Monday, October 12, 2009

Top 100 Movies, Part II

The second list of 10 of my top 100 movies, listed in chronological order. Hope you enjoy.

“It’s a Gift” (1934). This comic masterpiece courtesy W.C. Fields is one of the funniest movies ever made. There’s really no story, but a series of brilliantly comic set pieces, including Fields trying to sleep on a back porch, a blind man practically wrecking the general store, and the Fields family inadvertently enjoying a picnic on a rich man’s private property (and wrecking the beautifully landscaped grounds in the process). When Fields accidentally crashes into a statue on the lawn he explains to his wife, “She ran right in front of me.”

“Tarzan and His Mate” (1934). The greatest jungle adventure movie ever made. Gloriously Pre-Code in terms of violence and sensuality, Johnny Weissmuller’s Tarzan and Maureen O’Sullivan’s Jane wear hardly any clothing throughout (or not at all in the famous swimming scene.) There’s also loads of terrifically staged action, and much like a contemporary movie, the ending piles one action scene after another. You’re as exhausted as the characters are by the time it’s over. Let’s not ignore the first part of the movie, which also boasts some of the most famous set pieces of the Tarzan series. This was the first film where Tarzan fought a giant crocodile, re-used by M-G-M in many of their subsequent Tarzan movies. My favorite scene involves an army of gorillas hurling boulders onto members of a safari traversing a trail along a steep cliff, knocking them off screaming into the valley below. And that’s just at the beginning!

“The Bride of Frankenstein.” (1935). One of the greatest sequels ever made, and director James Whale’s pixie-like spirit is evident in every frame. The creation of the bride is one of the great set pieces of the horror film, backed by Franz Waxman’s landmark score.

“Les Miserables” (1935). An unforgettable rendering of the famous Victor Hugo story. Fredric March is Jean Valjean and Charles Laughton is Inspector Javert, under the able hands of the underrated director Richard Boleslawski. I’m in awe when I think that in 1935 Laughton also delivered four-star performances in “Mutiny on the Bounty” and “Ruggles of Red Gap.”

"Top Hat” (1935). My personal favorite of the 10 Fred Astaire/Ginger Rogers movies offers some of their best numbers together, including “Cheek to Cheek” and “Isn’t This a Lovely Day”. In addition to being some of the best musicals ever made, many of the Astaire/Rogers movies are comic gems, and if you snipped out all the musical numbers in this film, you would still have one of the wittiest movies of the era…which means of all time.

“Mr. Deeds Goes to Town” (1936). Probably my favorite Frank Capra movie and yes, I love “It’s A Wonderful Life” (1946), but I’ve always liked the sly comedy here – it’s always great fun to see the country bumpkin pull one over the city slickers and the tentative romance between Gary Cooper and Jean Arthur really gets to me.

“The Prisoner of Zenda” (1937). A glorious example of the swashbuckler adventure movie, and like many movies on this list, this is one perfectly cast movie. I can’t imagine any one better in these roles. Douglas Fairbanks Jr.’s Rupert of Hentzau is the most likeable bad guy you’ll ever meet. He oozes confidence at every turn and relishes in his chicanery, yet you’re glad when he escapes at the end. Everyone remembers the final self-sacrifice parting scene in “Casablanca” (1942), but I think a similar scene here between Ronald Colman and Madeline Carroll is every bit as affecting. The Alfred Newman score shines throughout, especially in these final scenes. If there’s such a thing as reincarnation, I want to come back as Ronald Colman’s voice.

“The Adventures of Robin Hood” (1938). If I did rank my 100 favorite movies of all time, this would be #1 on the list. Like Zenda, it’s perfectly cast, and one of those happy instances where all the people behind and in front of the camera were in the right place at the right time. No subtext here, just full of action, comedy and romance, all in the most gorgeous Technicolor you could ever hope to see. With this version, you realize why the Robin Hood legend has been so popular down through the centuries. The villains are hissable, the final duel between Robin Hood and Guy of Gisbourne (Basil Rathbone) is one of the greatest of all time, and Olivia DeHavilland makes the loveliest Maid Marian ever. The Erich Wolfgang Korngold score deserves to be a favorite in the concert hall. Co-director Michael Curtiz proves there wasn’t a genre he didn’t excel in.

“Angels with Dirty Faces” (1938). Michael Curtiz again. The old tale about two boyhood friends who go their very separate ways only to meet up as adults gets one of its most potent tellings here. One boy grows up to be a priest Father Jerry (Pat O’Brien) while the other becomes the gangster Rocky Sullivan (James Cagney). Rocky returns to the old neighborhood, mentors a street gang (The Dead End Kids), becomes entailed with gangster Humphrey Bogart, all while trying to do well for his old boyhood chum. Cagney brings a crackling intensity that he did to all his roles. This is one 1930s movies that plays very well with contemporary audiences. The ambiguity of the ending will never be solved.

“The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes” (1939). After James Bond, the Sherlock Holmes series starring Basil Rathbone and Nigel Bruce is probably my favorite movie series of all time. I love the Victorian atmosphere that permeates this movie and George Zucco is the ideal Professor Moriarty. Rathbone and Bruce play so well together and are such fun to watch that I don’t care that Bruce’s Watson is more the bumbler than he was in the stories. After all, the 007 of Ian Fleming’s books is not the suave super spy that Sean Connery made him, but do we criticize his portrayal of Bond? No. Actually the Holmes of the stories and novels isn’t the most likeable character either, and Rathbone brings a great deal of humanity and likeability to him. The climax atop the fog-shrouded Tower of London is unforgettable.

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