My Classic Film Journey

Classic era films are my happy place. They’ve been a much needed source of comfort and escape for me over the years and continue to be so. Watching them is like being in the company of friends whose presence makes you feel as though a warm blanket has been gently placed around your shoulders. I can’t imagine all those wonderful stories, characters, actors etc not being in my life.

As a little girl growing up during the 1990’s, I hadn’t got the slightest idea what the difference was between a classic film and a modern one. I didn’t even question why some were shot in colour and some in black and white. All I knew was that I loved these fascinating things called films and videos that I was enjoying.I loved every second and wanted to see more.

I was raised on a mix of Disney Renaissance era films such as Pocahontas and Aladdin and classic era Disney films such as Cinderella, Bambi and The Aristocats. I also enjoyed watching Westerns with my dad and especially loved The Train Robbers, Sergio Leone’s Dollars Trilogy, True Grit and El Dorado.

One of my favourite classics is Roman Holiday(1953). Audrey Hepburn and Gregory Peck are magic together. This and Breakfast At Tiffany’s served as my introduction to Audrey Hepburn.

I had my 90’s favourites such as Black Beauty(1994),The Secret Garden(1993), A Little Princess(1995), Sense And Sensibility(1995)and Jumanji(1995). And I had my older film favourites such as the Indiana Jones Trilogy, the original Star Wars Trilogy, White Christmas(1954),Brief Encounter(1945), Top Hat(1935),Roman Holiday(1953),The King And I(1956), A Night To Remember(1958)and Singin’ In The Rain(1952) etc.

Singin’ In The Rain(1952). I’ve lost track of how many times I’ve watched this. How can anyone not love this film?! Arguably the most joyous film ever made.

I have my mum buying me a dance documentary to thank for really starting my classic film journey.I wanted to be a dancer more than anything when I was growing up(unfortunately my health would firmly put an end to that dream)and one day my mum brought me the documentary That’s Dancing(1985).

Narrated and hosted by Gene Kelly, Sammy Davis Jr, Liza Minnelli, ballet dancer and actor Mikhail Baryshnikov and Ray Bolger, the documentary looks at the history of dance on film and explores the many different styles of dance, as well as showing how the depiction of dance on screen evolved and changed in film musicals over the decades.

These dance sequences of Eleanor Powell in Broadway Melody Of 1936(1935), The Nicholas Brothers in Down Argentine Way(1940), Ginger Rogers and Fred Astaire in The Gay Divorcee(1935)all feature in That’s Dancing.

Overflowing with scenes and clips from classic era musicals it introduced me to the likes of Eleanor Powell,The Nicholas Brothers, Gene Kelly, choreographer Busby Berkeley, Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers, Sammy Davis Jr, Isadora Duncan, Margot Fontaine, Powell and Pressburger’s The Red Shoes, West Side Story etc.

That’s Dancing was my gateway to classic era cinema. After watching it I sought out as many of the films featured as I could and also began to check out other films starring some of the featured actors. This then led me over the next few years to discover other actors, films, directors etc and start researching the history of film. The genres I felt myself most drawn to were Drama, Romance, Musical and Historical. Film Noir, Horror and Thrillers would later join the list.

An American gem called San Francisco(1936)quickly became a favourite of mine. To this day I remain hugely impressed by how they created the earthquake sequences. Clark Gable, Spencer Tracy and Jeanette MacDonald shine in this brilliant disaster film which focuses on the catastrophic 1906 San Francisco earthquake. I adored the love story between Mary(Jeanette MacDonald) and “Blackie” Norton(Clark Gable)and envied Jeanette for getting to wear such beautiful dresses. I instantly became a fan of Spencer Tracy and couldn’t get enough of him as Father Tim, the priest who is Blackie’s best friend.

Clark Gable, Jeanette MacDonald and Spencer Tracy in San Francisco.

I also liked that the film was three genres in one – part Musical, part Romantic Drama and part Disaster. Sadly this one doesn’t get mentioned or discussed very often, so I’m taking the opportunity to mention it here in the hope that I may introduce it to more people.

My teenage years were when I officially became a Classic Film fan for life. One afternoon I was in my local Library. I had chosen some books to borrow and was browsing the film section on my way out. This was when I was introduced to the films of Alfred Hitchcock.

Alfred Hitchcock with Grace Kelly and James Stewart on the set of Rear Window(1954).

I borrowed Rear Window(1954) and watched it when I got home. I was instantly hooked and wanted more. I loved the relationship between Lisa and Jeff and I loved the clothes and the overall look of the film. Most of all I loved the atmosphere and the premise of the film. I found myself unable to turn away from the screen even for a moment. This is when I knew that this era of filmmaking was something truly special and had so much more to offer me.

