There is a list of ‘best’ films that no one seems to argue with. Best film of all times? Easy. Citizen Kane. Best musical of all times? Also, easy. Singin’ in the Rain. Greatest comedy of all times? Some Like It Hot.
I am not saying that these are indeed the greatest, but they have been commonly received as such. Personally, I never found Some Like It Hot all that hilarious. I like Singin’ in the Rain a lot, and I am always happy to watch it when it is on. But is it the greatest? Of course, the question is silly in that it is not quatifiable. I have compiled a list of movies that, for right or wrong, are universally acknowledged at the greatest of their genre and I have offered an alternative, just to expand your viewing options and let you join in in the best-film list silliness.
1- Your Next Greatest Film Of All Times – Citizen Kane is cited as the greatest film of all times, often by people who might not like it very much, often by people who have never seen it. The wonder of Kane is that it is a great film that is actually tremendous fun to watch. As an alternative, why not try The Magnificent Ambersons, the film that Orson Welles made after Kane? The Magnificent Ambersons doesn’t have the stylistic dazzle of Kane. It is a subtler film. Its story is told in a linear fashion by an omniscient narrator, as opposed to the fun-house mirror narrative technique of Kane. The more traditional story-telling method gives the story and characters greater appeal than the endlessly fascinating but somewhat remote characters in Kane. The Magnificent Ambersons was a victim of RKO studio politics. The final edit was not by Welles and the final two scenes seem to belong to another film. Although more muted than Citizen Kane, The Magnificent Ambersons is still emotionally overwhelming. Agnes Moorehead’s performance alone ensures its immortality.
2- Your Next Greatest Musical Of All Times – There doesn’t seem any room for argument. Singin’ in the Rain is the greatest musical of all times. Period. End of discussion. Yet….. Doesn’t the Broadway Melody number go on way too long? Aren’t the characters, while endearing, a little cardboard? Singin’ in the Rain is so solidly recognized as the greatest that it almost seems heresy to propose an alternative. However, I submit for your consideration Vincente Minnelli’s 1944 masterpiece Meet Me In St. Louis. The film has something that most musicals lack: a great book. It depicts the life of the somewhat quirky Smith in the year leading up to the opening of the 1904 World’s Fair. The characters are well-rounded. The film has great period nostalgia and some sentimentality, but enough vinegar to keep the enterprise from becoming too cloying. The songs are a mixture of original and period compositions, and they flow organically from the action. There is a Hallowe’en scene that is genuinely creepy. A totally satifying film experience.
3- Your Next Greatest Historical Romance – Even ignoring the racial insensitivities and the romanticising of the Antebellum slave-owning Dixie, Gone WIth The WInd is a dull, elephantine work. As an alternative, try Jezebel from 1937, starring Bette Davis and Henry Fonda. Legend has it that Warner Brothers Studio created the film as a consolation prize when Bette Davis did not win the coveted role of Scarlett O’Hara. Davis’ character is certainly as self-centered and headstrong as Scarlett, The MGM ‘Tradition Of Quality’ often can over-inflate a film. Here the grittier Warner Brothers production values make this a more engaging and satisfying film. The story is tightly told, the performances are wonderful, and it is all in glorious black and white
4- Your Next Greatest Adventure Romance – The favorite in this category must be Casablanca, a film I believe deserves all the praise and devotion it has garnered over the years. So, why not stay in the same mood with an alternative film? You say you like Humphrey Bogart thwarting Nazi operatives in the company of beautiful women? Why not try To Have And Have Not, based on what Hemingway called his worst book. The locale in Martinique is gritty in the best Waner Brothers fashion. The supporting cast is as wonderful as that of Casablanca, with a beautiful performance by Walter Brennan. What makes this stiff competition for Casablanca is the sexual fireworks between Bogart and Lauren Bacall in her film debut. Watching these two falling in love is a sophisticated pleasure.
5- Your Next Greatest Christmas Movie – Yes. I know. The greatest Christmas movie is It’s A Wonderful Life. It is interesting to note that this 1946 film was not very popular when it premiered. Perhaps such a downbeat film coming right after the end of World War II was not what the public wanted. People had been through enough hardship and sacrifice and maybe were weary of this film’s message of one’s obligation to one’s fellow man and the importance of sacrificing your dreams for others’ well-being. I have found this film’s message very troubling and have often voiced my dislike of it, courting physical danger from proponents of the Bedford Falls saga. Jimmy Stewart is on record as saying this is his favorite film of his career. I don’t believe him. Not when he played the leads in Vertigo, The Shop Around The Corner, Rear Window and The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance. As an alternative, try Christmas In Connecticut from 1945. Much slighter than It’s A Wonderful Life, it is also much cozier and sweeter. For a good dash of comedy you have supporting actors of the caliber of Sydney Greenstreet, S. Z. Sakall and Una O’Connor. Plus a love story centered on the very sexy Barbara Stanwyck and Dennis Morgan. I look forward to seeing Macushla every year.
6- Your Next Greatest Comedy – I do not like Some Like It Hot. I find it nasty, sexist and boring. I don’t say this too loudly in public for the same reason that I don’t express my true feelings about It’s A Wonderful Life. However, I do love The Palm Beach Story by genius producer-writer-director Preston Sturges. This film is an absurdist trip down the rabbit hole worthy of Lewis Carroll. Insane situation piles up on top of insane situation, leading to an exhilarating, insane climax. Along the way, we encounter some of the wisest observations of love ever made. The dialog is so fast and so brilliant that you might not get just how brilliant this film is the first time around, but, lest you fear that it is simply a brainy comedy of manners, rest assured that there is enough slapstick to satisfy your baser comedy needs. Claudette Colbert and Joel McCrea’s madcap journey from Manhattan to Palm Springs leads to mind-boggling encounters with a canvas of characters as varied as an oracular Pullman Car conductor, the Princess Centimiglia, the libidinous sister of the Rockerfelleresque Rudy Vallee and of course, the Wienie King, who is the closest I have seen to a Deus-Ex-Machina in American film.