In honor of TCM's new book The Essentials Vol. 2: 52 More Must-See Movies and Why They Matter, the sequel to TCM's first best-selling Essentials book, we wanted to know your questions for author and historian Jeremy Arnold. Ten lucky questions were selected and if your name is on the list below, congrats -- you'll be receiving The Essentials Vol. 2 in the mail!
Megan Christman asks:
With an iconic director like Hitchcock, whose canon of essential films is endless, how did you go about narrowing down the list of his films to the three included in the book?
Jeremy Arnold: Twelve Hitchcock movies have been shown on The Essentials: Foreign Correspondent, Rebecca, Saboteur, Lifeboat, Spellbound, Notorious, Strangers on a Train, Dial ‘M’ for Murder, Rear Window, Vertigo, North by Northwest, and Psycho. Even those twelve leave out several others that could easily be shown one day, such as The 39 Steps, The Lady Vanishes, and The Birds. With the first Essentials book, this subject came up for specific discussion with TCM and Running Press. What could one do? There were too many masterworks to choose from, and we didn’t know if we’d ever do a second Essentials volume, and we wanted to represent as many other filmmakers as possible, so we went with two Hitchcocks in the first book -- Rear Window and North by Northwest. Whether they’re Hitchcock’s “best” is of course debatable, but choosing “the best” wasn’t really the aim of the book, and there were other issues of overall balance and variety to consider, in terms of genre, release decade, movie stars, and so forth. That said, one director, William Wyler, actually did have three films in the first book, but that just underscores the fact that Hitchcock, of all the classic directors, is the closest to being his own distinct genre, while Wyler was known for working in a great many genres. For Volume 2, I included Notorious, Vertigo, and Psycho. It just seemed those now had to be in there, given how beloved they all are and how influential the latter two are. If we do a Volume 3, I suspect that Rebecca and Strangers on a Train will likely find their way in.
Nathalie Yafet asks:
Why are so few horror movies included with The Essentials? Only Cat People qualifies as a horror movie since Psycho is a thriller and The Ghost and Mrs. Muir is a rom-ghost movie. Freaks is always classified as horror but it is gothic tragedy/drama.
Jeremy Arnold: I agree with you that Freaks is not really horror, though it becomes one at the very end, and that Muir is not one at all, but I think one could make a case for Psycho as horror. It’s not just violent, it’s terrifying, and its feeling of dread, and the way it brings us into the mind of a horribly damaged killer, all enter the realm of horror. To me, drumming up feelings of dread and terror in the audience are key to horror. But to your main point – you are correct, there have been shockingly few horror movies shown on The Essentials. It’s the most under-represented genre on the program. I did want to include The Haunting in this book for that reason, but it ultimately had to go for other reasons of balance, as I recall, or maybe because it seemed there were more vital films that we didn’t want to leave out. But at least I got in Cat People as well as a few others that, while not “horror,” are at least in part fairly scary – Freaks, The Night of the Hunter, Psycho. Aside from being great cinema, they do provide some balance and variety to the modes of storytelling represented in this book.
As to why more horror movies haven’t been shown, I would guess that has to do with the Essentials hosts over the years not being particular fans of the genre. I hope in the future that the program finds room for Nosferatu, Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde (1931), Frankenstein (1931), more Val Lewton films such as I Walked with a Zombie, The Wolf Man, Night of the Demon (aka Curse of the Demon), some Hammer films, The Shining... Maybe a future guest host with Ben Mankiewicz could be a filmmaker who is attuned to that genre, such as Joe Dante, Guillermo del Toro, or Jennifer Kent, whose 2014 Babadook was so creepy and memorable.
Kelly J Kitchens asks:
I can imagine that many of these films just barely didn't make the Volume 1 list. Which film(s) made you so glad that you were able to do a Volume 2? Is there a Volume 3 already in the works?
Jeremy Arnold: I was especially glad to be able to include Twentieth Century, Dodsworth, Sullivan’s Travels, Laura, Mildred Pierce, The Ghost and Mrs. Muir, The Night of the Hunter, Sweet Smell of Success and Ride the High Country. These are pictures that I especially love and mean a great deal to me personally. And I like that most of them were just “ordinary” Hollywood movies, not seen as particularly special, or as great art, or as Oscar bait, but nonetheless came out of the factory as masterpieces. And several also did not do well commercially or critically but still went on to become highly acclaimed. Their own power, craft, and art, won out. Of course these books are not designed to be simply my own personal favorites; they’re meant to represent the TCM series, but when I can write about films that also really resonate in me, it’s all the more satisfying.