Every couple of weeks I returned and borrowed more of his films. Not only were the stories and performances brilliant but he constantly had me on the edge of my seat in suspense. His films were also my awakening to the fact that there was someone behind the camera orchestrating what we see unfold on screen. Watching his films made me curious about editing, camera work etc and the men and women who did those jobs. A few years later this curiosity led me to take a course to study filmmaking and film history.

Around the same time as discovering the work of Alfred Hitchcock and exploring the filmographies of many of his actors and crew, I also discovered Film Noir. This has become my favourite genre/style of film and you can read about why I love it so much and why these films are so good here. If you’ve never seen one before I urge you to rectify that as soon as possible. You’ll be in for quite the treat! These films show better than many others how inventive and clever filmmakers had to become in order to avoid the eagle eye of the notorious censors.

I was also especially delighted when I started to further explore British films from the 1930’s, 40’s, 50’s and 60’s. Discovering the work from studios such as Rank, Ealing, Gainsborough etc was like finding a box of treasure for me. I especially loved that Gainsborough films such as The Wicked Lady had such good roles for women and that the female characters were so independent and strong.

Margaret Lockwood in The Wicked Lady(1945), David Niven and Kim Hunter in A Matter Of Life And Death, Ann Todd, Claude Rains and Trevor Howard in my favourite David Lean film The Passionate Friends(1949).

The work of director Michael Powell and producer Emeric Pressburger in particular blew me away because their films are so unique and looked stunning. The first time I saw A Matter Of Life And Death(1946) my jaw dropped because this wasn’t like any other film I’d seen before. Their 1939 film The Spy In Black introduced me to my beloved Conrad Veidt. I also discovered other directors who became favourites such as David Lean, Carol Reed and Basil Dearden. Many of my favourite British, Welsh and Irish actors and actresses are from this era including Robert Donat, Claude Rains,Peter O’Toole, Eric Portman, Deborah Kerr, Margaret Lockwood, Jean Kent, Michael Caine, Dirk Bogarde, Earl Cameron, Albert Finney, Anne Crawford,Richard Burton, Stanley Baker, Basil Rathbone, Leslie Howard,Anna Neagle, Googie Withers,Ralph Richardson,Michael Redgrave and James Mason.

In my twenties I started checking out films made outside of Britain and America. One of my first discoveries was the Japanese director Akira Kurosawa. I loved his epics such as the groundbreaking Rashomon(1950) and Seven Samurai(1954) and I became fascinated by Japanese culture and history as a result. I’ve always found myself most drawn though to his smaller and more intimate films such as Stray Dog(1949), Ikiru(1952) and The Quiet Duel(1949).

Takashi Shimura in the deeply moving Ikiru(1952).

I also discovered directors such as my all time favourite Japanese director Kenji Mizoguchi(I love that his films focus on women), Hiroshi Shimizu, Mikio Naruse, Kinuyo Tanaka(Japan’s second ever female film director), Yasujiro Ozu. I also discovered actors such as Setsuko Hara, Toshiro Mifune, Kinuyo Tanaka and Takashi Shimura(one of the greatest character actors in film history). Films from the 1940’s, 50’s and 60’s are my favourites from Japanese cinema.

One of my most favourite discoveries of all was Satyajit Ray, who is one of my top favourite directors and one of the greatest in film history. Quite simply this man was the master of classic era Indian cinema. I love the character focus and emotion present in his work, as well as all that beautiful cinematography. Akira Kurosawa said of Ray: “Not to have seen the cinema of Ray means existing in the world without seeing the sun or the moon.” I couldn’t have put it better myself and am so thankful his films are a part of my life. Some favourites of mine include Charulata(1964), The Music Room(1958), Nayak: The Hero(1966) and the incredible Apu Trilogy.

Director Satyajit Ray hard at work.

I also discovered Swedish director Ingmar Bergman, who is one of the most thought provoking filmmakers in cinema history. Like Ray, Bergman’s films always have a real character and emotional focus. There’s a strange tendency amongst some film fans to dismiss his filmography and claim his work is either too boring,too dark, or too intellectual to fully enjoy, none of which is remotely true. Obviously individual film tastes differ and that’s fine, but if a film isn’t for you just say so rather than implying that your reaction is a fact about the films in question. Yes you have to give yourself over to his films more than you do when watching a fast-paced action flick for example, but you’ll be rewarded for it in the end. How is that a bad thing?

Ingmar Bergman’s Wild Strawberries(1957). A terrific road movie.

