Top 20 of 1930/31
From a classic of the horror genre to something regularly derided by the general film viewing public as being a thoroughly lacking piece of cinema, the original adaptation of Dracula’s has a fascinating legacy thanks to many new generations discovering its hokiness. Marrying the German Expressionism of similar brands of works such as The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari and particularly Nosferatu, to a new style rooted in the studios, the opening Transylvania scenes of Act 1 are far better than the ones in the second half. The castle is as moody as anything you could ask, and Bela Lugosi’s performance is not scenery chewing so much as it is cannibalism, him being part of the decor, in his natural habitat and free to be both theatrical and right at home. Apparently he was just as theatrical in real life, and the casting was a match made in heaven. Dwight Frye as Renfield, meanwhile, gets hypnotized by the glare in Bela’s eyes and goes mad in glorious fashion, veering from soap opera readings of mourning with regards to his inability to eat the spiders, to genuinely coming across as totally disturbed in the stereotypical movie fashion, hissing his praises towards his boss when confronted, and getting a face on the boat for the ages. Unfortunately, everything after that is where things get bad, but you can sense the hatred of the executive producer for the material in how stagebound it all is. The plot goes into repetition, with only Van Helsing giving us something interesting. Lucy and Mina get treated bizarrely, becoming essentially irrelevant and treated as if they are in the play it was really based on. (Lucy is casually mentioned as becoming a vampire before getting forgotten altogether, never showing up again.) Not much about any of this lives up to the perfection of Act 1, but it all holds up in the rickety nature of how it works. Lugosi’s perpetual stares towards the necks of everyone in sight, the mist shrouding everything, and the snuffling rats are primal in their power. It may be the most dated of the great films, but there is still a strangely compelling aura of blood about it, even if the Francis Ford Coppola adaptation, bad Keanu and Winona performances included, is the one that is truly worth your time due to his embrace of the batshit rather than the bat’s shit. (Sorry.)
Favorite Moment: The ship attack.
19. Westfront 1918
Favorite Moment: Man stands in the center.
18. The Front Page
So, when discussing The Front Page’s reputation, one must inevitably factor in His Girl Friday into the equation. However, the good or bad news, depending on how you want this review to go: I have not seen it yet! I plan on watching it very soon, but for now, we must look at the original, and you can tell right away that changing one of the main characters to a woman and letting them spew romantic barbs at each other is the sort of thing that will give it some extra kick. It also claims to open in a mythical kingdom, for reasons that probably had to do with characters resembling real life newspapermen. Lewis Milestone may have made a masterpiece in All Quiet on the Western Front, but his love for masculine back and forth is a lot less immersive when dealing with an everyday story rather than a tale taking place in World War I. Best in show, as recognized by almost everyone, is Adolphe Menjou, hot off being pushed around by Marlene Dietrich in Morocco and getting to be the pushiest member in the couple instead. However, for every suggestive double entendre and witty piece of banter that makes the Screenplay snub a bizarre choice on the Academy’s end, you get plenty of stale deliveries (that explains it) and more than a little bigotry, and the film is in bad shape visually due to the quality of the print and Milestone’s bizarre inability to transfuse the liveliness of his camera in All Quiet over to this story, with not even a fun pan of numerous people typing at the typewriters or something like that. Hildy is also handled very badly, simply showing up about fifteen minutes into the movie and then we are basically told, “Audience, like this character, because you are stuck with him.” The main thing this has in its favor is the editing, with the cuts coming just as hard and fast as the dialogue. I’m curious to see His Girl Friday now, just to see the alleged improvements and how it gets edited, for I have a sneaking feeling that Howard Hawks would be fonder of the longer takes to allow us to soak in Russell’s livewire dialogue spitting. Sometimes, you can view a little hint of perfection, and it becomes infinitely more disappointing that this could not capitalize on the power of its wording.
ETA: This got bumped up.
Favorite Moment: The goodbyes.
17. The Big Trail
Favorite Moment: Dog at gravesite.
