Top 20 of 1937
Liebelei was the first Max Ophuls film to break out, but it received a belated United States release date that sticks it in 1937, thus putting it after La Signora di Tutti in this weird calendar pattern that I have chosen to embrace more often than not (never claimed to be consistent). Unusually for the director, the men are just as important as the inner turmoil of the women, with a musician’s daughter and a lieutenant falling for each other, with all the tragedy of codes of honor and expectations of masculine show off competitions that comes along with the territory. The long takes of the camera show up occasionally, like with a sumptuous take at a dinner table between all the men of the military, but mostly, he goes for the character probing, with the young soldier having “too much luck with women” and his romantic interest being shy to the point of her voice wavering when she sings. They fall in love in the snow, sledding away in pure bliss, and when they dance it is deliriously close and happy, while his attempts to seduce a Baroness he is no longer interested in result in mechanical performances. There is another couple on the side, played by their respective closest friends, but the real side character of interest is the Baron himself, who destroys everything for the lovers by choosing pistols at dawn. Everyone is trapped in a cage, and the soldier dying results in the girl committing suicide. The German political situation of 1933 is forever in the background, but never outright stated, with comments about how any shots that are not fired in self-defense are murderous slipping by the Nazi censors even with Goebbels taking control. Dry jokes about using a carriage if one is conducting an affair, or the absolutely incompetent duel, would be borrowed many times in later years, but Ophuls was just getting started in constructing glistening towers for people to steal from until they collapsed. Shockingly, the jewels and wealth are still fairly intact, making one wonder if it comes down to the distribution status of his works or the unwillingness to take such riches, whether because they are priceless treasures or simply too feminine for the boys club that is directing. Even the simpler and less adorned lives of these people deserve more consideration than they are currently getting from cinephile circles.
Favorite Moment: The friend tries to bail on being the second.
19. Night Must Fall
Night Must Fall is two hours long, which is far too long, but also manages to remain fairly fascinating throughout. Nominated for the Oscar were May Whitty, an old woman named Mrs. Bramson who is basically running her miserable English village, hires Robert Montgomery (playing an Irishman called Danny) as the caretaker to her house after her maid Dora introduces the two of them to each other. He immediately sucks up to her and gets a servant position, but the woman who had him employed previously seems to have gone missing from the area. Rosalind Russell plays Bramson’s niece Olivia, the most suspicious person in the building. If this sounds like an earlier version of a Hitchcock, you are not far off, although this was originally a play and it is reflected a bit in the shooting style (director Richard Thorpe’s reputation nowadays is “he lucked into this one thanks to Ray June’s cinematography” despite directing over 100 movies). Still, the sets are pretty gorgeous and blatantly artificial, the sound work of constant chirping birds does wonders to set you on edge even during idyllic moments thanks to a wonderfully creepy opening straight out of Night of the Hunter, and the slow burn of people menacing each other (Olivia gets a terrifically random and creepy monologue, recounting the murder in graphically poetic detail, about ten minutes in), and the mad sexual arousal and guilt has not aged a day in setting the mood, sort of a diet Laura. Perhaps this movie does not get enough credit as an influence, even with all the stiffness associated with it? The characters talk, but the dynamics change in ways that are hard to latch onto. It is more of a mood piece of ironic settings and performances that feed into it. While Whitty’s acid tongue has real pathos behind it in the last scenes, it is all about Montgomery, who takes on a tricky role and makes him both ingratiating in a way that fools you (down to the accent) while never letting us forget what a monster he is, with his clinical, studied movements making him play many roles rather than just his real, awful self. One surreal scene that gives us a passage into his mind, with a hat box that contains a truly horrible kill trophy, turns into a revel in the worst emotions to take such pride in. Horribly underrated.
Favorite Moment: The death of Mrs. Bramson.
Camille has Greta Garbo (she even plays a woman named Marguerite of all names) and was directed by George Cukor, and it is a romance that takes place in the 1840s. You know exactly what you are getting yourself into with that combination, so by god you better like it for making you sad. Yet Camille transcends standard melodrama stuff that could have been easily fallen into a la her dreadful star vehicle Romance from a few years ago. We quickly get immersed into this world of constant dates at the theater or the opera to while away the evenings, and meet the man played by Robert Taylor that she falls for through her opera glasses. She was born lower class and rose up through the ranks, and she has a cough that will not go away. Despite the fact that Garbo’s choice of material was frequently dubious and her performances suffered as a result, she really sells the hell out of every moment here, with things like her casual play with a necklace saying so much about the fundamental immaturity and inexperience she is burdened with in making her way around high society. Still, after a rather bland first half where the two leads meet cute and wander around the city’s social gatherings while totally in love, doubts start to leak into their love, and the will they or won’t they factor gets upped infinitely. Marguerite is forced to actually make some decisions as opposed to postponing everything that could possibly land in her path, and Garbo rises to the challenge of this change admirably, even as she still behaves fairly selfishly and nearly dies alone (not a spoiler considering the actress) of tuberculosis. Ah, foreshadowing. Despite looking gorgeous thanks to the camera, sets, and above all the enormous gowns that resemble cakes, and having some very high highs, I was left a little cold by the duller stretches, which admittedly might have worked better if I was viewing this on a bigger screen. I definitely would want to rewatch this someday, but for now, my relationship is merely an appreciation for what is probably the best performance of Garbo’s that I have seen so far, mostly due to her prior films relying on her looks so heavily. It certainly comes across as a sort of slightly compressed epic, which I would probably appreciate more in the context of no distractions but an Exit sign.
