It’s rather easy to rattle off the most well-known films of famous silver screen stars. And I’m rather glad those movies are still bringing attention to faces who are no long with us, but who contributed greatly to the popularity of moving pictures.
However, it would be a shame not to dig deeper into the filmography of these stars as there is much of their work that is just as deserving of attention. Some, because of the quality of the production and others simply for great entertainment value.
I made my own list of classic films that I feel are overlooked and worth highlighting. Obviously, it’s rather subjective and definitely not comprehensive. So if I’ve left out one of your favorites or you disagree with my choices, I’d love to hear from you!
The Sky is the Limit
I’m kicking myself that I didn’t explore Astaire’s films apart from his famous pairings with Ginger Rogers sooner. This one in particular is a new favorite discovery, thanks in part to a surprisingly well-partnered performance by Joan Leslie who is absolutely delightful in what I consider her best role. Their dance numbers together are wonderful, particularly the gorgeous ballroom sequence, as well as a really fun song and dance routine. Then there is Astaire’s very unique angry glass dance. It’s rare to see him look so disheveled, but that’s what makes this number special.
But Not For Me
What I like best about this Gable film is how it really feels like a culmination of many of his earlier roles. Here he is a theater producer who is still something of a show-man and gambler and who also still has an attraction for the ladies. You can almost imagine his Russ Ward is a more mature version of his prior parts. His playfully combative relationship with his ex-wife, played by Lilli Palmer adds wonderful humor and serves to keep his character grounded. The icing on the cake is Lee J Cobb’s supporting role as his best friend and business partner whose character shows real growth over the story arc.
It Happened to Jane
Of all of Day’s rom-com features this one is the least known, which is a crying shame because it is absolutely delightful. Plus it co-stars her with her equal in comic genius, Jack Lemmon. The film mixes a David and Goliath story with a friends to more slow burn romance between the two. I love Day’s turn as the underdog “David”. And Lemmon’s character growth from a door mat to a man of conviction is beautifully done.
Romance in Manhattan
I still don’t know how this sweet little picture is not better known. The level of innocence, joy and patriotic American feeling gladdens my heart every time I see it. Rogers is cute as the heroine who takes in a newly arrived immigrant (charmingly played by Francis Lederer) even though she is struggling herself. Lederer’s love for his adopted country even as he continues discovering it, gives her a new perspective on things she has taken for granted.
Ever in My Heart
Ooh, this was a tough decision since Stanwyck never gave a bad performance, but I had to choose this more obscure title with Stanwyck playing an American woman who marries a German immigrant only to find their love challenged when prejudice and suspicion work against them during WWI. It’s an utterly heart-breaking story which climaxes with an ultimate choice between love and duty. Stanwyck is joined by Otto Kruger as the young couple who learn love isn’t always enough.
For a picture that stars not only Brando, but also Jane Fonda, Angie Dickinson and Robert Redford, this has surprisingly stayed under the radar. A story about small town hypocrisy hidden beneath good ‘ol folk veneers, it gives an unflinching look and indictment of what the worst of small town culture can enable. Brando is excellent as the sheriff who walks the fine line between honoring the influence of wealth and status that got him his position while also enforcing the law with justice but without prejudice.
Known for his pre-war, Hitchock and Western films, this Stewart film does not get the attention it deserves. Stewart first played this role on stage before tackling it on screen, and it shows as he utterly inhabits the role of a genial alcoholic who loves introducing his friend, an invisible six foot white rabbit named Harvey, to everyone he meets. Meanwhile his family is trying to get him committed to an asylum and everyone must ponder the question, is it better to understand reality and be miserable or to be thought of as a little crazy, but kind and accepting? The supporting cast adds to the hilarity.
Before she became a household name opposite William Powell for playing the perfect onscreen wife, Loy’s prior roles were more sexy than sweet. She more often than not played the role of the femme fatale or villianess. Penthouse is the perfect segue point between these two phases of her career as she plays a glamorous call girl who works with a society defense attorney to clear his friend’s name for murder. Here you see more than a glimpse of that mischievous sense of humor, brave curiosity and winsome charm Loy does so well.