16. Min and Bill
Min and Bill offers the exact insight a modern viewer might need into why Marie Dressler was such a big star (she outearned Mickey Mouse) despite her harsh appearance that does not fit in the least with all the glamorous women who have won the Academy Award for Best Actress over the years. It may have been a “we love you because you make us lots of money!” award in the same vein as Sandra Bullock winning for learning how not to be racist, and she may be a fairly hammy actress at certain points, but it works nicely thanks to her playing the comedy broadly and the tragedy subtly. She also gets many modes to play in her strange romance with her male equivalent in that rare “the good kind of hammy actor” acting category, Wallace Beery. The two are a pair of dockside workers with an adopted orphan daughter, and while they do love each other, they are not conventionally together in the coupling sense, and the questions of their dynamic are the secret weapon that allows the movie to get away with anything. The two are a wonderfully matched pair together, with the good kind of ridiculous slapstick scenes that somehow work due to how real they are (that axe scene is not fake at all), but Marjorie Rambeau (phenomenal and a hypothetical supporting category winner in a better world) enters the picture claiming to be the girl’s mother and immediately grabs Bill’s attention to boot by being so skinny and pretty in contrast to Min, who calls herself an old sea cow. The dynamics are fascinating, but Min’s solitary moments, like that long scene of her kicking a can down the sidewalk with an unspeakably tragic look on her face, are the ones that really stick in between the giggles. She had already played a similar supporting role in Anna Christie, and The Docks of New York did this material best and most expressively, but this dock picture feels the most timeless, something that could be made nowadays and only look a little strange due to its fleet running time and scenes of comedy that play a little harsher than something like Bridesmaids’ diarrhea attack. This is a movie of subtle pleasures that everyone wishes there was more of, a work that consists of calories that appear empty but are much more filling than they appear.
Favorite Moment: Axe attack.
15. Madam Satan
Cecil B. DeMille’s filmography generally skewed towards the brainless Biblical (or at least sand and swords) epic, or the occasional morality play. Gloria Swanson’s love for him in Sunset Boulevard mostly just served to make him look bad, no matter how well he played his part at coming across sympathetically. Yet Madam Satan is a bizarre outlier in everything he did: a box office flop, and something genuinely weird and out there. It straddles the line between camp and kitsch while staring the spectator dead in the eyes as it warbles away one of the many rather dreadful songs that it has. The first hour is a bedroom farce of sorts, with Angela realizing that Bob is cheating on her with Trixie, and decides to become a woman who will seduce her husband at a masquerade…Madam Satan! Yet this oversimplified summary does not include a sequence where men get showered with their clothes on in a sequence that would feel awfully homoerotic if it was not so damn weird, a woman telling her husband that the paper is declaring his bigamy practices which prompts some “I’m a bad liar acting” that would feel pretty convincing if it wasn’t for how he delivers all his lines in that exact style, and various other elements that cohere purely by the level that they do not. The reset button gets pushed at the halfway point, and we move into a mash of crazy art deco sets, a costume ball featuring Fish Girl, and something involving a dirigible. It also gets infinitely more conservatively scripted regarding marital loyalty, but what occurs in the background is so aggressively strange that I cannot imagine any conservative using this as an example unless they wanted to fuck with Donald Trump’s basket of deplorables. The story has no room to breathe because it has so much of it roiling around, nothing happens yet it is wholly relevant to completing the unsolvable puzzle. Brilliant and banal and…whatever the whole way through. For a two hour movie to never be boring, except when it is…well, it is an accomplishment. No actress has ever made her plaintive cries of “Baaaawb! Baaaab!” as convincingly unconvincing as Kay Johnson’s dreadfully amazing lead. I just want to sit in hot towels and talk with her all night long about her acting career. What was she thinking throughout this, and did she watch Norma Desmond channel her?
Favorite Moment: Costume ball.
14. City Streets
Favorite Moment: Cat statue chat.
