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The Beginner’s Guide to Classic Films and Their Directors: Part One

August 2013

Once Upon in the West“So, Uncle Wes, I was trying to find some good movies to stream on Netflix,” says my nephew Martin, who knows I write about classic films. “The other night I watched Once Upon a Time in the West and I loved it!”

“Are you kidding?” I ask. There’s a sudden lump in my throat. He’s made a breakthrough. Thank God. “With the exception of Ford and Hawks, Sergio Leone was probably the best director of Westerns of all time, and that is his masterpiece.” (Note: On reflection, maybe I’d add Anthony Mann to that list as well.)

“Well, I usually don’t like Westerns,” he said. Damn, there goes his breakthrough. “The problem is, there’s never enough dialogue, and I like intelligent dialogue.”

OK. He needs the full Monty here. “You’ve been watching the wrong Westerns,” I say. “It’s certainly true that Leone kept the dialogue minimal, but he carries the action in the movie’s rhythm and visuals. Let’s take another director, Howard Hawks. No one packs a movie with more dialogue than Hawks. He has so much going on he has people talking over each other.”

Nephew wants to know what Westerns this guy Hawks made. OK. “Red River, Rio Bravo, Rio Lobo, and The Big Sky would give you a few to start with. Then there’s John Ford, God bless him, maybe the greatest director in history. He throws in so many sly asides that you have to keep listening every second lest you miss a hilarious zinger. I mean, you’re talking about two of the five or ten best directors in the history of film!”

“So who would the others be?” he fires back. “Would you include John Woo?”

“Woo . . .” I thought a minute. Now there’s an interesting pick. I love The Killer and Hard Boiled. Musing on the question, I drifted off. When I came to, my nephew and his father were staring at me, still waiting for a pronouncement. “You guys have given me a great idea for a series of articles. I keep forgetting that, every year, there are thousands of people who are new to classic films but who really don’t know where to start. I could aim them at the very best directors and their finest films. Nothing too detailed -- just something to help the neophyte get started.”

And so, here, for my family, friends, and readers all over the world, is [ahem] the definitive list of the greatest American (well, kind of; see below) directors and their best films, classics all. I envy your joy of discovery as you wind your way through these works of cinematic art. All of these films have great depth and multiple meanings, but their directors have also all paid heed to the facts that people pay money to see films, and they have the right to expect some entertainment.

Each of these directors was capable of creating film after film that was rewarding and timeless. But, like all artists, each also made a few bad movies, so, at least in the beginning, stick with my recommendations. Not everyone on this list was born in America, but all of them did most of their work here. In the early days of Hollywood, many of our best directors came from Europe. Hitchcock and Chaplin came from England, Frank Capra from Sicily, Billy Wilder from what’s now Poland. Hollywood was a beacon to anyone interested in getting into the film business, so it was probably in the back of their minds. But, let’s say several were adopted by the US and came somewhat involuntarily. If fascism had never happened, we might have missed such glories as Vertigo (Hitchcock), Some Like It Hot (Wilder), and The Shop Around the Corner (Ernst Lubitsch, Berlin).

If you watch all of these movies, you’ll know more about film than 99% of your friends. You can be sitting around at a party and say things like (adopt an upstairs Downtown Abbey accent), “Well, yes, I did like the way Lars Von Trier used humorous asides in an otherwise dark film like Melancholia, but of course, Ford did that better and earlier in The Searchers.” Great way to make new friends!

And so, in alphabetical order . . .

Woody AllenWoody Allen: This will probably be my most controversial choice -- Allen has made some bad films. But he’s made 45 feature-length films in 48 years -- name another who’s done that many -- and at least a dozen are classics. He not only directs, he writes the screenplays, and has acted in most of them -- an incredible body of work. This, like all of these lists, begins with the most recent classic and works backward.

Vicky Cristina Barcelona (2008): A good movie turns great when Penélope Cruz comes on the screen. Watch the faces of the women when Javier Bardem is onscreen, even when they’re off the spotlight. It’s a master class in directing and acting.

