Top 15 of 1934
15. The Black Cat
The Black Cat’s appeal nowadays is limited to those most devoted of fans of the Universal Studios horror output, featuring both Dracula and Frankenstein in two roles that do not quite fit into the same niche as the typical performances that Bela Lugosi and Boris Karloff would spend the bulk of their careers being pigeonholed into, but are not too far off from what they usually did either. The former plays a Hungarian psychiatrist who wants his wife, and is probably not going to react well to a couple on their honeymoon in the area, but the latter is a tricky architect who in reality worships Satan and keeps the preserved corpses of women in tubes underneath his stereotypical dastardly lair. As an allegory for the traumas suffered by World War I veterans, it’s bizarre enough to work, but it’s the fear of cats on Lugosi’s end (with the pitch perfect delivery from Karloff to seal the deal) that really causes it all to tie together. Edgar Allen Poe’s cat would be bricked up behind the wall, but here, the cat is nothing but a metaphor, a witness to the crimes of the building man that is terrifying to behold and practically constructed the palace of delusions itself. All the cliches of the Grand Guignol and the genre that had already been established by Tod Browning and James Whale, and would be reinforced by those same men, are given a little twist by Edgar G. Ulmer (who had already done People on Sunday and would go on to do Detour, proving his versatility in the realm of genre). Exposition and details are dropped so casually that it feels like the details are being missed while you watch the events play out, with the logic getting even more deranged as things go on. Treat this as a work of surrealism or something like The Thin Man, a series of great moments that just barely cohere. The psychologist and the creator of spaces have more power in the fortress than the one who writes, so anyone who wants to impose a metacinema reading onto this is welcome to grab on. Either way, it is still totally unique even with the potential for tacky crossovers that you expect when you hear Dracula and Frankenstein’s Monster are in the horror show together. Ulmer’s career may have been savaged by his affairs, but this lives on.
Favorite Moment: “He has a fear…of CATS.”
14. The Merry Widow
Ernst Lubitsch, Maurice Chevalier, and Jeanette MacDonald were all ridiculously talented and gave us plenty of great comedies, yet when the three of them got together it really only worked for me twice-The Smiling Lieutenant and The Merry Widow. (I preferred Lubitsch’s comedies with other actors due to the pathos and just plain better writing, and the two singers did their best work under the incredibly creative direction of Rouben Mamoulian’s Love Me Tonight.) Clearly, the joy in those titles carried over into the production of those movies, and the idiocy of the plots. This one features a prince of a country called Marshovia (such a great pun on two different levels depending on if you read it as March or Marsh) trying to keep the money in his country by wooing a wealthy widow whose taxes are single-handedly keeping the place afloat (shame this doesn’t go for the economic jugular in the form of darker comedy, but what we have is delicious), but before that kicks in, we get a military parade singing about girls and being forced to divide around a pair of cows. I can’t claim I got the same number of laughs out of this as I got out of the ridiculously idiotic nonsense of Jazz Up Your Underoos or “Social climbers!” in the older L-C-M production, but MacDonald reading “Let me tell you, he is terrific!” from a letter while wearing an all black outfit that makes her look like a walking blind shadow, leading to Chevalier declaring that there isn’t a window in Marshovia that he has not jumped out of, is plenty amusing in its own right. The sets are practically another character, with the kingdom’s grim, Monty Python village aesthetic meeting with the sterile white palaces decorated with black veils that are where the supposedly mourning lady of the title lives, complete with a dog that can change colors like a mood ring depending on how she chooses to handle the matter of her four day marriage that ended quite suddenly. Meanwhile, the humor is aggressively Pre-Code, with a garter saying “Many Happy Returns” and an absolutely brilliant pun on the word “cockeyed” that I refuse to spoil for the uninitiated. The final trial for when he cannot successfully seduce her…well, it involves a prop that I am amazed he got away with even if the Code had not quite taken effect yet.
Favorite Moment: The Girls number.
