25 favorite films I wouldn’t have seen without Turner Classic Movies

A magical cottage where people see others with their hearts, not their eyes. Death taking the form of a mortal to see why people fear it so much – and discovering love. Society women dealing with gossip, infidelity and friendships. Soapy melodramas where barriers block love and success.

These are the plots to some of my favorite films – and they are all films I was introduced to by Turner Classic Movies. There are hundreds of others I  saw for the first – and perhaps only – time on TCM. I thought about this remarkable fact watching fan tributes to TCM for the network’s 25th birthday.

It made me realize a gift TCM gives to so many of us is the chance to watch  films we would never see otherwise. It’s not the only place I’ve seen classics, of course. My horror and B-movie education came from dad who let me stay up late to watch films with him (that’s why there is only one horror film on the list) and the Sunday afternoon movie with mom (which is where I’m sure I fell in love with “Picnic”). But the bulk of classic movies in my life came to me for the first time from TCM.

For my tribute to TCM, I thought of 25 films the network gifted to me. I could have listed 100 just off the top of my head, but 25 seemed appropriate for this special anniversary. They are listed in alphabetical order and I’ve included a brief description. I’ll take time later to celebrate each film separately. I hope this might inspire you to watch some of these movies and make your own list to share.

“The Best of Everything” (1959)
This is a favorite soapy melodrama and it’s on my desert island list. It swoops in and grabs me with that great music and the wealth of characters. I’m caught up in the lives of these people working their way up the big-city ladder (or down in some cases). I’m fascinated by the pool of secretaries in the publishing office (did they all really sit in rows of desks like that?). The cast is fantastic with Joan Crawford, Hope Lang, Diane Baker, Stephen Boyd, Louis Jourdan, for starters.

This is a beautiful still I own of Ronald Colman and Ann Harding from “Condemned.”

“Condemned” (1929)
This early talkie about a fugitive and a warden’s wife who fall in love on Devil’s Island is the definition of a film that wouldn’t get seen without TCM. The story is dated and the acting stagey, but I was transfixed by a very young Ronald Colman and Ann Harding. I already liked Colman from seeing “Random Harvest” on TCM, but this is where I became a devotee. This film was an introduction to Harding who has enchanted me ever since with her lovely etherealness. Since “Condemned,” I watch everything I can with them.

“Death Takes a Holiday” (1934)
I love fantasy films and romances, so when they’re in the same movie it’s a bonus. This fantasy goes to new heights (or depths, depending on your point of view). Trying to understand why humans cling to life, Death takes a few days off, inhabits a mortal form and promptly discovers the most powerful of all human emotions: love. Despite the film’s theatrical stylings (it was based off a 1929 play) including broad acting, I love this movie, its fanciful premise and Fredric March in the title role. (And yes, I adored the overwrought 1994 remake “Meet Joe Black,” too, but that’s another story.)

“The Enchanted Cottage” (1945)
This sentimental romantic drama is akin to a fairy tale and makes me believe in the magic of love. The lives of three lonely people are entwined at a cottage above the sea: a war widow (Mildred Natwick) whose life stopped when her husband died 25 years earlier; her young maid (Dorothy McGuire) who she hires out of pity for being “terribly homely”; and a once-handsome soldier (Robert Young) who returns to the cottage after suffering a disfiguring war injury. It’s a bittersweet film that is ultimately optimistic and quite lovely.

“Executive Suite” (1954)
Talk about melodrama – this star-studded film has a ton of it. I enjoy getting caught up i nthe boardroom drama as characters fight for a seat at the top. The familiar plot is enhanced by the marvelous cast including Barbara Stanwyck, Fredric March, William Holden, Walter Pidgeon, Nina Foch (who won as Oscar), Shelley Winters and Louis Calhern.

A lobby card of “From the Terrace” shows Joanne Woodward and her tiara.

“From the Terrace” (1960) and

 “The Young Philadelphians” (1959)

These similar films draw similar emotions from me. Both star Paul Newman as a career-driven young man who doesn’t have the easiest time with love. I always liked Newman, but these are the films that made me fall in love with him.

In “The Young Philadelphians,” Newman and Barbara Rush are in love but their families interfere, misunderstandings ensue, and we wonder if love will prevail as he relentlessly pursues his law career. Carefully weaved into the story are two subplots: one involving his mother and “Uncle” Mike (Brian Keith) that I really get into, another with his good friend Chester (a solid performance by Robert Vaughn), as a down-on-his-luck veteran accused of murder.

