Top 10 of 1929/30
10. A Cottage on Dartmoor
A Cottage on Dartmoor was the final gasp of life for the silent cinema even with Anthony Asquith going on to direct many more pictures in the sound age, taking a cue from Sunrise in its usage of all the potential tools at its disposal. We open on a convict named Joe escaping, landing in our movie as if dropped into it, before he runs off into the wild wintry moors and meets up with an ex lover who now has a child. From there, the flashback: he was a hairdresser and she a manicurist. Truly meant to be, and this simple little romance gets elevated off the sheer strength of the visuals Asquith’s camera gives us (there is a POV shot from the vantage of a customer getting a head massage at the salon they both work at), and with the script quietly and devastatingly acknowledging that the day and age is coming to an end, with a date proposal of “Would you like to go to a talkie?” where we can’t hear a word of Harold Lloyd’s antics because we are too trapped in our poor average Joe’s head, turning out to be a jealous and homicidal lunatic, while still getting acknowledgement of the fact that people only like seeing the man talk (the movie in question is one of those half and half movies) because of the novelty. Not so much a condemnation as a sad acknowledgement, with this being a message from beyond the grave in terms of making a point about the nature of where cinema had come from and where it was heading, thrown into the middle of a basic but sad character study, with the man and the woman both being neither sinners nor saints and a forgiving script where the man’s eventual murder of a romantic rival by slitting his throat with a razor can result in a certain level of forgiveness in the climax, which is all he can be allowed in this gorgeously bleak world that has been summoned up for us. The performances are fairly bad by the standards of even the silent era, but they are also aggressively heightened, and that is precisely what a dream this gorgeous needs at times, although one cannot deny that Janet Gaynor would have made for a much better leading lady. Still, aiming for the perfection of Sunrise might be a bit too high, so let us just be grateful for this.
Favorite Moment: Meta movie theater going.
9. City Girl
City Girl was the inspiration for the just watched and worshiped Days of Heaven in my Terrence Malick retrospective, and lends a fascinating opposite perspective to the material. Where Days of Heaven was focused on the ideas of class in the most elliptical fashion, with our main threesome going from working hard in the fields to living idly once the Farmer is married to returning to their brutal lives once the fire and locusts happen…City Girl is purely a romance. It cannot dredge up the majesty of Sunrise or Malick’s film due to the lack of variety and color in the filming locations, but still, wheat would not look this good for another fifty years. The melodramatic plot, in true F.W. Murnau fashion, focuses on the titular character who meets a nice boy from the country. They fall in love and immediately decide to get married so she can leave her miserable waitress job. The father and mother of the groom are not exactly pleased when he returns, believing that he sold the grain at too low of a price because he was distracted by the woman’s feminine wiles. Eventually Edith Yorke’s mom relents and likes the waitress, Kate, but David Torrence’s deeply resentful father remains unimpressed with her and tries to destroy the marriage in any way that he can. Conflict inevitably arises as a result of this, but the Hollywood happy ending and redemption are never too far away, and the plot is nothing more than an excuse for Murnau to show things like a beautiful hailstorm that is destroying the crop or, in the same vein as Sunrise, make the industrialized world look hectic but impressive. It may be underrated simply because of the incredibly high curve we must grade on when talking about the greatest of the silent directors and the fact that the studio imposed several brutal cuts onto his work, but nothing can compare to the sensuality of the billowing fields compared to the couple in love, embracing each other as they appear to be all alone in the world, dappled by the sun’s rays. The German Expressionism was slowly morphing into something new, a mix of style and the realism that was soon to hit the scene. Poetic realism may be an oxymoron, but it was precisely the style that fit the morality plays that Murnau’s films were so indebted to.
Favorite Moment: The romance in the wheat.
