Turner Classic Movies, the leading purveyor of all things classic film, has an extensive library of books perfect for any avid movie fan. 52 Must-See Movies and Why They Matter, based on their trademark program The Essentials, is just one of the many options in their collection. After a beautiful foreword from the late beloved TCM host Robert Osborne, Jeremy Arnold details fifty-two of the hundreds of movies shown on The Essentials over the years. It starts at Fritz Lang’s 1927 epic masterpiece Metropolis and ends at Carl Reiner’s 1984 genre-revolutionizing comedy This Is Spinal Tap. Over the several decades in between, Arnold explores films ranging from instant, legendary classics to B-pictures that took years to attain their status as essentials.
The book devoted about five pages to each movie, including an essay defending its essential status, quotes from Osborne and the other Essentials host for that film, and a section about specific effects, errors, or moments to look for in each film, all set off with beautiful, high-quality photos both from the films and behind the scenes. There was a wealth of information for each film, providing little-known trivia facts, exciting insights into the movie’s production or reception, and always a compelling and convincing argument for viewing it as essential.
As a movie trivia lover, this was a treasure trove of information, and I loved every bit of it. In the section on Mr. Smith Goes to Washington (1939), Arnold says that for the climactic filibuster sequence, Jimmy “Stewart, incidentally, helped his performance build by having a mercury chloride solution applied to his vocal cords so that he would sound increasingly hoarse” (p. 64). In the 1941 classic The Lady Eve, leading man Henry Fonda has to trip and fall several times. Arnold shares the ironic fact that while Fonda performed every single one of these pratfalls himself without any injury, he broke his wrist on the very last day of production by falling off of a three-foot platform while going to answer a phone (p. 76)!
Perhaps my favorite fact I learned came from the section on Powell & Pressburger’s 1948 masterpiece on the price of art (and a personal favorite), The Red Shoes. The duo were some of the most influential filmmakers of all time, and this film has provided considerable influence and inspiration to later filmmakers- most notably Martin Scorsese. While I did not think much about it at the time, The Last Waltz, Martin Scorsese’s 1978 documentary of the final concert of The Band, rarely shows the audience. This was a deliberate choice, as “Scorsese’s decision to stay focused on the performers rather than the audience in The Last Waltz (1978) came straight from The Red Shoes,” as did his decision to “approach Raging Bull’s (1980) fight scenes as if they were dances” (p. 118). I am now constantly thinking about the similar themes of the price of art present in both The Red Shoes and The Last Waltz (and Raging Bull, for that matter), all thanks to Arnold’s introspection in this book. That is perhaps the best part about it; it connects all sorts of movies and people you may never have thought to connect, creating a much richer, more interconnected view of the movies that asserts the idea of film as an experience that reflects our own humanity and brings us together as such.
What surprised me the most about this book is that it is a perfect introduction for someone just beginning their foray into classic film and full of information that will also be new and interesting to even the most die-hard of old movie buffs. One of my favorite parts about TCM is how it strikes the perfect balance between being accessible for new fans and still stimulating for veteran ones, so it was fascinating to see how they maintained that quality within this book. There are only ten movies in this book I have yet to see, yet I was just as intrigued by the sections on personal favorites I’ve seen several times as I was by the sections about movies I am still dying to see. In that way, I would highly recommend this book for classic film fans of all knowledge levels. It is an excellent guide for beginners and adds an incredible amount of richness even for those who may not be new to the world of classic film.
Lists of ‘important’ movies sometimes create a sense of duty. Citizen Kane has been labeled ‘the best movie ever made’ for so long that the idea of viewing it can feel like homework. It needn’t be. Take a fresh look- or a first look- and see how entertaining, gripping, and beautiful it is, in addition to being innovative.
Jeremy Arnold, 52 Must-See Movies and Why They Matter, p. 9
This book review is part of Raquel Stecher’s Summer Reading Classic Film Challenge. Follow her on Twitter (@RaquelStecher) and check the hashtag #ClassicFilmReading to see more reviews!