13. The Kidnapping
Dimitri Kirsanoff’s career sadly only consisted of a few full feature films despite making a truly great work in the form of Pauline Kael’s favorite movie ever, Menilmontant. The good news is that his only full length feature to be easily available to the general public, Rapt (also known as The Kidnapping) is pretty wonderful in its own right, and features Dita Parlo in a work that would set the stage for Vigo’s L’Atalante, as the women man love who has a certain radiance in her oddly pretty face. She is unfortunately the casualty of sexism when her fiancee Hans kills the dog of a jealous man named Firmin, who kidnaps her character, Elsi and locks her up in his house until she agrees to marry him (although the terms of this seem to be awfully lax even with the allowances for distance). This results in the two men having strained relationships with their respective families, and it is not so easy to go and get her back since they are on opposite sides of a mountain, but a peddler and a village idiot may be able to come to the rescue. This plot is spread incredibly thin thanks to the atmosphere of the mountain life that these people lead, with repetitive sounds over an incredibly dense atmosphere of geometry and a certain airiness to the landscape. You might as well just soak in the otherworldliness of it all. Vengeance and distrust of outsiders slowly start to take prominence (one of the men is French-Swiss while the other is German-Swiss, which I could not really tell from watching the picture itself), ending with a fire sequence that works a bit like a montage, but Kirsanoff is more concerned with matters that can be communicated with the human face and the way the cinema holds itself together. You know that you are watching a movie that will hold you rapt (sorry), but it remains beautifully absorbing anyway, with grays that look like the wind filling every frame while something tinkles in the background. It is a melodrama straight out of the silent age, but the dialogue does not take away from the power of what goes on even with plenty of letters that could function as the intertitles. Such a deliciously unusual way to make your start in lengthier works, shame that this great talent has essentially been reduced to a one hit wonder.
Favorite Moment: Dog gets killed.
12. Heat Lightning
The opening credits of Heat Lightning show a whole lot of crabby looking women fanning themselves furiously. Shot on location in the Mojave Desert and opening with a car that is leaking a whole lot of fluids everywhere, Mervyn LeRoy’s trashiest hour (literally, the movie is only about sixty minutes long) is sticky, sweaty, and sarcastic thanks to Aline MacMahon being the primary actress of the gas station in the middle of nowhere where this bottle episode of a work takes place, along with her sister (Ann Dvorak). One visitor, played by Jane Darwell, declares upon seeing the former sister, Olga, successfully get a part off that a woman can do anything she puts her mind to before demanding that the other, Myra, get her a Coca Cola while slumping. Characterizations like that are quickly sketched with a minimum number of lines, for this is a quick little B-picture, and there is no time to waste on a set that was as painfully hot as this, especially when your younger sibling is sobbing over how horrible it is that she is stuck out here and just wants to have fun with boys. Rats are everywhere in Olga’s world, from the man trying to seduce Myra’s dumb teenage personality to the ex-boyfriend and his nervous partner that are on the run for killing a man, complete with two jewelry laden and racist divorcees (this level of nuance does not excuse the use of a Mexican stereotype) who are hiking their way to Hollywood with a lazy chaffeur to complicate things. MacMahon’s reaction to seeing Preston Foster (second best in show) as the ex is worth the price of admission in its own right, as well as her snippy reactions to the seduction, but eventually, we reach the scenes that put this right in the firing line of the Catholic Legion of Decency when it was released at the start of their reign of terror over the film industry, manipulation leading to seduction leading to sex. But if the rat tries to steal from other people, you need to make sure you are rid of him, and that is precisely what she does. The lack of Hays Code prevented this from being banned, and its existence got it shoveled aside for many years, with LeRoy’s merciless direction ensuring that no one could take off a single layer under the sweltering midday sun.
Favorite Moment: The rat gets shot.
