair of guys picking up a hitch-hiker and only later finding out that a dangerous criminal has recently escaped from a nearby prison. Yeah, those things are related. This film gets very nasty very quickly, and remains one of the grittiest and scariest noirs I’ve seen, a testament to Lupino’s uncompromising direction.
1936 - directed by Marc Connelly & William Keighley - starring Rex Ingram, Oscar Polk, Eddie “Rochester” Anderson - ranked #13014 by 18 users
For the most part, African-American actors the studio era were reduced to playing servants or popping in for a featured musical number and then popping right back off again. In fact, there are only about six feature films made in the Hollywood studio system to feature an all-black cast, and this is one of them, featuring Biblical stories reimagined in the world of African-American folklore. Despite its claim to fame for representation, this does sound like a minefield of potential racial stereotypes, and it certainly hasn’t escaped criticism on that front. At this point in history, it’s probably more of a curiosity than anything else, but I admit, my curiosity is piqued.
Jandy is especially drawn to classic, off-beat, and foreign film, but loves a good blockbuster action sequence, too. You can find her on Flickchart as faithx5. She also writes at The Frame, and co-hosts the occasional podcast Not at Odds at Row Three.