Favorite Moment: Ending.
17. Tale of the Fox
Wladyslaw Starewicz (and in the case of this film, his co-director and wife Irene) was one of the most legendary stop motion animators of the time, rivaling Lotte Reiniger and her gorgeous shadow puppets, with the unpleasant dead bugs that they used for legendary short The Cameraman’s Revenge resulting in some of the most delightfully gross meta work ever made as early as the 1910s by keeping it all in the realm of simple allegory, while The Mascot was certainly a memorable vision of a child’s toy that no doubt had some influence on Toy Story, except with many nightmares crammed into the voice acting and visuals to really make it pop. With only one feature film to their names that fully survives (and it was thankfully restored to proper quality), Tale of the Fox precedes Snow White by seven years in terms of production, but has infinitely more grimness and grit to it, which Disney fully scrubbed out for almost all their works. It is a simple allegory of a fox named Reynard who pulls countless tricks to get himself better off than the Lion King who runs the kingdom. He is both beautifully animated and totally disturbing, with the way his lips move being a particular highlight of the expressiveness of this beast, but this tale is firmly aimed at adults thanks to a scene where a baby kit breastfeeds (ah, anthropomorphism). The story is essentially an anthology of fairy tales, ranging from getting a raven to sing to drop its bread, to a family of wolves getting screwed out of a tail and food. They come to collect their justice from the leader of the animals, which gives us flashbacks to choirs of bunnies, a decree only allowing the king to eat meat, and more exploitation on Reynard’s end. It lasts an hour, but since we cannot beat the masses, we join them, and he becomes the Prime Minister, leading a mass of animals and critters who he has exploited and abused. How oddly fitting a metaphor for the political process, albeit not subtle in the least. The visuals are awe inspiring and original, however, so does the story’s thinness really matter at the end of the day? Even things like dream sequences are handled with awe inspiring transitions from the sleeping bed to the monkey at the microphone that announces what is going on in the mind of the critter.
Favorite Moment: Bunny chorus.
16. Street Angel
Street Angel goes for an awfully long time without having the characters speak any of their lines, opening instead on a parade where we see a bunch of people from the neighborhood who we will become familiar with over the duration of the picture watching the spectacle and noise that goes on for a whopping seven minutes in a movie that happens to be the standard length of ninety. Eventually, we meet the first of two sisters, Xiao Hong the singer at a tea place, who immediately breaks into a song for the patrons. So much music is overflowing in the lives of this take on 1930s China, which is fitting considering how much this production owes to the lyricism and poetic romanticism of Borzage (more 7th Heaven than the movie of the same title with Janet Gaynor). Her older sister, Xiao Yun, is a prostitute, and is fighting hard to keep her sister from slipping from her current position, which is not significantly better, to the lowest possible in that time period. This sounds like a downer, but there is light and happiness everywhere, with the bustle of the city being embraced and their closest friend being a musician who tries to keep Hong out of the streets and away from the area’s crime boss. He does so while bickering adorably, giving us some delightfully stupid magic tricks (one gag early on involving some floating heads feels like a Bunuel joke), and everyone is having fun, including the director. Yuan Muzhi, who also wrote the film, takes full advantage of the sound that was available to him with the musical numbers (complete with a bouncing ball so you can sing along if you can read Chinese text), rhythm of the banter, and sneaking in social commentary into the background in a way that is poignant upon reflection, rather than an assault. The gender norms are about as progressive as you could ask for from the period and the culture, and the message relating to class is about as good as it gets. So many shots in this film beg for restoration, but at least its presence in the public domain means that everyone can enjoy them regardless of their clarity. I do not fully understand the cultural norms surrounding this work, but I would be delighted to know more regarding the influences and ideas that were pulled into this intriguing mix.
Favorite Moment: Opening song.