11. The Goddess
Having already seen the weird and twisted take on her biography in the form of Center Stage, as well as the rather boring Little Toys, The Goddess was a viewing I was very much invested in for gaining perspective into the cult of the most famous of Chinese silent film actresses, Lingyu Ruan. This is a movie that badly lacks a score, for while some of these movies are bullying and manipulative with their music, this is a melodrama, and thus needs to be cruel to the audience in chronicling the difficult life of this woman and her attempts to care for her son despite being a prostitute. Whatever district in China this story takes place in, it is a surreal one, with one shot of glowing lights simultaneously leading us from and into the dirtiness of her apartment and the streets where she smokes to take a little break from her hardships before going out and making money in the oldest profession. Ruan’s performance is definitely a remarkable feat of silent film acting, constantly conveying exhaustion even in scenes where she is fairly neutral in her moods or when some pimps come by to have a supposedly fun party, and when she is actively sad, the world is on her shoulders and very visible to boot. She feels somewhat like Falconetti in how you can imagine her giving perfect line deliveries just from her facial expressions and body language as she, say, rants against her pimp, who she thinks has sold her child upon him finding out she wanted to leave the city. The kid is not an angel, either, asking the sort of questions that reopen old wounds at meals. The boilerplate material is what allows us to get a better grasp of the techniques being used, and in that sense, we gain a love for the small moments, with all those shots of the big buildings of 1930s Tokyo feeling like a quick breath of fresh air that allows us to escape into the clouds for a few seconds before getting dragged back to Earth against our will by something as simple as not having permission to educate one’s child, and upon attending, getting bombarded with titles yelling BASTARD! It all culminates in the ending, a final snapping of the temper and a smashing of her biggest obstacle that also paradoxically destroys the last of her freedom.
Favorite Moment: The jail scene.
10. It’s a Gift
With a title for a movie like It’s a Gift, you would hope for a film that lives up to the promise of that in the sense of quality, but the ultimate irony of both the Norman Z. McLeod movie and the main event that spurs the thin and speedy hour long road trip plot is that both are not what the recipient really wants. For W.C. Fields, he gets a house from a dead relative that secretly turns out to be the new bane of his already wretched existence. For the audience members, you get a comedy with a sense of humor that is drawn from the same vein of iron clad and durable vaudeville that worked so well on the screen for men like Charlie Chaplin in their historical reception, yet here it is so pitch black and bitter that one probably does not spend much of the picture laughing, particularly in how blandly awful the events are that befall the character of Harold Bissonette (your mileage may vary as to how you think that is pronounced), ranging from his sleep getting disturbed to dealing with annoying customers at work-the sort of things that can come across as being nails on a chalkboard in the way that everyone in his life is so relentlessly awful. His family is a series of nasty caricatures of women and children, with the customers at his old grocery store in one particularly deranged scene getting physical (blind/deaf) and mental (an obsession with kumquats, which the picture misspells repeatedly) defects to match their more extreme nuttiness in their absolute refusal to simply listen no matter the number of times Harold plays the role of Navi from Legend of Zelda, but they keep their nasty habits on the side of the mundane, the perfect straight men in the way they are the real cartoon lunatics here (Kathleen Howard as his wife with the most uppity voice known to mankind and the perfectly snooty name of Amelia is the obvious standout, with the advantage of our over-familiarity with her by the ending). Hope comes around in the end thanks to money, but it’s also laced with the continued pursuit of the bottle, the only true escape for the character and the actor from this wretched Florida hellscape, surrounded by the other people that make up the miseries in his life. It truly is a gift, but in the shape of a letter bomb.
Favorite Moment: Grocery store.
