Sunday, November 24, 2013

Easy to Love: Ten Classics for People Who Don't Know Classics


Last month the Siren went up to Syracuse University to speak to Lance Mannion's delightful honors seminar, which he teaches with professor, author and poet Steven Kuusisto. It’s called “Public Intellectuals and the Digital Commons” but Lance likes to call it “Blogging for Fun and Profit.” The Siren had a wonderful time with his hugely intelligent, delightful students.


However. These are not film majors. And when we started discussing what my blog is about, Lance asked the group if anyone had ever seen a Bette Davis movie.


What followed was the most terrible 30-second silence of my life.


One woman (bless her) said she'd seen and liked Mildred Pierce, and someone else cited some John Ford films. And several mentioned love for Audrey Hepburn, especially Roman Holiday.


Still, this is a situation that hurts the Siren’s evangelical little heart, where beats the conviction that almost anyone can be a classic-movie fan. It’s purely a matter of seeing the right films. As a thank-you to Lance and the students who were so welcoming and attentive, the Siren decided do a post recommending films for people who have seen little or nothing of pre-1960 American cinema. The idea being that a person could pick out one and watch it recreationally, and maybe afterward, consider watching some more.


The Siren picked ten films that are sophisticated enough to appeal to these whiz kids, modern enough in attitude to be approachable, and embodying what's best in the filmmaking of their time. Nine of them are permanent, canonical classics; one of them, in the Siren’s considered opinion, should be, and she adds that it’s barely been a couple of years since she saw it. One thing about loving old movies: There are always fresh ones to discover. (Below, in a sidebar, you can see what happened when the Siren posed this question to some fellow cinephiles.)


Nothing was picked for Film 101 reasons. This list intentionally resembles a syllabus not one itty-bitty little bit. These films were picked because they are easy to love.


All were and remain influential. All have great dialogue; to head off an occasional question, no, nobody spoke exactly like that back then or at any other point in history, and isn’t it wonderful. The Siren thinks most conversations only benefit from having Billy Wilder or Joseph Mankiewicz to write them.


Most American studio-era films are designed down to the last doily on the last sideboard. Years ago, in the 1980s, there was a brief flutter about “colorizing” movies. You took some then-new technology and presto! Casablanca in color! There were just a few problems. One was that colorized movies looked like crap. The colorizers had trouble with small parts of the image like lips, with the result that from medium-shot to close-up, Ingrid Bergman’s lipstick varied to a degree that would have given the actress a nervous breakdown. And colorization somehow emphasized the phoniness of everything--the fake palm trees, the sets.


The most important point was made at the time by directors like John Huston and Orson Welles. The two color movies on this list were carefully, gorgeously visualized that way. The eight black-and-white movies, on the other hand, were not designed in everyday real color with the idea that what the heck, it was bound to look good in black-and-white too. Every costume and set and location and light and angle was calibrated to use that film stock’s possibilities to the fullest.


These movies are all beautiful by design, and fabulous forever.




Sherlock Jr. (dir. Buster Keaton, 1924)
Silent film is its own art form, and a glorious one, with many masterpieces that are (contrary to popular belief) very accessible; but the Siren stuck to one, otherwise she’d need another list. (And if you want another list, hey, JUST ASK.) This movie, the story of a lovelorn movie projectionist (Buster Keaton, of course) who dreams of becoming a detective, was selected because when the Siren saw it at the Film Forum in front of an audience of children and parents, it went over like gangbusters. The film has everything that makes Keaton a genius: the wildly inventive use of all the possibilities of film; the comedy ranging from subtle to manic slapstick; the athletic stunts, one of which could have paralyzed Keaton. Excessive description tends to kill comedy, so the Siren is leaving it at that; but trust her, this is no quaint antique. (Above, Buster Keaton is...well, it’s complicated.)





