A day or so ago, one of my oldest friends—we’ll call him Jackson, since he has a mania for anonymity that transcends my understanding—asked me to come up with a list of movies that his daughter (14 going on 15) should see. Now, I’m the last person on earth I’d ask such a thing. (Let’s face it, I’m the guy who had a four-year-old daughter who could sing “Sweet Transvestite” from The Rocky Horror Picture Show.) But then I’ve never rated Jackson’s judgment all that high. After all, he’s been friends with me for 38 years. That tells you something.
In what I can only call typical Jackson fashion, he gave me such vague information as “Charlotte can handle black and white, and she can handle old. She’s not too good with boring, though.” Jackson’s always been helpful like that. A flurry of e-mail exchanges followed, which allowed me to get a somewhat clearer picture of what she had and hadn’t seen and how she’d responded. Even so, this consisted of things like, “As far as I know, she is zilch on Marx Brothers, Fields, West, and Chaplin,” and “Has seen Barkleys of Broadway (1948) and part of either Top Hat (1935) or Swing Time (1936).” I also learned that she seems to find Johnny Deep “creepy,” liked Rocky Horror when she was younger, has seen O Brother, Where Art Thou? (2000) and Fargo (1996), and that she “seemed a bit disturbed by Across the Universe (2007).”
Yes, it would have helped to learn why she found Across the Universe disturbing. Or maybe not. She may truly be her father’s child, and her father is responsible for a piece of movie criticism that has baflled me for a good 30 years—the complaint that Ken Russell’s The Music Lovers (1970) has “too many busts in the backgrounds.” I won’t say I find the criticism un-entertaining, but I also don’t see that it offers much room for discussion. It is, however, unique, I suspect.
Now, I do suspect that the idea of indirect advice is wise. The daughter is at the perfect age to be resistant to parental input (at least I hope she is) and may be more likely to consider the advice of a perfect—or even imperfect—stranger. Almost everyone knew more than my parents when I was that age, which is perhaps only fair, since my mother still seems to believe that I know less than just about anyone (except as concerns political affliations).
Anyway, I’m kind of saddled with this task and have opted to come up with some titles that seem to me might fit the bill—and, of course, I’m hoping that readers toss some suggestions my way before it’s over.
Let’s start with the established gaps of Chaplin, the Marxes, W.C. Fields and Mae West. The question of what I’d suggest in general for anyone wanting to explore these folks’ work is complicated by trying to factor in the likelihood of the appeal to a nearly 15-year-old girl. Having never been a 15-year-old girl, that’s on the tricky side to say the least. Even though I was once 15, that’s not much help, because I was well into these things at 15. Still, I’ll give it a shot.
Working chronologically, we first hit Chaplin, though that crosses a daunting span from 1914 to 1957. I’d eschew the antiquity and the more modern (relatively speaking) titles. The early films—however clever they might be—seem to take place in an alternate universe that can be hard to relate to, and the later films don’t present Chaplin in his most recognizable form. Left to my own choice, I’d probably call City Lights (1931) his best film—and it would be useful to cross-reference with Woody Allen’s Manhattan (1979), since Allen’s film offers a variant on Chaplin’s ending shot. But—and this is dependent on the young lady’s minset—I have a tendency to think that the social commentary, the cocaine gag and the slicker production values of Modern Times (1936) might be a better bet, since it’s edgier. At least, I’d consider it on that basis.
If one Chaplin film proves successful and there’s a desire to look at his range, I’d go for one of his talkies. The edgiest title is certainly Monsieur Verdoux (1947) with its serial-killer hero. The most sentimental is Limelight (1952). The most political is A King in New York (1957). Again, we’re in the realm of the—to me—unknown personality involved. All are excellent films and A King in New York is a good starting point for learning about HUAC and the McCarthy witch-hunts of that era.
A similar quandary exists with the Marx Brothers. Here the question becomes the taste for the anarchic vs. the taste for a “well-crafted” storyline. If you want to just go ahead and take the plunge into full-blown Marxism, then the best of the lot is Duck Soup (1933), though it does have one aberrant aspect that makes it perhaps not the best choice for meeting the boys. It lacks both a harp solo from Harpo (which suits me fine) and a piano solo from Chico (which suits me less well). With that in mind, I might suggest going with Horse Feathers (1932). The football game ending is a little weak, but the movie overall has everything that defines the Brothers. All this presupposes a taste for the anarchic. There’s a chance that the more conventionally plotted A Night at the Opera (1935) would go down better. A Day at the Races (1937) has its merits, too, but I wouldn’t hit anybody of any age with anything later than that for a first outing or they might not go back.