Watching “From the Terrace” for the first time, I was shocked by the selfishness and meanness of Joanne Woodward’s character and the tiara she wore for a party. (It always makes me wonder if tiaras were a fashion statement of the era.) Newman is stuck in a loveless marriage with a socialite when he falls in love with the sweet, virginal daughter of a wealthy financier.

“Horror Express” (1972)
This Peter Cushing-Christopher Lee film is unpredictably fun with that patent 1970’s fake-but-gross gore and a morbid sense of humor. Lee is a professor who takes his frozen prehistoric discovery of an ape-like creature aboard the Trans-Siberian Express. He’s followed by his rival (Cushing) but neither is prepared for when the creature thaws and they realize it might not be of this Earth. The fantastically over-the-top dialogue includes this gem said by Cushing during a brain autopsy: “This brain has been drained. The memory has been removed like chalk erased on a blackboard.” You can’t top that in my book.

“In Name Only” (1939)
This romantic melodrama has special significance in my classic film education. As much as I loved watching the unhappily married Cary Grant and the widowed artist Carole Lombard fall in love, I equally disliked Kay Francis as his spiteful wife who refuses a divorce to keep her society status. It took a few years for me to realize my emotions ran high because Francis so realistically embodied the role. That helped me look at acting in a different light – and for more movies starring Francis. Which leads me to the next film on my list, “Jewel Robbery.”

Kay Francis and William Powell are so much fun to watch in “Jewel Robbery.” (TCM)

“Jewel Robbery” (1932)
A new discovery thanks to TCM. I was giddy over its overt sexiness, double-entendres, boldness and humor. (This is a prime example of a Pre-Code Film.) William Powell is a gentleman thief and Kay Francis a married baroness at a jewelry store he robs. Sparks immediately fly and with great ease. I laughed out loud at many of the film’s surprisingly risqué moments. It took a minute to understand Powell was indeed giving his victims marijuana to relax them. Best of all: I was overjoyed seeing Francis so playful for once.

“Love Letters” (1945)
I have a soft spot for variations of “Cyrano de Bergerac.” It’s equal parts fun and frustrating as we wait for someone to discover the true author of the romantic words, whether spoken or written. This version includes a murder mystery and a woman with amnesia to add to the drama. Joseph Cotten is Alan, a soldier who ghostwrites letters for his friend. After the war, a love-struck Alan learns his friend was murdered by his wife who has disappeared. Is it the woman he wrote the letters to? What happened to her? Alan needs to find out and so do we. Screenplay is by Ayn Rand.

“Lured” (1947)

If not for TCM, I would only know Lucille Ball as the red-haired funny lady from “I Love Lucy.” Movies like “Lured” showed Ball was a multi-talented actress and stunningly beautiful woman whose career could have gone down a different road if not for her comedic genius.

Fredric March and Kim Novak bare their emotions in “Middle of the Night.” (TCM)

“Middle of the Night” (1959)
This is not an easy film to watch, in fact it gets downright bleak as we see a young employee and her older, widowed boss face backlash after falling in love. The film is wrapped in melancholy but the performances of Fredric March and Kim Novak are well worth watching as the two reach deeply into themselves and make us feel so much for them.

“Night Song” (1947)
I’ll be honest: this plot is absurd. After a socialite (Merle Oberon) is rebuffed by a bitter and blind pianist (Dana Andrews), she sets up a musical composition contest to help him. Then, she poses as a poor blind girl to get close to him. Still, I love it and fall for it every time. I’m always rooting for Dana Andrews to open his heart (as if there’s any chance he won’t). The film’s piano concerto (written by Leith Stevens) is gorgeous and Ethel Barrymore is a hoot as Oberon’s aunt.

“Odd Man Out” (1947)
This “Irish film noir” destroys me. I remember once turning on TCM and hearing the familiar music By William Alwyn leading to the film’s final minutes. I sank in a chair and watched – and was ruined for the day. (Yes, I’m overly dramatic but good filmmaking does that to me). I don’t know why I watched this movie about a wounded IRA soldier who wanders the streets of Belfast overnight looking for help, but I’m glad I did. It’s based on a story by Graham Greene and directed by Carol Reed. Highly recommended.

