Tuesday, September 27, 2011

My 100 Favorite Films: From 20 to 11

This month, the countdown enters the final turn (as they say in horse racing). It‘s been great revisiting these motion pictures—and even better hearing from others who include them among their favorites. Please keep in mind that these films are not what I'd consider the best 100 movies ever made. They are simply one classic fan's favorites. (An underlined title means there's a hyperlink to a full review at the Cafe.)

Gene Tierney and Rex Harrison.
20. The Ghost and Mrs. Muir – For over a decade, my wife and I watched this romantic fantasy every New Year’s Eve—I still can’t think of a better way to end one year and start a new one with a loved one. Gene Tierney stars as Lucy Muir, a young widow who moves into Gull Cottage with her young daughter and housekeeper. On her first night, she receives a visit by the ghost of Captain Daniel Gregg (Rex Harrison), the sea captain who owned the house. Despite their different backgrounds, Mrs. Muir and Captain Gregg evolve from dear friends to more—to the point that the Captain advises her to forget him and find love with a “real” man. I think this is Tierney’s finest performance, as evidenced by the look on her face when she learns the truth about “Uncle Neddy” (George Sanders). She and Harrison make an engaging couple, all the more remarkable because of the limitations placed on their characters’ love. The windswept cliffs photographed by Charles Lang and the haunting music score from Bernard Herrmann contribute mightily to the romantic ambiance.

19. The Bishop’s Wife – When I first saw this film on TV in the 1970s, it was not the annual holiday favorite that it is today. Its stature has grown exponentially since then and it’s typically listed among the best films of all three of its stars: Cary Grant, Loretta Young, and David Niven. I’ll omit the plot summary, since I figure most readers have seen it. Aside from its magical moments (e.g., the angel Dudley’s visit with the professor, the ice skating scene, etc.), what I admire most about The Bishop’s Wife is Grant’s performance. For once, despite his looks and charm, he doesn’t get the girl. Furthermore, Dudley becomes jealous and, in one scene, perhaps a little petty. In the hands of a less gifted actor, this often human-like angel could have posed a problem. But Grant provides all the required character shading and still keeps Dudley likable. That was one of his greatest gifts as a performer.

The brothers (well, six of them) seek brides.
18. Seven Brides for Seven Brothers – The Oregon Territory in 1850 provides the setting for this high-energy, colorful musical about a hard-working “mountain man” who comes to town for supplies—and a wife. He quickly settles on Millie (Jane Powell), a comely—but sassy—lass who chops wood, cooks, and milks cows. For Millie, it’s love at first sight and the chance to take care of her own home. Alas, the honeymoon gets off to a rocky start when Millie discovers that Adam has six brothers. “Y’all live around here?” she asks. “Not ’round. Here,” replies one of the brothers. The score by Johnny Mercer and Gene de Paul is a tuneful one. “Wonderful, Wonderful Day” and “When You’re in Love” are bright, pretty love songs. But Mercer’s best lyrics are reserved for “Lonesome Polecat,” a woeful lament sung by the lovesick brothers (a sample line: “A man can’t sleep when he sleeps with sheep”). Michael Kidd’s spectacular choreography provides a perfect complement to the music. Kidd insisted that all the dance numbers derive from what the brothers were doing. Most critics consider the barn-raising scene to be the film’s showstopper. But I favor the dance where the brothers try to outshine their rivals from the town and the aforementioned “Lonesome Polecat,” in which the brothers cut and saw wood in unison with the musical beats.

Love this closing shot!
17. The Hanging Tree – The best of the “adult Westerns” of the 1950s stars Gary Cooper as Doc Frail, a physician in a small gold mining community. The doc has a dark past—there are rumors about a cheating wife and a burning house and, well, he does wear his holster like a gunfighter. To his own surprise, the reclusive Frail winds up sharing his cabin with a young sluice robber and a woman severely injured during a stagecoach robbery. The Hanging Tree shares many similarities with the great Anthony Mann-James Stewart Westerns like Winchester ’73, The Far Country, and Bend of the River. The hero is a man with a questionable past who is given another chance at life. In the Mann-Stewart films, the heroes are often redeemed by communities (as in Far Country and Bend of the River). In The Hanging Tree, redemption comes in the form of a woman’s love and, to an extent, a boy’s respect for his father figure. Plus, The Hanging Tree also features my favorite Western movie ballad (sung by Marty Robbins) and one of the best closing shots of any movie.