My Man Godfrey (dir. Gregory La Cava, 1936)
Carole Lombard, one of the greatest comediennes of all time, plays heiress Irene Bullock, for whom the term “madcap” might have been coined. During a scavenger hunt, Irene turns up a “forgotten man” (i.e., hobo) Godfrey, played by Lombard’s real-life ex-husband William Powell. He winds up as the butler at her mansion (“Can you butle?” she asks Godfrey). Godfrey helps her dizzyingly eccentric family get a grip on life, and far from coincidentally, what’s going on in Depression-era America right under their privileged noses. A supreme example of the style known as screwball comedy, the film’s atmosphere is summed up by Irene’s father (Eugene Pallette): “All you need to start an asylum is an empty room and the right kind of people.” The many, many treats include beautiful Gail Patrick as Irene’s sister, whom Godfrey characterizes as “a Park Avenue brat”; character actor Mischa Auer doing an alarmingly accurate monkey imitation; and an attitude toward the idle rich that skewers their every foible, yet never devolves into anger or preachiness. (Above, Lombard and Powell get ready to play their big love scene.)





The Adventures of Robin Hood (dir. Michael Curtiz, 1938)
When the Siren showed this ravishing Technicolor spectacle to her family, her 9-year-old son announced at the end, “That was the best movie I’ve ever seen.” Certainly this tale--wherein Robin Hood (Errol Flynn) robs the rich, gives to the poor, and battles Prince John (Claude Rains) and Guy of Gisbourne (Basil Rathbone) on his way to winning Maid Marian (Olivia de Havilland) and restoring King Richard to the throne--appeals to the kid in everyone. It is also a model of how to structure and pace an action movie. (One key expository scene that the Siren can’t get enough of shows Maid Marian in the background of the shot, creeping down a winding stone staircase to listen in on a nefarious plot. She’s right out there in the open, the staircase doesn’t even have a banister. But the castle set is so vast that of course the Prince and Sir Guy wouldn’t notice her at first.) And if you look closer, to Robin Hood’s explicit plea for human rights and democratic government in a year where the world was sorely lacking in both, that diminishes the joy not one bit. (Above, Rathbone and Flynn cross swords.)





Stagecoach (dir. John Ford, 1939)
There was no way the Siren would compile this post without a Western, and she’s still debating whether this is the ideal choice. Then again, of course it is. This movie has everything you could want in a great Western: John Ford, Monument Valley, John Wayne so young and handsome it almost hurts to look at him. And there’s a climactic action sequence so dangerous its centerpiece stunt (performed by Yakima Canutt--remember that name) would be hard to recreate today without resorting to computer trickery. It’s a simple tale of a motley group of passengers on a stagecoach going to Lordsburg. They include John Carradine as a Southern gentleman turned gambler; Louise Platt as a gently bred belle, pregnant and going to join her husband; Claire Trevor as a prostitute who’s been run out of town; and Thomas Mitchell as an alcoholic doctor. (He won a Supporting Actor Oscar in a year where almost anything that wasn’t nailed down went to Gone With the Wind.) Within this small group, John Ford tells a bustling, exciting story, while looking at class differences and community in a way that remains frank and touching. (Above, the shot that arguably made John Wayne a star at the age of 32.)





His Girl Friday (dir. Howard Hawks, 1940)
One of the rare instances where the remake of a great film (1931’s The Front Page) turns out better than its predecessor. Hawks turned the reporter Hildy Johnson into a woman (Rosalind Russell) and came up with a comedy that’s striking in its feminism. Hildy wants to marry Bruce (Ralph Bellamy) and settle down to raise babies “and give them cod-liver oil and watch their teeth grow,” she sputters. But her ex-husband, newspaper editor Walter Burns (Cary Grant), knows better: “You’re a newspaper man,” he tells her. To that end, he tricks and cons Hildy repeatedly so she’ll help save an innocent man from execution--and, more importantly, sell some papers in the process. The jokes fly so fast that when you see this in a theater, some good lines get drowned out by laughter. The script makes sharper digs at corrupt Chicago politics and ruthless newshounds than many a latter-day thriller. (Above, after Russell lets fly with that bag, Grant tells her, "You're losing your arm. You used to be better than that.")





Double Indemnity (dir. Billy Wilder, 1944)
Insurance salesman Walter Neff (Fred MacMurray) gets more trouble than he dreamed of when he knocks on the door of Phyllis Dietrichson (Barbara Stanwyck), the discontented wife of an older man. Together they plot to bump off Mr. Dietrichson in a way that will allow them to collect double his life insurance premium, the “double indemnity” of the title. Edward G. Robinson plays Neff’s boss, a man who prides himself on his ability to snuff out a bad claim. There are earlier examples of the style known as film noir, and goodness knows many later ones, but this is echt noir. “I didn’t get the money, and I didn’t get the girl,” Neff announces at the opening; as Brian De Palma observed, you can’t get much more noir than that. It’s often very funny, and intentionally so; Billy Wilder, who co-wrote the script, never made a humor-free movie in his life. But it’s also tragic, with a killer fadeout, and it’s a great introduction to the peerless Stanwyck and Robinson. Also, if anyone’s parents had them watch some old Disney films, this vision of Fred MacMurray retains some shock value. (Above, MacMurray, Stanwyck, and a car.)




