Ten Days in a Madhouse: The Woman Who Got Herself Committed

In 1887, intrepid reporter Nellie Bly pretended she was crazy and got herself committed, all to help improve conditions in a New York City mental institution.

“The insane asylum on Blackwell’s Island is a human rat-trap. It is easy to get in, but once there it is impossible to get out.”

Those words, describing New York City’s most notorious mental institution, were written by journalist Nellie Bly in 1887. It was no mere armchair observation, because Bly got herself committed to Blackwell’s and wrote a shocking exposé called Ten Days In A Madhouse. The series of articles became a best-selling book, launching Bly’s career as a world-famous investigative reporter and also helping bring reform to the asylum.

In the late 1880s, New York newspapers were full of chilling tales about brutality and patient abuse at the city’s various mental institutions. Into the fray came the plucky 23-year Nellie Bly (born Elizabeth Cochrane, she renamed herself after a popular Stephen Foster song). At a time when most female writers were confined to newspapers’ society pages, she was determined to play with the big boys. The editor at The World liked Bly’s moxie, and challenged her to come up with an outlandish stunt to attract readers and prove her mettle as a “detective reporter.”

The stylish and petite Bly, who had a perpetual smile, set about her crazy-eye makeover. She dressed in tattered second-hand clothes. She stopped bathing and brushing her teeth. And for hours, she practiced looking like a lunatic in front of the mirror. “Faraway expressions look crazy,” she wrote. Soon she was wandering the streets in a daze. Posing as Nellie Moreno, a Cuban immigrant, she checked herself into a temporary boarding house for women. Within twenty-four hours, her irrational, hostile rants had all of the other residents fearing for their lives. “It was the greatest night of my life,” Bly later wrote.

The police hauled Bly off, and within a matter of days, she bounced from court to Bellevue Hospital’s psychiatric ward. When she professed to not remembering how she ended up in New York, the chief doctor diagnosed her as “delusional and undoubtedly insane.” Meanwhile, several of the city’s other newspapers took an interest in what one called the “mysterious waif with the wild, hunted look in her eyes.” Bly had everyone hoodwinked, and soon enough, she was aboard the “filthy ferry” to Blackwell’s Island.

The Lonely Island

Opened as America’s first municipal mental hospital in 1839, Blackwell’s Island (known today as Roosevelt Island) was meant to be a state-of-the-art institution committed to moral, humane rehabilitation of its patients. But when funding got cut, the progressive plans went out the window. It ended up as a scary asylum, staffed in part by inmates of a nearby penitentiary.

Although other writers had reported on conditions at the asylum (notably Charles Dickens, in 1842, who described its “listless, madhouse air” as “very painful”), Bly was the first reporter to go undercover. What she found exceeded her worst expectations. There were “oblivious doctors” and “coarse, massive” orderlies who “choked, beat and harassed” patients, and “expectorated tobacco juice about on the floor in a manner more skillful than charming.” There were foreign women, completely sane, who were committed simply because they couldn’t make themselves understood. Add to that rancid food, dirty linens, no warm clothing and ice-cold baths that were like a precursor to water boarding. Bly described the latter:

“My teeth chattered and my limbs were goose-fleshed and blue with cold. Suddenly I got, one after the other, three buckets of water over my head – ice-cold water, too – into my eyes, my ears, my nose and my mouth. I think I experienced the sensation of a drowning person as they dragged me, gasping, shivering and quaking, from the tub. For once I did look insane.”

And worst of all, there was the endless, enforced isolation:

“What, excepting torture, would produce insanity quicker than this treatment? . . . Take a perfectly sane and healthy woman, shut her up and make her sit from 6 a.m. to 8 p.m. on straight-back benches, do not allow her to talk or move during these hours, give her no reading and let her know nothing of the world or its doings, give her bad food and harsh treatment, and see how long it will take to make her insane. Two months would make her a mental and physical wreck.”

As soon as Bly arrived at Blackwell’s Island, she dropped her crazy act. But to her horror, she found that only confirmed her diagnosis. “Strange to say, the more sanely I talked and acted, the crazier I was thought to be,” she wrote.

Near the end of her stay, her cover was almost blown. A fellow reporter she’d known for years was sent by another newspaper to write about the mysterious patient. He himself posed as a man in search of a lost loved one. Bly begged her friend not give her away. He didn’t. Finally, after ten days, The World sent an attorney to arrange for Nellie Moreno’s release.