13. Her Man
Tay Garnett’s reputation is not as good as it should be (the problem that his two Oscar nominated productions were both rather terrible does not help) even with The Postman Always Rings Twice on his resume, but hopefully the fact that Her Man was recently restored and toured the country, with a few writers and critics calling it a forgotten masterpiece (a bit much), goes some way towards giving him a well deserved reputation boost and points people in the direction of his One Way Passage, a deliriously swoony piece of romance. With a truly Pre-Code story focusing on a woman trying to escape her knife throwing pimp and falling in love with a boring, innocent sailor, with many a dream in her heart to keep the days from getting too painfully dull. It’s a surprisingly adult scenario despite the ridiculousness of it all, with the sensuality of something like Von Sternberg perverted by a sort of gloomy realism. The comedy sequences that have been added in for relief in the most desperate sense of that word are unusual and enjoyable, mostly thanks to the director’s love of crazy zooming camera movements that liven up everything on a formal level even with crowd scenes. It’s all about conjuring up an atmosphere, and one that is totally crazy in the right ways. The atmosphere is as drunk as Marjorie Rambeau, who plays an alcoholic and gets the final laugh in a scene that is bizarre and beautiful. This sums up the appeal of old Hollywood, really, with the actors not playing nuanced psychological individuals but broad archetypes that collide against each other at top speeds, for the sake of our entertainment as people snark and the camera floats around like a balloon with minimal tethering in the final bar fight that is choreographed for maximum absurdity. The fact that we start off with opening credits that are washed away by the sand is the perfect summary of why this is fresh and exciting, for the personality behind the whole show is so fresh and exciting and is clearly giving his everything despite seeming on the surface to be just another Hollywood hack. It’s as if Robert Altman was fully demented and decided to just drive us up the walls with various shenanigans from any ensemble in a port. It’s delightfully of energy and brassy as hell thanks to the unusual textures.
Favorite Moment: Ending.
12. Little Lise
Lise is a small and skinny girl, constantly made to look like an infant thanks to the camera of Jean Gremillon and the crowded or claustrophobic sets. Her boyfriend is much taller than she is, and her father is simply enormous, his hug looking rather like a swallowing. Said father has just gotten an early release from prison for good behavior after killing her mother in a fit of jealousy, where everyone sings the same song of camaraderie repeatedly and inmates try to make schemes to escape. Where the lives of the black population in France fits into the thesis is hard to say (Gremillon’s Dainah la Metisse notoriously got hacked up beyond repair, but was focused on similar ideas), but they bookend the movie with musical numbers despite the white people destroying each other. Lise’s boyfriend Andre is trying to get money from a man who looks unfortunately along the lines of a caricature from the mind of an anti-Semite, but he is portrayed as full and complex while Andre is just shown as being rather pathetic and dumb in his quest for 3000 francs. It still ends with him nearly being strangled before Lise steps in with a gun that he was planning to use, and both parent and child are murderers. Yet the shame cuts both ways even after he finds out, for Lise’s casual revelation that she has been lying about her parents for the duration of her relationship with her awful lover is visible to the audience, but not the former prisoner. What goes unsaid is as important as what is said, with the soundtrack often filling in the gaps in a way that contrasts as harshly as possible with the ideas espoused by the characters for their next scheme or plan to scrape a slightly higher position. They are actually shown thinking. When it is discovered that our heroine’s new occupation is not typist but prostitute by the ex-prisoner, she does not have a strong reaction, but she simply expresses horror while clearly thinking over every humiliating possibility before the reaction on his end comes into frame. One may be on the rise and the other on the fall, but really, the two of them, and Andre’s meddling self to boot, are the losers in this area. Yet another smiling, singing mob of people surrounds them anyway, so where are they going to be better off?
Favorite Moment: The murder.
11. The 3 Penny Opera
G.W. Pabst’s final moment in the sun before descending into dreadfulness was The Three Penny Opera, a musical where the characters sing out of a desperate desire to be in a glitzy Hollywood production that did not actually exist yet rather than their gloomy lives. His talent for wringing carnality out of the shadows had not yet failed him, with a theatrical looking set (complete with smoke machine fog) that is composed to make it look like a claustrophobic neighborhood. German to the point of austerity in its shadows and angles, the songs are not the sort you would expect to hear nowadays in a musical. I have only seen the German version of the production, but Florelle was so good as the even more tragic Fantine in Bernard’s Les Miserables that I wonder if I am missing out by not watching the French edition. The cynicism in this tale of Mack the Knife and the crime war he happens to trigger by marrying banker’s daughter Polly Peachum is heavily dolloped on a thin tale, with her bitter wedding song about a pirate lover becoming infinitely more famous by Nina Simone’s psychedelic cover, yet lacking none of the cynicism about what happened and with the camera staring straight into her blank face as she recites the words like an angry child. “It’s not nice, it’s art” is Mack’s angry retort to the bland compliments post performance, but there is a statue of a woman behind him, cold and dead, just as if she was his lover. Her father does not want such a thing and triggers a gang war in order to bring her back, which slowly unfolds as a series of schemes that only result in an ending that was changed to possibly have even higher levels of cynical notions than the original, which basically inspired The Last Laugh in giving the main character a pardon out of nowhere that did not reflect reality in the least. Here, a battle between the elites (the bankers) and the criminals of the underworld is going to break out before they decide to join forces, and the world’s financial system becomes a safe, happy form of organized crime. Very Biblical origin story, no? Certainly explains everything that ever was and ever will be, with the slow realization that all of these characters are fairly loathsome and getting their way explaining it all.
