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Samantha’s Top 10 Film Discoveries of 2021

2021 has come and gone, and what a year it has been. Shockingly, I was able to watch 177 films this past year, 104 of which were new to me. Even more shocking is that so many of my favorite discoveries deal with depressing subject matter when more than ever the world needs escapism onscreen. I hope everyone listens to our discussion of our top three picks on the podcast, but here is my full ranking of my shortlist, which makes a perfect top ten!

10. Idiot’s Delight (1939)

Most Ticklish Business listeners are well aware of my adoration for Norma Shearer. I find everything about her appealing, from her sharp wit to her captivating beauty to her overdramatic acting style that clearly stemmed from her silent film days. To date, I’ve seen twelve of her movies, and in 2021 alone I discovered three: Their Own Desire, Her Cardboard Lover, and this film, which is considered by many to be among her worst.

Most of the criticism that this film receives is directed at Shearer, particularly at her thick, phony Russian accent and her elaborate but equally phony blonde wig. I may be a Shearer apologist in many respects, but this criticism makes very little sense to me. She’s supposed to be a second-rate con artist, and I think she pulls off her part flawlessly. Sure, this movie is completely ridiculous and serves up many crazy scenarios that a classic film fan would never expect to cross off their bingo cards (like Clark Gable singing and dancing, for one thing), but I think that randomness is part of its charm. Another thing that I absolutely adored about Idiot’s Delight was the fact that both the international and domestic endings are shown on TCM. While they’re fairly similar, I much prefer the American ending as I find it less preachy and it perfectly and neatly ties back to the beginning of the film. Seeing both is a rare treat that we don’t often get in classic films and it’s such a fascinating glimpse into history that I won’t soon forget.

9. The Scarlet Pimpernel (1934)

I must admit that out of my top ten, this is the film that I remember the least, but I can’t deny that I loved it when I watched it. Even though I’m already due for a rewatch, this movie easily earns its spot in my ranking. I watched The Scarlet Pimpernel earlier this year with my sister, who’s a huge fan of Leslie Howard.

Howard has never really appealed to me quite as much, and this disagreement has been the start of many fun debates with her, but this film among quite a few others of his that I’ve discovered in the last couple of years has really been turning the tides on my opinion of him.

This picture takes place during the most tempestuous portion of the French Revolution, in which aristocrats were being executed right and left via guillotine. Howard plays Sir Percy Blakely, who takes it upon himself in various disguises to save his fellow countrymen under the titular name of “The Scarlet Pimpernel”, unbeknownst to everyone including his own wife Marguerite, portrayed by the vastly underrated Merle Oberon.

I’ll admit that since Leslie Howard didn’t hold much weight with me at first, I mostly sat down to watch this film because of Merle, and every expectation I had was blown out of the water. While her heritage was undisclosed at the time of this film’s release, it’s so gratifying now to see an Indian woman hold her own in a leading role this early in cinema history and see her tackle espionage in such gorgeous period costumes was thrilling. Raymond Massey also brings a memorable performance as Chauvelin, the French chief of police, and his banter with Leslie Howard provides much of the movie’s riveting dialogue. Even as a film buff on the fence about Howard, The Scarlet Pimpernel is not one to miss.

8. The Big Street (1942)

I really didn’t know what to expect going into The Big Street. I was first made aware of this film at a Blockbuster that was going out of business. Though I was tempted to pick up the DVD, I decided not to, and for some strange reason, I haven’t been able to forget it. Still, I knew that there would be a special opportunity to finally watch it, and I was able to this year when TCM included it among the many underappreciated films of Lucille Ball in their Star of the Month tribute to her.

In it, Lucy plays spoiled and selfish showgirl Gloria Lyons, who is pursued by lowly busboy ‘Pinks’, played by a young Henry Fonda. Pinks’ love for Gloria is unrequited no matter what he does for her, including spending his last quarter on roses for her and pounding the pavement to anonymously pay for her hospital bills after she’s attacked by her jealous gangster boyfriend. This movie truly tore my heart out and stomped on it, but it was so lovely, delightful, and infuriating to watch all at once. It’s hard for me to recall any character loving another onscreen as much as Pinks loves Gloria, much to his own detriment. It’s heartwrenching to watch him sacrifice everything for her happiness when she isn’t the least bit aware or grateful, but you still root for the two of them until the very end.

