Top 20 of 1931/32
Favorite Moment: Off to sea in the end.
19. What Price Hollywood?
George Cukor would go on to direct the all time best version of A Star is Born about twenty years later, and William Wellman’s original version had not quite been created yet, but it all seemed to begin with What Price Hollywood, which vaguely resembles the arc but is much funnier, even if the cynical romanticism has not quite taken the same form it would under Gaynor and March, or Garland and Mason. Still, the bare bones are fundamentally in pretty great shape, hence it achieving the rare status of being remade in three high quality versions (love you Barbra Streisand, but not watching yours ever) even if this is in on a technicality, for the primary duo is a friendship, not a romance. Mary, as opposed to Esther, is played by Constance Bennett in a part that has a little more acid and cynicism about the way Hollywood works than the small town girl charms of the next two actresses. She is only vaguely associated with the suicide of producer Max when it eventually comes around, but still does a lot of damage to her career despite parlaying one line into stardom and fame. The high point is a scene where she practices over and over again on a set of stairs until she becomes talented, with Cukor’s camera eagerly following the feet wherever they go. The alcoholism is once again somewhat unmotivated, but our anchor this time is that Max’s life is dreadfully boring without it, as opposed to March/Mason just being depressed and sinking into ruin. He is also a possible stand-in for the gay director, with the total lack of romance and flirting with not just Mary but any other woman making him look awfully tragic in more ways than one, with the laughs and push-pull dynamic boosting the sadness. Wellman and Cukor himself would absolutely improve upon this formula, with Mary’s rich playboy love interest committing acts that are better described as sexual harassment than anything that could be dubbed romantic or cute in any way, shape, or form. He would thankfully be the first to get the cut in the future drafts, I am sure, his existence snuffed out when he is finally, mercifully getting knocked out of her life before she deserts her friend and career-maker. Sadly, the real villain is the general public, acting insane, and in some ways that is realer than anything within the ’37 and ’54 films.
Favorite Moment: Practice on the stairs.
My first viewing of Scarface was perhaps conducted under less than ideal circumstances to encourage my appreciation of what it does right (and it does a whole lot correctly in a way that causes the director’s slump for several years afterwards to look baffling), with the Orlando Shooting having just occurred and the absurd volume of attacks to follow only made this viewing pushed further back in my mind, with so much repetitive violence just hitting too close to home independent of Hawks’ clear talent behind the camera in terms of cinematography. Yet that is also what makes it stick out when I eventually returned to it, with all the pain and misery caused by the titular gangster being a bit pushed aside (it was the 30s) but not ignored, either. For better and for worse, he is portrayed as a huge piece of shit, even if there is plenty about his lifestyle that is worth desiring. Hawks would not make another movie of this level of skill for a very long time (mostly banal works until Bringing Up Baby, which of course got horribly dismissed by asshole critics and audiences), with his capturing of a certain brand of masculinity perfectly rendered in Paul Muni’s delightfully boyish glee when he gets his hands on a tommy gun, slurring out threats and curses with that accent (ah, the good old days before he turned into a biopic monster). The editing is messy, but holds together, and even the secondary cast being pretty unanimously bad adds a certain level of fascination to the monster at the center of the stage no matter how much fun everyone is having behind the cameras. Not a single minute is wasted, but the plot is a hash of intrigues, double and triple crosses, and interconnected plots, which makes the shadow at the opening all the more important to the aesthetic. Compared to the madness of Pacino’s pile of cocaine and De Palma’s winking parody, everything here is equally gaudy, but in the refined sense of the times. He is a man with taste, but he cannot apply it appropriately. No wonder Al Capone liked it to the point of owning a copy in his vault, as discussed by Geraldo Rivera. Shame the censor boards ultimately had their way in so many scenes, but the cast’s inability to give a fuck about this results in postmodern commentary on how ridiculous it is.
Favorite Moment: First shootout.
17. Street Scene
Favorite Moment: Closeups following gunshot.
16. Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde
Dr. Jekyll’s portion of the most iconic adaptation of this particular tale begins in a rather discomforting way when Fredric March in his Oscar winning role is revealed to be our point of view for this tale that has become iconic for the simplistic way it tackles the good and bad in mankind at a time when that topic needed a literalization. Viewers of the 2012 Maniac remake or anyone who has seen the demon sequences for the first two Evil Dead films will understand just what a discomfiting and underused (if gimmicky) technique this is. But then, we go veering back into the standard, with a surprisingly large part of this average length movie focusing on the doctor’s courtship with his fiancee, played by Miriam Hopkins, and the issues in getting his future father in law to bring up the day of their wedding to be sooner as opposed to being forced to marry on his own wedding anniversary (I know just how bizarre that is), while also dealing with a woman (Rose Hobart) who tempts him with a too tight garter and a waving leg that does not leave his mind so easily after he comes to her rescue from her abusive boyfriend. Separation of the selves eventually comes via a questionable potion and a truly impressive makeup job, but considering this is a movie designed to scare, things will inevitably get worse. March’s performance may not be the equal of his work the same year in Merrily We Go to Hell or in his other collaborations with Dorothy Arzner, but he is under the tutelage of a director who has an increased ability to move the camera around and create the sort of visuals that outclass something still perfectly enjoyable like Dracula. Between the delicious dialogue during Hyde’s attempts to play seductive and the fact that the date goes into territory that is incredibly shocking and takes the unrealistic horror into an uncomfortably realistic territory, with dialogue that feels like something Brock Turner or his father would say on dates. This is no true classic since it does not tread new ground, but watching March’s declaration of “I’ll show you what true horror means!” feels not too far off from a reasonable declaration or statement or intent. Its truest scares not based in an ugly makeup job, but in the ugliness of a man’s deep, repressed human nature.
Favorite Moment: Opening POV shot.
15. A Nous La Liberte
A Nous La Liberte does what Rene Clair did best in marrying the rather horrible things that can happen to ordinary people with plenty of brilliant jokes revolving around the use of sound. I think his later effort in the form of Le Million is the more intelligent work in attacking how people respond to class and money, but this is plenty great too, going satiric right from the start with a song about how work in prison is for criminals while happiness only belongs to those who are free, with industrial working conditions taking a hit throughout as being essentially no better than living life in a prison. Chaplin’s Modern Times may have improved upon this gag, with both filmmakers still being friendly anyway and supposedly suffering from embarrassment by the whole incident and denying anything that had ever happened, but ultimately, it is nice to have both in front of us. The title translates to Liberty For Us, and it is of course an ironic one, for not only do our two protagonists never gain anything that could be called that, but poor Clair would be expelled from the critical canon thanks to Cahiers and his reputation never recovered even if he was arguably just as talented as the French New Wave brats. Everything that supposedly improves one’s life is inherently suspicious to this filmmaker, and he takes it on with a glint in his eye that is perfectly compatible with the Marxism of Jean-Luc Godard, even if Victor Hugo seemed to be the primary influence in charting one of the prisoners going from the bottom to the top of the heap without anyone realizing for a good chunk of this movie’s running time. The best joke comes when a parade of banking notes fall from the sky, and we wait and see just what the length will be before the dignitaries participating in a ceremony will go before cracking and giving in to the greed. It is a satire and a farce at the same time, with the nasty giggles had at the expense of everyone who gets in the way. This makes it sound nasty, but while the USSR banned it, they were overreacting yet again to a piece of art that has the nicest things to say about the nature of humanity and casts a cynical eye towards money. The characters are ciphers, but is that so wrong?
Favorite Moment: Opening prison song.