9. The Gay Divorcee
The Gay Divorcee is a very stupid movie, and I mean that as the highest of compliments. Making an intelligent movie is hard, but making one that looks dumb but is secretly either genius or pleasantly fluffy is harder, hence the dire state of blockbuster filming. All Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers did in their movies was meet cute, hate each other, wind up dancing for some reason, and fall in love over it, with this particular work also having some nonsense about Rogers’ character, with the hilariously unflattering name of Mimi Glossop, trying to get caught being an adulteress to end her unsatisfying marriage in a divorce while accidentally winding up with Astaire’s Guy Holden under the belief that he is the contact for her phony affair, even though he is merely a dancer on vacation. Really, though, even without the singing and dancing, this could be a classic screwball comedy, thanks to a great supporting cast and Mimi getting the personality of a smart ass, complete with her terribly annoying and dithering aunt played by future Academy Award winner Alice Brady for her to snark at, along with her lawyer and a waiter who keeps pestering everyone on board the boat. Where One Way Passage tackled a similar milieu and made it an ambiguous tragedy, this keeps everything light and frothy for a rather lengthy hour and forty five minutes, culminating in the best dance number until the insanity of The Red Shoes’ Technicolor ballet, a near half four number at the end of the production that showcases the two most iconic dancers of the era doing their thing marvelously, complete with acting while they dance as she slowly melts and he goes all out. It is as sexual as the dances of Earrings of Madame De… from opulence master and no doubt fan of this film Max Ophuls. But this is a work with a very specific tempo that simultaneously speeds up with passion during the five numbers and slows down to luxuriate in the blossoming love in this specific piece of nonsense. Funnily, only a few actually involve the two leads, with the third featuring Edward Everett Horton in an extremely tight bathing suit and performing a sing-talk song. It is just as bizarre and vaguely scary as you think it is, and I would unironically consider it a great reason to watch this ball of weirdness.
Favorite Moment: Night and Day.
8. Crime Without Passion
The sequence of Crime Without Passion that leads into the opening titles and credits is one of the most bizarre things ever to come out of a project that was put out by Paramount Pictures in what was presumably an attempt at making a profit and providing entertainment for audiences, but it comes across as like a Maya Deren film. Mexican American actress Margo (no last name) rises up like a spirit from a pool of blood, screaming over the city lights and sounds as we see quick cuts of a man and a woman necking, a pistol, and so on before hitting the title. As if it never happened, we then go to Claude Rains, playing a lawyer with the appropriate name of Lee Gentry in a high rise who goes on a monologue straight out of pulp fiction about how people are disgusting rotters that is drolly interrupted and unintentionally encouraged by his secretary. His girlfriend, the aforementioned shrieking spirit, shows up as Carmen Brown, purring and seductive, asking “Don’t you love me this morning?” before an immediate fade to black as we hear a casually charming yes, which would normally imply sex if not for how off the cuts and audio are. The casual strangeness and rhythms of this picture are inexplicable, truly Pre-Code material at its finest, with Mr. Gentry being the sort of Hollywood villain that openly brags to the press about the stupidity of the judge and jury, then going to cheat on Brown with a different woman, Katy Costello, while she flirts with Eddie White (love those character names, they remind me of Edith Wharton). The running time of this film barely peeks over an hour long, and the murder from the opening only occurs well past the halfway point, but half the joy is in watching the four primary cast members quickly sketch out some of the most rotten human beings in all of New York, with the post-shooting consisting of Rains’ character needing to establish an alibi and receiving assistance from what can only be called a ghost version of his consciousness, his casual lapse into sociopathic planning a low key chill in his Rube Goldberg brand of schemes involving a buzzer. This is not just a Pre-Code work in the level of adult that it is, but it also owes a heavy debt to the mad and the surrealists who paved the way for this forgotten gem.
Favorite Moment: Opening montage.
