Top 30 of 1932/33
Favorite Moment: X
Favorite Moment: X
Favorite Moment: X
Favorite Moment: Opening montage of men.
26. Heroes for Sale
To be added.
Favorite Moment: Communism rants.
25. Footlight Parade
To be added.
Favorite Moment: Honeymoon Hotel
24. Only Yesterday
Favorite Moment: Stock market crash.
23. Spring Shower
Poor Pal Fejos is really only remembered nowadays for Lonesome, and while I can’t say his status as one hit wonder is too unwarranted since his only other great film is damned difficult to find and has a million different titles to boot (we’ll be sticking with Spring Shower for the purposes of this review), it still feels sad to see someone so florid and willing to embrace everything the silents were capable of doing have both his legacy evaporate and his films marred by the inclusion of brief dialogue sequences that nobody really wanted or needed. The visuals are plenty, even in degraded VHS quality, and this has a great number of them thanks to the power of a rainy sequence in a movie and a glorious opening shot that feels like we are truly flying over a town. Things quickly become a cacophony of a crying baby and a lot of singing/piano playing, appropriately enough: we are truly in the world of sound, and it is a wall of noises if you are a maidservant for a rather nasty family, even if the actual talking that she gets to do throughout the one hour of this picture is a fairly small amount. It is a fable: she is seduced under a tree, and is cast out when she becomes pregnant, despite an opening that is like Cinderella meets Jeanne Dielman as the town whiles away the night for a dance while she folds shirts and looks longingly out a window. Small pleasures abound thanks to a cat and the lovely gloominess of the room she is in, but still, the long periods of silence show that Fejos was transitioning, and doing it well. His output is generally viewed in an inconsistent light if anything other than Lonesome is looked at in any way, but when his heroine is tempted with candy and fun, we sympathize, no matter how much we have been trained to think that anyone who offers things such as that is a creep. In a world where pleasure is the hardest thing to come by, you have to sigh as it all runs screeching to its inevitable conclusion as the people of the village turn on Marie the servant and penalize her for the pleasures. You can tell the images are beautiful no matter the problem with the videotape frames going to hell and the simple dialogue.
Favorite Moment: Love under the tree.
22. Invisible Man
Favorite Moment: Invisible run.
21. Queen Christina
Favorite Moment: The snow.
20. Boudu Saved From Drowning
Boudu Saved From Drowning kicks off the action with a lovely summer day in the park where a woman has lost her adorable little black dog that rather resembles the titular character (played by Michel Simon), a homeless man dressed in dirty clothes and with a curly, unkempt head of hair and beard who is frequently condescended to by the people walking by over his lack of wealth and cannot even adopt a companion for himself, since it belongs to someone else. He tries to commit suicide over this and is saved by a wealthy Parisian bookseller (played by Charles Granval). While Renoir was more of the type to attack bourgeois values, and the man does a fine job making the rich family and their stately interiors look very silly compared to the natural hustle and bustle of life outside, he also does not shy away from the fact that Boudu’s quite frankly an asshole, including the one very poorly judged scene where he basically rapes the wife and she is shown as all smiles afterwards. The point has already been well made by this point that living a comfortable life is pointless (what is the purpose of something as uncomfortable as a tie if you desire security anyway? Why is Granval’s character so focused on the fact that he prevented someone from dying when interacting with others? I think you can guess the answers), but the perpetual nastiness that has developed in the days of this person is reflected onto the poor women of the household in a way that can come across as slightly dated even with the knowledge that Renoir’s the type to sympathize with both sides of an issue. It is precisely that which saves this from coming across as slightly simplistic in how it directs its philosophies. As always, the best part of a Jean Renoir picture is the shots of the river, which are lovingly echoed in small ways that complicate its meaning as a source of the way people go on living and dying, but this is also interesting as arguably the wittiest thing in his filmography, with the most obvious sense of humor as well as the most acidic. The majority of viewers will fall for Simon’s take on the tramp, but I preferred the increasingly desperate frustrations of Charles Granval as the one who takes him in and gets more than what he bargained for.
Favorite Moment: The titular event.