14. Waterloo Bridge
Waterloo Bridge appears to be the story of an American woman, played by Mae Clarke, who is abroad in London during World War I and all the air raids that come along with it interacting with various wacky stereotypes. She is an out of work chorus girl who has to make ends meet by picking up various companions for the evening along the titular location, a place notorious for that sort of thing. She meets a fellow American who happens to be in the Canadian army on leave, and the two wind up falling for each other over meeting an old woman who keeps dropping her potatoes and meeting another wacky old British lady when they go back to her rented room and deal with her nosy landlady. What makes their love more interesting than any other standard romance is what it is really about, thanks to the notion of class that gets dissected very effectively by the same man who made Frankenstein. Whale’s sexuality and rather progressive viewpoints almost certainly factored into this, with the sexual hypocrisies that have not remotely abated towards prostitutes getting a heavy grilling via everyone’s reactions, from nearly getting kicked out of her living space where she can barely afford to make it, to the parents of her new boyfriend trying to ditch her immediately. Yet even with all the minor humiliations she undergoes, she is so resilient that the only time we ever see her as a victim is during the very last scene, which is so out of nowhere and shocking that it casts everything else into a new light. Little background details are where the movie also excels, with the chorus girls alternating between bitchy remarks and cartoonish levels of fawning depending on who they are talking to because of the delicate position they are in. Waterloo Bridge is spoken of as if it were a level of Dante’s Inferno, and the only person with no understanding of how this world works is the one who has barely spent any time in it in the shape of Kent Douglass’ soldier. It also features one of the earliest Bette Davis parts as his sister, although I can’t say she got much to do or was even recognizable, but her later parts would have fit right into the James Whale aesthetic of creepy romantic love being tested by the outside forces trying to keep them apart.
Favorite Moment: Potatoes are dropped.
13. Grand Hotel
I had not seen Grand Hotel in full and it had been a very long time since the last botched attempt. I had rented All Quiet on the Western Front and Grand Hotel in a quest to get through all the Best Picture winners when I was much younger, and due to restrictions on using the television, I was blown away by AQotWF but was unable to get through a full stay at the lodge. I was glad to fill both my dosages of nostalgia and completion, with the opening scenes reminding us just where we are attending with quite a few title drops and just how many stars are staying here. As is to be expected, some strands work better than others, with Lionel Barrymore’s hamminess coming to the forefront of his way too relevant arc as a man dying from an illness who wants to go out in the lap of luxury. On the other hand, Joan Crawford’s failure to land a Best Actress nomination even in a slim field seems stupid, particularly with the slots going to two theater actresses getting rewarded for transferring and a blockbuster actress celebrated for her ability to make money, and John Barrymore as her counterpart in seducing someone is a wonderful match. The latter’s partner, Greta Garbo (who bizarrely got the leading billing) may be laying it on thick, but I confess to finding it as fascinating as her iconic “I want to be alone” line, more a woman who is always performing rather than the real person playing the character being too hammy. Note how I barely focus on the story, which is precisely the point, with only the shockingly grim endings subverting the expected cliches related to the cliched nonsense about the stenographer and her employer, the depressed prima donna ballerina, and so on. Unlike the awful self-seriousness of some other movies in this brand, Edmund Goulding knows that this is simply tasty empty calories, and treats it as appropriate. It is because of the lightweight of this adaptation that it endures as a solid choice on the part of the Academy Awards, and the negligence in every non-Picture category is a bizarre one even with the knowledge that celebrating one star over the others in this particular work would be hugely political. So sit back, ignore the Oscar trivia, and pretend you are on vacation with these glamorous people and their melodramatic troubles.
Favorite Moment: Joan Crawford talking about just how much she got for those photos.
12. La Chienne
La Chienne takes a huge risk in the same vein as Cocteau’s Beauty and the Beast adaptation in how it starts itself out. By opening the film with a little segment that goes straight for the meaning in a way that would be laughed at in most other works of art if not all, Renoir heads straight for the explicit. The cute little puppet show featuring Punch and Judy type muppets argues over the story’s genre and morals (if it even falls into a consistent category or if it has any, respectively) before introducing the characters-the man is nebbish, rich, and married. The woman is a rather sad looking prostitute. The other man is her pimp and her abusive boyfriend. A chance encounter after a fancy dinner as a result of the first (Maurice) prevents the third (Dede) from beating the second (Lulu) and they become romantically involved results in the pair of repetitive names conspiring to get as much money from Maurice’s fortune as possible by having Lulu seduce him, including taking his paintings and selling them to the local gallery at obscene prices. While this slight story gets a lot of elevation from the performances of the cast (you would never guess that Georges Flamant was a non-professional, and the real life passions between the cast are not only palpable but intensely creepy), Renoir’s movie also fully utilizes the possibilities of sound and the camera whenever possible. There are the obvious elements like Maurice’s wife being a loud shrew who hectors him whenever she can about his doomed aspirations to become a painter when he donates all his art to the woman he loves now as the camera roves around their apartment, but there are also pianos and just the sounds of the neighborhood, noisy as hell. Fritz Lang apparently remade this as Scarlet Street, but his take sounds like a fevered nightmare, whereas this goes for as much realism as it can squeeze from such a contrived tale. It should exist in a vacuum, but what really happened between the three main actors results in an ending that benefits tremendously from the real life context while still being pretty damn devastating in its own right. The cold casual indifference makes it even more heartbreaking when the laughter of a madwoman kicks in, before a meandering epilogue of sorts where things go on, a bit more depressing than in the past.
