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10 Classic Movies to Watch If You've Never Watched a Classic Movie

I am the author of three middle-grade children's books, and I blog on the side. My favorite topics are movies, writing, and pop culture.

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Catching Up on Classic Movies

What is your idea of a classic movie? Does it have to be in black in white? Does it have to play on Turner Classic Movies? Or does it have to have been made before you were born? There’s no shame in having never seen a classic movie, but with today’s accessibility, there is no excuse not to check them out now.

Below is a list of 10 movies to get you started if you’re thinking about delving into the classic movie archive. These movies are easy to digest, encompass a wide range of genres, and were released between 1930 and 1970. These are mainstream, iconic films that you'll be able to boast to your film buff friends that you've finally seen.

Video Essay on Why You Should Watch "Casablanca."

Casablanca (1942)

Genres

Romance, War Story, Drama

Casablanca Plot Synopsis

Rick Blaine, the owner of a nightclub in Casablanca, Morocco during World War II reconnects with an old flame and helps her escape the country along with her husband.

Why You Should Watch It

It’s a slow starter, but give it 15 minutes before you turn it off. Try to immerse yourself in the atmosphere and characters. This is classic romance story complete with a tough-call love triangle, but it’s got some stuff for the guys too.

The performances of the leads played by Humphrey Bogart and Ingrid Bergman are historic as is the time when it was shot, right smack in the middle of the war that it is portraying onscreen, showing how our art is affected by the times. Grumpy Rick becomes an endearing charmer, and two-timing Ilsa becomes a sympathetic woman caught time and again in life-altering choices that will leave you arguing over the ending like Meg Ryan and Billy Crystal do in When Harry Met Sally (which, if you haven’t seen, you should add to your list as well).

Atticus Comforts Scout

To Kill A Mockingbird (1962)

Genres

Drama, Children, Civil Rights

To Kill a Mockingbird Plot Synopsis

Two children living in the south during The Great Depression deal with the effects of their father defending a black man on trial for the rape of a white girl.

Why You Should Watch It

It sounds like a real downer, but if you haven’t read the book then you don’t know the innocent, lighthearted tone that presents these heavy events from a child’s perspective. Young Jem and Scout played by, Phillip Alford and Mary Badham, are caught up in the gossip and intrigue as much as any other members of the small, segregated town yet have a limited understanding of the racism and injustice surrounding the case.

Their awareness is opened up as they watch the trial unfold, but in the meantime, they are preoccupied by their summer activities of playing with next door visiting neighbor Dill (John Megna), spying on reclusive neighbor, Boo Radley (Robert Duvall), and spending time with their heart-of-gold father, Atticus Finch, played by Gregory Peck. Peck gives an authentic and memorable performance as Atticus. You could see him on the shortlist to play Superman with his broad shoulders and unwavering morality.

The story itself deals with themes that are still prevalent in our country today. You can see how far we’ve come but also how far we still have to go. So, despite the fact that it’s set nearly 100 years ago, it still resonates with today’s audiences.

The Frankenstein Monster

Frankenstein (1931)

Genres

Horror, Science Fiction

Frankenstein Plot Synopsis

A mad scientist brings life to a man made up of several reanimated corpses, and when he snubs him for his monstrous appearance, the monster goes on a rampage through the town before reuniting with his neglectful master, and his fiance.

Why You Should Watch It

Every identifiable image of the character comes from this version of the story, from the lightning bringing him to life to the bolts in his neck and his square, zombie-like posture, this is the origin of the Halloween icon. Though it has little in common with the classic horror novel of the same name, this Frankenstein is probably the best classic horror film ever made.

While Dracula should go on your to-watch list as well, Frankestein should make the top of your list. It’s clunky and primitive but still eerie and full of scary atmosphere.

Boris Karloff isn’t doing a Frankenstein impression. He’s defining the look, movements, and behavior of the monster. Also, the windmill climax at the end is super intense and will leave an impact on you as strong as any modern day horror movie.

West Side Story - Maria and Tony Meet

West Side Story (1961)

Genres

Musical, Teen Romance

West Side Story Plot Synopsis

The sister of a New York City Puerto Rican gang leader falls in love with a former leader of his white rival gang.

Why You Should Watch It

I’m not big into musicals, but this one is one of my favorites. It’s got some intense dance sequences, a strong love story intentionally mirroring Romeo and Juliet, and an equally tragic ending.

The premise of gangs dancing to the death might seem a little ridiculous, but things get real quite fast. The Puerto Rican culture is also widely represented in a time when most films were populated by mainly white characters. It’s important to point out that leading lady Natalie Wood is of a Russian heritage yet is playing a Puerto Rican girl complete with bronzed skin and a thick accent, but her performance is so strong and genuine that most overlook it. Instead, you’re focused on the teenage squabbling that quickly escalates into a deadly turn of events.

Psycho - Marion Arrives at The Bates Motel

Psycho (1960)

Genres

Horror, Suspense, Slasher

Psycho Plot Synopsis

A woman on the run after stealing money from a client at work to be with her boyfriend stops off at an isolated hotel to rest and becomes caught up in a deadly predicament.