The Breaking Point (dir. Michael Curtiz, 1950)
Perhaps the Siren should have gone with Elia Kazan’s On the Waterfront, as she tried to diversify her list with Method acting and the social drama that so dominates independent filmmaking in our own era. Certainly On the Waterfront is a capital-G Great Movie. But this is the Siren’s list, and she’s doing it her way, and the Siren truly thinks that this dark, tense movie has great appeal for a modern audience. Plus, the Siren loves John Garfield, the revolutionary actor who came from a tough New York neighborhood and was ultimately destroyed by the House Un-American Activities committee. He was enthrallingly sexy, and his subtle playing only underlines his boiling emotion. This underseen film (available on Warner Archive) is based on the Hemingway novel that Howard Hawks filmed as To Have and Have Not, but where Hawks is dashing and adventurous, here Michael Curtiz is melancholy and fatalistic. Garfield plays a California fisherman with a family to support and no work coming in. To make ends meet, he agrees to pilot his boat for gangsters as they run in some illegal immigrants. Also notable for the African American actor Juano Hernandez, giving a tremendous performance as a fellow fisherman. Hernandez’s role is written with dignity and feeling; the part was beefed up at Garfield’s insistence, which tells you a lot about the man. The final shot is one of the most heartbreaking in all classic film. (Above, Hernandez and Garfield.)




All About Eve (dir. Joseph Mankiewicz, 1950)
Eve Harrington (Anne Baxter) becomes a star, by latching onto Margo Channing (Bette Davis) and working her lying, conniving wiles on not just Margo, but everyone around her. Siren obsession George Sanders won his only Oscar for playing Addison de Witt, the ultimate poison-pen critic and one of only two people who twig to Eve right away. The other is Birdie, Margo’s sharp-eyed maid, played by Thelma Ritter. Davis gave many great performances in her incredible career, but Margo is generally acknowledged as her crowning achievement. Margo is a star, and got there in part because she’s a smart cookie. How and why she is taken in by Eve’s act contains a great deal of existential truth about human behavior (and pointers on how to spot Eves in your own life; believe me, that skill comes in handy). Margo’s a diva, but the biggest betrayal in the movie comes not from her, or even Eve; it’s via sweet housewife Karen (Celeste Holm). Joseph Mankiewicz wrote an endlessly quotable script, not so much laugh-out-loud funny as it is scalding. With Marilyn Monroe in one of her earliest roles; watch the perfection of Monroe’s timing at the ripe old age of 24. (Above, Margo salutes Eve; Hugh Marlowe is on the left and Gary Merrill, who became Davis’ fourth husband, is in the middle.)




Rear Window (dir. Alfred Hitchcock, 1954)
Photographer L.B. "Jeff" Jefferies, laid up with a broken leg, becomes obsessed with watching his neighbors across a Manhattan courtyard. There’s a heat-wave going on, and the open windows (and lack of air conditioning) mean he can usually hear what they’re saying as well. Together with his girlfriend Lisa Fremont (Grace Kelly) Jeff becomes convinced that neighbor Lars Thorwald (Raymond Burr) has murdered his shrieking harpy of a wife. The Siren herself ranks Rear Window well above Vertigo (which recently dethroned Citizen Kane as the Greatest Movie Ever Made in the once-a-decade Sight and Sound poll) as one of the best movies Hitchcock ever made. Rear Window takes a teeming, diverse group of New Yorkers and gradually reveals every life arrayed around that courtyard. James Stewart’s grumpy character isn’t as far from his nice-guy persona as he’d get with Vertigo, but it’s close. Grace Kelly wears an Edith Head-designed wardrobe that actually elicited a few audience gasps when the Siren saw this in a theater. There are plenty of moral quandaries to chew on. And there’s Thelma Ritter, still dispensing cranky common sense four years after All About Eve.  (Above, anybody can give you Grace Kelly. The Siren is giving you a new world in pet transportation.)

