Classic movie fans from all over the world have descended on Hollywood once again, as the ninth annual TCM Classic Film Festival gets underway for a long weekend of classic films, special guests, and unique events. If you're a fan of classic film, there's no better place to be right now than seeing dozens of beloved favorites on the big screen (some at the greatest movie palaces of all time, the iconic Chinese and Egyptian Theatres) or discovering new favorites, some of which may not have been seen since their original releases.
But if you can't be in Hollywood right now, the next best thing is to check out some of these great films at home, and that's thankfully easy to do thanks to on-demand streaming - since these are all older films, most of them are available via digital rental, and many are even on streaming services you may already subscribe to. Last year's number of films available on subscription services was down to eight, but we're back up to a record twelve this year, in no small part due to TCM's greater exposure on Filmstruck, which still focuses a lot on foreign and arthouse films, but in recent months has added a bunch of classic Hollywood films. Films on streaming subscription services do rotate with some frequency, so note that all these films were available as of this post's publication in April 2018, but may not be in the future.
Of course, despite fairly easy access to many of the festival's films at home, you're still missing out on some stuff by not being there - the camaraderie, for one thing. I hold that films are always better seen in a theatre with a good audience, and there are no better audiences than TCM Fest audiences. Many people have been going for many years and have built up friendships, and even if you haven't, everyone at TCM Fest has a big thing in common in the love of classic film, and it's very easy even for shy folk like me to strike up conversations in line. I've never met anyone at the festival who wasn't happy to chat about their favorite films and stars. You'll also miss special events like, this year, a panel about women in cinema from its inception to modern day, a program of Mickey Mouse shorts and one of Pink Panther cartoons, plus a handprint ceremony for Cicely Tyson outside the Chinese Theatre and countless interviews and appearances from filmmakers, actors, and film experts.
And, as I'll detail in the last section below, you'll miss out on several more obscure films that aren't available digitally OR on DVD. So there are still reasons to save your shekels for next year's TCM Fest. But you can still live vicariously by following #TCMFF on Twitter and streaming some of the fest's programming yourself.
One of the most iconic screwball comedies, noted for its witty and amazingly fast dialogue. At the time, it was common for lines to be spoken clearly and separately to make sure the audience didn't miss anything - this was still relatively early in the sound era. Director Howard Hawks decided to have Cary Grant and Rosalind Russell rapid-fire their dialogue, interrupting each other and speaking over each other the way a battling couple would. And how they battle! Grant is a newspaper editor and Russell is his former star reporter, who also happens to be his former wife and now turns up sporting a new fiance (Ralph Bellamy). But can editor and reporter quit each other, either professionally or personally? I'll give you one guess. Especially when the other guy is Ralph Bellamy (he played a lot of third wheels, poor guy). You can catch up with this one on either Amazon Prime or FilmStruck. Ranked #105 by 2884 users.
I often think that Shakespeare adapted to other times and places makes for the best Shakespeare, and this film, transposing Macbeth to medieval Japan, is one of the prime examples. With Kurosawa directing Toshiro Mifune as a samurai pushed by his conniving wife into usurping his lord, this may in fact be the definitive screen version of Macbeth, despite some creative license on Kurosawa's to blend Shakespeare's tragic tale with elements of classic Noh drama. You can check it out for yourself on FilmStruck, with the Criterion channel. Ranked #111 by 1470 users.
This is one of the two midnight films screening at the festival, and one I'm sure most of the audience for it will have seen - but who can say no to watching George Romero's zombie classic once again? Not only did Romero establish the modern zombie tropes that have stuck with us at least until the innovation of "fast zombies", but he also tapped into the late 1960s zeitgeist by casting a black man as the only one capable of defense against a horde of mindless, flesh-eating white zombies. That ain't by accident, folks, and yet fifty years later we're still dealing with the trope of the expendable black friend in horror films. It's a great film and a great midnight film, so play along by watching it on either Amazon Prime or FilmStruck+Criterion. Ranked #330 by 13416 users.
Most Broadway shows are actually not successful, a fact which helps explain why a lot of current ones are adapted from popular movies or revivals of extremely popular plays. But what if there were actually a financial reason to WANT a failure? That's the premise of The Producers, wherein struggling producer Max Bialystock accountant flippantly suggests that a flop might actually make him more money, as he could take all the angel funding, close the show, and write the whole thing off. Bialystock seizes on the idea and produces a sure-fire failure: a musical called "Springtime for Hitler." But is it a sure-fire flop? The film later became a very popular musical on Broadway itself, but you can't beat Mel Brooks' original, and you can watch it yourself on FilmStruck. Ranked #425 by 3747 users.