Hayley Mills.
16. The Chalk Garden – My favorite Deborah Kerr film is this offbeat, poignant tale about secrets and the passing of judgment on people, often without charity. Ms. Kerr stars as a governess (again), hired by a dowager to care for the elderly lady’s out-of-control teenage granddaughter (Hayley Mills). The girl has a fondness for setting fires and delights in threatening to burn down the gloomy mansion set among the isolated cliffs. As the story progresses, its focus shifts from the young girl to the governess—a mystery woman who paces her room at night “like a caged animal,” has only new possessions, doesn't have a picture of a loved one in her room, and receives no letters or phone calls. This quiet film is content to rely on its carefully-crafted characters and wonderful performances (to include John Mills). They will ensure that The Chalk Garden lingers with you long after its secret is revealed.

Stewart Granger reveals his identity.
15. Scaramouche – Stewart Granger plays Andre Moreau, a carefree rascal who is more interested in the pretty actress Lenore (Eleanor Parker) than in the soon-to-begin French Revolution. That changes when Andre’s closest friend Phillipe (Richard Anderson), a revolutionary activist, meets his demise in a duel with the Marquis de Maynes (Mel Ferrer). Andre vows revenge, but knows he is no match for de Maynes, the most renowned swordsman in France. Now branded a revolutionary himself, Andre takes refuge in an acting troupe. He assumes the stage role of Scaramouche, a buffoon who wears a pink-cheeked mask. To his surprise, Lenore turns out to be the small troupe’s leading lady. Her anger with him over their hot-cold romance generates laughs on the stage and Scaramouche’s fame begins to grow—but Andre’s heart is still filled with vengeance. A dandy swashbuckler from the pen of Rafael Sabatini, Scaramouche benefits from an incredibly likable cast and high-end MGM production values. The colors are vivid, the costumes ornate, and the set design impeccable. You’ll swear that the thrilling climactic swordfight (the longest in film history at 5:35 minutes…and my personal favorite) was filmed in a real Parisian theatre draped in gold, red, and white.

14. Pollyanna – Although I saw Pollyanna several times as a kid, I never fully appreciated it until I watched it as an adult. The well-known story has a young orphaned girl—an optimist if there ever was one—coming to live with her wealthy, spinster aunt circa 1913. Pollyanna pretty much shakes up the whole town, bringing lonely people together and reminding everyone that there are unexpected joys to be found in the most unlikely places. It’s a charming, uplifting tale, surprisingly devoid of schmaltz. My favorite scene is a simple one: When the town’s fire-and-brimstone pastor (Karl Malden) fears that he’s losing touch with his congregation, Pollyanna (Hayley) suggests that he focus on the joys of the Bible. Mills is delightful and there are many standouts in the supporting cast, particularly Agnes Moorehead, Adolphe Menjou, and Malden. The Walt Disney team lovingly creates a slice of Americana with a storybook town of quaint houses, white picket fences, and home-made pies. If you haven’t seen it since you were young, I heartily recommend you check it out again.

An impressive creature of horror.
13. Night of the Demon (aka Curse of the Demon) – When a professor investigating a satanic cult dies suddenly, John Holden (Dana Andrews), an American psychologist, and Joanna Harrington (Peggy Cummins), the professor’s niece, start their own investigation. Their primary suspect is the cult’s leader Dr. Julian Karswell (Niall McGinnis), who allegedly has the power to summon demons. I’ve often thought that if Alfred Hitchcock had made a horror film, it would have turned out something like Night of the Demon. Indeed, a children’s birthday party (with Karswell in disturbing clown make-up) reminds me of Hitch’s later kids’ party scene in The Birds. Director Jacques Tourneur, a Val Lewton protégé, avoids showing the demon in the film’s most famous scenes. But, in one of the great horror controversies, the demon is shown up close a couple of times—it’s pretty darn creepy! Andrews makes a bland hero and the charming Cummins is underused, but McGinnis is brilliant and Tourneur expertly balances horror and dark humor.

