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My Top-10 Pre-1970 Disney Animated Films

I wrote this blog for Night Owl TV and it first appeared on their site on January 18, 2018. A link to that post and other Night Owl TV material can be found here.

                                                                            Maleficent and Diablo in Sleeping Beauty (1959)

                                                                            Maleficent and Diablo in Sleeping Beauty (1959)

Walt Disney Animation has been synonymous with family entertainment for close to 90 years. Ever since Mickey Mouse blew audiences away in Steamboat Willie, the first cartoon with synchronized sound, Walt Disney and the movie studio he left behind have consistently been a step ahead of everyone else when it came to creating family entertainment. This has been true, not only from a content point of view, but also in technology and the film making process as well. Disney was the first film maker to use synchronized sound in his cartoons. Decades later when other movie studios were shunning television fearing the competition that it posed to cinema, Disney embraced the new technology as another way to deliver content to his audience.

When Disney released Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs in 1937, a watershed moment in film making had occurred. Animation had been around since the dawn of film making itself, but no one had considered the idea of a feature length animated film. It seemed too labor-intensive and too expensive to be economically feasible. Making a movie one frame at a time? Requiring literally hundreds of artists and millions of drawings? In our CG (computer generated) world of today where we get saturated with several animated films per year, it might not seem like such a big deal to put out an animated feature. But no one had ever seen one in 1937. Walt Disney staked everything he had on it, and had it failed, we would be living in a vastly different world right now. Without a successful Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs, The Walt Disney Company would not be the single most dominant movie studio today. There likely would have been no Disneyland or Walt Disney World. There likely would have been no Don Bluth Studios (An American Tail, The Secret of Nimh) or DreamWorks Animation, as those studios spun off from people who made their mark originally with Disney.

However, Snow White wasn’t the most impressive thing that Disney did. Anyone can get lucky once. Between 1937 and 1970, the Disney Studio released 21 animated features. The Aristocats, released in 1970, was the last animated feature personally approved by Disney before his death. Many of these films are considered to be classics, and many of them have gone beyond that to become iconic. Which ones are the best? Here are our Top-10 Pre-1970 Disney Animated Features.


10. Dumbo (1941)


One of the reasons Disney’s early films resonated so much was because they were more than pretty pictures. These films had points of view and they had things to say. Yes, Dumbo is a film about a flying elephant, but it’s about much more than that. It’s an underdog story about taking supposed shortcomings and turning them into strengths. The Baby Mine scene in Dumbo when he goes to see his chained mother is simply one of the most famous, iconic, and tear-jerking scenes in the history of cinema.


9. The Jungle Book (1967)


The Bare Necessities and I Wanna Be Like You are two of the most iconic and recognizable songs in the Disney canon. Along with great songs, this film has one of the best characters (Baloo) and one of the fantastic villains (Shere Kahn, voiced by George Sanders) of all the Disney films. The Jungle Book is also strong thematically with Mowgli the man cub wanting to stay in the jungle, but Bagheera the Panther knows he belongs in the man village. This story is about finding your own place in the world, and leaving behind what is comfortable in order to find where you really belong. With another iconic tear-jerking moment, this film tugs at the heart strings and tickles the funny bone with equal aplomb.


8. Bambi (1942)


Bambi was regarded to be Walt Disney’s favorite film. Disney was a lifelong environmentalist, and Bambi is an unapologetic pro-environmental film making it way ahead of its time in that regard. With what might be the single saddest moment in Disney’s long and storied history, this is a much more serious film than any of the others on the list. Yes, there are some light and humorous moments scattered throughout the story, but they’re not what make this film memorable. This film is remembered for the scenes where Bambi’s mother is shot by a hunter; where Bambi vainly looks for her in the forest; and the forest fire at the end preceded by terrified animals hiding from hunters. If you haven’t watched Bambi recently, give it another look. You’ll be surprised at how intense it gets in the second half.