You won't be able to completely recreate this screening at home, since it will be accompanied by the Mont Alto Orchestra, one of the best and most unusual silent film orchestras around - their scores are usually more modern than many, and yet very appropriate and evocative. That said, this is still a great film and despite being a silent film about opera singers, remains the definitive movie version of this oft-filmed story. Lon Chaney was the master of silent screen monsters, developing his own makeup for each one, and this one really amps up the gothic horror of the tale - Chaney's Phantom is hideous, not just a dashing guy with a scar and a sexy half-mask. (Nothing against Webber's musical, I love that too.) You have to go a little farther afield to stream this one, but it is on Hulu and Fandor, as well as ad-supported services Snagfilms and TubiTV. Ranked #915 by 1206 users.
In some ways this tiny microbudget film from Poverty Row may be the definitive film noir, with one of the most desperate of main characters, one of the most fatal of femme fatales, and some of noir's most fatalistic existential paranoia. Fed up with his dead-end piano-playing job, a guy follows his girl out to Hollywood, where she's been for a while trying to make it big as a singer. Along the way he ends up hitching a ride with a guy soon to be dead, then picking up a hitchhiker who'll lead him straight to ruin. Thing is, this guy could've avoided all of this by taking some responsibility and initiative in his life, but he's the poster child for the blame game. This film is taut, gritty, nasty, and great. Watch it now on Amazon Prime. Ranked #1164 by 561 users.
Laurence Olivier is known as classic cinema's great interpreter of Shakespeare, much as Kenneth Branagh was in the 1990s. Olivier's particular style of Shakespeare can come across as a bit mannered today, but only he and Orson Welles were really even trying at this point in time, and while Welles' films are perhaps more rugged and interesting today, Olivier's have a refreshing purity. That's nowhere better expressed than in his adaptation of Hamlet, which is as moody as its titular prince - applying noir lighting to Shakespeare doesn't sound like a given, but it works wonderfully for rotten Denmark. Check it out yourself on FilmStruck+Criterion. Ranked #1314 by 886 users.
From Shakespeare to giant radioactive ants - that's TCMFest for you. Of course, this is probably the GREATEST giant radioactive ant movie, and I'm not just being silly with that criterion - this movie is actually great. Most of 1950s sci-fi is actually about nuclear paranoia, with varying degrees of obviousness. This one is pretty obvious, but it's a tight little tale that doesn't waste any time and both stays on-message and keeps the action coming. It's thoughtful and exciting at the same time, not necessarily an easy feat when you're talking about giant ants. You can catch this one on FilmStruck. Ranked #1799 by 809 users.
Katharine Hepburn and Spencer Tracy starred together in nine films, as well as one of the most famous off-screen relationships in Hollywood history - and this film is where it all started. The film itself is a breezy comedy scripted by Garson Kanin, about rival reporters who end up falling in love. The pairing of the two was immediately popular, in an opposites attract kind of way, Hepburn's patrician demeanor knocked down a peg by Tracy's unassuming everyman persona. Of course, the pair remained popular for decades, and apparently the chemistry didn't take long to spark off-screen as well. Watch the sparks fly on FilmStruck. Ranked #1961 by 372 users.
With a new version of this classic story on its way to our screens this year, what better time to catch up with one of the earliest and best takes on it? I'd personally rank the 1954 version with Judy Garland highest, but it's close, and there are plenty of people who would give this version (with Fredric March and Janet Gaynor) the nod. The story is of a fresh ingenue (Gaynor) who breaks into film and marries March, an established star on the downturn of his career. Managing a marriage between showfolks is hard enough, much less when one's star is on the rise and the other's is falling like a stone. This version is dramatic, not musical like the '54 and '76 versions (the latter stars Barbra Streisand and Kris Kristofferson), and it's also notable for its early use of three-color Technicolor. Give it a look on Fandor, or with ads on Snagfilms or TubiTV. Ranked #2923 by 185 users.
I haven't seen this one myself or know much about it, so here's the description from the TCM Fest program:
It’s rare for a first-time novelist to get the chance to adapt his or her work to the screen, but that’s exactly what happened with James Kennaway, who scored his biggest success with his 1956 novel set in the peacetime headquarters of an unnamed Scottish military regiment. He turned in an Oscar-nominated adaptation that proved a career highlight for its two stars, Alec Guinness and John Mills. Guinness plays an up-from-the-ranks officer who assumed command during wartime action. In peace, the high command wants a more patrician leader, so they replace him with Mills, who spent the war in a Japanese POW camp. Their clashing styles provide the drama, heightened by Mills’ continuing trauma after having been tortured by the enemy.
Look for this one on FilmStruck+Criterion. Ranked #4769 by 89 users.