Let’s ignore the early silent scenes in Blackmail, which land with a loud wet fart outside of some pretty shots of a spinning wheel. (How fucking bizarre that an early sound film that only got it in the first place due to the technology being so new would genuinely be better in precisely that department.) When Anny Ondra’s Alice, who has just broken up with her police inspector boyfriend, decides to go off to the apartment of artist Mr. Crewe (Cyril Ritchard in a brief, grim, and scene stealing display despite the fact that there is not a single attempt at giving us a character motivation other than our director’s love for punishing blondes for adultery and crimes), things get interesting and quickly disturbing when he tries to steal a kiss, and humiliates/attempts to rape her so casually that it completely boggles the mind that this was made in 1929. In true Alfred Hitchcock fashion, we don’t see anything other than a hand reaching out (while we hear some chilling “Let me go!” cries), grabbing a knife, and the curtain to the bed rustling while the noises continue. The really impressive part? This was the original British talkie, and I cannot think of a better christening. There are, however, a few bumps in the road, in the shape of the transitions from silence to sound and back again and the duration of how our leading lady deals with the aftermath going on a bit too long. But even though there is not as much confidence in the hands of the creator, he provides several spooky visuals, with my personal favorite being a traumatized Ondra roving right towards the camera before a dissolve places her in the full apartment in all its gorgeously Expressionistic glory. Another favorite features the woman who finds the body appearing to be talking into a telephone over a police officer’s shoulder although they are not really in the same room. (From there she mostly just feels guilty over the cheating and the fact that she had to commit a murder, but you can see the talent behind the camera blooming despite the knowledge that Ondra’s character and career are undeservedly wilting. It may be difficult to judge her based off the dubbing work and the new standards of the medium, but I found her strangely compelling even with the obvious technical flaws, similar to Blackmail itself.
Favorite Moment: KNIFE!
7. The New Babylon
The New Babylon endures today for several reasons in my mind, but the most important ones are those that are simply rooted in the sheer glitzy spectacle. Visually, the two directors of the movie snatch onto the editing style that Sergei Eisenstein was busy making a bit lengthier in shot duration that same year with the two hour General Line, featuring delightfully kinetic sequences of shoppers going totally mad and caressing the items at a sale or snatching from a stand of twirling umbrellas, or dancing at a show in gay Paris as the rich old ugly women caress terrified young boys who they are clearly paying for their services. The Paris Commune, one of the most unfairly neglected historical events in the sum of modern history, is given a very idealized, pretty spin that could make it a good introduction to anyone looking for a light take on the material (a certain six hour mockumentary might be a bit too much for the majority of people, and this is already a pretty unfriendly title to any non-cinephiles). Our leading lady, played by Yelena Kuzmina in a truly great and always fun performance for the silent era (she had a bizarrely small filmography, so let’s call her the Falconetti of the Soviet Union), is involved in a love story in a film that goes for the propaganda approach of treating the bourgeois as evil, hedonistic assholes who live in glorious decadence that Grigori Kozintsev and Leonid Trauberg cannot help but revel in, while the proletarians are all hardworking simple folk you want to hang around with. However, there is a small undercurrent of feminism, in the 1920s sense of “hey, a female character who is actually independent enough!” Kuzmina’s character is used to encourage equality among the revolt rather than just participating blandly. Everything is theatrical down to the structure, which echoes a musical in how it goes from one lavish display to another while the material in between is just thin enough to justify all the…well, no singing here that we can hear. But there is a rendition of La Marseillaise that is completely heartbreaking in context, a harsh contrast to the lengthy earlier scenes of people dancing obliviously and drunkenly to the music we cannot hear, in complete bliss. Happiness must be drawn from a tough vein to get at for the rebels, in their blurred and manic lives.
Favorite Moment: Department store madness.
Applause exists for the sheer and simple purpose of both defying what we naturally expect old talkie films to be while being totally in the debt of the technological limits of the time mixed with people learning how to calibrate themselves. Helen Morgan’s performance as Kitty that drew more than a modern audience can be comfortable with from her own life (she died of alcoholism causing cirrhosis of the liver) may not be the kind of objectively great work that earns accolades but it works perfectly for a movie that is so unashamed of throwing big, stage levels of emotional manipulation at the audience members, especially with her uglying herself up and drawing on the unique powers of her ravaged vocal instrument. The plot is about a cliched as they come, with Kitty giving birth to her daughter April and giving her up to a convent so she can pursue a career. She winds up being stuck in a burlesque act, horrifying the child who has now become old enough to understand how exploitative this all is for the men who watch, but does not realize that her mother’s abusive boyfriend wants to make plenty of money off of her too even with Kitty’s resistance to her child having any part in the entertainment industry. Stupid, tawdry material? Yes, but the camera work is revolutionary stuff. It moves regularly, and with great skill through the dancers and their numbers on the stage. So many tracking shots in a film from 1929 is quietly revolutionary on its own but we also get deft manipulation of sound, with the crappiness of the productions getting emphasized via the usage of sound that has not been synchronized. There are no traces of the German Expressionism that influenced the most stylish productions of the time but the camera angles are creative and weird enough to make it feel heightened. The cast is not a natural fit in this horrible world of dive bars and shitty burlesque shows, and this is all emphasized in the most implicit of ways, with plenty of dissolves to both speed things along and blend everything together into what feels like one very long day even with such a deliciously quick duration. No matter what level of primitive you imagine the state of things can be, particularly in the non-Morgan performances in this, everything is never as bad as you would think.
