1. MR. SMITH GOES TO WASHINGTON (1939).
Yes, it’s patriotic, and romantic, and idealised, but Frank Capra’s Mr. Smith Goes to Washington is also one of the greatest American films of all time. It’s a timeless, inspirational tale of the common man standing up for his beliefs, his country, and what his country stands for. Implying that corruption festered at the heart of American politics, it was understandably controversial in 1939, and makes for a fascinating watch today. The screenplay is excellent, and the acting from James Stewart, Jean Arthur and Claude Rains sublime.
Charlie Chaplin’s masterpiece is technically astounding, politically revolutionary, and completely hilarious. In addition to his usual flawless physical comedy, Chaplin ingeniously presents a world halfway between the silent and sound film era, where it’s preferable to be in prison rather than face the misery of mass unemployment, as it would have been for many an unfortunate American soul in the 1930s.
British theatre director James Whale made his name in Hollywood, and became a favourite artist with Universal Pictures with this iconic gothic horror film. It’s loose in the re-telling of Shelley’s story, but makes up for it with striking, expressionistic lighting, timely Depression-era symbolism and an unforgettable and heartbreaking performance from Boris Karloff as Frankenstein’s Monster.
All of the Marx Brothers’ feature films have quotable comic dialogue, and many memorable moments, but Duck Soup is perhaps their most consistent and clever effort. It tells the story of the eccentric buffoon Rufus T. Firefly (Groucho Marx) being appointed the head of a small country that faces ruin from bankruptcy, warfare and espionage. It’s surreal, witty and, most importantly, satirises how idiotic world leaders can be.
Very few films can speak to you as a child, then mean more as you grow older. The Wizard of Oz is one such film — a hugely influential magical fantasy musical that’s all about coming to terms with who you are. Yes, it might not look as good as it once did, but the moment when Dorothy Gale (Judy Garland) steps from the dull, monochrome Kansas into the vivid, Technicolor Oz is still awe-inspiring, the songs are just as catchy, and Margaret Hamilton’s Wicked Witch of the West just as terrifying.
James Whale’s third foray into horror for Universal adapts H.G. Wells’ early sci-fi story about a scientist’s experiments to achieve complete invisibility. He succeeds in his efforts, but is driven mad and begins a chilling reign of terror in his phantasmal form. Claude Rains portrays the largely unseen Griffin admirably with his distinctive, booming voice, assisted by groundbreaking early special effects by that still largely hold up today.
Frank Capra’s unconventional romantic-comic road movie establishes a formula that will be quite familiar to modern audiences. Our streetwise leading man (Clark Gable) and pampered leading lady (Claudette Colbert) initially can’t stand each other, but fall for each other by the end — opposites attract, and all that. Capra, the cast, and screenwriter Robert Riskin make this now-clichéd plot dazzle, however, with social-class commentary, twists involving blackmail, and real chemistry between Gable and Colbert.
Long before Ridley Scott tried to make the mythic English outlaw dark and gritty, you had Warner Bros’ colourful, energetic (and, admittedly, a little camp) swashbuckling adventure starring Errol Flynn. It’s a delightful romp, full of romance, adventure and impressive sword fights and feats of archery (no trick effects involved), notably the exciting climax with Flynn’s Robin crossing swords with Basil Rathbone’s devious Guy of Gisbourne.
Most would choose Bride of Frankenstein as the other great Universal horror film, but I personally love Son of Frankenstein. It’s a well-constructed, atmospheric and fun horror with Boris Karloff returning to play the Monster for a final time, a fine melodramatic turn from Basil Rathbone as a Frankenstein descendent, and Bela Lugosi’s greatest performance as the diabolical and deformed Ygor. It also gave Mel Brooks most of the plot for his spoof Young Frankenstein three decades later.
Disney’s (and America’s) first full-length animated feature film was a landmark event. For the first time, animation was serious business, and not just a curiosity to attach to another worthier feature. Parents with children were finally taken seriously as a film audience, and Snow White’s beautiful hand-drawn animation and lovely (if outdated) songs are a joy for all ages.
Written by Sam Sewell-Peterson — SSP Thinks Film