There are so many great classic movies out there. The question is, which ones are actually worthy of their recognition? And which ones aren’t?
This has been a recurring problem for me. I have loved movies for almost all of my life, and it’s disappointing when I eagerly watch “classic” movies that turn out to be flops. My job is to try to ease your journey of exploring classic films. Too many people haven’t watched classic movies they’ll love because they’ve stopped after a couple of letdowns.
To start, the definition of “classic” is debatable. I’m only looking at films from the 1940s-1960s, but movies outside of this period don’t lack this title. After all, the Golden Age of Hollywood spans the 1910s to the 60s. But even the 21st century has produced films that arguably deserve the titles of “modern classics.”
I want to acknowledge that classic movies don’t have to be old, but it’s easier to say that an older movie is a classic with confidence because classics are films that stand the test of time. The point is, we might consider a very modern movie a classic, but who knows if it will have the same standing in as soon as ten years? This is why I’m focusing on older, more conventional “classics.”
Without further ado, in alphabetical order:
“Funny Face” (1957), directed by Stanley Donen
All of the Stanley Donen films I’ve seen so far are bright and energetic, and “Funny Face” is no exception. But “Funny Face” lacks an important quality that brightness and energy cannot make up for: fun. Yes, “Funny Face” is almost two hours of Audrey Hepburn (who is as dazzling as ever) and gorgeous costumes (Edith Head and Hubert de Givenchy never disappoint), but it is also full of mediocre songs, forgettable dance numbers, and a forced romance between Hepburn and Fred Astaire, whose age gap is too obvious to ignore. Though instalove is central to its plot, it is surprisingly a slow-moving film.
Watch instead: Try Stanley Donen’s other movies, starting with his masterpiece “Singin’ in the Rain,” which you can stream on HBO Max.
“The King and I” (1956), directed by Walter Lang
This film is superior to “Funny Face,” but it still doesn’t deserve the amount of praise it receives. “The King and I” was nominated for nine Oscars, including Best Picture, and is recognized by the American Film Institute for its romance, heroine, songs, and memorable quotes. Sure, “et cetera, et cetera, et cetera” is fun to say, but I fail to see the buzz around it. Ultimately, “The King and I” is too sappy and melodramatic. Not only that, I left my couch humming none of the tunes from the film. The only song I remember vaguely is “Getting to Know You.” (I thought “Shall We Dance?” was a nice song, but when trying to sing it from memory, all that comes out is “I Could Have Danced All Night” from “My Fair Lady”). Its biggest flaw occurs near the end (spoiler alert) when the king dies. This is good and all, because who doesn’t like a twist ending? But the king’s death is the kind of surprise the viewer doesn’t believe. The turn of events was so unexpected that I assumed he was faking his death. As I watched the king say that he was dying, I thought it was a ploy to garner Anna’s (his love interest’s) sympathy and stop her from leaving Siam. Even when he didn’t drop his “facade” right after Anna agreed to stay, I still assumed that he would jump out of his bed any minute, healthier than ever. When it finally hit me that the king was actually dying, I was incredulous. Plot twists that are executed well are always welcome, but this one didn’t work.
Watch instead: “My Fair Lady,” which I mentioned before, is available to stream on Netflix and DirectTV (this one isn’t my favorite, but it’s still better than “The King and I”).
“La Dolce Vita” (1960), directed by Federico Fellini
Like many of the films on this list, “La Dolce Vita” has many redeeming qualities – it’s just overrated. It follows journalist Marcello and his life of raucous parties for almost three hours. The people he meets — movie stars, heiresses, intellectuals — all seemingly live “the sweet life.” And yet, (surprise) none of them are truly happy. Just as a flock of believers blindly follow a child’s sighting of the Virgin Mary, hoping that the discovery of her will lead to eternal peace, the nighttime revelers with whom Marcello spends his time seek in vain for la dolce vita. But those who have seen the film know the aftermath of this search: a dead child who only wanted to be healed. I might have liked this more if it weren’t almost THREE HOURS LONG. Don’t get me wrong, I love a lot of long movies. But I think that Fellini hammered home his point long before the movie was done.
Watch instead: “8 ½,” another one of Fellini’s films, and in my opinion, far better.
