This year ended up feeling a lot like last year in many ways. One of them being I saw about the same amount of classic films as I did last year (thanks, Letterboxd). And in looking back at last year’s list I came up with it was surprising to see how similar this year’s list is to that one. Yes, there will be Paul Newman on here. Yes, you will see Lupe Velez get some love. And thirst dominates a lot of my choices. But I’d like to think I was a bit more discerning with this list. Case in point, if you look at my Letterboxd you’ll see a fair amount of movies I gave high ratings to that didn’t end up here. If I didn’t remember what they were about they didn’t end up here. If only I had a time machine to recall exactly why I loved it. Regardless, these are the features that stuck in my head when 2021 was said and done, the ones that I ended up purchasing, and the ones that helped me get through another bizarre year.
Please note, these are in no particular order. Classic is defined as anything released prior to 1970 or so. If it aired on TCM it’s fair game. If you’re interested in purchasing anything — and want to help Ticklish Biz keep the lights on — feel free to click the title links. All Amazon purchases kick back a small percentage to us.
Honorable Mentions: Imitation of Life (1959), The Killer That Stalked New York (1950, THIS was one to watch in the midst of a pandemic), The Velvet Touch (1948), The Three Musketeers (1948), The Whistle at Eaton Falls (1951), So Young So Bad (1950), Hollywood Shuffle (1987), It Happened in Brooklyn (1947), Doctor, You’ve Got to Be Kidding! (1967), The Big Street (1942), Lured (1947), Greenwich Village (1944), Play Girl (1941), Presenting Lily Mars (1943), Let’s Do It Again (1953), Her Highness and the Bellboy (1945), Moon Over Miami (1941), The Cockeyed Miracle (1946), Married Before Breakfast (1937), Allotment Wives (1945), A Kiss in the Dark (1949), Dangerously They Live (1941), He Ran All the Way (1951), Scissors (1991), The Fortune Cookie (1966), Untamed Youth (1957), The Marrying Kind (1952), On Borrowed Time (1939), Johnny Doesn’t Live Here Anymore (1944), The Girl From Mexico (1939), Downstairs (1932)
I’ll tell you all right now: This was my favorite new discovery of the entire year. If you’ve looked at my Twitter and Facebook then you’ve seen images from this movie as my banner. I immediately bought this as soon as I watched it and I thank TCM Underground programmer Millie De Chirico for bringing this movie into my life. I saw Tommy, the other feature directed by Ken Russell and starring Who frontman Roger Daltrey a few years ago. I liked it, but was far from blown away by it. Tommy walked, so Lisztomania could run, gang. Ken Russell asks the question: were classic composers the first rock stars? The answer, according to Russell, is hell yes. Daltrey’s Franz Liszt is the classic equivalent of Hugh Hefner, prancing around in crazy jackets and tight pants with a cadre of groupies surrounding him. Much of the movie is about just starring at Daltrey in all his opulence — and that’s before we start talking costumes! Sure, there’s a weird third act involving Richard Wagner and Wagner’s theories that the Nazis would end up endorsing. But, hey, before that we get Roger Daltrey sitting astride a 12-foot phallus! This movie is perfect and I will not hear otherwise.
Where last year there were three Paul Newman films this year only had one, but what a one! Martin Ritt and Paul Newman were one of the greatest director/actor duos. Hell, I’d say they still are. So far I’ve seen half of the features they made and it’ll be hard for anything to trump the trio that is The Long, Hot Summer (1958,) Paris Blues (1961), and Hud (1963). Paris Blues reteams Newman and wife Joanne Woodward while adding in the charisma of Sidney Poitier and Diahann Carroll. Where Long Hot Summer was sultry and Hud was cynical, Paris Blues is such a sad story of regret, especially with Newman’s jazz musician Ram Bowen. His relationship with Woodward’s Lillian is so heartbreaking, especially as Lillian is looking at a new life where Ram is mired in his own ambition. Complementing the whole thing is Poitier’s Eddie, a Black man living in Paris who finds the acceptance in the country he can’t find in the U.S., and his desire to risk it all for Carroll’s Connie. This is such an intense movie of emotions I notice new things in every time I see it, and I’ve watched it several times this year.
This was one of two Judy Holliday movies I discovered this year, and with 2021 apparently being the year Hollywood decided to besmirch her (looking at you, Aaron Sorkin), I’m only more committed to giving her some love on this list. Then again, she doesn’t need much help considering how good her films are. It Should Happen to You reassembles the same team that gave us Born Yesterday (1950): director George Cukor, screenwriter Garson Kanin, and star Holliday. Lightning strikes twice, with the story of Gladys Glover (Holliday), a woman who wants to feel significant and thus plasters her name on a series of billboards. As all good influencers know, the mystery of “who is Gladys Glover” is enough to make the woman a celebrity. But as Gladys becomes a burgeoning star it causes problems with documentarian Pete (Jack Lemmon in his first feature), whom Gladys feels a connection with. Everyone is just so damn delightful in this movie, but especially Holliday who you root for. She isn’t seeking celebrity for money or attention, but to feel seen. It also has Peter Lawford in a deliciously scummy performance.