P.S. This was posted in haste and corrected at leisure; sincere thanks to all who pointed out my howlers.


Easy to Love: A Whole Bunch of Other Classic-Film Suggestions


The Siren rarely crowdsources anything; it feels like asking someone to do her homework. But she thought that this one time, it would be great to ask for recommendations on Facebook. So the Siren asked people for one (1) film that they’d suggest to a top-flight college student as a gateway to Hollywood movies made before about 1960. She had a vague notion that it would clarify her thinking, narrow her choices, maybe give her a couple of useful quotes.


And holy cats

What followed was a deluge, a cacophony, a landslide of recommendations ranging from Cat People to The Passion of Joan of Arc. Which, in retrospect, was entirely predictable. The Siren’s Facebook collective is what’s known as a self-selecting group, i.e., people willing to see day after day of old movies in their feed.


Most people were no more able to limit themselves to a single choice of film than they’d have been able to obey a sign over a bowl of french fries proclaiming “ONE PER PERSON, PLEASE.” The Siren had summoned up the conviction lurking in the hearts of cinephiles everywhere, that life without classic film is like that New Yorker cartoon above.


One cinephile Millennial posted gloomily, “I apologize for my generation,” but that isn’t the point of this exercise in any way, shape or form. First, Lance Mannion’s students are smarter than smart. Second, if it took the Siren until her 20s to get satisfaction from abstract art and until her 30s to appreciate classical music (and it did) that doesn’t mean she somehow enjoyed them less, or that she was dense for not having adored them from the time she could say “Mama.”


And the Siren has an oft-stated evangelical conviction, that the world of early-to-mid 20th century American film is vast and so brilliant that truly, there is something for everybody who isn’t the cinematic equivalent of tone-deaf.  


The conversation was incredible, but the Siren couldn’t possibly hit the honors students with a list so long it prompts the urge to close the browser and uncork a beer. So the Siren has appended a non-inclusive list of the suggestions she got from her film-mad (and highly film-knowledgeable) Facebook friends. The Siren’s also including two gentlemen she buttonholed at a party, a few who sent her emails and one gentleman whose opinion was solicited at the Nehme family dinner table. The writers and people whose work appears online are identified as much as possible. The others are nothing if not eclectic in their pursuits, including academics, medical people, museum curators, musicians, computer programmers, a couple of attorneys and a psychotherapist.


A rough tally of the films that got mentioned more than once, but that the Siren didn’t include in her own list:




Out of the Past
On the Waterfront
North by Northwest
Rebecca
The Maltese Falcon
The Searchers
Night of the Hunter
The Best Years of Our Lives
Sunset Boulevard
The Philadelphia Story
Bringing Up Baby
The Thin Man
The African Queen
Baby Face
Marked Woman
The Women
The Lady Eve



Samuel A. Adams, critic and editor of Criticwire: My kids, who were art-school students, really took to THE PASSION OF JOAN OF ARC. (I'd been cautioned by the department head not to try and show them the whole thing; but I ignored the advice.)


Miriam Bale, film writer and programmer, critic at The New York Times: I agree with Night of the Hunter and Out of the Past. But I'd add The Birds, and Red Headed Woman, a great introduction to the naughtiness pre-code!


Kendra Bean (author of Vivien Leigh: An Intimate Portrait): Gone with the Wind. It's easily available and you can break it up into two sittings. Bonus: watching it with me!


Christianne Benedict of Krell Laboratories: Harold Lloyd's Girl Shy, mainly because its last third is one of the most jaw-dropping action sequences ever filmed, but also because it's hilarious.


Karie Bible, film writer: Baby Face. “Always a great crowd pleaser! What better way to get them hooked on pre-code?”


Jill Blake, Sittin’ on a Backyard Fence: Right at 1960, but THE APARTMENT is a must. Honorable mention for ACE IN THE HOLE. Hell, let's throw in all of Billy Wilder's filmography. And I love that I'm seeing so much love for THE BEST YEARS OF OUR LIVES. It should be mandatory viewing for sure.


Tom Block: “I've yet to meet the person that didn't respond to Scarface.” [That’s the 1932 version, of course!]