Among classic film aficionados, Tracy’s talent is often lauded. I confess, I’ve never quite understood all the rabid fawning. However, I do really appreciate his performance in this Fritz Lang directed drama about an innocent man who is mistakenly arrested and finds himself the target of an angry mob. Tracy’s style of naturalism really enhances the myriad of emotions and state of mind his character experiences as an innocent victim who is corrupted by injustice.
With a short filmography, I’m not sure it’s fair to state that any of Kelly’s films are overlooked. However, The Swan is one that isn’t discussed as frequently as her others. Considering that the great Lillian Gish played the same part in an earlier version, the fact that Kelly so totally inhabits the role of princess is a testament to her talent. One might think it’s a role which came naturally to her, but this princess is a bit uncertain and questioning of her position within the natural order of her world. The way the film so delicately explores the question of duty versus desire is just one more reason it deserves to be more highly regarded.
For a film which won Bergman an Oscar, this is a surprisingly under-discussed picture of hers. Perhaps, I’m overly partial to this as I’ve always been fascinated by Russian history and the real Anastasia’s story. But Bergman’s performance of a mentally tortured and troubled woman who is groomed to assume the identity of Russia’s youngest princess is compelling. As is her transformation from an impoverished homeless woman to the poised and regal Anastasia.
So Proudly We Hail!
Colbert is known more for her role in another WWII drama, The Best Years of Our Lives as a wife and mother who holds things down on the home front. However, I actually prefer her in this film as the leader of a group of army nurses serving near war zones. I find it especially compelling since it offers a rare perspective on women serving on the front during war time.
The Little Hut
Ava was known more for her beauty than for her talent, and this film makes the most of it. She stars with Stewart Granger and David Niven as the lone woman in a love triangle between her husband and their mutual friend who are all stranded on an island together. This is a silly little film, but it is all Ava’s as her character is the center point and the instigator of the story line. She’s sly and crafty as she plays the men against each other. Not to mention she’s at her most gorgeous and even manages to flaunt a beautiful wardrobe despite her rustic surroundings.
For the most part, those pictures of Hepburn’s which have been overlooked, have been so for good reason. (I’m looking at you Spitfire and Dragon Seed). However, Summertime is one which deserves more attention than it receives. For one, it’s gorgeous setting in Venice is captured with beautiful camera work which makes the viewer feel like they are actually there. But, it’s really Hepburn’s heartbreakingly sincere performance as a lonely spinster who gets a glimpse of passion and life through her affair with a married man (played convincingly by Rossano Brazzi) which makes this picture unforgettable. I still get an ache in my heart when remembering this film.
Well made or not, it’s hard to take your eyes off of Taylor in any of her films, thanks to her beauty and natural charisma. But there is something special about her performance as the Jewess Rebecca in this MGM version of Walter Scott’s famous story. Though she plays a supporting role, Taylor’s character is really the heart and even moral compass of the film. Her quiet yearning for Robert Taylor’s Ivanhoe is all shown in her eyes. But it is her quiet strength and willingness to sacrifice that elevates her above all the other onscreen characters and causes even the villain to fall for her. She rises above her beauty to be a woman who garners well deserved respect.
The Honeymoon Machine
Steve McQueen is lauded for his cool detachment on screen. But although this may not be his best performance, it is refreshing and fun to see him in a rare comedic role as a lieutenant using navel equipment to scam the roulette table at a Venice casino. He’s definitely the straight man here with a con artist heart, a quick thinking mind and an even faster tongue. Adding to the fun is the 60’s popular onscreen couple Jim Hutton and Paula Prentiss as well as Jack Weston in a hilarious performance as a drunken navy man hoodwinked by McQueen & Hutton.
One of the few of Judy’s films where she doesn’t sing or dance, makes this unique in her oeuvre. But instead of suffering from the lack of these skills, she gets a chance to show she can act without them in this simple and sensitive story about two people who meet and marry in the course of a couple of days. Robert Walker joins Garland as the soldier on leave. Both Walker and Garland are very touching and sweet in their characters’ innocence.
Although this co-stars Katharine Hepburn, another name on today’s list, this really qualifies more as an under-rated performance by Grant. It is one of the few characters in his body of work who more closely resembles the actor himself than the sophisticated yet funny people he often played. With his working class background and Cockney accent, Grant’s Jimmy Monkley knows how to manipulate people and events to suit himself. It’s also a rather forward-thinking plot for this era as it features Hepburn as a gender-bending character and explores some questions that we are still answering today.
