“When spring came,” wrote Ernest Hemingway in A Moveable Feast, the memoir of his time in Paris, “there were no problems except where to be happiest.” It’s a time of rebirth and renewal that brings mating season in the animal world, blossom to the trees, and blankets of bluebells and daffodils to fields and meadows – banishing memories of the cold, dead winter for another year.
But, in the movies, spring is perhaps the least celebrated of the seasons, with far fewer films capitalising on its riot of colour than we found when compiling our previous lists of great films set in the summer, autumn and winter. Some of the most memorable springtime scenes occur in films taking place across the four seasons: in musicals like Meet Me in St. Louis (1944) and Seven Brides for Seven Brothers (1954). 1945’s State Fair contains the Oscar-winning song ‘It Might as Well Be Spring’, but is set at the end of the summer.
10 to try
Each of the recommendations included here is available to view in the UK.
Apart from the bountiful supply of American spring break movies (which dominate most spring-themed film lists on the internet), it’s in China and Japan that filmmakers have most frequently raised a glass to March, April and May. The sakura (cherry blossom) season brings thousands of tourists to Kyoto every year, and it’s in the films of Yasujiro Ozu (Late Spring, 1949; Early Spring, 1956), Mikio Naruse (Spring Awakens, 1947) and Kenji Mizoguchi (Miss Oyu, 1951) that the season gets some of its most exquisite on-screen moments.
Without further ado, as we pass the spring equinox (20 March), these are 10 of the brightest blooms of the cinematic springtime.
Went the Day Well? (1942)
Director Alberto Cavalcanti
One of the most enduring of all British films made during the Second World War, Alberto Cavalcanti’s Went the Day Well? takes place over Whitsun – the late-spring weekend that marks the coming of summer. Though made while the war was still raging around Europe, the film – derived from a short story by Graham Greene – has a hopeful framing device, with an ageing villager (Mervyn Johns) recounting the time when the Nazis nearly got their claws into the fictitious English village of Bramley End.
Made by Ealing Studios, it presents a typically idyllic vision of life in a rural hamlet, but one that’s shot through with a genuine sense of “What if” terror (as the village is infiltrated by a platoon of German soldiers masquerading as Brits) and an often startling violence. What might have been a springtime for Hitler is disrupted by the villagers with surprising aplomb and resilience, safeguarding the bucolic scene even as its age-old innocence is lost.
Easter Parade (1948)
Director Charles Walters
“The thrill that comes with spring / when anything could happen”, go Irving Berlin’s lyrics to ‘It Only Happens When I Dance with You’, one of this musical’s standout numbers. Christmas movies are a sub-genre unto themselves, but this delightful 1948 vehicle for Fred Astaire and Judy Garland is one of very few films to dedicate themselves to the festivities of Easter.
Set in 1912, it begins with Broadway dancing star Don Hewes (Astaire) strutting along a shopping street, popping into the period shops to buy flowers, an Easter bonnet and a cuddly rabbit for his sweetheart. The gifts fall flat, however, after she announces that she’s taking a solo part in a show, leaving Hewes to search for a new talent. The action is sandwiched between two Easter Day parades: one in which Hewes’s find Hannah (Garland) is awed by the sight of her oh-so-chic predecessor; the second in which Hannah is herself en route to becoming a huge star. Everything in between merely stretches out the very thin plot, but what filler it is: the film contains some of Berlin’s greatest songs, with highlights including ‘Stepping Out with My Baby’ and ‘We’re a Couple of Swells’.
Spring in Park Lane (1948)
Director Herbert Wilcox
Together with her director husband Herbert Wilcox, star Anna Neagle made a hugely popular series of high-society romances in the 1940s, offering up the glamour of well-to-do Mayfair life to audiences craving escapism during the austerity of the postwar years. Following Piccadilly Incident (1946) and The Courtneys of Curzon Street (1947) came the most popular of all: 1948’s Spring in Park Lane.
In a world of social hierarchy, glamour and decorum, Neagle plays the niece of a wealthy diamond merchant who falls in love with her family’s new footman (Michael Wilding), actually a nobleman living incognito. “With the romance so charming and sincere,” wrote The Cinema magazine at the time, “and the comedy … so pungent and witty, the resultant entertainment cannot fail to be keenly relished by the populace, and it may safely be recorded that maestro Wilcox has ‘done it again.’” Done it again he had, and Spring in Park Lane was not just the biggest film at the British box office in 1948, but (according to a 2004 BFI survey) the biggest wholly British film of all time, with a total attendance of 20.5 million people. It’s no surprise that Neagle, Wilding and Wilcox all quickly regrouped for another springtime film, Maytime in Mayfair, in 1949.
Late Spring (1949)
Director Yasujiro Ozu
Late Spring opens with a succession of short, people-less shots, the kind of establishing details for which Yasujiro Ozu is famous: the sign at a quiet, suburban railway station, then the railway itself, the signal light, then trees swaying in the springtime breeze above a traditional Japanese roof. What follows is one of Ozu’s most sublime family dramas: the tale of a widower (Chishu Ryu) who encourages his devoted daughter Noriko (Setsuko Hara) to take a husband, even though he knows her marriage will leave him to live out the rest of his life in solitude.
Notice this flurry of springtime films at the end of the 1940s, as if the world was ready for new beginnings after the Second World War. But in terms of its emotional complexity Ozu’s film is in a different stratosphere to Easter Parade or Spring in Park Lane. In his calm, undemonstrative style, the great director traces the simplest shift: time passing, situations changing, and the losses and compromises that come with growing older. Voted the 15th greatest film ever made in the 2012 Sight & Sound poll, this was the first of many Ozu films to be named after a time of the year; he returned to this fairest of the seasons for 1956’s Early Spring.
