Turner Classic Movies: it’s the only TV channel I feel guilty for not watch more often. It’s among the best places to catch films renowned and obscure films from every era. The channel can offer newcomers their first look at everything from The Kid (1921) to Suspiria (1977), from The Adventures of Robin Hood to Ganja & Hessfrom amarcord to Ikiru.
Of course, these days, cable isn’t the hip place to catch anything. As a commercial-free channel, TCM is particularly vulnerable to cable’s declining fortunes, and many filmmakers devoted to its well-being are worried. As part of the Warner Bros. Discovery family, TCM has a curated section on HBO Max, offering viewers a modest sampling of the types of films the channel has to offer. Here are eleven of the best from that bunch.
The Red Shoes (1948)
Having attempted it at the student film level, I can’t imagine co-directing for a feature film; it’s too hard to stay in creative sync and too easy to have a falling out with your partner. but Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger, the Archers, made 20 films together as director-producer-screenwriters between 1939 and 1972, and remained lifelong friends through it all. Theirs was a vision that rarely jived with their contemporaries in British cinema, but several of their films have since been hailed as classics.
The Red Shoes is one such movie. It takes its title from the Hans Christian Andersen fairytale. The plot comes from Andersen too, but indirectly. A central element of the film is a ballet based on “The Red Shoes,” written by Julian (Marius Goring), performed by Vicky (Moira Shearer), and produced by Lermontov (Anton Walbrook). The love triangle between these players comes to a head before a revival production of the ballet, and the climax is deliberately vague on whether the eponymous footwear possess Vicky the way they do in the fairy tale. Tragic romance gives The Red Shoes its soul, while gorgeous Technicolor photography and an innovative (and lengthy) ballet sequence give it visual claims to fame.
Of Mice and Men (1939)
Lon Chaney Jr., forced by studio heads to abandon his birth name Creighton for his father’s moniker, ended his career in schlock that lifted from better movies starring either Chaney or their contemporaries. But before that long decline, he made a splash in Hollywood with Of Mice and Men. If you’ve ever seen a cartoon with a hulking, good-natured dim behemoth calling everyone “George,” you’ve seen a parody of his work, but there’s so much more to the performance than that. Chaney’s interpretation of Lennie is endearing and pitiful in turns, everything called for to make John Steinbeck’s story work.
But Chaney and Steinbeck aren’t all there is to recommend the film. Aaron Coplands musical score is both soaring and devastatingly tragic. The pacing of the story in director Lewis Milestone’s hands is near perfect for the plot. And Burgess Meredith as George is every bit the match of Chaney’s Lennie. His subtle and melancholy performance may well surprise audiences who only know Meredith from Batman and rocky.
A Streetcar Named Desire (1951)
It’s often been the case that film adaptations of successful plays leave behind good portions of the stage cast and crew. but A Streetcar Named Desire brought nearly all the key players over from Broadway. Elia Kazan was still in the director’s chair, Kim Hunter was still Stella, Karl Malden was still Mitch, and Marlon Brando was still Stanley. Brando was gaining notoriety on the stage by 1951 but was practically unknown in Hollywood. By hanging onto his role in the film of streetcar, he became a star. It was only his second movie, but it brought him an Oscar nod.
The one key member of the Broadway cast not used for the film was Jessica Tandy. Tandy would leave her own mark on movies with time, but in 1951, producer Charles K. Feldman deemed her insufficiently famous to play the lead role in streetcar, despite her success with it onstage. Instead, Blanche was played by Vivien Leigh, who had essayed the part on the London stage. Did she measure up stateside? Well, she took home the Oscar that year and got praise out of Brando in his autobiography (“she used to be Blanche”); you tell me.
King Kong (1933)
Forget the MonsterVerse, forget that interminable 2005 remake. If you want to see King Kong at his best, you have to go back to the original. The rest wouldn’t be here otherwise, and neither would most of the giant monsters of cinema. King Kong is a seminal work of 1930s Hollywood. Its basic premise and its special effects techniques had been introduced years before, but the scale and production value behind Kong showed the potential in effects pictures like nothing else yet had.
Some such films are more important than they are good, but Kong earns its star’s epithet of the Eighth Wonder of the World. One of the big advantages the original has over successor Kongs is how brisk and fun the whole thing is. There’s no self-parody here, but producer-director Merian C. Cooper did seem to understand that an adventure on a hidden island full of dinosaurs and giant gorillas is a complete fantasy, one that can provide a roaring good time along with thrills and chills. That sense of fantasy and adventure isn’t bleached out of the film to make room for drama and tragedy; those aspects of the story naturally express themselves within the proceedings.
The Wizard of Oz (1939)
TCM offers many colorful, charming fantasy movies throughout the year, and part of me wishes any of them could be in this spot. The Wizard of Ozo isn’t exactly desperate for help in reaching the public. Even people who don’t like old movies tend to like it. but The Wizard of Ozo is the best of its kind under the TCM label on HBO Max. It’s also just that damn good, and like King Konga pivotal leap forward for fantasy on film.
