It's a new year and a new crop of old movies on TCM! As always, they have a great selection of well-known and obscure films, and we've split them into three categories: films in the Flickchart Global Top 1000 (see the bottom of the post), great films that don't make that cutoff, and hidden gems that fly under the radar but deserve more of an audience.
These films all fall outside the Top 1000, but are definitely must-sees, attested to by a decent number of Flickchart users (over 200).
1954 - directed by Edward Dmytryk - starring Humphrey Bogart, Fred MacMurray, Van Johnson - ranked #1046 by 607 users
Humphrey Bogart’s career is full of fine, somewhat unbalanced performances, and this is one of his finest and his most unbalanced. As Captain Queeg of the U.S.S. Caine, he runs the ship with an eye toward absolute discipline, but some of his orders border on the ridiculous, even the dangerous. Some of his men begin to think he suffers from paranoia and when incidents pile up, like the full-scale investigation Queeg launches into the theft of some strawberries, his officers begin to consider relieving him of command. Despite being in some ways a naval action film, this is also a solid psychological drama, with all of the major players having layers of motives for the actions they take, and it’s not only Queeg who many not be on the up and up. The film is based on the Pulitzer Prize winning novel by Herman Wouk, but the Navy would like to make it very clear (and did in the film’s opening title sequence) that the story is fictitious and there has never been a mutiny on a U.S. Navy vessel. In double-checking to see if that was still true, I found the story of the USS Vance, whose captain in 1965 behaved very much like Captain Queeg and was removed from duty — but not via mutiny. Still, life imitates art, eh?
1992 - directed by Penny Marshall - starring Geena Davis, Tom Hanks, Madonna - ranked #1192 by 20054 users
I didn’t initially have this on the list, even though I love it a lot, just because it is so new and readily available through other means. But then Penny Marshall died in December, and suddenly it feels imperative to make sure everyone has seen this film. In a way it’s kind of a sad commentary on film journalism that we’re more likely to promote people’s films when they die, but it does provide a catalyst for a lot of people to focus on the same person simultaneously for a while. Marshall’s most well-known film is probably Big, but to me this is the one that deserves the most accolades. It's a fictionalized look at a nearly-forgotten bit of sports history when women started playing baseball because all the men were fighting in WWII and SOMEONE had to carry on with America’s pastime. Alternately melodramatic and comedic, the film balances both and ends with one of those nostalgic montages that never fails to make me cry even though I know how manipulative it is. “There’s no crying in baseball,” but there is, Tom Hanks. There is.
1960 - directed by George Pal - starring Rod Taylor, Alan Young, Yvette Mimieux - ranked #1329 by 1374 users
H.G. Wells’ classic science fiction story follows a Victorian who invents a time machine and primarily goes to the far future to see mankind split into two species: the monstrous Morlocks who live underground, and the simple Eloi, who fear the Morlocks. It’s unsurprising that Wells, who wrote as many or more social problem novels as he did science fiction, would be interested in questions of far future society and how it reflects issues he saw in the contemporary world (of course, that’s what all real sci-fi does, right?). Though this majority section of the film is well-realized for the technical limitations of the time, I’m always most fascinated by the time traveler’s first few stops, where he hits WWI and WWII, both things that Wells could not have foreseen exactly when he wrote the story in 1895 but add a lot of from the perspective of 1960.
1966 - directed by Jean-Luc Godard - starring Jean-Pierre Leaud, Chantal Goya - ranked #1475 by 353 users
This week’s TCM Imports gives us a double feature from the later part of Jean-Luc Godard’s pre-1968 career, pairing Masculin Féminin with 2 or 3 Things I Know About Her. In this section of his career, Godard is beginning to get more political in his filmmaking, though Masculin Féminin also fits in with his Parisian-intellectual 1960s work. It follows Jean-Pierre Léaud, a frequent actor for both Godard and his Nouvelle Vague contemporary François Truffaut, through his pursuit of a young pop star (Chantal Goya) in a cinéma vérité style. There are lots of very Godardian asides here; my favorite one has them in a cinema, lamenting that this wasn’t the film they wanted to see, or more likely, the film they wanted to live. The definitive working biography of Godard is titled Everything is Cinema, and this scene perhaps more than any other cements for me Godard’s smashing through the boundaries between cinema and life. His characters want to live cinematically. TCM rarely plays Godard, so take this opportunity to catch a couple of his late ‘60s masterpieces.
