The following is part of an overview of the top 100 American narrative fiction feature films, from my perspective. For an introduction to the project and an index of other entries in the series, click here. For a list of more than 800 films which I considered for the top 450 and my eligibility qualifications, click here. And for a way to vote on what you think the top 100 American narrative fiction feature films are, click here. If I’ve written a full-length review of the film on this site, I link to it in the movie’s title. Enjoy!
65) Bringing Up Baby (1938), dir. Howard Hawks
There’s an old-fashioned sort of vibe I enjoy in Bringing Up Baby, which can be boiled down to “I’m either going to get this man to love me instead of his fiancee or I’m going to be tried for manslaughter after his death.” There are better screwball comedies in American history (scroll down a little and you’ll find one), but to me none are more essential to understanding the subgenre. Bringing Up Baby is just plain wacky, and it has no pretensions to normalcy. Many screwball comedies, including past and future Hawks efforts like Twentieth Century and His Girl Friday, are based on the workplace. The only way that work seems to come into Bringing Up Baby, aside from a giant collapsing skeleton at the end of the film, is that paleontology seems appropriately nerdy for its limp noodle male protagonist.
It’s a world that seems to be reverting to a simpler, less evolved time. (The focus on animals, and on the curiosity of animal behavior when its unpredictability seeps into humans, is not unlike those scenes in Mean Girls where Cady imagines her peers as screaming creatures tackling one another.) It stars two of the most charismatic animals in movie history (not just the leopard, but the little dog, too), but it also requires us to believe in mistaken leopard identity and in the dog’s willingness to bury a bone from an Apatosaurus. The world of animals may be a little confusing – why does Baby know he likes “I Can’t Give You Anything But Love, Baby,” for example, and he didn’t really come from South American – but it’s nothing compared to the way a woman tries to get a mate in this world. Surely David would have preferred Susan just ran him through the ol’ pregnancy scare instead. Instead, Connecticut hasn’t been this wild since the Hartford Convention brought the idea of secession into our fair nation.
64) Only Angels Have Wings (1939), dir. Howard Hawks
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I adore how full Only Angels Have Wings is. Jean Arthur and Rita Hayworth aren’t actually competing for Cary Grant, but sometimes it seems like it. Thomas Mitchell is losing his eyesight and is holding a grudge against Richard Barthelmess, who killed his brother in an airplane crash. Cary Grant is trying to maintain a contract with a South American government for his nascent airline, which seems to lose pilots to the Andes like the mountains took notes from the Red Baron. These are the major through-lines in the movie, though there are more, and somehow it all fits into the regular schedule we assign to movies. They say that we all get the same number of hours in the day; how Howard Hawks and company managed to get all this into one movie is proof that two hours is enough to tell as many stories as you want. The focus could be the semi-comic and then suddenly semi-tragic story of the Kid, who has memorized the eye chart to ensure that he can engaging in his own real passion: flying. The focus might be the way that Bonnie, with those apply cheeks and her pesky attitude, casts a spell on her fellow expat Yanks. The focus might be a flock of condors flying into a plane and lighting most of the engines on fire, forcing a sensational crash landing. Close your eyes and you’re liable to miss something sensational.
Only Angels Have Wings is a film which, amusingly, believes in traditional roles while being unable to defuse the Achillean male bonding which infuses the little town of Barranca. Women don’t last long around pilots, for the most part; their nerves can’t hold up to the menfolk flying the mail in beat-up planes through dangerous conditions. Jean Arthur’s Bonnie literally shoots Cary Grant’s Geoff in an attempt to keep him from flying. Alternately, some women (like Rita Hayworth in an early supporting appearance) are tough enough to watch the men fly their routes but are too nosy about their private lives. In one scene memorable as memorable for being bizarre as it is for preserving a certain perspective on matrimony, Geoff dumps ice water on a drunk Judy repeatedly. She wants to know what all the pilots know about her husband, why he gets a cold shoulder from the rest of them. Don’t you think he must be ashamed, Geoff yells, so ashamed that he won’t say it to you? How do you think he feels? But no one has to ask how Jeff feels when the Kid buys his ticket to the Big Aerodrome in the Sky, or how Les feels when Joe bites the dust in a fiery crash of his own. There’s something pleasantly fishy going on at the airstrip among all these men; the cult of being a tough guy inevitably means that one has to involve oneself with other tough, virile dudes.