W.C. Fields presents the dilemma of being a comedian who in broad terms is traditionally not liked by women. He also falls into specific periods. His early sound features and his last four starring films present Fields as a character not only devoid of sympathy, but one who would refuse it if it was offered. There’s a more lovable Fields at the heart of such mid-1930s films as You’re Telling Me (1934), It’s a Gift (1934), The Man on the Flying Trapeze (1935) and Poppy (1936). In that regard, I think I’d suggest You’re Telling Me, but that may be because I’ve seen It’s a Gift too many times. And it should be mentioned that The Man on the Flying Trapeze (1935) wouldn’t be a bad choice.
However, I’m going to make a bold suggestion and say that International House (1933) is the way to go. OK, it’s the more acerbic Fields and he doesn’t come in till the movie’s at least a third over, but you also get George Burns and Gracie Allen, Cab Calloway singing “Reefer Man,” Baby Rose Marie (who would grow into Rose Marie of Dick Van Dyke Show fame) singing “My Bluebird Is Singing the Blues,” Bela Lugosi and lots of risque pre-code dialogue and even more risque pre-code costumes on the chorus girls. That’s a whole lot of cultural touchstones crammed into one 70 minute movie. I think a friend of mine put it best when reviewing this movie years ago—“You need own no other movie!”
Mae West is easier. She Done Him Wrong (1933) is probably her most iconic movie and Leo McCarey’s Belle of the Nineties (1934) is certainly her most stylish (simply because it is Leo McCarey’s). But I think I’m No Angel (1933) is her most immediately appealing to the uninitiated. It’s also the raunchiest—in relative terms. Plus, not only does Mae actually say, “Come up and see me sometime,” she sings it, and she adds the immortal “Beulah, peel me a grape” to her repertoire. There’s also the bonus of Gregory Ratoff in the supporting cast. Plus, there’s something appealing about the way that in this one film we actually see Mae rise from grubby beginnings—where she sings “They Call Me Sister Honky Tonk” to a crowd she openly calls, “Suckers”—to a more glamourous position in life.
Branching out from classic comedy, I think I’d apply the same logic to drama that I did to comedy where International House is concerned and head straight for Edmund Goulding’s Grand Hotel (1932). It’s a good movie in its own right, but its greatest value here lies in its position as a kind of Whitman’s Sampler of movie stars of the era. In one fell swoop, you get introduced to John Barrymore, Lionel Barrymore, Wallace Beery, Joan Crawford, Greta Garbo, Lewis Stone and Jean Hersholt. (There are some bonus character actors, too, like Ferdinand Gottschalk, Raffaelo Ottiana, Tully Marshall, and the always welcome Edwin Maxwell.) Nearly all the stars—except perhaps Crawford—did better work, but my guess is that if you don’t like them here, you’re probably not going to like them elsewhere. That may not be true of Wallace Beery who is uncharacteristically cast in a completely unsympathetic—downright repellent—role.
Other strong candidates for drama—bearing in mind that it’s necessary to draw from movies that are readily available on DVD—might be Josef von Sternberg’s Blonde Venus (1932), which is part of a so-called “Glamour Collection” of Marlene Dietrich titles. This is by no means the best of the Sternberg-Dietrich movies, but the best—Shanghai Express (1932)—is not available on DVD at least on Region 1. (It’s truly appalling that so many American classics are readily available in the UK and Europe, but not here.) Blonde Venus, however, is an amazing looking film and something of an essential outburst of uber-stylish kitsch. We’re talking about a movie in which Dietrich comes out onstage in a gorilla suit, strips down to her real self, dons a blonde afro wig and sings “Hot Voodoo.” Later on she appears in all-white white-tie-tails-and-top-hat and sings “I Couldn’t Be Annoyed.” There’s nothing like it—and it’s good preparation for seeing Bernardo Bertolucci’s The Dreamers (2003), which I wouldn’t recommend for a 15-year-old—unless we’re talking about a singularly mature 15-year-old.
