22 Classic Hollywood Films Everyone Should See at Least Once

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Classical Hollywood shaped modern filmmaking in almost every way, so it’s no wonder that burgeoning film fans would want to dive into the era. Like any era, the period from the advent of “talkies” through the 1960s offers a wide variety of films, from comedies and melodramas to noir films and westerns.

That variety makes it difficult to narrow down what movies from the era are essential viewing. But we’ve gone out of our way to research the best classic Hollywood films for you to save you all the trouble. So get ready: these films are tested and tried and ready to be resurrected from an older time!

1. The Night of the Hunter (1955)

Photo Credit: MGM.

The only film ever directed by actor Charles Laughton, The Night of the Hunter is iconic for its visual style, dark fairytale atmosphere, and mesmerizing Robert Mitchum performance. The film centers on Mitchum’s villainous preacher, who attempts to force two children to tell him where their father hid the money he stole. 

2. His Girl Friday (1940)

Photo Credit: Columbia Pictures.

Howard Hawks directed several masterpieces in several genres, but His Girl Friday is the most widely agreed upon essential film in his lengthy filmography. The screwball comedy classic stars Cary Grant and Rosalind Russel as reporters and exes who fall back in love as they cover an increasingly wild story. 

3. Citizen Kane (1941)

Photo Credit: RKO Radio Pictures.

Another filmmaker who made many films people love, Orson Welles’s Citizen Kane is still the most widely loved of his movies. The film tells the story of the titular Charles Foster Kane’s life through various interviews with the people who knew him, offering different perspectives on the man. It’s a remarkable film that some may say is overrated, but it got that way for a reason. 

4. Double Indemnity (1944)

Photo Credit: Paramount Pictures.

Like Howard Hawks, Billy Wilder’s career spans multiple genres, all of which are well represented by film fans’ suggestions. But his noir classic Double Indemnity is the most essential. It’s quintessential noir, with a story told in flashback with voiceover, effective use of shadow, and a beautiful femme fatale played by the always great Barbara Stanwyck. 

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5. Rebel Without a Cause (1955)

Photo Credit: Warner Bros. Entertainment.

The most beloved of the three notable films starring James Dean, Rebel Without a Cause is also one of director Nicholas Ray’s best films. The story follows three teens who each struggle with their families as they begin to develop bonds that form them into a chosen family. It’s a powerful melodrama that’s also visually beautiful. 

6. The Philadelphia Story (1940)

Photo Credit: MGM.

Another film starring Cary Grant as an ex-husband who may be rekindling things with his ex-wife, George Cukor’s The Philadelphia Story, also stars Katharine Hepburn and James Stewart as Grant’s romantic interest and rival, respectively. It’s a delightful comedy full of quick wit and incredible chemistry between its three leads. 

7. The Maltese Falcon (1941)

Photo Credit: Warner Bros. Entertainment.

John Huston, who many may know as Faye Dunaway’s father in Chinatown, is yet another fantastic Classical Hollywood filmmaker whose films split votes. Movie lovers had difficulty picking between The Treasure of the Sierra Madre and The Maltese Falcon, but ultimately more went with the latter.

The film, an adaptation of the novel of the same name by Dashiell Hammet, tells the story of private eye Sam Spade who gets caught between multiple parties on the hunt for a precious statuette. 

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8. Rear Window (1954)

Photo Credit: Alfred J Hitchcock Productions.

While there are many filmmakers of the Classical Hollywood era that made multiple films movie lovers recommend, no one made more than Alfred Hitchcock. From some of our favorites, Psycho and Rebecca, to the mistaken identity thriller North by Northwest and even his lighter romantic film To Catch a Thief, and more, the master of suspense is all over the recommendations for essential classical Hollywood films.

But the one film that most people vote for is his neighborhood thriller Rear Window, which centers on a man stuck in his apartment after an injury who begins to suspect that his neighbor has committed murder. 

9. The Searchers (1956)

Photo Credit: Warner Bros. Entertainment.

Westerns were a staple of the Classical Hollywood period, so it’s somewhat surprising that there are fewer votes for Western films. Shane and Red River get some attention, but The Searchers is the Western that receives the most agreement. The film, by legendary Western filmmaker John Ford, follows an aging Civil War veteran (John Wayne) as he searches Texas for his abducted niece. 

10. All About Eve (1950)

Photo Credit: 20th Century Studios.

Many film fans agree that All About Eve, which still holds the record for most actresses nominated for Oscars from the same film, is an essential Classical Hollywood film.

The movie follows actress Margo Channing (Bette Davis) and the titular Eve (Anne Baxter), who begins forcing herself into Margo’s life, upending her idyllic life and successful career. But if that doesn’t sound interesting enough, the film also includes Marilyn Monroe in a supporting role. 

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11. Sunset Boulevard (1950)

Photo Credit: Paramount Pictures.

Sunset Boulevard follows the gradual descent into madness of Nora Desmond, played by Gloria Swanson. Joe Gillis (William Holden) is an out-of-work screenwriter who’s trying to pitch a script but gets rejected. He stumbles across Nora’s home and, at her invitation, takes up residence. She believe that her days acting in silent films have paved the way for her to enter the talking films, and that Joe may be her path forward. Meanwhile, he sees a place to stay while he revises his script. How far will Joe go to succeed, and will Nora ever believe that her days of fame are past?