Going Public

Two days later, the paper ran the first installment of Bly’s story, entitled “Behind Asylum Bars.” The psychiatric doctors who’d been fooled offered apologies, excuses and defenses. The story traveled across the country, with papers lauding Bly’s courageous achievement. Almost overnight, she became a star journalist.

But for Bly, it wasn’t about the fame. “I have one consolation for my work,” she wrote. “On the strength of my story, the committee of appropriation provides $1,000,000 more than was ever before given, for the benefit of the insane.”

Actually, the city had already been considering increasing the budget for asylums, but Bly’s article certainly pushed things along.

A month after her series ran, Bly returned to Blackwell’s with a grand jury panel. In her book, she says that when they made their tour, many of the abuses she reported had been corrected: the food services and sanitary conditions were improved, the foreign patients had been transferred, and the tyrannical nurses had disappeared. Her mission was accomplished.

Bly would go on to more sensational exploits, most notably, in 1889, circling the globe in a record-setting seventy-two days (she meant to beat out Jules Verne’s fictional trip in Around The World in Eighty Days). In later years, she retired from journalism and founded her own company, designing and marketing steel barrels used for milk cans and boilers. She died in 1922. Bly’s amazing life has since been the subject of a Broadway musical, a movie and a children’s book.

11 Facts About Eleanor of Aquitaine

A drawing of what Eleanor of Aquitaine might have looked like circa 1150
A drawing of what Eleanor of Aquitaine might have looked like circa 1150
Hulton Archive/Getty Images

Eleanor of Aquitaine was among the most powerful women of the 12th century. She controlled an extensive estate, became Queen of France and then England, and gave birth to one of England's most famed rulers, Richard the Lionheart. While her biography is now tangled up with myths and legends—even her date and place of birth are difficult to pin down—much of her legacy and influence survives. Here are 11 facts about Eleanor of Aquitaine.

1. Young Eleanor of Aquitaine was Europe’s most eligible bachelorette.

Born around 1122 or 1124 possibly in today’s southern France, Eleanor was named for her mother, the Duchess Aénor de Châtellerault. She was the eldest of three children. Her father—William X, Duke of Aquitaine and Count of Poitou—presided over one of the biggest holdings of land in France. It’s thought that from an early age she was educated in Latin, philosophy, and horseback riding. And when her younger brother died in 1130, Eleanor became the heir to a formidable amount of land and power.

When William X died in 1137 while on a pilgrimage to Santiago de Compostela in Spain, the teenaged Eleanor suddenly became the Duchess of Aquitaine, a woman of major wealth—and a very eligible match. There was little time for her to mourn. As soon as news of her father’s death reached France, her marriage to Louis VII, son of the King of France, was arranged. The king dispatched 500 men to transport Eleanor to Paris for the wedding. Not long after their summer ceremony, the king fell ill and then died. By the end of the year his son was on the throne, and Eleanor was crowned Queen of France.

2. Her beauty was celebrated, but her appearance is a mystery.

It’s not hard to find contemporary accounts of Eleanor’s good looks. The French medieval poet Bernard de Ventadour declared her "gracious, lovely, the embodiment of charm," while Matthew Paris remarked on her "admirable beauty." Curiously, though, in all these celebrations of her fine features, not one person wrote down what she actually looked like. Her hair color, eye color, height, and face all remain a mystery. No art that has been definitively linked to her survives other than the effigy on her tomb—and the degree to which that resembles Eleanor's looks is unclear.

3. She didn't stay home during the Crusades.

When Louis VII answered the pope’s call for a Second Crusade to defend Jerusalem against the Muslims, Eleanor did not stay behind in France. Between 1147 and 1149, she traveled with her husband's party to Constantinople and then Jerusalem. (According to legend, she took along 300 ladies-in-waiting dressed as Amazons—but those tales have been debunked.)

Unfortunately, this was no romantic adventure for the royal couple. Louis and his headstrong queen were mismatched, and the strain between them culminated at the court of her uncle, Raymond of Poitiers at Antioch. Rumors of an incestuous infidelity between Eleanor of Aquitaine and her uncle, whose luxurious court thrilled her with its charms, darkened her reputation. She also made waves with her defiant support of her uncle’s plans for the crusade; he advised attacking Aleppo, while Louis preferred to continue to Jerusalem. Soon, Louis would force Eleanor to continue with him.

