Many a friend and family member has told me they’re watching more classic cinema than usual in lockdown, and not just because they’ve binged every bit of new content Netflix has to offer. Nostalgia, however rosy and selective, is all the more inviting when present-day reality has so little comfort to offer. In spite of this drawcard, the selection of films made before, say, 1970 on most streaming outlets remains spotty at best.
Which is why the BBC iPlayer’s recent acquisition of 23 films from the vault of RKO Pictures – one of Hollywood’s “Big Five” studios in the golden age, bankrupted by the 1960s – has been received with palpable excitement. Suddenly I find enthusiastic responses to the likes of The Magnificent Ambersons and King Kong popping up all over my Twitter feed: it certainly makes a nice change from the Tiger King discourse of the spring.
All the films are available to stream for over a year, and range from classics – hey, have you heard that Citizen Kane is supposed to be pretty good? – to lesser-known treasures, or ones that have just gradually lost their following over the years. None are duds: you can safely pick any one at random and sink pleasurably into its combination of plush studio artifice, tidy traditional storytelling and blazing star quality: this is, after all, the terrain of Katharine Hepburn and Cary Grant, Ginger Rogers and Fred Astaire.
The latter two are particularly well represented: in the age of Strictly Come Dancing, after all, a bit of ballroom spectacle never goes out of style. Top Hat is the most famous of the genre, and with good reason. I couldn’t remember its trifle of a romantic plot if my life depended on it, but the duo’s dancing was never better or more dreamily clothed and staged: the number that gave the world Cheek to Cheek, complete with Rogers’s famous ostrich-feather gown, is Hollywood dessert of the highest order. Still, the others all have equivalent delights: The Gay Divorcee – she’s happy, of course, not homosexual – loses some points for stripping most of the Cole Porter songs from the stage show it’s based on, but you can’t resist its sheer swirliness.
For the sake of comparison, a few of Astaire and Rogers’s respective solo vehicles are also on offer. She fares better on her own than he does: she won an Oscar for ditching the dancing shoes as a class-climbing shop worker in Kitty Foyle, a role rejected by Hepburn, and it’s surprising how elegantly she takes to full-bore melodrama. Dramatically, Astaire feels less at home in the wartime romance The Sky’s the Limit, but it does give him his best screen singing moment with the future Sinatra standard One for My Baby.
Those with more macho genre inclinations are covered too: a couple of John Ford westerns are included, the best of them being the rousing, subtly melancholic US Cavalry saga She Wore a Yellow Ribbon, anchored by John Wayne and shot in radiant, justly Oscar-winning Technicolor. Film noir fans can wallow in the chic menace of Angel Face, in which a standard potboiler plot is elevated by the atmospheric psychosexual implications of Otto Preminger’s direction and the bristling chemistry of Robert Mitchum and Jean Simmons: they work so well together they were subsequently paired, to enjoyable if less memorable effect, in the romantic comedy Beautiful But Dangerous, also in the iPlayer lineup.
Romcoms, continuing our thematic kick from some weeks ago, are perhaps where the RKO selection delivers most joyously. If you haven’t seen Bringing Up Baby, now’s the time to relish its perfectly choreographed slapstick and lickety-split Grant-Hepburn banter. Grant gets a couple of other outings: My Favourite Wife is less celebrated, but its screwball mechanics are supremely well oiled, and his interplay with Irene Dunne has its own tangy flavour. Director Leo McCarey and Dunne previously teamed up on Love Affair, a delicious blend of champagne-fizzy cruise-ship comedy and romantic angst. Its remake, An Affair to Remember, became better known, but the original is drier, funnier and tinged with sadness: optimum comfort viewing, then, for the strange mood swings of the present.
Also new on streaming and DVD
The Lighthouse (Universal, 15) If you fear you’ve gone a bit loopy in lockdown, you’ve got nothing on Robert Pattinson’s lighthouse keeper in Robert Eggers’s astonishing metaphysical horror film: tracking his splintering psyche as he isolates with a splendidly salty Willem Dafoe, it’s a work of unhinged beauty.
Echo in the Canyon (Universal, 12) The Laurel Canyon music scene of the 1960s — encompassing such groups as the Byrds and the Beach Boys — gets a loving overview in former record label boss Andrew Slater’s informed, entertaining documentary, packed with excellent music and insights from artists old and new.
Vivarium (Vertigo, 15) Clearly it’s the week for extreme social-isolation nightmares in home entertainment. Lorcan Finnegan’s witty, chilly study of two young househunters losing all sense of space, time and sanity in an infinite new-build housing estate makes you grateful for your own home comforts.
The Vanishing (StudioCanal, 15) Has there ever been a more purely, efficiently unnerving horror film than this? Probing into all one’s basest fears regarding existence, disappearance and death, George Sluizer’s original 1988 psychodrama gets a handsome Blu-ray reissue.