Match Point (2005): A tense thriller, beautifully directed, and as much an oddity for Allen as the comedy There’s Something About Harry was for Hitchcock. With this masterpiece notched up, Allen shuts up anyone who still claims that all he can do is his own comedic shtick.

Manhattan (1979): A love story to the titular city, and proof that Allen was dabbling in very young women from the get-go as he violates the half+seven rule by 10 years!

Annie Hall (1977): A gorgeous love story and comedy that includes the single greatest usage of communication theorist Marshall McLuhan in a film. If you’re a romantic, this is where to start.

Sleeper (1973): For those who’ve seen it, I’ll write just one word and just see if you can keep from laughing: orgasmatron.

Woody Allen

If you like my main picks, try: Bullets Over Broadway, Crimes and Misdemeanors, Deconstructing Harry, Hannah and Her Sisters, Manhattan Murder Mystery, Midnight in Paris, Scoop, Zelig, and To Rome with Love -- but try the last only if you love opera; otherwise, the jokes fall flat. I saw it in the theater and was laughing so hard I couldn’t breathe. Most of the audience was dead silent.

Avoid: Another Woman, Bananas, Interiors, Sweet and Lowdown.

Oscars: Nominated 23 times, won three for writing (Midnight in Paris, Hannah and Her Sisters, Annie Hall), one for directing (Annie Hall).

Frank CapraFrank Capra: The man who apparently believed in goodness and hard work also believed in evil as a force to be battled, usually by men equipped with little more than right on their side. The great writer Graham Greene described Capra’s Mr. Deeds Goes to Town (1936) as “Goodness and simplicity manhandled in a deeply selfish and brutal world.” That pretty well sums up many of Capra’s films. The evildoer may be society, a bad boss, or a predatory banker. No matter -- Capra always finds someone to champion goodness. Note that three of the films below star Jimmy Stewart, the ultimate Capra hero.

It’s a Wonderful Life (1946): Unpopular when first released, it has since become the definitive Christmas movie.

Mr. Smith Goes to Washington (1939): It’s one man against the corrupt federal government, climaxing in a stunning filibuster that proves that a good man can defeat an entire bad system.

You Can’t Take It With You (1938): My favorite Capra film. The carefree Sycamore family pursues their happiness with no thought of whether society approves of them (Ann Miller’s ballerina is especially hilarious). Then, society maven Jimmy Stewart falls in love with the one normal member of the family. The film centers around Stewart’s stuffy family on the way to meet the freewheeling Sycamore family. Sparks ensue.

Mr. Deeds Goes to Town (1936): Gary Cooper wakes up a millionaire and learns what most big lottery winners learn: instant money carries its own problems.

It Happened One Night (1934): Claudette Colbert plays a bratty heiress whose father has kidnapped her and had her marriage annulled. She escapes and ends up marooned with newspaper reporter Clark Gable. Raised all her life in the lap of luxury and recently robbed of all her money, she has no idea how to get to her husband. In return for her story, Gable offers to help her -- but so much happens, they just have to fall in love, don’t they?

Frank Capra

If you like my main picks, try: A Hole in the Head, Arsenic and Old Lace, Lost Horizon, Meet John Doe, State of the Union.

Avoid: Pocketful of Miracles

Oscars: Six nominations for Best Director, and three wins (You Can’t Take It With You, Mr. Deeds Goes to Town, It Happened One Night).

Charles ChaplinCharles Chaplin: It’s a shame that many people find silent films to be unfulfilling. Chaplin’s character of the Little Tramp is so beguiling because of his blend of street smarts, his big heart, and his uncanny ability to get himself into the worst possible situations. Chaplin’s comedy is both sophisticated and simple, and can be enjoyed by a child or a film scholar. His greatest achievement is the farcical love story City Lights, but his bravest achievement was to completely eviscerate any semblance of respect for or fear of Adolf Hitler in The Great Dictator. That was a brave move in 1940, when many thought Hitler would take over the world. Like Woody Allen, Chaplin wrote, directed, and starred in his own films.

