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One time Orson Welles and I were talking about Greta Garbo. Welles adored her as an artist and was raving about her extraordinary presence, her mystery, her magic. I agreed. But wasn't it too bad, I said, that out of all the many films she'd appeared in, only two (George Cukor's Camille and Ernst Lubitsch's Ninotchka) were really good movies? Welles looked at me a long moment and then said, quietly: "You only need one...."
Well, the majority of the filmmakers in this book--like the majority of the actors--are represented by only one film. My hope is that readers may be so intrigued by the one they read about, and then view, that they will search out the several others I've noted at the end of each recommendation--and thereby find themselves again in the presence of the same personality, the same aura.
Writing nearly all of these pieces (or their nucleus) on a weekly deadline for my column on the TV page of the iconoclastic New York Observer, I was decidedly at the mercy of what the next week's (uncut and uninterrupted) New York City television selections were to be. Usually I chose either the film I thought was best or the one about which I felt most impelled to write at that moment.
Occasionally, if I had recommended one director's work over too many weeks, I would make another choice. Or if there was an arcane picture I thought wouldn't appeal to as many people, I would go instead for a more easily understandable or popular choice, because essentially I was writing not for film buffs but for an audience with a wider interest than movies and so with less time for the esoteric. Also, since it was primarily a New York audience, fewer Westerns (to which I'm partial) were chosen because I've found that this genre seems to be the least favorite among New Yorkers.
The idea for the form of this book came from my excellent editor at Ballantine, Associate Publisher Joe Blades, who suggested that organizing the pieces (with quite a few expanded and some new ones written) into a functional weekly cycle that spanned a year would give readers a useful structure they could follow--running a picture a week, with choices appropriate for certain holidays or celebrations. Joe also suggested that I attempt to include only films that are available for rental or purchase at video stores. The final list of movies, therefore, is by no means definitive. Nor do I think it in any way covers all the best pictures made--or even all my own personal favorites--although certainly a number of both are included.
Each of these movies is worth seeing at least once--and many of them, far more often. However, the overall book is not designed for diehard film buffs but rather for the intelligent general reader whose life does not revolve around movies, yet who might be interested in devoting a couple of hours every week to a classic or near-classic picture that still works for a contemporary audience, still has relevance and resonance.
The original notion of my writing these pieces came from Peter Kaplan, talented and resourceful editor in chief of Arthur Carter's enterprising New York Observer; Peter has my warmest gratitude for giving me a current voice in my hometown. (The last time I wrote about pictures on a regular basis was for a monthly column in Esquire in the early 1970s, though I did do a two-year weekly five-minute spot on older movies for CBS News's national morning television show at the end of the Eighties.)
Apart from placing relevant pictures on certain dates--like John Ford's Irish comedy-romance, The Quiet Man, on St. Patrick's Day--my main objective was to hold the reader-viewer's interest from week to week, varying comedies, dramas, directors, stars, subjects in a flow that would be continually diverting and enjoyable. I've never been a big believer in art as medicine, something to be experienced "because it's good for you," though I definitely believe that quality work in any medium can be uplifting, healing, transforming. Obviously, some of these films are more challenging than others: Singin' in the Rain or Bringing Up Baby is easier to absorb than Contempt or Ugetsu. While many readers will skip around as they please, or ignore certain recommendations, the book has been designed for those who want to follow the suggested route.
The first pass at this material revealed obvious prejudices: I had six movies by Howard Hawks, six by John Ford, six by Ernst Lubitsch, six by Orson Welles, six by Jean Renoir. Over half of the year with five directors was not exactly a great idea for a general book of this kind (even if it might make me perfectly happy). My own predilections still being somewhat apparent, I've tried to give a far broader overview, and limited (to three or four) the number of films by the same director, so that now there are thirty-two directors of the fifty-two films (though Stanley Donen and Gene Kelly codirected their single entry).