Favorite Moment: The ending.
11. Safe in Hell
Safe in Hell is like Casablanca with a few more rough patches and infinitely more sleaze, with Dorothy Mackaill as a manslaughtering prostitute pulling a Sadie Thompson and running off to the Caribbean to continue her bad girl act, only to be redeemed. This is the result of her first john after a bad breakup turning out to be her old boss who sexually harassed her, so when she refuses to play along again, she ends up accidentally killing him with a bottle of gin and burning the building down. You go girl, but she ends up informally marrying her boyfriend that takes her to Tortuga and is stuck at his mercy for the bills. All the white businessmen at the hotel continue the vicious cycle because of Mackaill’s Gilda’s race, with the first black movie star Nina Mae McKinney milking a whole lot out of a supporting role that looks a bit thankless on paper (she works at the hotel), but she also gets to sing and be the only decent person in the entire picture. She winds up isolated thanks to the island’s jailer cutting off her mail, and it then turns out that BIG SPOILERS AHEAD STOP READING NOW her boss faked his death for the life insurance money in a twist so bonkers it should not work as well as it does, especially when it turns out he had the same idea and fled as a result of his wife reporting him to the authorities (amazing). After she gets stuck with a gun and kills the employer for real this time, everything goes belly up at her trial thanks to realizing that she will be jailed for possession of a weapon and will have to sleep with her executioner. Rather than break her vows, she declares herself guilty of the murder even though she could have gotten away with self defense, and is hanged. Questionable redemption? Absolutely, and the camera movements in this are rather awkward and stiff. But the sleaze and atmosphere of this nasty place is so palpable that I cannot take away too many points from what William Wellman achieved here, and as a work that owns just how pre-Code it is, there is a thrill to be seen in the open discussion of prostitution, rape, and murder. The vibe is like nothing I have ever seen, with regular dramatic tension tossed to the wayside.
Favorite Moment: Nina Mae McKinney’s song.
10. I Was Born, But…
I Was Born, But… suffers from a bizarre paradox despite being a fairly superb piece of work on the whole. The film is focused on two little boys realizing that their father is not as impressive and stern as they thought he was, and the sense of loss that accompanies this small but sad realization, particularly with a school bully’s father having the advantage of being the boss at the corporation that he works at and the sons cruelly probing the wound by asking why their dad plays the clown and is not the boss of the company to his face, to which he has no words. This also means we get two kinds of scenes: those with the family interacting (the mom is passive but still fairly key to the dynamics), and scenes with the boys dealing with their problems when they either go to school or play truant and get in trouble. The former category is wonderfully sad and it would not work as well without the latter making everything so depressing. The pathos of the more well known masterworks in Ozu’s transition into the sound era, namely in the form of the Noriko trilogy, started to come into bloom after the early testing in the interestingly flawed Tokyo Chorus, with the profound melancholy, disillusionment, and minor existential crisis of realizing that your parents are not that almighty in their reach and do some pretty depressing things regularly getting captured by the unmoving camera, concentrated into its strongest essence, and rubbed into open wounds. Unfortunately, the stuff that makes the film so tragic in the shape of the schoolyard fighting is pretty stupid, literal childish nonsense, but my tolerance for movie cute kids is low, I prefer when they are acting like total assholes and the writing for them feels a bit more schizophrenic rather than the opposite sides of the same coin. This can be blamed on the silent era’s inherent limitations of characterization, as they do not have very strongly defined personalities beyond their conflicts with friends and family. Perhaps a sound version of the same movie would be an improvement?…oh, such a thing does happen to exist. Cannot wait to see it, and I am glad the positive reception for the general audience friendly elements in this would give us the pathos of all the Tokyo Stories and Late Springs to come down the line.