15. The Edge of the World
Michael Powell starting off with black and white films is a development in his career that feels wrong. He should have been sprung full bloom from a reel of Technicolor film, with all the mad colors and sights that this implies. Yet his first important work that set up his incredible run in the 1940s was a movie that was in full monochrome (and it looks gorgeous on the Blu-Ray restoration) and focused on the people of a remote island who are slowly but surely about to lose their incredibly simple way of life, centered around fishing, as a result of a forced evacuation and the younger people wanting the greater opportunities available on the mainland. The more who leave, the more difficult it is for the remainder to eke by. This plot is not forced but teased out slowly by depictions of the desolate wilds, with an eagle trying to kill a sheep early on as the waves crash below the cliffs, followed by women in black watching from the rocks that they so strongly resemble as the boats take off one day. They have been here so long that they rather resemble each other. The cast and crew did not have an easy time of it (they had to use a different island than what they wanted, although both were plenty lonely and they were dependent on the occasional piece of radio communication), and it shows in so many ways, with shots of men climbing the cliffs being taken with angles that make you realize the cameras had to be set up there, too, particularly for a shot when someone falls to his death, which is followed by a misty and misty-eyed funeral, with a choir that haunts. The acting leaves quite a bit to be desired, but something about the raw beauty is particularly fascinating for a man whose entire career was inspired by artificiality, an ode to a way of life that was on its way out in the 30s and is incredibly alien today. It is not a happy movie, with the ending scenes of the residents planning to depart and having to discuss drowning their pets since they do not have room in the boats for anything impractical is one of the most grim notes you could imagine. Fare thee well, St. Kilda, and enjoy the loneliness now that the despoilers of nature are gone.
Favorite Moment: Cliff climbing.
14. Pepe Le Moko
Noir was slowly starting to come to the forefront of the film world in the late 30s, with German Expressionism slowly becoming something new thanks to the curdled, deep seated cynicism of the upcoming war that would wreck cinema in plenty of ways. The perfect man to be right at the forefront was Jean Gabin, with Julien Duvivier right behind the camera in what feels like the natural continuation of the ending to They Were Five, with the plot recalling Lady Killer from the same year in how it consisted of Gabin and Mireille Balin having a completely toxic romance. Where that movie started off on a one-to-one level, this is a grander statement, with an opening montage summarizing an area in colonialist northern Africa (hi Casablanca! I am a hundred percent sure that there is an abundance of comparisons and plagiarism to be found, even if the latter improved upon it) that is overcrowded, diverse, and poverty stricken, with the titular criminal hiding out in precisely that region to avoid capture. The film had influences on both noir and realism, but here it unites the poetry and humanity of a Renoir while aiming it somewhere darker. While the law hunts for our antihero, so do his rivals and women, but for very different reasons in the latter case. Pepe’s fatal flaw turns out to be Balin’s mistress to a very rich man, and she unintentionally betrays him, but most of the fun is in the small moments between the plot being pushed forward. The banter between the chief and Gabin’s irrepressible attitude where they are practically on the verge of either kissing or brawling with each other in trying to get Pepe to leave his place of refuge, the first encounter of the lovers where they fall in love over discussing street names, all with so much texture and claustrophobia in the rhythms of people who cannot get any freedom beyond sitting on the roof for some fresh air, a house arrest that can easily lead to a real one, and one that is pretty much the same for all the people in that area of the world. Fatalism never stops, and neither do the wheels of time that crush everyone beneath them. The system being horrible to the poor was a common theme this year across the planet, but this is the most self centered of the lot.
Favorite Moment: Final embrace.
When Marlene Dietrich decided to stop making magic with Josef von Sternberg and his sequined fantasies, she moved on to the next best thing in Ernst Lubitsch and his glitzy comedies. Angel has a title that seems like it could fit right into either filmography, but no one in this film really qualifies as the object of the title, with every one of them a liar who we have more information than. With her least assuming protagonist name ever in “Mrs. Brown,” she goes off on a vacation away from her husband, but she’s really more of a Barker, no? Herbert Marshall as the aforementioned man is a dull British diplomat, perfectly fitting and still cinematic for a stagey world where the camera glides across windows like a spectactor’s eyes watching a play upon the theater floor. She loves Melvyn Douglas, an American also on vacation who is so much easier to banter and flirt with. If anyone makes that flirtiest of actresses feel that it is on par with drawing blood from a stone, with a husband who almost called her “hard” even if it was aimed elsewhere, perhaps the breakup is badly needed? Usually Lubitsch’s touch involved finding the humor in romantic entanglements, but here, he starts slowly veering towards the melancholy that would characterize his later works, and it proves a beautiful fit for his sensibilities. What characters say is irrelevant, and the wit is a bit parched, so the spaces between the words are what matters the most. The poles are the settled, familiar rituals of a long time marriage that is frankly falling apart at the seams, and an unfamiliar romance with all the new excitement that implies. Yet when something, a milestone of sorts, finally happens, it is practically irrelevant, and we cut away from it. The cinema itself is blocking their passion, simply because she cares too much about her old relationship, no matter how boring and long term it is compared to the second to second passions of the new partner whose name she does not even know. We get a happy ending of sorts, but it is so abrupt that you have to wonder if it will last beyond those final credits. Does it matter? We have all the pieces, and the characters do not. We are assembling them, but they might just be happy with their little section of puzzle.