Honestly, there are several of Arthur’s films that I could choose here, including Whirlpool, Public Hero Number 1 and If Only You Could Cook. But I feel Party Wire is more important to highlight as it accurately reflects the ramifications of gossip, a subject that isn’t often covered onscreen. Not to mention Victor Jory gets the chance to play the love interest and a decent man for a change. Of course, Arthur is perfectly cast as a wholesome young woman who finds her life and character turned upside down when she starts dating a local man and the town gossips start spreading misinformation about them both. This satirical story is bitingly funny and definitely worth watching.
If you are used to seeing Bogie as a hard-boiled, cynical character, or as one-half of a real life power couple with Lauren Bacall, then this picture will come as a shock. Made before he really cemented his onscreen persona, Bogart is not the star, but he almost steals the show in this comedy where he plays a put-upon film producer. His minions are doing their best to sabotage him and his studio is forcing him to get creative to salvage his movie. It’s a funny picture which stars Bogie’s close friend Leslie Howard.
Never Say Goodbye
Did you know that swashbuckler Flynn, was actually really good in comedy? Well he was, as this picture proves. He had a light, deft touch in delivering well-written lines and it is a great travesty (in my opinion) that he didn’t get the chance to do more in this genre. If you’ve been around a while, then you know how much I love this fun story of divorced spouses whose child does everything she can to get them back together. Eleanor Parker is Flynn’s co-star here and absolutely stunning and charming to boot.
The Enemy Below
If you have never seen this war drama, then you are really missing out. Mitchum plays a submarine captain who plays a cat and mouse game with a German u-boat during WWII. It’s incredibly intense with lots of close shots intensifying the drama, thanks to the setting. Curt Jurgens plays Mitchum’s counterpart in this sea chase and almost steals the film away from him.
Keep Your Powder Dry
Turner is most often described as a movie star, rather than a serious actress, but that doesn’t mean she lacked talent. I believe that this film which focuses on her relationships with two other women who are in the WACS with her is one of her best. The setting and story de-glamorize her a bit and allow the viewer to focus on things other than her usual pouty flirting and dolled up wardrobe. And it finally gives her a great character arc to play.
I’m a long time fan of Wood’s as well as good comedy. And this one is all cotton candy fluff, with Wood playing a bored wife who robs her husband’s bank in order to gain his attention. Her title character also manages to get her psychiatrist and even the police detective embroiled in her scheme. It doesn’t hurt that she gets to swan around the screen in a fabulous wardrobe by Edith Head. It’s just a lot of fun. Plus, Peter Falk joins her as the detective of the film, pre-Columbo days.
Front Page Woman
Davis is yet another one on this list who was known more for her dramatic talent. And yet she handled her role well in this comedy about lovers who work for rival newspapers and are constantly trying to scoop each other. Direction by Michael Curtiz probably makes this picture better than it would have been otherwise. Davis is joined by many time co-star George Brent who she always worked well with. It’s a delightfully funny film with a bit of an edge thanks to Davis.
Olivia de Havilland
Light in the Piazza
de Havilland fought hard to prove that she was worth better roles than Warner Brothers studios was giving her early in her career. Thankfully, she won that fight and went on to prove how talented she really was. This is a particular favorite of mine, not just for her beautiful portrayal of a mother who genuinely loves her daughter, but also struggles with the need to protect her. But also for the delicacy with which this unique story is handled. The depiction of the mother-daughter bond is well handled and one of my favorites in cinema. Then there are the gorgeous live settings in Italy which only add to the film’s presence. The whole thing is an underrated work of art.
Crawford made two pictures with this title but it’s this earlier pre-code with co-star Clark Gable I’m talking about. Gable and Crawford were a popular team who made eight films together. This is the third of their collaborations and in my opinion the best. It really solidified their chemistry and also helped contribute to Crawford’s onscreen persona of a poor working girl who makes good through the use of her relationships with men. It’s also one of the earlier examples of Gable segueing from villainous roles towards that of the tough but tender romantic hero. And honestly, the best reason to watch this movie is because these two are H-O-T, hot together in this story.
Trouble Along the Way
Most people are used to viewing John Wayne as the all American cowboy thanks to his many western films. But this little gem gives him the chance to play a different type of character albeit with the same familiar swagger. Wayne portrays a cynical ex bookie turned coach who is given the herculean task of creating a football program for a failing college. He also has challenges in his personal life in the form of a bitter ex-wife who reports him to social services. Wayne’s scenes with his onscreen daughter are both tender and awkward and a highlight of the story.
