Sharing Classic Films With Your Kids

Reading Time: 9 minutes
The Great Leslie (Tony Curtis) faces off against Professor Fate (Jack Lemmon) in 'The Great Race.'
The Great Leslie (Tony Curtis) faces off against Professor Fate (Jack Lemmon) in ‘The Great Race.’

After reading Randy Slavey’s post on “Rewatchable movies,” I got to thinking about the films I shared with my own kids, and the ones I missed, the ones they didn’t like, the ones that are important cultural landmarks, and the ones that never get old.

A lot of geeky media includes references to older, less-geeky media; for example, Ant-Man is a classic heist film in the mold of How to Steal a Million, Topkapi, or Ocean’s 11. Guardians of the Galaxy is a “building the team to save the day” story not unlike the Magnificent Seven or its predecessor, the Seven Samurai. It’s not enough to just show our kids the geek standards; they need to see the films that the geek standards are referencing.

So I started compiling a list of classic films that I think kids ought to see. To make sure I wasn’t just talking about the movies I love, I opened up a chat window on Facebook with my three children to get their views on the matter.

Ashley, my eldest, is 28 and works in Social Media for a startup in Portland, Oregon. My son Chris, 25, is a Communications major. My youngest, Kate, is 19 and also in Portland; she works as an archery instructor and barista.

All three immediately agreed on several films:

"Now it's GARBAGE!"
“Now it’s GARBAGE!” Oscar (Walter Matthau) hurls linguini in ‘The Odd Couple’.

Chris: The Great Race is still one of my top favorites… Damn, anything with Jack Lemmon and Tony Curtis, really, especially The Odd Couple, even though it’s only one of them.

Kate: The Producers, Odd Couple, and Great Race, for sure. I never get tired of Duck Soup. Mom and I did an Audrey Hepburn marathon one summer, which was great. Purple Rose of Cairo. It Happened One Night.

Jim: We also did a sci-fi film binge one year, with Forbidden Planet, The Day the Earth Stood Still, The Time Machine, War of the Worlds…

Ashley: So, a lot of these movies I actually don’t watch over and over–I haven’t seen some of them in years but I’d still consider them favorites and can remember watching many of them for the first time. The Producers, The Great Race, It’s a Mad Mad Mad Mad World, Monty Python, The Odd Couple, Young Frankenstein (though does ’70s count as classic?) Some Like it Hot, Duck Soup, The Maltese Falcon, Casablanca, Psycho. I also wouldn’t rank it as a favorite but I still remember watching Frankenstein (1931) when I was maybe around 6(?), being utterly freaked out by it and I haven’t seen it since! And even though I’ve seen plenty of horror since then it’s still ingrained in my memory as being terrifying–haha. So sharing classics with kids can backfire!

"Well, you've shown me an excellent example of the hiking part. When does the hitching come in? "
“Well, you’ve shown me an excellent example of the hiking part. When does the hitching come in?” Clark Gable and Claudette Colbert in ‘It Happened One Night’.

Ashley: There’s more I can’t think of now, but the pattern seems to be zany comedies with clever dialogue and darker/noir/psychological stuff. I still love noir and Hitchcock and smart but zany comedies. I also think watching a lot of classic movies as a kid motivated me to get that film minor in college and made my classes SO easy because I already had a pretty good foundation and appreciation for older films and B&W which most of my classmates lacked. I think Young Frankenstein is a good choice for an intro to black and white because you can explain the B&W was a stylistic choice and talk about parody. Plus the plot and dialogue is approachable, whereas older films are stylistically very different and the dialogue and aspects of the plot can be pretty cheesy–which I think can be a barrier to entry for kids accustomed to modern films. I also think movies that are very visual where the black and white is integral to the style are good. Sunset Boulevard, The Maltese Falcon, Hitchcock, etc. assuming kids are old enough to appreciate them and follow the story.

Jim: I think Young Frankenstein and others like it work better if you have at least some knowledge of the source. Seeing Frankenstein and a Fred Astaire musical first makes it funnier. Same with Blazing Saddles and, say, Magnificent Seven or another great western.

Ashley: Yeah, that’s probably true. although isn’t Frankenstein kind of just part of the cultural lexicon at this point? Granted I have zero idea what kids watch these days, but I feel like there’s tons of Frankenstein references in cartoons and whatnot.

'Frankenstein': Traumatizing children for 84 years.
‘Frankenstein’: Traumatizing children for 84 years.

Kate: I remember watching the 1959 House on Haunted Hill movie with Benny [a close family friend] as a small child and really enjoying it. Not sure how much of that was the movie and how much was just the fact that he was really into it and excited to share it with me. To Kill A Mockingbird is one of my all-time favorites and I think it’s especially relevant these days.

Jim: I think at least one Fred Astaire musical needs to go in, just because he’s so often referenced.

Kate: Fred Astaire is in Funny Face. Dudley Moore in Arthur is a fun one too.

