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A Streaming Guide to the Best Old Hollywood Movies

After you watch Ryan Murphy’s Netflix series ‘Hollywood,’ you’ll wanna stream the greatest films to ever portray the golden age of the moviemaking business

Touchstone Pictures/MGM/Universal Pictures/Columbia Pictures/Miramax/Ringer illustration

The reviews are in for Ryan Murphy’s new Netflix series Hollywood, and they are just OK. After successfully excavating skeletons from the celluloid closet in 2017’s trashily enjoyable Feud, about the hellacious rivalry between Bette Davis and Joan Crawford, Murphy’s attempt to craft a more panoramic snapshot of the postwar studio system and its shifting values is apparently stranded between revisionist fantasy and helpless camp (the latter being simultaneously the showrunner’s greatest strength and his Achilles heel). Which is unfortunate, because a shiny, sleazy streaming show about beautiful people strategically screwing each other over (and also just screwing each other) against a quasifactual backdrop sounds extremely entertaining, both in general and at this specific moment of showbiz gridlock. But even if Hollywood, the show, is bad, Hollywood, the subject, remains a rich text. And there are lots (and lots) of readily accessible films that deal with the same time period and themes as Murphy’s miniseries with genuine wit, heat, and purpose. Here are the ones you should watch right away.

The Aviator

Available to rent for $7.99 on Amazon Prime

Martin Scorsese’s biopic of Howard Hughes, the desperately eccentric American industrialist—and, among other things, old Hollywood auteur—is at its most sweeping and glamorous while dramatizing its subject’s breakthroughs as a producer. The scenes featuring Leonardo DiCaprio in daredevil dynamo mode opposite Cate Blanchett’s expert, Oscar-winning impersonation of Katharine Hepburn (who batted cleanup in the murderer’s row of 1930s and ’40s actresses who made up Hughes’s dating pool) are the stuff of vintage, Technicolor fantasy. Given its length and wild swings in mood and tone, from comedy to docudrama to psychological thriller to elegy, The Aviator perhaps tries to do much, but if so, it’s merely taking its cues from Hughes, whose appetite for adventure and innovation was bottomless before paranoia took over. Those bowled over by the bleak, lonely coda of The Irishman should note that Scorsese more or less borrowed it from his haunting finale in The Aviator.

Who Framed Roger Rabbit

Streaming on Disney+

The twinning of a bloody, sleazy, and recognizably historical California with the fictional—and magically two-dimensional—realm of “Toontown” in Who Framed Roger Rabbit is like a statement of intent for director Robert Zemeckis: something for grown-ups, and something for kids. Except that there’s nothing benign about the cartoon universe depicted here, which bleeds into the “real world” in ways that push both pre-digital special effects and old-school noir storytelling to a breaking point. If one of Steven Spielberg’s legacies is the creation of the PG-13 rating in the ’80s, then the daring ways his former protégé played with age-(in)appropriate jokes in Roger Rabbit leaves him in the dust. Parents hoping for two hours of air-conditioned multiplex babysitting with cameos from Mickey Mouse and Bugs Bunny must have been shocked to discover a veritable Chinatown remake whose animated characters included the statuesque fetish object Jessica Rabbit (she of the immortal, existential line, “I’m not bad, I’m just drawn that way”) and a few cute little doodles tortured to death by Christopher Lloyd’s monstrous bad guy. In 1988, the film’s subtext was that the halcyon days of Hollywood were darker than we like to imagine; ironically, 30 years later, as blockbusters have gotten ever more innocuous, it mostly makes me feel a pang of regret that they don’t make ’em like this anymore.


The Bad and the Beautiful

Available to rent for $1.99 on Amazon Prime

Kirk Douglas is Bad and Lana Turner is Beautiful—and vice versa, of course. The ingenious structure of this multiple-Oscar winner uses the unscrupulous rise of Douglas’s producer-baron Jonathan Shields—the son of an old studio mogul determined to make a name for himself in spite of family privilege—to allegorize the filmmaking process. After establishing Shields as a heavy-hitting monster, the film flashes back to see the stories of the people he encountered (and exploited) on his way to the top. But it’s not that simple. The subtext of each episode is that in Hollywood, using and abusing people doesn’t necessarily keep them from achieving great things, a revelation that turns Vincente Minnelli’s melodrama inside out, revealing an oddly sentimental streak abetted by Douglas’s incorrigibly charming performance. It was an open secret at the time that Shields was based in part on the megalomaniacal power broker David O. Selznick, while critics have suggested that Turner’s troubled, neurotic actress was a stand-in for Minnelli’s wife and muse, Judy Garland; there are also a few barely veiled nods to the work and persona Alfred Hitchcock.