Favorite Moment: Pirate Jenny.
10. Honor Among Lovers
Honor Among Lovers is a play on that old expression “honor among thieves” and earns the little intricacies of what that entails. Claudette Colbert plays a secretary, Julia, whose boss (Fredric March as Jerry Stafford) is at the very top of the workplace’s food chain and the entire office is totally dependent on his say so, but it’s really Julia who runs the show, with all the witty banter that you would expect from an early American Hollywood movie in this particular genre. We can tell right away upon seeing how they meet that they will wind up romantically involved, and the two are not opposed to a hint of flirting and good natured banter to make the days go by a little more quickly (although the movie itself is just over an hour), but what forestalls this is the fact that Julia not only already has a boyfriend, but she is totally comfortable with a man who is lower down on the food chain while Mr. Stafford tries to woo her with expensive meals and vacations. Colbert is perfectly in control of her professional and work lives while March wants something new, but neither one will know what to expect in the shocking amount of ground that Dorothy Arzner covers from a thin scenario, in the same vein as The Wild Party being delightfully idiotic as opposed to just pointless. Arzner’s brevity contributes to a sense of a minor emotional crisis where things happen, they cause minor emotional crises, and the world keeps on turning, but no one is ever quite the same after everything has wrapped. “Minimalist social melodrama” is an underrated genre, and she did it right, from the cocktail party where the ensemble’s respective desires all crash up against each other when Julia and Jerry have a dance, to their awkward meeting the next day where they awkwardly hash it out before a truly painful proposition that quickly turns into an indictment of male privilege, with the second half spiraling out of control into a series of encounters that feel very small on paper thanks to the other movies most viewers of the film will have seen but in practice come across as vaguely catastrophic. By the time the romantic confusion spirals into criminal activity, we are only vaguely aware of how far we have come from such an innocuous starting point, but the ride is well worth it.
Favorite Moment: The stolen kiss.
Borderline’s editing is mad from the very beginning, with a woman going for the phone in a way that suggests a police call gone wrong in a horror picture despite the jazzy scoring, followed by a tense, eruptive encounter between a black woman and a white man that seems to imply an argument gone very wrong. Turns out that the former, Adah, has been having an affair with the white Thorne while her husband Pete is totally unaware and Thorne’s wife Astrid is trying to put an end to it. Montages are more frequent than the intertitles that explain what resembles that thin plot, with the unmoving camera being totally unnoticeable due to how lively the cutting goes. Paul Robeson gets a long pan down his body in a rare exception that may be one of the few times an African American body has ever been viewed as desirable on film before the end of legally sanctioned discrimination. A sequence where the two African American lovers look at each other in an alleyway while a child plays around with a cat drinking water is super loaded with queries as to what it could possibly mean, but that’s Borderline for you. It refuses to play by any set of established rules despite still remaining a clear story, even with other digressions such as some scientists examining some boiling test tubes of an unidentifiable dark liquid. Most thrilling of all is the soundtrack, a long hour of soul and jazziness that sounds like nothing else ever shown in a silent, fittingly enough. Eventually, violence breaks out among the townspeople who are offended by the existence of an interracial couple, and a murder occurs. Best in show, no doubt about it, is Helga Doorn as Astrid, and once she is out of the picture in one of the few slow, calm moments in this hectic world, we go back to the speedy route of a descent into a murder trial and a grim aftermath, where the loneliness of it all blows up so that we have to stare it right in the face. The overwhelming joy on the rest of the town’s part is as gross as anything you could think of, with the soulful eyes of the three remaining cast members putting the people of Switzerland and Europe as a whole on their own sort of trial for their crimes against humanity.
Favorite Moment: The first time the editing goes wild.