19. Zero for Conduct
Zero for Conduct’s length that barely qualifies it as a feature length work is a bit of a mystery, with Jean Vigo taking everything he had for a ninety minute movie and shoving it into something that was less than half of that particular duration. Still, what it does is done so densely and fascinatingly that it is hard not to fall for it, with the school being sketched out as cruel in just as interesting a way as the same year’s Madchen in Uniform, with the pupils stuck with a diet of wet beans, constantly receiving the titular mark if they misbehave, and putting up with the pedophile chemistry teacher and angry tyrant principal (played by a little person with an enormous shaggy beard), with the closest thing they have to a friend also being a tremendous attention seeker who owes a big debt to Charlie Chaplin in how he goes for affection. The students themselves are little shits, with the opening scene focusing on two of the boys puffing on gigantic cigars before they return to classes after the holidays, but the way things are cannot and should be maintained, even with dialogue designed to pleasantly rhyme. (Worth noting is that the film’s shooting reflects how it was created in that it looks very rushed, and the audio quality is outright not good.) Truffaut took a lot from this in making The 400 Blows, and while the later creation is the one you should watch and prefer, the crazy ambitions colliding up against the intense technical and health limitations that Vigo’s shooting schedule endured give this its own crazy source of energy, particularly thanks to the bizarre rapidfire editing that meets the odd, disorienting style of the cinematography (by the brother of the director of Man With a Movie Camera, which explains everything) and the tinny voices from the weak audio. A natural born talent comes to the forefront, and the slow motion pillow fight scene is the sort of thing that makes people mourn your lost youth when you died and what you could have brought to the table if you had lived just a short while longer. The small puffs of magic would grow to become full grown clouds in L’Atalante thanks to things like a cartoon that comes to life or a portrait above a fireplace that is actually a mirror. It is as crazily confused as the narrative.
Favorite Moment: Pillow fight.
18. Gold Diggers of 1933
Last year’s Best Supporting Actress winner in my heart if the category had existed a few years earlier, Joan Blondell, opens Gold Diggers of 1933 by singing about how she’s in the money with a very revealing outfit that basically consists of a series of gold medals made into a flower that covers up the parts you still could not show in the pre-Code era. It does not last very long, for we have many more musical numbers to get through and a whole lot of people coming into the show to shut it down for financial reasons related to unpaid bills during the Great Depression. Everyone has been betrayed by their country, the government is doing nothing to help, and the arts are getting screwed. Sound familiar? Well, imagine being around in the early 1930s when this film featured a number about public displays of affection that featured a dwarf woman as a horny baby, followed by another focusing on a plea to remember the downtrodden veterans. Try to imagine the equivalent of such a thing in the modern day, and it is mildly brain breaking stuff. The four women are also an unstoppable cast, with Ginger Rogers as the most glamorous member of the primary foursome, along with Aline MacMahon (my Supporting Actress winner this year for a different film) and Ruby Keeler. The one final gamble of a production they put on focused on the Depression (“We won’t need to rehearse for that”) is designed solely to extract money from the rich, but it gets even better with the women deciding to get rich husbands in the process, and bitching each other out along the way. It is a generic crowd pleasing title, but it does it so well, and feels like the ideal of a Hollywood picture. The ladies all have distinctive personalities even if they all skew towards making bitchy remarks to each other, but the musical numbers are practically as good as the infamous leg dances from 42nd Street that had come out only a few months earlier. Busby Berkeley was operating at the peak of his talent when he choreographed these two pictures back to back, and the delicious fluff machine was operating at full power to keep the viewing public distracted, with the population generally more prepared to come to a movie to not fully escape in the same vein they do today.
Favorite Moment: Final number.
17. Blonde Venus
Blonde Venus is, somehow, even crazier than all the other mad displays of sensuousness and style that permeated the many Pre-Code works of arguably the earliest great director, Josef von Sternberg. The overall effect of such a madly grand, tonally messy film is hard to put into words let alone describe on a plot level. Of all the musical numbers Marlene Dietrich put on screen for this particular craftsman, Hot Voodoo’s take on African stereotypes while she wears an enormous Afro and an outfit that can only be described as stereotypically “tribal,” after emerging from an honest to god, full body gorilla suit, has got to be the weirdest (and there is definitely a racist reading here but I think the film is too strange and too intent on freaking out the audience of both today and the 1930s), but there is also child kidnapping, prostitution, and the star of the show making a tour of several of the very poorest United States towns where she performs as she is on the run from the authorities. You see what I mean when I say that certain movies were viewed as kitschy even back in the good old days when such things like gorilla based racism were presumably considered normal? (Hattie McDaniel has a great supporting performance in this.) To say nothing of the sequence where the parents (Cary Grant is the father) relate how they meant as a result of Mommy Marlene swimming in the nude with her female friends. (There is another tuxedo dance in the same vein as Morocco, which is likely a part of this movie’s mild reception-it draws from old wells in a way that will not appeal to everyone.) It is a ridiculous mishmash of every possible thing in the book, thrown at a wall as hard as possible to make sure it sticks. Do not bother solving the mysteries of what was going through the minds of the director and writers as they were putting this mess together (I use the word “mess” in a nice way, practically the highest of compliments), just appreciate it as a series of simulations that would resemble the life of these people on the run and the craziness that comes with it. It is a whirlwind of a picture that I am, in some ways, shocked that it still exists and is viewed as part of an oeuvre.
Favorite Moment: Hot Voodoo.
