In honor of National Classic Movie Day I’m participating in the Five Stars Blogathon hosted by the Classic Film and TV Cafe. Be sure to check out the other fine contributors here.
Ask any two classic film fans to name the film stars that opened their mind to cinema of the Golden Era and neither answer would be the same. In doing this list I decided to skip some of the bigger stars in favor of celebs who have personal resonance for me. Here are my five favorite stars and a few films to get a crash course. Feel free to share your five favorite stars in the comments below.
Long time readers of the site shouldn’t be surprised to see this lovely lady drop in first. Veronica Lake isn’t the actress who got me into classic film – it wasn’t until I was in college I even saw one of her films – but she’s so magnetic I had to learn more about her. Thus I started a quest that hasn’t let up in over three years to learn about her life and career. There have been highs and lows; Veronica is the apotheosis of complicated. No matter the flaws in her personal life, it’s impossible to ignore her amazing film output. Lake came to symbolize the ’40s noir femme with her blonde peekaboo hairstyle, but she was also adept at romance and comedies. (I’d argue she’s a better comedienne than she is as a serious actress.) Some films worth your time: I Married a Witch (1942), Sullivan’s Travels (1941) and This Gun for Hire (1942).
Again, not a surprise to see aquatic beauty Esther Williams on a list of my favorite classic film stars. Williams’ bubbly effervescence buoys her film’s plots as much as her swimming skills. (I’m done with swimming puns, I swear.) Hollywood attempted to transition athletes into stars several times and Williams herself was a response to the success of figure skater Sonja Henie. I haven’t seen a Henie film but I doubt she could give me the sheer joy I experience watching Williams glide like a mermaid. Her films are predictable, but there’s an inner strength to Williams’ characters that doesn’t get its due. And did I mention that those underwater sequences nearly killed her? She suffered for her art! Some Williams films to watch: Dangerous When Wet (1953), On an Island With You (1948) and Thrill of a Romance (1945).
I’m all for A-list leading men like Bill Holden or Humphrey Bogart, but there’s no truer man’s man for me than James Garner! Like Steve McQueen he exuded a confidence that’s intoxicating and jumps off the screen. He was tough enough to start as hard-boiled detectives, cowboys and action heroes, and charming enough to steal the hearts of several leading ladies. He also had some excellent comedic timing, starring as the straight man in several hilarious comedies. He worked in practically every genre, short of horror. (If there’s a James Garner horror film out there, please let me know!) Everytime I see him on-screen I swoon. Stare at the beauty of James Garner in Victor Victoria (1982), The Thrill of It All (1963) and The Americanization of Emily (1964).
Miriam Hopkins is my blonde haired cookie full of arsenic, to borrow from Burt Lancaster. Hopkins was a difficult woman. There’s a reason she should toe-to-toe in a long-standing feud with Bette Davis – worse than anything Davis and Joan Crawford had going on. And yet, Hopkins is so damn cute in everything. She was a pre-Code darling who playing prostitutes, con artists, rape victims, you name it. Her characters still seem shocking and provocative today, yet Hopkins’ high-pitched voice lends everything an air of acceptability. Like James Garner, she can be serious, funny, evoke tears, or seduce, all in equal measure. Some Hopkins films worth checking out: Trouble in Paradise (1932), The Mating Game (1951) and The Smiling Lieutenant (1931).
I gotta close things out with my favorite song and dance gal, Ann Miller! Miller isn’t the best actress but she was touted as the fastest tapper ever, and I can believe it. Many of Miller’s characters were little girls content to show off her talents, either for attention or to distract from brewing trouble. You know you’re in for some rapid-fire dance the minute Miller lifts her skirt above her knees. And you have to respect how costumes were often altered to allow her to dance unimpeded. Watching Ann Miller dance can solve any problem. Enjoy Ann Miller in Kiss Me Kate (1953), On the Town (1949) and Stage Door (1937).
A freelance film critic whose work fuels the Rotten Tomatoes meter. I've been published on The Hollywood Reporter, Remezcla, and The Daily Beast. I've been featured in the L.A. Times. I currently run two podcasts, Citizen Dame and Ticklish Business.