John M. Stahl’s Imitation of Life (1934) is also a really solid choice for someone just dipping into movies of this era. It has the benefit of being a well-crafted drama with strong performances from Claudette Colbert, Louise Beavers, Warren William and Fredi Washington—not to mention a winning comedy turn from Ned Sparks. It’s also a film with a social conscience on the topic of racism that is of its time, ahead of its time and still relevant today. It’s a movie that my daughter knew from an early age—and she happened to be at the recent Asheville Film Society screening where, even at the age of 33, she ended up having to wipe her eyes.
While I’d personally introduce a young person to Rouben Mamoulian’s Love Me Tonight (1932), which gets my vote as one of the truly great musicals—and just plain great movies—of all time, I think it might be best left for later. Instead, I’d start with the Mervyn LeRoy-Busby Berkeley (LeRoy did the straight scenes, Berkeley the musical numbers) film Golddiggers of 1933 (1933). This is arguably the best of the Berkeley musicals—certainly its ending is the most daring (and while I won’t say any more about it, it’s not surprising that nothing like it was ever done again). It’s also fast and funny—in that special way that only pre-code movies can be. It’s also a good springboard to Berkeley’s almost psychedelic The Gang’s All Here (1943) with Carmen Miranda in Technicolored glory.
I’m a little alarmed that Jackson’s daughter has only seen The Barkleys of Broadway, easily the least agreeable of all Fred Astaire-Ginger Rogers pictures, and I’m equally concerned that she’s only seen “part” of Mark Sandrich’s Top Hat and George Stevens’ Swing Time. I don’t, however, know why the latter is true. If it’s because she didn’t care for them, I’d probably give up Fred and Ginger—at least for now—or try a smaller, cruder dose with their first movie Flying Down to Rio (1933). It’s possible that its sheer outrageousness will impress in a way that the gentler charms of the others didn’t.
Being who I am (having written a book on the topic), it would be remiss of me to not suggest at least one Charlie Chan movie, especially now that all the Fox Chans that are known to exist (four are still missing) are out on DVD. I suppose I might suggest Hamilton MacFadden’s The Black Camel (1931) or Gordon Wiles’ Charlie Chan’s Secret (1936), if only because producer John Cork and I did audio commentarries on those, and she could listen to me pontificate about the movies (which is more than I’ve ever done with the discs).
Those, however, are not my first choice as an introduction. I’d go for H. Bruce Humberstone’s Charlie Chan at the Race Track (1936), which has always seemed to be the film that most completely embodies what we mean by a “Charlie Chan picture.” And should she undertake it, dad can tell her to watch closely for the scene where Charlie (Warner Oland) notices something awry during a race. Why? Well, Keye Luke (who plays Charlie’s “No. 1 son,” Lee) once told me that Oland—a notoriously heavy drinker—was pretty well gone when they shot that scene. So Humberstone had everybody crowd in behind Oland to prop him up and then fired a gun nearby to startle him into that expression.
If you’re going to do mysteries, though, it’s essential that you also try W.S. Van Dyke’s The Thin Man (1934) and John Huston’s The Maltese Falcon (1941). There’s probably no need for me to suggest the former to Jackson, but the latter is one of those movies—like Michael Curtiz’s Casablanca (1942)—that you don’t have to like, but that you need to see regardless. You also need a Sherlock Holmes movie—and from a movie standpoint that means one with Basil Rathbone and Nigel Bruce. The best is probably Alfred Werker’s Adventures of Sherlock Holmes (1939), but there’s something to be said for the updated (occasionally Holmes vs. the Nazis outings) films made at Universal. In that case, Roy William Neill’s Sherlock Holmes and the Secret Weapon (1942) is probably the cleverest blend of traditional and modern. But beware—this one fell into the public domain and there are some lousy copies out there, so try to get the one in the sets put out by MPI.
Presumably, he’ll want her to have some kind of frame of reference on the horror film, especially since Jackson’s own tastes include that genre. You can’t really do this without the basics like Tod Browning’s Dracula (1931), James Whale’s Frankenstein (1931), Karl Freund’s The Mummy (1932) and Whale’s The Invisible Man (1933), though those may not have the most obvious appeal in that all of them but The Invisible Man might seem a little slow to a 15-year-old in 2010. But I’m not sure you can get around them. I’d also add Whale’s Bride of Frankenstein (1935), Michael Curtiz’s Doctor X (1932) and one of the Karloff-Lugosi titles—either Edgar G. Ulmer’s The Black Cat (1934) or Lew Landers’ The Raven (1935). (Since Jackson has a good grounding in classical music, The Black Cat would offer the chance to go into another area of art in discussion.)