7. Lady and the Tramp (1955)

Another movie, another iconic moment… the Bella Notte scene where Lady and the Tramp savor a plate of spaghetti, and while sharing a single strand they end in an accidental kiss before Tramp offers her the last meatball? However, this film is so much more than that. The conflict in this film arises from Lady longing for the stability and comfort of a nice home and family while the Tramp longs for a carefree life free to do whatever he wants whenever he wants and not being tied down by a leash.


6. Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs (1937)


The film that started it all, and one of the most important films in the history of cinema, Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs is more than just an important film. It became an important film because it’s a great film. It has a great balance of heart and humor, and the witch is one of the great villains in the history of cinema. This film also has its own iconic moments and characters that have become a part of our cultural vernacular. It’s also worth mentioning that it’s the 10th highest grossing film in history when adjusted for inflation. When released in 1937, it made $8 million dollars when the average price of a movie ticket was 25 cents for an adult and 10 cents for children.


5. Cinderella (1950)

If Snow White created the Disney dynasty, then Cinderella rescued it. Coming out of World War II, with the international box office having been nonexistent for years, Disney was in desperate need of a hit. Going back to basics, and presenting audiences with a princess movie provided just that elixir. Some people (reasonably) criticize this film because the character of Cinderella is passive, and needs to constantly be rescued. However, it is her own wit and quick thinking that allow her to save herself at the end.


4. Peter Pan (1953)

Peter Pan might be the most entertaining film on this list. It’s much more “cartoony” than most of the other films as it has more slapstick and cartoon humor. However, it also has great messages of understanding when it’s important to have fun and be imaginative, and when it’s important to calm down and be practical. It also has wonderful messages about what makes a real family. It may not have the deep down emotional moments that many other films on this list do, but it has a touching ending and is a fun watch.


3. One Hundred and One Dalmatians (1961)


This film sneaks up on you with emotion while being one of the more entertaining films on the list. One Hundred and One Dalmatians hits a home run with its story and characters and may be known best for its iconic song (and villain) Cruella DeVille. It has one of the most exciting climaxes of any Disney film of its time as a direct result of the tension that the movie creates through its plot. It has one of the most intricately woven stories of any Disney movie ever and strikes the perfect balance between emotion and humor.


2. Pinocchio (1940)


Pinocchio is just a brilliant film. While it has plenty of charm and humor, Pinocchio is largely known for the intense and dramatic moments that set it apart from other films. The dealings of Honest John and the Coachman are creepy and sinister. Stromboli is an over-the-top wicked character that locks Pinocchio in a bird cage and threatens to turn him into firewood. The scene where Lampwick turns into a donkey has given millions of kids nightmares over the past 75-plus years. And the scene where we think Pinocchio is killed by Monstro the Whale is tense, dramatic and yet another tear-jerker.


1. Fantasia (1940)


The ultimate experimental film, Fantasia is nothing short of a masterpiece. This is an anthology film, made up of individual shorts in order to create a feature. It doesn’t have one long narrative, and it uses a combination of classical music and animation to stimulate the eyes and the ears. This film is a feast for the senses. If you’re looking for a classic narrative, then this film isn’t for you. However, if you want to enjoy a piece of artistic expression that was created for its own sake, then this is a film you can appreciate. You can’t watch this film like you watch other films. This is a work of art, not a work of cinema.

You might be wondering where Sleeping Beauty is on this list. It would be on it if it were a top-11, but that just goes to show how amazing the first 21 films were. When a film like Sleeping Beauty can’t get on the list, the list must contain some impressive films, and this one does. The films on this list include some of the most important and influential films of all-time. These films helped create an art form that today is worth billions of dollars and touches almost every film in one way or another. Animation is more than just “kid stuff.” It is an art form and a style of film making that requires the most talented artists and film makers in the world. It may have started with a mouse, but it’s now the most popular form of film making in the world.

