The dozen films listed below, in no particular order, are among my favorites. Although they might not be outstanding cinematic achievements, most were well received by both critics and the public. Admittedly, some might be little more than escapist entertainment but are still worth watching. I've presented their basic plots with an occasional bit of trivia. Most are American films from the 1930s, 1940s, and 1950s, the era before trendy social issues began to dominate film-making, and a time when Southerners were portrayed more fairly. Film settings and characters are now more stereotyped. In fact, Hollywood seems to be atrophying, the quality of actors and actresses has declined, and films are promoting socio/poltical agendas that are not in the best interest of our country. Actually, the best movies are being produced in other countries. Luckily, these recommended films from the past have been preserved.
1. Lady in the Lake – 1946
The interesting thing about this film version of a Raymond Chandler novel is its unusual filming technique. The lead character, Phillip Marlowe, is only seen in the opening and closing scenes and occasionally in a mirror. Throughout the film the camera is always behind him, and the cast speaks into the camera. This involves the viewing audience more directly. You would think this approach to filming wouldn't work but it does. Marlowe is hired by the chief editor of a crime magazine to find the missing wife of her boss who has disappeared from her small California town. The film features a complicated plot as well as an outstanding performance by one of Hollywood's most underrated actresses, Audrey Totter.
In one scene, Marlowe is confused when the missing woman's ex-lover, a transplanted Southerner, uses the word “embrangle.” In the 1940s, the South's culture hadn't been altered by migration from other regions or the influence of TV. Words like “embrangle” might still be heard in the South although they'd fallen into disuse elsewhere. The Southerner informs Marlowe that he doesn't understand the word because he is a Yankee.
2. Shane – 1953
This Western film is quite different from standard Westerns – as one reviewer stated “It has more dialogue than gunfights.” It takes place in largely unsettled Wyoming in the 1880s, where farms and fences of homesteaders impede cattle ranchers from driving herds to railroads for shipment to stockyards in the East. Cattle ranchers have driven their herds unhindered across these lands for years and so they resent homesteaders. But those families are meeting the conditions of the Homestead Acts and legally occupying land granted them by the government. A powerful cattle baron decides to intimidate the homesteaders into leaving, even recruiting a gunslinger. Around the same time, a former gunfighter seeking a new life, has wandered into the region and is hired by one of the farmers. The conflict between cattle ranchers and homesteaders builds to a powerful climax.
Although President Lincoln's Homestead Acts excluded former Confederates from being granted Western land, records of that time made it difficult to determine a person's true regional background. So this film portrays one homesteader as an ex-Confederate from Alabama. He is killed by the cattle men's hired gun and at his burial, one of the farmers plays a slow mournful version of “Dixie” on his harmonica.
3. The Uninvited – 1944
In films involving a ghost, the strange phenomenon is often explained away logically, thus resolving spooky conflicts it has caused. In this case, the ghost is real, accepted as such, and has to be eliminated. Deciding to leave London and resettle on the Cornish coast, a brother and sister find the ideal residence; a remote house on a cliff overlooking the ocean. They wonder why its elderly owner will sell it for a price well below its market value. After taking possession, they encounter bizarre phenomena and a curious noise that sounds like a sobbing woman. The former owner's 20 year old granddaughter was strongly opposed to the sale of the house and she has a troubling emotional attraction to it. The new owners gradually piece together the strange history of their home and are able to purge its sinister spirit.
The background music for this film was one of the many screen scores composed by Victor Young. The thematic melody caught the public's attention, words were added, and it became the popular song “Stella by Starlight”; the title taken from a line in the film.
4. The Southerner – 1945
The title of this film is misleading. Its not actually about Southerners per se. It concerns a poor Texas couple, with children and grandmother, trying to overcome adversities and survive by picking cotton, farming, sharecropping, or whatever is necessary. Actually it doesn't have a storyline in the traditional sense, but simply depictions of various difficulties and catastrophes that have to be overcome. Unfortunately,you might detect a slightly leftist political slant, but the quality of the film is not lessened. The plot might not sound very interesting, however it is a compelling film, highly regarded by critics.
This film is a creation of French director, Jean Renoir, son of the famous Impressionist painter. It is one of five films he made during his six year exile in America when Germany occupied France.
5. Cyrano de Bergerac – 1950
Hollywood wasn't sure how a 20th century American audience would react to a film version of Edmund Rostand's famous play from the 1800s, so they opted for a low-budget black-and-white picture. Indeed, the film was not a box office success, losing a substantial amount of money. But Jose Ferrer's performance as Cyrano, for which he won an Academy Award, has made this movie a classic. Rostand's hero is a writer, poet, and accomplished swordsman who is infatuated with a cousin, the beautiful Roxanne. Self consciousness over his prodigious misshapen nose restrains him from professing his feelings to her. Instead he provides words to a handsome, inarticulate suitor to use in courting Roxanne.
The dialogue is more interesting than the storyline. A soliloquy about independence occurs when Cyrano refuses to allow an influential nobleman edit his writing. Excerpts from this soliloquy : “...To sing, to laugh, to dream. To walk in my own way and be alone, free, to cock my hat where I choose, with a voice that means manhood...” Sadly, today's Feminists are maligning manhood, demeaning it as “toxic masculinity.”
6. Jezebel – 1938
With help from famed director William Wyler, Bette Davis' performance in this film won her an Academy Award. But my focus is neither the acting nor the direction. This is one of the few screenplays involving ante-bellum Southern plantations that portrayed amiable relationships between some slaves and some members of their owners families. This film is set on a Louisiana plantation located on the outskirts of New Orleans. Miss Davis portrays Julie Marsden, an obstinate Southern belle whose disdain for the decorum of her time causes her to lose the man she loves. Even though he has wed another, Julie is determined to get him back using whatever unscrupulous stratagems are necessary - an epidemic of yellow fever curtails her efforts .