Ultimately, the Second Crusade was a debacle, culminating with the disastrous Siege of Damascus in 1148, which ended in a Muslim victory. Louis VII and the crusader army were sent home packing.

4. Her first marriage was annulled.

The royal marriage didn’t last much longer, its tensions furthered by the fact that Eleanor had yet to give birth to a male heir. The marriage was finally annulled in 1152. (The pair were granted the annulment on the grounds of consanguinity—the fact that they were technically related.) Eleanor kept her lands and was single again, but not for long. In May of that same year, she married Henry Plantagenet, Count of Anjou and Duke of Normandy. Two years later they were crowned the King and Queen of England.

5. She was a powerful Queen of England.

Eleanor was no less strong-willed as the Queen of England than she had been as the Queen of France. She refused to stay home and idle away her hours. She traveled extensively to protect the kingdom that was then being consolidated by Henry, giving the monarchy a presence across its newly united cultures. When her husband was away, she helped direct government and ecclesiastical affairs. And in contrast to her listless marriage to Louis VII—with whom she had two daughters—she secured her position by having eight children, including five sons and three daughters.

6. She had a historically bad break-up.

However, relations between Eleanor and Henry soured after years of his open adultery and frequent absences. They separated in 1167, and she moved to her lands in Poitiers. The distance didn’t change her opinion of Henry; when their sons revolted against him in 1173, she didn't waver in choosing sides, backing her children over her husband. When the revolt failed, it had catastrophic consequences for her freedom, with Henry making her his prisoner.

7. She spent over a decade under house arrest.

After supporting her sons in their revolt, Eleanor was captured while attempting to find safety in France. She spent between 15 and 16 years under house arrest in various English castles, and was almost entirely absent from the country's activity (although there were rumors that she had a hand in the death of Rosamund, King Henry's beloved mistress). On special occasions like Christmas, Henry would allow her to show her face, but otherwise she was kept invisible and powerless. Only in 1189, when Henry died, was she fully freed.

8. She was most powerful as a widow.

Her son Richard, who became king following Henry's death, was the one who freed his mother. After her years of house arrest, she did not come out ready for retirement. Instead, she threw herself into preparing for the coronation of her son, who would be known as Richard the Lionheart. Before he was crowned King of England, she journeyed all over his future kingdom to forge alliances and foster goodwill. When Richard set out on the Third Crusade, Eleanor took charge as regent, fending off her power-hungry son John. She even paid Richard's ransom when he was imprisoned by the duke of Austria and the Holy Roman Emperor, traveling there herself to bring him home to England.

Richard then died in 1199, leaving John to become king. Eleanor, then in her seventies, kept at her commitment to the kingdom’s stability, including going to Spain to arrange a pivotal marriage for her granddaughter Blanche of Castile to the heir to the French throne. She also gave John crucial support against a rebellion led by her grandson Arthur.

9. A vase she owned still survives.

A vase that once belonged to Eleanor of Aquitaine
A vase that once belonged to Eleanor of Aquitaine
tnchanse ~ Tom Hansen, Flickr // CC BY-NC-SA 2.0 (cropped)

Out of all the tokens of wealth and royalty that touched her life, only one artifact that once belonged to Eleanor of Aquitaine survives. She received an elegant rock crystal vessel from her grandfather William IX Duke of Aquitaine, who had likely been given it by the ruler of Imad al-dawla of Saragossa. In 1137, she gave it as a wedding gift to her future husband, Louis VII. The king’s advisor Abbot Suger of Saint-Denis then convinced Louis VII to add it to his abbey’s treasury (thus keeping it in French royal possession after their brief marriage). Now visitors to the Louvre in Paris can view the rare object, where, despite its series of owners, it’s still known as the “Eleanor” vase.

10. She has an extensive legacy in pop culture.

Eleanor of Aquitaine has hardly faded from the public eye. Alternately depicted as a temptress, warrior, protective mother, and powerful queen, interpretations of Eleanor reflect how her history has been retold over time. In Shakespeare's 16th-century The Life and Death of King John, she is an aged but sharp and sometimes sultry force. She recurs in screen versions of Robin Hood (2010) and the Ivanhoe series. Katharine Hepburn bristled with fiery energy in the role of Eleanor in the 1968 film The Lion in Winter, based on the play by James Goldman. She even has a seat at a major work of feminist art—there's a place set for her in Judy Chicago's The Dinner Party, now at the Brooklyn Museum.

