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25 Hollywood Classics for Your At-Home Film Studies Class
Movie theaters are closed and everyone is staying home. Meanwhile movies from all eras are easier to access from home than they ever were. So why not take this opportunity to catch up on your film history?
What follows is a list of 25 Hollywood classics that will serve as a guide through Hollywood history from the earlier days of silent cinemas into the 1960s.
These movies should all be available to rent on platforms such as Amazon, iTunes, VUDU, etc., often for as little as two dollars. JustWatch.com is a good website to use to find out where a movie is available and for how much. I will specifically note any that are currently playing on a particular streaming service. (at the time of this writing)
With some exceptions, these movies are listed in chronological order because there’s no better way to learn film history than by starting at the beginning.
The Great Train Robbery. (1903) – The first motion pictures were just that: single framed images of something moving. (a train arriving at the station, workers leaving the factory, etc.) This film marks one of the first times that multiple images were edited together in a specific order that told a story. An epic for the time, this Western packs a train robbery, a community dance, a chase, and a shootout into its 12-minute runtime. Movies as we know them were born. (YouTube)
Intolerance. (1916) – No lesson in film history is complete without a mention of D.W. Griffith, the first major Hollywood director. He built giant sets—some of which still stand—for this three-hour-plus extravaganza that cuts between four different storylines set in different time periods. Its innovations showcased the limitless possibilities for where movies could take us. (YouTube & Amazon Prime)
Safety Last! (1923) – While the dramas are important, the best and easiest way to learn about the silent era is to watch the comedies. After all, pratfalls are just as funny even when you don’t hear the character say “Oops!” This Harold Lloyd classic is a good starting point, filled not just with great comedy but death-defying stunt work. The shot of Lloyd hanging from a clock is one of Hollywood’s most iconic images. (YouTube & Criterion Channel)
The General. (1926) – Another of Hollywood’s greatest silent comedians, Buster Keaton, created this masterpiece a few years later. A perfect example of movie structure, this story about a Civil War train engineer sees Keaton do all his own stunts as he inadvertently helps turn the tide of the war while attempting to save the woman he loves. This movie is loaded with so much action and comedy that you may forget that you are watching a silent film. (YouTube & Amazon Prime)
The Jazz Singer. (1927) – The movie that marks inarguably the greatest shift in the state of cinema; the first movie that talked. The Jazz Singer is still a mostly silent movie with intertitles providing the majority of the dialogue, but Al Jolson’s songs in the film were recorded and inserted directly into the film using the Warner Bros’ new Vitaphone technique. In between songs, Jolson added a line of dialogue that could not have been more appropriate: “You ain’t heard nothing yet.”
Singin’ in the Rain. (1952) – Want to know more about Hollywood’s transition from silents to talkies? Look no further than this classic musical from the early 1950s. Not only is this one of the best musicals—and movies, in general—of the classic Hollywood era, but it is also an excellent history lesson. Gene Kelly plays a silent film star whose career is jeopardized when the movies start to talk. This movie comedically demonstrates all the challenges filmmakers went through during the transition—shrill voices, loud equipment, exposed microphones, etc.—and does so in harmony with some of the best song-and-dance numbers ever put to film. This movie is pure joy.
City Lights. (1931) – Not everyone was quick to jump on the talking pictures bandwagon. Charlie Chaplin used the new technology to add sound effects to his films, but he was not quite ready for his Little Tramp character—at this point, a more iconic character than Mickey Mouse—to talk. This masterpiece is the perfect example of Chaplin’s patented combination of slapstick and pathos. (Criterion Channel)
Duck Soup. (1933) – Now that the movies were talking, they needed comedians who could not just pull off a pratfall, but could actually tell a joke. A lot of those performers came from vaudeville, including a team of brothers named Groucho, Chico, Harpo, and Zeppo. This movie is the best example of the Marx brothers’ comic zaniness. Enjoy it with “a nice glass eliminate.”
The Public Enemy. (1931) – As the studio system began to take shape in the 1930s, the “majors” would focus in on certain genres that capitalized on their contracted talent. For Warner Bros., it was the gangster movie. This vehicle for James Cagney as a prohibition-era gangster is one of the most iconic examples. These movies were often preceded by a title card warning audiences that the characters in the film were criminals and that their actions should be considered reprehensible.
The Bride of Frankenstein. (1935) – While Warner Bros. controlled the gangster movie market, Universal Studios focused in on monster movies. Novels like Dracula, Frankenstein, and The Invisible Man were adapted by the studio in the early thirties and proved very popular. This sequel is often considered the high-water mark of the genre for its time and perfectly demonstrates the Universal style.
King Kong. (1933) – While most of early movie monsters were adaptations of literary works, the giant ape named Kong was a Hollywood original. A landmark in early special effects, Kong was created using stop-motion animation by Willis O’Brien. The effects still hold up amazingly well over 85 years later. Our belief in Kong being real never really wavers, whether he is brawling with a T-Rex, scaling the Empire State Building, or succumbing to a broken heart.
It Happened One Night. (1934) – This movie practically invented the cinematic romantic comedy as we know it today. Circumstances throw two people (Clark Gable and Claudette Colbert) who initially dislike each other together and, several comic beats later, the two fall in love. Despite the fact that many of its plot points may feel like clichés to modern audiences who have seen them in dozens of romantic comedies since, this movie was the pioneer and remains incredibly charming today.
Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs. (1937) – Walt Disney had popularized and cornered the animated short market in the early days of cinema and made Mickey Mouse a household name, but the innovator had higher aspirations. In 1937, his studio released what few thought could possibly succeed: a feature-length cartoon. Of course, the movie was a monstrous hit and the rest, as they say, is history. (Disney+)
The Wizard of Oz. (1939) – After the introduction of sound, the next biggest innovation in cinema was the introduction of color. Contrary to popular belief, The Wizard of Oz was not the first movie released in color, but it is the one the best demonstrations of the transition. As Dorothy steps out of her black-and-white Kansas home into the colorful world of Oz, so steps Hollywood into a new era. It would still be a few more years before Hollywood fully embraced color across the board, but it was here to stay.
