There’s something innate in the old Yankee spirit and history that has always intrigued and inspired filmmakers. The wonderful films on this list, some in glorious black and white; others in Technicolor to showcase the region’s natural beauty, are filled with unforgettable characters and compelling narratives. They’ve earned countless Academy Awards, making them not only some of the top classic films set in New England, but some of the best and most iconic films ever made.
1. Little Women (1933) – MA: Drama
A tale of sisterhood, self-reliance and charity set among the four March sisters of Concord, Massachusetts. Along with their beloved mother, ‘Marmee,’ they band together, longing for their father’s return from the Civil War. Born to play Jo March, Yankee Katherine Hepburn can still bring a lump to your throat in this story set in the 19th century, filmed in the 20th, and still worth viewing in the 21st.
2. Captain January (1936) – ME: Musical
In Cape Tempest, Maine a kindly, old lighthouse keeper, Captain January (Guy Kibbee), takes care of Star (Shirley Temple), the child he saved from a shipwreck. All is well until a vindictive truancy officer vows to take the orphaned Star away from January and put her into an institution. Temple’s charm and pluck impresses even today. And what a trooper her Star is, hoofing it with the grown-ups and out shining them at every turn!
3. Mr. Deeds Goes To Town (1936) – VT: Comedy
When Longfellow Deeds (Gary Cooper) from Mandrake Falls, Vermont inherits $20 million dollars, he suddenly has to deal with the denizens of New York City and all their deceptions. The prettiest one being newspaper reporter Babe Bennett (Jean Arthur). Vermont stands tall and proud in the lanky frame of Mr. Deeds, who embodies common sense and individual dignity and is almost declared insane for simply trying to do good.
4. Stella Dallas (1937) – MA: Drama
Stella (Barbara Stanwyck), a millworker’s daughter from Millhampton, Massachusetts, marries into society when she weds Stephen Dallas. Together they have a baby girl, Laurel. But, Stella is a broad, (and Stanwyck plays her broadly). She’s uncouth and unlikeable. You totally get why her husband takes a job in another state. So, trust me, you’ll be surprised how your heart will break and your tears will flow when you watch Stella sacrifice everything for the happiness of her beloved child.
5. Captains Courageous (1937) – MA: Drama
Harvey Cheyne (Freddie Bartholomew), is a spoiled, little, rich boy. On a steamship with his father, he falls overboard and is rescued by a fishing boat out of Gloucester, Massachusetts. There, he’s made to work to earn his keep for the remaining three months of the boat’s journey. A Portuguese sailor, Manuel Fidello (Spencer Tracy) teaches this ‘little fish’ what it is to be a man, one of faith and honor.
6. Brining Up Baby (1938) – CT: Screwball Comedy
Susan Vance (Katherine Hepburn), a madcap heiress, (is there any other kind?) upsets the buttoned down-world of Professor of Paleontology, Dr. David Huxley (Cary Grant) in this delightful screwball comedy. Somehow, in trying to secure $1 million dollars for his museum, David and Susan end up running around Connecticut in pursuit of a leopard named Baby, a dog named George and a dinosaur bone that’s gone missing.
7. I Married A Witch (1942) – MA: Comedy
This is a supernatural farce that begins in 1770 in Roxford, Massachusetts where the Puritans have just burned a witch (Veronica Lake) at the stake. Laughing yet? You will. Lake plays her witch as minx, returning to bewitch Wallace Wooley (Fredric March) the hapless descendent of the man responsible for her death. Wally hasn’t a chance against witches, brides and curses, for as we know, love is confusing enough for us mere mortals as it is.
8. Now Voyager (1942) – MA: Drama
Charlotte Vale (Massachusetts’ own Bette Davis), a repressed spinster from a wealthy Boston family, has a nervous breakdown following years of emotional abuse from her mother. Transformed by psychiatry, and the love of a married man, Jerry (Paul Henreid), Charlotte is transformed. She creates a life made of her own choices; her own sacrifices. Poignantly summed up in the famous line: “Jerry, let’s not ask for the moon. We have the stars.”
9. Christmas in Connecticut (1945) – CT: Comedy
Elizabeth Lane (Barbara Stanwyck) writes the most successful homemaking column in America. Only problem is she has no home and she can’t boil water! Unaware, her publisher forces her to host a war hero, Jefferson Jones (Dennis Morgan), over the holidays. Cue the zaniness as love prevails among the rural folk of Connecticut, who provide additional home front flavor. And once you see Morgan in uniform (swoon!) you’ll understand why what happens, happens.
10. A Stolen Life (1946) – MA: Drama
The only thing more fun than watching Bette Davis play a stinker, is watching her play a stinker to herself. Here Davis plays twins, one good; one bad. When the stinker sinks into the sea off the coast of Nantucket Island during a storm and drowns, good Bette takes her place as the wife of the man (Glen Ford) that they both loved. Complications, as you might imagine, ensue.