Favorite Moment: Marlene saying that it’s okay if he’s a little frightened as long as he confronts his fear.
12. Nothing Sacred
Nothing Sacred is basically Ace in the Hole a few decades earlier in a more optimistic milieu, with the comedy played way up thanks to Ben Hecht (and three others, but who cares about them am I right?) and the deeply cynical tragedy getting pushed gently into the background, just barely visible to the audience behind the laughs. Fredric March and Carole Lombard is a dream pairing, with his slight stiffness and her mania bouncing off each other nicely in this story of a reporter and a woman who finds out she is not going to die after all trying to help each other out. He wants an article and she wants an excuse to live life like she’s dying by becoming the toast of New York due to her false alarm of radium poisoning. Simple enough, with one of the great script decisions being to have March’s Wally not feel too much emotion when it is revealed that Lombard’s Hazel is perfectly healthy, but William Wellman is not slacking on the visual side. One scene features a conversation where Wally and Hazel are blocked by an enormous tree branch as they are taking a stroll, a stealthy little chiding of the viewer for being voyeuristic in wanting to see some PDA that repeats itself when a crate appears during a much more romantic moment. We are no better than the audience in the story that is morbidly fascinated by seeing a girl supposedly dying bravely and happily. Likely demanded via Selznick, the film was shot in Technicolor, which makes everything look rather unusual due to print quality resulting in strange, faded colors and a truly bizarre skywriting scene that would not have the appropriate color contrast in black and white. By the time we have finished in a nice brief running time of just under an hour and 15 minutes, we have also gotten to see the two lead actors get into a fistfight, with unexpected comic beats galore and the unexpected photographer we have seen so many times over the past few hours get his final shots in. It’s a shame about the racist opening scenes and the ending’s rather pat nature, but I guess the latter was to be expected, and we have gotten plenty of enjoyable cynicism mixed in with plenty of dry jokes that Billy Wilder would later shamelessly steal from…or at least from the same well.
Favorite Moment: Tree branch talk.
11. A Star is Born
Let’s get this out of the way: the original version of A Star is Born made by William Wellman cannot touch the Cukor version from the 50s in terms of color, performance, staging, whatever. Gaynor and March, despite being two incredibly talented actors (the former’s transition into the sound era is a very well handled switch on her end), cannot match Garland and Mason. The color has sadly faded, and I had the good fortune to first view the ’54 take with a massive restoration of outstandingly beautiful colors, but even then it seems hard to believe that the older take could ever match it there. Still, this one has the smarter opening, with a script showing us exactly what we are going to be shown before Esther Blodgett returns home to her farm, having enjoyed a movie and wishing to become a Hollywood actress, only for her aunt to be nasty and dismissive while her grandmother (May Robson in a great scene stealer), sympathetic, helps her go to Hollywood. All the scenes on the farm are in the dark of night, so when she arrives in California, of course it is sunny and colorful and filled with people jumping into swimming pools, even with grim signs saying that there are sixteen times as many extras as they need and a smart subplot with Gaynor continuing to write to her grandmother and lying all the way. This is about the point where Wellman’s work starts to be just a little less good than Cukor’s, beginning with how Esther and Norman meet cute on a note of slapstick that seems very teeth-gritted on everyone’s parts, to Andy Devine’s hoarse throated help as her best friend and unemployed assistant director. (I got some cheap laughs out of her waitress gig.) Really, the fundamental difference is in the fact that the ending is less vague about Esther-Vicki’s show business plans, but in the fundamental structure too. We start off sympathizing with Victoria here, only for our allegiances to slowly transfer a bit, whereas Cukor’s is aimed at falling in love with the real star of the show in the shape of Garland. Also, it has better music by virtue of that amazing soundtrack and the madness of Born in a Trunk, so there’s that, but treat yourself to both, especially with the fucking shitshow that is Bradley Cooper’s attempt at directing coming on up.
Favorite Moment: The name change.
