Maybe I’m wrong, but it seems modern films try to upstage older films, and some people just can’t stand black and white movies. Still, if you look back in time, plenty of iconic movies and characters existed before the 1950s. This list features ten such movies. While age itself doesn’t create a classic, it doesn’t tend to hurt, either. Many of these films are horror or fantasy films, proving that the public has always loved displays of thrills and imagination.
01. Nosferatu (1922)
‘Nosferatu’ (or Nosferatu: A Symphony of Horror) is a German Expressionist horror film by F. W. Murnau, featuring one of the most iconic (and freakish) visual depictions of a vampire. Max Schreck does an amazing job as Count Orlock (a variation on Dracula), who is far from being a handsome vampire. The images of this creature are truly freaky, and they capture the essence of the vampire legend. Gustav von Wangenheim plays Thomas Hutter (a variation on “Dracula’s” Jonathan Harker), who leaves Wisborg to visit Orlock’s ominous castle in Transylvania. Greta Schröder plays Ellen Hutter (Mina Harker), and Alexander Granach’s character of ‘Knock’ is a take on “Dracula’s” crazed Renfield.
Why the changes in all character names? The film was on shaky legal grounds, as Murnau didn’t have the rights to Bram Stoker’s story yet filmed it anyway. In fact, Bram Stoker’s widow, Florence Balcombe, won a court case and all copies of the film were supposed to be destroyed. We’re lucky they weren’t, because ‘Nosferatu’ deserves to stay! Basically, this is a top-notch example of great art surviving less-than-great copyright laws. Like Hutter himself, this film has been on long journey, and it’s ironic that one of the greatest vampire movies was almost destroyed by the estate of one of vampire lore’s greatest authors. ‘Nosferatu’ works great for a dinner-and-a-movie night!
02. The Phantom of the Opera (1925)
Based on Gaston Leroux’s (1910) novel ‘Le Fantôme de l’Opéra,’ Rupert Julian’s (1925) film helped turn Lon Chaney into an icon, due to his grotesque depiction of the haunted and murderous Phantom. The story? During a production of Gounod’s ‘Faust,’ there is a mysterious figure called the Phantom in attendance. Moved by the beauty and singing ability of Christine Daaé (Mary Philbin), the Phantom is driven to hatred of the production company’s prima donna singer, Carlotta (Virginia Pearson). It turns out the Phantom will go to great lengths to make Christine a success, and also to make her join him instead of marrying Raoul de Chagny (Norman Kerry). The most iconic scene is, of course, when the Phantom is first unmasked. It’s not only the makeup that carries the scene, but Lon Chaney’s dramatic behavior. It’s claimed that, at the time, moviegoers fainted during such scenes, which only helps to increase their legendary status.
03. Frankenstein (1931)
Who hasn’t heard of Frankenstein’s monster? There may be some remote villages where the name hasn’t been heard, but you’ve surely heard of one of the big-time original movie monsters. Directed by James Whale for Universal Pictures, this depiction of Mary Shelley’s 1818 novel is perhaps still the best, most iconic version. In a classic gimmick, the film opens with the following words: “…I think it will thrill you. It may shock you. It might even horrify you. So, if any of you feel that you do not care to subject your nerves to such a strain, now are your chance to uh, well,- we warned you!” What iconic moments are there in Whale’s ‘Frankenstein?’ Take your pick! My personal favorite is one of the darkest scenes, which was originally censored until it was restored in 1980 – the scene with the monster (Boris Karloff) and Little Maria (Marilyn Harris). It’s another case where an amazing aspect of film history was almost deleted, yet fate intervened and made the film that much more memorable.
04. Freaks (1932)
The ‘sideshow’ era of entertainment seems long gone, and that may be partly for the best. However, Tod Browning’s classic ‘Freaks’ captures the essence of that era in a truly unique and memorable way. In fact, the film has been considered a genre unto itself, meaning it transcends category. Hell, it almost seems to transcend criticism in an odd sort of way. It centers more on a revenge plot and essentially sides with the ‘freaks,’ as opposed to merely mocking the physical nature of its performers. Nevertheless, those characteristics come into play during the revenge scenes, as they are definitely iconic. Some things honestly just can’t be denied.
Frankly, this film has so much going for it; it’s hard to pinpoint a single scene as the main memorable moment. Still, it seems many people will recall the chant of “We accept her, we accept her. One of us, one of us. Gooba-gobble, gooba-gobble.” It’s such a bizarre moment, and one of the most memorable lines from any film, ever. It was, of course, later paraphrased in The Ramones’ song ‘Pinhead.’ If you still feel ambiguous about watching ‘Freaks,’ just remember that, at the time, acting and performing was one of the main sources of income for people with physical deformities. Also, the audience discomfort is sort of the point.
05. Scarface (1932)
Howard Hawks’s ‘Scarface’ was one of the first gangster movies to barely hold anything back. It seems Hawks really wanted to capture the seediest elements of Chicago’s South Side, and definitely had some success. Granted, there was no chance of doing everything we’d later see in gangster films (outright gore, verbal profanity, graphic nudity and drugs) – but it was still pretty ‘out there’ for 1932. You get a good feel for how the mob muscled in on rival outfits, and the boundaries between different gangs. Here it’s Italians on the South and the Irish on the North Side, with both being domineering and violent.
Tony Camonte (Paul Muni) moves from overtaking rival gangsters to threatening his boss’s position. Well, mob boss Johnny Lovo (Osgood Perkins) isn’t too keen on that! Perhaps the most iconic aspect of the film (other than Muni’s performance) is its depiction of something like the St. Valentine’s Day Massacre of 1929, and other assorted shootouts. It was a heavy film, and ‘Scarface’ really set the stage for future gangster films (including a future remake of ‘Scarface’ starring Al Pacino).
