Friday, October 16, 2009

Top 100 Favorite Movies, Part IV

Part four of my favorite 100 films, otherwise known as lots of Warner Bros. titles. The list is in chronological order, and this one is all 1940s. The next group of films will finally reach 1950.

“King’s Row: (1941). This is like “Peyton Place” only set at the beginning of the 20th century. On the surface, the title town is an idyllic hamlet in New England, but underneath lays an underbelly of prejudice, murder, insanity, sadism, torrid love affairs, etc. The underappreciated Ann Sheridan is excellent here as a girl from the “other side of the tracks” who shows more common sense and decency than anyone in the “respectable part of town.” Ronald Reagan is quite good too, in what he always thought was his best performance. Another splendid Korngold score. Many people feel the main title here sounds a lot like “Star Wars.” I don’t hear the similarities, though they’re both brassy.

“The Maltese Falcon” (1941). Another perfectly cast movie, and the movie that made Bogart a star. Sidney Greenstreet makes his film debut here and what a happy day that was. Was there ever a more faithful book-to-film adaptation than this? Director and writer John Huston translates pages and pages of the book right to the screen. I understand Erich Von Stroheim literally filmed every page of the Frank Norris novel “McTeague” for his movie “Greed” (1924), but since so much of that footage is lost, I think “Maltese Falcon” wins.

“The Strawberry Blonde” (1941). Jack Warner told director Raoul Walsh he couldn’t direct a love story, as Walsh’s idea of romance was burning down a whorehouse. Not true, as anyone who has seen this film can attest. A wonderful piece of boisterous Gay 90s Americana (no, not that kind), courtesy of Walsh and a stellar cast including James Cagney, Olivia DeHavilland, Rita Hayworth, Jack Carson, Alan Hale and a pre-Superman George Reeves. The film ends inviting the audience to a sing-a-long of the title song. I wonder why more movies haven’t done this, guaranteed to leave the audience with a smile on their faces. Watch Cagney in this and then something like “White Heat” (1949) and marvel at his range.

“The Wolf Man” (1941). The last of the great Universal horror flicks and one of the greatest movie monsters ever. I also love movies set on the English moors and this is one of the best. Lon Chaney Jr. earned screen immortality as the tortured Larry Talbot, visiting his father in England and cursed by a werewolf’s bite. What a cast: Evelyn Ankers, Claude Rains, Bela Lugosi, Ralph Bellamy, Patric Knowles, Maria Ouspenskaya and Warren William. Being a Warren William fan, I wish there was more of him in it, but that’s a small complaint. And no, I don't care that there's no way Claude Rains could sire Lon Chaney, Jr. Don't care at all.

“Casablanca” (1942). There’s nothing I can add that hasn’t already been said.

“Holiday Inn” (1942). Yes, this is the film that introduced the song “White Christmas.” Bing Crosby opens an inn that is only open on holidays, giving him the rest of the year “to kick around in.” Fred Astaire is ex-partner who wants Bing’s new girl Marjorie Reynolds to be his new partner. The film offers one wonderful Irving Berlin song and musical number after another. Astaire’s dance with firecrackers on the Fourth of July is one of the greatest musical numbers ever. The Paramount art department does it again with the wonderful set decoration of that inn. I would spend every holiday there.

“To Be or Not to Be” (1942). More Lubitsch and a daring comedy for its time, one that dared to poke fun at the Nazis while World War II was raging. Sadly, Carole Lombard’s last film. Many comic highlights including a Hitler impersonator answering a chorus of “Heil Hitlers” with “Heil Myself.”
“Yankee Doodle Dandy” (1942). Songwriter and performer George M. Cohan gets the biographical treatment here, with James Cagney winning an Oscar for his portrayal. It’s one of the great performances of all time. Michael Curtiz again directs, as potent a piece of patriotism the movies have ever given us. The musical numbers are great, as is Cagney’s dancing. Special mention should go to Musical Director Ray Heindorf for his work. This is an annual favorite every Fourth of July, but it’s worth watching any day of the year.

“The Gang’s All Here” (1943). I don’t do drugs but if I did I would probably put this on while ingesting. Busby Berkeley is at his most crazed, with a human kaleidoscope at the end (you have to see it, it’s pretty amazing) followed by a swarm of floating heads of the lead actors singing “A Journey to a Star.” Before that we get Carmen Miranda in her giant fruit hats singing “The Lady in the Tutti Frutti Hat” a number loaded with jaw-dropping sexual symbolism. I guess the Hays Office was asleep for this one. A prime example of why Technicolor was invented.

“Thank Your Lucky Stars” (1943). I love all-star wartime musicals. Most of the major studios produced one, but this is my favorite. Warner Bros. is my favorite studio and pretty much everyone on the lot participates. There’s good comedy from Eddie Cantor, very likeable lead performances courtesy Dennis Morgan and Joan Leslie, stars like Errol Flynn and Bette Davis sing and dance, and there’s two of the most underrated film songs from the era, both nicely sung by Dinah Shore: “The Dreamer” and “How Sweet You Are.” But mainly it’s just the air of good cheer the movie exudes.

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