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52 Must-See Movies and Why They Matter
Foreword by Robert Osborne
By Turner Classic Movies
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Since its inception on Turner Classic Movies in 2001, The Essentials has become the ultimate series for movie lovers to expand their knowledge of must-see cinema and discover or revisit landmark films that have had a lasting impact on audiences everywhere.
Based on the TCM series, The Essentials book showcases fifty-two must-see movies from the silent era through the early 1980s. Readers can enjoy one film per week, for a year of stellar viewing, or indulge in their own classic movie festival. Some long-championed classics appear within these pages; other selections may surprise you. Each film is profiled with insightful notes on why it’s an Essential, a guide to must-see moments, and running commentary from TCM’s Robert Osborne and Essentials guest hosts past and present, including Sally Field, Drew Barrymore, Alec Baldwin, Rose McGowan, Carrie Fisher, Molly Haskell, Peter Bogdanovich, Sydney Pollack, and Rob Reiner.
Featuring full-color and black-and-white photography of the greatest stars in movie history, The Essentials is your curated guide to fifty-two films that define the meaning of the word “classic.”
Ufa/Parufamet (Germany), 1927 B&W, 148 minutes (2010 restoration)
Thea von Harbou, from her novel
|ALFRED ABEL||JOH FREDERSEN|
|FRITZ RASP||THE THIN MAN|
WITH THE HELP OF A MAD SCIENTIST’S HUMANLIKE ROBOT, THE RULER OF A CLASS-DIVIDED FUTURE CITY TRIES TO QUASH A WORKERS’ REBELLION ORGANIZED IN PART BY HIS OWN SON.
WHY IT’S ESSENTIAL
One of the most influential of all science-fiction movies, Metropolis has endured for its design, themes, and groundbreaking special effects. Its vision of the urban future—oppressive, despairing, and segregated into haves and have-nots—has reverberated through such films as Alphaville (1965), Blade Runner (1982), The Fifth Element (1997), Elysium (2013), and several Batman entries. Even fashion designers and pop artists have incorporated the look of Metropolis into their work. All that influence has not diminished the power of the original film itself. Indeed, it remains fresh and modern, especially since a historic restoration to its near-original running time.
The effects still look ingenious. To create the wide shots of the city with elevated roadways, cars, and airplanes in the frame, a stop-motion technique was used: for four months, the scenes were shot one frame at a time. For shots that combine human actors with miniature sets such as skyscrapers, visual-effects wizard Eugen Schüfftan employed his so-called “Schüfftan process,” which used mirrors to reflect the sets into the frame with the actors. Alfred Hitchcock, who was then working on his own films at Germany’s Ufa studio, later recounted visiting the set and observing this process, which he used in Blackmail (1929) and The 39 Steps (1935).
Alfred Abel and Rudolf Klein-Rogge
In addition, the character of Rotwang became the inspiration for countless more celluloid mad scientists, with his mechanical hand even emulated by the title characters in Dr. No (1962) and Dr. Strangelove (1964). Both his laboratory and his bringing to life of the robot modeled on Maria—an iconic image in the history of film—clearly influenced Bride of Frankenstein (1935).
The making of Metropolis was an epic unto itself, with 310 shooting days, sixty shooting nights, and 36,000 extras used for the riot and flood scenes. Director Fritz Lang was dictatorial and perfectionistic, qualities perhaps necessary for a film of this scope but which Lang took to the point of maliciousness. Thousands of extras, for instance, had to stand in floodwaters for hours on end; hundreds of naked men endured numerous takes marching into a giant “energy machine” with icy water spraying on them; actress Brigitte Helm, whose performance as Maria is legendary in science-fiction, was exposed to real flames in the burning-at-the-stake sequence, and her dress caught on fire.
Brigitte Helm as the Robot
“It is groundbreaking. . . . I think it is profound [and] has such a poetic message. . . . It keeps you thinking about the way that the world and life should function. . . . An original in every sense of the word.”
City of the future
Lang and producer Erich Pommer had set out to make a German epic that would rival Hollywood spectacles of the time. They succeeded, but at great expense: the film’s final cost was five million marks, and it earned just 75,000, nearly ruining the Ufa studio. (Ufa fired Pommer in mid-production.) After the movie’s box-office flop, it was savagely edited, with its original 153-minute running time cut by an hour for U.S. release by Paramount. In the years that followed, even shorter versions were created, resulting in total incoherence for a film that arguably hadn’t made complete narrative sense to begin with.