The Million Pound Note/Man with a Million
I think much of the delightfulness of this comedy springs from it’s mostly British cast and the unique plot about two wealthy gentlemen who bet whether a random recipient of one million pounds can refrain from spending the money for one month, knowing he will get to keep the money if he does. The setup is rife with humor as it follows the chaos that ensues this bet. It’s nice to see Peck in a less serious role as the American recipient who must resist all manner of temptation.
The Road to Singapore
As an actor popular for his pairings with Myrna Loy as well as a suave, sophisticated sense of humor onscreen, this earlier pre-code offering is extremely interesting. Powell is a somewhat reformed playboy who finds himself entangled with a neglected married woman and her sister. It’s an interesting film because Powell was still in the transition phase between the villain he often played in silent films and the suave, likeable comic lead he would become. Added to that is the very primitive feeling created by the island setting and the beating drums of the natives at night that makes this a wholly unique viewing experience.
Hands Across the Table
Even though I’ve struggled to appreciate Lombard as much as everyone else seems to, I still struggled to narrow down a film to recommend for this list. I tend to prefer her dramas, but since she is most respected as a comedienne, I really wanted to draw attention to this wonderful comedy. This was the first of four pairings of Lombard with Fred MacMurray, which is not a combo I would have thought would work. And yet it does. Fabulously. It also stars everyone’s favorite third wheel Ralph Bellamy in a love triangle. The three of them play well off each other, and Lombard manages to tone down the shrillness that I often find off-putting. There’s also some great dialogue and repartee which is always a win in my book.
The Divorce of Lady X
Lauded as an expert on Shakepeare and for his career as a stage actor, Olivier rarely delved into the realm of comedy as he does with this film. Which is a shame, because he does it rather well in this story about a strait-laced attorney who is completely befuddled by a mystery woman with whom he spends the night. It’s nice to see him playing a character who is not creating the action, but having the action happen to him. Oberon’s character runs rings around him and it’s so much fun to watch.
Operation Mad Ball
I’ve written about my love for this film before, but I continue to sing it’s praises. It’s one of Jack’s earlier films and has a great supporting cast. His character is an army peon who is beloved by his fellow enlisted men and a thorn in the side to his superior officer. He’s funny, extremely resourceful and creative and almost a bit manic at times. The supporting talent only adds to the quality of this film, not to mention the hilarity.
A Star is Born (1937)
This is my favorite version of this story, so forgive me my bias. I feel like it is often overlooked in favor of Judy Garland’s musical extravaganza. While I admire Judy, I feel that without the songs added to later adaptations, this picture is able to provide more focus to the story thereby deepening it’s impact. Janet Gaynor is a personal favorite, but I do feel her portrayal of Esther Blodgett is a bit too saintly. But Frederic March just may be the best itineration of the doomed Norman Maine, presenting a very relatable, sympathetic but flawed hero. March doesn’t often get the credit he deserves for being a fine actor and this is a perfect example of that.
The Young Lions
Though this WWII picture is somewhat uneven, I’ve never been able to get the images and scenes out of my head, mostly thanks to Clift. His dramatic physical appearance as a Jewish man who enlists to fight in WWII is visually shocking. His performance as a man rejected and judged by others made me ache. Of course, this picture is also memorable for Marlon Brando’s turn as a Nazi soldier who doesn’t believe in his countrymen’s raison d’etre. But really, it’s Clift that I cannot forget. This may not be a perfect movie, but it is one which still haunts me.
Andrews is often over-looked when discussing classic film leading men, but he shouldn’t be. He worked with some of the best in the business and often gave subtly intense and emotional performances. It’s no different here where Andrews’ blind pianist spends a lot of time feeling sorry for himself, while being pursued by the beautiful and wealthy Merle Oberon who wants to help him. This is one of my favorites of his pictures because he gets to play a prickly, self absorbed character who is initially hard to like. And yet, he also manages to give the audience peeks at his inner sorrow and grief so that we can have compassion for him as well. The emotional exploration of the characters and the feeling it invokes in the viewers make it worth watching in spite of some improbabilities in how the story plays out.