A while ago Cinema Spotlight hit a hundred followers and I promised that I’d use the month of September to focus on a special collection of countdowns in celebration. Since the birth of film iconic moments have helped solidify movies and cinema as the go-to form of visual entertainment. In the process countless iconic moments have come to life on the big screen over the years giving birth to endlessly quotable lines, memorable visuals and cultural phenomena that even today are referenced endlessly by other movies, television shows and even people in their everyday lives. So, to celebrate 100 followers I decided to take a look at what I feel are the most noteworthy and iconic of those moments and started by going back to the humble beginnings of the film industry. Starting off my month of exploring the best moments in all of film I went back to the classics, movies that appeared before the 1950s, and found ten of the most iconic scenes the earliest forms of cinema provided for us. These are my picks for the Top 10 Classic Movie Moments.
For this list I took a look at famous movie moments that premiered before the year 1950 and narrowed it down to just ten that I felt have left a lasting impression on the industry as well as the audiences that had the opportunity to enjoy them. These are the moments that helped revolutionize an art form and also helped solidify their films as true classics in the industry. This is part of a series of lists spanning the decades of film which will all culminate to my picks for the Top 20 Movie Moments of All Time at the end of September. The top FOUR moments of every list will be considered for the ultimate list later this month.
For the sake of this series iconic moments are considered any brief or extended moments in a single project that have left a lasting impression on viewers. These can be monologues, one-shots, or many minutes of filming as long as everything is set in one place and takes place in succession before changing to a new setting, idea or perspective.
So, lets kick this series off in style with the scenes that helped make movies the iconic and beloved art form they are. What is your favorite classic movie moment? Let me know in the comments below and be sure to check back all throughout the month of September to see my other lists spanning the decades.
10. The Birth of Frankenstein’s Monster, “Frankenstein”
The 1931 horror classic “Frankenstein”, based on Mary Shelley’s classic novel, sports many iconic scenes. The reveal of the monster alone is among one of the most memorable first appearances by any horror character in history. However, the moment that truly leaves its mark from this classic film is when the titular doctor attempts to bring his creation to life. The image of the operating table being raised into a thunderstorm and then lowered to reveal a moving hand has been imitated countless times over the course of history and the iconic quote “It’s alive!” was etched into pop culture thanks to a magnificent performance by Colin Clive. It’s because of moments like this that “Frankenstein” is seen in many circles as the most iconic horror movie ever made. It packs more quotable dialogue and imagery than pretty much any of its predecessors and successors so looking at this moment in today’s world, the birth of a monster, is also almost like seeing the birth of a legacy that has yet to be challenged.
9. Snow White Eats the Apple, “Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs”
Even Disney had humble beginnings back in the day, which is why this iconic moment makes this countdown. Back in 1937 the now-legendary animation studio released what is heavily regarded as the first full-length cel animated feature film and Disney’s first animated feature “Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs” which focuses on the titular beauty who befriends a group of seven miners while also being hunted by an evil queen. That hunt culminates in this scene near the film’s conclusion where the queen disguises herself as a hag and tricks Snow White into biting into a poison apple. The intensity and suspense of this moment lasts even today after many of us have probably seen it countless times as we watch in frustrated amusement unable to warn Snow White of the danger she is in. It’s an expertly paced extended scene featuring one of Disney’s best villains and concludes with the highly quotable “now I’ll be fairest in the land!” It’s an awesome and impactful moment that showed the world that animation wasn’t all color and positivity. There could be some truly dark moments as well and many have sense followed in the medium.
8. The Maria Robot Transformed, “Metropolis”
Let’s go back ever farther for a moment to the 1920s and explore one of my personal favorite true classics “Metropolis”. This 1927 German science fiction classic is often considered a pioneering work of the genre and is among the most respected silent films of its era. The moment featured on today’s list has a lot to do with that. The story of the film focuses on a future society called Metropolis where wealthy business and industry owners essentially rule over their lower-level working peons. In a complicated series of events two long to explains here an inventor falls for a woman in the working class and transfers her likeness to a robot which is used as one of the earliest cinematic allegories for machine dominating man. It’s the transformation scene that makes this list as the character Maria’s likeness is superimposed onto the robot. This moment is still to this day considered a pioneering scene in cinema history as a special effects marvel for its time. It’s as neat to watch today as it was in the 20s and serves as an important example of just how far we have come since the early days of cinema.
7. Family Reunion from “It’s a Wonderful Life”
“It’s a Wonderful Life” is a 1946 Christmas classic often imitated today but seldom successfully replicated. While it sports many iconic moments it’s most legendary has to be when main character George Bailey returns home after seeing what the world would have been like had he never been born. After begging for his life back Bailey reunites with his children and wife and learns that the debt that would have had him arrested has been paid off by the generous townsfolk. It’s a delightfully chaotic and chipper scene featuring all kinds of good feels and, of course, the true Christmas spirit. The icing on the cake is the final moments when a bell on the Christmas Tree rings causing Bailey’s daughter to proclaim those immortal words, “every time a bell rings an angel gets its wings”. It’s an important moment as it follows the reveal of a “thank you” note from Bailey’s guardian angel Clarence who showed Bailey the images of what the world would be like without him. Clarence did, in fact, earn his wings for helping Bailey realize the importance of his existence. It’s a touching few minutes of film that is now synonymous with the most wonderful time of the year.