Here's how the directors break down:
Frank Capra 2 Charles Chaplin 1
John Cassavetes 1 George Cukor 3
Stanley Donen 1 Kenji Mizoguchi 1
Allan Dwan 1 Otto Preminger 2
Blake Edwards 1 Carol Reed 1
John Ford 4 Jean Renoir 3
Jean-Luc Godard 1 Roberto Rossellini 1
Howard Hawks 4 Don Siegel 1
Alfred Hitchcock 3 Josef von Sternberg 1
Buster Keaton 1 George Stevens 1
Gene Kelly 1 Preston Sturges 3
Ernst Lubitsch 3 Frank Tashlin 1
Alexander Mackendrick 1 Jacques Tourneur 1
Elaine May 1 King Vidor 1
Leo McCarey 1 Raoul Walsh 1
Vincente Minnelli 2 Orson Welles 3
Unfortunately, this totally leaves out quite a few older filmmakers (not to mention the younger ones or my contemporaries) whose work I admire or cherish: Robert Aldrich, Ingmar Bergman, Budd Boetticher, Frank Borzage, Luis Buñuel, Claude Chabrol, René Clair, Roger Corman, Fed-
erico Fellini, Samuel Fuller, Tay Garnett, D. W. Griffith, John Huston, Chuck Jones, Stanley Kubrick, Akira Kurosawa, Gregory La Cava, Fritz Lang, David Lean, Jerry Lewis, Joseph H. Lewis, Harold Lloyd, Sidney Lumet, Anthony Mann, F. W. Murnau, Max Ophuls, Eric Rohmer, John Stahl, Jacques Tati, François Truffaut, Edgar G. Ulmer, Billy Wilder, and numerous others.
I also regret the lack of films with black stars or by black directors, and the inclusion of only one picture directed by a woman (Elaine May). But this I'm afraid fairly accurately reflects the minority situation in pictures of the past, only recently beginning to be remedied. In line with the interests of the general-audience majority to whom the book is addressed, there are also far fewer silent films and foreign films than I might prefer. Similarly, screenwriters, photographers, and other key credits are only occasionally specified.
Since stars have always been the main drawing card in pictures, a list of those included might be of interest. Although such brilliant American supporting players as William Demarest, Edward Everett Horton, Agnes Moorehead, and Eugene Pallette each appear twice, and the superb French character-man Marcel Dalio appears three times, only thirteen name actors herein are featured more than once.
The recurring stars are:
Ingrid Bergman 2 Maureen O'Hara 2
Joseph Cotten 4 Barbara Stanwyck 2
Cary Grant 7 James Stewart 3
Katharine Hepburn 3 Gene Tierney 2
Gene Kelly 2 John Wayne 2
Shirley MacLaine 2 Orson Welles
Dean Martin 2 (including one narration) 4
All of the following appear in only one picture each, and a number of very important stars--Greta Garbo is a glaring example--are unfortunately not represented; however, there are certainly quite a number who are: Don Ameche, Judith Anderson, Dana Andrews, Eve Arden, Jean Arthur, Fred Astaire, Mary Astor, Lew Ayres, Lauren Bacall, Brigitte Bardot, John Barrymore, Wallace Beery, Eleanor Boardman, Humphrey Bogart, Charles Boyer, Eddie Bracken, James Cagney, Leslie Caron, Charlie Chaplin, Maurice Chevalier, Suzanne Cloutier, Claudette Colbert, Jackie Coogan, Gary Cooper, Dolores Costello, Donald Crisp, Tony Curtis, Marlene Dietrich, Kirk Douglas, Irene Dunne, Tom Ewell, Aldo Fabrizi, Douglas Fairbanks, Nina Foch, Henry Fonda, Pierre Fresnay, Jean Gabin, Clark Gable, Ben Gazzara, Farley Granger, Jane Greer, Rita Hayworth, Audrey Hepburn, Judy Holliday, Tim Holt, Trevor Howard, Josephine Hull, Betty Hutton, Emil Jannings, Buster Keaton, Grace Kelly, Machiko Kyo, Burt Lancaster, Priscilla Lane, René Le-Fèvre, Oscar Levant, Jerry Lewis, Carole Lombard, Kevin McCarthy, Jeanette MacDonald, Roddy McDowall, Michéal Macliam-móir, Anna Magnani, Dorothy Malone, James Mason, Raymond Massey, Walter Matthau, Elaine May, Virginia Mayo, Joel McCrea, Robert Mitchum, Frank Morgan, James
Murray, Patricia Neal, Donald O'Connor, Jack Palance, George Peppard, Michel Piccoli, Walter Pidgeon, Vincent Price, Lee Remick, Jean Renoir, Debbie Reynolds, Ginger Rogers, Mickey Rooney, Gena Rowlands, Eva Marie Saint, George C. Scott, Frank Sinatra, Erich von Stroheim, Margaret Sullavan, Spencer Tracy, Rudy Vallee, Alida Valli, Robert Walker, Clifton Webb, Dana Wynter.
