The Beginner's Guide to Classic American Cinema

Updated on April 10, 2020
Jill Townley profile image

Jill owned a video rental store in Portland, Oregon for five years, when such stores used to exist. She holds a bachelor degree in German.

Do you like old movies and want to watch more? Or maybe you need to rent an old movie for a rainy day? Not all classic Hollywood films are great and the thousands of choices can be overwhelming. I watched a lot of movies when I owned a video store and frequently talked with customers about their favorite movies. The following are the gems of each genre that I could watch over and over again.

Some links to Amazon video rentals are provided to help get you started.

Citizen Kane
Citizen Kane

Orson Welles (1915-1985)

Yes, Citizen Kane is the greatest American film ever made, and it wasn't as much of a fluke as it may seem. Welles worked in New York theater and radio before becoming the original auteur. His brilliance was not limited to directing films, as he was also a great actor. He paid great attention to the detail of shots, to the composition of a set and its focal points, and to the creative use of photographic techniques rarely used at the time.

  • Citizen Kane (1941): Welles chronicles the life of William Randolph Hearst under the guise of newspaper publisher Kane. The movie opens with the famous scene of Kane whispering "Rosebud" with his last breath. A reporter is assigned the project of uncovering the meaning of Rosebud, and we begin the long tale of Kane's life.
  • Touch of Evil (1958): By this time, Welles had gained a lot of weight, but lost none of his mastery in this tale of murder and police corruption on the Mexican border. Charlton Heston is barely recognizable as the good cop, and Marlene Dietrich finally breaks loose of her cabaret stereotype.
  • Jane Eyre (1944): Not directed by Welles, this is a great example of what a fine actor he was in his own right. Joan Fontaine exudes romantic longing as the governess who falls in love with the lord of the manor. Brooding and creepy.

Bringing up Baby
Bringing up Baby

Screwball Comedies

After the stock market crash and during the ensuing depression, Americans appreciated the light humor and high speed fun provided by the screwball comedies produced by Hollywood in the 1930s. The films' main characters were rich and had to deal with only minor problems compared to the general audience. Of course, many of the films were insipid, but a few have endured as gems and as vehicles for the comic sophistication of Cary Grant.

  • The Awful Truth (1937): Cary Grant and Irene Dunn decide to divorce for no good reason, then spend the rest of the film realizing and rectifying their mistake in between the quick dialogue. Leo McCarey won the Oscar for Best Director.
  • Bringing up Baby (1938): This time it's Katherine Hepburn sparring verbally with Grant, who plays an absent-minded paleontologist trying to finish a brontosaurus on his wedding day, but gets side-tracked by wacky mishaps and the enamored Hepburn. A dog has the missing dinosaur bone, and there's a leopard in the house. Directed by Howard Hawks.
  • The Thin Man (1934): Nick and Nora were the sophisticated sleuths in a popular series of mystery novels by Dashiell Hammett. Starring as the married couple, William Powell and Myrna Loy lighten the tone with witty repartee, and drink martinis continuously during this film and its five sequels.

My Darling Clementine
My Darling Clementine

The Western

Out of the slew of westerns generated for the masses, My Darling Clementine (1946) stands above all others as the standard to which none compares. Watch John Ford's masterpiece if for no other reason than to find out where all the cliches about Tombstone and the shoot-out at the OK corral originated.

As Colonel Potter observed in one MASH episode, My Darling Clementine has the three things that make a great movie: horses, cowboys, and horses. Wyatt Earp (Henry Fonda) stops into town with his brothers as they are driving their cattle east to Kansas. After the youngest brother is shot and the cattle stolen, Earp volunteers to become the town's new marshal.

The movie is simple, smart, and riveting, all at the same time. The many rainy scenes make for a particularly good watch on a rainy day.

Film Noir

The term Film Noir comes from the French word for black and refers to a class of crime films made in the 1940s, although it has been applied to films made outside that period. The films are dark mysteries that feature a leading man with conflicting moral values, and women who are as dangerous as they are beautiful.

  • The Maltese Falcon (1941): Private detective Sam Spade searches for a missing statuette for which others are willing to kill. Director John Huston's first film is quintessential Humphrey Bogart, who trades jabs with the sinister Sydney Greenstreet and Peter Lorre. "It's the stuff dreams are made of."
  • The Big Sleep (1946): Based on a Raymond Chandler novel, the plot of this film is very complicated and may take several viewings to fully understand. Whether in spite of or because of this complexity, most critics consider this film the height of film noir, and recommended viewing for its dank atmosphere and dark characters. Directed by Howard Hawks.
  • Asphalt Jungle (1950): Seven thieves become involved with a jewel heist that they believe will solve all their problems. They are the kind of men who desperately want respect, but have never done anything to earn it. The plot is hatched by a 50+ parolee with a German accent who has the plans to the jewel store's vault, but also a weakness for young girls. The John Huston film is much easier to follow than Maltese Falcon, and is also noteworthy for being Marilyn Monroe's third film.

Billy Wilder (1906-2002)

One of the American directors who consistently made quality films, Wilder often co-wrote his screenplays and side-stepped the corny melodrama common in old black and white films. The photography is clean and every shot well-planned.