16. The Bitter Tea of General Yen
Frank Capra does not have a reputation as much of a rabble rouser or a shitstirrer in the same vein as someone like, say, Samuel Fuller. He was as conservative as they come, and yet The Bitter Tea of General Yen is as viciously nasty as some of the most notorious Pre-Code films, and it would be a revolutionary work on racial tensions if it was not for the decision to use yellowface rather than an actual Asian actor (even if having a white woman and Asian man kiss would never end well in terms of getting the work distributed). Even Shanghai Express did not make its titular country look as miserable as this movie does, a never ending display of explosions and people getting casually murdered in the streets while it rains and there is mud everywhere. A pair of engaged missionaries, one of whom is played by Barbara Stanwyck, cannot possibly hope to make a dent in such a dreadfully wretched place, and they comment on how horrible the city and its people are constantly. Yet when she winds up trapped in the house of the titular general while transporting some orphans through the region, she has a dream sequence that is straight out of David Lynch, where Capra is quietly revolutionary in his own way of having the character realize she may be viewing him as a savage, but he is actually her savior. Really, the success of this movie is not down to implications that the Chinese are nicer than the Americans, or such nonsense that falls into noble savage tropes. This is a brutally nihilistic piece of art that suggests that humans on both sides of the globe are assholes and we should only be rooting for these two individuals to get together off the back of them earning it, by not being priests who tell stories about death and only regret that the story is not better told, or the vicious indictment of the completely immoral capitalist who lives under a veil of All American behaviors. It is an utterly nihilistic worldview from a man who would later become famous as being the purveyor of CapraCorn, and the most ridiculous part is that this was his bid for an Academy Award nomination…which he accomplished with Lady for a Day instead. Night and day, those two pictures, and showing that Capra’s range was fairly underrated stuff.
Favorite Moment: Dream sequence.
15. A Farewell to Arms
Frank Borzage was notable for taking the standard tropes of the melodramas that he practically pioneered in film thanks to 7th Heaven, and raising those ideas to higher levels until they threatened to break from the strain. Putting him on the adaptation of an Ernest Hemingway novel when the author was riddled with post traumatic stress disorder and cynicism about his time in the war seemed to be an odd fit, but it paid off in spades. It will no doubt offend loyalists to the book, but A Farewell to Arms focuses on the romance that comes with bidding the war goodbye, condensing several main key plot points into an eighty minute running time. One of the best shots comes early on with Gary Cooper sitting at a table as a woman’s foot takes up the frame, but then the flashes of bombs ring outside the building and we get a few brief seconds of beauty before everyone scatters. Sex is everywhere in this Pre-Code work, which is delightfully adult in a way that it feels like you do not see enough anymore, complete with the heavily implied admission that someone took another person’s virginity. From Helen Hayes’ character slapping Cooper’s when he attempts to put the moves on her in a shady grove of sorts, to the underground pitch black rumblings of the preparations of eating under an air raid, to a nurse looming over us and thus the main character, trapped in a sterile white hospital. Eventually, a woman leans over the camera, kissing it, but eventually we shift to a man trapped in a bed that makes him appear to be in a void. The shot of Catherine leaning on Frederic is repeated often, with the inevitable parting that breaks their union on each occasion always being a minor tragedy of separation, no matter how often they get back together. The last third admittedly makes Catherine look like a beatifically ill saint while she lays in bed looking wan from an unspecified disease (the book apparently says it is a hemorrhage), but it is a small price to pay for the inky blacks and stark whites we have been gifted throughout the rest of the film, particularly in an ending sequence that conjures up a hallucination that Eisenstein would have cut together if he had transitioned more easily into the sound era, with the only noises being gunfire and music.
Favorite Moment: The dark war sequence.
14. Duck Soup
The films of the Marx Brothers are unfortunately usually renowned for the intense contrast between their incredibly funny gags combined with the incompetency of the filmmakers who would frequently stick a whole lot of dead air between all the zaniness to give the viewers an excuse for a plot. What they really needed at the end of the day was a director who was a good editor and who knew how to tell a story that sucked out all the fat and let them be anarchic. They found this in Leo McCarey, who oversaw the machine gun that was their greatest work. The real strength of Duck Soup is not that it contains the best set of jokes in any of the Marx Brothers’ works-it earns that status by also being a brilliant satire in the same vein of Dr. Strangelove, a vicious satire on the nature and stupidity of war and politics, where everyone is fucking each other just to get to the top and deluded people can get into a position of power very easily to allow everything to go into anarchy. The musical numbers are just as helpful in this regard, with the brilliant final number resulting in the entire cabinet of Fredonia going mad with war lust and destroying everything in their path. Patriotism is a load of old nonsense even if that is not what they were intending to say, but they certainly needed to say it, particularly with the ending of the men who are running the place into the ground turning on the person who is responsible for getting it into a position of profit in the first place, simply because she got in the way and began her operatic singing (Margaret Dumont is as always the low-key star of the show). Despite the fact that the Great Depression may have rendered the best jokes about the inherently ridiculous nature of political disagreements ahead of their time, this never ceasing assault of gags can weary even a modern viewer who laughs themselves silly despite the fact that they will likely be giving the film itself full…marks. What really terrifies is that the movie does not seem to realize that it is so serious, as opposed to the constantly nasty chortling in the background of Kubrick’s take on the postwar and the nuclear bomb. The poker face is the greatest comedic asset, and McCarey never breaks character.