The Big Knife

Available to rent for $3.99 on Amazon Prime

“I’m sure I’d much rather see a snake than a Hollywood producer,” hisses Shelley Winters as an ingenue embroiled in a cover-up in The Big Knife. Of all the cynical one-liners in the film’s script, this one most fully sums up its point of view on the movie industry as a gathering of self-interested serpents. Originally written as a play by Clifford Odets during his infamous internment in the studio system—a purgatory that inspired the Coen brothers’ Barton Fink, whose arrogant sell-out hero was audaciously modelled on Odets—The Big Knife features slumped, alcoholic movie stars, scabrous gossip columnists, and reptilian tycoons, all of whom pop off the screen under Robert Aldrich’s expertly energetic direction. (Aldrich, one of the great, subversive craftsmen of the ’50s and ’60s, was played as a weirdly passive presence by Alfred Molina in Ryan Murphy’s FX series Feud, set during the making of Aldrich’s camp classic Whatever Happened to Baby Jane?). Critics at the time carped that The Big Knife’s litany of moral failure and betrayal was too harsh, but the film has aged beautifully, especially Ida Lupino’s performance as a jilted wife clinging to faded illusions about her broken-down, big-name actor husband (Jack Palance).

Hail, Caesar!

Streaming on Netflix

As the terse, tightly wound watchdog Eddie Mannix—the unofficial “fixer” for the fictional Capitol Pictures studios in a mid-1950s era of tabloid scandals—Josh Brolin joins the Coens’ canon of anguished Serious Men. In addition to trying to find a kidnapped matinee idol (George Clooney) and stage-manage a virgin birth for a promiscuous starlet (Scarlett Johansson), Eddie’s begun thinking seriously about whether there’s a God. The answer: Of course there is, and He presides over a backlot universe where musicals, Westerns, and Roman epics are all created equal, even if a cabal of commie screenwriters wants a bigger piece of the pie. Swift, delirious, and criminally underrated, Hail, Caesar! functions as a spiritual sequel to the bitter dream-factory critique of Barton Fink even as it celebrates the so-called “genius of the system” that defined American cinema’s classical era. When Brolin angrily slaps the socialism out of George Clooney’s conveniently radicalized movie star, the satire of blacklist politics merges with a sly yet only semi-ironic call to make Hollywood Great Again.

Bombshell

Available to rent for $1.99 on Amazon Prime

No, not that Bombshell: At best, Charlize Theron’s Megyn Kelly apologia belongs on a future roll call of movies attempting to reckon with Fake News. The film in question here is a ribald pre-Code comedy from 1933, directed by Victor Fleming a half-decade before he rewrote Hollywood history with Gone With the Wind and The Wizard of Oz. It’s about a blindingly blond movie star (Jean Harlow) who secretly yearns for a quiet, normal life but keeps being spun as a paragon of virtue by her loyal (and deeply infatuated) publicist (Lee Tracey). The film’s title inaugurated Harlow’s well-publicized “blond bombshell” persona, deepening the iconic status earned by being cast in Howard Hughes’s Hell’s Angels (Gwen Stefani plays her in The Aviator), while the plot riffs directly on her celebrity—as well as that of Clara Bow, the silent-era sex symbol with a legacy as the first-ever “it girl.” Bombshell’s rollicking pace, unapologetic innuendo, and self-reflexive sense of humor (including name-drops of many period stars) make it a minor but genuine classic.

The Celluloid Closet

Available to rent for $2.99 on Amazon Prime

Vito Russo’s 1981 book The Celluloid Closet: Homosexuality in the Movies was at once a landmark of old Hollywood scholarship and a timely document dealing with gay representation on the eve of the AIDS epidemic. For their 1995 documentary adaptation, Jeffrey Friedman and Rob Epstein remained faithful to the material, employing a host of famous talking heads—including Tom Hanks, fresh off of winning an Oscar in Philadelphia—to narrate anecdotes about behind-the-scenes homophobia, discrimination, and the historical coding of queer characters (both intentionally and as a casualty of censorship) that helped to establish deep-seated, often destructive pop-cultural LGBT archetypes. Smartly edited and tonally splitting the difference between catty tell-all and retrospective lament, The Celluloid Closet is the rare documentary that manages to balance accessibility with integrity—and it’s a good excuse to check out Russo’s even denser and more rewarding book.

