When I was a kid, my mom bombarded my sister and me with films from the 1930s and ‘40s (with an occasional one from the ‘50s and ‘60s). I think, in her mind, it was a way of keeping us from the sex and violence of more contemporary movies, although truth be told there was just as much sex and violence, it just tended to start onscreen and quickly move off. Too poor for cable, I was initially reluctant to enjoy these Friday night black and white Blockbuster picks (couldn’t we at least get a movie in…gasp…color?), but I eventually fell in love with them. There’s something about the clothes, the dialogue, the music, the everything that made these films so much more of a fantasy than things being released in the ‘80s and ‘90s. I yearned to talk like the women who populated these films, to move with their slinky grace and assurance, to express emotion with a raised eyebrow, a flick of a cigarette, and a single tear that fell without making my face red and my nose run.
Yeah, they had style. They had grace.
And now that I have access to AMC and TCM I get to indulge in my love of all things Old Hollywood whenever I want. Here are a few of my favorites:
Stage Door (1937). Katharine Hepburn, Lucille Ball, Ginger Rogers. A group of girls inhabit a boarding house for actresses in New York and go through the trials and tribulations of becoming stars. Katharine Hepburn as the rich girl playing poor lured me in, but it’s Ginger Rogers with her fast patter and fantastic dance steps that makes me keep coming back to this movie. The dialogue zings, but as funny of a movie as it is, it’s got an emotional one-two punch at its center. This is the movie that inspired my Rosie Winter mystery series set among (you guessed it) actresses living in a New York boarding house.
Philadelphia Story (1940). It’s my namesake, Katharine Hepburn again, this time paired with Jimmy Stewart and Cary Grant. More razor sharp dialogue (both Stage Door and Philadelphia Story were originally plays and it shows) as Hepburn’s Tracy Lord gets ready to remarry despite unresolved feelings for her ex, Cary Grant. While the three top billed stars are amazing, it’s the supporting cast I love in this film, especially Virginia Weidler as precocious Dinah Lord and acerbic Ruth Hussey as a love-lorn, wise-cracking photographer.
His Girl Friday (1940). The plot is similar to Philadelphia Story, but this time its Rosalind Russell’s fast-talking reporter that Cary Grant is trying to keep from remarrying, while she gets roped into the biggest story of her career. Another play turned film, what’s intriguing isn’t just the marvelous, quotable dialogue but the fact that Russell’s part (in the play, The Front Page) was originally written for a man and the romance angle wasn’t added until this film.
All About Eve (1950). This time it’s Bette Davis in the lead in a film about an up and coming actress (Anne Baxter) who’s trying to usurp the career of one of theater’s grande dames. Witty, gut-wrenching, agonizingly frustrating, this is the movie that made me finally understand why Bette Davis was a star. Bonus points: it was Marilyn Monroe’s first film.
The Best Years of Our Lives (1946). This is my sole World War II entry (thought there’s a lot of other films I could list), but this is the one that really got me thinking about the war and its impact on the homefront and those who were left behind. The movie follows three vets as they return home and find their lives irreparably changed. Harold Russell, a real vet who lost both his hands in the South Pacific, won an Oscar for this, his film debut. It’s one of the few films that deals with what came after the war and how difficult it was for the returning vets to slip back into the lives they’d left four years before.
How ‘bout you? Got a favorite old movie you’d like to suggest?