7. Le Grand Jeu
Le Grand Jeu doesn’t pussyfoot around when it comes to making the characters look like assholes, immediately opening with a series of witty retorts from the male lead when reprimanded by his female partner for driving so fast that he nearly crashes with a cable car. The man, Pierre, is a lawyer from a wealthy family who lives in a gorgeous house (the production design in this is the sort of thing that has not aged a day) and spends most of his time fucking around with his mistress, Florence, in a way that is slowly driving the estate into debt and is going to get him arrested by a client. His family, ashamed, forces him to sign up for the military and leave the country, which also results in romantic breakup and a truly blank slate to work with. Little attention is paid to the battles and fighting of the army, with most of the film being concerned with the downtime that results in people shedding their discipline for a few all too brief hours. Pierre, on such a night off, encounters a fortune teller named Blanche (a fantastic Francoise Rosay) and a woman named Irma who looks like Florence with a different hair color, and conveniently has no memory. If this comes across to you as basically taking the scenario of Vertigo about twenty years early and in a different setting/language, with Judy and Madeline genuinely being separate individuals, you are right, but even then we get fascinating insights into the relationship the two women have with money, how they are capable of genuinely tolerating such a selfish and consistently unpleasant individual via their own motivations, and the similarities and differences of their surroundings. Jacques Feyder’s direction may have been his sound debut, but you couldn’t tell, with a camera that moves fluidly and beautifully though consistently gorgeous interiors. It all improves as it goes along, particularly after the war wraps up, and culminates in one of the nastiest endings you could imagine, arguably worse than the bell tower scene for how it goes straight for the heart, and there is no finality in the same vein as the death from a fall. The concept of redemption is spat on and treated as the joke that it is, and what was seen in the cards in the lazy small town with nothing but a brothel and a bar has come to pass.
Favorite Moment: Ending.
6. The Blue Light
I would say “Poor Leni Riefenstahl” if she was not such a blatantly horrible person, but really, one has to feel sympathy for a woman whose impeccable eye for images has become overshadowed by the way she used her talents to advocate for one of the most evil political parties to ever gain control. Her propaganda in the form of Triumph of the Will is fairly boring, but there is no denying how effective the images of people moving en masse in unison to the tune of patriotic music and vague speeches about gaining control can still falsely inspire this Jew turned atheist for a few seconds before a curdling in the stomach sets in. Let us focus on a rarity in the shape of her first fiction film, a dreamy adaptation of a fairy tale with a few feminist underpinnings that quickly rot away upon realizing just what her politics were. Still, even with the director giving a dreadful leading performance as Junta, a woman who is totally in touch with nature thanks to some glowing crystals and accidentally leads men to their deaths via the beauty and power of the sight of the aura emanating from the mountains, the power of those views of the mountains, filled with a light so intense you can practically see the titular color even though we are in black and white, with her face silently glancing out at the wide open sky as her suitor, just like the audience, is totally awestruck. Despite the short running time of 86 minutes, there is about a single short film’s worth of content in this, with the camera lingering over the beautiful compositions and the sad weary faces of the villagers who are being unintentionally tormented, and approximately a half hour’s worth of bookends in the form of the fairy tale. By the time greed triumphs and the director throws herself to her death, the viewer can imagine a different world where the tales of this woman’s mind are able to move audiences for the right reasons and get regular distribution, rather than a career filled with poison. Cherish the glow that this gives off rather than trying to reconcile the bizarFre nature of a supporter of the world’s most notorious anti-Semite whose primary piece of fiction was quietly feminist in its hatred of men poisoning the natural world. Deep ironies abide underneath this beauty.
Favorite Moment: Seeing the crystals.
5. Little Man What Now
Frank Borzage has a reputation as a romantic, and it is not unearned, but Little Man What Now is as close as Hollywood ever got to the social realism of someone like the Dardenne Brothers. Despite taking place in Germany when they are on the verge of an economic collapse, everyone sports an American accent, but don’t let that distract you from the increasingly vicious lifestyles our primary couple face in trying to eke out a living despite their poverty and the man’s boss having a dislike for married men at the place of employment. The Great Depression is everywhere, and we do see people in the background making speeches in an attempt to stir things up, but where his earlier works with Janet Gaynor posited love as the cure all for everything, here it is simply something that makes the days a little more bearable when you cannot afford to eat, even if it also results in an overabundance of spending on things they cannot afford. Douglass Montgomery and Margaret Sullavan are wonderful as the leading couple, but the performance that sticks just as much comes from Alan Mowbray as a famous actor who visits the suit store where Montgomery’s character works and is charming and friendly with all the charisma you would expect before revealing he has no interest in buying anything. Upon receiving a desperate plea to buy something since he must meet a quota or else he will be fired, he turns on a dime and immediately rats him out, getting him fired for real. Scrimping and saving is a huge part of the world of these characters, to the point where every purchase of an item that could be perceived as a luxury is gut twisting. Small kindnesses are what keep these people afloat, whether it is a bottle of wine at a party or a sandwich. The movie is oddly happy for a film that deals with poverty in such a head-on way, but the glittery sheen hides a dark, grim material that composes the bones of this picture. It is haunting stuff, a precursor to the death of the middle class and pitting of workers against each other that comprises the modern world we live in today, even with an ending that wraps everything up nicely for a few precious seconds. It’s not deliberately unconvincing, but the sincerity is probably what viewers needed back then.
