Great Movies Before 1950

Classic Movies



In 8th grade I got bored by school and played hooky by faking a cough that sounded like I was close to getting pneumonia. It worked for a while but there was one catch. Mom, who may have been wise to my scheme in the first place, declared, “You can stay home, but you don’t go out. If you’re home sick, it means you’re home sick. Got it?” I got it but it meant I had to be creative with my time.

So I watched movies.

Not all day, since this was before cable and the VCR but one station we got showed old classics at 1 pm every day, Monday through Friday. Like most late Baby Boomers I was raised on TV and had seen my share of cool movies at the theater. But nothing had prepared me for the likes of Bette Davis, Humphrey Bogart, Errol Flynn and so many others. A lot of them were in pretty bad shape, this being years before the Library of Congress push to restore films. But it didn’t matter. I was hooked.

Almost 40 years later I am still in love with movies. I even got a chance to review movies for a while. I have seen many movies since then: Some I’ve loves, some not so much. And I’m not a film snob. “Die Hard” to me is as much of a modern classic as many art film wannabes that I could do without, although I confess to liking “The English Patient” much more than I expected.

The following list is called “My Ten Favorite Films Made Before 1950” but the truth is on any given day the list would be different. I’m that way with most of my ten favorite lists. There’s just so many. I’ve tried to not have an agenda, so there’s no “These are ones you should see” feeling about this. I tried to be as honest as I could, not caring if I included shopworn “classics” or obscure nuggets. But if you consider yourself a film buff and have missed any of these, you owe it to yourself to check them out. Most are available on DVD somewhere or can be seen on TCM or someplace else.

SULLIVAN’S TRAVELS(1942) – Directed by Preston Sturges

Starring: Joel McRea, Veronica Lake, William Demarest and Sturges’ usual repertory.

Whenever someone asks me what my favorite movie of all time is, I think about for a few seconds because I don’t want to sound uncool or out of touch. Then I usually just tell them the truth. Sturges was an interesting character who came from money but had a pretty unhappy childhood despite of it. He had done several things for a living then in the 30’s started writing movies. He didn’t direct a lot of movies but most of them are still considered classics. Joel McCrea, a huge star at the time, plays John L. Sullivan, a successful director known for frivolous fare like “Ants in Your Pants 1939” and “Pardon My Sarong”, among other “classics”. When his studio balks at letting him do a serious movie(Called “Brother Where Art Thou”), he decides to see how it feels to be homeless for a few days with disastrous results. Despite Sturges reputation for madcap comedies, he usually found a subtle way to slip a message somewhere along the way. The message in this one is simple, as Sullivan himself says in the film’s last scene. “Laughter is all some people have in his cockamamie circus”.


THE BRIDE OF FRANKENSTEIN(1935) – Directed by James Whale

Starring: Boris Karloff, Colin Clive, Elsa Lanchester(as The Bride), Ernst Thesiger and Una O’Connor.

In case you thought sequels were unique to modern Hollywood, “The Bride of Frankenstein” was released 4 years after the original “Frankenstein” sequels had already been around since silent films. Although I couldn’t disagree with anyone who wanted to call the first “Frankenstein” one of the greatest horror films ever made this is my favorite of that particular series. When Boris Karloff accepted the role of The Monster in the first movie he had already been a veteran of stage and silent film. Although he would sometimes regret his choice, he became defined with that role for the rest of his life. Karloff rarely got the chance to show off his true acting chops, but he comes really close in this movie. The scene with blind woodsman is one of the great scenes in Hollywood history. The rest of the movie isn’t too far behind.


Arsenic and Old Lace(1942) – Directed by Frank Capra

Starring:  Josephine Hull, Jean Adair, Cary Grant, Raymond Massey and Edward Everett Horton.

In the early 40’s one of the biggest hits on Broadway was “Arsenic and Old Lace”, a dark comedy about two adorable old ladies who poisoned prospective borders because they felt sorry for them. In addition to the well-meaning but murderous old ladies, the play also featured a murderous nephew who wasn’t well-meaning and looked a lot like “That monster in the movies” as the play says it. The producers thought it would be a good idea to have Boris Karloff play the nephew and it was. Trouble was, when the movie was made Karloff was asked to stay on Broadway( a decision that broke his heart) because they wanted at least one member of the original cast to bring people into the theaters. Despite this unfortunate decision, the movie is a genuine comedy classic and Raymond Massey is quite funny as Jonathon Brewster, the serial killing nephew. Cary Grant, who pretty much came into his own doing screwball comedies like “Bringing Up Baby” and “My Girl Friday” is hilarious here despite the fact he acts like he overdosed on crystal meth.


CASABLANCA (1942)  - Directed by Michael Curtiz

Starring Humphrey Bogart, Ingrid Bergman, Claude Rains, Dooley Wilson and Peter Lorre.

An argument could be made that “Casablanca” is one of most badly made classic films ever. The plot is as corny as it gets, the supporting actors after the top five are your basic Hollywood extras and the setting looks as much like Casablanca as the L.A. back lot where it was filmed. That said, it also one of most moving films ever made and one where the whole is definitely greater than the sum of its parts. It just works. Bogart plays Rick, a man who used to take up for the little guy until his heart gets broken. Then he gets it back, if only for a few hours. It’s final line “Rick, I have the feeling this is the beginning of a beautiful friendship” is one of the most memorable final lines in the history of movies.


