My 10 Favorite Old Movies Made Before I Was Born
Every now and then, someone says, “They don’t make them like they used to.” For some film buffs, old movies have an appeal newer films can’t duplicate.
Whether it’s the changing caliber of actors these days or too many computer-generated special effects that overpower everything else, or maybe just a sense of nostalgia, new films can have a hard time competing with old movies we’ve grown up with.
I decided to work up a list of favorite movies made before the year I was born, 1969.
This film, made in 1958, is regarded as one of Alfred Hitchcock’s finest masterpieces. It’s a story of love and obsession with a haunting quality. Jimmy Stewart and Kim Novak played the ill-fated lovers.
Hitchcock, a favorite of mine, made the list again with this 1960 psychological horror film. Janet Leigh’s death about a third of the way into the film shocked audiences of the time because she was billed as the star of the picture and no one expected the star to die so soon. But that was part of the genius of the movie: the audience had to shift its attention from the star they’d come to see to someone else they’d never have cared about otherwise.
This 1964 film, made at the height of the Cold War, features Henry Fonda as president during the ultimate nuclear crisis: a computer malfunction orders an American fighter squadron to bomb Moscow and Fonda must find a way to make sure one potential tragedy doesn’t end in World War III.
4. ‘It’s a Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World’
This was a cavalcade of comedy stars when it made its debut in 1963. It involves a mad dash to a supposedly buried treasure and an ensemble cast that included Sid Caesar, Milton Berle, Ethel Merman, Phil Silvers, Jonathan Winters and many more, including cameos of the likes of Don Knotts, Jack Benny and the Three Stooges.
5. ‘Desk Set’
I suppose one reason this 1957 film is a favorite of mine is that it’s set in a television network headquarters. Spencer Tracy plays an efficiency expert and Katherine Hepburn plays the head of a network reference library and is immediately suspicious of rumors that Tracy’s character is building a massive computerized brain to replace Hepburn and her team.
6. ‘Anatomy of a Murder’
Otto Preminger’s 1959 legal drama stars Jimmy Stewart as an attorney who’s out to defend a soldier accused of murdering a man who raped his wife. Stewart decides to go for an unlikely strategy: proving the soldier is not guilty because of “irresistible impulse.” George C. Scott stars as Stewart’s chief rival in the courtroom.
7. ’12 Angry Men’
Henry Fonda made my list again with this 1957 movie set almost entirely in a cramped jury room as 12 men debate the guilt or innocence of a teen accused of stabbing his own father to death. The deliberation starts off with an 11-1 vote to convict, then reveals deep-set prejudices and preconceived notions the jury members hold — sometimes without even realizing it — and challenges the viewer to ponder how much they are like the jurors.
8. ‘Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner’
Spencer Tracy’s final performance was a powerful one. Filming of this 1967 classic wrapped just 17 days before Tracy’s death. Tracy and his longtime love Katherine Hepburn play a liberal couple whose daughter shocks them — despite their refusal to accept racism of any kind — by bringing home a man of color she tells them she intends to marry. What happens next is a comedy-drama of coming to grips with her announcement and confronting their own beliefs. And the movie ends with an incredible speech by Tracy in which you can tell so much of the emotion he is pumping into his final words isn’t nearly so much his character talking to Hepburn’s character as it is Spencer talking to Katherine.
9. ‘My Fair Lady’
I’m not big into musicals, but this one came on late one night on a cable channel and I actually sat through the first half of it just when I was ready to go to bed. I finally had to turn the television off and go to bed, but it was such an enjoyable movie to watch again that I couldn’t resist.
10. ‘Gone With the Wind’
It’s difficult to combine a list of favorite old movies and not include at least one of two powerhouse hits from 1939: Gone With the Wind and The Wizard of Oz. Both are wonderful movies for very different reasons. But ‘GWTW’ took the edge after I watched a remastered version on Blu-Ray: it’s a spectacularly beautiful film and seeing the vibrant colors reinforced its place on my list.
There are plenty of other pictures I could have named for this list. It was difficult to trim it to a mere 10; I may have to do a follow-up list at some point in the future!