I do not claim any extraordinary artistic merits or intellectual depth for any of these films. I love movies, but I also love detective novels, jazz, and Rogers and Hart songs without claiming that any of them is art in the sense of high art. These are movies I have seen several times and will probably see once or twice again, if I live long enough. Most of them, while being tremendously entertaining, have a serious point, though the directors and writers rarely beat the viewer over the head with the moral.
I have deliberately omitted some of my favorites, such as John Huston’s The Maltese Falcon and Treasure of the Sierra Madre, Tod Browning’s Dracula, John Ford’s The Searchers, The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance, and many others, Fellini’s 8 and 1/2, and Billy Wilder’s Sunset Boulevard, both because I would be telling you what you already knew or because other people of good taste would be recommending them.
I am including a film that is to me as obviously significant as any I have mentioned. It is a flawed favorite of mine, famous in its day, which makes my general point about film: Sullivan’s Travels. When I first saw it, I was reminded of a time in San Francisco, when, down and out with neither job nor place to stay, I spent one of my last dollars at the Powell Street Theater watching A Night at the Opera. As I walked out still laughing, I realized I’d be happy to try to get a job waiting tables at a retirement hotel that had an opening.
Sullivan’s Travels (1941) was directed by Preston Sturges, the nearest thing to a full-fledged auteur that Hollwyood ever produced. Sturges started out as a writer, moved into directing, then even became producer. Men of genius-—like Sturges or Buster Keaton—-are hated in Hollywood, and when studio hacks recut Unfaithfully Yours and the film did not make money, Sturges was ridiculed. He washed his hands of Hollwyood.
Sullivan’s Travels is a morality play about the Hollywood film industry that takes itself all too seriously. A successful Hollywood director of comedies (Joel McCrea) decides that the serious times of the Depression require serious films. One improbable accident follows another, and the ambitious director finds himself in a prison work camp. Exhausted, he and the other prisoners are treated to movie night and find themselves laughing themselves sick watching a Disney cartoon. Travels is not as excruciatingly funny as the Palm Beach Story or as ruthless as the Lady Eve or The Great McGinty, Sullivan’s Travels remains one of the best movies ever made about movies.
Four Faces West (1948). Directed by the prolific and humdrum Alfred E. Green and written by Hollywood hacks C. Graham Baker and Teddi Sherman, this entertaining movie fails to do justice to "Pasó Por Aquí," Eugene Manlove Rhodes’ beautiful short novel about the not-so-old West. Fortunately, whatever weaknesses are in the film are more than made up for by by the stars: husband and wife Joel McCrea and Frances Dee, and Charles Bickford (as Sheriff Pat Garret).
Interestingly Rhodes, as a wild young man shooting off his revolver within the town limits, had been pistol-whipped by Sheriff Garret (the killer of Billy the Kid). Rhodes spent a good part of his life resenting Garret, but his portrayal of the wise and humane sheriff is a testimonial both to Garret’s real character and to Rhodes’s maturity. Bickford’s performance is entirely convincing.
To save his father’s ranch, the amiable McCrae robs a store and goes on the lam, only to be rescued by Frances Dee. Joel McCrea was never much of an actor, perhaps because he was too real and decent a human being to play such games. McCrea was perhaps the most normal American ever to have been a film star. Raised on a farm, McCrea only wanted one thing out of Hollywood: to make enough money to run his ranch. When I once observed to a WW II combat veteran that he had stayed married to one woman, the vet said, you’d have stayed married too, if your wife was Frances Dee.
My Man Godfrey (1936). Gregory La Cava’s finest movie stars William Powell and Carol Lombard, and is probably the best film either one of those actors made. It is Hollywood’s Answer to Shakespeare’s Measure for Measure, with Godfrey (William Powell) playing the aristocrat who forces the members of a dysfunctional family to grow up. It is La Cava at his zany best, and, despite a few lapses into moralizing, it gives real insights into the imbecility of America’s monied classes.
Roberta (1935). Directed by William Seltzer—best known for his Laurel and Hardy films--Roberta, based on a hit Broadway show, is one of the best musicals ever produced by Hollywood. The absurd plot makes Randolph Scott the heir to his aunt’s fashion design business in Paris. Scott is business manager for Fred Astaire’s band, “The Indianans,” mistakenly hired by a Parisian nightclub owner who thinks they are Redskins. When Scott inherit’s Aunt Roberta’s business, Fred decides to become a creative genius in fashion design, and his inept designs almost destroy the business.
Roberta plays off the serious romantic couple—Scott and Irene Dunne—against the comedic pair of Astaire and a phony countess played by Ginger Rogers. Dunne and Scott make a great romantic couple, as anyone who has seen My Favorite Wife already knows. The plot is fun, but the brilliance of the film lies in the songs by Jerome Kern and (mostly) Dorothy Canfield: "Let’s Begin," "Smoke Gets in Your Eyes," "Lovely to Look At," "I Won’t Dance"-—all performed with great vivacity by Fred and Ginger. Hollwyood has scarcely ever done anything better. This is America’s best answer to The Marriage of Figaro, an opera I cannot see without wishing I could leave the audience and step into the 18th century. Yes, I know, this says almost as much about America as it does about Wodehouse’s pal and collaborator, "Mr. Kern," as they always called him in the business.
