Three Great American Films You’ve Probably Never Heard of

Here’s one that Ripley’s Believe or Not probably won’t cover, but it unquestionably should: Not that long ago, movies made before 1970 used to be shown regularly on television.

Pause for gasp.

Yes, it’s true. Even your local channels would regularly show movies made in glorious black and white. The superstations filled their schedules with over two dozen movies a week that didn’t star Will Smith or Sandra Bullock.

Pause for gasp.

The cable networks TNT and American Movie Classics actually used to show classic films. (TNT now relegates itself to the oxymoronic “new classics,” though one can’t help but doubt that Road House will ever evolve into an “old classic.)

Recently TBS “encored” Spiderman four times in two days. At least three of those slots back when I was younger would have been filled with different movies with the possibility–a very strong possibility–that one of those slots would have been filled with a movie I had never seen before.

Thankfully, there’s still Turner Classic Movies and VHS and DVD. I heartily suggest taking a week vacation from the latest so-called “reality show” dreck that passes for entertainment and instead apply it to either watching TCM or going to the classic or cult film section of your local video store. Failing that, may I suggest that you track down at least one or two the following which are, arguably, of course, the three best American movies you’ve never even heard of.

The Phantom Lady is a film noir classic that rates up there with the best of the genre. Made in 1944 and starring the ridiculously underrated Ella Raines, it manages to upturn all the expectations of the genre while transcending them.

Film noir is almost defined by two characteristics: the hard-bitten male hero and the world-weary femme fatale. The fact that the “hero” of this movie is almost immediately shunted off to jail and out of the way and that heroine is a wide-eyed innocent who is forced to dress up in the part of femme fatale in order to save him makes this possibly the most un-noir movie to deserve the title of film noir every made.

As famous and overrated as Bette Davis is as a 1940s film actress, Ella Raines is overlooked and underrated. Her performance in this move ranks among the greatest of the time, certainly finer than anything Greer Garson or Joan Crawford were doing at the time.

She plays the secretary of a man who has been accused of killing his wife and she takes it upon herself to track down the witness–the “phantom lady”–who can confirm her boss’ story. The highlight of the movie may well be the infamous drum solo scene, a scene so erotically and orgasmically charged that even attempting to describe it seems like an exercise in impotence.

Track this movie down if only to watch this scene.

One might give the same advice for the movie Lord Love a Duck. This movie also features a disturbingly erotic sequence involving Tuesday Weld buying cashmere sweaters. But it offers so much more.

This movie is so far ahead of its time that it’s still ahead of its time. Lord Love a Duck is a satire of contemporary mores and culture that was made in 1966.

It might have been made in 1996 or in 2006. Roddy McDowell plays a high school student who takes upon himself the job of making every dream of Tuesday Weld’s character Barbara Ann come true. And what is Barbara Ann’s dream?

Ask Paris Hilton, who has lived it out: To become famous despite having no discernible talent.

Roddy makes Tuesday’s dreams come true, one after another, in darkly delicious humorous ways that takes full advantage of the comic talents of co-stars Harvey Korman and Ruth Gordon.

The targets of satire that this movie sets its sights are almost as many as in a top of the line Simpsons episode: progressive education, divorce, husband-hunting, school clubs, beach movies, Christian-youth programs, older men fixation on younger girls.

Whew! And that’s in just the first half the movie.

If you’re in the mood for a cynical movie that makes Wag the Dog look quaintly optimistic by comparison you can’t do much better than They Won’t Forget. This is basically the same story that was covered by the TV movie The Murder of Mary Phagan in the 80’s, but many of the details of the real-life murder were changed.

For one thing, the accused murderer is merely a “northerner” not Jewish as he was in real life. And the Mary Phagan character has turned from a 13 year old schoolgirl into 16 year old Lana Turner in her movie debut. A debut that gave rise to the term “sweater girl.” (And if you don’t know what a sweater girl is, then I beg you, by all means, watch this movie and you will learn.)

Cynical is the key term for this movie. Plainly put, there isn’t a single character in this movie that will warm your heart. Even the (probably) innocent accused murderer isn’t free from suspicion, but the DA and the reporter who are in collusion to frame him set new standards for blackhearted characters.

Every ruthless prosecutor and every amoral reporter on TV owes a debt to the characters in this movie. The march toward injustice is relentless and almost unrealistic until you take out five or ten minutes to watch Court TV and you realize, in retrospect, maybe They Won’t Forget is almost as quaint as Wag the Dog in comparison to real life.

These are just three movies that probably aren’t going to show up on the schedule of any other network than Turner Classic Movies. And you probably will have a hard time finding them at your local video store. Which is all the more reason to grab the chance to see them while you can.

For more such classics, you can visit the site 123movies and discover a wealth of such masterpieces from times long gone.


Paola Garcia lives in Jakarta Indonesia. She is an associate professor in University of Indonesia and also managing Scoopinion at the same time. She is also fond of watching theatrical plays.

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