Wesley Blount: On the beaten path: It Happened One Night, The Maltese Falcon, Mildred Pierce (there oughtta be Joan too), Swing Time. Off the beaten path: June Bride (Davis that holds up well), A Letter to Three Wives, The Palm Beach Story.


Trudy Bolter: “Political films like The Mortal Storm and Gentleman's Agreement can fascinate students.”


Robert Cashill, film journalist:  “I showed parts of The Heiress to a college audience. Many said they planned to seek it out on their own. Compelling on so many levels.”




Philip Chambers:  “I have two movies from different periods that might work. For example if you want to give them an idea of the sordid realism of films of the early thirties, try Barbara Stanwyck in Baby Face. If they think early movies are full of the pleasures of Andy Hardy and lavish innocuous musicals, they're in for a surprise...My choice for the forties would be Nightmare Alley, primarily because Tyrone Power is a good looking stud and he'll rope them in, but they'll soon find out that looks, contrary to Hollywood iconography, are not all that important when your mind is full of ruthless greed and the need to claw your way to the top no matter how it affects you morally and psychologically.”


Jason Chervokas: “I second Sunset Boulevard for the mission at hand. Classic noir with a modernist trick of sorts -- narration from beyond the grave -- and an old movie about old movies, that, if it doesn't suck you in with both the romance and the hustle that is old Hollywood, well, you'll never care about old movies.”


Elizabeth Cody, author of the Lily B. series, which happen to be my daughter’s favorites: All About Eve. The African Queen.


Tony Dayoub, Cinema Viewfinder: Kiss Me Deadly, Night of the Hunter, and The Searchers. I guess the reason would be the same for all three. For any newbies who believe that pre-1960 films are too naïve or light for contemporary sensibilities, each of these will prove them wrong in their own unique way.


Brian Doan, Bubblegum Aesthetics: One of my happiest moments teaching film was the loud, sustained-through-the-film laughter My Man Godfrey got when I showed it in an intro class. They loved the film, and it was really great to see them connect with its blend of slapstick and dizzy romance.


David Edelstein, chief film critic, New York Magazine: “I don’t know if it’s the perfect intro, but Night and the City showed me that noir can be not just cynical, but tragic.”


Roy Edroso, political writer and possessor of great film taste, proprietor of Alicublog: “They haven't seen Citizen Kane. I know they haven't. So you can show that to them, and then go back to Biograph and begin the long story.”


Chris Edwards, Silent Volume: “I'm tempted to say The Best Years of Our Lives, which is a top-five favourite film of mine. But my suggestion is The Pride of the Yankees--not because it's the best pre-60s film I've seen, but because, as a biography made in a style totally different from biographies today, made a year after the man died, and co-starring his colleagues, I think it's both a fine film and a real teachable moment. Seeing that film is good for you.”




Steve Elworth: “Detour, because it is great and it was made for $1.75.”


Paul F. Etcheverry: “I just want to see the expressions on the students' faces when they watch Three On A Match and see that Ann Dvorak has been snorting cocaine with Lyle Talbot.”


Marilyn Ferdinand, Ferdy on Films: “My 12-year-old grandson responded extremely well to Went the Day Well? I think it's got a lot to recommend it because it is British, so therefore not American but also not subtitled, it is action-packed, deals with a subject that could seem contemporary (internal terrorism), and it has some really great roles for women. It shows the costs of war and the importance of bravery and sticking together.”


David Ferguson: “For the girls and gay boys I'd try The Women and Old Acquaintance since they're kind of like Real Housewives. Imitation of Life (either 1934 or 1959) is always a grabber and can stimulate very interesting discussion of race.”


David Fiore: “I don’t see how The Lady Eve could fail to delight anyone.” [He also suggests a field trip to the Toronto Cinematheque for the Bette Davis retrospective playing there.]


Stephanie Fowler: “Now Voyager for Bette Davis would win hands down for me, such a stylish and well acted movie classic; and Laura, a great mystery movie that still doesn't feel dated to me. It's only the being in black and white that dates it I reckon.”


Larry Frascella, co-author of Live Fast, Die Young: The Wild Ride of Making Rebel Without a Cause: “When I was going around showing Rebel Without a Cause at colleges some years ago, I often heard a variation of the comment: ‘I didn't know a movie could get you so emotionally stirred up.’”