Favorite Moment: The actor visits the store.
4. The Thin Man
My first viewing of The Thin Man was when I was too young to really keep up with the plot, so I took it as an experience similar to The Big Sleep in how it was all a load of nonsense, but with such good banter it was hard to resist. It hangs together a little better this time, but all that nonsense about the bonds and the relationships between the people who aren’t Nick, Nora, and Asta the dog are twisted and complicated even with a fairly simple premise relating to a murder scheme that the actors could not follow and zipped through whenever possible. Thankfully, the primary couple gets off on the wrong yet right foot thanks to the greatest dog until Toto dragging Myrna Loy into the picture with William Powell when he is shaking drinks to the rhythm of the night, where they proceed to drink six martinis and ask for more, even with a cold ice pack for the resulting hangover fashioned into a stylish hat and having to avoid getting shot in the tabloids from a break in that thankfully backfires. (Loy not getting an Actress nomination is galling, and while I ultimately prefer It Happened One Night, the pair deserves as much credit as can be given for dealing with the madness of so few retakes.) Visually, it is also a treat, with the sparse, minimalist sets than are thin on detail (sorry) adding to the charm and pulpiness of this world where everyone can get in a line like “Waiter, will you serve the nuts-I mean, waiter, will you serve the guests the nuts?” and it can be as natural as can be. Everything is vague and silly and just an excuse to get drunk and have fun being glamorous alcoholics at the constant parties that occur in the Charles residence. I have not seen a single sequel to this picture, and while I might do so, a part of me does not really want to. Why spoil the perfection of a perfect evening out with friends by tainting the perfection of the silliness? With regards to the details, you should either add as many perfect ones or as little as possible, and this film goes for the latter, so I will follow the example of the director and cast and keep it simple and stupid. What am I rambling on about? Must be drunk.
Favorite Moment: The ice pack hat.
L’Atalante is a film whose appeal beyond “pretty black and white cinematography” is very hard to sum up precisely because it is a movie where things happen, and they are simultaneously as realistic as can be and quirked out to death, with the knowledge that the making of this movie literally killed Jean Vigo from tuberculosis in the back of the mind at all times. Not much happens, really: a couple gets married, the wife gets fed up with life on the titular barge, she goes to Paris, things go badly, she returns and they make up before continuing down the river. Simple enough, especially since the closest thing to a metaphor is Dita Parlo’s Juliette telling her husband Jean (Daste) that if you look into the water, you can see your lover’s face, and he eventually jumps into the canal out of despair when she goes missing, seeing her with the most beatific smile ever put on film in a moment of pure magic. And yet, that is not all it boils down to. I could focus on details like talking about the cats that are everywhere on the boat and always draw attention since they give no shits about the picture, or the preserved hands in a jar that the obnoxious cat loving crew member (Michel Simon) claims are what is left of his former best friend, but instead, I will draw my attention to a different sequence, where the two are missing each other and rolling around in bed, clearly pining. Easy enough, right? No, for the director cuts it together so that it is practically a telepathic sex scene, the loneliest roll in the hay imaginable and yet not quite believable as masturbation either. Parallels to Sunrise are easy in how they both focus on a woman experiencing the sights and sounds of a city after being a country girl her whole life, but where Murnau’s work focused on giving us beautiful sights, this is more a mood piece, with the sort of events that you recall as anecdotes over the years just…happening, and making us feel a certain way with regards to living on this boat with this quiet cabin boy and this obnoxious bear of a sailor covered in crudely artistic tattoos. Might those scrawls be a reference to the art itself? It certainly keeps me just as warm as Pere Jules claims the ink does.