Complaisant relationships between some slaves and their masters were also allowed in the 1935 film of Stark Young's novel “So Red the Rose” and “Gone With the Wind”, released in 1939 . But Hollywood depictions of plantation life eventually became rigidly formulaic – all slaves were oppressed and all masters were tyrannical.
7. Till We Meet Again – 1940
You may wonder why this film is on my list of favorites when admittedly the plot is contrived and trite. But it is representative of many films of its time – you enjoy watching it without analyzing it too closely. A couple has their first brief meeting in a bar in Hong Kong. He is an escaped convict, soon to be recaptured and returned to the States to be executed, and she has a fatal illness with only a short time to live. They meet again on a luxury liner and neither informs the other of their hopeless fate. A typical shipboard romance ensues and they plan to meet again, each knowing it cannot happen.
This 1940 movie was a remake of the 1932 version “One Way Passage.” Both films share basically the same script, as well as the same musical theme, the wistful song “Where Was I” , hauntingly rendered. These two films still have a following with fans disagreeing over which is better.
8. White Cargo - 1942
This film was preceded by the popular novel “Hell's Playground” by Ida Simonton, which was also made into London and Broadway stage productions. There had even been a 1929 silent film adaptation with spoken dialogue added later. The operator of a 1910 African rubber plantation is frustrated with the constant turnover of European managers imported to supervise workers. These Europeans seem unable to adapt to the mores and work habits of the workers or the sweltering climate. To complicate matters, a sultry, provocative native girl uses her wiles to exploit these lonely men. A newly arrived manager is beguiled by this local femme fatale, and to prevent her from being banned from the region, he naively marries her. Soon bored with married life, she resorts to perilous extremes in order to be free again.
9. The Scapegoat – 1959
This is a film adaptation of Daphne du Maurier's novel, “The Scapegoat.” Indeed, it would take someone with du Maurier's writing skills to make this offbeat story work. While vacationing in France, a reclusive British university teacher stops at a bar for a drink and is startled to discover a stranger who is his exact double. The teacher and the stranger, a wealthy nobleman, spend the evening drinking and decide to share a hotel room. The next morning, the teacher awakes to find that his clothing, his passport, and his look-alike are all missing. The nobleman's chauffeur arrives and assumes the teacher is his employer, driving the confused man to an estate. The wife, daughter, sister, and mother accept him as genuine and he becomes comfortable in his new lifestyle. However, the nobleman's mistress in the village realizes he is not her former lover but she is content in her relationship with the bogus man. Things move along fairly smoothly until the original master returns and demands his identity back.
Some clever film techniques allow the talented actor Alex Guinness to play both men.
10. Black Narcissus – 1947
This screen adaptation of Rumer Godden's 1939 novel is one of those rare cases where the film is better than the book. The rather odd story-plot is set in the remote Himalayan mountains of India where the son of a deceased ruler donates his father's palace, formerly a harem, to a Calcutta convent of nuns in order to create a school and clinic for local inhabitants. The sisters selected for the project are ill-equipped to deal with the strange environment or the casual lifestyle of the locals. The assistance of the local government agent, one of the few British males in the region, helps them through rough spots until the challenges become too intense. When tragedy takes the life of one of the sisters, the others abandon the project and return to their former convent.
This film is the product of the talented team of Michael Powell and Emeric Pressberger.
11. Swept Away – 1974
Filmmaker Lina Wertmuller, who began her career as Frederico Fellini's assistant, not only directed this film, but also wrote the script. A deckhand on a Mediterranean yachting cruise is mistreated by the wealthy Italian socialites he has been hired to serve. One afternoon he is ordered to lower a boat and take one of the insolent ladies to join others who are visiting a nearby island. The boat's motor soon fails and the couple begins hopelessly drifting. After a long fearful night, the motor begins working, but daylight reveals nothing but a wide empty sea. An island is finally spotted but after landing on it, they find it is uninhabited. The deckhand can catch fish, build a fire, and construct a rudimentary shelter, but his female companion is helpless. Their roles are now reversed. He gives the orders and to survive, she obeys. Over time they develop a passionate love relationship and when they are eventually rescued by a passing ship, they vow to rejoin each other after family and friends are assured of their survival. However, exposed again to the luxury and glamour of her former life, the lady reneges on her vow. Her distraught island lover waits in vain for her to join him.
12. Young and Innocent – 1937
Any collection of popular films should include at least one by Alfred Hitchcock, and this one is my choice. Although this film was made early in his career, Hitchcock places himself in it, fumbling with a small camera outside of the local courthouse. The picture follows a plot-theme Hitchcock would often use; someone is accused of a crime they didn't commit and has to solve it on their own while simultaneously avoiding capture by law enforcement. A man is arrested by police after being found on the beach near the body of a murdered actress with whom he was acquainted. A courthouse mix up allows him to escape the authorities and try to discover the real murderer, assisted by a young lady who ironically is the local police constable's daughter.
The female lead is played by the talented British actress Nova Pilbeam. She first appeared on the stage while still a small child and was given important film roles in her early teens. But this rising star retired from the screen before her 30th birthday and lived a private existence until her death at age 95.
Gail Jarvis is a Georgia-based free-lance writer. He attended the University of Alabama and has a degree from Birmingham Southern College. His writing is influenced by years of witnessing how versions of news and history were distorted for political reasons. Mr. Jarvis is a member of the Society of Independent Southern Historians and his articles have appeared on various websites, magazines, and publications for several organizations. He lives in Coastal Georgia.