10. Dead End
Dead End’s reputation nowadays is curiously low despite being a William Wyler film from when he was coming off what was arguably his peak in Dodsworth/These Three and moving onto Jezebel, Wuthering Heights, and The Letter, which happens to star Humphrey Bogart, Joel McCrea, Sylvia Sidney, and a five minute part from Claire Trevor that got her an Oscar nomination (not unwarranted). It even launched a franchise due to the fact that it was about…children. Well, that explains its currently low reputation quite a bit. (And no, none of the people I just mentioned play the children.) Still, it’s hard to resist something that starts off with such a gorgeous panning shot down the side of a building, to the lowest depths of the city streets. Sidney’s character has accepted that her lot in life is to be stuck here (her brother is a member of the children’s gang that is rapidly heading towards crime filled lives), McCrea as her boyfriend deeply desires to go where the rich live, and Bogie as Baby Face is a nostalgic gangster who wants to be the biggest fish in the smallest pond, with Trevor’s character as his hooker ex girlfriend who is suffering from a disease that the Code censored, and which inspires a line that is as close to a slap in the face as you can get from the verbal (first prostitute ever nominated, which she should take as an honor). The sets are some of the most convincing ever pulled up by the studio system, with plenty of dirt and real garbage (which infuriated Samuel Goldwyn), a motley crew of extras always doing miserable and menial tasks, and a melancholy score doing some heavy lifting along the way. Even the child actors are genuinely nasty, with Wyler reportedly having to put up with them trashing the building and running a truck through a sound stage wall. Ambitious and layered, with none of the characterizations approaching the stereotypes I may have made them sound like thanks to performance and direction style. You don’t forget the characters, and everyone here was just getting started. Deserves more credit as a star vehicle and a fascinating study in its own right. The Code prevented this from outright stating its leftist intentions, but this may arguably be for the better in how obliquely it teases out the problems that the characters are up against, with the smelly undercurrent underlying the idealized surface.
Favorite Moment: The mother slurs out her disownment.
9. The Awful Truth
Leo McCarey’s 1937 was one of the most impressive years a director has ever had, with both his screwball comedy and anti-comedy coming out at the same time. We turn first to the more cheerful work, starring a wonderfully game Irene Dunne, Cary Grant, and Ralph Bellamy at the top of their games alongside the dog from The Thin Man (called Mr. Smith here). The first two members play a couple who lied to each other about what they did on their respective vacations, and immediately go and get divorced…but they decide to destroy the others’ attempts at finding new romantic partners. Both are delightfully daffy, with Dunne being a rambler and Grant being unflappable, and poor Bellamy is just trying to make sense of it all when Grant does things like play the piano and encourage Mr. Smith to bark along while he is trying to have a conversation with Mr. Smith’s adoptive mother. As taunts related to Kentucky, musical numbers from Grant’s new prospective partner that foreshadow the future Best Picture winner of 1939, deadpan dreadful dancing with a bribe to ensure an encore of the same high stepping, and casual viciousness get lobbied around by the two stars, it becomes a battle to see whose sympathies we run for. While Grant’s performance is excellent and makes good use of his persona, it’s all about Irene’s finest hour, running the gamut of screwball emotions and volleying them back in whatever direction they’ve been lobbed from just to make them as annoyed as she is. There is pathos, too, with the sadness that flits across her faith when a bitter rant occurs on the way their marriage ended pops out of his mouth, before she plan to head off to Oklahoma with her beau. Despite the pleas from the cast that the movie was not working and they needed to be let go during production, everything worked out brilliantly thanks to the instincts of the crew, but particularly McCarey knowing precisely what was needed to cause a laugh even if it was a downer moment. Improvisation is an underrated talent in making something so genuinely playful and enjoyable from beginning to end, with poor Ralph having to sing and be mocked for his total lack of talent in the field, yet still remain totally at ease. The straight man is the hardest role to be on something like this.
Favorite Moment: Dog divorce court.
8. Stella Dallas
King Vidor’s career vaulted from the astounding highs of The Crowd, which portrayed the city as a wounded animal ready to strike back, to eventually making iconic melodrama Stella Dallas when the sound era came along, with everyone’s favorite classic Hollywood actress Barbara Stanwyck in the leading role, which turned out to be one of the most important films related to the Great Depression. The push and pull of emotional commitments was just as important to the director as the life of the blue collar individual, and the slow rise and fall is devastating stuff. She is desperate to get herself married to the executive who runs the mill, to the point of alienating her family, but she takes it to a whole new level by taking advantage of his father’s suicide and his former fiancee’s wedding to another man to get with him. The script neatly dances around whether or not she ought to be condemned for this act, and we skip along right into her motherhood stage (no one has ever looked more ridiculously high-falutin’ than she has when she returns from the hospital with an enormous feathered hat), where she realizes to her surprise that caring for Anne Shirley is something she genuinely loves to do and she gives up on social climbing, to the detriment of the marriage, which collapses into a separation due to the fundamental differences in their upbringing, while the daughter bonds with the original fiancee and her father’s rich new family. The slow realization is always the most exquisitely painful part of Vidor’s melodramas on the Depression (this includes the Kansas sequences in Wizard of Oz), and he never had a more capable actress for realizing just what she needed to do in order to help her daughter continue to do what she could not, and be left better off than at the start, and it all climaxes at a top tier ending, with the wedding that will make sure that the youngest Dallas will do fine in life not even having a place for the mother of the bride, left out in the rain without a scrap of anything except a few shreds of false dignity. On a class level, the moments that occasionally push a “people from separate social classes are not meant to be together” can be a little gross if you poke at it too hard, but from the oversimplified perspective of “rising up in class is hard” it holds together way too well.