Favorite Moment: The fight.
9. Night Nurse
Night Nurse is unusual among the films of Barbara Stanwyck for giving her a role where she is arguably the least interesting performer. The hospital may be as efficient as a clock thanks to Vera Miles’ mean, throat clearing head matron of the ward, but something in the utterly blank white walls and Joan Blondell immediately welcoming Stanwyck’s Lora Hart to the hospital with nothing but grumpy apathy over the crappy pay of the job while Stanwyck expresses cheery optimism with regards to her probationary status that she gained from having a friendship with the head doctor is somehow vaguely spooky. William Wellman’s male gaze is palpable throughout whenever the women are alone, with constant scenes of the ladies dressing and undressing and getting into the same bed, practically resembling the burlesque dancers of the Prohibition halls while the men resemble bootlegging gangsters, complete with numerous actual bootleggers coming in and out of the rooms and beds of the area who do not look too different from the younger doctors. The story is a thin piece of nonsense about two children who are deliberately malnourished, neglected, and threatened by a gangster and chauffeur who’s trying to get money from their mother by filling her up with alcohol. An idiotic way to attempt such a plan? Undoubtedly. Stanwyck’s performance may be a bit of a dud with not much dimension added to her nice girl, but she certainly gets a lot to do in preventing child murder by becoming complicit in a real murder that gets rather glossed over in terms of the morals involved, and you can definitely see a certain spark in her interactions with the professionals she would later surpass. Blondell as her cynical and bitchy best friend and roommate is the real star of the show, and Clark Gable receives a rare villainous role that shows plenty of promise if he had ever chosen to continue in that vein. The sinister nature of Night Nurse is more often than not a lot of nonsense, but something about the hardness of all the characters who corrupt Ms. Hart in small, aggressive ways is delightfully fun to watch, in the same vein of a really good soap opera. It is such a delightfully Pre-Code film in all its not so hidden subtexts focused on the darkness in the characters that you practically want to bathe in the nastiness of it.
Favorite Moment: The ending.
8. Wooden Crosses
Wooden Crosses lends itself to receiving comparisons to all-time masterpiece All Quiet on the Western Front right away just in the details of a bunch of young recruits being tricked into participating in World War I, thinking they will receive plenty of glory for a few months of service, tricked into the trap of a long, brutal, disgusting affair of politics. Where the American film gives us a rough outline of each character so we are all the more gutted when the worst possible thing happens to them, Raymond Bernard’s sketches are even thinner in their strokes, and things just happen. There is a raid in one scene, and one character is shot and dies, and only the fact that we remain with him as the others keep moving through the hell and fire is the primary acknowledgement over how stupid this war is. Everywhere you look, you can find the titular wooden cross, practically a flare shot into the air in how much it signals what these men will be turned into, made even more noticeable by the long stretches of silence when there is no fighting, only to be broken by a scream over the gas in the tunnels that are currently getting constructed for no real purpose. An explosion from a dropped bomb at a certain point, shockingly realistic looking, is as effective as any jump scare, yet nobody really reacts to it besides listing the number of casualties in the area before mourning atop a pile of the dead grass that they needed to protect. There may be a world outside of this pointless conflict, but it gets wrecked so casually during a scene where a letter is torn up above someone’s grave with the most familiar object marking it. And then there is the final third. The dull peacetime scenes that add to the deliberate effect of the “trapped” sensation are thrown away. We see as much brutal fighting as we have ever seen. And then the title cards reminding us that this heartbreak and agony took ten days, and we are simply getting a little portion of it. Fifteen minutes of your time is incomparable, especially thanks to the cinematography being so bleakly gorgeous. The transition is the main point of the editing in this, and it is used masterfully, with dissolves and fades to black punctuating the passage through time and the various horrors of this fight.
Favorite Moment: Standing by the cross after the fight on the hill.
