Classical Hollywood shaped modern filmmaking in almost every way, so it’s no wonder that burgeoning film fans would want to dive into the era. Like any era, the period from the advent of sound through the 1960s offers a wide variety of films, from comedies and melodramas to noir films and westerns.
That variety makes it difficult to narrow down what movies from the era are essential viewing, which is probably why one film fan creates an online discussion about which films can be called Classical Hollywood essentials. Other cinephiles are more than happy to chime in, and here I’ve collected ten of the most agreed-upon answers that I just so happen also to have some feelings about.
1. The Night of the Hunter (1955)
The only film ever directed by actor Charles Laughton, The Night of the Hunter is iconic for its visual style, dark fairytale atmosphere, and mesmerizing Robert Mitchum performance. The film centers on Mitchum’s villainous preacher, who attempts to force two children to tell him where their father hid the money he stole.
2. His Girl Friday (1940)
Howard Hawks directed several masterpieces in several genres, many of which were suggested as essential by different respondents. But His Girl Friday is the most widely agreed upon essential film in his lengthy filmography. The screwball comedy classic stars Cary Grant and Rosalind Russel as reporters and exes who fall back in love as they cover an increasingly wild story.
3. Citizen Kane (1941)
Another filmmaker who made many films people love, Orson Welles’s Citizen Kane is still the most widely loved of his movies. The film tells the story of the titular Charles Foster Kane’s life through various interviews with the people who knew him, offering different perspectives on the man. It’s a remarkable film that some may say is overrated, but it got that way for a reason.
4. Double Indemnity (1944)
Like Howard Hawks, Billy Wilder’s career spans multiple genres, all of which are well represented by film fans’ suggestions. But his noir classic Double Indemnity is the most essential. It’s quintessential noir, with a story told in flashback with voiceover, effective use of shadow, and a beautiful femme fatale played by the always great Barbara Stanwyck.
5. Rebel Without a Cause (1955)
The most beloved of the three notable films starring James Dean, Rebel Without a Cause is also one of director Nicholas Ray’s best films. The story follows three teens who each struggle with their families as they begin to develop bonds that form them into a chosen family. It’s a powerful melodrama that’s also visually beautiful.
6. The Philadelphia Story (1940)
Another film starring Cary Grant as an ex-husband who may be rekindling things with his ex-wife, George Cukor’s The Philadelphia Story, also stars Katharine Hepburn and James Stewart as Grant’s romantic interest and rival, respectively. It’s a delightful comedy full of quick wit and incredible chemistry between its three leads.
7. The Maltese Falcon (1941)
John Huston, who many may know as Faye Dunaway’s father in Chinatown, is yet another fantastic Classical Hollywood filmmaker whose films split votes. Movie lovers had difficulty picking between The Treasure of the Sierra Madre and The Maltese Falcon, but ultimately more went with the latter.
The film, an adaptation of the novel of the same name by Dashiell Hammet, tells the story of private eye Sam Spade who gets caught between multiple parties on the hunt for a precious statuette.
8. Rear Window (1954)
While there are many filmmakers of the Classical Hollywood era that made multiple films movie lovers recommend, no one made more than Alfred Hitchcock. From my personal favorites, Psycho and Rebecca, to the mistaken identity thriller North by Northwest and even his lighter romantic film To Catch a Thief, and more, the master of suspense is all over the recommendations for essential Classical Hollywood films.
But the one film that most people vote for is his neighborhood thriller Rear Window, which centers on a man stuck in his apartment after an injury who begins to suspect that his neighbor has committed murder.
9. The Searchers (1956)
Westerns were a staple of the Classical Hollywood period, so it’s somewhat surprising that there are fewer votes for Western films. Among the many suggestions, Shane and Red River get some attention, but The Searchers is the Western that receives the most agreement. The film, by legendary Western filmmaker John Ford, follows an aging Civil War veteran (John Wayne) as he searches Texas for his abducted niece.
10. All About Eve (1950)
Many film fans agree that All About Eve, which still holds the record for most actresses nominated for Oscars from the same film, is an essential Classical Hollywood film.
The movie follows actress Margo Channing (Bette Davis) and the titular Eve (Anne Baxter), who begins forcing herself into Margo’s life, upending her idyllic life and successful career. But if that doesn’t sound interesting enough, the film also includes Marilyn Monroe in a supporting role.
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