It will be noted that the heavy emphasis is on pictures made before the 1960s. One of several reasons for this is that I think there's a huge overemphasis in American culture on the new, and far too many younger filmgoers seem to think that movies began sometime in the Seventies or Eighties, and evince absolutely no interest in anything earlier. That Hollywood pictures overall have got progressively worse since the early 1960s--except for a brief renaissance almost a decade later--is a fact acknowledged and lamented by nearly every film critic and historian. The choices here are a small attempt to redress the balance and current topical emphasis, to give a hint of the vast treasures that (in our home-video age) are out there for the taking from the years roughly between 1920 and 1960, the true golden age of the movies. Of course, there were numerous superb films made before the Twenties and after the Sixties, but (I repeat) this book is in no way intended as an all-encompassing view.
Another undeniable reason for the preponderance of pictures of the 1940s and 1950s is that these are the years in which I was growing up, and I'm afraid that filmgoing affections connect unalterably to a person's own life (though this doesn't easily explain my fondness for the 1930s). Movies--as with all popular culture (perhaps as with all cultural events, as well as all other experiences in life)--are often anchored in memories of where we were and who we were with and what we were like when first exposed to them. There's no way around it: Even outright trash can achieve a special glow for someone if the person associates it with a happy time in his or her life. I was extremely fortunate that my father took me to silent pictures (at New York's Museum of Modern Art) when I was a child, so these essential founding blocks of the medium never seemed strange or distant. If you want to give your children a broader horizon in their lives, get them at a young age to see good pictures of far earlier decades than their own.
Anyway, here's a breakdown by decade of the films herein recommended:
1920s 4 1960s 4
1930s 11 1970s 1
1940s 18 1980s 1
A couple of years ago, a brand-new 35mm print of Alfred Hitchcock's North by Northwest (see Week 32) was playing at a big-screen theater near my home. I hadn't seen it that way for close to thirty years, though I'd originally watched the picture in theaters five times in its first seven years. Since the start of the home-video age, I had seen the movie a couple of times and still enjoyed it, but not until seeing it again on the big screen did I realize conclusively what a gigantic difference screen size does make. I was instantly reminded of my dear mother's remark that the difference between seeing a film on a theater screen as opposed to television was like the difference between seeing a painting on a wall and looking at a reproduction of it in a book. Behind this may be yet another reason why younger people have a hard time with older pictures: They've only seen them on the tube, and that reduces films' mystery and mythic impact.
In my earliest Manhattan days of serious movie talk, if you'd seen a film exclusively on TV, we just used to say you hadn't really seen it at all. What can we do about this today? There are now fewer and fewer revival houses, more and more ways of seeing pictures at home. But there simply is no way to duplicate the wonderfully dreamlike, yet communal, experience of a theater screening: a live audience, a large screen, a good 35mm print. After only nine months even the biggest hit of recent years, Titanic, could be seen only on the small screen. I don't really see a solution to this huge cultural dilemma, except to push for the funding of large-scale revival houses in every major city, with an increasing supply of new prints of classic films.
After all, it's only movies that are commonly referred to as "old." Nobody says, "Have you read that old book by Dostoyevsky?" or "Seen that old painting by Rembrandt?" or "Heard that old symphony by Mozart?" or "Seen that old play by Shakespeare?" If you have not seen a movie, it is new. Yes, certainly many films date badly (as do many books, symphonies, paintings, and plays). But many do not date at all. Even though their makers and their casts may all have died, the work can remain forever fresh and young, eternally new, profoundly rewarding.
From the Trade Paperback edition.