The Essentials Vol. 2

52 More Must-See Movies and Why They Matter


By Jeremy Arnold

Foreword by Ben Mankiewicz

By Turner Classic Movies

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A guide to fifty-two examples of must-see cinema, The Essentials Vol. 2 — based on the Turner Classic Movies series — is packed with behind-the-scenes stories, illuminating commentary, moments to watch for, and hundreds of photos spotlighting films that define what it means to be a classic.

Since 2001, Turner Classic Movies’ The Essentials has been the ultimate destination for cinephiles both established and new, showcasing films that have had a lasting impact on audiences and filmmakers everywhere. In this second volume based on the series, fifty-two films are profiled with insightful notes on why they’re Essential, a guide to must-see moments, and running commentary from Essentials hosts past and present: TCM’s Ben Mankiewicz and the late Robert Osborne, as well as Rob Reiner, Sydney Pollack, Molly Haskell, Carrie Fisher, Rose McGowan, Alec Baldwin, Drew Barrymore, Sally Field, William Friedkin, Ava DuVernay, and Brad Bird.

Enjoy one film per week for a year of stellar viewing or indulge in your own classic movie festival. Spanning the silent era through the late 1980s with such diverse films as Top Hat, Brief Encounter, Rashomon, Vertigo, and Field of Dreams, it’s an indispensable book for movie lovers to expand their knowledge of cinema and discover — or revisit — landmark films that impacted Hollywood forever.



When TCM launched The Essentials in 2001, our mandate was clear: we wanted to create a dedicated time slot—8 p.m. Saturday—to present a single movie that we believed film lovers needed to know. For those not well versed in the Golden Age of Hollywood, it might be a picture they hadn’t yet seen. For our more film-centric viewers, it might be a chance to see a classic in a new way, with a fresh perspective from a professional dedicated to this emotionally expansive art form.

Selecting that professional was key. Robert Osborne had been introducing movies on the channel since 1994—and doing it as only Robert could, with his singular and seemingly incompatible combination of sophistication and folksiness. But we wanted The Essentials to feel different. To do that, we thought it had to look different. Writer/director Rob Reiner was the first host for a couple of years, followed by director Sydney Pollack, then Peter Bogdanovich, not only a seminal director himself, but a living link to classic cinema, a product of his extensive work interviewing the great directors who emerged out of the studio system: Ford, Welles, Hawks, Hitchcock, and so many more.

Each host provided valuable insight, but something was missing. And you didn’t have to be a math major or a film student to complete the equation. The Essentials needed Robert. So we made a change. We’d continue to bring in an Essentials host, but they would sit with Robert, who would lead a conversation about the movie. Over the next decade, Molly Haskell, Carrie Fisher, Rose McGowan, Alec Baldwin, Drew Barrymore, and Sally Field joined Robert.

After Robert’s death in 2017, we had to change again. And it wasn’t easy. Alec Baldwin helped get us through it, hosting three distinct guests in a single season, each of them lending their unique perspective to the conversation: David Letterman, William Friedkin, and Alec’s 30 Rock costar, Tina Fey.

That led to our current incarnation, where I try, with limited success, to channel my inner Robert Osborne in conversation with a filmmaker. For the return of The Essentials in the 2019 season, we welcomed writer-director Ava DuVernay, who challenged us to think differently about what constituted an essential film. Ava worked with us to include movies previous hosts had likely never considered: Claudine (1974), with Diahann Carroll and James Earl Jones; Barbara Kopple’s documentary, Harlan County U.S.A. (1976); and Gillo Pontecorvo’s The Battle of Algiers (1966) were all released more than forty years ago, yet each struck me as particularly relevant to the world we live in today. Ava turned The Essentials into a forum for exposing viewers to movies they’d never seen before. And then she’d passionately and convincingly argue that those films were critical to a full understanding of the power of cinematic storytelling. Even when Ava discussed a more traditional film, like Dog Day Afternoon (1975), she brought a vibrant and fresh perspective to the conversation.

By the way, four of Ava’s picks, including Harlan County and Battle of Algiers, are included in this Essentials book. And please remember, this compilation is a delicious sampler. We are not claiming these are the definitive fifty-two essential films. It’s merely a collection of delights, culled from more than three hundred movies we’ve featured on The Essentials since 2001, from Rob Reiner to my cohost for the 2020 season, director Brad Bird, who has four of his titles included.

Finally, as I look over the list, I see so many of my favorite films, movies that move me on a visceral level: The Battle of Algiers, Sweet Smell of Success, The Sting, Network, One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest, Ride the High Country, Sullivan’s Travels, The Producers, Notorious. I mean, if we’d included Paths of Glory, this might have been a perfect book.