63) The Lady Eve (1941), dir. Preston Sturges
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For this screwball comedy, we’ve replaced Cary Grant with someone even more wholesome in Henry Fonda, and instead of classy, well-bred types like Kate Hepburn and Rosalind Russell, Barbara Stanwyck (who isn’t not classy) takes the lead. Stanwyck is essential to this movie even more than Hepburn or Russell are necessary in their parts; it’s simply hard to imagine someone else playing Jean. Stanwyck plays her role with the kind of sexiness that has been ruined by actual sex. Henry Fonda helps – the way his eyes appear to roll back into his head while she’s massaging his scalp for minutes and holding his face next to hers gives us the hint if we couldn’t take it before – but Stanwyck purrs and bares the flattest midriff in the history of Hollywood. It’s her supreme know-how, though, which is far more important to selling the sexiness than any way that she looks. In a marvelously shot sequence, she uses her mirror to eye a bevy of women who, recognizing the rich beer heir on board, do their best to distract him from his book. Their best ranges from bad introductions to dropping a handkerchief, and Jean’s running commentary is not merely funny but poised as well. There’s no doubt in her mind that she’ll capture her oblivious mark, and it’s not long after that she’s got him in her room. (She gets him there by tripping him; Henry Fonda, bless his heart, trips over things in this movie like he’s been possessed by the spirit of the Marx Brothers.) The first fifteen minutes or so of the film are electric with sexual tension which, while spellbinding, couldn’t possibly last the whole movie. People would throw their underwear at the screen and we’ve have panic in the theaters. It’s not a relief when Charlie discovers that Jean and her father are con artist and cardsharp, respectively. It’s sad to watch the two of them go their separate ways. Despite the fact that falling for the con is strictly prohibited, Jean can’t help herself; it’s the obvious choice for the film, but it never feels forced. She seems to be really touched by what must have been read in the ’40s as Charlie’s womanly gentleness and naivete. Charlie is an amateur ophiologist, though he’s the son of a fabulously rich brewer. His interest in snakes accidentally elicits Jean’s first genuine reaction: a flight impulse which has her run faster than I think any woman had ever run on screen in 1941. Jean will later show up as the titular Lady Eve, which is a pleasant twist on the old story. In The Lady Eve, the snake slithering around Charlie’s cabin is an instrument which very nearly eliminates temptation altogether. The impulse to sin was around long before the snake ever entered the picture, The Lady Eve argues, and the snake is, fittingly, the man’s property. If Charlie could keep his eyeballs in his head around Jean, he’d save himself no small amount of grief.
62) Anatomy of a Murder (1959), dir. Otto Preminger
Paul Biegler – a post-Vertigo Jimmy Stewart who is now capable of anything – returns to his law office where his secretary, the long-suffering Maida, is waiting in a cacophony of noise. Paul is a fan and sometime practitioner of jazz, and Maida informs Paul that the wife of a client has gone through his entire collection of records waiting for him. Laura (Lee Remick, who they must have invented the word “slinky” for in honor of her performance in this movie) asks Paul if lawyers are supposed to listen to jazz. It’s a small moment in a movie which runs better than two and a half hours, but I like to think of it as a warning to the viewer. This is not your typical movie about lawyers, and certainly not for the late ’50s. In the first act, Paul takes the case of Laura’s husband, Manny (a young Ben Gazzara, insofar as anyone who made his name in Cassavetes movies could be ever be young); Paul knows his client is guilty of first-degree murder and helps him along to deciding to plead not guilty for reason of temporary insanity. Paul has to work very hard not to try to sleep with Laura, and if the jail were a little farther away one wonders if he might not have indulged; Laura doesn’t seem like she’d mind. In the courtroom, the lawyers frequently tell each other that it isn’t debate club, but very few movies in this genre are as blunt in saying that a good lawyer is a devious one. The word “rape” or some derivative is used more than thirty times, and the subject hangs over the vast majority of the movie. Anatomy of a Murder is a good title for the film; it’s a story of dissection, no matter how disgusting the internal organs are once the poor facade of skin and fat is torn away.
