It was tricky keeping up with classic films this year. It’s not that I didn’t see many – I actually saw 137 films pre-1980 – but with a full-time freelancing schedule and contemporary films to review it was hard to remember every single piece of media I consumed. The 16 films assembled below are worthy of being labeled a new discovery by me mainly because, come the end of the year, I still remembered exactly why I enjoyed them. So, let’s say goodbye to 2018 and hello to 2019 with the 16 films I discovered during the last year.
I Lived With You (1933)
You’ll see a common thread with many of the choices on my list: they all star Ida Lupino. I did an extensive binge of Lupino’s work this year as part of my year-long Centennial Celebrations series for TCM Backlot. I Lived With You is from Lupino’s early British period where she played platinum blonde daffy heiresses. Here, Lupino plays the “bad girl” in a family who fall under the spell of a presumably penniless Russian prince, played by Ivor Novello. The film has pre-Code levels of sauciness and Lupino is fine but she’s not the star of the movie. It’s Novello who ended up capturing my attention. For years I’d only known him as the creepy star of Hitchcock’s The Lodger (1927) but it was wonderful seeing him play such a fun comic character. This movie is easily found on YouTube, but I wish a studio did a proper release.
Deanna Durbin is utterly delightful, I’ve come to that realization. It Started With Eve is such a sweet-tempered comedy, but I wouldn’t expect anything less from director Henry Koster. The film follows Durbin’s Anne as she becomes entangled in the lives of a wealthy playboy (played by Robert Cummings) and his supposedly dying father (Charles Laughton). The mistaken identity conceit works perfectly here, with Durbin and Laughton having such a pure chemistry – it actually makes up for Robert Cummings being the weak link. Durbin saved Universal from bankruptcy, and while most people assume it was just for her voice, it was actually her ability to make you laugh while crying!
They Drive By Night (1940)
After watching Ida in so many zany comedies, I was ready for her to switch over to the noirish characters she became better known for. They Drive By Night is the story of two truck driving brothers that, on the surface, should sound boring as hell. Instead it’s an operatic look at the rise of a small businessman, played by George Raft, and the woman slowly driven mad by lust. Ida, in case you didn’t know, is that woman. Her performance gives off a Lady Macbeth vibe as she tries to give Raft’s Joe a reason to be with her. When a murder happens it causes a break in Lupino’s character that actually turns her from one-note villain into tragic protagonist. Only Lupino could make you empathize with a murderer.
High Sierra (1941)
High Sierra and They Drive By Night are practically kissin’ cousins; both star Lupino, are directed by Raoul Walsh, and involve a taciturn man with a past driving for long periods of time. In this case, High Sierra follows Humphrey Bogart’s Roy Earle, a thief recently released from prison tasked with taking a group of inexperienced criminals to a California resort to pull off a heist. There’s so much depth to this film, probably because John Huston co-wrote the script. The film isn’t simply about Earle transforming a gang of neophytes into thieves, but Earle’s own attempt to turn himself into someone worthy of love and respect. Much of this comes courtesy of Lupino’s Marie, a woman Earle casts aside because women are “bad luck,” but who is also trying to change her own past (a common theme for many of Lupino’s heroines). When the inevitable happens you’ll be disheartened that these two don’t get their happy ending.
Out of the Fog (1941)
I’ve talked about Out of the Fog to death since I saw it earlier this year. In fact, I’ve made at least four different friends watch it, purely so I can gush about how amazing the pairing of Ida Lupino and John Garfield is. This movie has everything: amazing coats, moral ambiguity, Eddie Albert! But really it’s all about Ida and Garfield, who have so much chemistry the dock threatens to catch on fire. I’ll never not believe that the movie should have ended with her going off with Garfield’s Goff to Cuba! Yes, he was a bad guy but who didn’t want them to get together?!
Ladies in Retirement (1941)
I actually didn’t know until I looked that Ladies in Retirement is available on DVD. Guess I have no excuse not to purchase it now. Hearkening back to Lupino’s English roots, the film deals with a domestic servant, played by Lupino, struggling to keep her employer happy and take care of her mentally ill sisters. The film may be directed by Charles Vidor, but it feels like a woman directed it. The decisions Lupino’s Ellen makes all stem from her desire to keep her family together, yet she’s cognizant of the fact that her sisters are difficult to live with. The more committed Ellen becomes to her family, the worse her work situation gets leading to a melancholy ending that’s so beautiful and heartbreaking simultaneously.
The Sea Wolf (1941)
Last Ida movie, I swear! The Sea Wolf is actually patient zero for creating my love of both Ida Lupino AND John Garfield. Fun fact, I technically saw this twice in 2018. The first time was at home, watching the original cut of the movie because I was too cheap to spring for the newly restored Blu-ray Warner Archive put out. But when it was announced that the restored cut would screen at the TCM Classic Film Festival I decided to see it as it was meant to be seen. It also helped I interviewed Michael Curtiz biographer Alan K. Rode who did an amazing job selling the new cut to me. So, I went and saw The Sea Wolf on the big screen and despite having the mother of all colds during the festival I was so enthralled by the movie. It’s tale of a sea captain run amok and the lives he puts at risk is incredibly intense. Ida is beautiful. And I’m fairly certain I saw fireworks when John Garfield popped up. Easily the best film experience of 2018!