11. Her bones are gone, but her tomb survives.

Tombs of Eleanor of Aquitaine and Henry II of England in the church at Fontevraud Abbey
Tombs of Eleanor of Aquitaine and Henry II of England in the church at Fontevraud Abbey
Martin Cooper, Flickr // CC BY-2.0 (cropped)

Having outlived all of her husbands and most of her children, Eleanor ended her days at Fontevraud Abbey in France. She died there in 1204 in her eighties. Remarkably, her 13th-century effigy tomb survives, depicting Eleanor reclining on a bed, a crown upon her head and a devotional book in her hands. She seems to be studiously ignoring the effigies of her husband Henry II and son Richard the Lionheart on either side of her.

Her bones were once interred in the abbey's crypt. But like many of the country’s churches during the French Revolution, the abbey was deconsecrated. The crypt's bones were exhumed, dispersed, and never recovered.

The 25 Movies Being Added to the National Film Registry in 2018

iStock/Sociologas
iStock/Sociologas

On Wednesday, December 12, Librarian of Congress Carla Hayden announced that 25 new titles have been selected to become part of the Library of Congress’s National Film Registry. The films—which run the gamut from an iconic rockumentary to an experimental animated short on race and one very popular dinosaur-filled blockbuster—are a diverse lot, to be sure. Which has sort of become the standard in the 30 years since the National Film Registry was first introduced as a way to recognize, and preserve, our cinematic past for future generations.

“The National Film Registry turns 30 this year and for those three decades, we have been recognizing, celebrating, and preserving this distinctive medium,” Hayden said in a statement. “These cinematic treasures must be protected because they document our history, culture, hopes and dreams.”

Here’s a rundown of the 25 titles (listed in alphabetical order) that will be added in 2018, along with the Library of Congress's official summary of each of its chosen selections.

1. Bad Day at Black Rock (1955)

Though only 81 minutes in length, Bad Day packs a punch. Spencer Tracy stars as Macreedy, a one-armed man who arrives unexpectedly one day at the sleepy desert town of Black Rock. He is just as tight-lipped at first about the reason for his visit as the residents of Black Rock are about the details of their town. However, when Macreedy announces that he is looking for a former Japanese-American Black Rock resident named Komoko, town skeletons suddenly burst into the open. In addition to Tracy, the standout cast includes Robert Ryan, Anne Francis, Lee Marvin, Ernest Borgnine, and Dean Jagger. Director John Sturges displays the western landscape to great advantage in this CinemaScope production.

2. Broadcast News (1987)

James L. Brooks wrote, produced, and directed this comedy set in the fast-paced, tumultuous world of television news. Shot mostly in dozens of locations around the Washington, D.C. area, the film stars Holly Hunter, William Hurt, and Albert Brooks. Brooks makes the most of his everyman persona serving as Holly Hunter’s romantic back-up plan while she pursues the handsome but vacuous Hurt. Against the backdrop of broadcast journalism (and various debates about journalist ethics), a grown-up romantic comedy plays out in a smart, savvy and fluff-free story whose humor is matched only by its honesty.

3. Brokeback Mountain (2005)

Brokeback Mountain, a contemporary Western drama that won the Academy Award for best screenplay (by Larry McMurtry and Diana Ossana) and Golden Globe awards for best drama, director (Ang Lee) and screenplay, depicts a secret and tragic love affair between two closeted gay ranch hands. They furtively pursue a 20-year relationship despite marriages and parenthood until one of them dies violently, reportedly by accident, but possibly, as the surviving lover fears, in a brutal attack. Annie Proulx, the Pulitzer Prize-winning author of the short story upon which the film was based, described it as “a story of destructive rural homophobia.” Haunting in its unsentimental depiction of longing, lonesomeness, pretense, sexual repression and ultimately love, Brokeback Mountain features Heath Ledger’s remarkable performance that conveys a lifetime of self-torment through a pained demeanor, near inarticulate speech and constricted, lugubrious movements. In his review, Newsweek’s David Ansen wrotes that the film was “a watershed in mainstream movies, the first gay love story with A-list Hollywood stars.” Brokeback Mountain has become an enduring classic.

