Lights! Camera! Learning! - American Classics

Updated August 9, 2021 | Beth Rowen

American Classics

Gregory Peck in To Kill a Mockingbird

Peck's Atticus Finch in court

To Kill a Mockingbird

Though Gregory Peck won an Oscar for his subtle portrayal of Atticus Finch, the Southern lawyer who defends a black man (Brock Peters) accused of raping a white woman, Mary Badham delivers a truly memorable, stirring performance as Scout, Finch's 6-year-old daughter, who tries to make sense of the proceedings and their social repercussions. The film, based on Harper Lee's Pulitzer Prize-winning novel, is number 34 on the American Film Institute's Top 100 Movies of All Time.

Not Rated. Released: 1962.

The Great Gatsby

Scripter Francis Ford Coppola was fastidiously faithful to F. Scott Fitzgerald's jazz-age novel, and lush cinematography vividly captures 1920s Long Island. Robert Redford plays Jake Gatsby, the self-made millionaire who uses his money to elbow his way into New York society and into the arms of his old love, Daisy Buchanan, played by Mia Farrow.

Rated PG. Released: 1974.

The Grapes of Wrath

An absolute must-see adaptation of John Steinbeck's Pulitzer Prize-winning novel, The Grapes of Wrath remains one of the greatest films of all time (Number 21 on the American Film Institute's Top 100 Movies), as well as the vehicle for what is arguably Henry Fonda's most memorable big-screen performance. Fonda plays Tom Joad, an ex-con who leads his Okie family in a grim migration West from the Depression-era dust bowl. Director John Ford and actress Jane Darwell (Ma Joad) won Oscars, but the film was regrettably passed over in the Best Picture category (Rebecca took the top honor).

Not Rated. Released: 1940.

The Maltese Falcon

The third time's the charm. That is certainly the case for this 1941 adaptation of Dashiell Hammett's novel, which was previously brought to the big screen in 1931 and 1936, with only moderate success - at best. Inimitable actor/screenwriter/director John Huston made his helming debut in this first-rate, fast-paced film noir that has hard-boiled detective Sam Spade (Humphrey Bogart) trying to track down the priceless statue of the title for his wanton client, Brigid O'Shaughnessey (Mary Astor). Rogues Joel Cairo (Peter Lorre) and Kasper Gutman (Sydney Greenstreet) also want the statue and will stop at nothing to obtain it. This is not a film to watch just once - it improves with repeat viewing.

Not Rated. Released: 1941.

Pride and Prejudice

This critically acclaimed 2005 remake of the Jane Austen classic follows the story of Elizabeth Bennet (Keira Knightly) and her four sisters, all of whom face a great deal of pressure to find a proper suitor to inherit their father's estate and move up the social ladder. When Elizabeth first meets the rich and arrogant Mr. Darcy (Matthew MacFadyen) she vows to keep her distance, yet she finds that first impressions may not always be accurate. Interestingly, the American version of the film is eight minutes longer than the British version and features a final scene in which Elizabeth and Mr. Darcy kiss and he repeatedly calls her "Mrs. Darcy." The ending angered many Austen purists who believed it did not stay true to Austen's work and was overly dramatic in comparison to the rest of the film.

Rated PG. Released 2005.

Bridge to Terabithia

Based on the 1978 Newbury Award-winning children's novel, Bridge to Terabithia brings Jesse (Josh Hutcherson) and Leslie's (AnnaSophia Robb) secret kingdom to life in eye-popping fashion. The two form an unlikely friendship after Leslie defeats Jesse and the rest of her new classmates in a schoolyard footrace. Together they create a fascinating world of odd and unusual creatures, which they rule over as King and Queen. Even when tragedy strikes, Jesse is forever changed by the bond he and Leslie have formed.

Rated PG. Released 2007.

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