The Lady From Cheyenne (1941)
I really wish this was on DVD because it’s one of the most eye-opening (by 1941 standards) rom-coms I’ve seen! The film stars Loretta Young as a woman eager to open a schoolhouse in the small Western town of Laraville. But when the local mayor burns down her schoolhouse, Young’s Annie decides to get justice by campaigning for women’s suffrage. (Her goal is to get women serving on juries.) There’s just so much about this movie that, for 1941, is shocking to see. Annie and Laraville’s women band together to change the laws to allow them to seek justice for crimes committed against them. Annie navigates local politics with the aid of an African-American valet (played by Willie Best) who’s presented as smarter than the white men in government. It’s evident this script was fed up with the way things were being run, and the men in charge, so sought to show that women could effectively do the job better. This movie has aged so well!
One of my goals in 2018 was to watch one of the films Bette Davis made with her legendary rival, Miriam Hopkins. I did confuse this with 1943’s Old Acquaintance, so imagine my surprise when I didn’t see Davis choke out Hopkins. But it was all for the best because The Old Maid is utterly delightful and remarkably feminist. The film follows Davis’ Charlotte Lovell, who is in love with her cousin, Delia’s (Hopkins) old beau. The movie doesn’t shy away from the fact that Charlotte and Clem (played by George Brent) hook up, and when Clem disappears Charlotte is left with a child to raise. But, again, instead of hiding things the movie simply omits. Charlotte starts an orphanage/school which allows her to raise her illegitimate baby safely. The problem lies in Charlotte’s hopes for her daughter, which require legitimacy. This movie is just so intriguing in how it posits two women raising the same child. Where does motherhood begin and end? It’s even better knowing these two actresses, off-screen, despised each other and much of their interactions on-screen feel bigger than the narrative itself. I think about this movie a lot and what it says about femininity, friendship, and child-rearing.
I’m a sucker for gaudy Technicolor pieces and A Date With Judy is as flashy as a 1950s high school prom! The film follows the titular character, played by the always adorable Jane Powell. Judy sets her sights on an older man, played by Robert Stack of all people, but has to complete with her frenemy, Carol Pringle. (To quote my original review, Carol Pringle is played by “Elizabeth freaking Taylor.”) A Date With Judy is filled with so much loveable weirdness, from the fact that Judy’s parents look old enough to be her great-grandparents, to her father (Wallace Beery…you see!) having a series of shenanigans with Carmen Miranda that leaves Judy thinking the two are having an affair. And let’s not forget the fact that Taylor wasn’t 18 but is gussied up to look 35, or she just looks like Elizabeth Taylor.
I talked a lot about John Garfield in 2018. I talked about him so much I created a column about him JUST so I could keep on talking about him. I love him and it’s not fair that he’s been dead for 60-some odd years. But I digress. Four Daughters is one of the most darling movies you’ll ever think to come across. This slice of Americana follows the Lemp daughters as they navigate life, love, and music. For our purposes though you only need know of Ann Lemp (played by the cherubic Priscilla Lane) and Garfield’s Mickey Borden. What makes Garfield so great in this is that it’s his film debut playing the little black raincloud who continually reminds Ann and her family that life sucks and they need to check their privilege. (Okay, he might not say it in those exact terms.) Mickey’s final farewell in the film is tragic, even more so knowing the sequel sees Ann still lusting after the utterly boring Felix Deitz (Jeffrey Lynn). I’ve watched this movie countless times and I’ll never forgive Ann Lemp!
This is quintessential film noir, as well as John Garfield’s most famous performance. I can’t say it ranks as highly for me as Four Daughters, but that might be because I prefer Garfield when he was stretching in more dramatic fare than the gritty noirs he was put in regularly. This movie though is highly fascinating, mainly because it has such a sympathetic femme fatale for most of it. Lana Turner’s Cora Smith isn’t cold and calculating like Phyllis Dietrichson. She wants to make the roadside diner her husband owns into something. Her husband, on the other hand, has more simple pleasures and plans to keep his young wife isolated. Cora is a poor woman seeking independence, but she also understands in order to gain independence – at the time – one must needed to trust in men. Turner and Garfield are utterly electric, but really I was just captivated by Turner’s empathetic performance.
The Chase (1966)
If memory serves I wrote nearly 1,000 words about Arthur Penn’s The Chase and I really don’t think I need to rehash it so all I’ll say is please read my original review.
The Passionate Friends (1949)
This is one of two discoveries I made while watching the late app, FilmStruck and I’m still a bit blue over losing such an invaluable service. The Passionate Friends is directed by legendary auteur David Lean and, surprisingly, isn’t available on DVD at all. The film is a love triangle involving Mary (Ann Todd), her older husband, Howard (Claude Rains), and her former flame, Steven (Trevor Howard). The film isn’t a tawdry melodrama but a quiet, contemplative examination of love and regrets. Really it’s all about Lean’s camerawork (no surprise). There’s a scene in the movie involving a business card, with the camera cutting between it and Claude Rains’ face that shows how the interplay of two images can convey meaning without explaining it outright. Such a beautiful masterpiece.
This is another romantic melodrama I appreciate more for technique than story, and it’s also (sadly) unavailable on DVD. Merle Oberon plays Lydia McMillan, a woman spending the day reminiscing about love with three of her former beaus. The film is incredibly hokey at times, but director Julien Duvivier crafts a swoony portrait of romance that veers on fantasy. Characters remember things only to have others contradict their memories, the changes reflected in the camerawork that unfolds. When Lydia remembers a dance as an opulent, jewel-encrusted wonderland it’s exquisitely filmed, only to have Joseph Cotten’s Michael remember it as a simpler affair. This is such a breathtaking, richly layered film.
Saturday’s Children (1940)
Okay, I had to include just one more John Garfield movie on here. Like Lydia, Saturday’s Children can be a bit trite, but Garfield wears glasses! And he speaks Spanish! And it’s actually a very sweetly-tempered story of two people struggling to make it as a couple, and how responsibility removes one’s rose-colored glasses very quickly.
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.