Top Five Classics For Comfort – The Films We Turn To

by Paul Batters

Cinephiles, film fans, critics and academics have all locked horns, run debates and published on the question of what are the greatest films? Lists have been compiled by some of the most respected publications and the most learned, whilst the rest of us pour over these lists and either nod in agreement or guffaw in disgust. Case in point – some agreed wholeheartedly and others were shocked when Sight And Sound removed Citizen Kane (1941) from its reign at the top of the list and gave Vertigo (1958) the number one spot. There was then and still is plenty of discussion around such decisions and that’s as it should be.

However, when it comes to the question, ‘what films do you turn to for comfort?’, there are no incorrect answers. It’s totally subjective and that, too, is as it should be. We turn to some films that are particularly special to us, especially when we need that boost to our spirits or simply something to make us feel good inside or even an escape to somewhere else.

Taking this opportunity for the CMBA Comfort Classics Blogathon, here are five of my favourite Comfort Classics.

  1. Abbott And Costello Meet Frankenstein (1948)

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There are a few who condemn this film as the exploitive death knell of the classic Universal monster era and such criticism is understandable. Yet in fairness, any such exploitation was happening before the comedic duo crossed paths with our favourite monsters, and the shine and quality of the early 30s period was long gone. But it’s still a film that’s filled with fun and for many, including myself, it’s one of the first experiences of a wonderful partnership that stands the test of time.

As a child in the late 1970s in Australia, video was rare and most films appeared on television once a year. As a result, some films were a major event! When Abbott and Costello Meet Frankenstein was scheduled (usually a midday treat on a weekend), neighbourhoods were cleared out as kids raced home to watch.

The story revolves around two hapless baggage handlers Chick Young (Bud Abbott) and Wilbur Grey (Lou Costello) who get all caught up in a mad monster mystery, crossing paths with the tormented Lawrence Talbot (Lon Chaney Jnr), who is trying to finally destroy the plans of Count Dracula (Bela Lugosi) to revive the Frankenstein Monster (Glenn Strange). There are plenty of scares and Bud and Lou pull off their routines with perfect timing and slick delivery. For me, some of the most effective moments are Bud and Lou’s scenes with Chaney, leaving the audience terrified whilst we are laughing.

The combination of horror and comedy made the film a smash hit at the time and helped not only to revive the duo’s slightly slipping popularity but also gave them a new template to work with. For many fans of Abbott and Costello, their meeting with the Universal monsters remains their favourite and the one that is best remembered. Those cold winter afternoons warm up for me whenever I slip Abbott And Costello Meet Frankenstein into the DVD player and the magic of childhood returns.

  1. King Kong (1933)

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The mightiest of monster movies – with the one true king being a 50 foot ape rampaging through jungles (both literal and urban ones) whilst holding onto a gorgeous girl screaming for her life. Does pure escapism get any better?

Merian C. Cooper’s and Ernest B. Schoedsack’s incredible fantasy-action tale utilised Willis O’Brien’s then ground-breaking (and incredibly painstaking) stop-motion animation technique that still thrills. It was a gamble by RKO, spending nearly $700,000 during the Depression and long after the studio closed down, it’s still reaping the rewards. It’s got everything and as Carl Denham (Robert Armstrong) declares to Ann Darrow (Fay Wray) – ‘it’s money and adventure and fame…it’s the thrill of a lifetime!”. And there certainly is plenty of adventure, thrills and lots more besides. From the moment Kong first appears to his final fall from the Empire State Building, King Kong does not disappoint. The battle between Kong and the T-Rex is like watching a prize-fight (which was apparently inspired by the film-makers’ love of boxing and wrestling) and Kong rampaging through New York is pure mayhem.

Driven by Max Steiner’s superb score, King Kong deserves its place in cinema history but it also holds a special place in my heart. Whenever I watch it, before long I find myself transported to Skull Island to watch Kong in his kingdom, lament his capture and mourn his demise. It truly is a silver screen ‘thrill of a lifetime’ and a classic I turn to for a comforting dose of escapist fun.

  1. The Thin Man (1934)

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Not many films have that perfect combination of mystery, comedy and a little dash of screwball with a screen couple radiating incredible chemistry like The Thin Man (1934). It was a ground-breaking film which not only gave birth to one of the most successful and loved series of the classic era but would see Myrna Loy break the typecast roles she had been playing. Her comedic chops came to the fore, melding perfectly with William Powell, whose wit and ad-libbed moments brought a new sophistication to comedy. The sheer magic of the two on screen has a beautiful naturalness without any confection and that undoubtedly was the key reason for the film’s (and the subsequent series) success.

