You Gotta Know These Pre-1960s Movies
- The Wizard of Oz (1939) is an MGM adaptation of L. Frank Baum’s children’s book The Wonderful Wizard of Oz. The cast includes Frank Morgan as the title wizard, Margaret Hamilton as the Wicked Witch of the West, and Judy Garland as the protagonist, Dorothy Gale, who, with her dog Toto, is whisked from Kansas to the mystical land of Oz by a tornado. The Wizard of Oz was one of the first films to use three-strip Technicolor, although the credits and the framing sequences set in Kansas were filmed in sepia-toned black-and-white. The film won two Oscars, including Best Original Song for “Over the Rainbow,” but lost the Best Picture award to Gone With the Wind.
- Gone With the Wind (1939) is an adaptation of Margaret Mitchell’s 1936 novel of the same name. The film was produced by David O. Selznick and directed by Victor Fleming, who had just directed The Wizard of Oz. Gone With the Wind is set during the Civil War on the Georgia plantation of Tara and stars Vivien Leigh in an Oscar-winning role as Scarlett O’Hara, who marries Rhett Butler (Clark Gable) despite pining after the married Ashley Wilkes. Near the end of the film, Scarlett suffers a miscarriage after a fight with Rhett, who then leaves her; when Scarlett asks him, “Where shall I go? What shall I do?” he famously responds “Frankly, my dear, I don’t give a damn.”
- Fantasia (1940) is a Walt Disney animated film consisting of eight animated story segments overlaid with classical music conducted by Leopold Stokowski and performed by the Philadelphia Orchestra. Fantasia’s soundtrack, which includes Toccata and Fugue in D Minor and The Rite of Spring, was the first to be produced in stereoscopic sound (i.e., “in stereo”). The marquee segment of Fantasia is The Sorcerer’s Apprentice, in which Mickey Mouse magically summons a horde of dancing brooms in the castle of the wizard Yen Sid (“Disney” spelled backwards). A portion of Fantasia in which a black centaur buffs the hooves of a white centaur was edited out in 1969 before the film’s re-release. A sequel, Fantasia 2000, was released in 1999.
- Citizen Kane (1941), directed by Orson Welles, is considered by many (including the American Film Institute) to be the greatest film ever made. Through flashbacks, it tells the story of fictional publishing mogul Charles Foster Kane (played by Welles and loosely based on real-life newspaper magnate William Randolph Hearst), who buys the New York Inquirer, unsuccessfully runs for governor of New York, and tries to make his second wife an opera star before dying at his Florida estate, Xanadu. In the present day, reporter Jerry Thompson fruitlessly attempts to discover the meaning of Kane’s dying word, “Rosebud,” which turns out to be the brand name of Kane’s beloved childhood sled, an object burned by unsuspecting servants as the film ends.
- Casablanca (1942) stars Humphrey Bogart as American expatriate Rick Blaine living in Vichy-controlled Morocco during World War II. The film opens with Ugarte, a local criminal, attempting to sell “letters of transit” at Rick’s nightclub, Rick’s Café Américain. Ingrid Bergman stars opposite Bogart as Rick’s former lover Ilsa Lund, whose current husband, an anti-Nazi resistance leader, needs the letters. In one memorable scene, Ilsa’s husband, Victor Laszlo, leads a crowd in singing “La Marseillaise” in response to a group of Nazis singing “Die Wacht am Rhein.” Famous quotes from Casablanca include “Round up the usual suspects,” “Here’s looking at you, kid,” and “Louis, I think this is the beginning of a beautiful friendship.”
- It’s a Wonderful Life (1946) is a Christmas drama produced and directed by Frank Capra based on Philip Van Doren Stern’s short story “The Greatest Gift.” Set in the fictional town of Bedford Falls, It’s a Wonderful Life stars Jimmy Stewart as building and loan operator George Bailey, who plans to commit suicide on Christmas Eve over a financial disaster caused by the villainous Henry Potter. A guardian angel, Clarence Odbody (played by Henry Travers), stops George from killing himself by showing him what his hometown would be like had he never been born: for example, George would not have been able to save his younger brother from drowning in a frozen lake, or prevent the town pharmacist from accidentally poisoning a prescription.
- Rashomon (1950) is an Akira Kurosawa film based on Ryunosuke Akutagawa’s 1922 short story “In a Grove” (not his story “Rashomon”). The film depicts a trial in which a bandit (Tajomaru), a woodcutter (Kikori), a samurai (through a medium), and the samurai’s wife recount the events that led to the samurai’s death. A common thread through the four stories is the presence of an expensive dagger no longer at the crime scene. The marked differences in the characters’ stories, however, led to the term “Rashomon effect” to describe the unreliability of eyewitnesses. During the woodcutter’s testimony, the group is interrupted by the cries of an abandoned baby, a crisis that reveals some insights into the characters.
- 12 Angry Men (1957) explores themes of morals, justice, and doubt as it follows the deliberations of a jury over the guilt of an 18-year-old defendant on a charge of patricide. Deliberations initially stall when Juror 8, played by Henry Fonda, is the only one to vote “not guilty”; a series of secret ballots and conversations gradually erode the jury’s certainty, and they ultimately vote to acquit. The last holdout, Juror 3, played by Lee Cobb, is implied to be locked into his “guilty” vote because of his anger over his poor relationship with his own son. The film, directed by Sidney Lumet, lost the Academy Award for Best Picture to Bridge on the River Kwai.
- Ben-Hur (1959) is a historical epic from MGM Studios that stars Charlton Heston as the title prince of Jerusalem who is unjustly imprisoned on the flagship of Roman general Quintus Arrius after tiles falling from his roof nearly kill the governor of Judea. Ben-Hur features a massive, nine-minute-long chariot race in which Heston’s character defeats Messala, played by Stephen Boyd. The film’s score, composed by Miklós Rózsa, is the longest ever composed for a feature film. Ben-Hur’s eleven Oscars was a record that stood until Titanic (1997). More than 200 camels were used in the film, which was adapted from Lew Wallace’s novel Ben-Hur: A Tale of the Christ.
- North by Northwest (1959) is a thriller from director Alfred Hitchcock starring Cary Grant as Roger Thornhill, an advertising executive framed for the murder of U.N. diplomat Lester Townsend. In one memorable and oft-parodied scene, Thornhill is chased through a field near Chicago by a crop duster airplane. At the film’s climax, Thornhill and Eve Kendall (played by Eva Marie Saint) are chased by spies led by Phillip Vandamm across the top of Mount Rushmore. North by Northwest features a MacGuffin (an object common in Hitchcock films—something desired by characters yet ultimately meaningless to the story) in the form of microfilm containing government secrets that is hidden inside a sculpture.
This article was contributed by NAQT writer Justin Millman.