I’ve received a fair amount of mail stirred up by the first sentence of my most recent essay
in Commentary: “Hollywood rarely makes artistically serious movies, save by inadvertence.” No need to supply details–you can imagine most of it for yourself–but one reader caught my attention by pointing to this paragraph:
Hollywood has always been a money-making enterprise, and it may well be that our latter-day Age of the Blockbuster is nothing more than a return to the historical norm from which the New Wave of the 70’s was a short-lived aberration. Thus, for all the nostalgia with which American films of the 30’s and 40’s are now recalled, the best of them were unpretentious genre movies–Westerns, musicals, “screwball” comedies, and the bleak, cynical crime stories now known as film noir–turned out by inspired craftsmen who succeeded in transcending the limitations imposed on them by the studios at which they worked. It is these films, and not such nominally “serious” efforts as The Grapes of Wrath (1939) or The Best Years of Our Lives (1946), for which the studio system will be justly remembered.
The reader in question invited to put my money where my mouth was by naming what I thought were the best sound films made in Hollywood prior to the coming of the New Wave. That’s a good question, and an impossible one, but I decided to try to answer it anyway.
Bearing in mind that I could change my mind later today, here are my fifteen picks, one to a director:
- It Happened One Night (Frank Capra, 1934)
- The Adventures of Robin Hood (Michael Curtiz and William Keighley, 1938)
- The Shop Around the Corner (Ernst Lubitsch, 1940)
- Citizen Kane (Orson Welles, 1941)
- Double Indemnity (Billy Wilder, 1941)
- The Lady Eve (Preston Sturges, 1941)
- To Have and Have Not (Howard Hawks, 1943)
- Meet Me in St. Louis (Vincente Minnelli, 1944)
- Out of the Past (Jacques Tourneur, 1947)
- All About Eve (Joseph L. Mankiewicz, 1950)
- Singin’ in the Rain (Stanley Donen and Gene Kelly, 1952)
- The Night of the Hunter (Charles Laughton, 1955)
- The Searchers (John Ford, 1956)
- Sweet Smell of Success (Alexander Mackendrick, 1957)
- North by Northwest (Alfred Hitchcock, 1959)
Art, or not? You decide.