“The Old Dark House” (1932)
James Whale’s fun haunted house film has creaky stairs, a storm-drench night, creepy sounds behind locked doors and so many great characters that I don’t have a favorite. There’s the lustful, mute butler (played by Boris Karloff). The strange bickering siblings and their ancient father upstairs (played by actress Elspeth Dudgeon). Plus, the five travelers, each with their own drama. Sit back and enjoy.

“Pandora and the Flying Dutchman” (1951)
Such a fantastic and mysterious film. I was so enchanted by this Ava Gardner-James Mason romance fantasy that I bought a copy on DVD as soon as I could find one, even though it was pricey. I fell under the spell of the otherworldly look of muted Technicolor by cinematographer Jack Cardiff; the sleepy sexuality of Ava Gardner; and James Mason as the doomed man forced to sail for eternity unless he can find a woman willing to die for him.

Troy Donahue and Sandra Dee are teenagers in love in “A Summer Place.”

“Peyton Place” (1957) and “A Summer Place” (1959)
These two films always felt like they belonged together. Of course I love the overwrought romance and the shocking events in each film. (Teenage pregnancy! Infidelity! Passion!) I love the colors (especially the fall scenes in “Peyton Place”), the high drama and the music. Max Steiner’s “A Summer Place” and Franz Waxman’s “Peyton Place” themes always transport me to a time and place I never lived. I’ve never gotten used to some of the horrific actions in the films and I’m always saddened at seeing how restrictive things were at the time.

Random Harvest (1942)

My favorite film. Every time I see it, I wish it was for the first time again. My heart still sinks at one of the big reveals every time I watch. At the end of WWI Britain, Ronald Colman and Greer Garson find each other, lose each other and kind of find each other again – sort of. To avoid spoilers, I’ll leave it there except to say it’s tender, romantic and heartbreaking. My dream house remains the idyllic cottage by the stream where they found so much happiness.

“Remember the Night” (1940)
Thank you TCM for introducing me to this sweet holiday film. It’s a lovely old-fashioned movie with an overt sentimentality and storyline that are of its time. You couldn’t make it today without heavily altering its story. A DA (Fred MacMurray) takes pity on a shoplifter (Barbara Stanwyck) and posts her bail so she’s not stuck in jail over the holidays. Through a series of circumstances, she ends up at his family farmhouse where she is warmly welcomed by Beulah Bondi, Elizabeth Patterson and Sterling Holloway and learns about family and love. It’s unbearably sweet at times and that’s why I love it.

Ann Todd and James Mason star in “The Seventh Veil.”

“The Seventh Veil” (1946)
I didn’t know anything about this film when I first watched it as a super romantic teen. So I didn’t realize until much later that it might be a bit creepy. Once I did though, I didn’t care. After attempting suicide, a pianist (Ann Todd) tells her life story to a doctor (Herbert Lom), recounting her stern cousin/guardian (James Mason) who nurtured her to become a world-renowned pianist. It takes a long time to get to where it’s going and then it’s quickly over – but maybe that’s best considering the turn it takes.  I still don’t care. (My one problem with the film is a 34-year-old Ann Todd trying to play a kid with pigtails.)

“The Uninvited” (1944)

I’ll watch an old-fashioned ghost story anytime, but it’s the film’s gorgeous moodiness that keeps me coming back. Ray Milland and Ruth Hussey are wonderful as siblings who buy a house by the sea and learn they’re not alone. Oscar-nominated black and white cinematography by Charles Lang sets the poetic mood. Dangerous cliffs, crashing waves, a human villain, a ghostly figure and two unexpected romances add to its charm. Victor Young’s score includes the song “Stella by Starlight,” that remains a standard today.

“The Women” (1939)
Something seems wrong when one of the greatest of great classic films would have remained unknown to so many without the efforts of TCM. The extraordinary actresses – Norma Shearer, Joan Crawford, Rosalind Russell, Joan Fontaine, and more – tell this delicious tale of a society women and their friendships, fighting, seductions and betrayals. I always have fun searching – to no avail – to find any sign of a man in the film.

Finally …

Film noir
This sounds like I’m cheating by listing noir, but I’m not. Before TCM, I knew a few “popular” noirs like “Double Indemnity,” but I wasn’t a fan. I got frustrated by some of the very things that defined noir (like bad choices, doomed characters). TCM’s dedication to noir, Eddie Mueller and the Noir Alley programming and the free Noir online course gave me plenty of chances to watch film noir I had never seen and gain a better understanding and appreciation of noir.

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