For reasons that shouldn't need to be reiterated, audiences are paying greater attention than ever to the entertainment options on streaming services. Self-isolationists of yore could not turn to Netflix or Amazon Prime for diversion. Mind you, they would have had the option of an older film – something from Hollywood's golden age, perhaps – on afternoon telly. That's where Victor Mature went to die. They may even have had a decent video store that provided a selection of classic films in languages other than English.
Good luck with that on Netflix. The gaping hole in that service’s catalogue remains films made before 1960. Never mind that. You’ll struggle to find much of worth there made before 1970. Amazon Prime does a little better, but the focus is still on new movies and newer TV series.
Yet largely unheralded by buffs, an excellent array of vintage cinema has landed on rental services such as Apple and Google Play. You may need to jiggle a little to get them on your biggest screen, but those two sources offer an array that would cause any 1990s VHS retailer to swell with pride. You won't get Citizen Kane on Netflix. You can get The Greatest Film of All Time (see a million polls) on both Apple and Google Play.
Neither site is, alas, at full speed on “foreign language” films. Apple does offer an excellent selection of Akira Kurosawa’s post-war work to rent: Rashomon, Seven Samurai, Yojimbo feel like the pick of the bunch. Yasujiro Ozu’s Tokyo Story – another frequent pick for Greatest Film of All Time – also turns up on the late Steve Jobs’s baby without bothering Google.
But if you're looking for pre-1960s material in a language other than English you are better off moving towards a specialist subscription service like the British Film Institute Player or the excellent "curated" selection at MUBI (about which more in this space shortly).
Apple and Google are, however, excellent options for American cinema of the greatest era. Where to begin? John Ford fans will not find the complete works here, but his 1956 masterpiece The Searchers – an urtext of modern US cinema – is available to rent on both for €3.99. (Most of the films listed in this article can also be bought for around a tenner. You don't get a physical copy, but you can watch whenever you choose.)
FIghtin’ and lovin’
The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance, Fort Apache and Cheyenne Autumn are available on both for western fans. The debate about fightin' and lovin' saga The Quiet Man, whose sentimentality still divides domestic viewers, can also be carried out via these media. You will get My Darling Clementine, Ford's most graceful celebration of the frontier, on Apple alone.
Ford's great rival Howard Hawks – the most versatile popular filmmaker in cinema history – is also reasonably well represented on the two big rental machines. Red River (John Wayne and Montgomery Clift argue cattle across the territories), The Big Sleep (Humphrey Bogart and Lauren Bacall untangle Chandler) and Scarface (the gangster flick that started it all in 1932) offer up their delicious pleasures. We are short on the great man's screwball comedies, but the underrated I was a Male War Bride, in which Cary Grant only briefly takes on drag, is here to lighten your life.
Speaking of Bristol's finest, these two providers, though sadly not at home to Bringing Up Baby, offer the makings of a Cary Grant rom-com season. Two from George Cukor are here: the well-loved Philadelphia Story (Grant joins Katharine Hepburn and Jimmy Stewart in society shenanigans) and the cultishly adored Holiday (Grant struggles with Hepburn's buttoned-down family). Also up there is Leo McCarey's The Awful Truth, in which Cary and Irene Dunne lock attractive horns. That is a trilogy for the ages.
Here's a fun fact for you. There is not a single Bette Davis film on Netflix. Not one movie from America's greatest film actress. The renters are not overflowing with Bette bounty either, but you can, at least, enjoy her tearing up the screen in the immortal Broadway classic All About Eve or dying beautifully opposite an unconvincingly Irish Bogart in Dark Victory. The former, featuring dry support from George Sanders, offers an inexhaustible supply of quotable quips and barbed putdowns. It will live forever.
If you tend more towards Barbara Stanwyck (that sounds like a euphemism, but it was not so intended) then you will suck up Preston Sturges's The Lady Eve and Billy Wilder's Double Indemnity like the pure, uncut pleasures they are. The first finds Stanwyck leading a naïve Henry Fonda dangerously astray. The second finds her leading an only slightly less naïve Fred MacMurray still more dangerously astray. The Sturges movie is the comedy, but Wilder's film noir is, thanks to an icily witty script by Wilder and Chandler, almost as funny. Both are on Apple and Google.
There is plenty of high-era Alfred Hitchcock to enjoy for €3.99 or thereabouts. Vertigo, Rear Window and Strangers on a Train are all there. The services also offer more adventurous viewers early films such as Rich and Strange and the master's little-seen, not-much-admired adaptation of Sean O'Casey's Juno and the Paycock.
