This is my biggest frustration as a classic film fan: no matter how many old movies I watch, there will always be hundreds (thousands?) more I haven’t seen. Unless I buy every pre-1960 DVD ever released and lock myself in my apartment for the next five years (which actually doesn’t sound like a bad idea), I’ll never be able to see everything. So what’s a movie buff to do?
One solution lies in the pages of Beyond CASABLANCA: 100 Classic Movies Worth Watching, a new book by Jennifer C. Garlen, an independent scholar and writer based in Huntsville, Alabama. Garlen has selected 100 classic films you should seek out, from D.W. Griffith’s BROKEN BLOSSOMS (1919) through Billy Wilder’s SOME LIKE IT HOT (1959), and she supplies insightful commentary for each that goes far beyond plot summary. The author refers to her selection process as “separating the wheat from the chaff” – a framing device with which I don’t totally agree, since much of the “chaff” that didn’t make the cut are among my favorite films of all time. But why quibble? Garlen doesn’t suggest that the films she has picked are the best of all time, but rather offerings that will provide a balanced cinematic education, with a good mix of the “familiar and the unexpected.” In this regard, and many others, she succeeds.
Balance is key to Beyond CASABLANCA. Using the common dividing line of 1959 as the end of the “Classic Era,” Garlen’s selections offer a deft cross-section of mainstream American filmmaking, encompassing all genres, significant directors and iconic stars, while avoiding the “over-hyped duds” we all know and nap through (I’m looking at you, THE TEN COMMANDMENTS). There are also a few foreign classics like Jean Cocteau’s BEAUTY AND THE BEAST (1946), Robert Wiene’s THE CABINET OF DR. CALIGARI (1920), and Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger’s I KNOW WHERE I’M GOING (1945) stirred into the sauce for international flavor. And before you exclaim, “Why not COLONEL BLIMP or STAIRWAY TO HEAVEN,” Garlen adds related suggestions to the closing paragraphs of each (approximately) two-page review, allowing the reader to delve further into the work of an actor or director who has captured his or her fancy. In that sense, each of the 110 titles – 10 “Essentials” are added to the list – can send the reader down an infinite variety of paths, based upon personal taste, educational goals, or Saturday night whim.
If you visit classic film websites (and obviously you do, because you’re here), you could likely find blog posts on most of the films included in Beyond CASABLANCA, but Garlen’s thoughtful, scholarly analysis goes well beyond the traditional “Here’s what happened and here’s why I like it” chattiness of much online film writing (mine included). For instance, this passage about John Huston’s THE AFRICAN QUEEN (1951) particularly struck me:
“Many of the best scenes have very little dialogue; instead, they depend on the ways in which the two characters look at each other. Watch the end of the unforgettable leech scene, for example, when Charlie and Rose both know that Charlie must return to the water, even though the sight of his body covered with the black bloodsuckers has filled both of them with horror and disgust. Pity, love, and a fierce kind of pride play across Rose’s face in the background, while Charlie’s grim visage and burning eyes belong to a man confronted with a second trip to hell. “
I’ve seen THE AFRICAN QUEEN countless times, as I have many of the movies Garlen writes about, but I’ve never thought of it in quite that way. The author has an amazing ability to point out inherent truths I didn’t know I knew about these great old movies. Of course Rose and Charlie have a sort of silent communion that dominates their scenes on the boat. But the film is so good, and Bogart and Hepburn are so natural, I just never even thought about it. Good film writing points out insights like these, not just plot points and opinions about performances. And what’s great about Garlen is she employs the same level of scholarship in her analysis of Fellini’s LA STRADA (1954) as she does in her exegesis of ABBOTT AND COSTELLO MEET FRANKENSTEIN (1947).
Beyond CASABLANCA also contains lots of fascinating trivia, in case you ever end up on Jeopardy. I’ve loved A DAY AT THE RACES (1937) since I was ten, yet I had no idea that Dorothy Dandridge is in one of the musical numbers. Nor did I realize that there have been four versions of INVASION OF THE BODY SNATCHERS, or that Conrad Veidt in THE MAN WHO LAUGHS (1928) was the inspiration for Batman’s nemesis The Joker. Trivia is prevalent on the internet, particularly in the 140 character riot that is Twitter, but here Garlen integrates smaller facts into a larger, historical narrative. For instance, in her discussion of BABY FACE (1932), a notorious Pre-Code pot boiler starring Barbara Stanwyck as ambitious man-eater Lily Powers, Garlen makes a point of highlighting African American actress Theresa Harris, who plays the small but vital role of Chico:
“There are some outdated ideas about race floating around in the depiction of Chico, but the relationship between the two women offers a stark contrast to Lilly’s relationship with men, suggesting that interracial friendships are possible because women of different colors still have more in common with each other than they do with men…For more of the remarkable Theresa Harris, see JEZEBEL (1938), CAT PEOPLE (1942), and I WALKED WITH A ZOMBIE (1943). Although she appeared in a long list of great films, almost all her roles were uncredited parts as maids or other minor characters, and she’s long overdue for the attention and admiration of classic movie fans.”
The perspective that classic film as a whole is an inter-connected body of work informs Beyond CASABLANCA. To that point, I have only one one bone to pick with this otherwise indispensable book: the Silent Era is largely ignored. With only six films selected from the combined 1910s and ‘20s (while the ‘40s and ‘50s earn a combined 75), many important and highly enjoyable films are omitted, including F.W. Murnau’s SUNRISE (1927), Fritz Lang’s METROPOLIS (1927) and some extremely audience-friendly comedies. I understand and acknowledge that, even for many classic film fans, silent films are an undiscovered country. But they are a country worth visiting, particularly for parents with young kids who love the physical slapstick of animated cartoons.
So maybe we’ve hit on an idea for Volume 2: 100 Movies that Will Turn Your Kid into a Classic Film Fan. As a mom of a pre-teen, and a writer clearly in touch with what makes movies magical, Garlen is the logical choice for this assignment. In the meantime, if anybody needs me, I’ll be in my apartment with my copy of Beyond CASABLANCA and a stack of DVDs.