Zoe Trope; musicals, comedies
Night at the Opera (1935)
The Producers (1968)
Singin' in the Rain (1952)
42nd Street (1933)
Some Like It Hot (1959)
Sullivan's Travels (1941)
Saturday Night Fever (1977)
Bill Hart; action, adventure, war
The Third Man (1949)
Apocalypse Now (1979)
French Connection (1971)
Bonnie and Clyde (1967)
Open City (1945)
Wages of Fear (1955)
Gunga Din (1939)
All Quiet on the Western Front (1930)
Clio Mammon; sci-fi, romance, horror, fantasy
The Man Who Would Be King (1975)
Lost Horizon (1937)
Blade Runner (1982)
Raiders of the Lost Ark (1981)
Back to the Future (1985)
King Kong (1933)
The Mummy (1932)
The Exorcist (1973)
Kenneth Scope; historical, documentary, landmark
Lawrence of Arabia (1962)
The Passion of Joan of Arc (1928)
Berlin: Symphony of a City (1928)
The Sorrow and the Pity (1972)
Triumph of the Will (1934)
A Man for All Seasons (1966)
Lulu Brooks; mystery and suspense
The Omen (1976)
Battle of Algiers (1966)
The Manchurian Candidate (1962)
Rosemary's Baby (1968)
High Noon (1952)
Taxi Driver (1976)
I Am a Fugitive from a Chain Gang (1932)
North by Northwest (1959)
Edward Porter; drama
City Lights (1931)
Raging Bull (1980)
The Best Years of Our Lives (1946)
The Godfather (1972)
Tokyo Story (1953)
The Blue Angel (1931)
Citizen Kane (1941)
Sunset Boulevard (1950)
[Editor's Note: This column concludes one begun in last week's issue. The host and his five dinner guests had retired for the evening after debating what makes a film great and which particular films might be regarded as classics, the ones that anyone serious about film must see. Each person had selected ten films in his or her chosen genres; these are provided at the top of the following page.]
Edward Porter rose early to array breakfast fare for his guests, who could be expected to drift into the solarium any minute now. He thought about how the sixty films chosen last night might be distilled to twenty that morning. Should each list, reflecting defined genres, provide three or four entries to the ultimate twenty? Or were some genres more worthy than others? To what extent should the final list be subject to debate? The potential seemed great for circular argument culminating in a food fight.
"Good morning, Eddie dear," said Clio. "I know you're ready to take the reins again, but perhaps you should not hold them too tightly. This is supposed to be smart fun, isn't it, not a school lesson?"
"Right you are," he replied as the others came into view and headed for the dining table. "I just worry that no one will be willing to pare his own list."
"Think homicide, not suicide," Clio whispered sweetly. "Don't ask people to kill their darlings; give the scissors to the others."
Edward turned from Clio toward Kenneth, Zoe, Bill, and Lulu. "I hope that all of you slept well," the host said to all, "and have renewed appetite for the task we have set for ourselves. I suggest that we talk about the films in the order in which they were put forward last evening, so let's review Zoe's list of musicals and comedies. Challenge her picks, but do not propose replacements."
Bill Hart opened the critique. "Zoe, it's a fine list, but I suspect that you haven't seen Night at the Opera for at least twenty years, as I had not until last month. I remember I used to laugh out loud at the stateroom scene and mimic Groucho's one-liners, but now this warhorse is ready for the glue factory. I suggest we vote it off the island."
Lulu agreed. "Bill's point is not confined to the Marx Brothers. When it comes to drawing up a list of classics for the current generation, nostalgia is treacherous: The twinge of nostalgia ought to be literally painful, as its name implies. One cannot return to the sensations and ideals of one's youth. By that measure, I'd give a castor-oil rating to some other films on Zoe's list - they're supposed to be good for you even though they feel bad. If an old film - or an old book or old painting or old song - is truly a classic, then its quaintness must be a part of its charm, not an impediment to appreciation, needing to be explained away."
"That's awfully good, Lulu," said Kenneth. "Maybe some of my picks won't hold up to scrutiny of that sort. But don't we call a film a classic in part because every film made afterward was somehow shaped by it? Shouldn't we bring some historical perspective, some base knowledge, to, say, D.W. Griffith's Intolerance? Or Busby Berkeley's 42nd Street? These are films that virtually created the genres from which we have been asked to select."
"Yes," Edward said. "But both of those films draw you into their world, and so may be enjoyed as well as admired after all these years. I think what Bill has said about Night at the Opera is that it creates no world for the viewer to occupy."