Favorite Moment: Underwater dive.
2. It Happened One Night
The original romantic comedy (an arguable title but just roll with it-and speaking of titles, this movie’s makes no sense and should be called It Happened Over The Course of Several Nights but I love it anyway) is one of the most perfect things Hollywood ever assembled and Frank Capra’s finest hour, starting off with Claudette Colbert’s spoiled, snarky heiress immediately snapping at her father before jumping off their luxurious boat to avoid the annulment of her marriage to a man with the hilariously stupid nickname of King, heading off to New York City to meet up with him. Of course she meets another man, in the shape of Peter Warne’s reporter, a no undershirt wearing bum who snaps away at carrots and puts up the Walls of Jericho in exchange for the story of a lifetime. What makes this simple story endure is the constant introspectiveness, with the dynamics constantly shifting and capturing the little hardships and blanket on a string shaped joys of life on the road, particularly during a time of a Great Depression where one person is lacking in street smarts and the other lacks etiquette. Sure, they learn from each other, but fundamental change never really happens outside of the falling in love part. They are both delightfully obnoxious the whole way through, down to using their impersonation skills and their legs to get by on the road when all their buses die. Colbert in particular gives among the greatest performances to win the Actress Oscar, constantly malleable in her unclear view of herself and totally shell-shocked by changes to her environment that ever so slowly reduce in time, complete with making her character so lovable that we could totally understand why Gable and Connolly are so devoted to her spunkiness. Little background details like the constant rain add to the texture of this portrait of the age, but the idle rich are abandoned in the end in favor of a dirty blanket on the floor, the transition between the pre and post-Code ages of Hollywood cinema. Even though half of the six Best Picture winners prior to this were excellent, this is the first to make it all seem like the Academy was devoted to rewarding things that brought a sense of fun and quality to the industry, rather than having to pick between the two. Shame the trend would not last forever, but we got this out of it.
Favorite Moment: Sitting on a fence, waiting for a car.
1. The Scarlet Empress
The Scarlet Empress begins with a little girl named Sophia who looks uncannily like how one would imagine Marlene Dietrich to look if she were several years younger absorbing the knowledge of past Tsars and Tsarinas of her country as she lays in bed before a rather alarming dissolve into a montage of their bloody greatness, with tombs being robbed, a great beast of a man cutting away at something or someone with a gigantic grin on his face, and torture scenes that are simultaneously unnerving to see in a 1934 picture (a man is used as the ringer on a church bell, hung upside down) and which explain why Josef von Sternberg could not continue his run of good fortune at the Academy Awards that year. It is bold, opulent, and brilliant, as great a way to start off a picture as I can think of. How do we proceed from there? Why, with a transition from the bell-man to the Tsarina cheerfully swinging on a swing surrounded by flowers and happy female friends, before it all gets ruined with an arranged marriage that winds up in her gaining a whole new identity as Catherine and bringing the world to her feet out of fury over the fact that she is forced to marry an ugly idiot and deal with an overbearing mother in law. Despite the fact that sound was a fairly familiar device to the director by now, this is one of his least talkative pictures, with the music and expressive visages of the numerous old and ugly gargoyles in the Russian castle doing all the work, with the immediate arrival consisting of Count Alexei (John Davis Lodge) kissing her and then saying she should punish him by handing her a whip. The kink is so in your face that it is a wonder that this wasn’t censored, but it was also among the last films in the days prior to the Code taking effect. Dietrich may lay it on a little thick with her going from doe-eyed to her standard act in her other collaborations with the director, but it is tremendously effective, and her lover is a smoldering ball of nasty, delightful casual privilege with the satisfaction of a person who gets to spend his time in what looks like the greatest department store ever built, with prop after prop for his enjoyment when he pleases.
Favorite Moment: The torture montage.