Top 15 of 1938
15. La Bete Humaine
Jean Renoir was always open to experimenting with different genres, but one of his last films before Rules of the Game and World War II forever altered his career (and a film that ranks among his biggest commercial successes) is, unusually, a noir, and one that takes place in the industrial location of a train station, an adaptation of Emile Zola’s typically cynical writings. Starring Jean Gabin as Jacques, Simone Simon as Severine, and the less known Fernand Ledoux as Roubaud, it’s an ensemble befitting a place where instead of water, we get streams of ash floating by, and the tragedy of La Bete Humaine becomes inevitable quickly when Roubaud and Severine kill their former employer on board the railroad while Jacques watches and does not tell due to his love for the latter, no matter his tendency to get murderous when left alone with a woman he loves. Unfortunately, Double Indemnity and its ilk would never take cues from something so simple, and an epileptic attack that results in his love being accidentally murdered results in some truly twisted kinks, with Gabin’s urge to kill getting treated as a sexual urge (fresh at the time and still feels a little different than usual) and he beats his wife to burn off his worst instincts. The train’s purpose is obvious to anyone who has seen North by Northwest, but we know that these men are doomed, and Simon’s unusually innocent performance only adds to the sense of something that will be shattered as she tries to have her way with the man she wants to murder behind the train’s blinds and frets about how her lover is looking at her in the way that other strange men do now as things quietly disintegrate for them. Not too many shadows and bone deep blacks here, but the stark whites are even more alarming as the train engine’s pollution quietly wrecks that. If Gremillon’s Lady Killer was a romance that perpetually thwarted itself, La Bete Humaine has the goal of being a thriller that dissolves into a tragedy, centered around the destruction of true romance thanks to transportation making it so easy for flawed everymen like Gabin’s characters to run away or destroy themselves by a single fatal leap after they make a mistake that ends too severely to be ignored. But there is no sense of potentially reuniting here, and there never will be.
Favorite Moment: Ending jump.
I have not seen My Fair Lady in so long that I do not trust my recollections of it, especially since my dad loved to play the soundtrack CD in the car and I was very mixed on the songs themselves (With a Little Bit of Luck was a favorite until I realized they were not actually saying With an Elephant of Luck). So I did the appropriate thing and reacquainted myself with the non-musical version of the Pygmalion story, with the phonetics professor trying to pass off a gutternsnipe as a lady and all that shenanigans that occur from that. Leslie Howard and Wendy Hiller are the stars in the Rex Harrison and Audrey Hepburn parts respectively, but no singing here, just Hiller’s genuinely crabby performance when she gets dragged around by an elitist douchebag being turned into someone entirely different in a stealth horror story about classism, chauvinism, and narcissism in this tale of Eliza’s need to get into a higher position by changing her accent and avoiding the stereotypes. Thankfully, the cast and directors (which have some overlap in Howard’s case, along with Anthony Asquith) play it as both an indictment and gentle comedy of the society at large, never ceasing to be watchable even if it lacks the delirious visuals of Asquith’s Cottage on Dartmoor. Neither performance really is the sort of thing that would deserve Oscar nominations in a world where the Academy went for riskier pleasures (both have a tendency to focus on their voices, which they pull off excellently at the minor expense of a bit more variety in the palette), but when you consider what was in the field, they add a nomination to their fields of strong, enjoyable work in something that still charms. Sadly, the ending tanks a lot of goodwill from the delights of the verbal pleasures in the past ninety or so minutes, with Eliza and Henry winding up together romantically. This was not in the original text and I choose to believe it was forced on by the studios, as it makes everything much neater if you chop it off, and it holds the cast’s feet to the fire with much more delight. Still a fairly worthy nominee in the race for Best Picture, though, with a shooting style that perfectly gives the cast space to reel off verbal schematics of varying regional accents that are such fun for Americans like me who act dumb about British accents.
Favorite Moment: Meeting the mother.
