Peacock lists more than 100 noteworthy movies in the free trier of its “Classics” section. It’s a challenge to whittle down a list of memorable films to just 10.
Others are famous B pictures, such as the Bob Hope-Bing Crosby “Road” pictures, shot during WWII: “Road to Singapore,” “Road to Zanzibar” and “Road to Utopia.” Both were big stars in the 1940s, though the films are strictly fun, often inside-Hollywood satires of adventure and romance pictures.
The best bet is to pick movies that give viewers a sampling of various genres:
“The Lady Eve” — The great Preston Sturges directs Barbara Stanwyck and Henry Fonda in a sexy send-up of class pretensions. He’s an heir to the Pike Ale fortune, but would rather study snakes. She’s a con artist and card shark. As the country faced impending war, seeing the rich mocked, while basking, for 97 minutes, in untold wealth, proved ideal escapism.
“My Man Godfrey” — During the Depression, screwballs provided comic relief. This one, starring the inimitable Carole Lombard and William Powell, shows the casual cruelty of the rich — a socialite hires an articulate down-on-his luck Powell to be her family’s butler — where he proceeds to transform the lives of everyone around him. The man with nothing has the inherent class and morality that’s clearly denied his supposed “betters.”
“Imitation of Life” — There are two films with this title, but watch the 1959 Douglas Sirk version — a weeper among weepers. The movies addresses issues of race and gender. Lana Turner is a Broadway star with a daughter she barely sees. Both are cared for by her housekeeper, Annie (Juanita Moore.) Annie is black, but her daughter is light-skinned and passes for white. The tension and pain this creates in the mother-daughter relationship makes this a two-handkerchief movie.
“The Bride of Frankenstein” is a terrific sequel to “Frankenstein” — and many critics think it’s even better than the original. Both are directed by James Whale and considered his masterpiece. His use of black-and-white shading and shadows are striking. Boris Karloff is the monster and British actress Elsa Lanchester plays Mary Shelley and the title character. Famous composer Franz Waxman, who wrote over 150 film scores, including “Sunset Boulevard,” created this one.
“The Incredible Shrinking Man” — It’s a classic 1950s sci-fi film with scary overtones. While on vacation in his boat, a strange fog envelopes Scott. Later, he discovers he is shrinking — and as he gets smaller and smaller, the terrors he confronts are exponentially greater.
“Bend of the River” — An Anthony Mann-directed Western starring James Stewart, Arthur Kennedy and Rock Hudson, it concerns a cowboy risking his life to help homesteaders after gold is discovered in the area. It’s also an interesting study of “good, “bad” and situational ethics.
“All Quiet on the Western Front” — A harrowing account of WWI, it details the romanticized version of war versus the grim reality — resulting in the slaughter of the innocent. The Nazis outlawed the film in 1930, after disrupting various screenings. For many, it’s the most famous anti-war film. The American Film Institute ranks it as the seventh best epic film.
“The Deer Hunter” — Another look at the terrifying long-term consequences of war, with a cast that includes John Cazale, Robert De Niro and Meryl Streep. The Oscar-winning 1978 film, about three steelworkers whose lives are forever changed after serving in Vietnam, remains as haunting now as it was then.
“A Foreign Affair “ — If Billy Wilder’s name is attached to a production, assume it’s a smart, sardonic approach to life. Here, director Wilder, himself an Austrian Jew, returns to the Berlin he once fled. The film is about a U.S. Army captain in occupied Berlin courting both an ex-Nazi cafe singer (Marlene Dietrich) and the American congresswoman (Jean Arthur) investigating her.
The Marx Bros.
Masters of manic comedy, the zany brothers should almost be in a category by themselves. They took order and made chaos — and out of chaos, created a singular art form. Several Marx Bros comedies are here — “Horse Feathers,” a parody of stuffy academia, “The Cocoanuts,” set in a Florida resort during the 1920s, which gave rise to the gag “Why a duck?” and “Monkey Business.”
The standout is “Monkey Business,” where Harpo, Chico, Zeppo and Groucho stowaway in kippered herring barrels. It’s not one of the best known, and it doesn’t have their usual foil, Margaret Dumont, but in its sly poke at immigration and assimilation, it scores big-time. So does the subplot with gangsters.