06. King Kong (1933)
Though some feel the effects in ‘King Kong’ are outdated, they were nevertheless innovative for their time. More to the point, King Kong was, and still is, one of the most iconic movie monsters. Back in 1933, a giant monster movie was a new project to master, and Willis O’Brien and Buzz Gibson delivered. The stop motion animated King Kong is always fun to watch, and close to many people’s hearts. Also, one could spend much of a lifetime analyzing the symbolism between Kong and Ann Darrow (Fay Wray), or what the film says about uncharted territory. In many ways, the story is just as iconic as the monster, which helps make it even more memorable. More simply, a giant ape swatting at planes from atop the Empire State Building? Genius idea!
07. Duck Soup (1933) / A Night at the Opera (1935) / A Day at the Races (1937)
Why three films? Simple. The Marx Brothers certainly ruled, that’s why it’s so! It’s so hard to pick which film of theirs is really the best! Logical conclusion: List at least three of them. Honestly, the Marx Brothers seem to be a bit underappreciated these days, but it seems the world needs more of this type of humor – irreverent and wacky, brimming with word play and blending slapstick nonsense, musical talent and frenetic energy. Frankly, these guys were like a dynamic comedy freight train, and it was hard to predict exactly where one of their films would go.
Chico is funny and plays a mean piano. Harpo is quietly hilarious, and is known for playing a mean harp. Groucho is arguably the most iconic Marx Brother, in terms of appearance, and also talented at singing (and apparently knows how to play guitar, too). Groucho often plays characters with great names, like Professor Quincy Adams Wagstaff, Otis B. Driftwood, Hugo Z. Hackenbush and Rufus T. Firefly. There’s a fun fact about the movie ‘Duck Soup,’ which involves a fictional country called Fredonia. Apparently the city of Fredonia, New York, complained about the negative impact the film might have on them. The Marx Brothers replied, ‘Change the name of your town. It is hurting our picture.’
08. The Wizard of Oz (1939)
One of the most iconic fantasy films of all time, it seems we’ve all seen Victor Fleming’s ‘The Wizard of Oz.’ The film starts off modestly enough on a farm, where Dorothy Gale (Judy Garland), Auntie Em (Clara Blandick) and Uncle Henry (Charley Grapewin) lives. Then, of course we meet Miss Almira Gulch (Margaret Hamilton), who transforms to ‘The Wicked Witch of the West’ when Dorothy is magically transported to the Land of Oz (or when Dorothy’s knocked unconscious, if that’s your preferred take).
Pretty much every character in ‘The Wizard of Oz’ is memorable, from the Munchkins to Dorothy’s traveling partners – Ray Bolger as the Scarecrow, Jack Haley as the Tin Man, Bert Lahr as the Cowardly Lion. You also have Frank Morgan in multiple roles as Professor Marvel/The Wizard of Oz/the Doorman/the Cabby and The Guard. Also, who could forget Toto, the Ruby slippers, the flying monkeys, Glinda ‘The Good Witch’ ( Billie Burke), the angry apple trees, and all the quotable lines from ‘The Wizard of Oz’? You just can’t!
‘The Wicked Witch of the West’ has some of the best lines, like “I’ll get you, my pretty, and your little dog too!” and “How about a little fire, Scarecrow?” She is definitely one of the greatest film villains ever, even if she gets killed off pretty easily. It’s one of those movies you’ll surely love even if you normally hate musicals..it’s just that classic!
09. Fantasia (1940)
If you’re not into Disney films or classical music at all, ‘Fantasia’ exists to help change your mind a little. What’s so great about it? Virtually everything! It is a tour de force blend of great animation, compelling storytelling and well-known classical anthems which vary in mood from lighthearted to grandiose, cute to solemnly somber or downright monstrous. This is Disney at its best. Even Mickey Mouse has his place in a highly memorable portion called “The Sorcerer’s Apprentice” (based around the music composed by Paul Dukas). Keep in mind, I have personally never been a huge Mickey Mouse fan, but I shut my mouth when he appears in ‘Fantasia.’
You’ll likely also learn to appreciate pieces like “Toccata and Fugue in D Minor” by Johann Sebastian Bach, the “Nutcracker Suite” by Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky and, my personal favorite, “Night on Bald Mountain” by Modest Mussorgsky (and, coincidentally, portions of Mussorgsky’s composition can be heard in “The Wizard of Oz” as well).
10. The Great Dictator (1940)
In ‘The Great Dictator’ Charlie Chaplin plays dual roles as a Jewish barber and an anti-Jewish dictator named Adenoid Hynkel (a parody of Adolf Hitler). Basically, the two characters switch identities, and we get plenty of comedic and powerful moments in the process. One of these moments is Hynkel’s scene where he playfully dances with a globe, symbolizing the authoritarian urge to play god with the world. Just as memorable, of course, is the speech Chaplin gives toward the end where he says, “Let us fight to free the world – to do away with national barriers – to do away with greed, with hate and intolerance. Let us fight for a world of reason, a world where science and progress will lead to all men’s happiness.” Interestingly, even before this film was made, both Chaplin and Adolf Hitler had the infamous ‘toothbrush’ moustache. Thus, ‘The Great Dictator’ is even more brilliant as a way to contrast the two historical figures.
In his autobiography, Chaplin stated, “Had I known of the actual horrors of the German concentration camps, I could not have made The Great Dictator, I could not have made fun of the homicidal insanity of the Nazis.” However, most people are willing to look past this and recognize this as a brilliant condemnation of authoritarianism. As a side note, it is perhaps time to put to rest the condemnation of the toothbrush moustache. Honestly, let’s fully replace the Hitler with the Chaplin! After all, people en masse rejected Hitler’s hostile takeover of the world, so why let him posthumously take over a little section of facial hair?