Favorite Moment: Going to war.
13. Red Dust
While Victor Fleming is best known for his work as the director of Wizard of Oz and Gone With the Wind, the two films that have dominated the public consciousness of the infamously great year of 1939 and deservingly so, his other works as a director do not deserve to go unrewarded, no matter if he was never considered an auteur by the French New Wave critics. The prime example of his strongest work outside of the studio epic Red Dust’s ever shifting dynamics between the three primary members of its cast. Clark Gable’s character, Dennis Carson, works on a rubber plantation in French Indochina that is an unpleasantly hot and sweaty looking as anything you could think of. Jean Harlow unsurprisingly plays a prostitute with a sassy mouth who gets a great scene taking a bath in a rain barrel (it does not wrap up quite so happily), but Carson’s not used to women and they spend the early days of the film barking at each other before falling in love so smoothly that it feels like a genuine transition rather than something more forced. Soon, Mary Astor’s character of Barbara Willis and her husband arrive, with the latter falling sick and the former also deciding she likes Dennis. Soon, the dynamics get incredibly twisted, with everyone’s loves getting twisted into a tangled web that recalls the best ensemble pictures. Gene Raymond as Astor’s husband does not get much to do, but the three leads are some of the greatest actors in that era of Hollywood at the top of their game. The setting is as unpleasant as anything, making Gable’s plot to send off Raymond’s man so he can have his wife all to himself so very devious, but it backfires brilliantly thanks to his own change of heart. But when he is not the only one to suffer a crisis of faith, the results end up being nearly deadly, even with everyone more or less getting what they want in the end. Still, one cannot help but feel something has been lost even with the happy ending resulting in the reconciliation of the original two members of the plantation, back in bed together, with the ultimate examples of a very specific brand of snark to each particular sex back on display like we wanted. The melodrama may be slightly ridiculous, but there is a lot going on underneath. Perfectly Pre-Code.
Favorite Moment: Ending.
12. The Old Dark House
The Old Dark House (one of the funniest titles for a movie ever, in how it both confirms the tropes it will be originating and plays with them while also going dramatic as hell) continued camp icon James Whale’s simultaneous ascent and descent from the master of straightforward horror who gave us Frankenstein’s weird Expressionism/realist hybrid of horror, simultaneously being sad and scary, into the man who took a turn for the slightly campier and continued his long love affair with screechy elderly women that began in the underrated gem Waterloo Bridge. However, the print quality is sadly deteriorated, and we will probably never get a proper glimpse of all the effort put into the production design of what appears to be a suitably unpleasant and appropriately pitch black house, filled with caricatures who would not appear too out of place in something like Arsenic and Old Lace. The Wavertons give us plenty of nasty bickering to enjoy in their drive that results in them crashing into the Femm’s mansion, but it is the owners of the residence who provide all the laughs despite being vaguely unsettling. An opening title declares that Karloff is NOT playing his most famous monster again, just a mute butler, and he does it very well. But with dialogue this ridiculous, anyone who gets to talk is going to have the advantage, and Eva Moore’s hilariously obnoxious performance as Rebecca Femm, fully grabbing onto the nonsensical transitions between everything and endlessly cackling away between cries of “NO BEDS!”, is the standout. Ernest Thesiger is also impressive, with his insistence on everyone having a potato at dinner (don’t bother with popcorn when watching this, have some French fries instead). Still, it is the dynamics among a cast desperate to be as weird and rude as possible that really hypnotize, with Whale’s sneakiness resulting in a film that outlasted everything that it was making fun of, a significantly smaller pool at the time, to become the prototypical example that lends itself to gentle mockery from both the people who get the joke and those who do not. Frank discussions about religion and sexuality feel like a plumbing of the soul of the director in a strange way, even if the polish of the more famous material or even Waterloo Bridge’s frank handling of slut shaming feels stripped away, to the benefit and detriment of the material.
Favorite Moment: Potato dinner.