My Initial Thoughts on Black Panther

I’m going to get this out of the way immediately. I liked Black Panther, but I did not love it. I would rank it high in the Marvel pantheon but it was certainly not my favorite Marvel film. I’d have to digest it a little more, but my initial ranking would put it behind Iron Man, Guardians of the Galaxy, Captain America: Civil War, and Thor: Ragnarok. It does initially makes my top-5, but it is not number 1.

I saw the film on Presidents’ Day, and after sleeping on it and thinking about it, I’ve come to the following conclusions about the film. Like all of the Marvel films that came before it, it’s wildly entertaining with fun and energetic action sequences that build in intensity throughout the story. The story is structured well, and has a well-developed Hero’s Journey. It’s a professional, if unremarkably crafted story. The production design, art direction and VFX are what you would expect. They’re top-notch and, along with the action sequences, although they do sometimes combine make the film more “cartoony” than it ought to feel. But they create the eye-candy that draws the audiences to see the film.

Another reason to see this film is the exceptional cast that director Ryan Coogler assembled. It’s a terrific mix of veteran heavy hitters (Angela Basset, Forest Whitaker, Martin Freeman) and the members of the newer generation that we’re sure to be watching for the next 30 years (Chadwick Boseman, Michael B. Jordan, Lupita Nyong’o, Danai Gurira, Daniel Kaluuya, etc.). The chemistry that was created in this cast served the film well and drew out performances that ranged from solid to excellent. For the most part, the acting wasn’t anything special in this film, but taken in their totality, all of the performances created a net positive impact on the film.

In particular, the performance of Michael B. Jordan as the prodigal Erik Killmonger, is an exceptional performance that needs special attention. His acting was not only exceptional, but brought a dynamic not previously seen in any Marvel film. His character had baggage. Now, many characters in the Marvel universe have baggage, but Killmonger’s baggage, though created through extraordinary circumstances, was baggage that made him relatable as a villain. This personal baggage made him who he is as a character and created in him the motivation that ultimately ends up driving the story. Coogler actually spent a solid amount of time giving us Killmonger’s backstory, and he presented it initially in small doses that teased us into wanting more and created tension and unease in how the story would progress.

His personal baggage also provided backbone to one of the primary thematic elements of the film, and that was the centuries-old struggle of African Americans for equality. Killmonger is a symptom in the disease that has afflicted that portion of the population, in that he grew up fatherless which embittered him as an adult. Adding to that bitterness was the conclusion that there were people who could have helped him and those like him, but did not. Unfortunately, Killmonger misunderstands his own strength. He used his bitterness to motivate himself to make something of himself, so that he didn’t need help from anyone else. He saw that there were others who got head starts, and he trained himself extra hard in order to make up the difference and ultimately pass those who started out ahead of him, and that’s one of the things that makes his story so tragic. Killmonger had the ability and strength to be anything that he wanted to be, but his bitterness and anger were weaknesses that he could not overcome. That makes Killmonger one of the deepest and most complex characters in the entire Marvel pantheon.

And now, here comes the “but”. My problem with Black Panther, and indeed many of the Marvel films, is that they’re wide, but they’re shallow. Whether it’s the directors of the films or the studio executives pulling the strings, there is always a lot of stuff crammed into each one of these films so we’re not able to dive into anything. There is very little depth in any Marvel film. Some of the Marvel films and characters like Captain America, David Banner/The Hulk, Peter Quill/Starlord, and Thor do have some depth. The surface is scratched a little deeper so that we as the audience are allowed some semblance of an emotional connection, but beyond that, there is very little in these films to become attached to. Marvel movies tend to be little more than eye-candy. I understand that the formula is working quite well for them, and that a lot of people continue to go and see their films and those films are practically printing their own money.