Favorite Moment: The opening number.
5. Diary of a Lost Girl
The camera always loved Louise Brooks thanks to her strange take on silent acting that never felt quite as theatrical as the people she was surrounded with, her short black bobbed hair, and some generous assistance from her directors. G.W. Pabst spent Diary of a Lost Girl giving her character, Thymian, advantages in the shape of a crown of flowers in her hair and making her practically glow in contrast to all the black in the background after a discovery that her old housekeeper has committed suicide as the result of her pharmacist father getting her pregnant. Franziska Kinzas plays Meta, the replacement, as a woman who is not remotely happy with her new position as the second wife for this creep, and we soon quickly find out that the men are all the same here as the pharmacist’s assistant rapes Thymian and gets her pregnant as well, with Meta blankly staring and smiling as the family leafs through the titular diary and finds out the truth. Her rapist gets away with it, and when our lost girl refuses to marry him, she is sent off by her father (Josef Rovensky in a great, miserable performance) to a nasty convent, populated with a deranged lesbian nun and her husband. She manages to get the help of a friend, Count Osdorff, who has been kicked out of his own aristocratic family for being unsuccessful at schooling and escapes the prison with her closest friend Erika at the nunnery (in a great, chaotic sequence of the girls revolting against the leaders), but the new wife mocks them, saying the two belong together. Things go from bad to worse, with the baby dying, the two girls becoming prostitutes, and Osdorff going totally broke thanks to his disinheritance. But eventually, our heroine makes her way up in the world, gaining her own agency after a few years due to her dear old dad finally dying. She responds near heroically in every fashion, but even with the fairy tale level of morality, the movie is so exquisite to look at and contains so much fascinating subtext related to lesbianism and rape that it’s hard to care. Her true moment of agency, thankfully, comes when she is put on the board of directors at the very same school where she was treated so cruelly and proceeds to disavow it. We identify with everything she does for imperceptible reasons.
Favorite Moment: Eating soup.
The direction of Asphalt comes across as a little unclear once we get the key elements down, involving an umbrella that houses a legendary jewel that has been stolen. Is it about the woman being redeemed by the cop? No, that is too boring and not sufficiently German for a silent era film. We need more Expressionism and misery in the case of the woman seducing the man, leading him to his doom! While there is not quite the same level of visual panache of an F.W. Murnau or a Fritz Lang work of art, Joe May still acquits himself well, pacing things nicely so that we never stop moving in this delightful little popcorn noir. The camera never stops moving in two different senses of the term. The first is in the long tracking shots that were a rarity of the time and became slowed down thanks to the development of sound, as we rove through the throngs of people. The second is in several quick cuts between the faces of Betty Amann and the idiots who make the mistake of getting in the way of her quest to steal that diamond. She is a real delight of sensuousness but does not take it to the realm of parody, with her glamorous outfits doing plenty of heavy lifting in that particular department. Still, the plot consists of her essentially seducing the straight laced cop who is trying to persecute her, with small favors ranging from a borrowed handkerchief to a quick and dirty game of footsie. Don’t mistake this for misogyny, however. She winds up being a not entirely irredeemable character despite femme fatale scenes such as her clinging to him, with the so called straight laced police officer having plenty of his own faults, including living with a father even more bound to the idea that the law is the only thing that matters in a situation like this. But the propulsive rush of following Amann’s Else play a good girl gone bad (and escape with things as ridiculous as yanking a phone out while the good old boy is talking on it) must come to an end eventually, and we get stuck with a final shot that is as grim and merciless as anything I can imagine even by the standards of a director who was about to flee from the reign of the Nazi Party.
Favorite Moment: The final shots.