The Thin Man, based on the novel by Dashiell Hammett, is far more than a mystery. Neither was the well-paced film simply a vehicle for Powell and Loy. What emerged was something special that was not formulaic but formed from the natural chemistry of the two stars from a well-crafted script and the intelligent foresight of director W. S Van Dyke to let magic happen and ‘catch it’ when it happened. But that did mean that the shooting had to be tight and the cast had to know their dialogue.  

As much as I love the series, the first film is particularly magic for me. The feel of spontaneity, the playfulness and the witty banter makes for a fun filled 93 minutes. With Powell and Loy, there’s romance without the corn and sex without the sleaze. No wonder it was a huge hit on its’ release in 1934 – it’s still a huge hit for me and one I turn to often. Like Nick Charles with a mixer, it’s the perfect comfort cocktail. And boy, is Myrna Loy gorgeous!

  1. The Wizard Of Oz (1939)

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Something tell me this film is on most people’s list and I imagine that’s not much of a surprise. The Wizard Of Oz is that trip over the rainbow that is clearly for ‘the young and the young at heart’. It gets the full MGM treatment, which means the best production quality, with a talented cast and of course some of the most famous musical numbers in cinema history.

For me, The Wizard Of Oz is not only a comfort classic but also holds a strong personal memory. As a child in Australia, colour television did not come to Australia until 1975. When my father brought home a colour television in 1976, the first film we watched as a family that evening was The Wizard Of Oz. That moment when sepia changes to bright Technicolor was a true moment of magic and no matter how many times I watch it, I still get teary.

I’m not particularly a fan of the musical but The Wizard Of Oz has a special place in my heart, and it is a film which I will often turn to for an indulgence.

  1. Witness For The Prosecution (1957)

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A murder trial may seem like the strangest subject for a comfort classic but Billy Wilder’s superb court-room drama is the perfect film to lose oneself in. Tight and taut, with the superb touch of humour that Wilder knew how to add without ruining the tension of the story, Witness For The Prosecution perhaps sets the bar for the classic shocking plot twist.

The film showcases incredible talent not only in its key stars but in the incredible supporting cast, mainly from a range of quality British actors and actresses. For all the brilliance that Tyrone Power and Marlene Dietrich bring to their performances, the film’s true star is Charles Laughton who is superb as Sir Wilfrid Robarts. The sharp wit, acerbic manner and dazzling mind of the highly respected yet unwell barrister keeps the audience hooked into the story without chance of escape.

I’ve watched the film countless times with a complete and full awareness of how the plot will unfold and what the now famous twist will be at the climax of the film. Yet I am always riveted by the story and the beautiful craftsmanship that goes into shaping the film. The energy in the courtroom never dissipates and the flashbacks add depth and value to the story. There’s no fat to be trimmed and each moment in the film is an important layering to character development as well.

It’s an impeccable film and one which I thoroughly enjoy. More than a favourite, it’s like an old friend whose conversation I always find sanctuary in. Witness For The Prosecution, like that old friend, never fails to disappoint.

This entry is part of the Classic Movie Bloggers Association Spring Blogathon: Classics For Comfort. It’s been a pleasure to take part and a special thank you to the CMBA for running a blogathon that is much needed at this time! Click on the link to discover what other bloggers have revealed about their comfort classics.

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Paul Batters teaches secondary school History in the Illawarra region and also lectures at the University Of Wollongong. In a previous life, he was involved in community radio and independent publications. Looking to a career in writing, Paul also has a passion for film history.

 

23 thoughts on “Top Five Classics For Comfort – The Films We Turn To

  1. Love your description of A&C/Frankenstein as the beginning of a partnership that stands the test of time.

    I showed my daughter Witness for the Prosecution for the first time when she was in junior high. The ending made her leap from her chair with a grin on her face, shouting “That was freaking awesome!” That happens once, and that comfortable feeling comes with future viewings.

    Those other three movies aren’t strangers around here either and are welcome at any time.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Loved this idea for a blogathon! It was a great opportunity to think about those films which matter for very special reasons and provide us with comfort. Looking forward to discover those films which are special for other bloggers as well.

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  2. Oh boy – Witness for the Prosecution! That would definitely make one of my comfort films lists. Maybe it’s Charles Laughton. But, you have it exactly right about all films that we love: we know how they will end, but we so enjoy the journey we keep coming back.

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  3. I love the range of films you’ve chosen here. The Thin Man – along with one or two of its sequels – is such a great escape. No surprise these films were such hits during the (original) Depression with all that wit and sparkle, the sublime team of Myrna Loy and Wm. Powell. I hadn’t thought of The Wizard of Oz, oddly enough, because I’d surely love to be “off to see the Wizard” one of these days soon. A really original group of comfort films, each appealing in a different way.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Thank you so much! To be honest, I was surprised by the range myself. As I thought about the many films I love, I focused on those I turn to for comfort and good memories attached to them. Have to admit that a top five was hard to choose!

