THE BLACK CAT (Edgar G. Ulmer)
A truly bizarre and memorable mash-up of horror, revenge, architecture and necrophilia. The best of the Boris Karloff/Bela Lugosi pairings directed by the man who practically invented the word “cult”.
IT HAPPENED ONE NIGHT (Frank Capra)
Director Frank Capra and screenwriter Robert Riskin may not have invented the rom-com, but this one was so perfect, they might as well have. IT HAPPENED ONE NIGHT set the standard that is still trying to be met today, with varying results. Of course, casting had a lot to do with it. As it often goes with eventual classics, it was anything but a smooth sail to success. Clark Gable was on loan from M-G-M, (reluctantly, according to Capra). A long list of actresses were either rejected or turned down the role that eventually went to Claudette Colbert, who rejected it once herself. Colbert continued to fuss during shooting, often arguing with Capra. On completion, she said “It’s the worst movie in the world”, nearly skipping the following Academy Awards, so sure that she would not win. She was wrong.
IT’S A GIFT (Norman Z. McLeod)
The best film from an under-rated comic genius, W. C. Fields. Fields’ comic persona was the very embodiment of the hen-pecked husband. Not until Larry David did we have a guy who was so forever fighting little battles, some of which were not actually brought on by himself. It’s hard not see a bit of one’s own predicaments in his travails. Just watch as he tries to get a decent night’s sleep after a hard day’s work. Hilarious.
L’ATALANTE (Jean Vigo)
A legendary French film that was re-discovered and restored decades after it was released. Its young director tragically died soon after it was completed, leaving forever unanswered the question, “What more wonders could he have created had he lived?”. Cited by many film-makers and movie lovers as one of their favorite films of all time. Featuring Michel Simon, one of the great actors of French film, this gem has a uniquely lyrical quality all its own. Leos Carax’ THE LOVERS ON THE BRIDGE can be considered a direct descendant.
THE SCARLET EMPRESS (Josef Von Sternberg)
Von Sternberg’s most extravagant production, and that’s saying a lot. Once again with Marlene Dietrich, this one takes great liberties with the story of Catherine the Great. Over-the-top in many ways, it did not do well at the box office, but is now considered a gem. Some movies are slices of life. This one is a slice of cake.
TARZAN AND HIS MATE (Cedric Gibbons, Jack Conway)
The second and best of the long-running Tarzan series. During its making, Hollywood’s new Production Code was about to come down. But not before Tarzan and Jane could have a nude swimming scene, further ensuring their image as one the happiest, best-adjusted couples on the silver screen.
THE THIN MAN (W.S.Van Dyke)
Based on the Dashiel Hammet novel, the first and best of the series featuring Nick Charles, a retired detective, and his socialite wife Nora. The plot is a mystery, but the real mystery is the delightful relationship between Nick and Nora. William Powell and Myrna Roy are perfectly cast.
TWENTIETH CENTURY (Howard Hawks)
Just as Capra was practically inventing the rom-com in the same year, Howard Hawks was doing the same for the “screwball comedy”. John Barrymore and Carole Lombard face off in a brilliant Ben Hecht and Charles MacArthur script that never stops delivering. Hawks proves once again that he could not only handle just about any genre, but he could excel in them. He would be returning to the world of the screwball with another beauty, BRINGING UP BABY (1938).
DEATH TAKES A HOLIDAY (Mitchell Leisen)
Death visits a wealthy family to claim a new victim, but falls in love instead. Stagey and talky to be sure, with a hammy performance by Fredric March as The Grim Reaper in human form, but fascinating at the same time. The unusual premise is deftly developed by the able (and underrated) director Leisen. You could call this one a guilty pleasure. Remade in 1998 as MEET JOE BLACK with Brad Pitt.
IMITATION OF LIFE (John Stahl)
The original version (before Douglas Sirk’s in 1959), less glossy and more straightforward. If the subversive humor of Sirk is missing from this version, it is made up for by the sincerity and empathy of John Stahl’s sensitive direction. Holds up quite well after all these years.