A 1984 tinted re-edit with a pop soundtrack gave Metropolis newfound cult status, but that version was only eighty minutes long. In 2002, newly discovered film elements enabled a restoration to 118 minutes, which was thought to be definitive until even more footage, in 16mm, turned up in 2008—one of the most important film discoveries in history. It was cleaned up as much as possible and incorporated into the 148-minute version now available. The powerful original score by Gottfried Huppertz was also recorded anew. The music’s notations and cue sheets had actually helped guide restorers as to the precise timing of certain scenes. The restoration debuted in Berlin and had its American premiere at the 2011 TCM Classic Film Festival in Hollywood.
“This is an example of the great work being done by filmmakers in Europe before the Second World War. It’s so advanced for its time . . . , so imaginative.”
Rudolf Klein-Rogge and Brigitte Helm
WHAT TO LOOK FOR
For all the elaborate sets and special effects, Metropolis also employs innovative use of lighting and editing techniques to express emotion above all else. For example, in a scene where Rotwang chases Maria through an underground labyrinth, the only light source for several shots is her candle; for other shots, it is just Rotwang’s flashlight. Pools of blackness and stark contrasts dominate these frames, creating a sense of fear and claustrophobia In a frightening nightmare sequence featuring the seven deadly sins, an image of the grim reaper comes straight at the camera. And during Maria’s famous dance that drives men dangerously wild with lust, Lang fills the frame with contorted faces, and then just eyeballs, in a jaw-dropping montage of multiple exposures. These moments foreshadow the visuals in Hollywood horror films of the 1930s and film noir of the 1940s, periods in which many German filmmakers, including Lang, would be working in America and incorporating their techniques.
ALL QUIET ON THE WESTERN FRONT
Universal, 1930 B&W, 133 minutes
Carl Laemmle, Jr.
Maxwell Anderson, George Abbott, and Del Andrews, from the novel by Erich Maria Remarque
|LEW AYRES||PAUL BÄUMER|
|BERYL MERCER||PAUL’S MOTHER|
IDEALISTIC GERMAN STUDENTS EAGERLY ENLIST DURING WORLD WAR I, ONLY TO DISCOVER THE HORRORS OF TRENCH WARFARE.
WHY IT’S ESSENTIAL
With a stark emphasis on the futility of war and its tragic waste of youth, All Quiet on the Western Front stands as a landmark picture, powerful for its antiwar theme and still potent as a piece of early sound-era filmmaking. Erich Maria Remarque’s 1929 German novel was an international sensation, prompting Universal to snap up the film rights and hand the producing reins to twenty-two-year-old Carl Laemmle, Jr.—son of the studio’s founder—as his first effort. When Remarque himself declined the lead role of Paul Bäumer, and Douglas Fairbanks, Jr. proved unavailable, director Lewis Milestone auditioned young actors and was struck by twenty-year-old Lew Ayres. He’d recently appeared in the Greta Garbo vehicle The Kiss (1929) but wasn’t well known to the public, and Milestone had to fight the studio to cast him. The rest was history, as Ayres’s touching, natural performance launched him to stardom and the movie won Oscars for Best Picture and Director (with additional nominations for Writing and Cinematography).
The key to the film’s success is its combination of finely drawn characters and powerhouse combat scenes, which have influenced countless war movies since, from Paths of Glory (1957) to Saving Private Ryan (1998). Top-billed Louis Wolheim, with his unforgettable battered face, stands out as gruff-but-lovable Sgt. Katczinsky, a prototype for movie sergeants to follow, and Beryl Mercer is extremely moving in her scenes as Paul’s mother, helping to make the homefront sequences as engaging as the battlefield scenes. The mother had originally been played by Zasu Pitts, a comedienne cast against type who reportedly gave an equally lovely performance, but at the film’s preview, the audience howled with laughter when Pitts came on screen because they had just seen her in the comedy Honey (1930). The somber scene was ruined and an anxious Laemmle immediately ordered a reshoot with a new actress, Mercer.