Citizen Kane. (1941) — No film education is complete without a viewing of this movie, considered by many to be the greatest movie ever made. It is hard to explain in only a few sentences why it is great and after a single viewing you might even find yourself wondering why it’s considered such a big deal. (I know I did.) Many of the cinematic techniques that we take for granted today were invented by this movie and the more you watch it and learn about it, the greater it becomes. For a good in-depth analysis of this movie, I recommend the podcast The Cine-Files which breaks it down scene by scene over the course of two episodes. It is an excellent companion piece to the film.
Casablanca. (1942) – If you have made it this far and still are not quite certain what it means for a film to be an “Old Hollywood Classic,” then look no further. This movie is the definition. Incredibly rewatchable and endlessly quotable, this movie packs a lot into its brisk 102 minute runtime. Largely thought of as a romance, it is also a comedy, a thriller, and, ultimately, a war movie. Humphrey Bogart is the isolationist American in December 1941 facing pressure to join the war effort after an old flame walks into his gin joint.
Yankee Doodle Dandy. (1942) – Speaking of the war effort, much of Hollywood signed up following the attack on Pearl Harbor. Directors like John Ford and George Stevens took their cameras overseas to document the events, while stars like James Stewart got directly involved in the action. In the cinemas, there was a big emphasis on patriotism. Perhaps no movie screamed patriotism more than this musical about Broadway star George M. Cohan, the author of popular wartime songs like “Over There,” “You’re a Grand Old Flag,” and “The Yankee Doodle Boy.”
Out of the Past. (1947) – Following the war, Hollywood took a shadowy turn with the rise of darker crime thrillers that French critics would later term “film noir.” Defining film noir is difficult and it is debatable whether it is an actual genre or simply a style. The best way to learn about film noir is to watch this definitive noir film. Robert Mitchum is a former private eye who gets pulled back from his tranquil small town life into the dark underworld of an inner city. There’s a femme fatal, voice-over narration, flashbacks. Everything that makes classic film noir is on great display here.
The Day the Earth Stood Still. (1951) – Another thing that happened following the war—a war which ended with two nuclear bombs being dropped—was the increase in global fear of atomic war. This was often represented in Hollywood movies by science-fiction flicks that might look cheesy on the surface—frisbee-like flying saucers, giant robots and creatures—but often pack a lot of message just beneath their B-movie surfaces. This movie—about an alien that crashes to Earth with a warning for humankind—is a perfect representation of the genre.
On the Town. (1949) – By this point, most Hollywood movies, especially the musicals, were filmed on studio sound stages. This was done because it was easier to control the environment. But for this mid-century musical, directors Stanley Donen and Gene Kelly took to the streets and filmed on location in New York City. The opening musical number is now iconic as Kelly, Jules Munshin, and Frank Sinatra tour the Big Apple while singing “New York, New York.” Sure, there is a lot of soundstage work after that, but it is a good start.
Shane. (1953) – Location shooting was important for Hollywood Westerns, which took place largely outdoors. The genre is the most American of all the genres in Hollywood’s first half century and this movie shows off one of it most classic tropes: the lone gunslinger helping peaceful farmers keep their land from falling into the hands of an evil baron. Alan Ladd is the gunslinger here and despite the actor’s diminutive size, he stands tall as the hero. A central bar brawl and the climactic gunfight are the centerpieces of this film about the difficulties faced by those attempting to settle the West. (STARZ)
Rear Window. (1954) – Not all movies took place in the great outdoors, though, and this might actually be the perfect movie to enjoy while isolating yourself at home. James Stewart plays a photographer who is stuck in his small apartment with a broken leg. Having nothing better to do, he watches his neighbors across the courtyard and begins to suspect one of them of killing his wife. With very few exceptions, the entire movie is shot from inside his apartment, trapping us in his perspective. This movie is a perfect example of why Alfred Hitchcock is known as the “Master of Suspense.” (STARZ)
Ben-Hur. (1959) – Hollywood did not want people to stay home in the late 1950s, where they were suddenly faced with their first real entertainment rival: television. In order to fight this new challenger, the movies got bigger. Widescreen became the norm and large-scale productions dominated. Historical and biblical epics took center stage, featuring enormous casts of extras, giant sets, and elaborate action sequences. That is perhaps no better represented than the chariot race scene at the center of this Best Picture-winner starring Charlton Heston.
West Side Story. (1961) – As the calendar turned to the 1960s, the big historical epics were taken over by elaborate, brightly-colored, and equally epic in scale musicals. This movie kicked off the decade that also featured award winners like My Fair Lady and The Sound of Music. As an adaptation of Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet, it will also serve two purposes on your home school’s syllabus. (STARZ)
Psycho. (1960) – While everyone else in Hollywood was going bigger and brighter, director Alfred Hitchcock—always the innovator—set out to prove that you don’t need big budgets or casts and crews of thousands to make a successful movie. Instead of the finely-tuned Hollywood crews that helped make his previous hits, Hitch used the small crew of his television show, Alfred Hitchcock Presents, to create this low-budget, black-and-white thriller. The result is what many consider to be the invention of the slasher genre (though there is actually very little actual slashing). Always the promoter, Hitchcock insisted that cinema owners refuse to let anyone into the theater after the movie started and the result was lines around the block. (STARZ)
The above list is far from exhaustive, but it should be enough to kick any film studies class into gear and provide an overview of the classical Hollywood era.