Jeff spies on his neighbors.
12. Rear Window – James Stewart stars as photographer L.B. “Jeff ”Jefferies, whose broken leg has kept him immobile in his apartment for seven weeks. To combat the boredom, he has resorted to spying on his apartment neighbors (the apartment building forms a square with a courtyard in the middle). Jeff’s newly acquired pastime initially disgusts both Lisa (Grace Kelly), his high fashion girlfriend, and Stella (Thelma Ritter), his insurance company nurse. But Jeff’s casual interest in his neighbors’ lives takes a dramatic turn when he begins to suspect a traveling salesman of murdering his nagging, invalid wife. As with other Hitchcock films, there are multiple layers to Rear Window. Taken alone, there’s nothing interesting about the mystery of the missing salesman’s wife. In fact, some of the loose ends are never fully resolved by the end of the film—because they don’t matter. The movie is really about the relationship between Jeff and Lisa. Though she is rich, beautiful, and loves him (Stella describes her as “perfect”), Jeff refuses to commit to Lisa. He fears that doing so will cause him to sacrifice his exciting, globetrotting life as a magazine photographer. It is only when Lisa becomes his “legs” and joins in the investigation of the missing wife that Jeff realizes how bright and exciting she truly is. It’s part of the film’s offbeat humor, because, to the viewer, Grace Kelly makes Lisa looks stunning and sexually exciting from the moment she walks into Jeff’s apartment. I love (repeat love) the apartment courtyard setting.

Alastair Sim as
Inspector Cockrill.
11. Green for Danger – At a World War II “emergency” hospital, emotions are running high due to the constant air raids and a love triangle with two of the doctors (Trevor Howard and Leo Genn) vying for the affections of one of the nurses (Sally Gray). After another nurse announces that a patient’s accidental death was really murder, she is found dead. Scotland Yard is summoned and arrives in the form of one of the cinema’s most offbeat detectives, Inspector Cockrill (Alastair Sim). Screenwriters Sidney Gilliat and Frank Lauder, who worked with Hitch on The Lady Vanishes, make brilliant use of time and place. Random explosions from the German bombs create both tension and humor (in the masterful hands of Sim). Equally atmospheric are the isolated hospital’s shadow-filled rooms, the tight hallways, and the white operating theater. It’s a spooky place, especially in the eerie, brilliantly-lit scene where Sister Bates is killed. People sometimes die in hospitals due to natural causes—so what better place to stage a murder? But what separates Green for Danger from other mysteries is its seamless integration of subtle humor in the form of its detective. It’s a shame that Sim didn’t reprise Inspector Cockrill for a sequel, or better yet, a series.

Next month, this series finally comes to an end with a Top Ten featuring two Hitch pics, two musicals, one sci fi, a very long Western, and Orson Bean explaining about “irresistible impulse.”


  1. Once again, I've seen nearly all of the movies in your most recent batch of ten. Not surprisingly, my fave is NIGHT OF THE DEMON, a memorably creepy film from the great Jacques Tourneur. But I'm also a fan of REAR WINDOW and GREEN FOR DANGER, and I enjoy debating the tough choice of ladies for Stewart Granger in SCARAMOUCHE, and Deborah Kerr and Hayley Mills are wonderful together in THE CHALK GARDEN, and THE HANGING TREE has a wonderful title song, and I agree that Gene Tierney's best performance is in THE GHOST AND MRS. MUIR, which also features a great line from Ms. Tierney (as Lucy starts to pick up the Captain's potty mouth): "Please be good enough to... shove off." Great list, Rick, and, though it's a shame that you're almost finished, I'm still looking forward to next month's final ten!

  2. Rick, this is truly an excellent list of selections. "The Ghost and Mrs. Muir" is so beautifully atmospheric. Lucia and Daniel have a love that transcends time. The setting is thrilling and the score exquisitely beautiful. I love seeing "The Bishop's Wife" each Christmas season. It is charming, yet thought-provoking. Cary Grant is perfectly cast. "Seven Brides" is indeed a clever musical with "Lonesome Polecat" as a standout number. "The Hanging Tree" is one of my favorite Westerns. It defies the usual shoot up the town formula. "The Chalk Garden" might be the entry on your list that most film-lovers don't know and should. It is a fascinating character study. "Scaramouche" is quite fun and does remarkable justice to Sabatini's work. "Pollyanna" is indeed a slice of Americana yet it avoids being sacharine because of its believable characters. "Night of the Demon" should be required viewing because it handles the "should we show the monster controversy" very well. Niall McGinnis gives a believable, scary performance. "Rear Window" shows how a limited setting can be used to perfection. It is Hitchcock at his best. And I loved seeing "Green for Danger" on this list! I am certain many film lovers have not even heard of this brilliant mystery. Alastair Sim is one of the finest actors most people never knew. He has an unforgettable presence on film. Extraordinarily well done, Rick!

  3. Great list, as always. "The Ghost & Mrs Muir" has one of Bernard Hermann's most beautiful, evocative scores - a wonderful choice for New Year's Eve! The film might make a good mix-'n-match with "Rear Window" and "the Bishop's Wife," two other films about couples who can't 'get together.'