7. The Smiling Lieutenant
While I enjoyed The Love Parade and One Hour With You well enough, I had to groan a little bit inside at Ernst Lubitsch directing yet another 1930s musical film with Maurice Chevalier that got nominated in the very same year as the latter film, simply because I’ve overdosed on the man’s pleasant but usually interchangeable works in the process of this project. Thankfully, rather than the pleasantly enjoyable MacDonald performance that usually fills the co-leading lady spot, we get Claudette Colbert, one of the best actresses of her time. And every other thing in this trifle proved me totally wrong. Another treat that accompanies this picture is a whole lot more double innuendoes right off the bat thanks to an opening number talking about Chevalier’s army man’s “ratatatatat” being enjoyed by the ladies, which is better than all the other musical numbers in the prior two films combined. Where everything else that the director did up to this point that I am familiar with was merely mildly surreal, Smiling Lieutenant goes all out crazy by having Colbert’s violinist be the recipient of the earliest ever joke related to a nose job that I can think of, but they end up together anyway because the whole point is to steal her away from the delightfully incompetent friend of the lead, and they sing a song about breakfast before Miriam Hopkins tells her father that the misspelling of their country’s name is a deliberate insult on the part of the people who have addressed him a letter (“It’s only in the last 700 years that they’ve got anywhere!”/”Social climbers”). Goodness only knows how this series of elements was rigged to work so well, but by now, anything goes, and an ill-timed wink sends everyone and everything into disarray of the best kind. Connections and contrasts are sketched out cleverly, but the smartness is handled in a passing, glanced-over way, so that it feels like that mistaken wink that sets the conflict into motion. Whatever the characters say turns into a con, a scam, or a theatrical take on their own lives. The Lubitsch Touch is finally real to me and I’m so thrilled to be on board with it, with the improved soundtrack and lack of fourth wall breaking, along with a camera that feels a bit more flexible, resulting in a delightfully underrated gem even with its Academy Award nomination in the most prestigious category. Seek it out.
Favorite Moment: Jazz Up Your Drawers.
6. Shanghai Express
Most cinephiles rightfully love Marlene Dietrich and all her sexpot collaborations with Josef von Sternberg that were happily recognized as great even during the 1930s themselves (quite a few Best Picture nominations), but not enough give credit to Anna May Wong, whose role in Piccadilly does not get enough credit for being such a depressing take on the racial tensions of the time and who was sadly underutilized constantly because of her being Asian. Unusually for the director, always fond of sticking his starlet in a glitzy setting and having her smolder and go on emotional journeys where she barely moves outside of her own circle, Shanghai Express is rather plot driven, but it is not something that takes away from what we desire when we go to see a picture by this particular director. There is a long, gorgeous pan early on that moves so quickly one has to wonder about the fact that cameras could barely move just a year or two ago. But what really matters is when the train stops moving due to the casual awfulness of the Civil War in China, something that floats around in the background as Dietrich’s character, Madeline, ends up meeting a doctor who she has not seen in a long time. (Her totally bored delivery of this revelation is a highlight.) Racially, the complicated dynamics of the train get explored without the usual nonsense present in Oscarbait, with one character who is mixed race saying he would rather be Chinese, a white friend questions why he would want that…and that just happens. The casual indifference gets taken to a grosser level after a machine gun kills multiple people and someone smoking outside the stopped express simply turns around and heads back. The government gets involved, and the little secrets grow into big life threatening dirt that could be used to justify an execution. The passenger who is really running the show is a genuine shock, and the tense dynamics of gender, race, class, and past sins and mistakes all crystallize and blow up in the faces of everyone, resulting in ever altered tracks. Yet throughout this, Shanghai Lily remains a complete mystery in the realm of these politics, with the immortal reply “To buy a new hat” summing up precisely why we should be joining these people on their voyage. Sassy, mysterious, yet says a whole lot if you think about it.
Favorite Moment: “To buy a new hat.”
