Black-and-white films are departures in and of themselves: Remnants of a society that dressed and behaved and even talked differently than the world we're used to. They're time-capsuled stories that can still be entertaining—yes, even in black and white.
Some of the following 11 classic black-and-white movies are well-known, like Casablanca and Psycho, while other lesser-known picks should be required watching, like The Best Years of Our Lives. The idea of Hollywood magic can seem like an overwrought term these days, but by watching old films, it's easier to get an idea of what that splendor used to mean. Maybe the jokes are cheesier and the everyday clothes are fancier than modern viewers expect, but by flipping back to these classics, it's clear that some stories can still provide a much-needed escape.
Here are our picks for the best black and white movies everyone should see.
It's a Wonderful Life (1946)
It's safe to assume that if you haven't already spent time over the holidays watching this beloved Frank Capra film, then you've at least heard of it. It stars Jimmy Stewart as a wander-lusting wisecrack who dreams of leaving his small town and loved ones in order to travel the world. When things don't go according to his plans, he thinks that he's a failure—until divine intervention teaches him otherwise. Watch this movie for the famous dance scene, as well as for its heart-tugging ending.
Once again, this is probably another movie that you're at least somewhat acquainted with, since its well-worn lines—like, "Here's looking at you, kid"—are still a part of popular culture. But did you know that the lead stars, Humphrey Bogart and Ingrid Bergman, didn't think that this film was going to be as successful as it turned out to be? A lot of its success has to do with their performances as one-time lovers who surprisingly meet in the Moroccan city of Casablanca in the midst of World War II. Bergman's character is trying to escape to America with her husband, and Bogart can decide whether or not that actually happens. If anything, Bergman's face when her character sees Bogart's for the first time in years is as good or better than the oft-quoted script.
The Philadelphia Story (1940)
Perfectly-delivered lines are also key to the success of this classic romantic comedy starring old Hollywood greats Katharine Hepburn, Cary Grant, and Jimmy Stewart, who bounce off one another's wit and charm throughout the entirety of the film. Hepburn plays a well-to-do socialite who has decided to end her relationship with Grant's character. Just as she's about to marry someone else, she meets Stewart, who plays a reporter. It may seem as though this is a predictable story, but this film is a master class in how the genre should be done.
Bringing Up Baby (1938)
Cary Grant and Katharine Hepburn starred opposite one another in a number of movies, like the above, but Bringing Up Baby is often the favorite. Grant plays a paleontologist who is trying to convince a wealthy society woman to donate a million dollars to his museum. In that pursuit, he meets the woman's niece, played by Hepburn, and they immediately hit it off. Aside from their chemistry, Hepburn's pet leopard, Baby, often steals the scenes.
It Happened One Night (1934)
Another well-known Frank Capra movie, It Happened One Night is widely heralded as one of the best romantic comedies ever made: It even won the "Best Picture" Oscar following its release in 1934. It stars Clark Gable as a resourceful reporter, and Claudette Colbert as an heiress. She has just evaded her rich father, who has decided to hold her "captive" after she eloped with a man he thinks loves her for her money. Soon after she leaves, she boards a bus headed across the country to New York that Gable happens to be on. He makes sure that she stays safe—since, being an heiress, she doesn't have much experience taking care of herself—but she eventually learns the ropes, too. There's one particular hitchhiking scene that's still as clever today as it was back then.
There are many Alfred Hitchcock movies that are still as entertaining as they were upon initial screenings, but Psycho is still perhaps the most chilling. It stars Anthony Perkins as Norman Bates, a man who lives with his mother in a worn-down home overlooking a motel that he runs. Ever since an interstate was built to carry travelers away from the road where the buildings are located, the motel doesn't see a lot of visitors. But one rainy night, after Janet Leigh's character checks in following a quick departure from Phoenix, Norman Bates acts on an impulse that unravels the truth behind the old home and its nearby motel. You likely know the film's score and its famous scene, but it'll still be hair-raising to watch.
The Best Years of Our Lives (1946)
This ensemble film was released just after World War II ended in 1946—and it's the type of film that should be required watching. It centers around three veterans from different branches of the military who return to their shared hometown following the war. As they are reintroduced to their former lives, they're tasked with making sense of what they experienced overseas, and why their loved ones and the surrounding public don't seem to understand their points of view. Harold Russell, an actual veteran who became disabled during World War II, was hired to play the character of Homer, even though he had no experience acting. His emotional performance won him an Oscar and it's the standout reason to watch this movie.
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Top Hat (1935)
No classic movie list would be complete without a mention of a Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers film, which usually combines the whimsy of a musical with the slapstick pace of an Old Hollywood romantic comedy. Top Hat is among the best, and focuses on Rogers as a woman traveling through Europe who innocently mistakes Astaire as the husband of another friend. But the storyline isn't exactly the main draw of this movie—and it wasn't what made audiences smile when it was released in 1935. It's the dance scenes between Rogers and Astaire that are timelessly enjoyable, as well as the music from legendary composer and lyricist Irving Berlin.
Some Like It Hot (1959)
And speaking of an innocent case of mistaken identity, Some Like It Hot is likely among the most famous instances of that plot line in classic films. It stars Tony Curtis and Jack Lemmon as two men who witness a mafia murder in 1920s Chicago. So, in an effort to get out of the city, the two men dress up as women and join a traveling all-female jazz band that's en route to Florida. They meet the band's lively singer, played by Marilyn Monroe, and Curtis's character falls in love—and decides that in addition to his female costume, he will also introduce himself to her in the equally pretend role of a wealthy man. Things don't fare so well for Lemmon's character either, and the whole mess makes for some easy laughs.
To Have and Have Not (1944)
Humphrey Bogart was well-known for making adventure films, and this one—which introduced him to co-star Lauren Bacall, who later became his wife—is among the most entertaining. Bogart plays a fishing boat captain who refuses to help smuggle French Resistance fighters into Martinique from his base in Vichy, France. But after one of his associates is murdered, and with a little convincing from Bacall's character, he's eventually swayed. This film marks Bacall's first film role, and it's interesting to see how well she acts beside Bogart. In fact, you can almost see them fall in love with each other as the story progresses.
Humphrey Bogart also stars in this popular film opposite Audrey Hepburn and William Holden, in which he plays a wealthy man whose entire life revolves around his family's successful business empire. Holden is his more playful and relaxed brother who's known for spending the family fortune on failed romances. Hepburn plays their chauffeur's daughter, and she's been in love with Holden's character her whole life—but he's never noticed her. And yet, once she returns from cooking school in Paris with a chic French makeover, Holden's character falls hard. The only problem is that Bogart's character falls for her, too.