“Another Josef von Sternberg and Marlene Dietrich partnership” and “World War I spy film” sound like a truly terrible pairing on paper due to the former’s lack of interest in his plots, and in practice, Dishonored does a pretty lousy job at being the precursor to the Angelina Jolie or some such version of Female James Bond that we all secretly desire (Tom Hiddleston, of all generic white dudes who are decent actors?) due to the very simple reason that the director does not give a shit about the plot and his starlet is more concerned with seducing her way to the top of the food chain rather than her mission. Anyone who watches the better known spy franchise for the lifestyle porn will get their kicks aplenty from the spectacle we get throughout the vague plot relating to the Austrian Secret Service, but you also will see a traitor who is feeding information to the Russians is caught and proceeds to commit suicide thanks to the efforts of this former street prostitute. More importantly, there is a ball that reminds me of the most glitzy and over the top sequences of The New Babylon, and we see her Agent X-27 be caught because of the power of her pussy-namely, her cat is recognized by another person she spies on. The title that Von Sternberg was opposed to turns out to be completely nonsensical unless you have a rather puritanical attitude towards using your sexuality to gain favors, as the final scenes are where everything comes home in a grim but ridiculous way. She asks for a mirror when she faces death by firing squad, then uses the sword’s metal provided to readjust her makeup, making the link between her old job and her final one so explicit that anyone over the age of 12 could analyze that subtext. Her former lover refuses to call for her death, screaming about how everyone is a murderer before being led away while X-27 adjusts her stockings in the snow. But there is no mercy to be found here as she goes into the ground via gunshots a few seconds later, and the sound of silence is the sole thing we have left to hear. The best part is that her pet cat is the one who gets taken in by the church, for a little pussy is of superior value to a woman’s life.
Favorite Moment: Final shot, literally.
Previously discussed on HMWYBS!
Favorite Moment: Tuxedo dance.
6. Le Million
Le Million’s opening scenes mean it could just as well be entitled On the Roofs of Paris, but unlike that movie’s blend of silent film and talking picture, this is a work that is proud to embrace its sound from the very beginning with the sounds of church bells and people singing ringing over the tops of the houses, introducing the merriness of the people at the party with the story of a happy event that took place at the beginning of that day with a musical number, the throng dissolving into a single couple. Rene Clair chooses to embrace the silliness early and often by having the poor artist not only lose his girlfriend thanks to confusion over the affairs, but sticking him in debt and having him lose the lottery ticket that could end all his misfortunes in ways that result in him running up and down and around the streets of the city of love. The only way the story would be more artificial and theatrical is if it had been filmed in color and pumped full of artifice, but as is, the entire enterprise is just an excuse for heightened passion to result in Umbrellas of Cherbourgesque moments of song and routines to the music that cannot precisely be called dance numbers, but sure as hell are not natural, what with the camera cutting from news of the windfall among the Greek chorus of tradespeople to a literal choir singing the chorus of MILLIONAIRE in between. Non-digetic sound is a particularly useful tool, with little touches like the sounds of a football match providing a sort of revolution in the same vein as Fritz Lang’s M, showing that what you heard was equally as important as what you saw nowadays. Half the fun is in the work as a soundtrack, with the natural rhythms of things like a ballet coming across as an ironic victory crescendo. The best joke, however, involves a room filled with guns. I shall not spoil any more surprises, except to say that it is a shame that the Cahiers critics turned on the old French cinema so viciously even when the works were as brilliant as Clair’s deranged madcap farce. Sometimes, you need to allow yourself a good quality laugh, and this has it in spades, with magical production design to boot even between all the delightful cartoon characters who inhabit this weird world.
Favorite Moment: The gun sticks out of objects.
