Movies today captivate us with action, special effects, and wild premises. It’s impossible to get bored when watching a new movie in 2023. There are more twists and turns and shocks than ever before, which goes to show how Hollywood and film audiences have evolved over time. The more simplistic aspects of film show raw footage, emotions, and talent. When I get tired of the loud noises or action on screen, I turn to the good old fashioned classics.
If you are fascinated by “old Hollywood,” then you’ll absolutely enjoy these 10 iconic old movies on my round up. The purpose of this film list is to give you a place to start when it comes to learning about film from the 1940s and 50s. These movies can be a much needed break from new Hollywood and teach you a lot about history whether you realize it or not. Trust me, they’re just as entertaining as they are educational. These iconic old movies will tug at your heartstrings and make you fall in love with the characters they create. You’ll forget all about the explosives and the high-definition camera when you see Grace Kelly or Audrey Hepburn on screen.
10. The Philadelphia Story, 1940
My first pick is The Philadelphia Story, which stars Cary Grant, Katharine Hepburn, and James Stewart who are all very famous actors from this time period. You might be wondering if Katharine Hepburn is related to Audrey Hepburn, but they’re actually not. Also, might recognize James Stewart from his most famous role as George Bailey in It’s a Wonderful Life.
In a classic love story, there’s always the discussion of marriage and wealth. This story is no exception since Tracy, played by Katharine Hepburn, is from one of the most prominent families in Philadelphia. Her wedding is coming up, but we learn it’s actually her second marriage and her fiancée, George, is originally from a lower class family. Her ex-husband, C.K. Dexter Haven shows up and questions her decision. Plus, the tabloids enter the picture to report on her upcoming marriage. This is when everything starts to come into question as she acts upon her new feelings for the reporter, Mike, and her suppressed feelings for her ex-husband.
A funny line you may have heard from this movie is “Where’s my wandering parakeet?” The film is full of quick wit and one liners just like this one.
9. Snows of Kilimanjaro, 1952
You’ve probably heard of The Snows of Kilimanjaro in reference to the short story by Ernest Hemingway. You may have also heard references to a leopard climbing Mount Kilimanjaro, which comes from a quote used by Ernest and finds its way into the film.
This film adaptation stars Gregory Peck, Susan Hayward, and Ava Gardner. Harry Street (Gregory Peck) is a writer on safari who gets injured while hunting. Helen is accompanying him and cares for him back at the foot of Mount Kilimanjaro. As his body shuts down from gangrene, he hallucinates, remembering the true love of his life, Cynthia (Ava Gardner), among other past times.
This tragic tale is a true classic and features many flashbacks and life reflections. Harry is charismatic and attracted many beautiful women in his day, but he spends his last moments coming to terms with the decisions he has made. If you like Ernest Hemingway or thoughtful dramas, you’ll enjoy this film adaptation.
8. Citizen Kane, 1941
If you’ve heard of Orson Welles, you’ve probably heard of this iconic old movie, Citizen Kane. It was the first feature film he starred in. He also co-wrote the screenplay. It’s often referred to as the “greatest film ever made” and has been studied in film classes for decades. The quote, “If I hadn’t been very rich, I might have been a really great man” comes from this movie.
In this drama, Charles Foster Kane is a powerful, rich newspaperman, but his health begins to fail. Before he dies, he utters a unique last word: “rosebud.” After his death, the world is shocked by the news and wants to know what “rosebud” means, but they’ll never truly know. Those close to Kane come forward to tell the story of his life, but it’s not as happy or successful as one might think.
This film depicts what it’s like to be a powerful man in America and how brutal it can be at the top. Kane’s rise and fall is fascinating in and outside of the film as the audience watches flashbacks from many points of view.
7. To Catch a Thief, 1955
To Catch a Thief is an iconic old movie because Alfred Hitchcock directs it, so you know it is going to be good. Hitchcock is known for mysteries and critically acclaimed films like Psycho, Vertigo, and North by Northwest. Cary Grant is also known for his acting in mystery films and he stars in a few of Hitchcock’s classics.
Cary Grant plays John Robie, a notorious and dangerous jewel thief, who was known as “The Cat” in France. However, he claims he is retired. The police do not believe him, so he must clear his name by catching a new suspect that is stealing from hotels and villas along the French Riviera. Frances (Grace Kelly) teams up to help him even though he resists. She’s an heiress, so her jewelry could very well be up for grabs.
This movie is a mysterious chase, so the anticipation will keep you locked in. The scenery is also incredible as it takes place along beaches in the French Riviera.
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6. An American in Paris, 1951
If you like musicals, you should definitely check out this iconic old movie and musical from the 50s. Starring Gene Kelly, Leslie Caron, Oscar Levant, and Nina Foch, this movie was advertised as a “technicolor” musical, which fits its aesthetic perfectly. The song “I Got Rhythm” is a tune you may have heard before.
Jerry Mulligan (Gene Kelly) is an American living in Paris after World War II, which is certainly an interesting time and place to be alive. Everyone is looking to repair themselves and their work after this difficult time. Being happy is also at the forefront of the mind. Jerry is trying to sell his paintings, which is a struggle until Milo Roberts (Nina Foch) sees his work. As a rich art-lover, she can help him succeed. However, he ends up falling in love with a younger French woman, Lise Bouvier (Leslie Caron) who his good friend is also courting. What will happen in this group and who will end up with who? You’ll have to watch to find out.