Journey into Spring (1957)
Director Ralph Keene
This was the first natural history film made by British Transport Films (BTF), part of their ongoing series celebrating rail travel and the joys of the British countryside. There’s no mention of the railways in this document of the turn of spring in a Hampshire village, but the subtext is clear: one need only hop on a train to go out and experience all that England’s green and pleasant land has to offer.
With a poetic commentary by Laurie Lee (written a couple of years before the publication of his classic novel Cider with Rosie), the film is a hymn to the verdant bustle of field and hedgerow as the winter finishes and the natural world blossoms once again with all the promise of springtime. Moles, hedgehogs, house martins, ants, newly hatched tadpoles – all are observed in beautiful Technicolor going about their seasonal business. Directed by Ralph Keene, Journey into Spring reached a wider audience than many BTF shorts after it was nominated for Oscars for best live action short and best documentary short.
Le Joli Mai (1963)
Director Chris Marker
In 1960, with Chronicle of a Summer, sociologist Edgar Morin and filmmaker/anthropologist Jean Rouch created a milestone in street-level vérité filmmaking when they took to the boulevards of Paris that summer to ask the people of the city the simple question: “Are you happy?”
In the spring of 1962, Chris Marker embarked upon a similar portrait of a city and a moment in time, filming 55 hours of footage and interviews with Parisians to capture the mood of a capital experiencing its first spring of peacetime since 1939. The Evian Accords had brought an end to the Algerian War, and Marker and cinematographer Pierre Lhomme speak with a wide spectrum of residents to quiz them on their work, lives, money, politics. From a poet to a housewife, a stockbroker to General De Gaulle himself, Marker’s poetic essay film bottles the mood, hopes and discontents of a city in transition. Long unavailable, the film screened to wide acclaim in a restored version at the 2013 Cannes Film Festival, 50 years after the film was awarded the festival’s International Critics Prize.
Ferris Bueller’s Day Off (1986)
Director John Hughes
Spring has sprung and teenaged Ferris Bueller (Matthew Broderick) has got better things to do on a fine day than going to school. This cult classic teen comedy from director John Hughes is one of the ultimate films about playing truant and about just how much fun can be squeezed into one day when you’re not lugging your exercise books from one classroom to another. In Ferris’s case, this involves borrowing a Ferrari, cruising into Chicago, going for lunch at a posh restaurant, visiting an exhibition, and taking every opportunity afforded by some snatched hours of freedom with his girlfriend (Mia Sara) and best mate (Alan Ruck). “Life goes by so fast,” Ferris says, “that if you don’t stop and look around, you might miss it.”
Like many of Hughes’s films during his peak in the 1980s, Ferris Bueller’s Day Off struck a chord with teenagers rebelling against adult control while craving many of the privileges that maturity will bring. Smart talking and ingenious, Ferris may wag school but you know he’s going to go far.
A Tale of Springtime (1990)
Director Éric Rohmer
Éric Rohmer was slippery about his birth date, but of all the usually given days 21 March 1920 feels right, falling on that year’s Vernal equinox – the first day of spring. For Rohmer was a great director of the seasons, especially the warmer ones; indeed he’s the only filmmaker whose films are included in all four of our season-inspired lists.
1990’s A Tale of Springtime kicked off the third and last of Rohmer’s untouchable film series, Tales of the Four Seasons. Another of the director’s delightful comedies of manners, it centres on a Parisian philosophy teacher, Jeanne (Anne Teyssèdre), who becomes the object of a young music student’s attempts to matchmake her divorced father, Igor (Hugues Quester). The drama moves between Paris and Igor’s family home in Fontainebleau, where the trees are blossoming and where Rohmer traces the gentle unravelling of misunderstandings and hesitant desires that only he knew how to weave so well.
Springtime in a Small Town (2002)
Director Tian Zhuangzhuang
Currently unavailable on DVD but due for another turn in the spotlight as part of the BFI’s celebration of China this summer, Fei Mu’s 1948 original Spring in a Small Town is considered one of the great classics of Chinese film. In deference to that film’s influence, Tian Zhuangzhuang – who rose to fame in the 1980s as one of the so-called Fifth Generation of Chinese filmmakers – remade Fei’s original in 2002. Against the prevailing wisdom that remakes are often redundant, Springtime in a Small Town is in fact exquisite – a subtle, controlled and almost unbearably moving story of unrequited love.
“The spring is as changeable as a child’s mood”, a servant tells his ailing master, Dai Liyan (Wu Jun), in the film’s opening scenes, scolding him for venturing out without warmer clothing. True enough, a dangerous wind begins to ruffle through this solitary outpost when an old doctor friend visits, reawakening a dormant love between the doctor and Dai’s beautiful, frustrated wife Yuwen (Hu Jingfan). The resulting love triangle plays out against the backdrop of a village in springtime, in a setting that seems entirely removed from the outside world but which reverberates with its own tremulous emotions.
Spring Breakers (2013)
Director Harmony Korine
The spring break movie, revelling in the bikini-clad hedonism of American students as they take their Easter vacation in places like Palm Springs and Fort Lauderdale, has been a mainstay of youth films since florid 1960s releases like Palm Springs Weekend (1963). Indie provocateur Harmony Korine stepped into the act with this love-it-or-hate-it, no-holds-barred 2013 film, in which three girls (Vanessa Hudgens, Ashley Benson and the director’s wife Rachel Korine) rob a restaurant purely to get funds for a booze and drug-fuelled holiday in Florida.
The provocation here is just how far Korine is simply making his own Day-Glo coloured, woozily focused exploitation picture (the film certainly wallows in its own decadence, with the female cast in their beachwear throughout) or whether he’s setting off a bomb under the genre. It’s hallucinatory, invigorating, appalling, oddly wistful, and either empty or an intoxicating evocation of emptiness.