What the lack of depth will do, however, is it will cause many of these films go be forgotten over time. It’s already difficult to remember what events happened in which films. That’s a consequence of cramming so much material into each film. The films themselves become diluted. They’re as entertaining as they possibly can be, but stories are at their most effective when they evoke an emotional reaction from the viewer. I’ve watched many action films where I care about what happens and am emotionally affected by what happens in the story. I can think of a grand total of one time that happened in a Marvel movie, and it was in Black Panther and it was a scene with Killmonger.

Killmonger’s last scene, and in fact his last line of dialogue, give us such an emotional catharsis. I would love to see Marvel give us a film with half the characters of a typical Marvel film, and half to subplots, locations and action sequences. I would be happier to have fewer things to keep track of if it meant that we could take a deeper dive into what was left. That would be a lot more interesting and fewer components would also be a lot more memorable.

While not a perfect film, Black Panther should be applauded for attempting to do things that other Marvel films have not. Hopefully, the executives at Marvel and Disney will see that there is an appetite for thoughtfulness and emotions. I would tell them to give us more characters like Killmonger, who have the kind of depth that opens up thematic components to the stories and situations that will make us think and feel rather than just watch and react.

My Top-7 John Huston Films

I wrote this blog for Night Owl TV and it first appeared on their site on January 10, 2018. A link to that post and other Night Owl TV material can be found here.

John Huston was one of the most important and greatest directors of the 20th Century. A two-time Oscar winner and 12-time nominee, Huston directed several of the most recognizable films in the history of cinema. Those opening sentences may seem hyperbolic, but only until you take a closer examination of Huston’s body of work. This was a man who felt comfortable in any genre and made great films. He was equally adept at the western (The Treasure of the Sierra Madre, The Unforgiven), Film Noir (The Maltese Falcon, The Asphalt Jungle), adventure (Moby Dick, The Man Who Would be King), straight drama (The African Queen, Prizzi’s Honor), and even the family musical (Annie).

John Huston (right) with his father, Walter Huston taking Oscars for their work in The Treasure of the Sierra Madre (1948).  John for Best Director and Best Writing Adapted Screenplay, and Walter for Best Supporting Actor.

John Huston (right) with his father, Walter Huston taking Oscars for their work in The Treasure of the Sierra Madre (1948).  John for Best Director and Best Writing Adapted Screenplay, and Walter for Best Supporting Actor.

Huston worked with many of the biggest stars in the history of Hollywood, but it was his partnership with Humphrey Bogart where he did his best and most iconic work. Iconic is probably the word that best describes much of the work that Huston did. He directed more than 40 films, and picking out his best films is like an exercise in naming some of the greatest films ever made.

With that in mind, let’s take a closer look at seven films directed by the great John Huston that are counted among his best.


7. The Man Who Would be King (1975)

Starring Sean Connery, Michael Caine and Christopher Plummer, this cinematic adventure (based on the story by Rudyard Kipling) is a great example of a story being driven by flawed heroes who we still can’t help but root for. He achieved this by making former British soldiers Carnehan (Caine) and Dravot (Connery) sympathetic. They’ve become thieves and scoundrels, but were once honorable men who felt slighted and betrayed by the nation that they fought and bled for. This betrayal is what motivates them to do the less-than-ethical things they do, and that ultimately leads to their downfall. However, their honor never fully leaves them, and ultimately, they do find a measure of redemption.


6. Moby Dick (1956)

Moby Dick - 1.jpg

Starring Gregory Peck and based on the classic novel by Herman Melville, with Moby Dick we again have a flawed character, but this one isn’t the hero. Captain Ahab is one of Peck’s signature roles, which is certainly saying something for an actor with such an arsenal of distinguished roles in so many great films. Of course, the character was created by Melville, but Huston and Peck were masterful in conveying the obsession that Ahab had with killing the great white whale; and how that obsession led not only to his own downfall, but to the destruction of everyone and everything around him. The story of Moby Dick has become symbolic of unattainable goals that people set for themselves which end up being detrimental to their own personal well-being. The movie itself is tense and entertaining thanks to Huston’s direction of giving Melville’s century-plus-old novel a contemporary feel.