3. People on Sunday
People on Sunday is a film that has many seemingly disparate elements working together to make it so special. Historical relevance is the one that leaps most immediately into mind, with this tale of five young ordinary Germans who were essentially playing themselves gaining some spookiness once the realization that all this happiness and carefree fun is going to end thanks to Hitler and World War II coming into prominence. This ordinary Sunday may be taken for granted, but it feels even more precious and unique thanks to the limited number of them that will be coming into the future. But even if Germany had been a utopia, this movie without actors would still hold a lot of weight as something genuinely experimental, with the footage being shot and edited like Man With a Movie Camera or Berlin: Symphony of a Great City without any of the disregard for the nature of cinema itself or the need to pay homage to buildings rather than the residents respectively. It is simply an experiment in the realm of telling a nice, normal story, with life flashing by, disregarded by all the characters to a certain degree. Disregarding the strange nature of the shooting, however, the ensemble is sketched out beautifully, bouncing off each other in their dynamics. The two males, taxi driver Erwin and wine salesman Wolfgang, are far better defined than the females (Erwin’s depressed model girlfriend Annie, Wolfgang’s film extra girlfriend Christl, and Christl’s record seller friend who winds up being invited along when Annie no-shows their picnic Brigitte). There is no point in grading the cast on their performances, but the camera clearly loves the women as they do everything glamorously while we slowly learn that Wolfgang is preparing to love and leave whichever girl he loves. This may be a double date, but Billy Wilder’s sexual politics were so modern that the story could be about the residents of any civilization that took a nasty fall. History changed the landscape where these people spend just another day of the weekend, but it could never change the depressing reveal of just how many picnics these men have gone on with no regard for the women involved. It feels like a predecessor to Malick’s documentation of a certain period in one’s life, with free wheeling and hypnotic editing where there are countless cuts to make a montage, but you can barely feel them.
Favorite Moment: The reveal of the other picnics.
2. Pandora’s Box
In Diary of a Lost Girl, Louise Brooks was a victim of an unkind world that saw fit to punish her for being a rape victim. In Pandora’s Box, she has no time for any of that nonsense, playing a woman named Lulu who will happily do whatever it takes to get ahead and has the feminine wiles to get away with it. She quite literally drives men crazy, and the one who she has the closest relationship with is either her father or her pimp, possibly both. Femme fatale? Yes, absolutely, but she is literally every woman, from mother to whore, and the mise en scene responds appropriately. She is always getting blocked out by men, turned into a series of body parts that the camera turns into a fetish of sorts. Louise Brooks’ performance is what helps so much, with Lulu’s self awareness existing but not coming to light consistently. She is an innocent hooker of sorts, complete with unintentionally predicting the future when she tells one of her lovers that he will have to kill her if he wants to be rid of her. Her stepson (Francis Lederer, gorgeous and melancholy) ends up practically collapsing into her crotch on her wedding night even after his father the newspaper publisher has repeatedly sent him to our Pandora with some kind of warning about her. Even with the ending essentially punishing carnality and the lesbianism that occurs at a certain point, Brooks is too capable of embodying life and playfulness to turn the film rancid, and the people she seduces are so deranged with their pursuits of money and power that it feels like a cautionary tale against male avarice just as much as an outdated form of slut shaming. The only time she does something kind, it is what knocks her out of this world of corruption for good. The eight acts connect with each other in a tangential, dreamlike way, but when the only link is all the madness that we go through, with practically all the deadly sins but particularly lust given their due, and it looks this pretty and loaded, just embrace the madness. It may be hugely dependent on its star, but then again, the very best films tell a simple story that relies on a human face and the person in question does it so well. The chilly exterior holds a carnal heart.
Favorite Moment: Wedding night.
1. All Quiet on the Western Front
All Quiet on the Western Front is the sort of film that does not play around with niceties or straightforward scenes, taking this asset on from the superlative novel on which it was based despite remaining totally cinematic. We get a brief bit of German propaganda encouraging the schoolboys to join the war for the purposes of saving the Fatherland (ignore the very American accents, but at least they didn’t put on bad ones), and they immediately start raising their hands, yet even as plot development we know we are in for a treat because of the camera moving around so freely and we have already gotten creative sound use to boot thanks to a parade passing by the window. Basic training puts a stop to their delusions of grandeur very quickly, with the mildest version of the film’s willingness to throw the entire cast into the mud getting an early workout. They get their small revenge and are promptly repaid with their duty, with the most reluctant member of the group to join the army immediately going through a wringer of shock from a bombing, voiding his bowels, getting blinded by shrapnel fire, and finally, mercifully, shot down when he goes mad and leaves the trench. “Death is secretly better than this hell on Earth” is never outright stated and never really a position thanks to small mercies such as a pig for dinner or extra rations, but even those come with payment or acquiring extra due to the number of people who have been killed. Trench warfare is next and it is a horror show of rats, constant noises, tedium, and a horrifying pan to the right as the enemy is shot down and killed by machine gunners, the first truly kinetic take of the sound era. How they filmed this in 1930 is completely beyond me. No one dies easily, they let out animalistic shrieks that may come across as slightly over the top if you aren’t freaked out by the lack of “wince slightly, then die” that we normally watch. The brief respites, with people talking about politics and Lew Ayres going on leave, are just as painful to watch since we are consistently aware that there is a war ongoing and this moment of peace will be dashed across the trenches. Everything is at the least a minor humiliation or trauma, and this is from a perspective far removed.
Favorite Moment: Butterfly.