6 Films – 6 Decades

To celebrate this year’s National Classic Movie Day on May 16, the Classic Film and TV Cafe has offered bloggers an awesome task and I had to bite. We are being asked to list one favorite film for six decades in the 6 Films – 6 Decades Blogathon. I have chosen to start with the 1920s and end with the 1970s. My chosen films are – in my opinion – not only worthy watches, but also worthy repeated watches, great films that represent the decades during which they were released.

So as not to repeat this at every step, this assignment proved torturous, but fun. Here we go…

1920s – Sunrise: A Song of Two Humans (1927) directed by F. W. Murnau

The 1920s could have easily gone to one of the great comedies by Chaplin, Keaton or Lloyd, but when I think of visual perfection, a film photographed so beautifully that it barely needs title cards; the honor has to go to Murnau’s Sunrise. This is a masterpiece, a grand example of what silent films could accomplish. Visual perfection.

The story in Sunrise is simple. A Woman from the City (Margaret Livingston) tries to take the husband (George O’Brien) from a young wife (Janet Gaynor). The young couple are farmers and the City woman’s guile is too much for the young man to resist as she uses her powers to convince him to drown his wife and move to the city. I will not say whether that happens, but know that Sunrise illustrates the couple’s journey with magnificent beauty and a tension that is difficult to ignore. This film must be seen.

O’Brien and Gaynor in Sunrise

1930s – Swing Time (1936) directed by George Stevens

I was tempted to choose a pre-code given many casual movie fans are not familiar with movies made during that unique period. Except that for me, the movies that signify the 1930s are the lavish Astaire-Rogers musicals, which I grew up watching.

Swing Time is directed by George Stevens. This was his first musical, made when he was the top director at RKO Pictures. As I watched these films in succession for another entry, I noticed something I never had before, Fred and Ginger’s dancing in Swing Time is more mature than in previous films. The emotionally charged “Never Gonna Dance” sequence has always been my favorite and it alone makes this a memorable film although every single routine in this is a masterpiece. Many people consider Top Hat (1935) the best Astaire-Rogers pairing and I admit its plot is stronger than Swing Time’s. For me, however, the legendary duo is never better than in Swing Time, their fifth picture as a pair.

Rogers and Astaire in Swing Time

1940s – The More the Merrier (1943) directed by George Stevens

I have long had a great admiration for director George Stevens who is not usually mentioned in conversations about top tier directors, but his versatile filmography is astounding. Stevens is the only director to get two mentions on this list of a mere six films, which should show you how much I enjoy his work. For the decade of the 1940s, my favorite, I choose The More the Merrier from 1943. Here we have a delightfully refreshing tale with an extraordinarily talented cast, a comedy revolving around the housing shortage during World War II.

The More the Merrier stars Jean Arthur, Joel McCrea and Charles Coburn. I cannot better the words of Variety about this hard to resist picture, “A sparkling and effervescing piece of entertainment, The More the Merrier, is one of the most spontaneous farce-comedies of the wartime era.” You cannot go wrong with the charm of this piece and today’s audiences can learn about WWII to boot.

Arthur, Coburn and McCrea in The More the Merrier

1950s – The Big Heat (1953) directed by Fritz Lang

Based on a Saturday Evening Post series and novel of the same name by former Philadelphia crime reporter William P. McGivern, Fritz Lang’s, The Big Heat is one of those movies I want to force everyone to watch. It features a compelling story thanks to Sidney Boehm’s screenplay, Lang’s taut direction, and outstanding performances. In the much-admired film noir genre, The Big Heat looms large.

The action in The Big Heat kicks off when detective Dave Bannion (Glenn Ford) becomes suspicious of another cop’s suicide. As Bannion begins to poke around, he discovers a world of crime in which players are willing to go far and corruption that runs deep. This is an ugly world of bad people and the presentation is stark in all manner of ways. Glenn Ford is perfect as the honest cop with violence simmering under the surface with Jocelyn Brando playing his innocent wife, Katie. Jeanette Nolan delivers as the holder of secrets that can bring down the bad guys. As Bertha Duncan, the widow of the deceased cop, Nolan uses her husband’s suicide for gain and is as rotten as the worst of the bad guys and the worst of them is Lee Marvin as Vince Stone, the top henchman in the deeply entrenched syndicate run by Mike Lagana (Alexander Scourby) who is also appropriately menacing.