While it’s true that Through A Glass Darkly(focusing on the horror of severe mental illness), The Virgin Spring(about the aftermath of a rape) and Persona(I’m the first to admit I don’t understand this)make for dark and difficult viewing, they are certainly not representative of the rest of his filmography. Check out Waiting Women(1952),Summer With Monika(1953),Wild Strawberries(1957),Summer Interlude(1951), Music In Darkness(1948), Winter Light(1963),Scenes From A Marriage(1973, miniseries), The Magician(1958), The Seventh Seal(1957)etc.

The only part of the classic film era I struggled with for quite a while was the Silent era. When I first learnt about these films I thought it was so odd not to have sound and was baffled as to why anyone would watch them. It seemed so alien to what I was used to so I never watched one. When I was studying film we were shown several Silent films and the first one I ever saw was Fritz Lang’s Metropolis(1927).

The futuristic city seen in Metropolis(1927).

There I was sitting in the screening room absolutely adamant that this wasn’t going to be for me at all. To my surprise as the film went on I found myself completely entranced by it. I was blown away by the visuals and interested in the story. It didn’t take me long to get used to the intertitles(the dialogue appearing on screen as text)and I was totally swept up in the story. There I was watching the very thing which I had dismissed and vowed not to bother with. I felt so silly afterwards for having been so put off by them beforehand.

As I further explored this period of cinema I found myself in awe of the filmmakers around the world who helped to created this medium that we all know and love so much today from scratch. There is so much creativity and imagination in these films and it shows on screen. The Silent era was also a time when people of colour and women thrived in the film industry – working as directors, actors, writers and producers, a situation which shamefully reversed and quickly ebbed away (in Hollywood at least) over the coming decades and is only now slowly beginning to be rectified.

Nellie Crawford (later known as Madame Sul – Te- Wan)was the first Black actress to sign a film contract and work as a feature performer in Hollywood.
Alice Guy-Blache was a pioneering French director who was the first ever female film director. She was also one of the first directors to shoot a narrative fiction film.

Lon Chaney Sr photographed by Jack Freulich. In my opinion this man is the greatest character actor in film history.

The fabulous actress Anna May Wong. Photographed by Eugene Robert Richee. Shamefully underused and placed in stereotypical roles on screen in America, Anna found her greatest fame and appreciation working in British and European films during the Silent era and 1930’s. Best remembered by many for Shanghai Express(1932)and Piccadilly(1929).

Buster Keaton in Sherlock Jr(1924). This man is a legend and an absolute genius, both behind the camera and in front of it.

Discovering the likes of the legendary actor, director and stuntman Buster Keaton(our beloved Stoneface), pioneering Black director Oscar Micheaux, Anna May Wong, Alice Guy-Blache, Conrad Veidt, Lingyu Ruan, Clara Bow, Sessue Hayakawa, Louise Brooks,Lon Chaney Sr(the man of a thousand faces) etc made me shake my head even more at my initial negative reaction to this period of filmmaking. I can’t believe I came so close to never having known any of these individuals or their work.

Some of my favourite Silent films include Shooting Stars(1928), The Phantom Carriage(1921), He Who Gets Slapped(1924),Menilmontant(1926), Shiraz: A Romance Of India(1928),Woman In The Moon(1929), The Epic Of Everest(1924, Documentary), Man With A Movie Camera(1929, Documentary), Ghosts Before Breakfast(1928), Sherlock Jr(1924), Verdun:Visions Of History(1928), Wings(1927).

It does make me so sad that quite a few classic film fans(of all ages) in Britain and America won’t watch foreign language films. Do they think classics were only made in Hollywood? Are they afraid of subtitles? Their loss I say. It’s like those who refuse to watch black and white films or Silent ones. Think of all the incredible films, stories, actors, directors, cinematographers etc they’re missing out on. I know that in some parts of the world getting access to films made outside of your country can be difficult, but thanks to DVD labels such as Indicator, Criterion, BFI, Eureka, Arrow etc, there’s more classics available to buy and watch now than ever before. Don’t be afraid of venturing outside your comfort zone and checking out films from other parts of the world or films which look a bit different to what you’re used to.

Director Martin Scorsese, the British Film Institute, Criterion and so many other individuals and organisations, have done so much over the years to raise awareness of and improve access to these films and restore the visuals and soundtracks to their full glory. It’s truly a wonderful time right now to be a classic film fan. In this era of streaming it’s more important than ever I think to buy and support physical media when finances allow you to. Streaming is certainly great for reaching audiences around the world, but without any notice the platforms can permanently pull any films or series they choose and you can’t see them again. With physical media you own your DVD/boxsets forever and can watch them whenever you wish, plus you get incredible extras in addition to the film or series. I know which one of those options I prefer.

As the years have passed I’ve continued to discover so many more films and TV series(both classic and modern)from around the world.I cherish the many gems I already know and love and am grateful that they’re in my life. I look forward to the cinematic journey that still lies ahead of me. As Audrey Hepburn sings in Breakfast At Tiffany’s: “there’s such a lot of world to see.”