It’s too soon to know if there will be a Volume 3, but I think there are enough great and varied films remaining to produce one. I for sure would want to include some that it killed me to leave out of Volume 2, such as: Love Me Tonight, Bringing Up Baby, His Girl Friday, The Shop Around the Corner, Random Harvest, Road to Morocco, Gaslight, My Darling Clementine, and A Matter of Life and Death.
Martin Friedenthal asks:
What "lost" movie do you think would be eligible to be included as an "Essential" if you could see that movie?
Jeremy Arnold: An interesting and fun question, begging for pure speculation of course, but my pick would be Convention City, the 1933 pre-Code comedy that was supposedly the raunchiest and most outrageous of all the pre-Codes. The film was released, but the story goes that Jack Warner ordered all prints and the negative destroyed about 10 years later. And indeed, there have been no confirmed screenings or known prints ever since, though there were rumors of 16mm prints in the 1950s. But because the film did exist and play for many years, this is one lost film that I think could very well surface one day in some part of the world. (Film scholar Kevin Brownlow has speculated that Cuba is a possible bet to turn up gems of classic American cinema, given how the country has a rich cinema-loving history and that it was among the countries to receive Hollywood product back in the day.)
I would also add that The Essentials has for some inexplicable reason featured very few true “pre-Code” movies. Baby Face, Red-Headed Woman, Safe in Hell, Blonde Venus, Bombshell, The Sign of the Cross, Employees’ Entrance or any of those other great Warren William titles – all of these and more would be great for The Essentials. The sexiness, salaciousness, and violence in these films are not just entertaining – they seem to me to feel more honest about their subject matter, and are endlessly fascinating.
Finally, I want to mention the original version of The Magnificent Ambersons as the other “lost” movie I most hope would turn up someday. Ambersons, of course, is still masterful in its 88-minute release version, and it has been featured on The Essentials, but it is so good, so rich with atmosphere and a sense of time and place, that I still dream of seeing the full version.
Terence Towles Canote asks:
What film not yet shown on The Essentials would you consider to be an essential?
Jeremy Arnold: In a Lonely Place. It is such a masterpiece for Humphrey Bogart, for Nicholas Ray, for Gloria Grahame, for film noir in general. Its richness and sophistication, its unique blend of suspense, cynicism, and delirious romanticism, hold up to me on every viewing. It has a mysterious quality that comes in great movies that are at their core about questions, about the unknown. We spend the film wondering if Bogart really is a killer. It becomes the substance of the story itself, and our knowledge of his screen persona plays into that beautifully.
Kathie Godfrey asks:
Favorite-of-all-time shocker Psycho has always been especially startling for killing off its main character halfway into the film! I remember feeling especially disoriented at that point because I had no idea where the film was going next. Of course, Hitch handled the segue masterfully. Was there any precedent in any other film for a twist like that one?
Jeremy Arnold: I learned long ago to be wary of ever saying a film was the “first” to do something. Chances are, there’s always a silent film that did it first. And with 90% of silent films gone forever, in many cases we simply won’t ever know. So let me put it this way. I know of no earlier film that does so with such a big star or with a similar degree of shock upon the audience for losing a character they were so strongly aligned with.
Now all that being said, I want to share with you an astounding but true story. A few days ago, I first read this question and started formulating my thoughts. Then, that night, I watched an old B movie on YouTube, Philo Vance Returns (1947), the first of three Philo Vance films made by PRC in the late 1940s. They were in fact the last three Philo Vance films ever made, and while the character of Philo is here just a run of the mill private detective, with little of the true S. S. Van Dine characterization, these are solid little mysteries well worth watching. In any case, twelve minutes into this film, the two seemingly lead characters played by Damian O’Flynn and Ramsey Ames (an actress I am very fond of!), get killed off. In fact, it happens one after the other, a minute or two apart, making the effect even more shocking. And only then does the film’s true story begin, as we are then introduced to William Wright as Philo Vance who must solve the case. It’s not shocking to a Psycho level, but it has more than a bit of that feel, and I was amazed to experience it just hours after reading your question, which only reinforced my instinct not to say Psycho was definitively the first!
By the way, Philo Vance Returns is still on YouTube, so you could check it out for yourself, though of course I just gave away the spoiler – oops!
Bryan Byrd asks:
Which films in The Essentials Vol. 2 were directed by women, or feature key contributions from women?