I remember watching Barbara Stanwyck’s dramatic interpretation of Wild West sharpshooter Annie Oakley and being underwhelmed. That was far from the case watching George Sidney’s take on this Broadway musical. Sidney is a musical impresario and many of his musicals I’ve loved (1963’s Bye Bye Birdie, especially). Annie Get Your Gun tells the story of an unrefined woman who discovers a man who “gets” her. I’ve never been much on Howard Keel, who personified the dominating male of the 1940s and ’50s, but he’s perfectly cast as the arrogant Frank Butler. For starters, Betty Hutton’s facial expression every time she sees him never fails to make me laugh. But, more importantly, the script always takes the opportunity to say that Annie is equal if not better than him. There is, after all, a song literally entitled “Anything You Can Do, I Can Do Better.” I’ve watched some of the footage initially shot with Judy Garland before she left the project, and I hate to admit it, but Hutton was the better choice. I’ve sung so many of her songs since seeing this movie and that’s because of how Hutton emphasizes certain words. One of my favorite musicals this year.
Samantha may say she can’t tell the difference between Basil Rathbone and David Niven, but I always can because I find the former to be incredibly gorgeous. Yep, I’m the weirdo who goes for Basil Rathbone. And I defy anyone not to watch this 1935 thriller and not be seduced by him. Aline MacMahon, who most people would know from musical comedy, plays a reclusive woman of means who, out of the goodness of her heart, takes in a man she presumes to be homeless. Unfortunately, Henry Abbott (Rathbone) is a conman who immediately moves in, along with his thieving comrades, into the eponymous kind lady’s home. This feels akin to features like Rebecca (1940), focused on British women having to assert their independence in the wake of forceful and frightening men, but it feels different. There’s something almost Gothic to it, and yet it’s not of that school. There’s a meanness in Rathbone’s character that just makes this feel scary, more so than you’d expect for 1935.
This was the highlight of the 2021 virtual TCM Classic Film Festival and I’m so happy I was able to discover it. Directed by Nancy Savoca with such painful authenticity Lily Taylor plays Rose, a shy, plain waitress invited to a party by the charming Eddie (River Phoenix). Eddie and his friends are prepping to leave for Vietnam and just want to have some fun by engaging in “dogfights” wherein the boy who brings the most unattractive date wins. And for Eddie, that’s Rose. But what starts out as a mean joke soon turns into a discussion about growing up, war, and love. Phoenix and Taylor are so genuine in their interactions, capturing not just the hurt that can accompany growing up, but the awkwardness and warmth. It’s a different type of period piece, of Vietnam movie, and I wish Savoca had become a bigger name.
Elvis: That’s the Way It Is (1970)
I was fortunate to see this not just on a big screen during a pandemic, but on a drive-in screen (courtesy of the American Legion Drive-In here in Los Angeles. Check it out!). I’ve watched my fair share of Elvis Presley movies and I’ve read a few books on the man, but to see this 1970 documentary is to really get a glimpse into what made him The King. Whether that’s Elvis going on extended musical digressions or playing around with his background singers you see what type of musician he was and how performing affected him. I also loved the weird way people, especially women, reacted to him. This is a doc where, at one point, Elvis offers kisses to the audience and women proceed to attack him. I probably would say the same thing, regardless of pandemic, but Elvis definitely had to get a cold or something from making out with hundreds of strange women at one concert! If you’re looking for something to watch before Hollywood gives us that biopic starring Tom Hanks, make it this.
Back Street is a very Kristen movie. It’s soapy as can be, with some truly hilarious acting, and a performance by John Gavin that I loved purely because of how pretty he is. Back Street has been remade a few times, in the 1930s and 1940s. This was an attempt to put it in the vein of Peyton Place (1959) and Valley of the Dolls (1967). It even gives a lead performance to an aging Rita Hayworth who, like Lana Turner, would become synonymous in the 1960s for soapy melodramas like this. But what melodrama it is! Hayward plays the ambitious Rae Smith who falls for Paul Saxon (Gavin at his John Gavin-iest). Unfortunately, Paul is harboring a secret that keeps him and Rae from being together: a shrewish, alcoholic wife deliciously played by Vera Miles. Hayward spends a lot of time crying and driving to wherever Gavin’s Paul says he’ll meet her but the best elements of the movie are Miles’ Liz giving Paul hell every five minutes. If you’re like me you refuse to believe this isn’t the end result of Gavin’s Sam Loomis pity-marrying Lila Crane from Psycho (1960).
This is a weird little feature that went through some truly dizzying genre jumps. It starts out like any romantic comedy with the milquetoast Arthur Earthleigh (George Brent) dealing with his nagging wife. When she goes away on a trip, he meets the drunken, daffy Olive Jensen (a wonderful Ann Dvorak). But Olive’s annoying attitude leaves Arthur frustrated. His neighbor is the suave artist David Galleo (Turhan Bey), who is romancing Deborah Tyler (Virginia Mayo). Without giving too much away suffice it to say things turn to murder — or the fake kind anyway — involving nosy neighbors, a dog, and more. Just when I thought I ad this movie pegged, it went somewhere completely different. Bey was a fantastic leading man and it’s sad he didn’t get to do more parts like this. But this is a frothy and fun movie you should seek out.