6. The Speech, “The Great Dictator”
There were several moments from this 1940 Charlie Chaplin classic I considered for this list, but I could not leave out one of my favorite movie monologues of all time, the famous speech. Released only a year into World War II, the film features Chaplin as a parody of Adolf Hitler named Adenoid Hynkel as well as a Jewish barber who, having stolen a uniform, bears a striking resemblance to the in-film dictator. The final moments of the film sees the barber put in the position of addressing a crowd of waiting people who believe him to be their ruler. The four-minute monologue keeps the camera square on the barber’s face as he spouts one of the most inspirational speeches ever uttered in film. Chaplin’s passion for what he is saying helped make this a moment viewers would never forget as it broke through the comedic nature of the rest of the project to challenge Hitler’s perspective and anyone with hate in their hearts. Many decades later this speech is just as relevant, today being adopted for more modern social issues. That said it’s a solid four minutes of dialogue and acting that has remained truly timeless.
5. “Rosebud”, “Citizen Kane”
It would have been wrong of me not to include a scene from what many consider to be the greatest movie ever made. The 1941 Orson Welles classic “Citizen Kane” includes possibly one of, if not the most iconic opening scene in cinema history as the film’s main focus, Charles Foster Kane, passes away on his deathbed in Xanadu uttering only a single word, “Rosebud”. It’s a mere 41 seconds that sets up the mystery of the entire film and the image of Kane’s lips saying those immortal words followed by the falling and shattering of the snow globe have forever been ingrained in the minds of film buffs as a fine example of artistic film making with a purpose. In a film chock-full of memorable scenes this is the one everyone always seems to know. Kane saying “Rosebud” has become synonymous with the idea of mystery, intrigue and even nostalgia and it’s not uncommon to hear someone say the word in Kane’s breathy manner just for the sake of saying it. Like many moments on this list it’s a cinematic scene that is often imitated and even parodied but nothing has ever matched the impact of the original.
4. Welcome to Oz, “The Wizard of Oz”
The first moment to qualify for my best of all time list, this iconic transition in the 1939 must-see “The Wizard of Oz” is an extremely important scene for films as it symbolized the dawn of color movies in the theater. There are a lot of cool moments in “The Wizard of Oz” but for me this one stands out the most as Dorothy has landed in the land of Oz after her house was swept up in a twister. Most of the first act of the film is shown without color but it seems the filmmakers were very aware of the significance of their project as when Dorothy lands in Oz she opens her doors to find a land full of beautiful color and magic. The reveal is just as awe inspiring today as it must have been for viewers of the time as Dorothy’s dark and depressing reality is replaced by a world of imagination and wonder that she has barely even begun to explore for herself. It’s a cinematic moment that just FEELS important and stands out among the many other great scenes in the film because of the buildup and the payoff. It was the first true showcase of what color films could look like in all their brilliance and it embraced that reality perfectly by making the debut of Oz feel grand and promising the viewer a delightful adventure still to come.
3. Scarlett’s Declaration, “Gone With the Wind”
“Gone with the Wind” also brought us a few iconic cinematic scenes way back in 1939. This scene sees Vivien Leigh’s Scarlett O’Hara at the end of her rope. Her life and family are being torn apart by the harsh realities of the world around her, including war, and she takes a moment, with the sunset complimenting the intensity of the scene, to make a bold statement that she will survive, and she’ll never go hungry again. It’s a daring promise from a woman just trying to find some solace in the sea of despair. More than any of “Gone with the Winds” countless iconic one-liners and scenes, this particular moment serves as a great setup for the rest of the film, the culmination of what has happened so far, and an amazing character moment that helped solidify Scarlett O’Hara as one of the most iconic female characters in cinema history. The words “With God as my witness I’ll never go hungry again” live on forever as one of the most well known pieces of dialogue from this film and the speech itself is an everlasting showing of strength and resilience many turn to for inspiration in their own struggles even today.
2. The Skyscraper Battle, “King Kong”
Back in 1933 “King Kong” was still a very new cinematic monster. Considered not only one of the greatest horror movies ever made but also one of the greatest FILMS ever made, the original “King Kong” revolutionized the idea of stop-motion and it all culminated in one of the most epic final showdowns in movie history. In the closing moments of the movie Kong, frightened and out of his element, scales the Empire State Building trying to escape his assailants. On the way to the tower he also kidnaps the human he formed a bond with, Ann, and brings her to the peak of the tower with him. It’s here that a fantastic battle ensues with Kong being targeted by assault planes as he attempts to destroy them and ward them off. This scene is filled with amazing visuals (for the time) and the eventual death of Kong leaves a mark on every viewer especially since we’ve come to realize he is in this situation by no fault of his own. The skyscraper battle was competently remade in the 2005 Peter Jackson version of the film for modern audiences, but the original will always be the best and remains a huge part of this film’s lasting legacy.
1. The Airport Farewell, “Casablanca”
The final scene of the 1942 classic “Casablanca” is one of the most beloved movie finales in history. A lot leads to this moment. The existence of the letters of transit, the love triangle between Victor Laszlo, Ilsa and Rick, and the impending German occupation of Casablanca. Most of all though there is the promise Rick made to his old flame Ilsa to allow her to stay with him. He turns on that promise and asks, well pretty much forces, Ilsa to get on the plane taking her husband away. It’s a final exchange between two lovers that packs intensity and a heck of a lot of frustrated emotion and set the bar for all future lover’s spats that would come to cinemas in the years since. Seeing Rick say whatever he needs to in order to force Ilsa away, including telling her she will regret staying either now or later, makes for a great exchange. The scene is filled with amazing dialogue from lines like “We’ll always have Paris” to “Here’s looking at you kid” that helped solidify “Casablanca” as more than an award-winning film but a pop culture staple. This is the scene almost every movie fan knows from this film and the fact that it packs so many quotable lines and works so well even by today’s standards makes it a truly amazing cinematic moment to behold and earns it the top spot on this countdown.