“Rebecca” (1940), directed by Alfred Hitchcock
“Rebecca,” based on Daphne du Maurier’s novel (which is also overrated), is about an unnamed girl who marries a wealthy, older widower whom she barely knows. From the beginning, it is clear that the presence of the widower’s former wife, Rebecca, is still felt in the mansion where the newlyweds reside. The film had a strong start, especially with a lovely performance by Joan Fontaine, who plays the shy and inexperienced unnamed protagonist. By the middle-ish, however, the movie takes a turn for the worse. The mystery that had built up well before now lacked suspense, and Lawrence Olivier failed to play the sympathetic man he was going for. I had also heard a lot of praise for Judith Anderson, playing the unnerving housekeeper who was unusually attached to Rebecca, but I didn’t think she was anything special. Sure, she was a little creepy, but I expected more.
Watch instead: Hitchcock has a lot of great movies (my favorite is “Vertigo”), but it’s probably better to watch “Notorious” (a close second) if you want to get more of a “Rebecca” vibe. You can find “Notorious” for free on IndieFlix.
“West Side Story” (1961), directed by Robert Wise and Jerome Robbins
Based on this list, you might think I have a grudge against musicals. But this is really not true; some of my favorite movies are musicals. It’s just many of the films I think are overrated happen to be musicals. Not that “West Side Story” has bad music; on the contrary, it’s my favorite part of the film. It’s the rest of the movie that falls flat.
To give a little context, I had just finished “Romeo and Juliet” for school when I watched this, which induced many eye rolls. So I was glad I was done with the book and its annoying characters when I sat down to watch “West Side Story.” The only thing I knew about the movie was that someone sang about a girl named Maria. Eventually, I realized that “West Side Story” is just modern-day “Romeo and Juliet” set in New York. And it’s even worse because Tony (Romeo) kills Maria’s (Juliet’s) brother, and she still loves him. In other words, Maria chooses a guy she barely knows over her own brother. Other than the story, it was mediocre in its pacing, dialogue, and acting. I did like the costumes, though.
Watch instead: There are many alternatives to “West Side Story.” The 1968 “Romeo and Juliet,” found on Amazon Prime, is a more conventional telling of the classic tale and very well done (although I still dislike the story). If you love Natalie Wood but don’t feel like watching “West Side Story,” “Splendor in the Grass” is a touching film about a doomed romance. This film is available on Hoopla. Robert Wise also directed the heartwarming “The Sound of Music,” which is on Disney+.
“Sabrina” (1954), directed by Billy Wilder
“Sabrina” starts with the magical words “once upon a time,” which is always a plus in my book. I loved the beginning, which thrust you into the fairy-tale-like world of Sabrina Fairchild and her romance between two very different brothers. Sabrina’s been in love with the younger one for all of her life, but she’s only their chauffeur’s daughter, so he doesn’t even know she exists. The distraught Sabrina travels to Paris for a culinary school. Fast forward a couple of years, and now Sabrina is a sophisticated Parisian young woman who comes home with confidence. This time, she catches both the brothers’ attention. She is initially elated that the younger brother sees her, but… (I’m leaving this open-ended because I’m sure you can figure out the rest of the plot by now). This predictability, along with its weak acting and pacing, is one of “Sabrina”’s flaws. Lastly, and maybe most importantly, there was little chemistry between Sabrina and the brothers. I would say that there was a spark between Sabrina and the younger brother, but her relationship with the older brother (who she ends up with if you haven’t guessed yet) was hard to believe. Even the wonderful music and costumes couldn’t redeem it.
Watch instead: If you want Audrey Hepburn, my two favorites of her films are “Roman Holiday” and “Breakfast at Tiffany’s” (which I have written about before for Teens in Print). If you want another rom-com directed by Billy Wilder, I would suggest the wildly funny “Some Like it Hot.” All three can be found on Amazon Prime.
To wrap up, I’m not saying don’t watch these movies. Most of them have a cultural or historical impact that extends beyond my knowledge. They might not be the best way to start exploring the many, many other films out there, however. They receive heavy praise, so it’s tempting to want to watch them, especially if you aren’t familiar with a lot of movies. But they might be so disappointing that you give up on classic films. Hopefully, this article will increase the number of people who watch the classics because too many have given up after a few that fail to meet their expectations. If you want to know what I think which classics movies you should start with — well, that’s a list for another time.