When Hollywood made the transition from silent cinema to the ‘talkies’, courtesy of The Jazz Singer (1927), it triggered off decades of classic films in a period often referred to as the Golden Age of Cinema. Sound films obliterated silents almost immediately, and while some actors failed to adapt to the medium, stars as diverse as Charlie Chaplin, Greta Garbo, Lionel Barrymore and Joan Crawford took their careers to a new level, becoming even more popular.
At MovieMail classic films are defined as English language fiction films made between the arrival of sound to the end of the 1960s. Some may quibble with this definition, as it excludes modern greats such as The Godfather and The Shawshank Redemption, yet whenever a list of the best films ever made is compiled, usually with Citizen Kane and Casablanca vying for top position, the majority of titles are inevitably from before 1970. During the classic era the studio system flourished, creating world famous stars and keeping them under contract for as long as audiences flocked to see their movies. New genres such as the musical prospered, with classic films such as The Wizard of Oz, Singin’ in the Rain and The Sound of Music proving massive commercial successes. Others took familiar genres and played with the conventions: the basic staples of the western provided classic films as varied as High Noon, The Searchers and The Good, the Bad and the Ugly. Despite being written off by snobs as a “women’s genre” the melodrama gave us many brilliant films (Gone with the Wind, Letter from an Unknown Woman, the work of Douglas Sirk) while horror films have been scaring audiences for decades (Frankenstein, Dracula, Psycho).
British cinema has also produced scores of classic films. The BFI voted The Third Man the best British film of all time, while David Lean, arguably our greatest director, produced beloved masterpieces including Brief Encounter, Great Expectations and Lawrence of Arabia. Home-bred series such as the Carry On films were huge popular (if not critical!) successes, while the James Bond franchise continues to win massive audiences. Alfred Hitchcock’s early career in Britain includes some timeless treasures (The 39 Steps, The Lady Vanishes), while Powell and Pressburger’s amazing run of classic films (I Know Where I’m Going!, A Matter of Life and Death, The Red Shoes) remains enchanting decades on. From kitchen sink dramas (Saturday Night and Sunday Morning) to sophisticated Ealing comedies (The Ladykillers, Kind Hearts and Coronets), from inventive Shakespeare adaptations (Henry V) to stirring war films (Millions Like Us), British cinema has lead the way in producing classic films.