Every single performance in this is memorable and spot-on from baby Henry Fonda (who I’ll honestly watch in anything at this point) to Lucy to Agnes Moorehead, Eugene Pallette, and a dozen others who round out a strong supporting cast. Though it isn’t discussed much among film fans, it’s considered by many Lucy fans as her greatest dramatic performance, and for good reason. If you admire Lucille Ball or Henry Fonda in the slightest, this is a gem you need to see.

7. Madame X (1937)

In 2020, I watched the 1966 version of Madame X starring Lana Turner and enjoyed it immensely, but until this past year, I had no idea that there were so many other versions of the film. The 1908 play La Femme X by Alexandre Bisson has been adapted over a dozen times, but the most notable Old Hollywood versions are 1929 starring Ruth Chatterton and 1937 starring Gladys George, in addition to Lana’s version.

Seeing Gladys in the 1937 version this past year was a revelation. It’s no secret that the 1930s is my favorite decade in cinema, but Gladys George, who shares my birthday, is an actress from the 30s who I’ve really needed to discover more of. Prior to this, I had only seen her as Madame du Barry in the 1938 version of Marie Antoinette, one of my favorite films, so I was astonished to learn that she was ever chosen to carry a leading role of this magnitude. She portrays Jacqueline Fleuriot, a woman discarded by her husband after learning about her unfaithfulness, who becomes a wanderer and an alcoholic. Twenty years later, she murders a despicable man who threatens to blackmail her wealthy ex-husband and reveal her misfortunes, ruining his career and the life of the son she left behind. The son, unaware of her identity, becomes her defense attorney in her trial.

This film is reminiscent of another 1937 picture, Kay FrancisConfession, but Madame X is uniquely twisted and emotionally scarring. If you leave this one without shedding a tear, I’d be surprised if you had a heart. Perhaps I’ll make it a goal this year to discover the 1929 version and complete this depressing trilogy!

6. Waterloo Bridge (1931)

This film is one I had put off watching for the longest time, primarily because I’m so completely devoted to the 1940 remake starring Vivien Leigh and Robert Taylor. The 1940 version would easily rank among my top 20 films of all time, and its deeply romantic and meaningful plot and performances have resonated with me for ages. I had heard that the 1931 original film was also marvelous, but I was incredulous and stubbornly refused to watch it and let it affect my adoration for the remake until I finally gave it a try in 2021.

The plot revolves around Myra Deauville, a chorus girl who, after struggling to find work in the midst of World War I, turns to prostitution in order to survive. During an air raid, she meets the adorably naïve Captain Roy Cronin, who instantly falls in love with her and offers to pay her rent and elevate her from her current status. Myra attempts to refuse his advances, and we see her fight her feelings for him as he remains unaware of her true profession.

This version is certainly unique and diverts from the remake in a number of ways. Both Mae Clarke and Kent Douglass turn in memorable performances as the two leads, Mae with her genuine and emotional scenes and Kent with his dashing good looks and obliviousness. Though it could never top the 1940 version for me, I learned that this 1931 version can be viewed and appreciated for what it is separately from its remake. I was certainly blown away by how much I admired it, especially for its more realistic glimpse of World War I and also for its suggestiveness, as it was created prior to the Hays Code. If you’re not familiar with either version of this story, I strongly urge you to watch both films, and I can assure you that neither version will affect your sentiments towards the other.

5. The Great Ziegfeld (1936)

It’s truly shocking that this movie has evaded me until this year. As many of you may know, I’m a gigantic devotee of Luise Rainer, the first person to win back-to-back Academy Awards, the first of which was for this film. In 2019, I had the honor of interviewing Luise’s daughter and discussing her life and career, and it’s baffling to me that it’s taken me this long to finally watch one of her most monumental performances.