11. Little Women
George Cukor and Katherine Hepburn is the thankfully abundant chocolate and peanut butter of movie/director combinations (precisely in that order), and adding an additional three actresses to the story makes it sound like Little Women should be 1930s perfection. In practice, it is merely an incredibly enjoyable tale that feels like a series of never ceasing nice distractions from the hard, lonely days of the Civil War, with a series of vignettes over a day that leads into many more over the course of the story by opening things up by showing us a disobedient yet dainty Amy in school (Joan Bennett), tomboy Jo reading to her unpleasant aunt (Hepburn), romantic Meg (Frances Dee) babysits, and nice piano lover Beth (Jean Parker) helping out at home. None of the girls could really pass for anything remotely approaching “little” but that is part of the charm, and when you have Hepburn’s performance that should have been what won her the Oscar instead of Morning Glory, the lightness flies by (and it really cannot be stated enough how bizarre it is that she was not nominated for this despite the infinitely better work and the movie getting a Best Picture nomination), particularly when she gifts us with the very useful expression “Christopher Columbus!” to use instead of swearing. Jo is such an instantly likable character for the average moviegoer that it is practically an unfair advantage, but who can resist a tomboy who puts on her own plays, wants to be a writer, and is the only one in her family of four with a sense of independence? This is not to sell short the three supporting girls, with the butchering of “vocabulary” by Joan Bennett being a particular highlight (the other two are a bit too saintly and one dimensional to go the extra mile, although I appreciate that both Dee and Parker embrace what goody two shoes they are). The only thing holding it back from true greatness is the ending with regards to Jo’s romantic travails, where she settles with a man who exists solely for some nonsense about improving her writing skills. It may be the predictable Hollywood ending, but Laurie was the right man for her, even if a perfect finish for such a lively character feels a bit too fulfilling, and she still gets to adventure just by taking on the scariest journey of them all, the voyage focused on another human being.
Favorite Moment: The play.
10. Love Me Tonight
Before getting stuck with the disastrously over the top bankruptcy and spectacle machine that was the 1963 Liz Taylor version of Cleopatra, and his career getting killed as a result of his resignation from the disaster, Rouben Mamoulian was a director of some of the first great sound films, with Applause in particular possessing an unparalleled freedom of camera movement for such an early sound work, but Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde’s wonderful first person shots and Queen Christina’s gorgeous production design also making a strong case. Here, with Love Me Tonight, he cracks the champagne bottle to christen a certain new musical tradition, then beats a rug and sweeps a floor to make a soundtrack out of the sounds of people going about their day before we are introduced to Maurice Chevalier in a tailor role that I am surprised got no Oscar attention considering his past reputation with the Academy, especially as he is the only person in Paris with a French accent and he breaks into a song that inspired the opening of Beauty and the Beast right away. We learn that his situation is dire, with the man who owes him the most money and potential reputation not paying up, and his daughter not being interested in Chevalier’s broke self. But more importantly, the Isn’t It Romantic sequence is outright groundbreaking, with a rather rude and cynical song that the tailor sings being picked up by a client, and becoming an earworm that makes its way all across the whole of France, with slight alterations along the way, until it reaches Jeanette MacDonald’s Princess (the aforementioned love interest), with the most naturally beautiful set of words yet. You also get a rip off of Macbeth’s three witches in the form of a bitchy chorus of old women, and Myrna Loy in a truly spectacular part as a horny countess. Where The Smiling Lieutenant has the advantage of a more ridiculous plot, this is a loving homage to Lubitsch that in some ways increases the quality, particularly in the quality of the soundtrack and the way the songs are utilized to advance the story (an idea that had been practically unheard of for the time). The risque jokes are pretty much limited solely to the Loy character (whereas everyone was practically cracking dick jokes in the former film), but this has funnier ones about the nature of romance and yearning.
Favorite Moment: Isn’t It Romantic?
9. I Am a Fugitive From a Chain Gang
A film from the early 1930s that is used as a way of communicating about how something is going wrong with society that gets a fair amount of attention at the Oscars and was created by a studio sounds like the worst piece of crap imaginable, particularly when you consider Paul Muni’s career down the line of doing the most airless biopic nonsense imaginable, but I Am a Fugitive From a Chain Gang leans more towards being a nightmare of Expressionism and a solid thriller with a performance that feels incredibly gritty and filled with raw nerves. It’s also a nervy reflection of the time, taking place entirely in the 1920s but injected with the moods and angers of what the Great Depression hath wrought for people. It starts with Muni’s Jim coming back from the war and not wanting the tedious office clerk job his family has lined up for him, but to become an engineer. Following that fight with his family, he begins job hunting…and not much happens, in the same way that time seems to crawl when you are looking for employment and are completely unsuccessful. So he winds up at a diner where a robbery takes place, and thus…goes to a hard labor camp. Waking up at 4:20 AM for a crime he did not commit is obviously a painful way to live life, particularly with some viciously nasty, noir scenes that are as big a fuck you to the authorities of the era as anything I can think of (and they actually accomplished something), shocking for a director who played the Academy friendly card so often in his career to varying effect. But for every in, there is an out, and the escape (after a truly tense scene where he spits on his heels to get the links off) comes in the form of him accomplishing his professional goals and getting stuck with an utterly venal spouse. She rats him out again for falling in love, and he winds up back in the gang. This all leads to that infamous ending, with all the horrors of the world taking on the form of a darkness that swallows him up, as he whispers a line that encapsulates everything he is perceived of being. Mean, relentless stuff from a cast and crew that normally avoided that side of the world in favor of focusing on the more sanitized aspects of life.