12. Some Like It Hot (1959)

Photo Credit: United Artists.

Some Like it Hot is a comedy featuring Marilyn Monroe. Joe and Jerry, playing in a band at a speakeasy in the 20s, witness a gang leader as he takes the life of someone who betrayed him. The two realize they’re witnesses, and disguise themselves for their own safety. To complete the disguise, they join Sugar’s (Marilyn Monroe) band, and accompany her on the road. But the deceptions don’t stop there, and a riotous good time ensues as Sugar slowly falls in love with a doubly-disguised Joe, while Jerry accidentally gets engaged to an oil tycoon.

13. Breakfast at Tiffany’s (1961)

Photo Credit: Paramount Pictures.

Audrey Hepburn stars as Holly Golightly in this classic old-Hollywood movie. Her new neighbor, Paul, begins to fall in love with her, but one twist after another conspires to keep them from admitting their own love or accepting the other’s. But Paul will stop at nothing to convince Holly that she’s the only one keeping herself in a cage, and that love is the only way to happiness.

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14. Rebecca (1940)

Photo Credit: United Artists.

Rebecca is another Alfred Hitchcock film, and it’s a romantic thriller. The story is set in England, at Maxim de Winter’s manor home, Manderley. Throughout the story, Maxim and new bride are haunted by the lingering influence of Rebecca, his first wife. Mrs. Danvers, the housekeeper, was devoted to Rebecca attempts to rid Manderley of the new Mrs. de Winter. The film is more eerie for the fact that the new Mrs. de Winter’s name is never given, leaving the name Rebecca to dominate the movie.

15. My Fair Lady (1964)

Photo Credit: Warner Bros.

This film is another Audrey Hepburn, co-staring with Rex Harrison. Professor Higgins, played by Harrison, asserts that anybody can fit into any class of society based only on their accent. He takes on Eliza Doolittle (Hepburn) as a student to prove that he can train her to speak with a posh accent instead of her former cockney, and pass her off as a princess at an embassy ball. But things get complicated when both of them reluctantly realize they’ve begun to fall in love.

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16. Singin’ in the Rain (1952)

Photo Credit: MGM.

This film is set right as silent films are being overtaken by “talkies.” Lina (Jean Hagen) is a silent film star, but her high-pitched, irritating voice makes ruins the new talking film she’s been cast for. So Kathy (Debbie Reynolds) is asked to step in and dub the voices for her, without Lina’s knowledge. But Lina finds out, and begins to cause trouble. Singin’ In the Rain is a romantic musical set in 1927, and it’s full of twists and surprises.

17. North by Northwest (1959)

Photo Credit: MGM.

North by Northwest is probably a title you’ve heard before, even if you haven’t seen it. This film features Cary Grant as a United States citizen who’s been mistaken for somebody else and gets embroiled in a chase by thugs who believe the mistaken identity, and a cold war tangle that won’t reveal who he truly is lest the compromise a mission. The plot becomes even more tangled when Eve Kendall, who’s working for the spy, begins to form a relationship with Thornhill (Grant.)

18. To Catch a Thief (1955)

Photo Credit: Paramount Pictures.

This film features Cary Grant as John Robie, a former jewel thief, and Grace Kelley as Frances Stevens. Robie is suspected in a string of new robberies, and he realizes he will only be freed from blame if he can catch the new thief in action. Meanwhile, Frances Stevens is falling in love with him, but Danielle Foussard fancies him as well, and thinks she can attract him by being like him.

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19. The Wizard of Oz (1939)

Photo Credit: Warner Bros.

If you haven’t sung along to “Follow the Yellow Brick Road,” then we’ve got to wonder what you were doing your whole childhood. The Wizzard of Oz is the famous story of Dorothy and her small dog, Toto who take a wild adventure through the land of Oz, along with a cowardly lion, a heartless Tin Man, and a scarecrow who wants a brain. Dorothy, meanwhile, merely wants to defeat the evil witch so that she can get back home to Kansas.

20. Arsenic and Old Lace (1944)

Photo Credit: Warner Bros.

In this film, Mortimer Brewster has just married his sweetheart, the daughter of the minister who lives next door, when he discovers a skeleton in the home he was raised in. He confronts his two elderly aunts, thinking that it must have been his mentally insane brother. But his aunts confess to being serial killers, with a basement full of corpses that Mortimer’s brother has cheerfully buried for them. This black comedy will be sure to have you rolling on the floor!

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21. Meet Me in St. Louis (1944)

Photo Credit: MGM.

This old classic musical is the story of Rose, Esther, Agnes, Tootie, and Lon Jr, five children of Alonzo Smith and his wife. The family lives happily in St. Louis in the year just before the World’s Fair. Then, just as romance is beginning to unfold for two of his daughters, Alonzo announces that he and his family must move to New York. Will all their romantic dreams come crashing down, or will they have the chance to stay in the city they love?

22. Roman Holiday (1953)

Photo Credit: Paramount Pictures.

Princess Ann is on a long tour of the capitals of Europe, but she finds it all exhausting and stifling; what she really wants is to experience the cities she’s visiting, not just smile politely at embassy balls. So she runs away to explore Rome for a day, in the company of reporter Joe Bradley, who wants to spend the day with her for his own journalistic purposes. Audrey Hepburn stars in this dramatic, feel-good film that will restore your faith in human nature.

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