Favorite Moment: Ending.
7. Lady Killer
Lady Killer uses the three act structure to use a technique that does not get taken advantage of often enough when making movies in the form of using the acts to focus on three different genres, even if they are not so very far removed from one another in their aims. We start off with a romantic comedy that puts more emphasis on the love side of things, with the titular character getting reprimanded for being too romantically involved by his army superiors before being sent off on a temporary leave, meeting a woman in the process. She borrows some money from him, but the love is so clearly a doomed one, what with Jean Gabin playing his man as a man aiming for pleasures that wound up becoming too involved with Mirielle Balin’s Madeleine, who he lends far too many francs without a second thought. But when they meet again, her unusual looks that made her look strangely devilish take on certain shades thanks to her immediately trying to write him a check that he does not want, with the romance getting rekindled practically by accident and with an uneasy truce bubbling away underneath to keep it running. Without his uniform, she is not interested, and the dance of death runs away in the background while the side characters conduct the affairs and fun typical of Renoir’s high society characters, with Jean Gremillon clinging for dear life to the social mores of the time to display the prison these two have stuck themselves in. The camera always moves whenever the music and dancing starts up, but Marguerite Deval as the mother of Madeleine is the real earth shaker, tearing into Lucien with a voice that simultaneously soothes and irritates. The standard drama eventually ends, the really nasty third act begins. No spoilers as to the final fate of our leading pair, with most of the appeal in the gorgeous, light-footed visuals anyway, but the third wheel in the arrangement, Rene Lefevre as Lucien’s friend Rene, brings a moment out of Lucien in the depressing final hours that is way ahead of its time in dissecting sexuality and the endings to the tragedies of most screens. It practically feels like an apology for the occasional misogyny to be found in so many other films of the period, like in the rape from Boudu Saved From Drowning. The women are in the right, but we sympathize with the men anyway.
Favorite Moment: Deval tells Gabin where to park it.
6. History is Made at Night
Frank Borzage’s romanticism may have been well established groundwork by the time 1937 rolled around, but he still had a few more tricks up his sleeve. One was to take the insanity that bubbled under the screwball comedies of that era, and injecting it straight into the bloodstream of the script for History Was Made at Night. This results in one of the most aggressively weird yet perfectly fitting movies of its age, and thank goodness for that, as such things are not taken advantage of enough. We start off with the wealthy Bruce Vail, appropriately played by Dr. Frankenstein himself (Colin Clive) in a role that makes full use of his impressive fuming skills, receiving a note from his wife (Jean Arthur) informing him that she is off to London to get a divorce. He is a paranoid nutjob who thinks she has been unfaithful, but he also wants her badly, and he comes up with a truly deranged scheme to essentially get her raped, while he walks in, claims she is cheating, and can keep the marriage together. Charles Boyer shows up and saves the day by pretending to be a jewel thief/kidnapper in front of Vail, all while getting an Oscar nomination for the dull Conquest instead of this. This all happens within the first ten minutes, by the way, so you can imagine what the whole experience is like. Most genius are the parts where Arthur’s character replies to Boyer’s with nothing but “Oh”s as he explains the situation, and they mean so many different things, from their confusion in a taxi to the only truly Borzagian scene where they fall in love at a romantic fancy restaurant where he turns out to be the head waiter to the best chef in Paris (it’s THAT kind of movie, but I say embrace it). The plot from here on out is best experienced as cold as possible, as this is a script that vacillates between heavy developments straight out of a James Bond picture to the heightened Expressionistic love of the romances that the director was so good at. The fragments eventually are sewn together into something beautiful on the whole, with the geometric compositions collapsing because of the affection between the two triumphing over the bizarre, arbitrary nature of the world. Everything clashes, from the opera recording to the foghorn, and they end up having to reconcile.
Favorite Moment: Opening meeting at hotel.