5. Tabu: A Story of the South Seas
Tabu’s opening title cards, discussing how only natives will be appearing in this picture and calling Bora Bora a paradise untouched by human hands, promptly sets a worrisome tone on the matter of race considering this is a film from the 1930s. Having seen the 2012 picture of the same title may not help matters thanks to that film being a grim indictment of the powers that allowed colonialism to take root and the world that it created. Yet the two Tabus do nothing more than echo each other in strange ways, with the new version taking its first chapter’s name from the second of the old’s. The paradise of the island, with men hunting fish with spears and bathing under waterfalls, quickly turns sharp and frantic as The Boy saves The Girl from drowning (yes, another Sunrise allegory with people not having names and being universal constructs…except they get the names of Matahi and Reri later on). Soon, the music from The Tree of Life begins playing as the residents begin to row their boats to an announcement, and Reri has been declared taboo, unable to be touched by any man, nor even looked at in a way that makes her into an object of desire. If only the concept of the male gaze had been brought to life more quickly (both in writing and in the fact that movie spends a whole lot of time focusing on the rituals of the islanders), Murnau could have made another masterpiece, but we merely get one that comes close instead, with the second act turning into the two lovers running into the realm of the white gods in an attempt to escape the curse that was placed on their heads. The happiness turns into a tale of relentless paranoia, making the boringly happy opening scenes Matahi loses all the money he has made from diving for pearls during a celebration where he buys too many drinks, not understanding the concept of money, and then is told he gets three days before he will be executed for breaking the law of the land. Where Sunrise’s ending hinges on an impossibly beautiful coincidence that leads to happiness, this is simply a scream into the void, as fitting a finale for the first great director as any and one which lends no mercy to the poor unsuspecting viewer who desperately hopes for this to be an everlasting love.
Favorite Moment: The love goodbye note.
4. City Lights
Sadly, City Lights was not the movie the audiences got as the transition between the sound and silent era, with The Jazz Singer’s bland racism taking the mantle instead, but let us pretend that it was the work that vaulted us into a new age. The very first sound we would have heard at the moving pictures was, fittingly, a kazoo impersonating the voices of some people, in Chaplin taking the piss out of the whole talking enterprise. The adults in this particular city are all incompetent loons, with Chaplin’s Little Tramp getting into needless shenanigans as per usual, while his friend the millionaire is a suicidal drunk that continually saves his own life via incompetency rather than a concerted effort, and the blind girl who sells flowers that he loves mistakes him for a rich man based on the noise resulting from a rich man’s car door slamming (which may be the most delightfully stupid plot development ever). When we are not getting sight gags thrown at us at a mile per minute, the jokes are in the audio mix, and an attentive viewer can grasp something new with each viewing. But the humanity is what makes the films endure, with this being the most convincing romance yet in a work like this thanks to Virginia Cherrill and Harry Myers giving much more heft than the bland love interest usually gets and making their sidekick role a star of physicality respectively, with only The titular Kid providing as much personality in a Chaplin supporting role. There is not a minute’s shame except in the broad, cartoony depression of the millionaire’s suicidal urges that still conjures up a deep sense of pathos. Sentimental as all out get even when there is a boxer involved in the show, but that is precisely why the other emotions conjured up are so potent, with the sugary sweetness serving as a complementary flavor to the rest of the proceedings. So many toys in the chest are played with in a way that feels eternal, right down to the absolute perfection of that final scene, a final note that feels like a climax and an ending at the same time. Perhaps it is the midpoint of an epic tale that we are not privy to, but everyone deserves some privacy, so let us leave these stock characters alone, for they have earned the ultimate resolution.
Favorite Moment: Ending.
3. L’Age D’Or
Like all of the craziest, most surreal works of art, the idea behind L’Age D’Or is actually a fairly simple one relating to the notions of love (and in this case, sex) overcoming all the evils in this world, and it has the brief running time to match the ideas behind its existence not being a set of particularly innovative ones that would soon pop up in countless normative Disney features from now until whenever the end of civilization comes about. But as one of the most fun and wacky directors, Luis Bunuel was not interested in using his images to reinforce the norms of the era, but wanted to obliterate the entire Catholic Church and everything associated with the bourgeoisie with every ounce of his being. I am biased, but he probably had a good reason to do not just that, but chase Salvador Dali off that set with a hammer to boot. The primal rage underlying the mad symbols in this particular work of art is far too easy to get swept up in from the very first sight of those scorpions accompanied by a droll title card (this is a silent/sound hybrid for reasons that are not as clumsy as they sound) or the toe of that lucky statue getting sucked by the woman in the main couple, and by the time a man who bears a very strong resemblance to Jesus Christ and may or may not be him begins raping young girls in a monastery, things are simultaneously getting much clearer in their aims and a whole lot more complicated emotionally at the exact same moment. And yet it only lasts a little over an hour but that was enough to get it banned for quite a few decades. The emotions might be dyed red with anger and completely uncomplicated in their ambitions of upending polite society, but this is what makes it so potent in its own way. Spoiling the surprises that are to come in what resembles a plot (more like a series of vignettes) is an act I wish to avoid, so just think about the fact that Un Chien Andalou was acclaimed against the director’s wishes and factor in how he would react to such a thing for his next movie. The five prismatic joints of the scorpion’s tail gleam brightly in their natural splendor, and the tip is sharp and poisonous.