5. Key Largo (1948)


Huston assembled some serious star power for this film. Starring Humphrey Bogart, Lauren Bacall, Edward G. Robinson, and Lionel Barrymore, this is a tense and suspenseful gangster story with the added component of adventure in the form of an impending hurricane, just to make things a little more interesting. This is also a film that goes a bit against type for Huston in that the hero goes from passive to heroic and grows throughout the story rather than regressing. Bogart is the hero of the story, starring as Frank McCloud, a WWII veteran who travels to the Key Largo home of one of his fallen comrades. While bonding with his friend’s widow Nora (Bacall) and wheelchair-bound father James (Barrymore), a group of gangsters show up lead by Johnny Rocco (Robinson), and hold them hostage. At first disillusioned by the violence he just left behind in WWII, McCloud is hesitant to confront Rocco and his gang. But as the story progresses and he sees the wickedness in Rocco and learns more of the evil he’s done, the hero inside him comes out and he saves the day. Huston took a hard look at passivism vs. action in this story and created in McCloud a truly conflicted character that made for a very dramatic adventure story.


4. The Asphalt Jungle (1950)

One of the great and most recognizable Film Noir, this is a heist movie in which the heist goes as planned, but double-crosses and bad luck cause the getaway to unravel. Starring Sterling Hayden, the unraveling of the plan was a common motif in Huston’s film. We as the audience watch the plan go awry and feel it falling apart, but we still hope against hope that the perpetrators can get away with it. Also like many of Huston’s films, the protagonists of this film are anti-heroes that we shouldn’t be rooting for, but are compelled to all the same by Huston’s brilliant direction and story-telling. This gritty, uncompromising film is definitely required viewing for any Film Noir fan.


3. The African Queen (1951)


Huston teamed up with Bogart again, along with the added ingredient of Katherine Hepburn to create an adventure/drama/romance about a roguish drunkard giving a ride on his boat to a prudish old maid down the Congo River to escape from WWI Colonial Germans. The beauty in the conflict of this picture is that it’s between the two main characters who need to be allies. The brilliance in the story is how both characters, who start out as opposite extremes, come together not only, for their very survival but to love each other. The adventure combines with the romance to make the drama, and this is one of the deepest and most riveting films in Huston’s pantheon.


2. The Maltese Falcon (1941)

Many experts refer to this film as one of the greatest, if not the greatest Film Noir of all time. What makes that even more remarkable is that it was Huston’s directorial debut. Humphrey Bogart stars as Sam Spade, a private detective who becomes embroiled in a sinister plot with eccentric criminals involving the search for a priceless artifact. After his partner is killed, Spade needs to outwit crooked cops, black marketers and a stunning femme fatale to keep his P.I. license, keep out of jail, and keep him from getting killed. This film may not have had the thoughtful gravitas and thematic issues of later Huston classics, but it’s an intricately woven crime story that keeps the audience guessing while being delightfully entertaining. It also boasts another all-star cast with Peter Lorre, Sydney Greenstreet and Mary Astor as the femme fatale Bridget who weaves the web of deceit that pushes the story forward.

1. The Treasure of the Sierra Madre (1948)

Yet another partnership between Huston and Bogart, this film tops them all. Nominated for Best Picture, this film won Huston his two Oscars (Best Director and Best Writing Adapted Screenplay). This masterpiece of a film encapsulates Huston’s best motifs to a tee. We have a main character in Fred Dobbs (Bogart) who is an expatriated American out of money and down on his luck in Tampico, Mexico. He and his friend Curtin (Tim Holt) hear about the legend of millions of dollars in gold buried in the Sierra Madre Mountains from an old codger, played by Walter Huston (John Huston’s father). Together they go looking for riches. Dobbs starts out the film as a flawed but sympathetic character who exhibits honor and integrity. Greed and paranoia slowly take over as the three prospectors discover more and more gold, ultimately leading to Dobbs’ ruin. The Treasure of the Sierra Madre is one of cinema’s best examples of the story’s hero devolving and ending up as the villain. It’s wonderful storytelling and is a warning against greed. The film shows that true happiness doesn’t come from vast wealth and the hunt for wealth can often lead in the opposite direction.