Why You Should Watch It

Deemed the first slasher movie, this is arguably director Alfred Hitchcock’s most famous film. Made on a shoestring budget at the height of his career, this would be like asking Stephen Spielberg to direct The Blair Witch Project. What makes this seemingly indie film a hit is its suspense-filled plot, homerun performances by Anthony Perkins and Janet Leigh, and twist ending. I won’t spoil it for you if you don’t already know it, but this one will stick with you, despite its lack of gore or shock value by today’s standards.

Bringing Up Baby - Funny Scene

Bringing Up Baby (1938)

Genre

Romantic Comedy

Bringing Up Baby Plot Synopsis

A zoologist at a museum tries to get funding for an ongoing dinosaur project from a wealthy heiress who gets him into trouble at every turn.

Why You Should Watch It

The things that we laugh at today are things that our grandparents laughed at years ago: wit, slapstick, and timing. This movie has all three in the form of acting giants Katharine Hepburn and Cary Grant: the Meryl Streep and George Clooney of their day.

Both get to play for laughs, a rarity in an era where women were typically the straight man in comedies. Hepburn’s Susan is flighty and needy while Grant’s David is exasperated and just trying to keep up with whatever comes at him next, from taking care of pet leopards to hanging off scaffolding while an entire dinosaur skeleton falls apart.

The Birds - Bird Attack in the House

The Birds (1963)

Genres

Horror, Suspense

The Birds Plot Synopsis

The town of Bodega Bay is plagued by bird attacks that become increasingly frequent and more deadly over the course of a weekend.

Why You Should Watch It

This is another staple in the Hitchcock collection and one that holds up in terms of its effects and suspense. While waiting for the first bird attack, you get caught up in the characters: the rich daddy’s girl Melanie Daniels (Tippi Hedren) who drives all the way to Bodega Bay from San Francisco in order to continue her flirtatious pursuit of momma’s boy lawyer, Mitch Brenner.

But their love story is stopped short when the birds attack, first one at a time and then in groups, postponing Melanie’s short stay in Bodega Bay until they are forced to board up the house and try to survive the largest attack of all. This film turns usually passive animals into fierce killers with no reason behind it or altering of their appearance. There is no music which adds to the eeriness and no sense of relief at the end.

Meet Me in St. Louis - Getting Ready for the Party

Meet Me in St. Louis (1944)

Genre

Musical, Period Dramedy

Meet Me in St. Louis Plot Synopsis

A close, middle class family living in St. Louis in 1904 look forward to attending the World’s Fair until they receive the news that they will be moving to New York as the result of their father being transferred for work.

Why You Should Watch It

Another musical on a list made by somebody who previously stated she’s not into musicals, but this genre overwhelms this era of filmmaking and houses some of the best musicals ever made. Meet Me in St. Louis gives audiences the opportunity to see Judy Garland outside of her ruby slipper phase. There are iconic songs such as Skip to My Lou and Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas that will make you say, “Oh, that’s where that song is from.” It’s colorful and high-spirited and leaves you feeling good at the end of it in that classic movie way.

Night of the Living Dead - Zombie Attack!

Night of the Living Dead (1968)

Genre

Horror, Zombie

Night of the Living Dead Plot Synopsis

A group of strangers hole up in an abandoned farm house while cannibalistic reanimated corpses close in on them.

Why You Should Watch It

It’s not the first zombie movie, but it’s the first modern zombie movie as we know the creatures today, the ones that will rip you apart before turning you into one of them. You can’t say you’re a horror fan until you’ve seen this low budget classic, and there’s a reason for it. It’s simple, frightening, and contains memorable characters from the dysfunctional Cooper family to our ground-breaking hero, Ben.

Some have called it a commentary on racial issues of the time. Others say it’s just a fun, indie classic. Whatever you take from it, know that there is no Walking Dead, Shaun of the Dead, or Zombieland without this film.

Breakfast at Tiffany's - Tiffany's Scene

Breakfast at Tiffany’s (1961)

Genre

romantic dramedy

Breakfast at Tiffany's Plot Synopsis

A stylish but quirky young woman living in New York catches the eye of the struggling writer who has just moved into her building.

Why You Should Watch It

If you’re into fashion, watch it for the clothes. If you’re into romance films, watch it for the one budding between Holly Golightly (Audrey Hepburn) and Paul Varjak (George Peppard). If you’re into comedy, watch it for everyone else who comes and goes throughout the scenes.

This movie is quintessential 60’s with its style, music, and romanticized version of New York City in the era. It’s also about an unconventional girl who I think Hepburn plays perfectly, regardless of how her portrayal differs from the book. You don’t really know where the story is going, and that’s what keeps you watching, playing against expectations but still keeping you as the audience engaged.

Extras

There’s your list. Now, start watching. If you like those, move onto other classics. Some suggestions I would tackle next are:

  • Citizen Kane
  • Rear Window
  • Rebel Without a Cause
  • The Clock
  • Singin’ in the Rain
  • Father of the Bride

Which films made between 1930-1970 introduced you to classic films? Leave your answers in the comments below!

Get your classic movie marathon started with this Alfred Hitchcock collection.

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