The Great Dictator (1940): A thumb in Hitler’s eye, this film was an act of political bravery and a stand of solidarity with Jews all over the world -- better as political statement than as pure comedy, but well worth seeing for how Chaplin lambastes Der Führer. Hitler had brought it on himself in 1933, by seeing to it that Chaplin was listed in a book by Johann von Leers, Juden Sehen Dich An (Jews Are Watching You), which called for his assassination. Chaplin, who was not Jewish, was understandably upset, and decided to strike back by making Hitler look silly and stupid. Apparently, Hitler was not amused.

Modern Times (1936): Chaplin’s look at a dystopian near future, and how the Little Tramp keeps accidentally running afoul of the authorities.

City Lights (1931): Even the hardest heart might find it difficult not to cry at the end of this lovely romance. The Little Tramp falls in with a blind flower girl. He also befriends a rich alcoholic who promises to pay for surgery to allow the girl to see, only his blackouts prevent him from remembering his big promises. Plus, if the Tramp gets the money and the operation is a success, the girl will discover that he’s just a tramp. What will happen? A candidate for the best romantic comedy ever made.

The Gold Rush (1925): The first blush of Chaplin’s genius. He’s spunky but tiny and oh, so hungry, stuck out in the middle of Alaska trying to find some gold. The shoe-eating scene is a classic.

Charles Chaplin

If you like those, try: Limelight, Monsieur Verdoux, The Kid.

Avoid: A Countess from Hong Kong, A King in New York

Oscars: two nominations for screenplays, one for acting, but only one win, for best musical score (Limelight) -- proof of how blind the Oscar voters were to genius.

Francis Ford CoppolaFrancis Ford Coppola: Coppola works at an infuriatingly slow pace: In a career that spans over 50 years, he’s managed to direct only 22 films, and he peaked early. But what a magnificent peak. What most people don’t know is that some of the greatest delights in Coppola’s oeuvre are his most maligned films. One from the Heart is a misunderstood masterpiece with emotional depth and awesome physical beauty. You’re a Big Boy Now is a coming-of-age story about a budding sophisticate with an arty imagination. The Outsiders, with its ridiculous star power (C. Thomas Howell, Matt Dillon, Ralph Macchio, Patrick Swayze, Rob Lowe, Emilio Estevez, Tom Cruise, Diane Lane, Tom Waits), matches One from the Heart for sheer beauty, and S.E. Hinton’s story is a real tearjerker. For better or worse, though, when Coppola passes this veil of tears, he will be remembered for the following three films, all made before he was 40.

Apocalypse Now (1979): “Saigon. Shit.” What a weird, rambling work of art. From the jungle-destroying napalm attacks, backed by the Doors’ apocalyptic “The End,” to the completely bonkers final act with Marlon Brando, the movie shouldn’t work. But it does, and in memorable ways that stick with you forever.

The Godfather Part II (1974): Covering the periods before and after the storyline of the original The Godfather, this film is far more tightly constructed, more classically tragic, and way more frightening. Robert De Niro, as the young Don Vito Corleone, does a better Brando than Brando, and Al Pacino finally turns into the war machine hinted at toward the end of the first film.

The Godfather (1972): Is it the best gangster film ever made? Does it matter? The Godfather does so many things right. Marlon Brando is perfect, James Caan is like a Tasmanian devil of mob bravado, and Al Pacino undergoes a gradual but inevitable transmogrification. Who can ever forget the horse-head scene? The Godfather is a masterpiece from frame one right till the end.

Francis Ford Coppola

If you like those, try: One from the Heart, Rumble Fish, The Conversation, The Cotton Club, The Outsiders, You’re a Big Boy Now.

Avoid: Jack, Twixt.

Oscars: 14 nominations, including four for Best Director. Five wins, but only one for Best Director (The Godfather Part II).

Check back next month for “A Beginner’s Guide to Classic American Films and Their Directors: Part Two.”

. . . Wes Marshall
wesm@soundstagenetwork.com