5. You Only Live Once
On the one hand, the film is entitled You Only Live Once (#yolo) and stars Henry Fonda and Sylvia Sidney. On the other hand, it is directed by Fritz Lang post-coming to America and with only a little of the anger from Fury burned off. So…is it happy or sad? I am still not sure how to answer that question even if the film is about Fonda’s released prisoner’s inability to catch a break, being framed for murder and having to take his wife and baby on the run (the bars separating the two when they reunite says it all), with the not too elegant surgeries relating to what was considered an unprecedented level of violence toning it all down. The speed at which he returns to his old life is as intelligent a commentary on the nature of the prison system as anything, no matter how badly the bank robbery was chopped up by the censors and Lang’s career path after this being unable to be saved by Sidney’s campaigning. Widely championed as the first ever noir (which it absolutely was not, but it’s too good to complain about its legacy), our sympathy for the devil is dangled up and down like a doughnut on a string as we leap to catch it. The Bonnie and Clyde tale is arguably the most timeless in American cinema, but what’s shocking is just the rancidity of the supporting cast, products of a system that punishes kindness and vocally publicizes the return of so called undesirables (Fonda’s Eddie’s first stint at a prison of sorts was when he was sent to reform school for beating up a student who tortured a frog, his Juliet and his princess). Margaret Hamilton plays an innkeeper’s wife who is just as wicked as her witch, Barton MacLane a public defender who wants Sidney’s Joan and doesn’t care who gets imprisoned to get her, and William Gargan as the one decent person, a priest, winds up punished more harshly than anyone for getting involved and trying to help. The hypocrisies of the rich and powerful are raked over the coals, the illusion of security is wiped away, and aside from a surprisingly cheerful ending (which was NOT censor imposed, so I guess his cynicism was eased off a little) that still works marvelously in context, the slide into the abyss is clear and predictable but never less than beautifully executed.
Favorite Moment: The cursed escape.
4. Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs
Between this, Bambi, and the hilariously grim short Pluto’s Judgement Day, David Hand had one of the best track records at Disney, but the process that led to the smash success of the first feature length animated film was fully collaborative, from the beauty of the German watercolor style to the cleverly one note characters, all good enough for Sergei Eisenstein to declare this the greatest film ever made. We start off with the villain, too, a clever note given infinite grace by her swooping black cape, her convenient heart box, and the astoundingly double edged performance by Lucille La Verne in both her young and old roles, throwing away all her beauty just for spite. Of course she is the more interesting character in the duality play between her and Snow White, but that shot of her looking into the waters of the well is pretty hard to resist as a feat of animation, and the song is pretty hard to resist no matter how dated her voice is and how unmoving the faces can be-so good that it justifies the structure of animation that would become entrenched in stone for plenty of decades. The scene where she flees into the woods is quite possibly the high point of every single feature the company would ever put out. Those trees are scary to both adults and children and I will not hear otherwise, and the reveal of the eyes being innocent little rabbits and deer is always a little bit surprising, a Greek choir that does the heavy lifting when she needs help before the arrival of the smallest of men (so much is well proportioned). It is a world of forests and castles that seems to spread out infinitely, cold and warm in equal measure, with fluidity of camera that is impossible to impeach even today. Eventually, the dwarfs (sic) themselves come in, and they each provide a different brand of bedazzled spice to the soup that was previously only flavored by mad debts to German Expressionism and the Wicked Queen’s desire to be the fairest in the land. Everything seems so unimprovable, but Disney would arguably do what seem impossible the very next time at the bat (and the three after that too depending on what I am feeling…but really, it’s Pinocchio). In some ways, this is the non-problematic (well…let’s ignore Disney’s gender issues for some time) Birth of An-i-Nation. (Sorry.)
Favorite Moment: Forest run.
3. Humanity and Paper Balloons
Is there any career more tragic than that of Sadao Yamanaka? Jean Vigo at least had all of his works survive, whereas all the potential director retrospectives that could have occurred for this man’s work have been cut down to three, with one of those films being decidedly minor and looking as if it were a footnote where there should be nothing but gems. One discussion of his work was entitled “Better Than Nothing,” for crying out loud. The single small mercy to be gained from the loss of so much culture is that if viewed chronologically, we end on his masterpiece, Humanity and Paper Balloons. It opens on a horribly depressing note, with an elderly samurai being unable to commit traditional seppuku because he sold his sword for some cash, and thus hangs himself. Everyone in the poor neighborhood street treats it the same way you would react to a broken plate, and ever so slowly (the laziness of Yamanaka’s films continues) decide to get the materials together to throw a party, merely an excuse to get drunk and forget they live in a deep focus hell, where every shot either stretches out like a road to the horizon, and thus nowhere, or shows people foregrounded while others perform tasks in the background, giving you more to absorb. Focus eventually shifts to Unno the next day, an unemployed ronin who cannot receive help from someone who once promised it, drinks too much, and lies to his wife. His depression results in him becoming a participant in a scheme cooked up by the barber, Shinza, to kidnap the adopted daughter of a merchant to compensate for getting in trouble with the local gangs for hosting a gambling party on their territory. There is no way for something like this to end well, and what transpires is a grim statement on living on outdated codes, two miserable men trying to be noble when there is no way to do so. Yamanaka is ever so gently condemning those who think they live by a nobler code, saying with that final shot of the wife and the balloon in the gutter that we have lost our ability to rise above. The human race will forever be run by monsters, and the imminence of the war that would kill the director and destroy the majority of his works weighs heavily on his mind. As well it should.