Photo by Jeremy Freeman


Fox Film Corporation, 1927

B&W, 94 minutes

In a church, Janet Gaynor finds that forgiveness might be possible.

Janet Gaynor shrinks back in fear from husband George O’Brien.


Made at the apex of the silent era, just two years before talkies would fully take over, Sunrise turns a simple, melodramatic plotline into visual poetry.A rural man is spurred by his lover to kill his wife; he comes to his senses just in time, but now his wife is terrified of him and tries to run away. They end up in a nearby city and begin an unlikely reconciliation so intensely conveyed that the real substance of the film becomes emotion itself. Longing, anger, fear, guilt, remorse, love—the audience feels them all, deeply. The movie’s subtitle, “A Song of Two Humans,” and the fact that husband and wife are never named give Sunrise the feel of a parable. The characters’ wounded souls and capacities to heal, the film suggests, are part of our shared humanity.

George O’Brien and Janet Gaynor display the highest levels of dramatic silent-film acting, using their eyes and body movements to express nuances of thought and emotion. Director F. W. Murnau accomplishes the same with his extraordinary, innovative technique, starting with the opening shot. The high-angle image of a locomotive steaming through a station, with street life visible through a massive glass wall, was achieved by a train model in the extreme foreground, a real street image in the middle-ground, and a miniature of buildings and an elevated train inserted into the background by use of a mirror. It was all done in-camera: a single strip of film negative was reexposed to shoot each of the three elements, with the appropriate area of the frame carefully masked each time.

Margaret Livingston as the temptress, holding George O’Brien with clawlike hands

The city was constructed on the Fox lot in perspective, to give the illusion of vastness and depth.

Karl Struss, one of the film’s two cinematographers, along with Charles Rosher, later said his biggest challenge on Sunrise was the stunning traveling shot as O’Brien walks through a marsh to meet his lover. Accomplished inside a sound stage, the camera was mounted to a curved dolly track hanging from the ceiling, with the complex movement creating significant lighting problems.

The sets were built in forced perspective—larger in the foreground, smaller in the back—to create the illusion of depth, an effect most striking in shots of the massive-looking city. Constructed entirely on the Fox lot, the buildings were just twenty-five feet high, and some of the doors just three. Even the extras became smaller, with dwarfs and children acting in the far background. That blend of realism and fantasy gives Sunrise a mysterious, dreamlike quality, reflecting the experience of husband and wife as they fall in love to an almost ethereal level. Murnau’s elaborate techniques are all in service to the emotional journey of the characters—and the audience.

He brought those techniques from Germany, where he had used them on several masterpieces of German expressionism, such as Nosferatu (1922), the first vampire movie, and The Last Laugh (1924). The latter inspired American mogul William Fox to import Murnau to Hollywood with a promise of carte blanche for Sunrise. He even permitted Murnau to bring along key technicians such as Struss, the British-born Rosher (who had worked in Germany), and the brilliant art director Rochus Gliese. The result was one of the most expensive American features yet made.

The film was unable to recoup its cost but was acclaimed as a visionary achievement. At the first Academy Awards, honoring movies from 1927 and 1928, Sunrise won the Oscar for Unique and Artistic Picture, a category that was dropped the following year. (Best Picture went to Wings [1927].) Janet Gaynor won Best Actress for Sunrise, 7th Heaven (1927), and Street Angel (1928) combined; Rosher and Struss won Best Cinematography; and Gliese was nominated for Best Art Direction.

Fox signed Murnau to a new contract, but he only directed three more films before dying in a 1931 car accident at the age of forty-two, cutting short one of the most promising directing careers in history. Fellow director Fritz Lang eulogized him as “a man to whom the cinema owes its fundamental character, artistically as well as technically.”

Sunrise remains one of the great achievements of American silent cinema, an embodiment of Murnau’s belief that “real art is simple, but simplicity requires the greatest art.”

F. W. Murnau (seated, center) with cinematographers Karl Struss (at camera, far left), Charles Rosher (at camera, second from left), and crew members. “It was nothing to have thirty, forty takes,” said Janet Gaynor.

Janet Gaynor and George O’Brien renew their love in the city, in a complex composition.


United Artists, 1928

B&W, 71 minutes


Buster Keaton’s last independent silent comedy is a gem, full of charming and ingenious comedy routines that grow physically grander as the story progresses, culminating with the single most renowned—and most dangerous—stunt of Keaton’s career.