Beth Ann Gallagher: “What about the classic film silent comedy Safety Last? When a restored print showed at the San Francisco Silent Film Festival the audience was so vocal and appreciative of all the jokes and stunts, and they are all hardcore silent film viewers likely to have seen that movie before. I can imagine it playing well for the class and getting them to love a silent film classic!”


Klara Tavakoli Goesche, Retro ACTIVE Critiques: “Can I also suggest Rear Window? Only because those of us who've seen it countless times can take it for granted that the young'uns might not have seen it even once.”


William Goss: The Adventures of Robin Hood (1938) “The comfort of a familiar tale, the sprightliness of a legendary lead and...it's in color. DVD/Blu.”




Annie Gugliotti, Blogdorf Goodman: “Did anyone suggest Now, Voyager....because that tears me up ever time.”


Mark Harris, author of Pictures at a Revolution and Five Came Back (the story of directors John Ford, Frank Capra, John Huston, William Wyler and George Stevens during World War II, due in March 2014):  “This is going to sound like exactly the kind of movie at which they might roll their eyes, but have you seen Shane lately? It's really simply made but so adult, so controlled, so emotionally powerful and disturbing about families. Every scene, every shot, every line means something. I think it might fit your criteria.”


Lokke Heiss: “I lived in Columbia, Missouri the last seven years before coming to NYC, and my friends who taught the intro film classes at the university there talked to me about this constantly. The film that pops up on most people's lists, a great 'gateway drug' film for pre-60 newbies, is It Happened One Night. A film I also recommend strongly is Cat People, because besides being a great movie, it shows that you can make a really scary movie in ways other than using special effects.”


Meredith Hindley, writer and historian: Rear Window. “Who hasn't spied on their neighbors and wondered what was going on? Young women will also be enchanted by Grace Kelly's forwardness and wardrobe. (We're talking haute couture, not yoga pants and a hoodie.) Plus, the unpacking of the Mark Cross bag is seduction itself. Kelly's character (Lisa Fremont) also uses her brains and takes a huge risk, so she's not a passive participant in solving the mystery. There's also Hitchcock's lush visuals and slow cranking tension.”


Jordan Hoffman: “A nice entry level screwball comedy. Everybody loves ’em. The Thin Man or Bringing Up Baby . . hell, I don't need to tell you . . .one of the big honkin' fat screwballs.”


Hannah Huckaby: “Modern Times speaks to today's economic troubles and is soooooooo funny.”


Ed Hulse, author of Lone Pine in the Movies: Where the Real West Becomes the Reel West: “I don't pretend to have any great insight on this subject, but I'll pass along something that gave me hope. Back in the early Eighties, when the most popular revival house in NYC was the Regency, I attended a screening of the then-recently-restored The Adventures of Robin Hood, which is my all-time favorite film. Upon entering the theater I was startled to see many young people, including baby-boomer parents with children. To be frank, I was afraid the film would be treated as a campy artifact and girded my loins to be annoyed by snarky comments and inappropriate laughter. But to my amazement and delight, the audience got caught up in the film and even the kids -- weaned on smarmy sitcoms and brain-dead video games -- whooped and hollered in all the right places. After the screening, trudging up the aisle behind two young families, I overheard one dad telling the other, ‘Boy, that's one old movie that still works.’ The reply: ‘You know, I saw it on TV when I was a kid but I didn't remember how good it is.’ Maybe it was the gorgeous new 35mm print and the theatrical venue that made the difference, but that particular screening of Robin Hood--a film I've seen at least two dozen times--still ranks among my most enjoyable moviegoing experiences.”




Andrew O’Hehir, film critic, Salon.com: One shouldn't pick these things for defensive reasons, but The Searchers will blow their minds if they believe westerns are stodgy, antique and easy to laugh at. It's also a key text in American cinema, Echo the thoughts on noir, a lot of which pre-echoes contemporary issues. Also, if I may invoke the Hammer of Obviousness -- Casablanca. Bizarre as this may seem to those of us above the dividing line, many younger people haven't seen it. If it doesn't exactly help them understand WWII, at least it begins teaching them about the cultural importance of that war.


Peter Labuza, The Cinephiliacs: “It's a Wonderful Life seems to do it for a lot of my peers; I wonder (this is untested) if something with a little more "naturalism" like On The Waterfront would play well.”