When asked about his own favourite among his films, Hitchcock often pointed towards the 1943 thriller Shadow of a Doubt. Joseph Cotton plays a deceiving predator in a film that made good use of its San Francisco Bay Area locations. It is at least the equal of later, better-known classics.
The online rental services also provide a delicious array of musicals to while away long hours locked off from pestilence. Stanley Donen’s Singin’ in the Rain, still a miracle of terpsichorean logistics, makes its case as one of Hollywood’s most outrageous celebrations of itself.
Though it was well reviewed on its release in 1952, few can have expected the film to gain the critical adoration it has secured in recent decades. Gene Kelly, Donald O'Connor and Debbie Reynolds dance as if powered by supernatural fuels.
If Kelly clicks for you then you can also enjoy him in Vincente Minnelli’s An American in Paris and, another collaboration with Donen, the rattling, energetic On the Town. “The Bronx is up and the Battery’s down,” you know.
There is scarcely an aspect of Hollywood’s prime that cannot be enjoyed on the rental services. Universal Studios’ classic horror films from the 1930s have their representatives. James Whales’s Frankenstein, a depression-era smash, and Bride of Frankenstein, a superior, subversive sequel, are there to open up creaking gothic gates on to witty unease.
From the same era, Tod Browning’s Freaks – a film that has been much-supressed since its release in 1932 – is still around to tease boundaries on what is acceptable (some of this material is more dangerous now than it was during the inter-war years).
It remains to be seen if all this “content” will remain available to Apple and Google. As the market evolves, more films and TV series are being navigated towards sites dedicated to entertainments from one source – Disney+ for example – but the one-off rental model may protect the films listed above. Nobody knows anything about this. We are still just about in the silent-era as regards the streaming experiment. Speaking of which, Metropolis is on Apple and Google.
TEN CLASSIC PRE-1960 US CLASSICS TO RENT ON APPLE AND GOOGLE
The Bride of Frankenstein (James Whale, 1935)
We would call it the greatest of all horror films if only we could only be sure it is a horror film. Whale followed up his 1931 smash with a camp classic that raises as many chortles as gasps.
The Awful Truth (Leo McCarey, 1937)
There was a delightful carelessness about the depression-era screwball comedies that Hollywood never fully recaptured. The talk is endless. Cary Grant and Irene Dunne are perfectly matched. All this and a great dog.
Ninotchka (Ernst Lubitsch, 1939)
“Garbo laughs!” the poster shouts. So will you (sorry). The great star is charming as an initially grim Soviet envoy who falls in love while visiting Paris. Lubitsch, a master of comic machinery, was always that bit warmer than competitors such as Sturges and Wilder. Still delightful.
The Lady Eve (Preston Sturges, 1941)
Barbra Stanwyck and Charles Coburn set out to fleece rich idiot Henry Fonda after meeting on an ocean liner. Sturges sustains the cynical tone until as late as reasonably possible in a mainstream entertainment. So funny. So cool.
The Big Sleep (Howard Hawks, 1946)
The complexity – indeed, possible unintelligibility – of the plot has become the stuff of legend. In truth it matters not a jot when the dialogue is so sharp and the comedy so dry. Bogart is the gumshoe. Bacall is the broad.
The Ghost and Mrs Muir (Joseph L Mankiewicz, 1947)
The breath-taking Gene Tierney doesn't much mind that gruff (dead, obviously) sailor Rex Harrison haunts her seaside house. A gorgeously romantic entertainment that makes the most of Hollywood's still abundant resources.
All About Eve (Joseph L Mankiewicz, 1950)
"Fasten your seatbelts. It's going to be a bumpy night." Bette Davis is transcendent as Margo Channing, an aging star who suspects the intentions of a young acolyte. The film is so good it hardly matter that the male leads (no, not George Sanders) aren't much cop.
An American in Paris (Vincente Minnelli, 1951)
The gorgeousness of the émigré life is enough in itself to recommend a film that never strolls when it can take flight about a persuasive, studio-bound version of the great city. Climaxes in an epic ballet.
A Star is Born (George Cukor, 1954)
Knock yourself out. All four versions are available here. We rate them thus: Garland, Gaga, Gaynor, Streisand. All bar the Streisand are excellent, but Cukor's version, featuring a frantic Judy Garland, is among the great studies of Hollywood in its pomp.
The Searchers (John Ford, 1956)
Only a modest critical and financial hit on release, Ford’s western – concerning John Wayne’s monomaniacal pursuit of his niece’s abductors – subsequently became one of the era’s signature works. The model for Scorsese’s Taxi Driver.