Keeping Up With The Classics
When I talk to fellow movie nerds, we all have a classic or several that we just haven’t gotten around to. Due to our modern sensibilites, it can be hard to fully wrap our appreciation around an older film. Therefore, a lot of pre-1970’s movies tend to end up as mere placeholders on extensive watchlists. So let’s take a look at ten such movies that deserve to make the leap from “I’ll get around to it eventually” to “You guys HAVE to give this one a chance!” This is by no means a definitive list, but it should definitely get the ball rolling and open up some new avenues to explore along the way.
10) Safety Last!
Harold Lloyd gets lost in the conversation of the silent era’s great comedians. Everyone knows Chaplin and Keaton, but Lloyd’s antics are a wonderful mix of hilarious and heart-stopping. In the film, Lloyd plays a down on his luck sales clerk trying to earn enough money for a wedding. When his boss offers $1,000 to anyone who can attract customers to the store, the clerk climbs the storefront. Safety Last! is a fully realized showcase for Lloyd’s abilities as comedian and daredevil. The film is dotted with bits that feature physical comedy and dramatic irony on the way to its harrowing climax. Be sure to keep an eye out for the iconic scene featuring Lloyd precariously dangling from the face of a clock. Safety Last! is every bit as deserving of a “classic” distinction as Chaplin and Keaton’s best.
9) Gunga Din
“Watch your favorite filmmaker’s favorite films” is advice often given to aspiring film makers, and Gunga Din is cited by George Lucas and Steven Spielberg as the inspiration for Indiana Jones. The film deviates from the Rudyard Kipling poem on which it is based and follows a trio of British soldiers in India searching for lost treasure while fighting off the vengeful Thuggee cult. It’s easy to see why this film left such an impression on a young Spielberg and Lucas. The pacing and character interactions crackle with energy and the three leads embody what we love best about our movie heroes. Cary Grant, Douglas Fairbanks Jr., and Victor McLaglen play the mischievous trio with all the gravitas one would expect from early Hollywood hunks. To see how Spielberg and Lucas marked their career with inspiration, rather than adaptation, look no further than Gunga Din.
8) Duck Soup
The Marx Brothers’ skill for wordplay is unparalleled and Duck Soup is a blistering example of that. Boasting an insane premise where Groucho is appointed the leader of a bankrupt nation, the film sprints through a 68-minute run time and it is the viewer’s job to keep up. Born out of the oldest Vaudeville traditions, The Marx Brothers duck and weave through every comedy style imaginable. Featuring wordplay, puns, double entendre, and political satire from the three vocal Marx brothers, and coupled with Harpo’s uncanny physical comedy, Duck Soup is a perfect way to satisfy any Marxists in your life (come on, I had to)!
7) The Adventures of Robin Hood
The many iterations of Robin Hood have seen varying success, but one stands above all the rest. Starring Errol Flynn, as Robin Hood and Olivia de Havilland as Lady Marion, The Adventures of Robin Hood is a technical masterwork. The sound of the arrows flying through the air and hitting their targets is regarding as some of the best sound design in cinema history. Errol Flynn steps into the role of Robin of Locksley so effortlessly that he overtook Douglas Fairbanks as the most iconic portrayal of the character. The film was nominated for four Academy Awards, including Best Picture, and won three. The thrilling sword fights that pepper the story informs modern action directors. The structure of the film is rock solid and helped set the pace for any adventure film of note from that moment forward. The Adventures of Robin Hood is a classic by any measure.
6) The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari
The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari is the most adventurous pick on this list. Hailed as a staple of German Expressionism, a film movement born out of the aftermath of World War I, the film revolves around an insane sideshow hypnotist who uses one of his patients to perform murders. On a surface level, The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari seems simple. However, the film spirals into a paranoid maze and ends with a twist. The visual style of the film is as twisted as its story, and you can see its influence in the works of Tim Burton, the recent indie-horror film The Babadook, and even a music video for The Red Hot Chili Peppers. Also, the psychological horror is engrossing and the sharp angles give the film a unique look to make it stand out above other silent films. Expressionism was the last big cultural movement in Germany before Hitler’s rise to power. As such, the movement has been the subject of much debate about whether or not it paved the way for the tyrant, or tried to warn an unwitting public of the dangers ahead.