Oz’s accessibility makes it a great ambassador for classic cinema. It’s also tied into Hollywood lore thanks to all the rumors and urban legends surrounding it — even if most of them are hot air. There’s no hanging man in the background, and the movie wasn’t a flop. It was so expensive that it took several re-releases to turn a profit, but audiences packed into theaters to see the wizard.
Movies about movies, and stories about storytellers struggling with storytelling, risk becoming pretentious and tedious. 8 certainly trades on Federico Fellini’s style, self-image, and career; the title is a reference to his own filmography up to that time. The whole premise of a director stuck on what movie to make came from Fellini’s own struggles with this very production. If any movie is guilty of that favorite charge of critics, self-indulgence, 8 would seem to be it.
I’ve never liked self-indulgence as complaint. What else is a personal work of art supposed to be? And what else would you call a movie like 8, if not a personal work? I’ve developed something of an allergy to self-awareness and metafiction over the years, but any idea can be worthwhile when done right, and Fellini knocked this one out of the park.
Seven Samurai (1954)
It’s amazing the way stories grow. at one point, Akira Kurosawa only wanted to make a film about a day in the life of just one samurai; a bit of research and one 148-day shoot later, he had produced a three-and-a-half-hour epic about seven of them defending a village from bandits. In the process, he helped popularize several action movie conventions: assembling the team, introducing characters through unrelated episodes, and the kid of the group finding love at the mission site.
Many of these story beats have been done to death since (and several pre-date Kurosawa), but you’ll rarely find them done better than here. Seven Samurai is a masterpiece among masterpieces, the best of Kurosawa’s many works of genius. And it still stands head and shoulders above its remakes, adaptations, and derivatives (sorry, Pixar, but A Bug’s Life doesn’t even come close).
Citizen Kane (1941)
Any work of art touted as the greatest of its medium can invite a backlash. Citizen Kane has been called the greatest film of all time often enough to make some newcomers cynical about its value. I don’t think I’d call it the greatest movie ever made (I’m not sure such a title can be won), but it is very good. Maddeningly good. No director’s first effort in film should be this outstanding, to say nothing of a director-producer-actor-writer’s debut. But that’s Orson Welles for you.
Not every technical innovation Citizen Kane’s been credited with really belongs to it; movie sets had ceilings before this, for example. But even today, the structural choices by Welles and Herman J. Mankiewicz are unusual, almost bizarre. It’s gorgeous to look at. And Kane himself remains one of the most compelling protagonists born to cinema.
TCM isn’t all world-famous classics with glowing critical reputations. It features cult movies, oddballs, and disasters too. Nobuhiko Obayashi’s house fits the first two criteria, and it was expected to be a failure by most of the cast and crew. Toho, despite recruiting the experimental Obayashi to make an unusual film for them, anticipated and desired that house be a flop at the box office. It’s the only instance I’ve heard of where a studio resented having an unexpected hit.
Out of all the cult classics I’ve come across through TCM and elsewhere, house remains the strangest movie I’ve ever seen. It’s one of the busiest, with every form of practical and optical effect employed throughout, usually in a deliberately artificial manner. And it’s one of the most fun movies I’ve ever seen, a joyous trek through generational divide and pedicide.
2001: A Space Odyssey (1968)
I find Stanley Kubrick easier to admire than embrace. He’s an undeniable master of his craft, but there’s a coldness and sterility to much of his work that can make it hard to engage with emotionally. 2001: A Space Odyssey has been criticized on both counts. Deliberately nonverbal for large sections, and therefore opaque about what happens, it’s a long way away from most of the science fiction seen today. I admit it’s a film I can just sit back and enjoy.
That doesn’t mean I regret engaging with it. Not all films are meant to be larks, but it can be a fun challenge to work through a movie like 2001 and find your own interpretation of it. And even if you can’t find a frame to comprehend the whole within, the film is still loaded with fantastic sequences.
Casablanca is everything great about the old Hollywood studio system. Studio analysts picked up the material; writers, stars, and director Michael Curtiz were all assigned or acquired on loan from other studios; and producer Hal B. Wallis tightly controlled the production. It was an A-picture and slickly made (despite a few production woes), but no one at the time thought of it as more than just another movie, and looked at it with cold logic, the whole plot around the letters of transit makes no sense.
But it’s almost impossible to apply such logic to Casablanca, or to care if anyone points it out. The film zips by at a good clip, it’s loaded with crisp dialogue, and it knows how to use character actors to fill out the cast in a way not possible today. Most of all, it presents a romantic heroism that one hopes can exist in the real world, thanks in no small part to Humphrey Bogart’s Oscar-nominated work.