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  4. I could absolutely wax lyrical about how much I love your writing, Paul, but I will restrain myself and save you blushes, and say that I adore all your choices. Like me, you find comfort in some unexpected films, but as you said, isn’t the magic of cinema that we all find beauty and wonder in different films 💖

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Well I’m blushing nonetheless! You’re so very kind and I’m touched that you also love the choice I made. It wasn’t easy! There are so many films that provide comfort for different reasons but I went with those films that also hold a strong memory for me regarding the experience of viewing them. As you said that’s the magic of cinema!

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  5. What a wonderful idea for a blog topic. There are certainly films that have made a distinctive mark in cinema history, and have rightfully earned the description “classic” (from your list I would include “King Kong”, “The Wizard of Oz”, and “The Thin Man” in that category). Other films, such as “Abbott and Costello Meet Frankenstein”, may not have the artistry or insight that a “Citizen Kane” has, but, as “comfort” films, they serve an important purpose – they lift the spirits. They are really what the movies are all about, a source of entertainment and a temporary “escape”.

    “Abbott and Costello Meet Frankenstein” was particularly popular on television when I was growing up, often broadcast on Saturday afternoons (at least in my viewing area). I enjoyed the film every time I saw it. In retrospect, I now think that “A & C Meets Frankenstein” marked the end of the comedic duo’s golden period; although they continued to make films into the 1950’s (often using the “A & C Meet . . .” format), their later work, while enjoyable enough on a “time-passer” basis, never equalled their prime offerings of the 1940’s.

    In addition to the movies included in your list, other films that I would include as perhaps my favourite “comfort” movies are “Lost Horizon” (love its message), the 1938-1939 “Nancy Drew” “B” movies with Bonita Granville, “The Egg and I” (1947), which introduced Ma and Pa Kettle to the screen, and a 1950 romance story, “September Affair” with Joseph Cotten, Joan Fontaine, and Jessica Tandy, a generally inconsequential film, but wonderful for a rainy afternoon.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. I thought it was a great idea for a blogathon as well and it was fun to think and write about.

      The idea of classic comfort films is such a personal thing although I am sure there are many of us that share the same films. For me it was the strong and beautiful memories attached to the experience of those films (as well as the enjoyment of them for their own sake). As you state Robert, the other key factor was that they lift our spirits – and goodness knows we need that during these difficult times.

      A & C films have always been loved by me personally and I also agree that their films from the 1940s are their best. We share a similar experience as in Australia, they were often Saturday afternoon fare, usually part of a fun triple with a Ma and Pa Kettle film and a Francis The Talking Mule film. On a cold winter afternoon, they were wonderful for us as kids.

      I love Lost Horizon. initially I thought it wasn’t a Capraesque film, and yet in many ways it is with it’s focus on the individual seeking truth and wisdom and the fascination of his path in seeking it. Oh to see a complete version of it!

      The Egg And I is one I have not seen in over 30 years! I remember it as a Saturday night film on TV as a kid and loved it. I need to track a copy down!

      I’ve never seen the Nancy Drew series from the late 1930s nor September Affair. I love that you describe the enjoyment of films on a rainy afternoon – it rarely gets better 🙂

      Liked by 1 person

    1. Thanks s much! I actually find Bela’s performance a little strange too – it’s hard to equate Count Dracula (especially the haunting vampire of 1931) with what we see in A & C Meet Frankenstein, where he seems more like a mad scientists. It feels beneath him if that makes sense?

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      1. Bela’s performance is like a SNL (Saturday Night Live) impersonation. The big difference is that the actor who created the character was asked to do the spoofing. I liked it because it took me by surprise — I didn’t think old Bela could do a comedy! I’ve read that Karloff was also asked to return as the monster, but back problems made it impossible. I would have loved to see Karloff spoof the role that made him famous!

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      2. I guess it’s indicative of Bela’s range and cancels out his apparent lack of humour. My understanding of Karloff and the film that whilst he was happy to help promote the film, he did so with the proviso that he didn’t have to watch it. That’s pretty scathing and illustrates his feelings about A & C Meet Frankenstein. Yet he could so humour that’s for sure!

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  6. I’ve got vivid memories of first watching King Kong as a child. I introduced my own son to it when he was a small boy and I’ll always remember his squeals of excitement when Kong first appeared. Even at 87 years old Kong still has the power to enthral!

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