The war scenes were state-of-the-art for 1930, directed by Milestone with tremendous movement, immediacy, and depth in nearly every frame. Dramatic crane shots look astonishing for having been accomplished during a year in which most cameras were trapped in immobile, soundproof booths. Combined with the fluid camerawork are striking battlefield explosions, achieved by setting off dynamite remotely just before or after the actors ran by, with little room to spare. When Milestone was hit by debris and knocked unconscious, the crew started wearing steel helmets themselves. As cinematographer Arthur Edeson recalled, “Except for not using real bullets, we might as well have been in the war.” Adding to the realism was the fact that all 1,000-plus soldier extras had actually fought in World War I, on both sides of the conflict.
Milestone’s choreography of action and camera was so impressive that he became known as a war-movie expert, and he returned to the genre many times, notably with the World War II combat film A Walk in the Sun (1945) and the grim Korean War drama Pork Chop Hill (1959). Those pictures also show the price of war, but All Quiet on the Western Front—like most World War I films—is more explicitly antiwar, through to its iconic ending.
“What I love is this is a movie. It was created on a soundstage, and in fields with trenches This isn’t a documentary, and it almost has the look of [one] The camera’s very low to the ground, so you’re where the soldiers were in the trenches It’s a harrowing picture.”
A World War I combat scene
WHAT TO LOOK FOR
In the famous foxhole sequence, Paul stabs a French soldier, then tries to keep him alive and ultimately begs forgiveness of the corpse—all in the midst of artillery fire stretching through the night, the following day, and into the night again. Ayres’s shifting reactions to what he has done are heart-wrenching, but the Frenchman’s wordless performance is even more memorable. He is played by Raymond Griffith, a major silent comedy star who had retired from acting with the advent of sound due to a vocal affliction that kept him from speaking above a whisper A great admirer of Remarque’s novel, Griffith agreed to take on this little role for free, simply wanting to be a part of such a worthy film. To see Griffith in his final screen appearance, struggling to speak before slowly dying, carries supreme poignancy.
A simple, lighthearted scene in which Paul and his friends swim across a river to visit some Frenchwomen was actually one of the most challenging to shoot. By all accounts, the water was so bitterly cold that the actors almost contracted hypothermia. William Bakewell later recalled Ayres’s back looking as if blue ink had been spilled all over it.
Beryl Mercer, Lew Ayres, and Marion Clayton
That ending came together at the last moment. Milestone wasn’t happy with his original conclusion, despite its faithfulness to the novel, nor was he satisfied with eight suggested alternatives. When a friend, Metropolis cinematographer Karl Freund, mused that it should be something “as simple as a butterfly,” Milestone took the comparison literally, remembering an earlier scene that references Paul’s butterfly collection, and he knew he had his solution. Ayres and Edeson were busy on other films by then so he enlisted Freund to shoot the new finale, with Milestone himself providing the hand that tragically reaches for a butterfly. In the way it blends intimate characterization with the film’s theme of overwhelming warfare—entirely visually—it’s a devastating finish.
“For me this movie is an essential because the grittiness of these war sequences is really a model for other films that are to come, like Kubrick’s Paths of Glory, [with its] fantastic tracking shots through the trenches, on to films like Platoon and Apocalypse Now.”
Lew Ayres, Russell Gleason, Louis Wolheim, Scott Kolk, Ben Alexander, and Owen Davis, Jr.
Lew Ayres and Raymond Griffith
United Artists, 1931 B&W, 86 minutes
Charlie Chaplin and Virginia Cherrill
Charles Chaplin (uncredited)
|CHARLIE CHAPLIN||A TRAMP|
|VIRGINIA CHERRILL||A BLIND GIRL|
|FLORENCE LEE||HER GRANDMOTHER|
|HARRY MYERS||AN ECCENTRIC MILLIONAIRE|
|ALLAN GARCIA||HIS BUTLER|
|HANK MANN||A PRIZEFIGHTER|
WHY IT’S ESSENTIAL
Charlie Chaplin started developing City Lights in 1928, just as sound was starting to overtake Hollywood. By the time the film was released in February 1931, it was already an anachronism—a silent film (with music and sound effects) in an otherwise fully talkie era. The timing had made Chaplin quite nervous, but his faith was rewarded when City Lights became a major success. In fact, it became his personal favorite of his own films, a sentiment shared by legions of fans ever since.
Scene after scene ranks among Chaplin’s very best work: the sidewalk elevator scene, the blind girl tossing water in the tramp’s face, the millionaire’s suicide attempt, the boxing match, the fight for the cigarette butt, and, of course, the extraordinary ending—one of the most moving in motion-picture history.