1936 - directed by Jack Conway - starring Spencer Tracy, Jean Harlow, William Powell, Myrna Loy - ranked #1724 by 217 users
Deep breath: Tracy’s newspaper printed that heiress Loy is a homewrecker, and she’s suing them for libel, so Tracy decides to send his star reporter Powell in to seduce her, and have Tracy’s own girlfriend Harlow pose as Powell’s wife so that Loy really WILL have been a homewrecker and her libel suit will fail. Got that? Of course the twist is that Powell and Loy really do fall in love, and then what to do with Harlow and the newspaper? This is a zany screwball comedy, the kind of humor that took over romantic comedy in the mid-1930s once they could no longer indulge in Pre-Code style raunch, and it’s one of the very best examples of it. It’s complicated, sure, but all the relationships are spot on, it’s full of great dialogue, and all the cast has ridiculous chemistry. Obviously Powell and Loy are one of the longest-running screen couple in history with twelve films together (this one is in the middle of their partnership), but it was Powell and Harlow who were the off-screen couple. They were engaged to be married at the time of her death a year after this film’s release.
1940 - directed by William Wyler - starring Bette Davis, Herbert Marshall - ranked #2229 by 251 users
In one of the greatest openings in film history, the camera pans across a sleepy tropical plantation in the late evening, finally landing on a porch where a shot rings out, a man stumbles down the steps, and a woman walks out and shoots him coldly several more times. The woman is Bette Davis, and she will claim he tried to rape her and she defended her honor. The rest of the film may not QUITE be able to live up to this, as it’s a lot talkier, but the twists and turns as we find out what led up to this killing are very compelling, and this film makes its case as a proto-noir quite well. Also playing this month, on Jan 10 at 4pm, is another of Davis’ signature roles in which she plays a terminally ill woman finding love for the first time in Now, Voyager. I think The Letter has aged a bit better, but confirmed Davis fans should definitely not miss Now, Voyager.
1945 - directed by George Sidney - starring Gene Kelly, Frank Sinatra, Kathryn Grayson - ranked #2254 by 520 users
Songstress Kathryn Grayson is star of the month this month, so if you want to see a whole slew of MGM musicals, many of them lesser-known but still a lot of fun if you like that sort of thing, tune in Tuesdays in primetime throughout January. Your best bet if you’re not into colorful but obscure musicals, is this first Gene Kelly-Frank Sinatra film, which was a huge hit in 1945, to the tune of Best Picture and Best Actor Oscar nominations. The boys play sailors on leave (roles they’d reprise in 1949’s On the Town), who meet aspiring singer Grayson and pretend to be able to get her an audition, since they’re both falling in love with her. All that’s fairly standard, but what’s not standard are the dance numbers, as this is really Gene Kelly’s breakthrough in terms of show stopping choreography — most notably in the scene where he dances with an animated Jerry the Mouse, an early foray into mixing live action and animation. The number still stuns today.
1957 - directed by John Sturges - starring Burt Lancaster, Kirk Douglas - ranked #2669 by 332 users
The legendary relationship between Wyatt Earp and Doc Holliday gets one of its best on-screen treatments here (Tombstone notwithstanding). Though the film plays a bit loose with its source material, the story is such great fodder for the screen, with Earp and Holliday initially antagonistic, then working together, and finally finding themselves on opposite sides of the climactic gunfight, even though Holliday is very sick. John Sturges is a bit of an unsung director, but he’s great with this kind of material — the relationships of men in the old West — and this one does not disappoint.