These films are all great and special in their own way and I didn’t even include other Huston classics like Night of the Iguana, Prizzi’s Honor or The Red Badge of Courage. What makes Huston’s films so great? There are a lot of things to talk about in this regard, but one thing that Huston did very well was to create stories with flawed characters who had flawed intentions. He also wasn’t afraid to allow the stories to go very wrong for these flawed heroes. You can call that cynical filmmaking or you can call it honest filmmaking, but one thing that it always turned out to be was compelling and entertaining filmmaking.

Coco – A Feast for the Eyes, Ears and Heart

I am one of the few people who has been down on PIXAR films over the past decade. It could be because their first decade was so full of amazing films that their own bar was set impossibly high. Like many other studios, PIXAR also experienced their own “brain drain” as talented artists left the studio for other opportunities, or, unfortunately, passed on. Be that as it may, I felt like I hadn’t seen a truly great film come out of PIXAR animation in around a decade. Until now.

I finally saw Coco recently. I may have resisted seeing it because I was so down on PIXAR. I was also a fan of The Book of Life, which also used the Mexican holiday of The Day of the Dead and the music that surrounds it as a backdrop. Well, now that I’ve seen it, I can honestly say that Coco is the best PIXAR film of the last decade and is one of the top-5 PIXAR films of all time. Click here for a ranking of PIXAR films that I did about a year and a half ago.

So what did Coco have that other recent PIXAR films lacked?

There are a couple of things that have bothered me about PIXAR films since WALL-E came out in 2008. Most of those PIXAR films have either been road movies, or they’ve been half-movies. WALL-E and Up are the best examples of half-movies. Each of those films starts out very strong and very emotional, but then each goes off the rails somewhere in the second act. Other films like Finding Dory, Inside Out and The Good Dinosaur have characters going on physical journeys with separate tests happening at each stop that have little to do with what came before or what’s to come after. That creates an episodic story that lacks a building drama and makes it more difficult to care about the characters. The characters, for their part, have always been the strongest component of PIXAR films. PIXAR’s film makers really know what they’re doing in that capacity, and it’s our caring for the characters that allows for any emotional engagement at all. Unfortunately, without better stories, for me many of the characters never reached their full potential.

Plus, when you take into account that half of the films PIXAR released between 2008 and 20016 were sequels or prequels, and it just felt to me like PIXAR had lost a step off of its game.

I know that I’m in the minority, but those are the reactions that I had to those films.

Coco, on the other hand, was a complete film that lacked the road elements of previous decade’s work. It’s an original film that has a compelling story, engaging characters and a twist that I’m kicking myself over for not seeing it coming. What that means is that the film had an exceptional script that had us totally set up for one thing, but then plausibly paid off something else entirely. That twist, in turn, made the story even more compelling and added layers of depth to the characters that made them.

What all of that did was combine to make a story that was not only compelling and entertaining, but emotionally engaging. I was genuinely touched by the heart in this film. The reason for that is because they created great characters and put them into a story with high stakes and rising tension, and they gave them obstacles that could effectively keep them from getting what they wanted. Those are all of the necessary ingredients to creating a good movie. The PIXAR films of the past decade have generally been missing one or more of those ingredients. Coco had them all.

Another thing that Coco had that hasn’t shown up much in PIXAR films is great songs. Other PIXAR films have had songs in them, but Coco is the first PIXAR film that I can think of that could be considered a musical, with the characters in the film breaking into song. The ever important notion behind a musical is that the songs not just exist for their own sake, but that they help to propel the story. The songs in Coco do that very effectively. In fact, the song Remember Me encapsulates the entire theme of the movie. This is a movie about remembering the past and remembering the importance of those who came before us.  The movie tells us that if we forget about them, then we lose a part of ourselves.