Jeremy Arnold: Only Harlan County U.S.A. was directed by a woman – the extraordinary Barbara Kopple. It was shown on The Essentials in 2019, and in fact, until that season, the series had featured zero women-directed films. (Even Ida Lupino is still waiting for her first Essentials appearance as a director.) Co-host Ava DuVernay selected Harlan as well as a few other titles directed by women, and hopefully more will follow in future seasons. It’s reflective of the fact that TCM, and The Essentials in particular, tends to focus on classic Hollywood, and the simple truth is that there were very few women directors working in classic Hollywood. But I am glad you asked your question in the way you did, because too often we focus just on directors, to the detriment of women who worked in other important capacities, such as producer, writer, costume designer or editor. Some of the examples of work by female artists in this book: Vina Delmar wrote the screenplay for The Awful Truth and was Oscar-nominated for it (though it should be noted Leo McCarey did have his cast improvise a significant amount of it). Anita Loos and Jane Murfin wrote The Women, based on Clare Boothe’s play. Betty Reinhardt was one of the writers of Laura, which was based on a novel by Vera Caspary. Julia Phillips was one of the Oscar-winning producers of The Sting. Dorothy Spencer edited The Ghost and Mrs. Muir, Adrienne Fazan edited An American in Paris, and Susan E. Morse cut Hannah and Her Sisters. Edith Head’s costume design pops up in several titles including Sullivan’s Travels, Notorious, A Place in the Sun, and to vital effect in Vertigo.
Shirley Reich asks:
James Cagney dances so "stiffly" and beautifully in Yankee Doodle Dandy. By whom, when, and where was he taught these moves?
Jeremy Arnold: Cagney was specifically channeling George M. Cohan’s unique, stiff strut. If you find clips of the real Cohan dancing, you will realize that Cagney, an excellent hoofer in his own right who had started his career as a dancer and always considered himself first and foremost to be one, did indeed capture it. He worked extensively with Johnny Boyle, who had been Cohan’s dance director and knew all his routines. Boyle choreographed the dances in Yankee Doodle Dandy; we are seeing actual recreations of Cohan’s dances with Cagney performing in Cohan’s style.
Side note: Find Something to Sing About (1937). (It’s on YouTube.) Not a great movie, but Cagney has a few dance numbers, and at about 5 minutes in, he does an early version of the dance down the stairs that he performs at the end of Yankee Doodle Dandy. And at around 40 minutes, he does a dance with two other men, one of whom (the taller, skinnier guy) is Johnny Boyle.
Jane Cox asks:
I understand what movies qualify as an "essential" in today's day and why, with the privilege of being able to look back into the Golden Era of Hollywood, but what characteristics do you think actors/directors/producers of that time would say qualifies as an essential DURING that special era of Hollywood?
Jeremy Arnold: I would say that the films nominated for Oscars generally represent what the industry considered to be “essential.” And overall, it’s pretty much the same as today, with content seen as the most important element. “Important” subject matter, noble subject matter, serious drama, especially such that makes Hollywood feel good about itself, even if the filmmaking is genteel or stodgy and not particularly stylish. Of course I’m generalizing, and of course there have been unquestionably great films (and filmmaking) to win Oscars. But overall, I find it’s the content of the stories, their themes and messages, that tend to be the most lauded aspects. That’s why comedies, musicals, westerns, etc., have so rarely won Oscars. They have a history of being seen as mere entertainment. I think things have improved on this front, but not by that much really.
Joe Smith asks:
What's the one movie you wish you could include, but couldn't because TCM doesn't have the rights to show it on The Essentials? My pick would be something from Disney, such as Mary Poppins or Pinocchio.
Jeremy Arnold: Those are great choices, as are many other Disney classics, but for me, the first title that comes to mind is It’s a Wonderful Life. I think it is the most honest of all Christmas movies because it so fully embraces the positives and negatives of the season, the highs and the lows. Much of the film is extraordinarily traumatic, which makes the ending so much more joyous. And it is Frank Capra at his best, blending those emotional extremes and finding lots of warmth and comedy to blend in as well. It’s a Wonderful Life gives the audience a complete emotional experience, and that I think is why it is so beloved, justifiably so. I have also been thinking lately how it is the perfect movie for 2020, a year that has been so dark and traumatic but now has a glimmer of sunshine on the horizon, as vaccines will in the months ahead finally become available. The pandemic has made many of us appreciate and value the idea of family as never before, which of course is what George Bailey regains as well. I’m looking forward to seeing It’s a Wonderful Life again this December.
My thanks to all who submitted questions. They were all so thoughtful and interesting! I did wish I could have answered more.
Thank you Jeremy and thank you to everyone who submitted questions! For more from Jeremy, check out his new TCM article on Essentials Box Office Duds.