1940 - directed by Rouben Mamoulian - starring Tyrone Power, Linda Darnell, Basil Rathbone - ranked #2303 by 297 users
The Mexican folk hero Zorro has been brought to the screen many times, from Douglas Fairbanks in the silent era to Antonio Banderas in modern times, and this iteration with Tyrone Power threatens to get a bit lost in the shuffle. It’s definitely worth your while on its own merits, and is one of Power’s best adventure roles.
1937 - directed by William A. Wellman - starring Fredric March, Janet Gaynor - ranked #2647 by 209 users
With the new Star is Born getting a surprisingly good reception from critics and audiences alike, it’s a great time to look back at some of the other great versions of this long-standing favorite story. This is the first film with this name, with Janet Gaynor (a classic silent star who made the transition to sound with little trouble, though this is one of her last films) as the aspiring actress and Fredric March as the nearly washed-up actor she falls in love with. Just before this at 8pm, TCM is also playing the 1932 film What Price Hollywood? which is the same basic story, so check that out for yet another comparison point.
These films are all lesser-known, with fewer than 200 rankers on Flickchart, but quite worth the potential risk to check out something a little more obscure.
1933 - directed by Alfred E. Green - starring Barbara Stanwyck, George Brent - ranked #2830 by 195 users
If there’s a definitive Pre-Code film, this one has a solid shot at claiming the title. Barbara Stanwyck is mistreated by men (including her father), and vows she’ll get her own back and goes to city, proceeding to literally steep her way to the top of a company. And when I say literally, there’s a shot of the office building with lights moving up it indicating her trysts with ever-more-senior executives. Stanwyck is a gold digger extraordinaire, but you always sympathize with her. Also look for a very young John Wayne as an office aide.
1934 - directed by Howard Hawks - starring John Barrymore, Carole Lombard - ranked #3161 by 167 users
Two films made in 1934 can make a case for starting the screwball comedy craze - the one most typically credited is Frank Capra’s It Happened One Night, but this one by Howard Hawks is a dark horse contender for the title. It’s definitely got the zany factor, and the battle of the sexes. Barrymore is a theatrical producer who discovers Lombard and makes her a big star. But he’s super controlling and possessive, so she breaks it off both personally and professionally, sending him into a series of failures. The climax is an extended trip on the titular train as he tries to convince her to come back. It gets a bit shrill, but cements Lombard’s ability as a comedienne. If you enjoy Lombard playing comedy, check out Nothing Sacred, playing Jan 6 at 12:15pm.
1928 - directed by King Vidor - starring Marion Davies, William Haines - ranked #3763 by 108 users
Some of the greatest films ever made are about moviemaking itself, and now that this one is emerging from lack of availability, it should be added to the canon of all-time great movies about the movies. Davies is sometimes erroneously remembered as just the mistress of William Randolph Hearst; he micro-managed her career and tended to only let her be in serious dramas, despite her flair for comedy. This was an exception, and not only is it a comedy, but it satirizes the very dramas that he preferred her to appear in. It also sends up the slapstick comedies that were so popular in the silent era. Davies proves herself a great comedienne, and for more of her check out The Patsy on Jan 3 at 6:00am.
1945 - directed by Vincente Minnelli - starring Judy Garland, Robert Walker - ranked #4612 by 83 users
Judy Garland is of course known for her tremendous singing voice and musical talent, but one of my favorite films of hers is this rare straight drama, directed by her then-husband Vincente Minnelli. It’s a very low-key and sweet wartime drama of a girl and soldier meeting and falling in love while he’s on leave for 24 hours, and their quest to get married before he ships back out. There’s really not too much to the story, but the difficulties they get into and the warmth of their relationship carry the film and make it a surprisingly rewarding experience, especially for such an underseen film. And if you really want some singing Judy, there’s always Girl Crazy, playing Jan 7 at 2:30pm.