Finally, Coco is the most beautiful film that PIXAR has released since Finding Nemo. That film was awash (no pun intended) in saturated colors that helped add energy to the over all film. Coco uses inspiration and influence from Mexican folk art to create a production design that is both whimsical and mysterious. This works to compliment the story, which is also whimsical and mysterious. The color palette that the PIXAR artists used effectively accentuated the moods and the story beats, so it was much more than just pretty to look at. Like all effective production design and art direction, it assisted in the mood and the telling of the story.

Through and through, Coco is a dynamic and fantastic film. It deserves to be recognized along side The Incredibles, Toy Story 2 and Ratatouille as among PIXAR’s best.

Top-5 Hepburn and Tracy Films

I wrote this blog for Night Owl TV and it first appeared on their site on December 28, 2017. A link to that post and other Night Owl TV material can be found here.


Katharine Hepburn and Spencer Tracy combined to create one of the great cinematic duos of all time. All told, they made nine films together, and many of them are some of the best-known of the 20th Century. Their onscreen chemistry reflected their 25-year love affair that neither could acknowledge but was perhaps the worst kept secret in Hollywood. Hepburn herself never acknowledged the affair until she released her memoir after Tracy’s wife died in 1983.

Whatever went on between these two great actors off screen only enhanced what they created onscreen. Individually each was a powerhouse actor, and individually they starred in some of American cinema’s most important films. Tracy was the driving force behind such magnificent films as Boys Town, Inherit the Wind and Judgment at Nuremberg while Hepburn’s star shined brightest in films like The Philadelphia Story, The African Queen and The Lion in Winter. Each actor brought signature elements to their performances. Tracy had an idealistic pragmatism with a sarcastic wit that could be either disarming or could cut you to the core. Hepburn on the other hand, was a torchbearer for cinematic feminism and rebelliousness that showed a generation of women filmgoers that they need not take a back seat to anyone.


When these two got together on film, their individual idiosyncrasies played off each other and created chemistry that was pure joy to watch. What’s more, when you watch Tracy and Hepburn on screen, it looks like they’re having as much fun as the audience. That chemistry translated into performances that have become classic and iconic. The reason for this is that their best work involves characters who do ordinary things, but somehow end up with extraordinary results. The characters in their films, whether they’re research librarians, reporters, athletes, or lawyers are relateable to us, and end up overcoming their struggles in realistic ways that show their true strength of character. They’re not glamorous. They’re not heroic in the traditional sense. They’re usually every day heroes with flaws, both internal and external, that allow us to walk in their shoes, suffer their failures and revel in their successes.

Any fan of classic cinema should be a fan of the work of Tracy and Hepburn. The nine films they made together may differ in genre and in style, but vary little in quality. They’re all terrific films, but for the sake of brevity, I’ll run down the top-5. If you’re unfamiliar with their work, these would be great films to start out with to familiarize yourself with their charm and their style. It’s impossible not to recommend all nine, but here are the first five that you should see. Together they demonstrate the magic that these two seemingly so effortlessly created.

5. Woman of the Year (1942)


The first film they starred in together, Woman of the Year introduced us to the motifs and idiosyncrasies that would play such a prevalent role in their work together. Playing reporters who write for the same newspaper, Sam (Tracy) is a sports reporter with traditional values and Tess (Hepburn) is a progressive feminist who wins an award for Woman of the Year. The movie gets going when they fall in love and get married, but Tess’s busy schedule leads Sam to feel neglected. Like so many of their films, this one was ahead of its time in terms of the thematic issues it dealt with. More women would be entering the work force in the coming years, and gender roles were beginning to become cloudy. Woman of the Year took a close look at how both women and men were going to have to change in order to solve this evolving dynamic.