5. Merrily We Go To Hell
Merrily We Go to Hell continues Dorothy Arzner’s streak as one of the most underrated directors of all time, with her one misfire that I have seen (Sarah and Son) being far outweighed by the strengths of this, along with The Wild Party and Honor Among Lovers. Once again, her greatest weapon is Fredric March, this time playing an alcoholic named Jerry who is slowly ruining his life even when he meets and starts a relationship with Sylvia Sidney’s heiress Joan, who is charmed precisely because of his ruinous nature and agrees to his marriage proposal even with her father (George Irving) trying to give him fifty thousand dollars to leave her. The three are all great, but the amount of characterization and plot crammed into this short runtime, done with a feather light touch, shows the signs of a director who practically could have been the forerunner to someone like Richard Linklater or Noah Baumbach. The thesis of “Love means accepting someone and their many warts” gets thrown into the blender and stared at unblinkingly. It’s an uncomfortable look, the kind the characters exchange as they ignore that there is a Depression going on outside their fancy walls and refuse to properly engage, with our leading lady in particular being more upset about Jerry’s actions taking place at their announcement festivity than as to what they signal in a painful midpoint, before immediately getting married anyway in a wedding that feels, well, hellish, with a pair of elderly people clucking away in the background as the party stiffly moves through the aisle and the Post Tenebras Lux effect gets an early workout in the edges and Sidney delivers her vows while countless emotions race behind her unblinking eyes, and a cruel reveal related to the ring is glossed over by the cast but not us. Fully aware that this cannot last, Arzner proves that she has the biggest balls by giving us an ending that may seem satisfying on paper, and probably was not intended too ironically (points off, this is not quite a masterpiece), but I think you can very much read the finale as a predecessor to Douglas Sirk’s unsatisfying happy endings that he was so fond of. The turnaround does not feel earned in the least, and the oncoming rot has only been stalled for another day, with both Joan and Jerry stuck in their old habits in a bad way.
Favorite Moment: The ring reveal.
Frankenstein really should not work as well as it does, with none of the actual German Expressionists who worked on the dated but enjoyable Dracula appearing here and a novel that is nowhere near as good. Yet the old adage about terrible books making great movies comes true here (not that Mary Shelley’s work is as bad as all that), and after a silly little opening telling us not to be afraid of what we are about to see, we jump right into what feels like a far headier trip than the entire second half of the vampire tale, even with the relatively grounded material of a resuscitated monster. Where the journey of Renfield (whose actor appears in this movie as well and gets a significantly less interesting part to play) is slightly off putting due to its bad acting on the part of the Romanian residents, we open in Frankenstein on a funeral, with the mourners in black against the stark and cloudy sky looking sinister no matter how much they may be crying over their loss. Things get even more ridiculous once the doctor is caught and the lightning begins going off in every direction. Everyone other than Boris Karloff and Colin Clive takes a rather flat approach to their role, but the latter goes from demented egomaniac, shrieking with joy and blasphemy when the monster is alive and able to acknowledge the fact that he is in a movie if only for a few seconds of looking at the camera, to someone who is genuinely horrified by their fatal mistakes. The former is the real star of the show as acknowledged by all, finding grace and humanity in someone who cannot undo the mistakes that frequently befit his size, trying to reach for something he cannot have. By the time the ticking clock that only lasts an hour is up, we have covered so much of the humanity of both of the manly monsters, and the fact that what was scary in the 1930s is guaranteed to be lesser now does not diminish just how oddly everything sticks in the mind, with the extraordinary technical achievements on both sides of the camera elevating a simple allegory to the level of the very highest of masterpieces, complete with making the novel a hip Gothic read forever in the public consciousness. Take it as an allegory for silent meeting sound for extra credit.
Favorite Moment: The little girl.
The appeal of Vampyr is very hard to sum up. This is due to two factors. The first is the fact that the movie does not lend itself to an easy plot summary, with everything being firmly in a sort of dreamworld where the story is as thin as paper and what does happen falls firmly into the realm of a dream, with a vision of the main character being stuck in a coffin coming across as a reference to him as the titular character, rather than an old woman who we only see for a few seconds before she is killed. The second is that the entire world is stretched out, with blank slate performances and long stretches of silence before the obligatory sound is added. It might be the first truly masterful sound/silent hybrid depending on how you take it, but even with the print quality’s questionable levels, you can see just how horrifying and washed out this bite is, with the aforementioned dream sequence coming across as completely in line with the rest of the aesthetic decisions that Carl Theodor Dreyer made. This may not be as intense as The Passion of Joan of Arc but it is just as thrilling to be able to witness the workings of a mind that conjures up a mute man with a scythe but can avoid the obvious River Styx parallels until the very end, when Allan Gray’s passivity finally ends as a result of…his death and passing into heaven? This is a movie that succeeds at keeping the symbolism so vague that you can read whatever you like into it, a rare beast indeed and one that makes the old German Expressionist style look like the height of neorealism, not merely in the production design but in the editing, cinematography, and that final death underneath the piles of flour. The closest parallel is probably the works of Lynch, specifically Eraserhead (Erasyrhead?), although no one else has ever used the shadows quite so effectively. Such a shame that Dreyer’s works would go back to focusing on the issues of faith rather than pure horror (although you could absolutely argue for Passion’s status as a horror film), but we will always have this surrealist work that could not have been made by anyone else. Few others would do that trick with the coffin that kicks the spookiness into highest gear.
