My dad raised us to be fans of classic movies. He observed that he knew he had raised us right because I could pick out Spring Byington. We were fed a steady diet of Frank Capra, the Marx Brothers, WC Fields, Howard Hawks, John Huston… you get the idea. Indeed, this shaped many of my sensibilities.
The world is lousy with Top 50 or whatever lists, but this post is a bit different. Rather than rehash great movies that everyone knows, I wanted to throw out a few of my favorites that for whatever reason never achieved the fame that they deserved, but were influential on later films that you probably have seen. In some cases, there’s even a bit of a libertarian twist. Admittedly, this will be skewed toward older movies, but I’ll toss in a couple more contemporary efforts. If there’s one or two that you didn’t know and this inspires you to give them a watch, my work is done.
Six of a Kind (1934):
This was a noble experiment (and immediately following the end of Prohibition): take several great comedy teams with vastly different styles, set up a loose plot, then watch the fun. Although Charlie Ruggles and Mary Boland are nominally the stars, and they do yeoman work tying everything together, George Burns and Gracie Allen are the real comedy focus. And indeed, they’re at their peak, and they presaged just about every smart guy-dumb guy comedy team that followed. The sequences with WC Fields feel tacked on, but if you’re going to tack something on, you couldn’t do better. The thing that will immediately grab your attention is how much of this movie was stolen by the hilarious National Lampoon’s Vacation. Well, if you’re gonna steal, steal from the best.
O. Henry’s Full House (1952):
This is actually a collection of five short films, each with a different director and screenplay writer, and all based on O. Henry short stories. OK, I’m a sucker because I absolutely love O. Henry’s writing and storytelling. And what delightful stories these are! Most of them will be familiar to anyone literate, and the screenplays hew close to the originals.
Interestingly, the Ransom of Red Chief filmlet was badly received and was apparently dropped from earlier versions. In my view, it’s the best one of the group, and this is a group with no clinkers. Fred Allen and Oscar Levant are perfectly cast as the kidnappers and it leaves one to wonder why Hollywood didn’t use them more. The rest of the cast is also an amazing collection: Charles Laughton, Marilyn Monroe, Ann Baxter, Jean Peters, Dale Robertson, Richard Widmark, and narration by John Steinbeck.
Other fun bits: I believe this may have been one of Marilyn Monroe’s first credited screen appearances. She was great as a hooker. Levant is best known for one liners like, “I knew Doris Day before she was a virgin.”
Million Dollar Legs (1932) may be the most libertarian movie ever made and possibly the most surreal. The setting is the fictional country of Klopstokia. In Klopstokia, every woman is named Angela, every man is named George, which certainly can be an aid to memory. The citizens are all superb athletes, and the leader of the country (played by WC Fields) is chosen via arm wrestling. George survives several challenges, with very little effort in fending them off. The country is dead broke, but sees a way to recover by leveraging the athletic ability of its citizens (notably the president’s daughter, Angela, and his personal messenger, played by Ben Turpin, who can outrun The Flash) to win the 1932 Olympics. There’s a romantic subplot, naturally, involving a visiting reporter (Jack Oakie) and Angela that somehow manages not to ruin the fun, and the official way of wooing Klopstokian women is revealed- singing a traditional song, set to the tune of Eddie Cantor’s I’d Love To Spend Each Sunday With You, but with, ahem, different lyrics.
Reporter: What a marvelous country. Say, I’ll bet you if they laid all the athletes end-to-end here, why, they reach…
Angela: Four hundred and eight-four miles.
Reporter: How do you know?
Angela: We did it once.
I think this is the funniest movie I’ve ever seen. You’ll immediately see parallels to Duck Soup and The Mouse That Roared.
The History of Future Folk (2012) is a “small” film, but absolutely delightful. Imagine a mash-up of kids’ stories, sci-fi invasions of Earth, and a bluegrass musical. OK, hard to imagine, but somehow it works. SP and I kept looking at each other and saying, “Charming!” which is the best one word descriptor I can think of. Of course, for days afterward, we kept saying, Hondo!” which was the aliens’ greeting. The alien plans to conquer Earth are sidetracked when they discover an amazing invention of humans- music- and once they discover it, they immediately take it up with great skill. Best song: I Cannot Breathe In Your Atmosphere.
Here’s one that is almost impossible to find, a great tragedy. Dadetown is a 1995 mockumentary that you won’t realize is a mockumentary until someone spoils it. More realistic than reality. It’s a wonderful look at Schumpeter in action as a Rust Belt town, whose economy is dependent on a paper clip factory, suffers from a technology company moving in; in true creative destruction, the tech company specializes in document imaging, displacing paper and the requisite clips. The paper clip factory, in an interesting twist, was originally a WW2 aviation parts plant which had been converted to the new civilian use. The tech company, of course, uses essentially no blue collar labor and mostly brings in tech workers with urban sensibilities who start transforming the town. The culture clash between the tech workers and the old time residents is explored in a deep and meaningful way without the dime store moralizing of someone like Michael Moore. This is the pic that Moore would have made if he were a lot more creative and intelligent. It’s a crime that it’s so difficult to see. The auteur, Russ Hexter, died shortly after this was made, and the world is poorer for this loss. Roger Ebert hated it, which is what attracted me to it in the first place.