In a beautifully choreographed early sequence, the imposing Steamboat Bill, played by arch silent-movie villain Ernest Torrence, ventures to a train station to welcome his son, whom he expects to be a strapping lad able to help resuscitate Bill’s steamboat business. He hasn’t seen Junior since infancy but knows he will be wearing a white carnation; inevitably, every man who disembarks is wearing a carnation, and father and son each in turn generate comedy out of an entertaining series of misidentifications. Finally, they meet, with the captain dismayed to find that Junior seems not only far from “strapping” but as effete as they come.

Steamboat Bill, Jr. milks the contrasting attitudes of father and son through several amusing set pieces, such as a visit to a hat shop and a scene in which Keaton tries to bust his father out of jail by smuggling in tools hidden inside a loaf of bread—only to find his dad refusing the bread because he wants nothing to do with his disappointing son.

Ernest Torrence, Buster Keaton, and an armful of hats in a classic sequence

Side view of the most famous—and dangerous—stunt of Keaton’s career

But the film truly shines when Keaton has a chance to devise elaborate stunts. The most acrobatic of the silent film comedians, Keaton blended laughs with a sense of breathless danger like no other artist. Steamboat Bill’s final fifteen minutes are a classic case in point. A cyclone strikes the town: buildings rip apart, facades crumble, and an entire hospital detaches and flies away, leaving Keaton in bed in a now wide-open room. He struggles in the wind, at one point almost parallel to the ground as a truckload of boxes fly into him. “I took a pretty good beating,” Keaton later told historian Kevin Brownlow.

The most eye-popping moment, and still one of the most spectacular stunts ever filmed, comes when the facade of a house falls toward an unsuspecting Keaton—who just so happens to be standing in the one spot where he won’t get crushed, as a small window opening falls around him. Keaton had filmed an earlier version of this gag in his 1920 two-reeler One Week, but this rendition upped the ante considerably. The stunt was done for real, with a heavy wall and with two nails driven into the ground to mark Keaton’s placement. He later explained to Sight and Sound magazine, “We built the window so that I had a clearance of two inches on each shoulder, and the top missed my head by two inches and the bottom my heels by two inches.” He only planned a single take: “You don’t do those things twice.”

Keaton creates comedy with a simple umbrella.

Originally, Steamboat Bill, Jr. was not even supposed to feature a cyclone. It had been scripted as a flood, and Keaton had already begun preparing the sequence when production supervisor Harry Brand informed producer Joe Schenck that a flood would be inappropriate: deadly real floods had lately been in the news, and Brand believed that so many people died from floods each year that the audience wouldn’t find the scene funny. Keaton later said he knew that windstorms actually caused more deaths than floods, but he went along with the change, even though it cost him $35,000 to reconstruct the sets. He created the intense wind by means of six airplane engines with attached propellers.

The result looks at once absurdly over the top and astoundingly real, a dichotomy that encapsulates much of Keaton’s appeal. Comedy and suspense, laughs and fears, are often divided by a very fine line, and it can be easy to take for granted the perilous nature of Keaton’s gags because he was so skilled at keeping them on the side of laughter.

Buster Keaton and Marion Byron, who at sixteen was in her first film

Publicity photo of Buster Keaton posing against the destroyed set

Buster tries to get a suspicious loaf of bread past the sheriff (Bud Marshall).


MGM, 1932

B&W, 62 minutes


Once seen, never forgotten, Freaks still packs a punch, but not in the way some might expect. The picture was so badly received in 1932 by audiences, critics, and even the studio that made it (the unlikely MGM), that Freaks virtually destroyed its director’s career and developed an unfair reputation for hideousness that even today can obscure its real content. Classified as a horror film, it doesn’t actually contain much horror—until the climax. For the majority of its brief running time, the tone is not one of dread or fear, but one of compassion.

With the buildup created by its opening scene of a carnival barker promising “living, breathing monstrosities,” much of the story is surprisingly sedate as it looks behind the scenes of a traveling circus. Little appears to happen at first, but audience attention is riveted on the carnival performers—the disabled, so-called “freaks”: conjoined twins, hermaphrodites, microcephalics, a bearded lady, limbless people, and, most prominently, two little people, Hans and Frieda, who are very much in love. (They are played by brother and sister Harry and Daisy Earles.) That love is put to the test as a trapeze artist, Cleopatra, schemes with her boyfriend, Hercules the strongman, to marry Hans and murder him for his inheritance. When Hans’s friends discover the plot, they exact horrible revenge.

Cleopatra (Olga Baclanova) steps outside as “freaks” Angeleno (Angelo Rossitto) and Half Boy (Johnny Eck) eye her ominously.