Lou Lumenick, film critic at the New York Post (and the Siren’s boss there): Sweet Smell of Success worked on my daughter. Also The Manchurian Candidate. [Slightly out of time range, but truly great so the Siren’s leaving it in.]


Daniel Lunsford: On the Waterfront. It's only a few years before 1960 and proto-modern in many ways, yet it has many of the charms of 1940s films. I bet it could be a decent gateway drug to earlier movies.


Cyndi Mortenson: I run a repertory cinema that shows exclusively classic films. We have a large young audience, but I've had to convince some of them to try a black-and-white film (they aren't interested if it's BW)--I'll tell them they can go in free and if they don't like it, they don't have to pay. It's so rewarding to see them excited after seeing Rebecca or The Philadelphia Story or It Happened One Night for the first time.


Jad Nehme: Hard to Handle or Picture Snatcher. “All the pre-Codes we’ve watched were great; James Cagney is wonderful. Also, I saw East of Eden in class at lycee and we all liked it very much. It spoke to young people and their emotions, at least at the time. Maybe 20 years later it won’t. But it’s a great movie.”


Sheila O’Malley, The Sheila Variations: Only Angels Have Wings. “A perfect movie, something for everyone, looks great, sexy, adventurous, etc. Amazing action sequences, fantastic dialogue and atmosphere.”


Doris Palmieri:  Rear Window. “But, for introducing a younger audience to Bette Davis, Whatever Happened to Baby Jane? will shake things up.”


Vincent Paterno, Carole & Co. (a blog about Carole Lombard): “One more vote for My Man Godfrey (an ideal film for the Occupy crowd) and one more against Bringing Up Baby. (I admit a Lombard bias, but there are many other films that feature Katharine Hepburn, while many younger audiences aren't aware of Carole's timelessness.) Several other candidates: Libeled Lady, Ninotchka, Gold Diggers Of 1933, The Miracle Of Morgan's Creek, plus as a twin bill, Remember The Night and Double Indemnity, if only to show the versatility of actors under the studio system. Oh, and how I could forget Stagecoach, still the greatest western of them all?”


Barton Plunkett: Rear Window. “Still plays. Great intro to Hitch, Jimmy and, hubba hubba, Grace Kelly (plus a scary Raymond Burr for good measure).”


Gloria Porta, Rooting for Laughton: “I think that Night Of The Hunter and Witness For The Prosecution are fairly approachable by the general public.”


Scott K. Ratner, actor: “I've never personally known anyone to dislike or be totally bored with Rebecca (surprising, as it kind of rolls into low gear in its final quarter), and two dark horse favorites that have always worked for me are And Then There Were None and A Matter Of Life And Death. North By Northwest always does well and, cliche as it may seem, Casablanca I've found pretty safe.”


Christina Rice, author of Ann Dvorak: Hollywood’s Forgotten Rebel: “Gentlemen Prefer Blondes and It Happened One Night are two films I showed to my kid sisters when they were in grade school and they loved them. Light and fun but still classic. Most have certainly heard of Marilyn but maybe have not seen her in action; and everyone deserves an introduction to Gable.”


Carrie Rickey, critic: His Girl Friday. “I find that Howard Hawks almost always works for college students.”


Gabrielle Roh: “Private Lives with Norma Shearer...if only the sound quality was better.”


Graham Russell, Bitterness Personified: Angel Face. “I can't see how they couldn't respond to Robert Mitchum--his sexy insolent tough guy persona is timeless!”




Mark Schoeneker: “Can't believe no one's mentioned Treasure of the Sierra Madre. It's the ideal gateway movie, every bit as fresh & exciting today as it must have been on the day it came out, & 100% capable of converting ALL nonbelievers. Also, plays really well alongside Double Indemnity.”


Daniel Shaw: “The More the Merrier (because Jean Arthur, and Joel McCrea); Notorious (because Hitchcock, Ingrid, Cary and Ben Hecht).”


Ceil Shissler: “I am the person you are trying to educate….I liked The African Queen.”


Tom Shone, film writer and critic for the Economist’s Intelligent Life and the Guardian Online: “Any of the great Hitchcocks--Rear Window, Strangers on a Train...But if it’s just one, North by Northwest. All the Bond films come straight from that one.”


