Skip to main content

The Beginner's Guide to Classic American Cinema

Jill owned a video rental store in Portland, Oregon for five years, when such stores used to exist. She holds a bachelor degree in German.

Do you like old movies and want to watch more? Or maybe you need to rent an old movie for a rainy day? Not all classic Hollywood films are great and the thousands of choices can be overwhelming. I watched a lot of movies when I owned a video store and frequently talked with customers about their favorite movies. The following are the gems of each genre that I could watch over and over again.

Some links to Amazon video rentals are provided to help get you started.

Citizen Kane

Citizen Kane

Orson Welles (1915-1985)

Yes, Citizen Kane is the greatest American film ever made, and it wasn't as much of a fluke as it may seem. Welles worked in New York theater and radio before becoming the original auteur. His brilliance was not limited to directing films, as he was also a great actor. He paid great attention to the detail of shots, to the composition of a set and its focal points, and to the creative use of photographic techniques rarely used at the time.

  • Citizen Kane (1941): Welles chronicles the life of William Randolph Hearst under the guise of newspaper publisher Kane. The movie opens with the famous scene of Kane whispering "Rosebud" with his last breath. A reporter is assigned the project of uncovering the meaning of Rosebud, and we begin the long tale of Kane's life.
  • Touch of Evil (1958): By this time, Welles had gained a lot of weight, but lost none of his mastery in this tale of murder and police corruption on the Mexican border. Charlton Heston is barely recognizable as the good cop, and Marlene Dietrich finally breaks loose of her cabaret stereotype.
  • Jane Eyre (1944): Not directed by Welles, this is a great example of what a fine actor he was in his own right. Joan Fontaine exudes romantic longing as the governess who falls in love with the lord of the manor. Brooding and creepy.
Bringing up Baby

Bringing up Baby

Screwball Comedies

After the stock market crash and during the ensuing depression, Americans appreciated the light humor and high speed fun provided by the screwball comedies produced by Hollywood in the 1930s. The films' main characters were rich and had to deal with only minor problems compared to the general audience. Of course, many of the films were insipid, but a few have endured as gems and as vehicles for the comic sophistication of Cary Grant.

  • The Awful Truth (1937): Cary Grant and Irene Dunn decide to divorce for no good reason, then spend the rest of the film realizing and rectifying their mistake in between the quick dialogue. Leo McCarey won the Oscar for Best Director.
  • Bringing up Baby (1938): This time it's Katherine Hepburn sparring verbally with Grant, who plays an absent-minded paleontologist trying to finish a brontosaurus on his wedding day, but gets side-tracked by wacky mishaps and the enamored Hepburn. A dog has the missing dinosaur bone, and there's a leopard in the house. Directed by Howard Hawks.
  • The Thin Man (1934): Nick and Nora were the sophisticated sleuths in a popular series of mystery novels by Dashiell Hammett. Starring as the married couple, William Powell and Myrna Loy lighten the tone with witty repartee, and drink martinis continuously during this film and its five sequels.
My Darling Clementine

My Darling Clementine

Scroll to Continue

The Western

Out of the slew of westerns generated for the masses, My Darling Clementine (1946) stands above all others as the standard to which none compares. Watch John Ford's masterpiece if for no other reason than to find out where all the cliches about Tombstone and the shoot-out at the OK corral originated.

As Colonel Potter observed in one MASH episode, My Darling Clementine has the three things that make a great movie: horses, cowboys, and horses. Wyatt Earp (Henry Fonda) stops into town with his brothers as they are driving their cattle east to Kansas. After the youngest brother is shot and the cattle stolen, Earp volunteers to become the town's new marshal.

The movie is simple, smart, and riveting, all at the same time. The many rainy scenes make for a particularly good watch on a rainy day.

Film Noir

The term Film Noir comes from the French word for black and refers to a class of crime films made in the 1940s, although it has been applied to films made outside that period. The films are dark mysteries that feature a leading man with conflicting moral values, and women who are as dangerous as they are beautiful.

  • The Maltese Falcon (1941): Private detective Sam Spade searches for a missing statuette for which others are willing to kill. Director John Huston's first film is quintessential Humphrey Bogart, who trades jabs with the sinister Sydney Greenstreet and Peter Lorre. "It's the stuff dreams are made of."
  • The Big Sleep (1946): Based on a Raymond Chandler novel, the plot of this film is very complicated and may take several viewings to fully understand. Whether in spite of or because of this complexity, most critics consider this film the height of film noir, and recommended viewing for its dank atmosphere and dark characters. Directed by Howard Hawks.
  • Asphalt Jungle (1950): Seven thieves become involved with a jewel heist that they believe will solve all their problems. They are the kind of men who desperately want respect, but have never done anything to earn it. The plot is hatched by a 50+ parolee with a German accent who has the plans to the jewel store's vault, but also a weakness for young girls. The John Huston film is much easier to follow than Maltese Falcon, and is also noteworthy for being Marilyn Monroe's third film.

Billy Wilder (1906-2002)

One of the American directors who consistently made quality films, Wilder often co-wrote his screenplays and side-stepped the corny melodrama common in old black and white films. The photography is clean and every shot well-planned.

  • Some Like It Hot (1959) Tony Curtis and Jack Lemmon are on the run from the mob, so they impersonate female musicians with a girl band whose singer is Marilyn Monroe. The dialogue and performances are very funny, and Wilder doesn't skirt possibly uncomfortable situations encountered by the cross-dressing duo. Some Like It Hot is currently free with Amazon Prime!
  • Sunset Blvd (1950) This movie feels like a remake of a classic film noir, except that it indeed is one of the originals. William Holden plays the writer who falls into convenient living arrangements with an aging silent screen actress in her Hollywood mansion. Look for the director Erich von Stroheim as the butler and Cecille B. Demille as himself..
  • Double Indemnity (1944) Universally considered one of the 10 best film noirs made. Fred MacMurray stars as an insurance investigator who is lured into a murder plot by femme fatale, Barbara Stanwyck. The dialogue is way over the top with lines like, "She knew more tricks than a barrel full of monkeys."
Double Indemnity

Double Indemnity

© 2008 Jill Townley

Related Articles