Brad Bird knows his classics, and he’ll share 20 of his favorite films this season on Turner Classic Movies’ “The Essentials” with TCM Primetime host Ben Mankiewicz. Bird — known for such films as “The Iron Giant,” “Ratatouille,” “Mission: Impossible – Ghost Protocol” and “The Incredibles” — curated this season’s selection, which will air Saturdays on TCM at 8 p.m. beginning May 2.
“Brad’s particular artistic sense works his way into every conversation we had together,” says Mankiewicz. “He sees so many stories through the eyes of an animator, providing a rare perspective on movies we think we know well, like ‘Casablanca,’ ‘Dr. Strangelove’ and ‘The Searchers.’ And his childlike enthusiasm for movies, animated and live action, is unparalleled and infectious.”
That enthusiasm made it difficult to boil the list down to just 20, Bird acknowledges, and that was after deciding to focus on movies made up to 1968.
“For every film that we did, there are five films that we didn’t do,” Bird says. The most recent film is 1968’s “2001: A Space Odyssey” and the oldest is 1926’s “The General.”
The list is full of titles recognizable to any film buff (“The Maltese Falcon,” “An American in Paris,” “Lawrence of Arabia”), but there are a few lesser known classics in there as well, like Billy Wilder’s 1951 film “Ace in the Hole,” which stars Kirk Douglas as a disgraced reporter looking for his next big story. It’s not one of Wilder’s better known films.
“I understand the reason why,” Bird explains. “It’s a very dark movie about the worst aspects of what it means to be human, and it’s also the dark side of journalism, the downside of the power of journalism, but it’s a really good film and not that many people have seen it.”
Another little known film Bird wants to introduce to viewers is 1946 British fantasy-romance “A Matter of Life and Death,” starring David Niven.
“It’s an amazing film, and I came across it quite by accident,” he says. “I was making a round of the channels late at night when I was bachelor, and I thought, ‘Oh, one more time around the channels before I go to bed.’ It was 2 in the morning when I stumbled across the opening of that film, which just completely hooks you immediately, and I ended up staying up till 4 to watch it, because I got so involved in it.”
But one of the most surprising things about the list is that there are no animated films on it. The reason, Bird explains, is that “my top five animated films are all Disney, Walt-era films,” and their rights weren’t available. But TCM has more than enough films to choose from. “There are a lot of classic films here, and TCM has the rights because they not only have the Warner Bros. library, they own MGM’s library, so they have easy accessibility to a number of classic films. You can get ‘Lawrence’ and you can get a lot of Columbia films, so, it’s a pretty vast selection,” he says.
What surprised Mankiewicz is “that he picked six musicals.” The film kicking off the series is 1952’s “Singin’ in the Rain.” Could his interest in musicals be piqued right now because he’s working on one with composer Michael Giacchino? “Well, I think that they’re one in the same. They both are results of me loving musicals when they’re good,” Bird says. “It’s really hard to do a good one, so there are only a handful of great musicals.
“I think that one of the requirements in my book for a great musical is every song needs to be good,” he says. “And that doesn’t mean that every song needs to be a hit that people whistle on the way home, but every song has to be memorable and stay with you. And a lot of musicals die with just that requirement alone. A lot of ones that are well-known only have one or two songs that anybody remembers. I won’t name names. Whereas when you get into ‘Guys and Dolls’ or ‘The Sound of Music’ or ‘West Side Story’ or ‘Wizard of Oz,’ it’s like every single song is completely memorable. ‘Mary Poppins,’ ‘Singin’ in the Rain,’ those to me are the great ones. ‘The Music Man,’ ‘Fiddler on the Roof.’ In those musicals, every single song is memorable.”
It’s a challenge he’s willing to take on, even if it’s daunting, though. “Yeah, it’s completely frightening. And I think the fact that it’s so hard and that the minefield is strewn with bodies of people that attempted musicals and, in my book, didn’t make it, that becomes attractive simply because it’s so hard to do a good one. It’s like you’re scaling Mount Everest, you know?”
But while he’s taking his time with that project, he’s more than happy to talk all things film with Mankiewicz on “The Essentials,” which was filmed in early December.
“This kind of thing is a joy to do because you’re talking about an art form that’s just magnificent,” Bird says. He knows a lot of young viewers might be turned off by the fact some of these films may not have sound or that they are in black-and-white, “When in fact, that’s not what’s great about these films. What’s great about them is that they transcend time and that they speak in a language that is still in many ways current. And so, I’m a very happy missionary for the wonderfulness of film.”
The complete list of films airing on “The Essentials” for 2020:
Singin’ in the Rain (1952) – Co-directors Gene Kelly and Stanley Donen’s musical comedy about Hollywood stars adjusting to the coming of sound
Ace in the Hole (1951) – Kirk Douglas stars as a small-town reporter milking a local disaster to make it back into the big time
The General (1926) – Buster Keaton writes, stars and co-directs this silent film where a Confederate engineer fights to save his train and his girlfriend from the Union army
Casablanca (1942) – this classic, in which an American saloon owner in North Africa is drawn into World War II when his lost love turns up, has the distinction of being the most played film on TCM
The Red Shoes (1948) – Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger’s take on the Hans Christian Andersen fairy tale of a young ballerina torn between her art and her romance with a young composer
Lawrence of Arabia (1962) – the sweeping, epic story of T.E. Lawrence who enlists the Arabs for desert warfare in World War I. Bird gains the distinction of being the only person on TCM to talk about this film who also directed Peter O’Toole in a film (2007’s Ratatouille)
Gunga Din (1939) – one of two Cary Grant films featured in the Essentials, three British soldiers seek treasure during an uprising in India
A Matter of Life and Death (1947) – Another film from Powell and Pressburger in which an injured aviator argues in celestial court for the chance to go on living
A Hard Day’s Night (1964) – a typical day in the life of the Beatles is turned into a musical comedy
The Music Man (1962) – Robert Preston plays a con artist hawking musical instruments and band uniforms to small-town America
Dr. Strangelove or: How I Learned To Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb (1964) –Stanley Kubrick’s black comedy, where Peter Sellers plays three roles, including the title character and the U.S. president
The Maltese Falcon (1941) – the first of two Essential films noir, hard-boiled detective Sam Spade (Humphrey Bogart) gets caught up in the murderous search for a priceless statue
2001: A Space Odyssey (1968) – Kubrick’s classic sci-fi epic about a mysterious monolith that seems to play a key role in human evolution
Ball of Fire (1941) – Howard Hawks directs a group of professors (led by Gary Cooper) who take in a nightclub singer (Barbara Stanwyck) hiding from the law to protect her gangster boyfriend
City Lights (1931) – Charlie Chaplin writes, directs and stars in this later silent film in which the Little Tramp tries to help a blind flower seller to see again
An American in Paris (1951) – Vincente Minnelli directs Gene Kelly as an American artist who finds love with Leslie Caron in Paris but almost loses it to conflicting loyalties
The Searchers (1956) – a John Ford & John Wayne western in which an Indian-hating Civil War veteran tracks down the tribe that slaughtered his family and kidnapped his niece
North by Northwest (1959) – Alfred Hitchcock’s final film with Cary Grant, who plays an advertising man mistaken for a spy, triggering a deadly cross-country chase
Guys and Dolls (1955) – Frank Sinatra bets Marlon Brando that he can’t seduce a missionary Jean Simmons in this musical comedy
Out of the Past (1947) – one of Robert Mitchum’s many films noir, he portrays a private eye who becomes the dupe of a homicidal moll