In a Lonely Place

Streaming on the Criterion Channel

1950 yielded a bumper crop of black-and-white masterpieces contemplating the seamy realities of show business, including Sunset Boulevard and All About Eve—but the gold medal goes to In a Lonely Place. If Nicholas Ray’s film is less famous than the other two, it’s probably because its bleakness is served straight up with no chaser. A never-better Humphrey Bogart stars as an erratic scribe whose writer’s block, mixed with a drinking problem, may have caused him to kill a young woman. The possibility has certainly occurred to his new lover (Gloria Grahame, Ray’s wife at the time), and In a Lonely Place plays its antihero’s potential guilt straight down the line for most of its running time, in effect weaponizing Bogart’s charming, macho star persona against itself and us until we no longer trust what we’re seeing or feeling. Ray’s ambivalence toward an industry that alternately welcomed him in and pushed him out is palpable. Fifty years later, David Lynch would harness a similarly grim, fatalistic vibe in Mulholland Drive.

Los Angeles Plays Itself

Streaming on Kanopy

One way to look at Thom Andersen’s epic 2003 documentary is as a hybrid playlist-slash-greatest-hits-montage of films set fully or partially in California’s biggest and most famous city, from A(nnie Hall) to Z(abriskie Point), with everything from Chinatown to L.A. Confidential to The Terminator getting a shout-out during its three-hour running time. What Andersen is really up to, though, transcends inventory: Los Angeles Plays Itself is about nothing less than the ways in which we rewrite history through fiction, analyzing the social, political, cultural, and architectural representation of its namesake city in movies from all eras and genres and ending up with something akin to a masterwork of psychogeographical cinema. Inevitably, Andersen’s brilliantly written voice-over spends a lot of time untangling Hollywood mythology, both in terms of behind-the-scenes intrigue and the tropes and clichés of L.A.-centric filmmaking, smartly juxtaposing glossy, overexposed hits with hard-bitten indies like Kent McKenzie’s The Exiles (1961), a pioneering work of docufiction set in an American Indian community in Bunker Hill. By turns sarcastic, freewheeling, and focused and always authoritative—even when taking classics like Chinatown down a peg—Los Angeles Plays Itself is addictive from the first minute. If you’re skeptical that a video essay made up mostly of 30-second clips can also be a phenomenal piece of entertainment, start it up and try to turn it off before it’s over. You won’t.

Singin’ in the Rain

Available to rent for $3.99 on Amazon Prime

On the short list of the most purely exuberant and enjoyable movies ever made, Singin’ in the Rain also offers a concise history lesson about the artistic and technological evolution of Hollywood in the late 1920s. Released in 1952, Stanley Donen and Gene Kelly’s film offers up full-color, gloriously musical crowd-pleasing entertainment while contemplating the anxious, inexorable evolution of those same virtues. Has any star ever been so gracefully self-deprecating as Kelly, whose silent-film star is simultaneously humbled by the advent of sound recording—which renders him a bad actor—and the affections of Debbie Reynolds’s principled chorus girl? Has any sidekick ever gone harder than Donald O’Connor did enacting the by-any-means-necessary mandate of “Make ’Em Laugh?” And has any movie ever revelled more seductively in the blurry, incestuous relationship between artifice, deception, and pure, Utopian immersion in film-and-fantasy? The script may be a cobbled-together framework for a series of preexisting songs (including the title number, originally written for Judy Garland), but it’s also as dazzling an exercise in metacomedy as anything by Charlie Kaufman or Quentin Tarantino, whose Once Upon a Time … in Hollywood owes Singin’ in the Rain a deeper debt than most (see also: Stanley Kubrick, whose hijacking of Kelly’s carefree choreography for scenes of rape and murder in A Clockwork Orange equals one of the most viciously ironic bits of cinematic homage ever attempted).

Adam Nayman is a film critic, teacher, and author based in Toronto; his book The Coen Brothers: This Book Really Ties the Films Together is available now from Abrams.