It’s taken me some time to come around to the appeal of “old” movies. There was a time when I thought there wasn’t much worth watching before, say, the late 60s. The charisma of the Golden Age stars, the antique production methods, the of-their-time plots – I was unimpressed. Yet as I have gotten a bit older and begun to understand the arc of recent history a little better, my eyes have been opened to the gems I may have neglected.
The world was still recovering from the devastation of the Second World War in the 1950s and early 60s. Life was uncertain for many, tenuous even. Having lived through such testing times, with its absences and loss of life, it’s little wonder audiences craved escapism, colour, romance and whimsy on screen.
Perhaps in our own unusual moment, the old movie classics may still have a place and a purpose.
Calamity Jane (1953)
Musicals may not be your thing (they’re certainly not mine) but in this age of cynicism and fear, watching a film in which characters spontaneously burst into song and dance may be just the salve you didn’t know you needed until you experienced it. This delightfully diverting bonbon starring the astonishingly talented Doris Day is thoroughly entertaining – and deserving of multiple adverbs. If it’s authenticity about the old, lawless west and the Black Hills of Dakota in the 1850s you seek, the sublime Deadwood may be more to your liking. This, however, is unalloyed entertainment from the Golden Age of Hollywood. Whip crack-away!
To Catch a Thief (1955)
When a series of jewel thefts on the French Riviera bear a familiar modus operandi, suave retired burglar John “the Cat” Robie (Cary Grant) is immediately suspected by the authorities. To prove his innocence, Robie sets out to catch the new Cat in the act. Along the ways he meets wealthy heiress Francie Stevens (Grace Kelly, in her final film with director Alfred Hitchcock). Romance and intrigue collide. This is a beautiful film to look at, with the amazing costumes by Edith Head as spectacular as the picturesque French seaside locales and the appealing cast.
The Court Jester (1955)
The film title may not be instantly recognisable, but the sparkling dialogue in this clever dose of medieval mayhem and skulduggery almost certainly would be. A classic scene involves shenanigans surrounding a poisoned pre-joust toast in which Danny Kaye’s eponymous character must recall that while the chalice from the palace contains a pellet with poison, the vessel with the pestle has a brew that is true. But of course, the chalice from the palace breaks, replaced by a flagon with a dragon …
The Nutty Professor (1963)
What it lacks in flatulence and fat suits, the original iteration of this Jekyll-and-Hyde tale more than makes up for with the wit, charm and talent of Mr Jerry Lewis, who plays both the delightfully square but kind Professor Julius F Kelp, and his alter-ego, the too-smooth crooner and lothario, Buddy Love. Alas, the potion responsible for transforming the dorky academic into a handsome aggressive jerk only lasts a limited time. This leads to all sorts of confusion on campus and at local club the Purple Pit, and a showdown between Love and love.
The Thomas Crown Affair (1968)
Gentleman thief Thomas Crown (Steve McQueen, the “King of Cool”) gets his kicks, and part of his company’s revenue, by designing elaborate heists. But will he be brought undone by savvy and sassy insurance investigator Vicky Anderson (Faye Dunaway)? Dunaway, incidentally, also turns up in the excellent 1999 remake, playing a psychotherapist. This is one cool, even slightly cold film. From the split-screen opening credits and jazzy soundtrack to the fantastic wardrobe of the leads, the cars, and the depiction of Crown’s enviable lifestyle, this is one smooth, stylish escapade.
The Italian Job (1969)
Not to be outshone by what was happening in Hollywood, in the last decade of the 60s, the Brits produced this highly stylised and engaging heist classic. Charlie (Michael Caine) is just released from prison when he finds out about his associates’ unsuccessful attempt to pull a once-in-a-lifetime job in Italy (hence the title). Setting about organising the job himself, Charlie pulls together a misfit crew of specialists and oddballs, with a squadron of sporty Minis taking centre stage. There are songs (“Self-Preservation Society”), the mafia, cockney rhyming slang, Benny Hill and great lines (“You were only supposed to blow the bloody doors off”) involved.