Favorite Moment: “I STEAL!”
8. One Way Passage
One Way Passage sounds like the most awful thing ever to come out of Hollywood. The plot of the movie focuses on a man and a woman who fall in love, with the former being a murderer who is basically under constant supervision from a police detective who has tracked him onto the boat and plans to arrest him once they arrive at their final destination, and the latter suffering from a deadly illness which is slowly killing her. The man is played by William Powell, who does not remotely resemble a murderer, and has two friends on board who are attempting to con the officer into letting him go free by having one play drunk (Frank McHugh, the closest thing to a weak link) and the other play a seductive countess (Aline McMahon, making up for the aforementioned issue big time). Stupid and corny material? Yes, probably, but Tay Garnett directs the hell out of this stupid scenario to make it a 1930s Hollywood romance and star vehicle for the ages even as it clocks in at just barely over an hour of running time. Neither plays their characters as haunted by the death that surrounds them, and the intriguing hypocrisies of the detective falling for a woman he knows is a criminal and allowing her to get away are questioned in a glorious final shot that both offers a new spin on a prior reoccurring motif of broken martini glasses and their stems being laid over each other in a phony toast of sorts, and is so ambiguous that it feels like the ending of an entirely different movie. It is also a piece of direction that is secretly crafty as fuck in how neatly it lends itself to auteur theory, with its melancholy Hawaiian soundtrack meeting a series of shots that frequently rove around the boat, from our introduction to the layout to a suspenseful ending where Kay Francis’ invalid, on the verge of dying from a shock, desperately tries to find Powell’s character before they depart forever, as he is handcuffed and she is on the way to a sanatorium. None of this seems to be contrived in any way, and I would call this among the most unfairly forgotten films of the era thanks to the French New Wave’s hatred of this particular genre. It is a beautifully earnest work that could rival Brief Encounter or Casablanca in epic scope.
Favorite Moment: Final shot.
7. Trouble in Paradise
Trouble in Paradise has a big advantage of the majority of the most classic comedies in how it has not been quoted to death. This makes it far more likely to be a lovely surprise when people first encounter the most popular of Ernst Lubitsch’s sparkling and light romantic comedies, but the dialogue is only part of the parcel that is this gem. Miriam Hopkins, Kay Francis, and Herbert Marshall are at the top of their games, with the first and last playing a husband and wife team of con artists and thieves who are trying to con the second’s character of a perfume heiress out of her money (she is also the best in show). Proudly amoral and delightfully jumping around in the way the characters use deceptions and illusions to accomplish their goals while also revealing more than they would like about themselves. They are incredibly adult, with no roots in the past and so shiny and smooth that they appear to contain no flaws even with their inherently dishonest professions (you could never tell that Marshall lost a leg in World War I and had an artificial one installed that he was a little too good at concealing). Nobody is mistaking sex for love in this until the final moments, but that does not mean that they can banter the nights away to forestall the inevitable breakup of their love triangle. The scenes between Hopkins’ and Marshall’s characters where they steal the others’ valuables while treating it as a form of foreplay give away all that you need to know, particularly when the former repeats the gag on Francis by stealing her diamond encrusted purse, then returning it to her in a different fashion. The psychosexual kink is what makes this endure so much, but it is just out of sight, with the cast playing it as a drawing room comedy rather than screwball. It is droll rather than cartoony, even with a plot that is total farce, and a camera that moves so fluidly that you cannot help be swept up in the elegantly happy sadness as opposed to picking holes into the material. There is a happy ending to this tale, but you cannot help but sense that it will not last for much longer, whether it involves an arrest or a breakup. But there will always be the happier times that they had conning people.
Favorite Moment: Stealing foreplay.
6. King Kong
King Kong’s reputations as one of the greatest films of all time is a fascinating one, if only for how straightforward and lacking in nuance the script is, with all the ideas that have built up the legacy of the gigantic ape either being stated so explicitly that delving for subtext is like shooting fish in a barrel, or just outright not said in any way and thus conjured up in the mind of the viewer. Why is that? The answer is the very naivete and innocence of the story, which simply relies on that astonishing stop motion puppet that is supported by a parade of every other brand of early 1930s visual effect in the book, and a few visuals that just sink into the public consciousness like that. And the titular character is a marvelous creation, with the minor ruffles of his hair giving the illusion of rippling muscles as the smallest changes in his face register enormous emotional devastation. Producers would be wise to note that the slight artificiality of cheap practical effects is far creepier than the fanciest version of computer generated crap that will inevitably look to be out of date in a few years. Back to Kong, the parallels between him and Fay Wray’s character, even if we tend to focus on the Beauty and the Beast line, are also sketched out in a way that I have not given enough credit, with both being plucked from obscurity and forced into a situation that is brutally harsh. The pretty white lady gets saved and even gets a husband in the bargain (important to remember that this love is not requited in this version), while the poor animal is treated as such and shot down by the planes. (This argument would likely be quoted more frequently if it were not for the unfortunate racism that kills it a bit that comes with the territory once we arrive on Skull Island, not to mention the Chinese cook on board the ship that is forced to put on the most extreme take on the Asian lisp.) Except he is not an animal at the end of the day, he is a director’s idea of an ape, whereas the men on the boat are definitely animals, and that is what makes the picture so effective. The subtext is brilliantly hidden yet extremely stupid and blatant in its handling.