Another one I'm less familiar with except for its status as an early blaxploitation film. TCM explains it better:
This seminal 1971 film was anything but cinema as usual. After scoring a hit directing Watermelon Man (1970), Melvin Van Peebles had been offered a three-picture deal with Columbia, but the studio wouldn’t touch his next script, about a sexually prodigious black man who goes on the lam after stopping the police from beating a political activist. As a result, Van Peebles raised the money himself, eventually writing, producing, directing, editing, starring and composing the score. He shot over 19 days so that the largely amateur cast wouldn’t have time to alter their hair or clothes too much between scenes. After writing the score, he hired the then-unknown rock band Earth, Wind & Fire to record it and wisely released the soundtrack before the film’s premiere to generate word of mouth. Although only two theaters would show the picture, it broke house records in both, eventually becoming the top-grossing independent film of its year. Hollywood took note and began investing in more films with largely African-American casts, giving rise to the Blaxploitation movement. The film’s success also made it possible for other black filmmakers like Charles Burnett, and later Spike Lee, to obtain funding.
This one is on Fandor as well. Ranked #7410 by 249 users.
A few of these are not really obscurities - they're likely unavailable right now because they're in between DVD releases or something. Kiss Me Deadly and Spellbound are not showing as available on Netflix DVD, but have definitely had major DVD releases, and can likely be found at your local library. Any of the ones ranked below 10,000 though are much more obscure and may never have had a DVD or digital release at all - your best bet for finding these is keeping close watch on the TCM schedule.
Kiss Me Deadly (1955; ranked #443 by 960 users) - The crossover of two '50s obsessions: hardboiled film noir and nuclear paranoia. Essential for noir fans.
Spellbound (1945; ranked #546 by 2128 users) - Hitchcock takes on psychoanalysis, which was very popular in the 1940s; mid-tier Hitchcock, but notable for its Salvador Dali-designed dream sequence.
Show People (1928; ranked #4094 by 101 users) - Widely considered to be Marion Davies' best film. Davies is not a household word today, and most people who have heard of her mostly know her as William Randolph Hearst's mistress, but she was a talented comedienne who deserves a renaissance of reputation.
My Brilliant Career (1979; ranked #6044 by 143 users) - This Aussie film directed by Gillian Armstrong is the only one of these block that is readily available on Netflix DVD, so it's not quite as hard to find as the others in this section, but still.
The Adventures of Tom Sawyer (1938; ranked #8968 by 43 users) - David O. Selznick was known for his meticulous approach to production of usually literary prestige pictures, and this is no different, though this one has been quite overlooked among Selznick's output during this time (he was working on Gone With the Wind at the same time).
The Story of G.I. Joe (1945; ranked #8698 by 70 users) - Main actor Audie Murphy was actually a war hero - the most decorated WWII war hero, in fat, and he came back and shared that with Hollywood in war films like this one.
Girls About Town (1931; ranked #17293 by 3 users) - Films about golddiggers were common during the Pre-Code era, with this one having the twist that the girls are not really looking to land a long-term daddy, but milk their jobs as escorts to wealthy men for all it's worth. Kay Francis is always worth watching.
When You Read This Letter (1953; ranked #19052 by 5 users) - An early Jean-Pierre Melville film that would be an influence on the French New Wave, with a bit of a noirish touch (which Melville would develop even more over the years).
Outrage (1950; ranked #19525 by 10 users) - When Ida Lupino took the directors' helm for the first time, she didn't mess around, going straight for a story about a rape survivor.
This Thing Called Love (1940; ranked #21245 by 3 users) - Rosalind Russell has a theory - divorces would be prevented if new couples refrained from sex for three months. Her new husband Melvyn Douglas isn't super excited to test it on their marriage, and spends the movie trying to seduce her. Despite being about NOT having sex, the film was banned by the Catholic Legion of Decency.
The World’s Greatest Sinner (1962; ranked #21359 by 15 users) - TCM Fest's other midnight film, this one sounds like a doozy, about a man who gains fame after changing his name to God and playing rockabilly music. Here's the TCM description because a sentence cannot do this justice.
Finishing School (1934; ranked #21386 by 7 users) - Ginger Rogers and Frances Dee at an all-girls school, in a Hollywood film co-directed by a woman who is not Dorothy Arzner or Ida Lupino (this was screenwriter Wanda Tuchock's only directorial credit)? Sign me up!
None Shall Escape (1944; ranked #23053 by 1 user) - The tagline for this film is "NAZIS! QUISLINGS! WOMEN KILLERS! FIRST COMPLETE STORY OF THE TRIAL OF THE NAZI WAR CRIMINALS!" Sold. I'm easy, what can I say?
I Take This Woman (1931; unranked by 0 users) - These last two films are so obscure I had to add them to Flickchart. This one is a romance starring Carole Lombard and Gary Cooper, both when they were VERY YOUNG.
Windjammer: The Voyage of the Christian Radich (1958; unranked by 0 users) - Cinerama, the ultra-widescreen process used in about a dozen films in the '50s and '60s, looks positively prolific compared to competitor Cinemiracle, which was used for just this one film, a documentary about a sailing voyage from Oslo to the Caribbean.
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.