Despite my very biased reasons for watching it, The Great Ziegfeld is really a biography of famed showman Florenz Ziegfeld, Jr., creator of the Ziegfeld Follies and one of the most successful Broadway producers in the early days of the Great White Way. The film, which is by far the longest on my list with a runtime of two hours and fifty-seven minutes, chronicles the rise and eventual descent of the man, including his two marriages to singer Anna Held and actress Billie Burke. The real-life Billie Burke, who was still a widely celebrated actress at the time of production, was a consultant on the film.

This movie may be a period piece, but it’s so vividly MGM in the 1930s that it completely appeals to me personally. This film is lavish and utterly entrancing, and while the musical sequences are incredibly overdone and drawn out, they’re marvelous and entertaining too, and every single star is magnificent. William Powell turns in one of the greatest performances of his career, and Luise Rainer’s European theatrical background brings a touch of sophistication and sincerity that this glitzy, glamorous studio system film really needs. My only gripe is that I wish Myrna Loy had portrayed Billie Burke a little more accurately. Even though I thoroughly enjoyed her scenes, which I was surprised by considering I’m not usually a Loy fan, I missed the real Billie Burke’s distinctive voice and style. All in all, though, this film feels shorter than its long runtime and is worth every second.

4. Moon Over Miami (1941)

While most of my top ten are quite downhearted, I’m delighted to include one of the most delightful and uplifting musicals I’ve watched to date, Moon Over Miami. I had heard so many great things about this feature, but I didn’t get the chance to experience it in its full Technicolor glory until this year.

In it, Betty Grable and Carole Landis play Kay and Barbara Latimer, two sisters who work as singing carhops in Texas who plan to inherit $55,000. When they find out that the sum will only amount to $4,000 after taxes, Kay suggests spending the entire inheritance on fine clothes and a trip to Miami with the hope of hooking a millionaire. The sisters, along with their Aunt Susan, played hilariously by Charlotte Greenwood, check into the Flamingo Hotel. Kay pretends to be a wealthy debutante, with Barbara playing her secretary and Susan playing to be her maid. Soon enough, Kay has two attractive young millionaires vying for her affections, and the family has to navigate their new territory, singing and dancing along the way.

There is so much to admire about this movie; for one thing, it’s quite possibly the most stunning Technicolor musical I’ve ever seen. It didn’t surprise me in the slightest that the cinematography was by Leon Shamroy, my personal favorite and quite possibly the greatest man in his craft. Add Betty Grable and Carole Landis in their absolute primes, dazzling costumes, and comedic hijinks perfectly executed by Jack Haley and Charlotte Greenwood, and you have yourself a winner.

If I could take off any points at all for this film, I do think that the songs, such as “Kindergarten Conga”, are too rudimentary and corny, but I suppose that’s to be expected. In addition to that, I’ve never been a big Robert Cummings fan and while I do love Don Ameche, I would’ve made his character less grumpy and more appealing. But who needs great leading men when these two ladies are so captivating all on their own? Otherwise, this movie is perfect. Films like this are the reason why I enjoy movies from this era so much. Now someone please find me that heavenly dark red lipstick Betty and Carole wear in every scene. I’m begging!

3. The Toll of the Sea (1922)

In 2021, I had the pleasure of discovering two new-to-me films starring my favorite silent actress of all time, Anna May Wong. While I previously admired her in movies like When Were You Born and The Thief of Bagdad, this year I finally watched two of her more popular and critically acclaimed features: Piccadilly and this film.

Very reminiscent of the Hans Christian Andersen tale of The Little Mermaid, this film revolves around Lotus Flower, a young Chinese woman who finds the unconscious body of American Allen Carver washed up on a shore near her home. After rescuing him, and the two soon fall in love and get married. While Lotus’ husband first promises to bring her along with him to America, Allen breaks his promise, leaving Lotus Flower in China alone. We find out that Lotus is pregnant and watch her raise her son as a single mother, though the situation is complicated when Allen returns to China after several years with his new American wife.