1964 - directed by William Castle - starring Joan Crawford - ranked #7287 by 101 users
Director William Castle was known for making campy horror/thriller films with a gimmick, like selling life insurance policies before Macabre in case an audience member died of fright, stopping the film so the audience could find the Tingler, which “got loose” (aided by seat-buzzers installed in the theatre), or having a skeleton float above the audience at a climactic moment in The House on Haunted Hill. This a rare exception that doesn’t have an over-the-top gimmick, but it does have an unhinged Joan Crawford wielding an ax, so I mean, that’s really all you need. Castle also took a lot of inspiration from Hitchcock films, and you can see shades of Psycho in several of them, including this one, but with the camp ratcheted up to eleven.
1950 - directed by Anthony Mann - starring Farley Granger, Cathy O’Donnell - ranked #7296 by 71 users
Before Anthony Mann directed one of the finest cycles of Westerns, he did several noirs that aren’t particularly well-known but offer some solid viewing for noir fans. In this one, Granger is struggling to find work to support his pregnant wife (O’Donnell), so he decides to steal a small amount of money. But instead he ends up with $30,000 from a corrupt lawyer, which spooks him. He’s soon embroiled in the lawyer’s corrupt scheme, several murders, and even trying to return the money doesn’t do him any good. This one flies under the radar, but Granger plays the young desperate husband quite well, and I found myself more emotionally involved in this than I often do in noir.
1950 - directed by Michael Curtiz - starring John Garfield, Patricia Neal - ranked #7554 by 41 users
Everyone knows To Have and Have Not, the film where Bogart met Bacall and about which Howard Hawks famously boasted that he could make a good film from Earnest Hemingway’s worst book. Not nearly as many people know this film, which is an actual faithful adaptation of Hemingway’s novel and has perhaps fewer electric sparks between its leads but does double down on bleak atmosphere. John Garfield tries to augment his meager income as a fishing boat pilot by ferrying illegal immigrants into California. As you might expect, everything goes wrong. This one really taps into the postwar desperation that’s such a huge thematic element of noir, thanks in no small part to Garfield’s talents in his penultimate film.
1929 - directed by Cecil B. DeMille - starring Lina Basquette, Tom Keane, Marie Prevost - ranked #10548 by 39 users
If you want to watch one of the wackiest films of the silent era, don’t miss this DeMille romp about a mismatched romance - a boy who leads his college’s Christian youth organization, and a girl who leads the Atheist club. The two groups literally come to blows, sending both of them to reform school as punishment. She finds Jesus when the two escape from prison for a while, but then they’re recaptured just in time for the prison to break out in a massive fire. It’s way over the top, ridiculous, and kind of awesome. I have a special love for films that take sharp left turns and just expect you to accept whatever direction they’re going in now, and this one has that quality in spades.
1952 - directed by Mervyn LeRoy - starring Kathryn Grayson, Howard Keel, Red Skelton - ranked #17522 by 9 users
Fewer then ten users on this one! I saw it when I was a kid, but then I was a weird kid who watched any classic era musical I could get my hands on. I won’t swear up and down that this is a great unsung masterpiece, because it’s not, but if you do like musicals, this one is fun. It’s a remake of the Fred Astaire-Ginger Rogers movie Roberta, where Fred and Ginger actually play the second leads. Here their parts are taken by the married dancing team Marge & Gower Champion, while Kathryn Grayson and Howard Keel take the lead parts. The music by Jerome Kern translates just as well, and in fact, Kathryn Grayson’s take on “Smoke Gets in Your Eyes” is still the bar for me on that song. Added for this version is Red Skelton, who brings his signature humor and I think some of the best bits in the film belong to him, quite honestly.
starring Stan Laurel and Oliver Hardy
A whole marathon of Laurel and Hardy shorts and features dominate primetime and overnight, from the classic Music Box (trying to get a piano up a very steep run of steps; you can still go up the “music box steps” in the Los Angeles neighborhood of Silver Lake) to the guys heading Way Out West and to the Sahara in Sons of the Desert. Among several others. Stan and Ollie were one of the greatest comedy teams of all time, spanning both the silent and sound eras (all the ones playing are sound) and not giving up their crown until Abbott & Costello took over in the 1940s. This is a great time to get familiar with their work if you’re not already.
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.