Favorite Moment: Ann acts for the camera.
5. Design for Living
Miriam Hopkins spends most of the running time of Design for Living smiling and looking happy except for when she is with the man she eventually marries, a hilariously boring man with the appropriately thudding name of Max Plunkett, who runs a cement company and only cares about his business. Her breakup with him before the marriage (hang with me here) results in her joining an unprecedented relationship with two men who, if you were dating, would make you be all smiles too: Fredric March (a playwright) and Gary Cooper (a painter), both of whom are flat broke and appeal to her sensibilities in different ways. What’s a girl to do when they both fall in love with her and their friendship is at risk? Why, have a threesome relationship, of course…but no sex! She is there simply to criticize their work and be a friend that helps them do better. Except we all know perfectly well that this is an idle threat, and March going off to London to supervise his breakout work results in more intimacy on the Cooper side of things. But the ball winds up back in March’s court, until they throw down their rackets and quit playing as a result. The dynamics are not as well defined as in other movies that rely on ever shifting ensemble dynamics, with the two leading men being fairly easy to mix up outside of their career choices and the personality coming down to the cast, but what a cast it is, and Ernst Lubitsch refuses to let anything too heavy about the nature of such relationships get into the story, choosing to gently take the piss out of the nature of boring, heteronormative relationships instead in a way that has a lot of edge even for the era before the Hays Code took full effect of the industry. The lack of showiness in showing a threesome where there is frankly quite a hefty dosage of gay subtext underneath the surface, in a day and age where that sort of thing still blows the minds of small minded bigots, is quietly revolutionary stuff, but it is also hilarious in that classically Lubitschian way of packing enough innuendo into ordinary statements to get past any censor with a sense of humor (a rare breed indeed but you understand my point). It’s very frothy and flawlessly executed in the most straightforward way possible.
Favorite Moment: Ending party.
4. Blood of a Poet
Blood of a Poet does not even hit the one hour mark yet combines enough sights and sounds in its four brief and interconnected vignettes to feel like a full course of cinema. The original entry in the great Jean Cocteau’s Orpheus Trilogy is very close to being a silent film in its long periods where we simply observe surrealist occurrences happening, even as the first two segments are a far step up from the last two, as we start with a poet (Enrique Riveros, gorgeously sensual and dancerlike) who is really more of an artist, as he creates numerous drawings where he rubs off the mouth when he is dissatisfied and wishes to start over. Unfortunately, one of his drawings, angry, puts its mouth on his hand where he cannot remove it so easily until it is placed onto a statue of a woman. She tells him to look into a mirror, which turns into a pool of water that he falls into and takes him through a dark void and to a hotel. The keyholes lead to visions of flying lessons, opium smokers, hermaphrodites, and instructions on how to shoot himself. Throughout, we also see wiry images out of dreams, such as double sided masks and basic outlines of the human head. It is all about the weird creative process of a surrealist and the blood that goes into their work, rendered most explicit when enough soul searching has been done, the talking statue is smashed, and a warning that “those who smash statues will become just that” as an indictment of those who would seek to censor art like this that manage to be rewarded for their politics anyway. From there, a snowball fight that becomes marble that kills and a deadly card game that ends with a dripping suicide slow things down, but the final scenes of the angel of death and a woman’s transformation into what was just destroyed are still well worth watching. Art is everything to Cocteau, from a force of creativity to a burning ball of agony, and that is why it endures alongside many other great films about the deadliness of the creative process. I eagerly await looking at the other works in this trilogy and seeing where these stories take us, particularly with Riveros’ lack of involvement in cinema from here on out and the replacement of the protagonist as a result.
Favorite Moment: Opening sequence.