Jim: Funny Face has an older, more relaxed Astaire. You really need to see him in his prime. I’m leaning toward Blue Skies because it includes “Puttin’ On the Ritz,” but it’s not a Fred & Ginger. Arthur is a good one for older kids. It opens with a hooker.

Kate: My favorite Fred and Ginger is The Gay Divorcee. That soundtrack by Cole Porter? So good!

Jim: I forgot to add Kiss Me, Kate to the musicals. Cole Porter is the best.

Kate: Cary Grant in His Girl Friday, too

Kate: Is My Favorite Year on your list? And Labyrinth and Dark Crystal under the fantasy categories.

Jim: Cary Grant may require his own section. Bringing up Baby, Arsenic & Old Lace, Topper, so many.

Kate: Cary Grant is such a dreamboat. We have such wimpy actors these days. Where are the Cary Grants and Humphrey Bogarts and Clark Gables, damnit!

Kate: Oh oh oh… Audrey and Peter O’Toole in How to Steal A Million

Kate: Lawrence of Arabia! What’s New, Pussycat should be on there too. Iona and I watched that at least 20 times.

Jim: There is a movie I failed to show you guys. Well, many, but this one is really fun. Topkapi. Peter Ustinov in a museum heist. Great film.

Kate: Goldfinger?

Jim: All the Connery Bond movies. Now, apart from traumatizing Ash with Frankenstein, what other errors in age appropriateness did we make?

Kate: I was way too young for Elephant Man; definitely didn’t understand it at all.

Jim: Did it scar you?

Kate: Not that I recall. I just remember being extremely uncomfortable

Jim: I know Ash was probably too young when I made her watch Schindler’s List, but I did that on purpose.

Kate: That scene in Phantom of the Paradise where he gets his face deformed by the record press however. That was terrifying!

Based on their comments, and on my memories of other films we watched with them, even if they are old and corny, in black and white, with cheap special effects, kids can really get into the films on our list. Note, in almost every case, we’re talking about the originals; no remakes, sequels, prequels, or spin-offs, please, with very rare exceptions. We’re also going to assume you’re already hitting all the geek standards like Star Wars, Star Trek, Back to the Future, Indiana Jones, Planet of the Apes, Ghostbusters, and all the Disney animated films. The definition of “classic” here is the same as that used to describe cars and rock music, which is “more than 25 years old,” so that’s the standard we’re going with, except that I’m giving a free pass to The Rocketeer and Iron Giant because it’s The Rocketeer and Iron Giant, and if you need more explanation than that, I don’t know what to tell you.

Most of these movies pre-date the ratings system and would most likely be rated G or PG today. Some may be too complex or too scary for very young viewers (see Ashley’s comment about Frankenstein); as always, you know your kids better than we do. If you’re not familiar with some of the movies listed and want to know if they’re okay for your kids, go ahead and watch them! They all stand up to a second viewing.

Comedy
The Great Race (1965) Blake Edwards’s tribute to slapstick.
The Odd Couple (1968) Walter Matthau and Jack Lemmon ARE Oscar and Felix.
The Producers (1967) The first half-hour is the funniest scene ever filmed.
It Happened One Night (1934) The definitive screwball comedy.
It’s a Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World (1963) Every comedian alive at the time.
Duck Soup (1933) The Marx Brothers at their best.
Some Like It Hot (1959) Jack Lemmon and Tony Curtis in drag with Marilyn Monroe.
Pink Panther (1963) The one and only. The Steve Martin one doesn’t exist.
Purple Rose of Cairo (1985) Woody Allen’s love letter to the movies.
Young Frankenstein (1974) “Fronkenshteen!”
Monty Python and the Holy Grail (1975)
Buster Keaton’s The General (1926) Silent death-defying comedy on a train.
My Favorite Year
(1982) Mel Brooks recalls his time writing for Sid Caesar.
Bedazzled
(1967) Peter Cook is the devil, Dudley Moore a lovelorn shlub.
The Court Jester
(1955) “The vessel with the pestle holds the pellet with the poison.”
His Girl Friday (1940) Gender-flipped version of classic play The Front Page.