And that’s the very tip of the horror iceberg. GeorgeWaggner’s The Wolf Man (1941) isn’t a very good movie, but it’s not only an essential, it definitely has an appeal to those who are at “that awkward age,” though I’m unsure how it would resonate with a young woman. Robert Siodmak’s Son of Dracula (1943) is a terrific—and surprisingly grim—movie with a lousy Count Dracula (Lon Chaney, Jr.) working against it. None of this figures in Karloff’s “Mad Doctor” series at Columbia, and if you want to bring that in Edward Dmytryk’s The Devil Commands (1941) is probably the way to go. But what about poverty row? That’s an area near to Jackson’s heart, but movies like The Devil Bat (1940), King of the Zombies (1941) and The Black Raven (1943) require acquiring a certain mindset for the absurd.
The problem with this whole idea is that here we are about 2700 words into the thing and we’ve barely scratched the surface. I’ve only slightly—and mostly fleetingly—gotten out of the 1930s, and I haven’t gone backwards into the silent era. I’m always amused by Josef von Sternberg’s claim that he was going to take up Chinese philately when he retired because he wanted a hobby he couldn’t exhaust. He must not have realized that he already worked in a realm that could not be exhausted (or he merely didn’t think much of movies he hadn’t made). There’s such an abundance of movies to choose from that it’s overwhelming.
As noted about The Maltese Falcon and Casablanca, there are some things that simply need to be seen for purposes of cinematic literacy. I might personally prefer to skip over Gone with the Wind (1939), but it’s impossible to ignore the damn thing. How do you approach cinematic literacy without including Orson Welles’ Citizen Kane (1941), William Wyler’s The Best Years of Our Lives (1946), Jean Cocteau’s Beauty and the Beast (1946), Carol Reed’s The Third Man (1949), Charles Laughton’s Night of the Hunter (1955), Ingmar Bergman’s The Seventh Seal (1957), Jean-Luc Godard’s Breathless (1960), David Lean’s Lawrence of Arabia (1962), Federico Fellini’s 8 1/2 (1963), and Richard Lester’s A Hard Day’s Night (1964)? You really can’t.
I notice I side-stepped Ernst Lubitsch, so I’ll throw out One Hour with You (1932) or Design for Living (1933) on his behalf. I kind of gave Rouben Mamoulian a glancing blow by not quite suggesting Love Me Tonight (1932), so I’ll toss that—along with his Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde (1932)—into consideration. Preston Sturges got overlooked, too. For pure laughs, I’d say The Palm Beach Story (1942). If you want something deeper, it’s Sullivan’s Travels (1941). Bing and Bob in the various “Road” pictures aren’t in here, and since I fully believe they ought to be and that Charlotte needs to know the source of her father’s Jackson sobriquet, I’m suggesting Road to Rio (1947).
And what about Howard Hawks and John Ford—not to mention such often overlooked directors as John Cromwell, William Dieterle, Harry D’Abaddie D’Arrast, Frank Tuttle, Mitchell Leisen, George Cukor and Stanley Donen? To this end, I offer the following (in order of the list of directors): His Girl Friday (1940), Donovan’s Reef (1963), Since You Went Away (1944), Portrait of Jennie (1948), Topaze (1933), Waikiki Wedding (1937), Death Takes a Holiday (1934), Holiday (1938) and Funny Face (1957).
This only gets to what I’d loosely call modern film, which for me starts with A Hard Day’s Night. Even that could be broken down into sub-headings and raises the question of whether or not we’re still in the modern era, or if we’ve crossed over into some kind of post-modern era. I think a case could be made for both ideas. But that’s another discussion for another time. So are the films of the post-1964 era—at least for now.
I do think I’ve come up with a pretty fair, pretty solid, pretty lengthy list of suggestions, but, as usual, I’ll be more than happy to entertain suggestions from readers of movies that I’ve missed. I’ve already realized a few things that are likely to be considered essential that got past me. Let’s see who else spots them. A couple of them are what we call doozies down home.