4. Cinderella (1950)

It would take the enchanted magic of Walt Disney and his extraordinary team to revitalize a story as old as Cinderella. Yet, in 1950, Disney and his animators did just that with this version of the classic tale. Sparkling songs, high-production value and bright voice performances have made this film a classic from its premiere. Though often told and repeated across all types of media, Disney’s lovely take has become the definitive version of this classic story about a girl, a prince and a single glass slipper. Breathtaking animation fills every scene, including what was reportedly Walt Disney’s favorite of all Disney animation sequences: the fairy godmother transforming Cinderella’s “rags” into an exquisite gown and glass slippers.

5. Days of Wine and Roses (1962)

Days of Wine and Roses marked another in a series of Hollywood classics on the touchy subject of alcoholism. Previous examples on the theme include The Lost Weekend and Come Back, Little Sheba. Though his career prior to Days of Wine and Roses had been noted for a deft touch in light comedy, in this Academy Award-nominated performance, Jack Lemmon plays a hard-drinking San Francisco public-relations man who drags his wife Lee Remick into the horrific descent into alcoholism. Director Blake Edwards pulls no punches in this uncompromisingly bleak film. Henry Mancini composed the moving score, best remembered for the title song he and Johnny Mercer wrote, which won an Academy Award for best original song.

6. Dixon-Wanamaker Expedition to Crow Agency (1908)

The original nitrate footage that comprises the 1908 “Dixon-Wanamaker Expedition to Crow Agency” was discovered in a Montana antique store in 1982 and subsequently donated to the Human Studies Film Archives, Smithsonian Institution. It is the only known surviving film footage from the 1908 Rodman Wanamaker-sponsored expedition to record American Indian life in the west, filmed and produced both for an educational screening at Wanamaker’s department store in Philadelphia and to document what Wanamaker and photographer Joseph K. Dixon considered a “vanishing race.” Dixon and his son Roland shot motion picture film as well as thousands of photographs (most of the photographs are archived at Indiana University). This film captures life on Crow Agency, Crow Fair and a recreation of the Battle of Little Big Horn featuring four of Custer’s Crow scouts. Films from later Wanamaker expeditions are archived at the National Archives and the American Museum of Natural History. The original film was photochemically preserved at Cinema Arts in 1983.

7. Eve’s Bayou (1997)

Written and directed by Kasi Lemmons and co-produced by co-star Samuel L. Jackson, Eve’s Bayou proved one of the indie surprises of the 1990s. The film tells a Southern gothic tale about a 10-year-old African-American girl who, during one long, hot Louisiana summer in 1962, discovers some harsh truths beneath her genteel family’s fragile façade. The film’s standout cast includes Jackson, Lynn Whitfield, Debbi Morgan, Diahann Carroll, Lisa Nicole Carson, Branford Marsalis, and the remarkable Jurnee Smollett, who plays the lead. The tag line of this film was very apropos: “The secrets that hold us together can also tear us apart.”

8. The Girl Without a Soul (1917)

George Eastman Museum founding film curator James Card was a passionate devotee of silent film director John H. Collins’s work. It is through his influence that the museum is the principal repository of the director’s few extant films. As the expert on Collins’s legacy, the museum said he is “one of the great ‘What if…?’ figures of American cinema—a brilliantly creative filmmaker who went from being a costume department assistant to a major director within four short years, before dying at the age of 31 in the 1918 influenza pandemic. Collins’ films show both a subtle understanding of human nature and often breathtakingly daring cinematography and editing. The Girl Without a Soul stars Viola Dana (to whom Collins was married) in a dual role as twin sisters, one of whom is a gifted violinist, and the other, a deeply troubled girl jealous of her sister’s abilities and the love bestowed upon her by their violinmaker father. This jealousy and the violinist sister’s unworldliness lead both into turbulent moral conflict, which takes considerable fortitude from both to overcome.” The Girl Without a Soul has been preserved by George Eastman Museum.

9. Hair Piece: A Film for Nappy-Headed People (1984)

Hair Piece is an insightful and funny short animated film examining the problems that African-American women have with their hair. Generally considered the first black woman animator, director Ayoka Chenzira was a key figure in the development of African-American filmmakers in the 1980s through her own films and work to expand opportunities for others. Writing in The New York Times, critic Janet Maslin lauded this eccentric yet jubilant film. She notes the narrator “tells of everything from the difficulty of keeping a wig on straight to the way in which Vaseline could make a woman's hair ''sound like the man in The Fly saying ‘Help me!’”