All those people in all those parts would make The Big Heat worth your time, but the best reason to watch by far is Gloria Grahame as Debby Marsh. Grahame’s journey in The Big Heat is something to behold. She is the heart of the film, a woman who transitions from a vengeful femme fatale to a saint and hero, settling the final score with the bad guys when Bannion cannot. The Big Heat allows for a unique role for a woman and in Gloria Grahame’s capable hands, it becomes unforgettable.

Grahame and Ford in The Big Heat

1960s – Wait Until Dark (1967) directed by Terence Young

The sixties were more difficult for me than I thought. For quite a bit, I was stuck between Psycho and The Manchurian Candidate. The former broke the mold and the latter never fails to move no matter how many times one sees it. Sam Peckinpah’s The Wild Bunch also permeated my thoughts for a while considering its role in ushering in the new style of reality that caused a revolution. All of that is impressive, but I could not ignore a little picture in comparison, Terence Young’s Wait Until Dark from 1967.

I laud Wait Until Dark as often as possible because it does not get the attention it deserves. The movie stars Audrey Hepburn who turns in a great performance as a young, blind woman terrorized by thugs who are after drugs believed to be stashed in her apartment. In his second movie role, Alan Arkin is fantastic as one of the villains in this with Richard Crenna, Efrem Zimbalist, Jr. and Jack Weston rounding out the group.

Wait Until Dark never fails to get my heart racing although I know exactly what is going to happen and when. One particular scene gets me out of my seat from the punch it packs. The thrills are helped along by Charles Lang’s terrific photography, Henry Mancini’s music and Terence Young’s effective direction.

Arkin and Hepburn in Wait Until Dark

1970s – Network (1976) directed by Sidney Lumet

The seventies is another decades during which a myriad of memorable motion pictures now considered classics were released and I love a boatload of them. But, the fact that it is eons ahead of its time, the fact that is a searing satire that doesn’t lose its power, the fact that is remains so vividly real, makes Sidney Lumet’s Network (1976) my pick for this decade.

The cast of Network is outstanding. Faye Dunaway, William Holden and a short, but heartbreaking supporting performance by Beatrice Straight are enough to make Network a first-rate motion picture, but Peter Finch’s portrayal of Howard Beale makes this one of the all-time greats. He is quoted with regularity to this day.

Written by Paddy Chayefsky, Network is both upsetting and entertaining. It would be outrageous if not for the fact that most, if not all, of what is depicted in the movie has actually happened. Sidney Lumet’s mastery at the helm makes an unforgettable picture. As is usual for Lumet, his work here is intellectual and visceral.

Holden and Finch in Network

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Those are my choices. I cannot wait to see what films everyone else chooses. Bu sure to visit the 6 Films – 6 Decades Blogathon at the Classic Film and TV Cafe. The event will be held on May 16 for National Classic Movie Day.

12 thoughts

  1. Great choices! I agree that George Stevens is very underrated, especailly considering that he worked in so many genres and directed all of them well. I’m glad to see The More the Merrier in the list, as well as Network. As for my favorite Astaire-Rogers film… I think I’ll have to marathon them all again and then choose!
    Cheers!

  2. Some great picks here! I saw “Wait Until Dark” again just a few months ago — a fantastic thriller. I can hear the soundtrack in my head as I write this.

  3. It’s really hard to narrow the choices down, isn’t it? As always, your article is beautifully written. Astaire/Rogers films were high on my list, too – and Swing Time is truly divine….making me now rethink all my choices….

  4. I knew your list would be perfection! ❤ Sunrise is always at the top of the heap for me too. (**weeping in my head as I think of it again**)

  5. Swing Time features two of the best songs of any Astaire-Rogers musical: The Way You Look Tonight and A Fine Romance. Top Hat is good, but I could easily side with on Swing Time being better–or at least, its equal. As for The Big Heat, yes, the “best reason to watch by far is Gloria Grahame as Debby Marsh.” She ranks among top five best femme fatales in film noir history!

  6. I really like your list, Aurora, and how you’ve covered different genres. If someone was looking for an introduction to classic film, your recommendations would be an excellent place to start.

  7. An impeccable list – and I’m especially glad you included Network, Paddy Chayefsky’s bulls-eye prophecy. I watch it every so often just to fall on the floor laughing (and crying).

  8. Great list! Network is one of the best from the 70s, a decade filled with masterful films. Wait Until Dark is a great thriller. I actually got to Lee Remick in the original Broadway production. The Big Heat is classic as is The More the Merrier.

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