This is a nearly perfect cast – aside from the aforementioned actors, key players include the Joseph Welch, a blockheaded Brooks West, a prickly Murray Hamilton, a well-placed Duke Ellington, and an incendiary George C. Scott – but part of the reason that they make the movie so distinctive is because of their voices. Half the reason people enjoy To Kill a Mockingbird as a movie is because Gregory Peck sounds great when he talks. Courtroom dramas are totally backwards; in virtually any other genre, a cast with some anonymity is useful, but that’s not often the case in these movies. This is a type of movie which requires us to hang on to individual words far more than individual actions, and being given a good reason to do so by a familiar voice – Spencer Tracy in Inherit the Wind, Marlene Dietrich in Witness for the Prosecution, Henry Fonda in 12 Angry Men – eases the transition and ensures our attention. Joseph Welch, in his only film role, has the voice of a man with perpetually stuffed sinuses who wants to be your friend anyway; his reedy tones are relentlessly avuncular. Gazzara rumbles slowly and Remick glides smoothly. I’ll be able to recognize Stewart’s voice fifty years of now when I’m deep in the throes of dementia. But it’s Scott who sticks out to me in the movie. When he begins to take over the prosecution from the local, bumbling D.A., the movie gains a gear it didn’t need but hardly tosses aside. It’s his voice which makes him special as much as his inexplicable face or the impression he gives of a smoldering temper. His George Dancer picks Laura apart on the witness stand, growling and then shouting strategically, all the while keeping enough gravel in his voice to fill a parking lot.
61) Sherlock, Jr. (1924), dir. Buster Keaton
One of the overstated elements of cinema which is responsible for bringing us back time and again is fantasy. Ask any kid who went to see The Force Awakens or Wonder Woman how it feels to see something like magic on the big screen; ask any white person over sixty what they think about Scarlett O’Hara. In watching a movie we alternately recognize ourselves in the people on screen and feel sympathy for them, or perhaps we find ourselves consciously imitating the people in the film. These are very nearly trite statements in 2017; in 1924, when the biggest star in America was probably Babe Ruth, Buster Keaton made a brief but razor-sharp movie about those fantasies. Sherlock, Jr. identifies both of those fantasy interactions with film. A projectionist down on his luck falls asleep at work after having been wrongly accused of pawning his girlfriend’s dad’s watch. Perhaps unsurprisingly, the projectionist (who has some delusions of grandeur about being a detective himself) falls asleep. Another him pops out of his body, goes on screen, does some hijinks, but then meets his destiny as Sherlock, Jr., the great detective tasked with solving the case of some stolen pearls. The girl the projectionist is in love with appears, as do the projectionist’s rival as the villain and the projectionist’s boss as a sidekick. When he wakes up, the projectionist’s lady love comes to him in the projection room, showing him that she knows that he isn’t guilty. Taking his cues from the movie on screen, framed in his own box by the window to the projection room, the projectionist holds her hands in his and kisses her on the mouth. (Keaton, slyly, knows that we in the audience are never quite as smooth as the folks on screen. He gives the girl, played by Kathryn McGuire, a very rapid, almost chicken-like, peck instead of the warm kiss the man on screen shares with his lover.)
Sherlock, Jr. is an incredible movie for special effects and action sequences on top of all that. The sight of Keaton leaving his own body was not a new one – by ’24, double exposures in features were at least five years old and had been used to effect in movies like The Phantom Carriage – but it’s no small piece of work for the era. Many of my favorite stunts in the film rely primarily on exact timing. In one scene, a motorcycle races across a bridge with a segment out by driving on top of two moving trucks, each going a different direction. In another, Keaton lowers himself into the back seat of a moving car from a lever at least two stories tall. Other gags, although they are significantly less death-defying, are in their own way just as impressive. Keaton, or someone who looks like him, appears to have been one heck of a pool player. A series of trick shots that would have converted even the citizens of River City to billiards escalate not just in impressiveness but in importance to the story as well. There’s slapstick in here, and plenty of it; for goodness’ sake, Keaton literally slips on a banana peel. But watching Sherlock, Jr., it’s clear that fantasy as spectacle is, even if you can’t take it home with you, just as important to the moviegoing experience as wishing that you could be the detective in the film.