These aren’t even my favorite films, which sounds funny. Typically my favorites are ones that make me think, where I have to be more mentally alert to appreciate the nuances. But there’s another group of movies I watch repeatedly because they are just so easy to enjoy.
1. I love NORA PRENTISS (1947). Ann Sheridan is at her sexiest. The plot is crazy over the top improbable but it’s thrilling from start to finish. I also love how this Warner Brothers production smoothly combines several genres (medical, gangster, horror, romance). It works for me.
2. THE HORSE SOLDIERS (1959). Not John Ford’s best. Not John Wayne’s best, and not William Holden’s best either. But the leads and the supporting men in the cast work so well together. I feel like I am watching a group of brothers making a movie. The cinematography and on location filming is excellent.
3. THE PHANTOM OF THE OPERA (1943). Love that scene where Claude Rains gets splashed in the face with acid. I usually rewind it and watch it again before continuing with the rest of the movie. The singing by Susanna Foster and Nelson Eddy is exquisite. Top-notch production values all the way through, Technicolor at its best, and the scene where the chandelier falls is exciting. I think I’ve watched this film 20 times in the past year.
4. THE BLUE DAHLIA (1947). Probably my favorite Alan Ladd noir. Definitely his best pairing with Veronica Lake. The scene where it’s raining and she picks him up and they travel to Malibu is magical. And in case things get too sappy, we have William Bendix going berserk as a would-be killer. This movie always draws me in and doesn’t let go. Raymond Chandler’s script, which I’ve read, presents the characters so vividly.
5. WHEN TOMORROW COMES (1939). A new one for me. Adored it immediately. Irene Dunne and Charles Boyer are just so wonderful in this picture. There’s an extended sequence where they are caught in a storm that floods out the whole valley, and they take refuge in an abandoned church. It goes from frightening to soothing, and as they fall in love on screen, we can’t help but fall in love with this movie. So excellent on so many levels.
6. WHISPERING SMITH (1948). I’ve probably watched this film a dozen times. It never gets old or goes stale. The use of Technicolor is expertly handled, the story is a bit implausible but still manages to be convincing when it counts. Ladd has top billing but it feels like Robert Preston’s picture. He’s a force of nature. The editing is so smooth that one sequence flows into another and the movie is over before I’m ready for it to be over.
7. FRONTIER GAL (1945). Honestly I don’t think anyone gave better close-ups than Yvonne De Carlo does in this film. Her skin is flawless, those eyes are mysterious, the hair and makeup are perfect, she has great cheekbones, and then there’s that voice and the body. It helps she’s cast as a fiery saloon singer so she really gets to play it to the hilt. Rod Cameron as a laid back cowboy is the right contrast. The outdoor scenery is amazing. Universal spent a fortune on this movie and it shows. Then we have charming guys like Andy Devine and Fuzzy Knight doing comic relief. The little girl who plays the daughter that De Carlo and Cameron have quite nearly steals the show in the second half. The last fifteen minutes are heart-pounding, what a climactic finale. And De Carlo does her own riding, so the chase scene near the end feels very authentic.
8. GUN BELT (1953). A very routine 50s western. Obviously they did not have a huge budget, and it shows…but the action scenes are very well staged. Typically I am not too enamored with George Montgomery’s acting but I think he does a fine job here. Tab Hunter is on hand as a brother he is trying to keep on the right side of the law. Tab’s acting is frankly not very good, but he tries hard and he’s beautiful to look at. The supporting cast are played by actors who seem to think they’re in lead roles, so they give it their all. It’s a rousing story. All modestly budgeted oaters should be so effective.
9. IF YOU COULD ONLY COOK (1935). One of the better Jean Arthur movies, which is saying a lot because she worked with more important directors and had bigger hits with bigger costars. But something about her unusual pairing with Herbert Marshall is so satisfying. I love the scene in the beginning when she’s applying for a cook’s job in the home of a gangster (Leo Carrillo) and she teaches him about the importance of how to use garlic. It makes me laugh every time. But what makes this movie so special is how the gangster and his sidekick (the incomparable Lionel Stander) develop hearts and comfort Miss Arthur when that cad Mr. Marshall walks out on her. It turns from being a screwball/romantic comedy into an honest-to-goodness character piece about real human beings with real emotions.
10. THE BEAUTIFUL BLONDE FROM BASHFUL BEND (1949). I’m not bashful when it comes to expressing how I feel about this uproarious Preston Sturges western comedy. As Leonard Maltin says, it’s a broad farce…the situations become increasingly improbable and Betty Grable’s predicament gets more out of control by the minute. It’s like she’s playing a psychotic Annie Oakley. The part where she is teaching kids and takes a gun out to put the fear of god in two hooligans would certainly never fly today but it’s hilarious. In addition to the antics, there is a musical number in the beginning that Grable performs with characteristic skill. I think what makes this movie special is Sturges has populated the cast with people (and this includes Grable) who are all natural scene stealers. So they never really react to the situations or to each other. They are too busy hamming it up and setting up the next gag. It gets wilder and wilder. This forces the audience to do all the reacting, which is how comedy should be done if you think about it. Sometimes I re-watch this movie to see if I will reach a point where it no longer is funny. But that never happens so I have to watch it again to continue my experiment. I have a feeling it will never stop being funny so I will never be able to stop watching it.