10. Hearts and Minds (1974)

Director Peter Davis describes his Academy Award-winning documentary Hearts and Minds (1974) as “an attempt to examine why we went to Vietnam, what we did there and what the experience did to us.” Compared by critics at the time to Marcel Ophuls’s acclaimed documentary The Sorrow and the Pity (1971), Hearts and Minds, similarly addressed the wartime effects of national myths and prejudices by juxtaposing interviews of government officials, soldiers, peasants and parents, cinéma vérité scenes shot on the home front and in South Vietnam, clips from ideological Cold War movies, and horrific archival footage. Author Frances FitzGerald praised the documentary as “the most moving film I’ve ever seen on Vietnam, because, for the first time, the camera lingers on the faces of Vietnamese and one hears their voices.” Author David Halberstam said it “brilliantly catches … the hidden, unconscious racism of the war.” Others from both ends of the political spectrum chided it as manipulative propaganda that oversimplified complexities.

11. Hud (1963)

Paul Newman received his third Oscar nomination for his portrayal of the title character, the handsome, surly and unscrupulous bad-boy son of a Texas rancher who locks horns with his father over business and family matters. Loosely based on Larry McMurtry’s debut novel, Horseman, Pass By, the film received seven Academy Award nominations, winning three: Patricia Neal (best actress), Melvyn Douglas (best supporting actor), and James Wong Howe (black-and-white cinematography). Motion Picture Academy President John Bailey in 2017 chronicled the production of the film and summed up some of his impressions of the film’s relevance 55 years after its release: “Naked and narcissistic self-interest have always been a dark undercurrent to the limpid surface stream of American optimism and justice, but it is not a reach to see the character of Hud as an avatar of the troubling cynicism of that other side of American Populism—the side that espouses a fake concern for one’s fellow man while lining one’s own pockets. Hud, a lothario at the wheel of his crashed convertible, raising a shroud of dust clouds in its trail, is nothing more than a flimflam 19th century snake-oil salesman and carnival barker. His type erupts over and over onto America’s psyche like a painful pustule.”

12. The Informer (1935)

This marks the 11th film directed by John Ford to be named to the National Film Registry, the most of any director. The Informer depicts with brutal realism the life of an informant during the Irish Rebellion of 1922, who turns in his best friend and then sees the walls closing in on him in return. Critic Andre Sennwald, writing in the New York Times, praised Ford’s direction: “In his hands The Informer becomes at the same time a striking psychological study of a gutter Judas and a raw impressive picture of the Dublin underworld during the Black and Tan terror.” Ford and cinematographer Joseph August borrowed from German expressionism to convey the Dublin atmosphere. To this point, Ford had compiled a solid workmanlike career as he learned his craft. The Informer placed him in the top echelon of American film directors and over the next 20 years he crafted numerous other classics, from the 1939 Stagecoach through the 1962 The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance.

13. Jurassic Park (1993)

The concept of people somehow existing in the age of dinosaurs (or dinosaurs somehow existing in the age of people) has been explored in film and on television numerous times. No treatment, however, has ever been done with more skill, flair or popcorn-chomping excitement than this 1993 blockbuster. Set on a remote island where a man’s toying with evolution has run amok, this Steven Spielberg classic ranks as the epitome of the summer blockbuster. Jurassic Park was the top public vote-getter this year.

14. The Lady From Shanghai (1947)

The camera is the star in this stylish film noir. Lady From Shanghai is renowned for its stunning set pieces, the “Aquarium” scene, “Hall of Mirrors” climax, baroque cinematography and convoluted plot. Director Orson Welles had burst on the scene with Citizen Kane in 1941 and The Magnificent Ambersons in 1942, but had increasingly become seen as difficult to work with by the studios. As a result, Welles spent most of his career outside the studio sphere. “The Lady From Shanghai” marked one of his last films under a major studio (Columbia) with Welles and the executives frequently clashing over the budget, final editing of the film and the release date.

15. Leave Her to Heaven (1945)

Darkness and claustrophobia mark the visual style of many film noirs: the use of black-and-white or gloomy grays, low-key lighting, striking contrasts between light and dark, shadows, nighttime or interior settings and rain-soaked streets. Leave Her to Heaven proves the magnificent exception. Filmed in vibrant, three-strip Technicolor, many pivotal scenes occur in spectacular outdoor locations, shot by famed cinematographer Leon Shamroy in Arizona and California. A classic femme fatale, Gene Tierney stars as Ellen, whose charisma and stunning visage mask a possessive, sociopathic soul triggered by “loving too much.” Anyone who stands between her and those she obsessively loves tend to meet “accidental” deaths, most famously a teen boy who drowns in a chilling scene. Martin Scorsese has labeled “Heaven” as among his all-time favorite films and Tierney one of film’s most underrated actresses. Leave Her to Heaven makes a supremely compelling case for these sentiments.