5) Universal Monsters
Admittedly, lumping all the monsters together for one entry is a bit of a cop-out. But there is something great about every entry! Bela Lugosi’s Dracula is menacing and seductive all at once. Lon Cheney’s transformation into The Wolfman stands the test of time. And not just because of the make-up. Cheney embodies the conflicted man caught between doing right in his human form, and a wild animal subject only to his Id when he transforms. Boris Karloff disappears into Frankenstein’s creation so fully that it’s hard to remember there is an ordinary man behind the bolts. My personal favorite is The Bride of Frankenstein. Not only does it feature Elsa Lanchester’s rocking that iconic up-do, but it also gets to the heart of what measure we define humanity. Horror movies function a lot like magic tricks. The thrills and chills are simply a misdirection to sneak in some thematic weight that will stick with you long after the creeps have gone away. The Universal Monsters have staying power for that very reason.
4) The Day the Earth Stood Still
Good sci-fi looks to the future to reflect the present. Great sci-fi looks to the future to reflect timeless truths. The Day the Earth Stood Still is a Cold War classic with a message about peace for the ages. The film centers around Klaatu, an alien looking to bring peace to a divided planet. He is immediately attacked when exiting his craft, and lays a series of history altering events in motion. Robert Wise is a legendary genre filmmaker and this movie places his talents on full display. Klaatu’s ominous proposal brings the film to a bleak, but sobering conclusion. The film exists in an uncertain and fearful time, but uncertainty and fear didn’t resolve with the Cold War. The exploration of the suspicion that lies in the hearts of man is convicting. It is a film that might be able to ease aching hearts in tumultuous political climates. Besides, it’s good enough for Sam Raimi to blatantly reference in Army of Darkness. Which means it’s good enough for modern audiences to give it a look.
3) A Trip to the Moon
Georges Méliès single-handedly defined the principles of film making. Most know him as Ben Kinsley’s lovable curmudgeon from the excellent film Hugo. But Méliès is arguably the most important figure in cinema history. As a former magician, he fell in love with the cinemagraph and immediately began pioneering illusions to capture on film. As his career as a multihyphenate snowballed, Méliès began adding narratives to his illusions. Released in 1902, the film is a marvel of visual effects. Méliès relied on matte paintings and in-camera editing to pull off some of these feats, but they are no less stunning when viewed 114 years later. A Trip to the Moon as it is about man’s capacity to innovate when striving for a common goal. The Jules Verne inspired adventure runs for 16-minutes, but its effect on cinema is immeasurable. Unfortunately, Méliès fell into obscurity during World War I and many of his films were burned to make shoe heels for soldiers. Of his nearly 500 films, only 200 still exist in varying condition.
2) The General
Buster Keaton was a master of restraint. Best remembered as “old stone face” due to his deadpan nature on screen. However, he was a restrained film maker as well. When other silent films used 240 intertitles on average, the most Keaton ever used was 56. Keaton preferred to tell his stories visually. As such, this opened him up to explore the nooks and crannies of each scene for the best gags. The General centers around a scrappy train conductor who becomes a major player during The Civil War. Featuring some of Keaton’s most iconic bits, The General is a perfect introduction to silent films. Due to the lack of intertitles, the momentum of the story is able to gather speed and come to a head, much like the titular train. While only relying on visual storytelling, Keaton had to keep things interesting. Knowing this, he serves up some of the most emulated bits of the silent era. In addition to the comedy is a relatable story about figuring out how your talents can contribute to the greater good. Keaton is an all-time great and The General is a classic worthy of any top ten list.
Fritz Lang was German Expressionism’s most optimistic filmmaker. Like his contemporaries, he also crafted surreal horror films. But for his masterwork, he looked to the future. Metropolis follows Joh Fredersen as he navigates the intricacies of the class system his father helped create. Joh ultimately decides that industry and labor can reach a common understanding so long as they work together. Metropolis shines when blended with the aesthetic of expressionism. Lang is a master of the language of cinema. The film runs for nearly 2.5 hours, so it is a commitment. However, the rewards of the film are rich. Metropolis has fingerprints across every noteworthy work of science fiction. Lang fled Germany during Hitler’s reign and found a career in Hollywood.
Show a Classic Some Love
It’s important to know where we came from. So often, contemporary films draw from these classics and viewers may not even know. The purpose of this list is not to whittle down the 10 essentials, but provide a diving board into the depths of cinema history.
What films do you consider nerd classics? Did your favorite make the list? Tell us your comments in the comments below.