  • Some Like It Hot (1959) Tony Curtis and Jack Lemmon are on the run from the mob, so they impersonate female musicians with a girl band whose singer is Marilyn Monroe. The dialogue and performances are very funny, and Wilder doesn't skirt possibly uncomfortable situations encountered by the cross-dressing duo. Some Like It Hot is currently free with Amazon Prime!
  • Sunset Blvd (1950) This movie feels like a remake of a classic film noir, except that it indeed is one of the originals. William Holden plays the writer who falls into convenient living arrangements with an aging silent screen actress in her Hollywood mansion. Look for the director Erich von Stroheim as the butler and Cecille B. Demille as himself..
  • Double Indemnity (1944) Universally considered one of the 10 best film noirs made. Fred MacMurray stars as an insurance investigator who is lured into a murder plot by femme fatale, Barbara Stanwyck. The dialogue is way over the top with lines like, "She knew more tricks than a barrel full of monkeys."

Double Indemnity
Double Indemnity

Questions & Answers

    © 2008 Jill Townley


      0 of 8192 characters used
      Post Comment

      No comments yet.


      This website uses cookies

      As a user in the EEA, your approval is needed on a few things. To provide a better website experience, uses cookies (and other similar technologies) and may collect, process, and share personal data. Please choose which areas of our service you consent to our doing so.

      For more information on managing or withdrawing consents and how we handle data, visit our Privacy Policy at:

      Show Details
      HubPages Device IDThis is used to identify particular browsers or devices when the access the service, and is used for security reasons.
      LoginThis is necessary to sign in to the HubPages Service.
      Google RecaptchaThis is used to prevent bots and spam. (Privacy Policy)
      AkismetThis is used to detect comment spam. (Privacy Policy)
      HubPages Google AnalyticsThis is used to provide data on traffic to our website, all personally identifyable data is anonymized. (Privacy Policy)
      HubPages Traffic PixelThis is used to collect data on traffic to articles and other pages on our site. Unless you are signed in to a HubPages account, all personally identifiable information is anonymized.
      Amazon Web ServicesThis is a cloud services platform that we used to host our service. (Privacy Policy)
      CloudflareThis is a cloud CDN service that we use to efficiently deliver files required for our service to operate such as javascript, cascading style sheets, images, and videos. (Privacy Policy)
      Google Hosted LibrariesJavascript software libraries such as jQuery are loaded at endpoints on the or domains, for performance and efficiency reasons. (Privacy Policy)
      Google Custom SearchThis is feature allows you to search the site. (Privacy Policy)
      Google MapsSome articles have Google Maps embedded in them. (Privacy Policy)
      Google ChartsThis is used to display charts and graphs on articles and the author center. (Privacy Policy)
      Google AdSense Host APIThis service allows you to sign up for or associate a Google AdSense account with HubPages, so that you can earn money from ads on your articles. No data is shared unless you engage with this feature. (Privacy Policy)
      Google YouTubeSome articles have YouTube videos embedded in them. (Privacy Policy)
      VimeoSome articles have Vimeo videos embedded in them. (Privacy Policy)
      PaypalThis is used for a registered author who enrolls in the HubPages Earnings program and requests to be paid via PayPal. No data is shared with Paypal unless you engage with this feature. (Privacy Policy)
      Facebook LoginYou can use this to streamline signing up for, or signing in to your Hubpages account. No data is shared with Facebook unless you engage with this feature. (Privacy Policy)
      MavenThis supports the Maven widget and search functionality. (Privacy Policy)
      Google AdSenseThis is an ad network. (Privacy Policy)
      Google DoubleClickGoogle provides ad serving technology and runs an ad network. (Privacy Policy)
      Index ExchangeThis is an ad network. (Privacy Policy)
      SovrnThis is an ad network. (Privacy Policy)
      Facebook AdsThis is an ad network. (Privacy Policy)
      Amazon Unified Ad MarketplaceThis is an ad network. (Privacy Policy)
      AppNexusThis is an ad network. (Privacy Policy)
      OpenxThis is an ad network. (Privacy Policy)
      Rubicon ProjectThis is an ad network. (Privacy Policy)
      TripleLiftThis is an ad network. (Privacy Policy)
      Say MediaWe partner with Say Media to deliver ad campaigns on our sites. (Privacy Policy)
      Remarketing PixelsWe may use remarketing pixels from advertising networks such as Google AdWords, Bing Ads, and Facebook in order to advertise the HubPages Service to people that have visited our sites.
      Conversion Tracking PixelsWe may use conversion tracking pixels from advertising networks such as Google AdWords, Bing Ads, and Facebook in order to identify when an advertisement has successfully resulted in the desired action, such as signing up for the HubPages Service or publishing an article on the HubPages Service.
      Author Google AnalyticsThis is used to provide traffic data and reports to the authors of articles on the HubPages Service. (Privacy Policy)
      ComscoreComScore is a media measurement and analytics company providing marketing data and analytics to enterprises, media and advertising agencies, and publishers. Non-consent will result in ComScore only processing obfuscated personal data. (Privacy Policy)
      Amazon Tracking PixelSome articles display amazon products as part of the Amazon Affiliate program, this pixel provides traffic statistics for those products (Privacy Policy)
      ClickscoThis is a data management platform studying reader behavior (Privacy Policy)