Favorite Moment: The cow in bed.
2. The Blue Angel
The Blue Angel generally gets trotted out as a metaphor for the German relations of the time because of Josef von Sternberg directing it and Marlene Dietrich/Emil Jannings being the leads (and both do amazingly, although I’ve only seen the German version). However, let us just take a few moments to enjoy the surface pleasures we are given. Starting with the screen test where she stomps her way all over some poor pianist butchering You’re The Cream in My Coffee the same way her lover butchers a rooster noise, to that poor bird getting chucked into a fire, and the slow and ingenious reveal of what those schoolboys are looking at, it’s all masterfully executed technique, in that corporate product way that Hollywood was so good at back in the day. Most people familiar with the silent era know which of these two leading actors was the one better suited for the sound pictures, but Jannings’ performance here is perfectly suited for this even with moments of hamminess. But they still fit anyway, for he is playing a self-serious professor who falls on his ass for a girl and promptly becomes a clown. The lows he sank to in this were an oddly fitting counterpart to his real life flop when you consider his relationships with the Nazi Party, something I have no doubt von Sternberg relished a bit while he twisted the boundaries between tragedy and comedy until they became as tangled up as the fronds on that dirty picture of Lola. Repression and masochism never looked this good, and the kinky twist of the strongman entering the picture just brings it to the forefront in plenty of fun ways. The nightclub itself is sub-Cabaret in how cheap it looks. Even the title is a fairly nonsensical, depressing one and the interiors could do with some redecoration and a healthy bit of carpeting for that trapdoor that hides the naughty boys…and their far more ill behaved teacher. Wonder what happened to them once they went off to college? Hugely unhealthy relationships with women, no doubt. I’m already dreaming up a sequel in my head, focused on that enormously talented artist who draws the mocking caricature on the chalkboard. That chalk illustration really does sum up the entirety of The Blue Angel. Crude as fuck, but crafted with love and attention to detail despite the fact that certain bits can be rather scrawled out.
Favorite Moment: The botched performance.
The first twenty minutes of Earth are slow paced and not exactly the sort of thing I found myself appreciating while watching it. We get some shots of wheat in the wind, enormous fruits, and glowing sunflowers that reminded me of the best parts of Days of Heaven but otherwise, very little happens in these moments since Alexander Dovzhenko was never too concerned with things like plot if the earlier two entries in his Ukraine Trilogy are any indicator (and they are two very difficult films to comprehend, albeit well worth your time if you want this to gain some impact). The small Soviet farming community endures a death of one of its elders and argues a bit over whether to join in the collectivist movement. It did not bore me but it didn’t compel me either. But then! We get a series of shots that compares the people to the farm animals as they wait for the new tractor to arrive, and when it does, it’s pure joy cranked up to an unprecedented level, primal feeling amplified. Cheering like the farming device is a new present on Christmas Day, they receive the gift, and promptly urinate in it to make it start up before harvesting plenty of grain, much to the anger of the kulaks (no one ever claimed this was a three dimensional portrayal). Pure propoganda? Yes, especially when the handsome young leader of the movement is shot in the middle of the night after dancing a gleeful jig on his way home. His father, grief stricken, demands an atheistic funeral, which results in the community carrying him as if he were a martyr. The priest rages and condemns the peasants to hell. Nature, still overwhelming, touches the body as they move along the road. A grief stricken kulak yells and confesses to the murder while another man leads the people in a rousing speech, but goes unheard. His lover goes mad but recovers upon seeing a newborn. It all ends with a shower of rain, for although there is great sympathy for the collectivists on Dovzhenko’s end, the message is simple: life will continue on and nature is the most powerful thing. The only woman to understand is the lover who winds up stripping naked and beating herself. The circle of life keeps rolling on, and even a seemingly minor political situation that had dire consequences in reality is unimportant.
Favorite Moment: Tractor arrives.