Roscoe (Rosco Ates) woos one of the Siamese Twins (Violet Hilton) as her sister (Daisy Hilton) watches.

At its core, Freaks is really about challenging the audience’s reactions to people with these real-life disabilities. As written, directed, and performed, they are essentially warm, noble souls with the same day-to-day concerns as anybody else. They are never shown performing in the circus ring but are kept humanized. The real “living, breathing monstrosities” are Cleopatra and Hercules—and anyone who would not treat the “freaks” with human dignity.

This is best illustrated in the movie’s most unforgettable and bizarre sequence: the wedding feast. It begins as a celebration of Hans and Cleopatra’s marriage with the “freaks” reveling around a long dinner table. They don’t yet notice that Cleopatra and Hercules are laughing at the sham they’ve perpetrated. But when the “freaks” start their memorable chant, “Gooble gobble/gooble gobble/we accept her/one of us,” Cleopatra turns stone-cold. Revulsed by the idea of being one of “them,” her true self comes out with the venomous, classic retort: “Dirty, slimy, freaks!” The looks of hurt as the “freaks” suddenly realize they’ve been tricked and belittled are remarkably affecting, underscoring how successfully Browning has made the audience empathize with them.

At the end of the picture, as they crawl through mud and rain with knives to inflict terror upon their tormentors, the audience may well be caught between sympathizing with them, finding satisfaction in their action, condemning it, enjoying the horror-film atmospherics, and feeling unsettled watching these real people with real conditions now presented as a macabre spectacle.

Freaks is based on a short story, “Spurs,” published in 1923. Tod Browning, a director whose career stretched back to 1915 and included several horror classics starring Lon Chaney, had wanted to adapt it since at least 1927; he had joined a circus as a teenager and felt an affinity toward the performers. Only after the success of Universal’s Dracula (1931), which Browning directed, and Frankenstein (1931), did MGM production chief Irving Thalberg finally agree the time was right to cash in on the horror craze.

Wallace Ford and Leila Hyams as sympathetic carnival performers who stand up for the “freaks”

Some of the disabled cast of Freaks: (front) Jerry Austin, Jenny Lee Snow, Koo Koo, and Olga Roderick; (middle) Elvira Snow and Schlitze; (rear) Johnny Eck, Peter Robinson, and Josephine Joseph

Cleopatra (Olga Baclanova) seduces Hans (Harry Earles).

Screenwriter Willis Goldbeck later recounted that Thalberg told him to write something “more horrible” than those Universal classics. After Goldbeck submitted his script, which contained extended horror sequences originally included in the finished film, he found Thalberg slumped at his desk. “He looked at me sadly, shook his head, and sighed, ‘Well, it’s horrible.’”


  • “Film historian and author Arnold (Christmas in the Movies) returns for a second bite at the classics apple with this delightful sequel to 2016’s The Essentials: 52 Must-See Movies and Why They Matter… Arnold’s knowledge is vast, and the joyful tone of his sprightly writing is infectious. With a foreword by current TCM host Ben Mankiewicz, an index and an extensive bibliography, and a list of all the films screened on The Essentials, this book will please film buffs of all ages and levels of cinema knowledge.”—Library Journal starred review
  • "As in the first collection of essays, Jeremy Arnold provides background information and perspective on each title, while the publisher frames all of this in a handsome package with carefully-chosen stills....You can't go wrong revisiting any of [these] movies and you'll enjoy rekindling thoughts and memories of them in this appealing and well-written survey."—Leonard Maltin, film critic and historian
  • “Lavishly illustrated and intelligently written… The new Volume 2 handsomely complements Volume 1 design-wise and sits neatly on the shelf beside its older brother.”—Raymond Benson, Cinema Retro
  • “A clear and concise breakdown of why these movies are worth your time… This is the perfect gift for someone that wants to get into classic movies but has no idea where to start.”—Journeys in Classic Film
  • “A sequel that is better than the original.”—DVD Corner

On Sale
Oct 20, 2020
Page Count
312 pages
Running Press

Jeremy Arnold

About the Author

Jeremy Arnold is a film historian, commentator, and author of Turner Classic Movies: The Essentials volumes 1 and 2 and Christmas in the Movies: 30 Classics to Celebrate the Season. His writing has appeared in Variety, the Hollywood Reporter, Moviemaker, and the Directors Guild of America magazine, and he has recorded audio commentaries for the Blu-ray or DVD releases of numerous vintage films. He lives in Los Angeles.

photo credit: Kate Butler

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