  4. Another wonderful list. I've seen almost all of them and mostly agree with your placement in The Grand List.


    I also love reading these sorts of lists. :)

  5. I have seen many films on your list such as: The Ghost and Mrs. Muir, I'm a huge fan of Gene Tierney and I think I have seen all her films. I love the scene when she first meets the ghost of Captain and she stands up to him showing no fear. The the ending of this film was amazingly beautiful. I need a kleenex.

    The Bishop’s Wife, is another very romantic film. My favorite scene, is when they are ice skating...

    Seven Brides for Seven Brothers, is a fun musical even though it is hard to believe that someone whould get married at fist sight, but.. the story turns around so you are rooting for them at the end.

    The film Rear Window, grabs you from the start and does not turn you loose until the very end..

  6. I hate to see that only one post is left for this - it's been fun. I have not seen two of these movies, "The Hanging Tree" and "Green for Danger", and both sound really good. I like all of the rest, with particular love for "The Bishop's Wife", "The Chalk Garden" (why is this never shown? I haven't seen it anywhere on TV in years), and most of all "The Ghost and Mrs. Muir." Your yearly tradition is lovely, and I love what you said: "The windswept cliffs photographed by Charles Lang and the haunting music score from Bernard Herrmann contribute mightily to the romantic ambiance." I would also add the rolling ocean. Marvelous movie.

    Can't wait to see 10-1!

  7. Rick, all great choices and some unexpected (and pleasant) surprises here: "The Ghost and Mrs. Muir," "The Bishop's Wife," "The Hanging Tree," and "Green for Danger." When I saw "The Bishop's Wife" for the first time on TCM a few years back, Robert Osborne related the following: The film was originally to star Dana Andrews, Teresa Wright, and David Niven as the angel. Wright got pregnant and was replaced with Loretta Young. Because of the delay, Andrews went on to another film and Cary Grant was offered his role. He asked instead to play the angel.

    Knowing this, I could see Niven doing all those Cary Grant double-takes and the urbane Grant doing something completely unexpected--playing the angel as a child-like innocent. I've never seen a better portrayal of an angel. Grant really convinces that he is learning all over again what it means to be human, and it's one of my favorite of his performances. And Young, who can be too precious for my taste, is also great. She had a strong period in the early 30s (love her in Wellman's "Midnight Mary"), then seemed to get very protective of her lady-like image when she became a star. (Her daughter says the one role she wanted above all others was Melanie in GWTW, and I can see her in that part.) But in the late 40s she had a second flowering and gave a series of performances, including this one, that redeemed her for me. I'm looking forward to the Top 10 and expect to see some surprises there too.

  8. A fine list and I agree with all your choices, save for two - "The Chalk Garden" and "Pollyanna" - only because I have never seen them. I'm sure I would enjoy both.

    "Scaramouche" in particular is a gem of a movie and the first time I saw it I would have sworn it was filmed on location in France. Nope, all on the magnificent M-G-M backlot.

    "Ghost and Mrs. Muir" is one of my favorites as well. A practically flawless movie.

    Looking forward to the rest of the list.

  9. Inspector Cockrill rules! And so do you. Every movie on that list is one to enjoy again and again.

  10. Loved all the comments, of course, because I love these films and it's wonderful to know that others feel strongly about them. I'm not sure why CHALK GARDEN isn't shown more often, especially since Deborah Kerr and Hayley Mills both have strong fan followings. I had read about the original plans for THE BISHOP'S WIFE, but it's hard to imagine anyone else in the parts...each seems tailored to their role, right down to Monty Wooley as the Professor. It is amazing to consider that SCARAMOUCHE was shot on a backlot; it looks magnificent. As the song goes, MGM "had it going on" in terms of production values during the 1940s and 1950s. And Inspector Cockrill does rule, indeed. I was excited to finally see AN INSPECTOR CALLS, expecting Sim to play a variation of Cockrill. It is, of course, a very different movie in tone--though quite good in its own right.

  11. "Rear Window" is absolutely one of my favorite films of all time, probably in my top ten. I recently saw "The Hanging Tree" not too long ago and was pleasantly surprised, excellent film. "Green for Danger," is a delightfully classic Brit mixture of murder and humor set against the background of the late stages of World War II. In all honesty, I have not seen any of the others.


  12. I've seen these movies, Night of the Demon I watched it the other evening, a great film noir:)

  13. Night of the Demon at #13...how appropriate...one of my three favorite all-time horror flicks. SGR