Favorite Moment: Looking into the coffin and what results of it.
For all that pop culture has done in ensuring Freaks remains remembered, with the cries of “Gooble gobble, one of us” before Olga Baclanova’s acrobat throws her enormous loving cup sized drink and screams the title at the poor sideshow performers, it is important to note that it started off as a nasty little trash flick that was miraculously given to the director of Dracula, who promptly turned it into something far grimier in emphasizing the tedium and misery of life in a carnival. Nothing really happens in this story, with the miserable employees just sitting around and hooking up with each other to pass the time, even though they clearly cannot stand each other and the environment makes most of them come across as pretty mean spirited in certain ways. While Baclanova is pretty great as usual (although her silent movie background very much shows), the rest of the cast is merely competent, although it never matters in the context of such a mean and theatrical setting. Having the foreknowledge of what happens to poor Cleopatra in that warped ending makes everything even worse, as she is a terrible and bigoted person but one who is not without a level of moral high ground in certain moments. Everyone is awful, and her attempts to poison Hans with medicine just come across as another stick to add to the fire of hatred. Unlike works of art where the disastrous replies seem ridiculous now, this is not exactly a hard film to reconcile with the initial perception back in the early 1930s, where a woman claimed it caused her to suffer a miscarriage and sued MGM. Sure, the final scenes of everyone crawling through the rain and the mud are terrifying (and very sad, since it is what they do daily anyway), but it is the sympathy for what was viewed as monstrous at the time that no doubt really scared people, with the idea of equality still being a fairly foreign notion. Far more ridiculous and a bigger contributor: MGM playing the carnival barkers themselves, asking people to step right up and gawk at these humans, only for it to backfire as much as the murder plot itself did. Life and art reflected in the eeriest way possible, and well worth Tod Browning’s career taking a tumble since this could never be topped. Kinky, gross, and somehow still a heartbreaker.
Favorite Moment: “We accept her, one of us.”
We know full well what’s coming from the very first shots and credits of Limite, from the unsettling and melancholy music to the opening shot being crows on a rock that dissolves into an angry, resilient woman with her arms in chains. Then we see that it is a flashback, she is on a boat with another woman and a man…and nothing happens. We see a tear in the man’s shirt, an oar drifting in the water, the handing out of some crappy rations. Even by the standards of the silent films, this is slow cinema of the harshest kind, but we eventually get flashbacks that move slightly more rapidly. The effect can best be described as a person on that boat closing their eyes for a few seconds to escape the boredom and flash back to the moments that led up to this private hell. And it is still just as long, with a particularly squirm inducing shot featuring a scissor and a finger, before we finally reach about twenty minutes of running time, and…our first title, used via zooming in on a newspaper that is being read. Yes, this is a work that eschews the usage of text entirely, a cinema comprised purely of images. Were it not for the tragedy of a lost section that has to be replaced with another line of text, and a rather lengthy section of very damaged looking shots, this could have been the ultimate triumph of images, but in its own way, it still is. How many other works of art would dissolve from a man looking forlorn to an extreme closeup of a dying fish gasping out its last breaths, and just stay there, unmoving, watching it die? This is a sad world they wish to escape from, even with all of Brazil’s natural beauty surrounding them. Notice how I did not specify whether I was talking about the past or the present. There is pretty much no acting in Limite, with the cast playing the blankest of blank slates, but that makes their brief flashes of sadness behind the apathy all the more affecting. This is what it is like to be suicidal, in a roundabout way. Not to kill oneself with a gun or pills, but to quietly vanish, as if you were never there to begin with. Perhaps the melted screen and vanished reel are fitting tributes that the celluloid is paying to itself.
Favorite Moment: Running the finger on the scissor.