Audrey Hepburn in Breakfast At Tiffany’s(1961).

I want to end by saying thank you for reading and to wish you and yours a very Merry Christmas. I’ll be back on the 28th and 29th to read all of your articles sharing how you discovered classic films. I can’t wait!

This is my entry for my Discovering Classic Cinema Blogathon.


22 thoughts on “My Classic Film Journey

  1. Well done Maddy, a reminder to me that I need to get my own piece written! It will no doubt be similar to yours, and I very much enjoyed how a random and chance series of discoveries steadily led to you falling in love with classic cinema. I guess that’s how it works for most of us. I especially liked the segment on silent cinema. As a kid growing up in the 1980s, I have to say there was a slightly more favouring of silents in the TV schedules back then – it’s how I first caught the likes of The Phantom of the Opera (wonderful), various Chaplins, Metropolis and Harold Lloyd’s movies… Sad to find that a whole swathe of cinema, without which there would be no cinema at all quite frankly, is basically ignored apart from by those who know.

    Just to finish with saying a happy Christmas to you, and I will be posting my update in a few days’ time.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Thank you so much, Mike. Can’t wait to read about your journey. Agree with you about how there would be no film now without those pioneers. There sadly appears to be many out there who don’t know anything about classic era films and have no intention of ever watching them. Such a shame. Hope you have a lovely Christmas.

      Liked by 1 person

  2. A really nice article. I was aware of quite a bit of this as you’ve talked about it before. I know you mentioned Thats Dancing in your old CMBA interview. I didn’t have you down as a Bergman fan though!

    In terms of people not watching foreign language or silent films, I think it’s what you said at the beginning. Old films (especially studio era Hollywood) can act as a comfort blanket. The familiar styles, faces, subjects and attitudes and nothing that’s going to be obscure or very disturbing. And that’s OK, it just depends on the individual, although I agree that people are missing out.

    Liked by 1 person

  3. Hi there. In concert with other responses I applaud your article; if I wasn’t snowed (literally figuratively) I’d guy up and add my own “journey” blurb. Right now, a salute will have to suffice. And, of course,Merry Christmas! Mark

    Liked by 1 person

  4. I really enjoyed reading your cinematic journey. Like you I was brought up on movies, especially Westerns, watching Red River at my grandmother’s house is one of my earliest memories. I do agree with your point regarding physical media as opposed to streaming. It’s still a thrill to find a Criterion Collection amongst my Christmas presents.


  5. This is a marvellous love letter to classic film. I love how you highlighted its international diversity. And, like you said, for all the films you’ve already seen, there are a lot more waiting to be discovered.

    Thank you for organizing this blogathon. It’s a treat to see how people discovered classic film.

    Liked by 1 person

  6. Great history! I wish I had a better list of my gateway movies in my late teens—it’s been way too long since I’ve seen Audrey Hepburn movies.
    I also loved you mentioning the Spaghetti Westerns (I watched those with my mom), but didn’t consider them classics (yet) 🙂
    Thanks for this Blogathon. It’s really nice to read how many folks do find classics their warm blanket. And interesting how many of us, years apart, had similar early watching experiences.

    Liked by 1 person

  7. Maddy, what an inspirational read and lovely tribute to our beloved classic films. I’m hardly disappointed when I check out foreign films but I have a lot more exploring to do.

    P. S. It’s wonderful to see you blogging again! This is going to be a great year

    Liked by 1 person

      1. Thanks! I’m looking forward to the journey and I know I can look to you for awesome recommendations along the way. I appreciate the follow, thanks for letting me know about the snag. I’ve now placed a follow button in my sidebar and in my footer. Hopefully that solves the issue! Have a great day, Maddy 🙂

        Liked by 1 person

  8. This was beautiful, Maddy. It seems that, much like myself, your adventure in discovering film was largely done on your own. I can just imagine you at the library gathering the next Hitch films and dashing back home in a flash! He certainly had that effect on me.
    I had the very same sentiments in regard to Silents and while they are still not my “go to” choice, I appreciate them a lot more today. In fact, we caught a Silent Western directed by John Ford the other night and we could not takes our eyes off of it.
    I’m so glad you mentioned Martin Scorcese because, yes, he is such a wonderful advocate for the preservation of film. He is the ultimate film historian geek. I am personally not a great fan of his films but I really admire his enthusiasm. He lights up like a child every time he speaks about the pictures. That is also something that drew me closer to David Lean. His outlook on filmmaking was very inspiring, not to mention there sheer effort he put in to editing his own films.
    Again, thank you for hosting this lovely event! ♡

    Liked by 1 person

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