16. Monterey Pop (1968)

This seminal music-festival film captures the culture of the time and performances from iconic musical talent. Monterey Pop also established the template for multi-camera documentary productions of this kind, predating both Woodstock and Gimme Shelter. In addition to director D. A. Pennebaker, Richard Leacock, Albert Maysles and others provided the superb camerawork. Performers include Janis Joplin, Jimi Hendrix, Otis Redding, Hugh Masekela, The Who, Jefferson Airplane, Simon and Garfunkel, and Ravi Shankar. As he recalled in a 2006 Washington Post article, Pennebaker decided to shoot and record the film using five portable 16mm cameras equipped with synchronized sound recording devices, while producers Lou Adler and John Phillips (Mamas and Papas) sagely had the whole concert filmed and recorded, and further enhanced the sound by hiring Wally Heider and his state-of-the-art mobile recording studio.

17. My Fair Lady (1964)

In the 1950s and 1960s, besieged by shifts in demographics and having much of its audience syphoned off by television, film studios knew they had to go big in their entertainment in order to lure people back to the theater. This film version of the musical My Fair Lady epitomized this approach with use of wide-screen technologies. Based on the sparkling stage musical (inspired by George Bernard Shaw’s play “Pygmalion”), My Fair Lady came to the big screen via the expert handling of director George Cukor. Cecil Beaton’s costume designs provided further panache, along with his, Gene Allen’s and George James Hopkins’ art and set direction. The film starred Rex Harrison, repeating his career-defining stage role as Professor Henry Higgins, and Audrey Hepburn (whose singing voice was dubbed by frequent “ghoster” Marni Nixon), as the Cockney girl, Eliza Doolittle. Though opulent in the extreme, all these elements blend perfectly to make My Fair Lady the enchanting entertainment that it remains today.

18. The Navigator (1924)

Buster Keaton burst onto the scene in 1920 with the dazzling two-reeler “One Week.” His feature The Navigator proved a huge commercial success and put Keaton in the company of Harold Lloyd and Charlie Chaplin in terms of audience popularity and films eagerly awaited by critics. Decades after release, Pauline Kael reviewed the film: “Arguably, Buster Keaton’s finest—but amongst the Keaton riches can one be sure?” Keaton plays an inept, foppish millionaire whose idea of a marriage proposal involves crossing the street in a chauffeured car, handing flowers to his girlfriend and popping the question. Later the two accidentally become stranded at sea on an abandoned boat and Keaton proves his worth by conceiving ingenious work-arounds to ensure they survive. The silent era rarely saw films rife with more creativity and imaginative gags.

19. On the Town (1949)

Three sailors with 24 hours of shore leave in New York doesn’t sound like much to build a film around, but when Gene Kelly, Frank Sinatra and Jules Munshin portray them under the sparkling direction of Stanley Donen (and Kelly), movie magic occurs. On the Town was based upon the Comden and Green Broadway musical of the same name. Shot on location all over New York City, the film carries over such splendid songs as “New York, New York,” the close-to-opening iconic scene with the sailor trio performing while still in their navy togs. Female song-and-dance pros Vera-Ellen, Betty Garrett and Ann Miller match the guys step for step in the numerous musical numbers. On the Town represents the upbeat, post war musicals of the era, which summed up the national optimism of the period.

20. One-Eyed Jacks (1961)

Based on the 1956 Charles Neider novel, The Authentic Death of Hendry Jones (a loose retelling of the story of Pat Garrett and Billy the Kid), this Western marks Marlon Brando’s sole directorial effort. One-Eyed Jacks displays his trademark introspection and offbeat quirkiness. Brando’s novel approach to updating the Western film genre marks it as a key work in the transition period from Classic Hollywood (1930s through 1950s) to the new era that began in the 1960s and continues to the present day. As director Martin Scorsese and others have said, this evolution from “Old Hollywood” to “New Hollywood” involved a change from filmmaking primarily being about profit-making to a period when many directors create motion pictures as personal artistic expression.