5. His Girl Friday, 1940
Have you ever heard the expression “his girl Friday” in relation to business or an office environment? That expression applies perfectly to this movie as it means that someone is an extremely capable sidekick or assistant and works on many different tasks. It’s similar to “right hand man,” but in reference to a woman.
This film stars Cary Grant and Rosalind Russell as two top reporters working at “The Morning Post” in New York City. Hildy (Rosalind) tells her boss (Cary Grant) that she is quitting and getting married. However, the twist here is that she used to be married to Walter before he was absent and she asked for a divorce. She clearly loves working at the paper and Walter doesn’t think she should quit to be married. He assigns her a big story that features the corruption of the mayor and an upcoming election to get her to stay. Ultimately, she can’t resist the draw of the news.
The references, tension, and conversation are incredibly fast-paced and interesting. One of the most famous quotes is “When you walk out that door, part of me will go right with you.” After watching, you’ll realize how quippy Hildy, or His Girl Friday, really is.
4. Rear Window, 1954
This is an iconic old movie that is often studied today as a part of film degrees. It’s another mystery thriller from Alfred Hitchcock and it follows L.B. Jefferies (James Stewart) as he recovers from an injury in his small, Greenwich Village apartment. Like many people living in New York City, he has a view of many other apartment buildings across the courtyard.
While L.B. may seem to spy on his neighbors, he sees skeptical behavior and actually witnesses what he believes to be a murder. He must ask his girlfriend, Lisa (Grace Kelly), for help and investigate from afar.
Rear Window a very unique movie based on its point of view. You, as the audience, can look onto the neighbors in the same way that L.B. is. It’s suspenseful even without a lot of action, which makes this movie a great introduction into the 50s era of film.
3. North by Northwest, 1959
North by Northwest is yet another Alfred Hitchcock film, making it an iconic old movie and intriguing mystery. Cary Grant plays Roger Thornhill, an advertising executive who is mistaken for another man and government intelligence operative. He must run from spies who want him killed. On his way to safety, he meets a gorgeous blonde woman named Eve (played by Eva Marie Saint) who becomes his helper and fends off the spies. But, who is Eve and why does she want to help someone who is suspected of murder? She just might be more connected to the spy world than he is.
Be sure to watch this film to see a truly wild mystery unfold. This thriller is full of suspense and that’s what Cary Grant does best. One of the most famous quotes is “In the world of advertising, there’s no such thing as a lie. There’s only expedient exaggeration.” If you enjoy spy movies, there is definitely a James Bond feel to this movie that will resonate with you.
2. Sabrina, 1954
Sabrina is one of my personal favorites. Directed by Billy Wilder, it is described as a “Long Island Cinderella story,” which couldn’t be more of a bittersweet and realistic fairy tale. Since it takes place on Long Island and in New York City when businesses started popping up on Wall Street, there is beautiful scenery of estates on the water and old Manhattan.
In terms of the plot line, Audrey Hepburn plays Sabrina who is a chauffeur’s daughter and is expected to become a cook and live out a working class lifestyle. She dreams of falling in love and has an unhealthy crush on David Larrabee (William Holden) who is the rich son of the Larrabee fortune. After attempting suicide, she travels to Paris and re-discovers the beauty in the world and inside herself. This elicits one of the most incredible quotes as Sabrina reclaims her life:
“I have learned how to live, how to be IN the world and OF the world, and not just to stand aside and watch. And I will never, never again run away from life. Or from love, either.”
You’ll have to watch this romantic film to see what happens when she returns to the Larrabee estate as a well-traveled woman with a complete makeover.
1. Casablanca, 1942
The most iconic old movie of all time is arguably Casablanca. Starring Humphrey Bogart and Ingrid Bergman, this plot line drives a mysterious love story between two Americans while they try to escape the chaos and fear of World War II. Rick, owns a café in Casablanca, which was protected by French rule in Morocco. As the Nazis take over more of Europe, people flock to Casablanca in the hopes that they can then get to America for refuge.
Rick’s Café is known to help people get plane tickets to the U.S. (for a very high cost), which brings someone from his past (Ingrid Bergman) and her husband, Victor Lazlo, to his establishment. Lazlo also happens to be the leader of the Czechoslovakia resistance and the Nazis are after him.
This movie is set in the backdrop of an extremely devastating historical event, but still manages to pull you into the romance of it all. The most fascinating thing about Casablanca is that it was actually released during World War II, so the movie represents the reality of the moment. Few other productions have been able to do so.
Along with the best movie comes the best quote that is referenced in tons of modern day TV shows and movies: “Of all the gin joints, in all the towns, in all the world, she walks into mine.”
Also Read: 10 Best Cult Classic Movies of the 80s
Whether you’re reading this movie round up to see what classic movie you’ll watch next, or you’re just curious which black and white movies you could see for the first time, there is a story here for everyone. Some of my choices are more historical like Citizen Kane and Casablanca while others are more romantic like An American in Paris and Sabrina.
These iconic old movies will give you the perfect glimpse into old Hollywood glamour, film, and culture. Many motifs and quotes from these movies are referenced in our everyday lives. You’ll pick up on it soon enough and see how they’ve influenced movies and TV today. Ultimately, these movies are here to entertain, but maybe this list will even inspire you to learn more about the 40s and 50s in film.