Directed by the criminally underrated Curtis Harrington, What’s the Matter With Helen? is a movie that should have been on my radar years ago. Debbie Reynolds and Shelley Winters play mothers of sons convicted of murder who move to Los Angeles to get a clean start in the 1930s. Debbie’s Adelle takes to Los Angeles immediately, opening up a dance school to train child stars. Winters’ Helen, though, struggles with being the mother of a murderer and possibly her love of Adelle. Despite being a B-level horror movie this has some great 1930s fashions and both actresses are just having a blast. This has one of the kookiest, most haunting endings I’ve seen.
This was another TCM Underground watch and I’m so happy I decided to give it a go. Fair warning, this is not a quality picture at all. Then again, can one say anything written and directed by Larry Cohen is? Wicked Stepmother is infamously the final film of grand dame, Bette Davis. And for the first 20 minutes or so, it is. Davis plays Miranda, the new wife the slovenly Sam (Lionel Stander). Sam’s daughter, Jenny (Colleen Camp), immediately thinks Miranda is up to no good and she is. Actually, Miranda is a witch. All of this sounds great but Davis felt the picture was trash, told Cohen she was going to an appointment, and never came back. That certainly sounds like a Bette Davis exit! The rest of the movie conjures up a weird explanation that Miranda and her daughter, Priscilla (Barbara Carrera) inhabit a cat, but can only do so one at a time. So, Carrera takes us through the rest of the movie and she’s just as deliciously campy as Davis. The way Carrera elegantly stalks the screen you can easily believe she’s Davis’ daughter. I love Davis, but damn now I want to see more Barbara Carrera movies.
I spent this last month catching up on nearly everything I taped from TCM’s star of the month tribute to Lucille Ball. My mom’s a HUGE Ball fan so I already knew a lot about the famous red-head, but I was woefully inadequate when it came to her features. This one I’d heard of because of my love for the I Love Lucy episode where she meets William Holden. And, if you live with a Lucy fan, then you already know “They made a movie before this.” Miss Grant Takes Richmond sees Ball as inept secretary Ellen Grant, hired by the charismatic Dick Richmond as a front for his sports betting business. But Ellen takes her job seriously and believes the company is building houses for people. This is definitely in the vein of “dumb girl makes good” but Ball is so skillful at making the audience empathize with Ellen. She’s not stupid by any means and has a huge heart. This was also the film that turned Holden’s career around, giving him a character who looked like a cad on the outside but has inner layers. And there’s a seduction scene in here that uses both actor’s talents so well.
Sometimes FXM, the FX Movies channel, has some quality features from the Fox archives (because we all know Disney+ isn’t using it). This year’s pick from me is The Remarkable Mr. Pennypacker, a bizarre period comedy starring Clifton Webb as a man from the 1900s balancing two families and 17 children. Now, ordinarily, this would be the beginnings of a family drama but….it’s not. Mr. Pennypacker has a reason for why he’s maintained two families, and believe me the movie tries to skirt around things so that Webb doesn’t look like a total cheating jerk. Dorothy McGuire gets some strong scenes as Mr. Pennypacker’s first wife who is, understandably, upset by events. If anything, I love the Fox comedies that just go for it with their plots. “A man has two families, but it’s funny!”
If you’ll recall, I’m a sucker for the era of wartime housing crisis comedies. The Doughgirls feels like a combination of 1945’s Pillow to Post mixed with 1952’s We’re Not Married. Three friends (Jane Wyman, Alexis Smith, and Ann Sheridan) meet up through a series of highly convoluted hijinks in the same New York hotel suite. They all plan to stay but things become even murkier when the nature of their individual marriages are questioned. I’ve grown to love Jane Wyman — her romantic life aside — and if there’s anyone whose name is gonna show up several times on this list it’s hers. I find her comedic stylings to be so nimble, yet there’s a sweetness that’s so charming and refreshing. Here, she’s more of the whiner of the group, which leaves Smith as the romantic and Sheridan as the dominator. And let’s not forget Eve Arden as an utterly bonkers KGB agent whose outfit is….interesting, to say the least.
When we did our interview with Henry Koster’s son last year I was lovingly chided by him for not having seen Koster’s most iconic film: Harvey. I vowed to rectify that and I’m so glad I did. James Stewart plays Elwood P. Dowd, a man who claims to see a six-foot rabbit named Harvey. What I’ve always appreciated about Koster’s work is the darkness that permeates underneath what are very sweet stories. Is Elwood mentally ill? We’re not sure, but if he is it’s presented as far more positive and kindhearted than the people around him. The humor is found in how others just continually try to ruin Elwood’s good time. He and Harvey are a team, and whether the rabbit is real or not who are they truly hurting? Stewart’s performance is brilliant, especially considering his costar is imaginary. He makes you believe Harvey is around at every turn. His love for Harvey is felt in every scene.