4. Pat and Mike (1952)

Annex - Tracy, Spencer (Pat and Mike)_NRFPT_01.jpg

Directed by George Cukor, this is another classic Tracy and Hepburn film that examines gender roles. Pat (Hepburn) is a female athletic sensation who can swing a tennis racquet or a golf club with equal ease. Mike (Tracy) is a shady sports manager who looks at Pat as a possible meal ticket before falling in love with her. One of the motifs that makes this film great is Mike’s terrific character arc from shady manager to a man who appreciates Pat for who she is. Unlike Pat’s overbearing fiancé, Collier Weld, Mike falls in love with Pat for who she is, not for who he wants her to be. Watching this relationship build as they sneak around to avoid Collier as well as jealous boxer Davie Hucko (Aldo Ray) and the mob, is as fun and entertaining as movies can be.

3. Adam’s Rib (1949)

While it’s still a romantic comedy, Adam’s Rib is one of the most dramatic films that Tracy and Hepburn starred in together. Tracy plays Assistant District Attorney Adam Bonner who is assigned to prosecute Doris Attinger (Judy Holiday), who shot her husband after catching him in an affair. He expects a quick win until the unexpected happens. Bonner’s wife, Amanda (Hepburn) is a defense attorney who feels sympathetic to Doris and takes on her case. What more dramatic situation could there be than a husband and wife on opposite sides of the same trial? Another film directed by George Cukor, Adam’s Rib contains one of the signature moments in Tracy and Hepburn’s remarkable partnership when they’re giving each other rub downs, and he smacks her backside just a little too hard. The competitive spirit between them has turned unhealthy for their relationship, and we, as the audience, fear that it could spell the end for them. Adam’s Rib is a thoughtful film that makes us examine our own preconceived ideas of right and wrong, and  that the notions of morality, ethics and legality don’t always fit neatly together.

2. Desk Set (1959)

This is another film that was ahead of its time, as it shows the dangers of automation for people and their employment. It also shows that automation might not be the panacea that many people of the time believed that it would be. Tracy plays Richard Sumner, a computer developer who is working to bring a new computer into the reference department of a television network. Hepburn is Bunny Watson, the head of that department who can recall almost any fact with ease. This film had a bit of a role reversal for them, as it was Tracy’s character who’s looking towards the future with this new technology, and Hepburn is holding on to the tried and true processes of the traditional library. Throw in a love triangle with the very funny Gig Young who plays a wanna-be executive who’s been stringing Bunny along romantically for years, as well as a jaded yet hopeful sidekick played by Joan Blondell, and you have the ingredients for a charming and funny film. And yet, it’s a film that still takes a hard look at modernization with a 50’s optimism that everything will turn out all right in the end.

1. Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner (1967)

The final film that Tracy and Hepburn starred in together. Tracy passed away shortly after shooting wrapped and before the film was released. Hepburn reportedly never watched the final version of it, citing that it was too painful to do so. Also starring Sidney Poitier, this film was a passing of the torch from Tracy and Hepburn’s generation to Poitier’s and it was a thoughtful and emotional film about confronting prejudices you never even knew you had. That’s just what Matt Drayton (Tracy) and his wife Christina (Hepburn) must do when their daughter Joanna returns from Europe affianced to Dr. Ben Prentice (Poitier). The two of them (but Matt in particular) wrestle with the notion of the difficulties their daughter will have in an interracial marriage before they can give their approval in yet another film that was years ahead of its time. During Tracy’s final heartfelt monologue, Hepburn can be seen shedding real tears. She knew this was Tracy’s swan song, he’d soon be gone, and she was overcome with her own emotion. Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner was nominated for Best Picture of 1967 and also was on AFI’s original list of the Top 100 films of all time. If you’ve never seen it, it should be high on your list.

Just saying the names Tracy and Hepburn stirs up memories and passions in many fans of classic cinema. Much of the work the two of them did individually is classic. All of the work they did together was timeless.