Top 10 American Movies

Author: David M. Shribman

Knute Rockne, All American
There are three important characters in this film: The legendary Irish coach, George Gipp and one other — Ronald Reagan. He plays Gipp, and after serving as governor of California and being elected to the White House, Reagan became the Gipper as well. Every time he was in a challenging political position there came the call to win one for the Gipper. This is a wonderful, affecting film built around a story that is probably apocryphal — Gipp’s parting words to the coach: “Tell them to go out there with all they got and win just one for the Gipper.” (Rockne’s team did beat Army in its 1928 game.) One last thing: This film would be included in this list even if it were not printed in a magazine associated with Notre Dame.

It is simply impossible to omit from a highlight list of movies a film whose signature line is “Here’s looking at you,” uttered by Humphrey Bogart to Ingrid Bergman in Casablanca, the 1942 classic set in wartime Morocco. The film is full of familiar lines such as “Kiss me as if it were the last time,” “Round up the usual suspects,” and, of course, from the song “As Time Goes By,” this unforgettable lyric: “It’s still the same old story/A fight for love and glory.” This movie has it all, including spies and smoky rooms, brutal warfare and beguiling wooing, and is both sentimental and searing.

Citizen Kane
As actor, co-writer and producer, Orson Welles is at the center of this landmark film portraying a novelized version of the life of William Randolph Hearst — so much so that it spawned enormous controversy and hostility. But in the years since its release in 1941, this film has entered American mythology and iconography; never before or since has a sleigh been so freighted with importance. The significance of Citizen Kane lies not only in the enduring appeal of its story but also in the advances in technique made by the film, including characters who age during the film, imaginative backlighting, and a dizzying array of flashbacks and foreshadowing.

The Godfather
Marlon Brando and Al Pacino star in this famous mob film based on a book by Mario Puzo and set in the late 1940s — and yet never out of date. The story and characters are known to all — the film is one of the great shared experiences in modern American life, more so even than Casablanca and Citizen Kane — and the term “godfather” itself has entered the American vocabulary. The cast includes Robert Duvall, James Caan and Diane Keaton, who in a film directed by Francis Ford Coppola expertly retrieve a lost New York world and use its elements to create its own mythology.

Gone with the Wind
Vivian Leigh, Clark Gable, Leslie Howard, Olivia de Havilland: Was there ever a cast so beguiling as the one assembled by David O. Selznick in 1939 for a film so enduring in the American memory that it goes by its initials, GWTW? The film, based on the Margaret Mitchell novel of 1936 that portrayed the South from the eve of the Civil War through Reconstruction, has been a fan favorite for three-quarters of a century, despite controversies about dignifying slavery and romanticizing marital rape. It also includes one of the killer lines of cinema history — breathtakingly shocking at the time — known to every American by its opening, “Frankly, my dear . . .”

Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner
Spencer Tracy, Sidney Poitier and Katharine Hepburn combine in this 1967 classic that asks one of the most important questions in film history and answers it with a sympathetic look at interracial relationships at a time when civil-rights battles still raged. This is Meet the Parents with a weighty theme at an important juncture in U.S. cultural history, and while there are comic moments — the film, Roger Ebert said at the time, was “a joy to see, an evening of superb entertainment” — the themes are serious and persistent.

Many who have never seen this film know it as Richard Nixon’s favorite; he may have seen it as many as three times before ordering the invasion of Cambodia in 1970. (Secretary of State William Rogers said the president was so devoted to this 1970 production about General George S. Patton that he became a “walking ad” for it.) Eight years later, as the Camp David talks seemed to grow more hopeless, Ezer Weizmann, the Israeli minister of defense, sat in the retreat’s theater and watched Patton five times. Starring George C. Scott and Karl Malden, it is a celebration of the martial temperament and the military arts. In real life, Patton was an accomplished general and a flawed human. The movie’s opening, against a mammoth American flag, is one of the most evocative solo scenes in film history.

Choosing a representative American Broadway musical is nearly impossible: Is it West Side Story, peopled with immigrants; or State Fair or Carousel, which touch rural themes; or Guys and Dolls, which contributed “a bushel and a peck” to the American lexicon and “Luck Be a Lady” to the Sinatra repertoire? Let’s settle on Oklahoma! for its restless energy, its oh-
what-a-beautiful-mornin’ upbeat outlook, its Rodgers-and-Hammerstein array of songs (“Kansas City,” “People Will Say We’re in Love”), its madcap cast of characters (Curly and Aunt Eller) and, of course, the surrey with the fringe on top. The 1955 film version of the 1943 stage production included Shirley Jones, Rod Steiger, James Whitmore and Eddie Albert and won an Academy Award for best music.

Mr. Smith Goes to Washington
Even if this 1939 film hadn’t created an American mythology it would be celebrated for the part it played in the careers of director Frank Capra and actor James Stewart. But Mr. Smith is an American archtype — the idealistic outsider from nowhere determined to upend the folkways and the foibles of the capital, a role played in our history by Jimmy Carter, Ronald Reagan and a host of less-successful political aspirants, including William Jennings Bryan. Senator Smith’s famous film filibuster came 18 years before Strom Thurmond’s legendary talk-a-thon against the Civil Rights Bill of 1957 and was fortified by a far better cause.

Thelma and Louise
This film stands as representative of the female buddy film, a genre that includes Gentlemen Prefer Blondes, Bridesmaids and Steel Magnolias. This 1991 movie focuses on the adventures of Thelma (Geena Davis), Louise (Susan Saradon) and a 1966 Ford Thunderbird, and is a feminist icon, the story of two funny and fiercely independent women. The names Thelma and Louise soon became symbols, and their names repeatedly have turned up in political debate, including when Democratic Senator Sheldon Whitehouse of Rhode Island said at a 2009 White House health-care summit: “We’re at the Thelma and Louise moment — we are in a car heading over the cliff.” Today there’s even an online travel portal — — designed to unite “women in the spirit of new experiences.”

David Shribman is the editor of the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette.