When our children were young, I attempted to introduce them (from time to time) to culture from before my time, including older black-and-white movies. As they aged, they would ask suspiciously, “Is this a gray show?” I’d like to list some of the older movies that stand the test of time.
Some renowned classics are missing from my list. Casablanca bored me. I wondered what everyone saw in The African Queen. Humphrey Bogart annoyed me in The Maltese Falcon when he seemed to know by divination when someone was lying. And Dracula — well, I like a good horror movie, but Bela Lugosi’s rendition of the literary vampire does not play well to a modern audience. (My wife and I laughed at it!)
But here are my picks for Black and White movies that are still watchable by adults that even my children liked!
So, if a cast has Charles Boyer, Ingrid Bergman, Joseph Cotton, and Angela Lansbury as actors, is it now an all star cast? It certainly is! Based on the stage play Angel Street, the movie Gaslight expanded the cast slightly and added scenes not found in the original. It didn’t matter. Gaslight is a riveting movie, made more so by its concentration on two people, Paula and her new husband, Gregory Anton. Is Paula slowly going insane? Maybe, but the audience knows she is completely sane in at least one area: the gaslights really are dimming, even though everyone else in the house denies it’s happening. Why is everyone lying?
The tension begins from the very first moments of this movie and doesn’t ease until its end. Gary Cooper is retiring town Marshal Will Kane. He’s just married Quaker and pacifist Amy Fowler, played by Grace Kelly. (Yes, it’s another all star cast.) But violent murderer Frank Miller has been released from jail, and he and his gang intend to exact vengeance on the man who put him behind bars, Marshal Will Kane. Knowing Miller’s ruthlessness, the entire town decides to turn a blind eye to the danger. They refuse to help the Marshal protect the town. In fact, they suggest, maybe it would be best if he just left town before Miller and his gang arrive. A juxtaposition of bravery and cowardice, good and evil, duty and neglect, every man, woman, and child can learn moral lessons from this movie. Sadly, they don’t make them like this any more.
The Thin Man
William Powell and Myrna Loy star as Nick and Nora Charles, the protagonists of Dashiell Hammett’s book by the same name. Hammett was writing out of type when he wrote The Thin Man. Nick Charles isn’t a normal hard-boiled detective in the Hammett Sam Spade mode. He’s married! And some scenes are funny! The movie adaption transfers the book successfully to the silver screen. It began a string of “thin man” movies. The first three are the best!
The Day the Earth Stood Still
The 2008 remake of Earth’s first encounter with aliens has better special effects, but the 1951 film with Michael Rennie and Patricia Neal is superior in every other way. While both films are a little preachy, Rennie’s alien Klaatu is more engaging and believable than Keanu Reeves’ stiff portrayal. Patricia Neal makes Helen Benson completely believable. And at least the 1951 movie was preachy only at the end! This movie is intelligent science fiction, and sure to be a hit on classic movie night.
This movie scared my children, and with good reason. Doctor John Markway, a paranormal investigator, invites a small select group of two women and one man, all three of whom he believes are sensitive to the supernatural, to spend time at Hill House. He is so certain that they will be able to help him confirm his theories of the supernatural that he is willing to pay them. He certainly gets his money’s worth, with results that are initially disquieting, then disturbing, and then alarming.
I probably shouldn’t include these movies, because some of them are pretty bad. Worse, the Charlie Chan movies get a bad rap these days because Charlie was played by western actors rather than oriental actors. But all his (many, many) children and his wife are played by oriental actors, and, let’s remember, Charlie always (very politely) solves mysteries that baffle the westerners around him. So, some of these movies aren’t the best, but when they are good, they are delightful. Avoid any of the movies that have Birmingham Brown and his caricature of a timid, unintelligent African American if you can’t tolerate it. There are plenty of other good Charlie Chan movies (Charlie Chan in the Desert, Charlie Chan in London, Charlie Chan at the Opera) that are worth the viewing.
The Penguin Pool Murders
The Penguin Pool Murders introduced spinster school teacher Hildegarde Withers to the silver screen. The chemistry between Edna Mae Oliver as Miss Withers and James Gleason as the police inspector (who would prefer to be in charge of the case if only Miss Withers would let him), is a hoot. There are only three movies with these principals in the cast, and the last two movies completely ignore what happened in the first movie, but this movie is a lot of fun. And, of course, there are the penguins.
Some of Alfred Hitchcock’s earlier movies are so bad, it’s a wonder he was permitted to make any more. Sabotage, however, made up for the entire lot of bad ones. This 1936 thriller was probably what Hitchcock was thinking about when he said something like this: “If a bomb goes off, that’s surprise. But if the audience knows that a bomb is about to go off, and the hero doesn’t, that’s suspense.” This is a very suspenseful movie indeed.
I hope you enjoy “gray movie” viewing!