Action-Adventure
Adventures of Robin Hood (1938) Erroll Flynn is the only Robin Hood.
The Mark of Zorro (1940) Ditto Tyrone Power and Zorro.
Three Musketeers (1939, 1948, or 1973) All three are good for different reasons.
The Rocketeer (1991) A throwback to the serials of the ’30s.
Magnificent Seven
(1960) The most testosterone-drenched film of all time.
The Great Escape
(1963) A carefully chosen team pulls off the impossible.
The Dirty Dozen
(1967) Another carefully chosen team pulls off the impossible.
For a Fistful of Dollars
(1964) The reinvention of the western begins here.
The Good, the Bad and the Ugly (1966) The apotheosis of the Italian western.
Dr. No (1962)
From Russia With Love (1963)
Goldfinger (1964)
Thunderball (1965)
You Only Live Twice (1967)
On Her Magjesty’s Secret Service (1969) George Lazenby was a pretty good Bond.
Diamonds Are Forever (1971)

Drama
Casablanca (1942) One of the most quotable movies in history.
Maltese Falcon (1941) A great introduction to noir and hard-boiled detectives.
North By Northwest (1959) One of the great chase films.
To Kill a Mockingbird (1962) Want to instill a moral compass? Start here.
Sunset Boulevard (1950) Dark humor and an indictment of Hollywood.
Laura (1944) What happens when a cop falls in love with the murder victim?
Karate Kid (1984) We all need a Mr. Miyagi.
Lawrence of Arabia (1962) This is what epic scale looks like.

Sci-fi
Forbidden Planet (1956) Shakespeare’s The Tempest in space, with a robot Ariel.
Day the Earth Stood Still (1951) Cold War paranoia meets alien Christ figure.
When Worlds Collide (1951) Classic end-of-the-world drama.
The Time Machine (1960) Morlocks for the kids, Taylor and Mimieux for the grownups.
War of the Worlds (1953) I like it because they drop a nuke on my old hometown.
Godzilla (1954) Go ahead, throw in all the Kaiju: Rodan, Mothra, etc. while we’re at it.

Horror
Psycho (1960) Still the best. Constantly homaged by everyone.
Frankenstein (1931) You have to include the Trinity of monsters.
Bride of Frankenstein (1935) Arguably a better film than the first.
Dracula (1931) Bela Lugosi defined the film vampire for decades.
Wolfman (1941) Every werewolf movie references or mocks this one.
Creature from the Black Lagoon (1954) Ricou Browning’s underwater work is amazing.

Musical
Singin’ in the Rain (1952) The reason movie musicals were invented.
Hard Day’s Night
(1964) Great surreal Beatles nonsense.
Help!
(1965) More Beatles lunacy.
Kiss Me, Kate
(1953) Shakespeare, Cole Porter, and a young Bob Fosse. 
Blue Skies
(1946) Just for Fred Astaire’s performance of “Puttin’ on the Ritz.”
The Gay Divorcee
(1934) Fred & Ginger at their best.
Summer Stock
(1950) Gene Kelly, Judy Garland, and two of the best dances ever filmed.

Fantasy
Return to Oz (1985) It’s really dark and scary and creepy. The Wheelers! Aaugh!
Who Framed Roger Rabbit?
(1988) This was already on your list, right?
Labyrinth
(1986) And this?
The Dark Crystal
(1982) And, of course, this.
The 5000 Fingers of Dr. T (1953) Dr. Seuss had a twisted mind. Who knew?

Animation
Gulliver’s Travels (1939) Great Fleischer animation.
Iron Giant (1999) Mandatory viewing.
Superman short films (1941-43) Superman as he’s supposed to be.
Little Nemo in Slumberland (1989) Weird and fun.
Brave Little Toaster (1987) More weird and more fun.
Secret of NIMH (1982) Don Bluth’s best work.
Land Before Time (1988) Just the first one; the rest are just milking it.
Great Mouse Detective (1986) A terribly underrated Disney cartoon.
My Neighbor Totoro
(1988) Early Miyazaki.
Rikki-Tikki-Tavi
(1975) Chuck Jones at his best.
Mad Monster Party
(1967) Stop-motion classic with designs by Jack Davis.

Star power:
Audrey Hepburn: She deserves a section of her own, but forget Breakfast at Tiffany’s; it’s overrated and, apart from her luminous performance, completely mediocre, and marred by the gratuitous racism of Mickey Rooney’s embarrassing performance. For the true Audrey experience, you need the trifecta of Roman Holiday, Sabrina, and Funny Face. For extra fun, throw in an older and saucier Audrey with Cary Grant in Charade or with Peter O’Toole in How to Steal a Million.

Humphrey Bogart: Casablanca and Maltese Falcon are musts, of course, but there’s also Key Largo, The Big Sleep, To Have, and Have Not, Sabrina, Treasure of the Sierra Madre, and The African Queen. Some of these are a bit dark and slow-moving for younger viewers, but tweens may get into them if they’ve been properly acclimated to black & white.

Gene Wilder: From Blazing Saddles to Willy Wonka, he’s gold. Start the Revolution Without Me, The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes’ Smarter Brother, and his trio with Richard Pryor: Silver Streak, Stir Crazy, and See No Evil, Hear No Evil. (Note: Language and adult situations may limit those last three to older kids.)

Cary Grant: Topper, Arsenic and Old Lace, Bringing Up Baby, The Philadelphia Story, The Awful Truth, Mr. Blandings Builds His Dream House, To Catch a Thief, Operation Petticoat, Charade… Cary Grant movies are always entertaining.

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