"But one could hardly say that of any other film on Zoe's list," Clio chimed in. "In the interest of pruning, I'd suggest that the deliciously bad taste of The Producers has diminished as we have moved further from World War II. Making fun of the Nazis then was nearly as risky as making a musical comedy about Osama bin Laden would be today. I like all of Zoe's choices, and I think including Saturday Night Fever and Sullivan's Travels was daring and brilliant ... but are they films one must see, the way that Singin' in the Rain or Some Like It Hot certainly are?"
"Perhaps they aren't," Zoe acknowledged, "wonderful as they are. And if we're going to be ruthless" - everyone nodded vigorously here - "then maybe we have to say that Showboat, while it has many wonderful moments and does wrap you up in its melodrama, remains a stage play at its core. It doesn't leave the boards the way that Oklahoma does."
"Generously offered, Zoe," said the host. "That leaves Woody Allen's Manhattan as the only film on your list that has not been mentioned, so I'll say that for me it belongs on the list of twenty, not only as a rueful comedy but also as a musical. In the years after 9/11, especially, this love song to New York only gets better. Now let's move on to Bill's list of action, adventure, and war movies."
"Bill, I think the principle you raised with my list is a good one to apply to your own!" Zoe said with good humor.
"Yes" added Lulu, "but I think his list may be more resistant to our pruning shears. Maybe Stagecoach is more thrilling for Yakima Canute's stuntwork than anything else, and so we may dispense with it. And maybe Gunga Din and All Quiet on the Western Front get filed with Kenneth's noble, edifying, stultifying landmarks."
"Now wait a minute," Kenneth objected. "Don't be so quick to lop off something simply because it's old. All Quiet may not be as frenetic as French Connection, but it's the first anti-war war film, and the ending is still imitated today. I too think Bill's list is tough to trim, but I think his newer films - Alien, Apocalypse Now, French Connection, and Bonnie and Clyde - ought to give way to the older ones."
"I saw an old favorite recently," said Clio, "but had the opposite experience from Bill's. I saw Wages of Fear with my son Holden just a few months ago, and I must tell you that it hasn't lost a thing. It still thrilled me, and Yves Montand was wonderful. Likewise, Rossellini's Open City hasn't lost its fierce grip; its age and primitive feel only add to its appeal."
"Summing up," Edward said, "we may have lumped the newer films together unfairly, and no one has spoken up for The Third Man, which according to the British Film Institute is the greatest of all British films. Speaking for myself only, I see the visceral charm of French Connection and Alien but I don't regard either as a great film. Of the modern films, the best case for classic status can be made, I believe, for Arthur Penn's Bonnie & Clyde. Now, on to the list of escapist fare."
"Clio, dearest," said Kenneth, "maybe now you may tell us how Pinocchio leapt to your mind amidst Dracula, King Kong, and The Mummy."
"It was easy," she replied. I was thinking about the most terrifying films I had ever seen, and nothing has ever scared me like Pinocchio. It is truly a horror tale for children - Stromboli, Monstro, and Pleasure Island make Alien seem no scarier than a jack-in-the-box.
"I loved this list," Bill said. "I've watched The Man Who Would Be King a dozen times, as I have Lost Horizon and Raiders of the Lost Ark. Always fun, but are they classics? Oddly, I think the film on this list that may have the best claim to being "a film that must be seen" is Blade Runner, which creates a hybrid genre of sci-fi noir."
Zoe supported Bill. "The dreamy historical fantasy of Lost Horizon echoes the fogginess of Dracula, The Mummy, and King Kong, though I think all three of those films are better than Lost Horizon. Ronald Colman gives me a pain. I know we're not supposed to bitch about what isn't on the list, but what happened to Frankenstein or Freaks?"
Kenneth rose to the bait. "Yes, they're all great, but in a way they're all the same - eerily bound in the closed-in world of the new talking picture, very, very stagy. If I had to choose one from that 1931-33 group, though, it would be Dracula."
"I agree," Lulu said, "but isn't it possible that the greatest of all horror films is the one nobody's mentioned yet? To me, The Exorcist just gets better each time I see it. I don't think Exorcist II will add to its legacy, though."
Edward pointed out that Back to the Future had somehow crept onto the list despite violating the twenty-year waiting period; it had been released in 1985. Clio asked if she could substitute. "Sorry," Edward replied. "Onward."
"Kenneth, yours is a librarian's list," said Zoe. "You're going to have to strap young people to their chairs if you expect them to see any of these, except for Reds and Lawrence of Arabia."
Bill agreed. "Film students may applaud, but really, what is the value of seeing Berlin, a silent documentary made on a single day in 1927? And Intolerance and The Passion of Joan of Arc are silent, too; Edward, I think you should have disqualified silent films from consideration at the outset."