11. Mr. Blandings Builds His Dream House (1948) – CT: Comedy
A New York ad man and his wife (Cary Grant, Myrna Loy) dream of a country home in Connecticut. It eventually becomes a reality but not until everything that could possibly go wrong with a fixer-upper, does! If for no other reason, watch this film to enjoy the scene where Loy describes to her painter – in detail – the different colors she’d like for each room of her brand new home.
12. The Trouble With Harry (1955) – VT: Murder Mystery
It’s a Hitchcock rom-com/murder mystery set near Smugglers’ Notch, Vermont. There, a young couple (Shirley MacLaine, John Forsythe) meet over a corpse named Harry; a corpse no one seems to know quite what to do with. Upon seeing the young lovers, an old tugboat captain opines, “Marriage is a good way to spend the winter.” The humor is all Hitchcock, dark and droll; the scenery is all Vermont, bright and glorious!
13. All That Heaven Allows (1955) – CT: Melodrama
Allow yourself to enter this celluloid world without judgement. If you do so, some eternal dynamics of the human heart, as true in the 1950s as they are now, will be revealed. Enjoy the stylistic path that director Douglas Sirk sets lonely widow Cary Scott (Jane Wyman) on as she learns to defy the small-town gossip of her tony Connecticut suburb when she falls for handsome Ron Kirby (Rock Hudson), her young landscaper.
14. High Society (1956) – RI: Musical
It’s ‘The Philadelphia Story’ redux, this time swinging to the music of Cole Porter and moved to the milieu of Newport, Rhode Island. Tabloid reporters (Frank Sinatra, Celeste Holm) invade the society wedding of Tracy Lord (Grace Kelly), who’s still pursued by her ex-husband, C.K. Dexter Haven (Bing Crosby). Everyone is so beautiful and so very beautifully dressed. Grab a glass of champagne and sing along to the regionally-accent inspired, “Well, Did You Evah?”
15. Moby Dick (1956) – MA: Drama
Great adaptation of the classic tale of New Bedford, Massachusetts’ Captain Ahab (Gregory Peck) and his obsessive pursuit of Moby Dick, the white whale that took his leg. Filmed so that the color itself is but an echo of reality, the questions raised are big and eternal, right out of the Old Testament. Like the crew, you may feel that you’re between Elijah and a hard place – and you are!
16. Carousel (1956) – ME: Musical
Set in a small, seaside town in Maine, this Rodgers & Hammerstein musical revolves around Billy Bigelow (Joel McCrea), a rough carousel barker, and Julie Jordan (Shirley Jones), an innocent mill worker. They fall in love, but their union isn’t an easy one. There are clambakes, lobsters and ‘A-yuhs’ uttered even in heaven in this beloved, though bittersweet, tale that comforts its audience with the transcendent, “You’ll Never Walk Alone.”
17. Peyton Place (1957) – NH: Melodrama
Prim and proper gets messy and real in this melodrama extraordinaire set in Peyton Place, New Hampshire, where gossip and repression affect the adults and those coming-of-age. It’s where everyone, including Constance MacKenzie (Lana Turner) the seemingly perfect widow, seems to have a secret: child-out-of-wedlock, rape, alcoholism, suicide, even murder. Add the start of WWII and watch the price of keeping those secrets go even higher.
18. Johnny Tremain (1957) – MA: History
It’s 1773 in Boston, Massachusetts, and a young silversmith’s apprentice, Johnny Tremain, falls in with the Sons of Liberty and their fight for American Independence. He soon realizes how important the ideals of human liberty are for everyone. There’s an effort here to be historically accurate in portraying the Boston Tea Party and The Battle at Lexington Concord in all the quirkiness, confusion and even mundaneness, inherit in any conflict, in any century.
19. Fear Strikes Out (1957) – CT: Sports Bio Pic
Bio pic of Waterbury, Connecticut native and Boston Red Sox outfielder, Jimmy Piersall (Anthony Perkins) who was relentlessly driven from childhood by a domineering father (Karl Malden). Perkins portrays Piersall with increasingly resentful, paranoid, and fearful eyes that silently chart his path to both the big leagues and a nervous breakdown. Piersall was brave to make his story public in the 1950s; Perkins, absolutely fearless in his total commitment in portraying that story.
20. A Summer Place (1959) – ME: Melodrama
Marrying the wrong person never makes life any easier but things are guaranteed to get really complicated if the off-spring of both of those unhappy unions (Sandra Dee, Troy Donahue) fall in love themselves. This is exactly what happens at a summer place off the coast of Maine. Add divorce and remarriage and watch as emotions clash with duty, and duty clashes with regret, forcing passions to explode among the pine trees and the salt air!