3. 42nd Street
42nd Street is a musical that owes a huge debt to the silent era in how it makes itself look, with great big splashy production numbers that nevertheless owe a huge debt to the geometric precision of the older movies, with legs used as a kaleidoscope and visuals that impress even if you put the picture on mute. Impressive stuff for a movie that is also carrying the sound era into a whole new age, with production numbers that are the pinnacle of the form up until that point with admittedly slim competition. Still, the titular number here is like something out of The Red Shoes, with all those deranged overhead shots still being unparalleled. As for the story that carries the picture along, it is boilerplate material about the backstage workings of a stressed out musical, which can also be found in The Gold Diggers of 1933 from the same year. However, this goes for pure escapism, has better choreography, and the stresses are more directed towards the show rather than the issues of the Great Depression that were much more present in that. This not focusing on that piece of history is not to its detriment or improvement, but the cast being a bunch of stereotypes (angry and stressed out director, perverted old man who ogles the pretty ladies, one nice new girl in a cast f bitchy prima donnas, etc) helps get the world of this movie quickly established so that we can focus on the variety and overall arc of the stakes rising. Ruby Keeler and Bebe Daniels as, respectively, the girl next door and the well established star of the show, get the most to do and pay it off in spades, but really, the one who deserves the biggest bow at the end is Busby Berkeley. He makes all this coordination look like the most appealing thing in the world, a feat that helps dazzle the masses with the glitz and glory that the people so badly need, the ultimate ode to escapist fun during the hardest of hard times. It is just so gratifying to watch, even if you have to hang tight until the final act really begins, no matter how fun the backstage shenanigans are to watch. There are no real false notes, and the small dull moments are easily forgotten once the music finally kicks in and we see a kaleidoscope of legs.
Favorite Moment: Shuffle Off to Buffalo/Young and Healthy/42nd Street.
2. Madchen in Uniform
Madchen in Uniform is one of the most bold, unique things I have ever seen. This is a film that was made in the early 1930s about a boarding school that was essentially filled with lesbians and slightly inappropriate relationships between students and teachers, during a time when such a thing may have been more accepted in Germany than elsewhere but still no doubt was a topic of controversy, and when the Nazis took over it officially crossed over into “banned” territory. The cast is all women, and despite being based on a play the story is so cinematic in its editing techniques and storytelling methods that it feels like the very first work of the French New Wave no matter how much German is spoken. Most importantly, the atmosphere that is conjured up is one of genuine camaraderie among the girls against the strict headmistress and her cronies even as they are stuck in a place that is determined to stamp out any traits of personality or caring by depriving them of basic comforts and food. It is hard enough for the girls who have parents (such as Ilse, played phenomenally by Ellen Schwanneke), but Manuela is an orphan without any support system, and she must reckon with her burgeoning sexual desires with no real outlet are bound to burst out eventually, and after she gets accidentally drunk after a well received performance at the school play (the way this is justified is pretty incredibly ballsy but is pulled off beautifully), everyone hears just what she thinks of her beloved governess, the only teacher who kisses the pupils as they are getting tucked into bed. The aftermath of all this, with Manuela’s near suicide attempt near the end being particularly nervewracking, feels like a vicious take-down of anything you could think of, from institutions as a whole to the nature of the bigoted Nazi Party that was no doubt on the rise. Yet there is hope in those final, quietly sad shots of the headmistress (Emilia Unda) walking away, slowly realizing just what she has wrought. Empathy is the ultimate virtue, bigotry the ultimate sin in this universe, and this film slipping out of the hands of the censors precisely because it appealed so well to the people with the highest odds of feeling empathetic to it is a testament to the truths found within this wonderful work of art.
Favorite Moment: The drunken play aftermath.
M’s one flaw is Fritz Lang’s ultimate weakness: it gets weaker as it goes along, but is that really a problem when the opening scenes are this perfect? The child’s game that immediately sets the stage for the murderer who is terrorizing the children of the town, the tired mother slowly going about her day in terms of preparations before slowly growing worried about where her daughter is, the little girl and her bouncing ball getting caught by the man who whistles In the Hall of the Mountain King, the cries for help…all unspeakably grim stuff that makes pitch perfect use of sound and location to demonstrate just how this community is going to tear itself apart in looking for the man who is wreaking havoc. The places are either corrupt police stations that have seen better days, or hopelessly seedy criminal dens led by the great Gustaf Grundgens that appear to be better at first in how they are taking a more active, productive stance…but in reality, they are just as dedicated to their mob mentality as those hunting for Peter Lorre’s Hans Beckert, and they are infinitely more filthy. The only clean thing in M is the glass windows that still give us things like a spectacularly unsubtle shot of a pair of legs opening and closing over the head of Beckert’s character as he plans to seduce and kill a young girl. The lengthy hunt finally results in the killer being caught, and we get a slightly too long scene of a left behind criminal giving up the information the law enforcement officers, but we go back to the trial and watch the poor creature scream and rant, focused on the fact that he cannot help his urges even as the jury is entirely unsympathetic and plans to take justice into their own hands until the cops arrive in the nick of time. The madness of the mob mentality that led to the Nazi Party taking control is right there, staring us in the face, and it is impossible to believe that such a nakedly angry film was unable to get captured by the quietly increasing volume of censors. It may seem a little lengthy to some since it nearly hits the two hour mark, but it is trim and efficient, like a rat scurrying through a sewer, stopping near the end to nibble at some tasty treat.
Favorite Moment: The opening.