After reading the plot, I knew going in that this would be a tearjerker, but I didn’t expect to spend about fifty minutes of this fifty-three-minute runtime sobbing. The combination of Anna May Wong’s incredible facial expressions, Frances Marion’s brilliant script, the heartwrenching score, and the breathtaking two-strip Technicolor make this film an absolute marvel to behold. This was Hollywood’s first Technicolor feature, and while there was clearly a long way for the studio system to go in terms of inclusion, I’m so delighted to see Wong carry such a monumental project on her back. I only wish she could’ve won an Oscar for this and carried every film she was in for another fifty years because she certainly deserved it.

2. The Harder They Fall (1956)

This past year, I watched eight films starring Humphrey Bogart, five of which were new to me, but I like to consider my whole life as a Bogie-discovering journey, well beyond this one year. I’ve now seen twenty-seven of Bogie’s credits in total, and eventually, I hope to complete his entire filmography, but it was particularly satisfying to finally cross the last film he made off of my list.

This memorable swan song features Bogart as sportswriter Eddie Willis, who is chosen by the shady Nick Benko, played by the tour de force Rod Steiger, to promote his newest boxing find, the Argentinian Toro Moreno. This proves to be a nearly insurmountable job, as Toro is a horrible fighter with no real chance at a title from his own merits. Eddie takes the job anyway, descending into a deadly world of corruption and greed as Nick fixes all of Toro’s fights and cheats his way to the top.

Between Humphrey Bogart, Rod Steiger, and Nehemiah Persoff (who’s incredibly underrated and always understood the assignment, in a supporting role here as Leo the accountant), this film couldn’t go wrong. All three gave memorable, powerhouse acting performances that really packed a punch (pun intended). Every minute of this film kept me glued to my screen, and when I got to the scene in which Leo breaks down the figures to Eddie and reveals how little Toro is going to get for his final fight, I broke down in sobs.

I only have one complaint, and that’s the ending. It was far too abrupt and not nearly as satisfying as it could’ve been. It’s extremely rare that I come across a film that I think needs a longer runtime, but this is definitely one of them. The entire movie we see how ruthless, unfeeling, and underhanded our villain can be, so much so that I don’t think simply implying that he gets his comeuppance is enough. I needed to see him getting exactly what he deserved with my own eyes, and with the ending being somewhat ambiguous I can’t help but believe that Nick didn’t go down without a fight and Eddie somehow got burned after his exposé. Other than that, every minute of this film was flawless.

1. Dog Day Afternoon (1975)

For anyone who knows me, including a film made after 1970, especially at the very top of my list of new discoveries this year, is incredibly shocking. Even more shocking is that a film like Dog Day Afternoon would appeal to me and resonate with me as much as it has, but here we are. I’d also like to mention at this point that prior to watching this film I had never seen an Al Pacino movie, and to this day, I still have not watched The Godfather. Pacino’s film legacy is vast, but nowadays his reputation is somewhat tarnished as many believe him to be an over actor who does nothing but yell.

If I’m being honest, I bought into a lot of that criticism up until I finally watched this movie on my own. In it, Pacino plays Sonny Wortzik, who, along with his friend Sal, attempts to rob the First Brooklyn Savings Bank. The inexperienced thieves immediately run into trouble, obtaining far less money than they expected and becoming trapped within the bank as it’s surrounded by the police. What was meant to be a simple and quick bank robbery turns into an hours-long hostage negotiation as the criminals face an array of obstacles, including heat, and, most importantly, time. The film was based on real events that occurred in 1972, and the original article that appeared in Life magazine chronicling the robbery even compared the robber’s appearance to that of Pacino, giving producer Martin Elfand the idea to make the film.

Every moment of this movie is action-packed, gripping, and incredibly suspenseful. Before I watched this, I didn’t understand Pacino’s appeal, but I certainly do now. He lights up the screen like no other actor could have, and somehow this movie is so ahead of its time, not only for the acting styles that I’m certain were influential to many of Hollywood’s leading men today, but also for much of the movie’s delicate subject matter. I like to make the distinction that I’m an old movie fan and normally this wouldn’t make the cut for me, but it’s undeniable that Dog Day Afternoon is a classic and truly a must-watch.

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