Michael Simmons, writer: “A couple of years ago we had a couple of English girls staying with us. They were in their gap year and getting ready to attend University back home. Anyway, we took them to see Breakfast at Tiffany's and Roman Holiday. They were looking forward to Breakfast because they had heard so much about it over the years but it just bombed with them...Roman Holiday, on the other hand, just won them over, and came off as timeless rather than old. They were predisposed to hate it (black and white, a princess, the bad aftertaste of Breakfast) but it completely slipped under their defenses. Because Roman Holiday is not really part of mainstream pop culture, they had no idea how it was going to end. They were just weeping when it was over. The best part was that it made other movie suggestions easy. Like Audrey? Try Sabrina. Like the European romance? Try Jules and Jim. Like the unscrupulous newsman? Try His Girl Friday. Like pretty women riding on motor scooters wearing iconic clothing? Try The Singing Nun. Well, maybe not that one…”


Ellen Smith (no relation but the Siren’s good, good friend since the third grade, so she’s used to me): Sunset Boulevard.


Lauren Stieber: The Thin Man and The Philadelphia Story. “Bringing Up Baby for extra credit.”


Cassandra Sophia B: The Third Man, without question.


Philip Tatler IV, Diary of a Country Pickpocket: Out of the Past.


Charles Taylor, critic and NYU faculty member: It might be cheating but what about some Method stuff? I can't imagine On the Waterfront won't hold them.


Ella Taylor, critic, NPR: All About Eve, of course. But also Now, Voyager, a not-great movie with some really great Bette moments: Emerging from frump to glamor-babe; saying no to monster mom, but nicely; not asking for the marital moon because she already has the stars; and so on.


Rachel Thibault: Gold Diggers Of 1933 and some Sam Fuller--I'm partial to Pickup On South Street (1953). Don't think i have to explain the need to watch Busby Berkeley (fun musical numbers, sexual innuendo) and Pickup is great Cold War hysteria noir. Funny, too.


Steve Timberlake, Linkmeister: The Best Years of Our Lives. It's easily relatable to current war vets.


Melodie Warner: The Women, Carmen Jones, Notorious, The Letter and Little Foxes. “I love films in which women are more than just a pretty face.”




Tinky Weisblat, author of Pulling Taffy: A Year with Dementia and Other Adventures:  It. Young people are amazed that something in black and white (and silent!) can be so lively. Or maybe someone.


Marisa Young, The Timothy Carey Experience: Sunset Boulevard. Perfect Hollywood Gothic. All About Eve is my absolute go-to; it's perfect in every way. If they dig horror, The Black Cat and The Bride of Frankenstein never fail to impress.


Robert Ward, author of Renegades: My Wild Trip from Professor to New Journalist: I had a noir seminar at Claremont College. Seven students to it and I picked movies which came from novels: The Postman Always Rings Twice (1946), Out of the Past, The Killing (short story), Double Indemnity, The Big Sleep, The Letter...and a few others. No one had ever seen Robert Mitchum or Jane Greer but everyone thought Out of the Past was great. They loved Postman and Double Indemnity.


Noel Vera, Critic After Dark: Stalag 17. [Billy Wilder is] not my favorite filmmaker, not even the best of his works, but the kids simply love that film. Just can't get enough of it.


Bart Verbanck: The Crimson Pirate.


Bob Westal, Forward to Yesterday: “For college age and older people, film noir seems to have a special status and might feel more contemporary than other films, so starting with Double Indemnity or The Killing (Stanley Kubrick has a lot of younger fans, and can tie in the structure to early Tarantino) might make sense.”


Angie Wojak: Rear Window, Safe in Hell, The General, Double Indemnity, Out of the Past, The Women, Dinner at Eight, Female.


James Wolcott, author of Critical Mass and a visitor to the Public Intellectuals class himself: “The first title that popped in my head was The Maltese Falcon because it has a great cast, moves fast, is quite funny and atmospheric.”


Jeff Zak: Out of the Past. I was a student in Glasgow, around 1996. I remember they were showing a series of film noir films every friday night. I have to say, after watching Out of the Past, I just fell in love with Robert Mitchum...the coolest film I’d seen at that time. I love it! Kids will love it! Smokers will love it! Err...


Adam Zanzie, Icebox Movies: High Noon. "It’s short, innovative and easy to relate to."