I have never really stopped to think about what films would make it into my all-time “top ten”, but as and when I do—and it looks like it might be now—there’s a pretty good chance that half of the movies will be black and white. I am by no means an expert in any matter related to the big screen, and (although it has been known) I rarely delve too far into the deeper meaning behind the obvious story, or the merits (or otherwise) of the main performers—I either enjoy a film or I don’t; and that’s pretty much all there is to it.
The interest that I have acquired in certain films from the first five-and-a-bit decades of the twentieth century probably stems from two people: my grandmother, and the author Michelle Morgan.
My Gran, who was called Gertrude, or “Gertie”, was born on March 7, 1911. As part of my family history research, I would always look to see if anybody of note was born on the same day as a particular relative (or a few days either side); and when I discovered the American actress Jean Harlow was born just four days before my Gran, I decided to find out a little bit about her.
That “little bit” ended up being translated into a self-published biography, a collection of about eighty cigarette cards and, at the last count, nine DVDs. Jean’s life was every bit as fascinating as it was tragically short. Her stunning looks either belied or overshadowed a gifted actress, who possessed great comic timing; and one of her films (possibly Platinum Blonde but I reserve the right to change my mind) would definitely be on my list.
I credit Michelle Morgan with introducing me (albeit inadvertently) to a Canadian actress named Marie Prevost. Our paths first crossed after Michelle found out about a biography I had written about Marilyn Monroe. Michelle is a genuine authority on Marilyn; she’s also a fine writer and a lovely person, and it’s wonderful to see how her career has taken off over the past couple of years. Anyway, Michelle mentioned Marie Prevost in a blog, or social media post, and after reading the briefest outline of her life, I was hooked yet again. Cue a few cigarette cards, two vintage photographs, a couple of DVDs….and another book—this time professionally published in the USA (much to the disgust of a self-styled Marie “expert” on the other side of the pond, whose research I respected but, bar confirming her actual date of birth, had no inclination or need to source).
Marie passed away in 1937 (as did Jean Harlow), another young Hollywood star to die in terrible circumstances (buy my book if you want to find out more!), and she too was a far better actress than many critics would have you believe. Two of her silent movies from the late 1920s, The Racket and The Godless Girl, would be in my top ten. The latter, which stars Lina Basquette, is one of the most powerful pieces of cinema I have ever seen.
Marie and Jean appeared together in the 1932 film Three Wise Girls, and as well as being underrated performers who died within months of each other, both were undeniably beautiful. It’s hard to look at a photograph of a celebrity these days without wondering what has been digitally enhanced or removed to try and achieve the “perfect look”—well that perfect look existed… and it existed naturally. And if you don’t believe me, let me take you back in time and show you the proof… oh and these young ladies could all act as well!
There are one or two of you out there that will be able to name some/most/all of these actresses who all appeared on film before the end of the 1920s. Even if you don’t recognise all of them, the fact that the likes of Clara Bow and Carole Lombard are not in this collage will almost certainly elicit a reply from a certain successful young author…
As for the other possible entries in my top ten, the following would be most definitely under serious consideration: They Won’t Forget (Lana Turner’s 1937 debut, which is based on a disturbing, but true story—the full movie is on YouTube… and is highly recommended), Don’t Bother to Knock from 1952, quite possible Marilyn Monroe’s finest hour on film, the Hitchcock classic Dial M for Murder (1954), The Three Faces of Eve (for which Joanne Woodward won the 1957 Best Actress Oscar—despite the film not being nominated in any other category), the brilliant 1967 Hammer version of Quatermass and the Pit, Star Wars (1977)—surely it’s in everybody’s top ten?!—and the ever-nail-biting Apollo XIII (1995).
All of which means there’s nothing from the past twenty years. That doesn’t mean there haven’t been any great movies… only that I’m not cultured enough to have seen them; but if you had to twist my arm to include a recent film, then there can only be one choice: Paddington…. “ROARRRR”!!!!!