THE BEST YEARS OF OUR LIVES (1946)  - Directed by William Wyler

Starring Frederic March, Dana Andrews and Harold Russell.

Released one year after the  end of  World War II, The Best Years of Our Lives was a realistic if ultimately patriotic portrayal of vets returning home from “The Popular War”. Although not anti-war by a long shot it could hardly be accused of sugar coating things either.  At just over 3 hours long, it’s not an easy watch but rewarding for those who stick it out. Won a bunch of Oscars, including March’s 2nd Best Acting Oscar and a Best Supporting Oscar for non-actor Harold Russell, who steals the show every time he’s on screen.


CITIZEN KANE (1941)  - Directed by Orson Welles

Starring Orson Welles, Joseph Cotten, Agnes Moorehead, Ruth Warwick and members of the Mercury Theater

Let’s say you’re at a party and someone asks you to name the best movie ever made. Not knowing half the people there and not wanting to look like a total schmuck, you say “Citizen Kane”. Are you right? Listen, there are worst answers but the fact is the question is totally subjective but it’s certainly ONE of the greatest movies ever made. Welles’ plays Charles Foster Kane, a millionaire press mogul based on William Randolph Hearst. Kane starts life as a poor kid in Colorado, inherits a bunch of money from a mysterious benefactor. The movie follows him from this beginning to his death as a grouchy old rich guy. And if you want to know where “Rosebud” comes from, Google it because this is a family site last time I checked.


THE WIZARD OF OZ (1939)  - Directed by Victor Fleming

Starring Judy Garland, Margaret Hamilton, Ray Bolger, Bert Lahr, Jack Haley and Frank Morgan.

I debated putting this on the list since everybody and his mother has seen it at least once. Then I thought about it and said to myself, “So what? It’s a great movie” And it really is. From the time that Dorothy’s house lands in Oz to when she clicks her heels three times and says “There’s no place like home” it’s pure movie magic in the best sense of the term. And the songs still pretty much hold up, though if I never hear an American Idol contestant sing “Somewhere Over the Rainbow” for the rest of my life, I’ll consider myself a lucky man.


MIRACLE ON 34TH STREET (1947)  - Directed by George Seaton

Starring Edmund Gwenn, Maureen O’Hara, Natalie Wood, and John Payne.

Many years ago “Miracle on 34th Street” was the big Christmas movie on TV, usually playing first on Thanksgiving and getting played by some UHF station somewhere in America every day until Christmas. Then Frank Capra’s lawyers forgot to renew the copyright to “It’s a Wonderful Life” and that became The Christmas Movie and has been ever since. Is this a better movie? Of course not, but neither is it a forgettable piece of holiday fluff either. Seaton, who won the Oscar for Best Screenplay, intended it as a satire of the commercialization of Christmas all the way back then and it still holds up. I can think of very few movies that equal this one for its unique blend of sentimentality and hard boiled cynicism. Gwenn, who was one of George Bernard Shaw’s favorite actors years before this, owns the movie as the feisty old retirement home resident who may or may not be the Real Santa Claus. There are many good moments but watch for William Frawley’s(Fred on “I Love Lucy”) classic turn as a wizened political boss lecturing  the judge(veteran character actor Gene Lockhart) on the danger of putting Santa Claus on trial in an election year. “Ohhh, the department stores are gonna love ya!”


CAPTAIN BLOOD (1935) – Directed by Michael Curtiz

Starring Errol Flynn, Olivia De Havilland and Basil Rathbone.

Several generations before “Pirates of the Carribean” pirate movies were called Swashbucklers and were fairly common but arguably the best pirate every to buckle a swash was Errol Flynn, who was probably not a very nice guy and was rumored to be a Nazi Spy but had more charisma than 5 Johnny Depps put together. Flynn plays a British doctor wrongfully imprisoned who becomes a pirate in the Caribbean(okay, okay, but it’s true) as a way to fight the British but ends up a good guy by the end of the movie. Was the first of several movies he would make with Dame De Havilland, who herself later won 2 Oscars and is still with us at the age of 97.


MR DEEDS GOES TO TOWN (1936)  - Directed by Frank Capra

Starring Gary Cooper, Jean Arthur and Lionel Atwill.

Confession time. If I had to pick Frank Capra’s best movie it’s probably “It’s  a Wonderful Life” but I picked this because I became familiar with his earlier stuff first and, frankly, this is probably more typical of his best work than “It’s a Wonderful Life” which also benefits from a wonderful screenplay by Frances Goodrich and Albert Hackett. Cooper plays a small town yokel who inherits a large sum of money and has to go to the big city to claim it. Arthur, who is largely forgotten now but was quite good in light comedy, plays a jaded reporter who at first exposes Deeds but falls in love with him. Cooper, who was a bit of a tool in his private life and sang like a canary in the McCarthy hearings, was better than anybody at playing the strong silent type who generally had more going on upstairs than people thought.