"Whoa," said Lulu. "I think silents can speak to us, and because of their obvious limitation, the best of them do something that talking pictures still struggle to accomplish: They speak directly to our hearts. Like you, Bill, I have never been able to warm to Griffith or Dreyer, but Berlin is remarkably fresh and has been far more influential on documentary filmmakers than, say, Nanook of the North."
"I think Triumph of the Will," said Clio, "creepy as it is in its glorification of Nazi kitsch, is even more influential and still a magnificent film. On the other hand, The Sorrow and the Pity, a documentary that speaks to the residue of Nazism in a more real way, is not as cinematic. And then there's Koyanisqaatsi, a purely cinematic experience that I deeply love, but its call upon the intellect is that of a mosquito bite."
Wrapping up Kenneth's list, Edward said, "Like Lawrence of Arabia, but without David Lean's grand scale, Becket and A Man for All Seasons demonstrate that film may appeal to the mind as well as the heart - and not through mere gimmickry like Memento or Sixth Sense. I don't know if either will make our ultimate list, but they are undoubtedly great films. Let's move on to mystery and suspense films."
"I think we can remove a couple from consideration," said Bill, "for no other reason than that they seem clearly inferior to the others on Lulu's list. I Am a Fugitive is a powerful, wonderful unfairly neglected film, and Goldfinger is the best of the Bond franchise. But they're a notch below, I think. And let me say that I regret not choosing Battle of Algiers for my list as one of the all-time great war movies; it is awesomely heart-pounding."
"Vertigo is pretty hokey," said Zoe, "no matter how much the French love it. If you've got to choose one Hitchcock, it's got to be North by Northwest, doesn't it? Anyway, I think it is a very smart list Lulu has put together, and she deserves applause for her offbeat picks - not only the two that Bill dismisses but also Rosemary's Baby and The Omen."
"I second Zoe in everything," Kenneth said, "and like Bill, I could have placed Battle of Algiers on my list; while all the action is staged - there's not a frame of documentary footage - it feels like a documentary. As to Manchurian Candidate, High Noon, and Taxi Driver, they're all fine films, but for me they come up just a bit short of classic."
"Well, I don't know about that," said Edward, "but before you dissect my picks for drama, I'd like to issue a disclaimer: Even though three of my films are foreign, I passed over so many foreign films I loved because we're developing a list for Americans. The World of Apu, Claire's Knee, Rashomon, Wild Strawberries, Day for Night...I feel ashamed not to have included them. But I can't give up any of my ten, either, so hack away, my friends."
Clio met Edward's thin smile with a warm, open one. "Darling, it is a splendid list, and full of surprises. Casablanca and Citizen Kane are the only expected choices, and I suspect that you included them because to omit them would call your thought process into question. Still, if our task is to distinguish greater from lesser, even within the indubitably great, I will say that I think both Casablanca and Sunset Boulevard represent pinnacles of genre filmmaking more than the spark of genius. I know how deeply you love Blue Angel and Tokyo Story, but I think they too must be permitted to slide off the list: Marlene Dietrich electrifies Blue Angel and Karl Jannings is magnificent, but the gears do grind in a noisy way; as for Tokyo Story, Ozu's gift is pathos, but in this Chaplin is king. Hang your hat on City Lights instead."
Bill broke the long silence that followed. "I think this category has proven the toughest to pare down. Edward has made some unexpected choices, yet they all seem unassailable. For myself, I had forgotten how much I loved The Best Years of Our Lives, which has somehow become a "forgotten" classic. And if Citizen Kane has won a permanent place in the pantheon, so has The Godfather. Maybe we can put Raging Bull to one side, knowing that Goodfellas will leap onto the list in a few years. But if leaving Scorsese on the sideline is difficult, leaving Ingmar Bergman off the list is sacrilege! Edward, I think I speak for all of us when I say, take more slots for your category. We can't include Singin' in the Rain at the expense of Persona."
And so the guests resolved that Edward would sum up the proceedings, leaving forty wonderful films by the side of the road. Heartened by their faith in him, Edward made so bold as to list the films in order, and he stood ready to defend his and their choices another day.
1. City Lights
3. Citizen Kane
5. The Godfather
9. Lawrence of Arabia
11. North by Northwest
15. Open City
17. Some Like It Hot
19. The Best Years of Our Lives
21. Singin' in the Rain
23. The Third Man
25. Bonnie and Clyde
27. The Exorcist
31. Battle of Algiers
33. All Quiet on the Western Front
37. Blade Runner
39. Wages of Fear ++
John Thorn is the editor of Total Baseball and Total Football, and the author of many other sports titles. He lives in Kingston.