Out of the Past (1947), perhaps the greatest of the films noirs, was directed by the under-appreciated Jaques Tourneur and starred Robert Mitchum and Jane Greer. The moral catastrophe Mitchum brings on himself in the shape of a femme fatale is as inexorable as anything in Thomas Hardy. The young Mitchum is at his uncharacteristically understated best, and Jane Greer, who from everything one can hear was a genuinely nice and moral person, plays the wickedest woman in the history of film. Don Siegel directed an amusing rematch of the stars--The Big Steal—which is also very much worth seeing.
Invasion of the Body Snatchers (1956). This classic horror movie was an early masterpiece from Don Siegel. Its tale of normal Americans being turned into pod people without human feelings scared the pants off me when I was 12 years old: I dared not close my eyes lest I should fall asleep and lose my soul. The film is a less pretentious parallel with Ionesco’s Rhinocerus and Karl Capek’s War With the Newts, both of which touch on the same theme of dehumanization. Over 60 years later, observing the descent of Americans into watchers of reality TV and consumers of TV news, I am even more terrified. Siegel went on to make Dirty Harry, The Shootist, and several other good cops-and-robbers movies, but this inexpensive early flick shows what a real director can do even without money or stars.
I Vitelloni (1953), is chosen almost at random from my favorite films of Federico Fellini, which include Lo Sceicco Bianco, Luci della Varietà, 8 and 1/2, and Il Bidone. The “vitelloni” of the title are over-grown calves, who grew up during WW II and its aftermath and cannot seem to get on with their lives. The movie is set on the Adriatic coast, where the filmmaker grew up, and was the first big hit for actor Alberto Sordi. Unlike Fellini’s later films, where as he was running out of imaginative gas, he had to dabble in fantasy, this film enchants us with the drab lives of everyday people, all of them treated with kindness and good humor.
Sedotta e Abandonnata (1964). Seduced and Abandoned is Pietro Germi’s masterpiece. Inspired by newspaper accounts of a Sicilian seducation and elopement, Germi (North Italian from Genoa) plays off the cheerful and naive North Italian carabinieri against the grave and violent Sicilians. In one memorable scene, the cops, who are trying to find a village where a murder is supposed to be taking place, lose their way. The tall dumb blond—the Polentone—suggests that he asks directions. His boss, older and wiser looks in disbelief as the kid asks three locals who do not move a muscle of their faces. When he climbs back into the jeep he comments, “They must not know where it is.” Anyone who wants to understand the ongoing North/South clash in Italy should watch this film several times.
Les Enfants du Paradis (1945), a melancholy masterpiece by Marcel Carné. It is worth seeing if only for the beauty of the filming and for its depiction of mime theater. Truffaut, who spent his life hating and envying Carné—as well he ought—once said he would trade all his films for this one movie. I agree entirely though that is not much praise for Carné. I don’t weep at movies, but I keep a handkerchief handy for this one.
Underground (1995), a bizarre historical fantasy and political allegory directed by the brilliant Bosnian (at that time Muslim) Emir Kusturica. During World War II, a group of Serbs is lured underground to work in a munitions factory, where they continue to slave away through the Tito years. The plot is too preposterous to be summarized, but I have discovered people who know nothing about either modern history or the Balkans who fell in love with the film. If there are any geniuses making films these days, Kusturica must lead the pack, and his surreal realism is enhanced by the Gypsy music score of Goran Bregović.
The Testament of Doctor Mabuse (1933). In 1922 Fritz Lang had made a silent masterpiece, Doctor Mabuse the Gambler, four and a half hours about a criminal mastermind whose exploits typify the corruption of the Weimar Republic. In this sequel, Mabuse dies in a hospital, but his crime wave continues—I am not going to spoil it. Mabuse’s rhetoric is eerily reminiscent of statements made by the leaders of the Nazi Party. The film was banned, and Lang, though a famous director, fell into disrepute. As a Catholic with a mother who converted from Judaism, he had reason to be nervous and left. I rented this film on a whim: It is barely a talky—there is about as much spoken dialogue as could be represented by the captions in a silent—the sound and the video were scratchy, and my limited German, even with the aid of subtitles, is not conducive to enjoyment. And yet, and yet, the whole film is terrifying. Lang made many fine films, both in Germany and the United States, but this one haunted my dreams and scarred my waking life for weeks.
Yojimbo (1961). Akiro Kurosawa did 8 or ten films this good or better, but I find the comedy—and the moral actjion—of this film irresistible. The plot, later ripped off by Sergio Leone for his wretched Fistfull of Dollars, pits Toshiro Mifune as a comical samurai who plays off two sets of criminals until they have killed each other off. Of course, Kurosawa had in mind (though he did not rip off) Dashiel Hammet’s The Glass Key, which was made into a pretty good movie with Alan Ladd. In Yojimbo a samurai at loose ends and a sense of humor-—imagine a humane and intelligent prototype for Eastwood—-pits two sets of criminals against each other. Kurosawa took at least part of Hammet’s point in his novel and turned it into a comic masterpiece about political corruption and the creative uses of duplicity. If you don’t know Kurosawa’s work, this is a great place to start.
Thomas Fleming is president of the Fleming Foundation. He is the author of six books, including The Morality of Everyday Life and The Politics of Human Nature, as well as many articles and columns for newspapers, magazines,and learned journals. He holds a Ph.D. in Classics from the University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill and a B.A. in Greek from the College of Charleston. He served as editor of Chronicles: a Magazine of American Culture from 1984 to 2015 and president of The Rockford Institute from 1997-2014. In a previous life he taught classics at several colleges and served as a school headmaster in South Carolina.