21. Pickup on South Street (1953)

Samuel Fuller’s films are sometimes compared to the pulp novels of Mickey Spillane, though Fuller’s dynamic style dwarfs Spillane. With films often crass but always provocative, Fuller described his mantra of filmmaking: “Film is like a battleground, with love, hate, action, violence, death … in one word, emotion.” Considered by some as the archetypal Sam Fuller film and a nice summary of the main themes in his work, Pickup on South Street is a taut, Cold War thriller. The fast-paced plot follows a professional pickpocket who accidently lifts some secret microfilm from his mark. Patriotism or profit? Soon, the thief is being pursued not only by the woman he stole from, but also by Communist spies and U.S. government agents. The film culminates in a landmark brutal subway-based fight scene. It is arguably the classic anti-Communist film of the 1950s and a dazzling display of the seedy New York underlife. In particular, Thelma Ritter’s excellent tough-yet-nuanced performance as Moe Williams stands out and earned her an Academy Award nomination for best supporting actress, which was highly unusual for what was considered at the time a lurid and violent B-movie.

22. Rebecca (1940)

Rebecca, Daphne du Maurier’s most famous book (“Last night I dreamt I went to Manderley again…”), found its perfect cinematic interpreter in Alfred Hitchcock, here directing his first American motion picture. Powerhouse producer David O. Selznick had just imported the “master of suspense” from his native England. Laurence Olivier stars as Maxim de Winter and Joan Fontaine in her breakthrough role co-stars as Maxim’s new (and never given a first name) wife. However, it is two other women who dominate the film—the intimidating housekeeper Mrs. Danvers (played by Judith Anderson) and the film’s title woman, the deceased first Mrs. de Winter whose powerful shadow still hangs heavily over this great estate and all its inhabitants. Winner of the Oscar for best picture that year, Rebecca is stylish, suspenseful and a classic.

23. The Shining (1980)

Director Stanley Kubrick’s take on Stephen King’s terrifying novel has only grown in esteem through the years. The film is inventive in visual style, symbolism and narrative as only a Kubrick film can be. Long but multi-layered, The Shining contains stunning visuals—rivers of blood cascading down deserted hotel hallways, disturbing snowy mazes and a mysterious set of appearing and disappearing twins—with iconic performances by Jack Nicholson and Shelley Duvall.

24. Smoke Signals (1998)

Native American directors are a rarity in Hollywood. After the early silent film pioneers James Young Deer and Edwin Carewe, the portrayal of Native Americans in cinema turned dark and stereotypical. These social trends started changing with motion pictures like the groundbreaking Smoke Signals, generally considered to be the first feature film written, directed and produced by Native Americans. Director Chris Eyre uses the relaxed road-movie concept to create a funny and unpretentious look at Native Americans in the nation’s cinema and culture. The mostly Native American cast features Adam Beach and Evan Adams as the two road warriors who find themselves on a hilarious adventure. Beneath the highly entertaining façade, the film acquainted non-Native American audiences with real insights into the indigenous Americans’ culture. Sherman Alexie penned the witty, droll script based his book The Lone Ranger and Tonto Fistfight in Heaven. This Miramax release was a big hit on the independent film circuit and won numerous awards, including a Sundance award.

24. Something Good – Negro Kiss (1898)

According to scholars and archivists, this recently discovered 29-second film may represent the earliest example of African-American intimacy on-screen. American cinema was a few years old by 1898 and distributors struggled to entice audiences to this new medium. Among their gambits to find acceptable “risqué” fare, the era had a brief run of “kissing” films. Most famous is the 1896 Edison film “The Kiss,” which spawned a rash of mostly inferior imitators. However, in “Something Good,” the chemistry between vaudeville actors Saint Suttle and Gertie Brown was palpable. Also noteworthy is this film’s status as the earliest known surviving Selig Polyscope Company film. The Selig Company had a good run as a major American film producer from its founding in 1896 until its ending around 1918. “Something Good” exists in a 19th-century nitrate print from the University of Southern California Hugh Hefner Moving Image Archive. USC Archivist Dino Everett and Dr. Allyson Nadia Field of the University of Chicago discovered and brought this important film to the attention of scholars and the public. Field notes, “What makes this film so remarkable is the non-caricatured representation and naturalistic performance of the couple. As they playfully and repeatedly kiss, in a seemingly improvised performance, Suttle and Brown constitute a significant counter to the racist portrayal of African Americans otherwise seen in the cinema of its time. This film stands as a moving and powerful image of genuine affection, and is a landmark of early film history.”

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