Chaplin had introduced his tramp character to the screen in 1914, but City Lights marked the first time that the tramp engaged in a fully romantic story in addition to his usual comedy. For the part of the blind flower girl with whom the tramp falls in love, Chaplin cast a beautiful twenty-year-old unknown, Virginia Cherrill, whom he had noticed in the stands at a boxing match. He was particularly struck by her gaze, which resembled blindness but was, in fact, just nearsightedness. “She could look blind without being offensive,” Chaplin later wrote. It didn’t seem to matter that she had a total lack of acting experience.
Charlie Chaplin and Harry Myers
“Charlie Chaplin is film. He’s what film’s all about. He started out in the silent-screen era and helped define it, helped create it, helped bring it into focus as an art form [and] an entertainment form. He was a genius. . . . I do think City Lights is his best film.”
She is very affecting in the finished film, but Chaplin had a tough time getting a performance to his liking, probably due more to his exacting standards than to her lack of experience. Cherrill, who later married Cary Grant, said Chaplin would direct his cast by acting out every nuance and moment of every part, demonstrating precisely what he wanted. (Robert Parrish, a future editor and director who here plays a newsboy with a peashooter, echoed this point, recalling that he felt Chaplin “would much rather have played all [the parts] himself.”) The first scene between Chaplin and Cherrill took two weeks to get right, and the shot where she offers him a flower required 342 takes. Over and over, she didn’t hold the flower in the way that he wanted, or she didn’t speak the line “Flower, sir?” correctly—even though the line is only “seen” and never heard. Their working relationship was tempestuous, and Chaplin even fired her at one point during the long, on-and-off-again production schedule, only to hire her back with a raise in salary.
Charlie Chaplin, Eddie Baker, and Hank Mann
Another reason for the drawn-out production—two years from the first day of shooting to the last—was that Chaplin experienced serious creative blocks. It took him over a year, for instance, to think of the device that would make the blind girl mistakenly believe the tramp to be a rich man: the slamming of a car door after the tramp rushes through to evade a cop. Chaplin also fell ill for a long stretch, reportedly caused by stress.
The end result, however, was an unparalleled blending of comedy and pathos that has held up superbly. The final sequence is unforgettable for its emotional complexity and simple economy. Of the famous last shot, Chaplin later said he “felt a beautiful sensation of not acting, of standing outside myself.”
Silent cinema in the late 1920s was reaching an apex of sophistication, fluidity, and technical achievement that might well have yielded many more silent masterworks if sound had held off for a few more years. Thanks to Charlie Chaplin’s talent and perseverance in writing, producing, directing, editing, scoring, and even distributing City Lights the way he wanted—an all-encompassing level of creative power that was practically unique in the history of Hollywood—this masterwork did see the light of day and has been essential viewing ever since.
“What I love … is Chaplin’s incredible use of his body as an actor. . . . He must have been a man of inexhaustible energy. He was like this nuclear reaction on film … kind of the opposite of a certain film technique you see years later when people are very still and kind of sedentary. Who was more alive physically, and who was more graceful and inventive, [than Chaplin]?”
Hank Mann and Charlie Chaplin
WHAT TO LOOK FOR
Chaplin’s favorite scene in City Lights was the boxing sequence in which the tramp must fight a much tougher brute. Ingeniously choreographed, the tramp darts around the ring rhythmically, causing his opponent and the referee to do the same in what becomes almost a dance, and hiding behind the referee only to toss comical sucker punches at his opponent. The timing of all three men is perfection. Chaplin also notably uses the sound of the bell to generate comedy, although even here the gag has a visual motivation—the tramp getting caught in the bell’s cord. Virginia Cherrill later said the filming of this sequence “became sort of a party at the studio … Charlie must have had over a hundred extras present … and he encouraged his friends to come and watch.… [He] loved every minute of it.”
"[An] excellent book. Author Arnold distills why each movie is a must-see, and augments his knowledgeable text with sidebar quotes from various TCM hosts... Handsomely designed and packed with great photos, The Essentials would be a perfect gift for a young person who's just dipping his or her toe into these waters
but I found it equally appealing."
Leonard Maltin, leonardmaltin.com
"An entertaining read... Beautifully-designed and illustrated... Author Jeremy Arnold does a superb job presenting the reasons why a particular film matters."
Raymond Benson, Cinema Retro
- On Sale
- May 3, 2016
- Page Count
- 288 pages
- Running Press