Favorite Moment: Ending.
2. Make Way for Tomorrow
“It would make a stone cry,” said Orson Welles on Leo McCarey’s second 1937 masterwork. Not the response you would expect for a director who would win Best Director with The Awful Truth that same year, but while the gap between the two in quality was only a few hairs, he did take the stage and told the voters that they gave it to him for the wrong one. In a way, Make Way for Tomorrow is the perfect summary for the films of 1937, with a strong ensemble turning in wonderful performances (with Beulah Bondi and Fay Bainter best in show), a focus on the fact that the system is horrible to anyone who does not quite fit neatly into it (in this case, the elderly), and a terrible bleak ending. It is even edited like the comedies of the day, as was McCarey’s style, but the shifting perspectives are fairly unique-never has a 30s ensemble drama shifted our loyalties so often, with the small irritations of dealing with older people being just as reasonable as their quiet depression with how nasty their children are, in a world that keeps them separated at the end and led to a Criterion cover that is as quietly heartbreaking as watching the film is. Forever slightly dismissed as the work that merely inspired Tokyo Story, when it could very well be its equal, it is the thematic echoes of the last happy day that really linger, never explicitly pointed out and left to linger as the one truly kind moment in a world that very much lacks them. Rather than trying to force the audience feel sad, it simply makes its statement as earnestly as possible, and that makes the pain even worse after that train leaves the station. For all the attempts by the avant-garde and the provocateurs to end cinema itself, this could have been the work of art to do it, with the train that arrived at the station finally pulling away and taking the hopes and dreams of audiences everywhere with it. You can definitely extract some hope if you really dig deep with your fingernails, and some people will definitely be better off (Louise Beavers’ maid), but false hope is the only thing you can absolutely cling to in such a cold, arbitrary story. Bondi’s character’s point about how facing facts is no fun when you’re old is right in more ways than you would think.
Favorite Moment: On facing facts.
1. Stage Door
Gregory La Cava had a rougher time finding his groove than Leo McCarey, but they had similar techniques in terms of getting a laugh with their improvisational lack of script, even if the former was really only able to make My Man Godfrey and Stage Door before his career just sort of vanished. Using a stenographer to capture the chit-chat of various actresses, he then transferred it all to a cast for the ages of Katharine Hepburn, Ginger Rogers, Lucille Ball, Eve Arden and her cat, and the Oscar-nominated Andrea Leeds. Movies about the careers of women are still unicorns today, and watching them all go and trade verbal punches when they are not working (which is often) is a delight. What a rare beast of a movie, and one worth treasuring, no? Especially when Rogers’ demands that another girl give her back the stockings she stole inspires three pretty great quips right off the bat. Robert Altman must have absolutely loved the shit out of this. Gail Patrick’s Linda, the thief, is fucking a theatrical producer and getting a position for it, while Ginger is the cynical dancer who winds up rooming with Hepburn’s Terry, a wealthy weirdo from New England who gave up her money to pursue her dreams and immediately makes herself hated. (The ONE time they didn’t throw Kate a nomination…) Even the woman who runs the boarding house, a perpetual supporting character, gets a zinger of a reaction shot after a down on her luck elderly actress who has had some success says something snobby. Leeds overplays the tragedy a bit and her snagging the sole nomination feels a little…off. Vote splitting galore and the great tragedy of that ending, no doubt. After a whole series of complex, funny, articulate women having interesting conversations about their professional dreams in subtle and nuanced ways (personal favorite is a well timed piano cue as a result of a producer looks over two of the dancers practicing), it goes into pathos that it fully earns with the difficulty of earning recognition stopping the most vulnerable starlet cold. The Depression took form in multiple ways, from the vicious cynicism to the desperation that so many of these starlets crave. At least many a star truly was born as a result of this picture, and a whole coterie of directors that undoubtedly got influenced by its one-upping showmanship to boot.
Favorite Moment: Speech to the audience.