13. Three Comrades
Frank Borzage goes straight into melodrama with the opening lines in F. Scott Fitzgerald’s script (you read that correctly), with a soldier asking his commander if he can call him father again on the eve of World War I finally ending while soldiers celebrate and remember their dead comrades in a pub, before a deliriously weird sequence involving the passing of the years in the shape of giant numbers on the horizon. Three soldiers (played by Franchot Tone, Robert Taylor, and Robert Young) run a mechanic’s shop in the years following the war, but they all fall in love with the same woman-Margaret Sullavan, in an unusually productive year for her in cinema considering her usual tendencies for the theater. She knows she is dying throughout most of the film and refuses to let anyone know about it, and her performance is relaxed but sad throughout the entire running time as she copes with the attentions of the men with the weight of the world on her shoulders. Shockingly, Tone, who could be rather bland, is the best of the lot here as the man who ends up being the best friend and voice of reason when she goes with Taylor as her romantic partner (Young is the idealist of the group and probably the weak link too…but we are probably talking relatively in that regard, and he does not have much to do anyway), with his easy rapport with Sullavan’s character being the most sublime stuff in the story (although a beat of her hearing a cuckoo’s call before collapsing from a punctured lung caused by tuberculosis is intoxicating in its sadness, along with their first date set to choral music). Love is perpetually on the verge of disintegration here, with a dance turning into a torn set of formalwear, and time stopped as a man discards his ticking watch. Still, it is all about Borzage making us fall for this doomed woman as she walks her inevitable path to death, and sadly, this is not one of those movies where Borzage’s direction is in the mood to give us a happy ending, eerily and tragically echoing what happened to Sullavan later in life. Even with a few more films to come, her death feels final in its tragedy. Fitzgerald’s prose may prove a struggle at times, but the confidence of the moods conjured up is to the film’s credit.
Favorite Moment: Phone call from the hospital.
12. Song of the Scarlet Flower
The Song of the Scarlet Flower is something you could really only have made in the 30s, particularly with the leading man Kaarlo Oksanen being such a particularly dated brand of heartthrob that could hold claims to gaining the ability to seduce so many people and ruin their existence indirectly as a result. The long periods of silence and dreamy visuals of the Finnish landscape reminded me of the 1934 film Rapt, with the mountains that separate the people of different villages being replaced here by waters that the men frequently travel on for long stretches that stop the action altogether just to enjoy the dreamy currents and music that director Teuvo Tulio cuts together in this tale of a homme fatale and the women whose hearts he breaks and how they respond to him when he re-enters their lives. The plot is fairly simple in that regard, but where the narrative does not tread new ground, the visuals are simply gorgeous, all the seas and sights surrounded by women and men just living their simple lives in this village where the leading character Olavi is turned into a womanizing logger from his father disowning him. The subjectivity of the women’s perspectives keeps control over all the potential sympathy for the devil, until the gorgeously sensual sights and music combine to spill it over, a black and white fantasy of a world where the consequences can and will come back to bite you. The strange loves of this lumberjack are treated with dismissal until an ending that would make Sirk happy in how unconvincingly happy it is. Birth will only lead to the same cycles getting reiterated in another few years. The unusual looks of Oksanen were no doubt one of many parts of his filmography that influenced the next major Finn to gain a hold in the industry in Aki Kaurismaki. Suffering and sex are desperately intertwined in a duet that sings like a choir of damned angels. He pilfers from the most stylish directors of (I hate this term) “women’s pictures” and stretches out something that would be included for a few minutes at most in a work along the lines of a Von Sternberg or Lubitsch picture. Haystacks have never looked so dramatic, and everyone seems to be bracing themselves for an unseen horrible sight to come into their world, taking their virginity and reducing them to second class in this man’s place.
Favorite Moment: Meeting with a sarcastic hooker.
11. Port of Shadows
Port of Shadows is fully aware of all the horrible shit that could happen in this dockside noir world of shadows and fog everywhere, and is so overwhelmed by the weight of the world that it can spare no more than a passing glance at the darkest themes possible, ranging from incest to horribly petty murder, designed solely to provoke another character into rage or sadness. A choir sings out during the worst of these moments as ironic counterpoint to the wretched routine that Jean Gabin, Michele Morgan, Michel Simon, and Pierre Brasseur endure and act out on each other in vain attempts to get a few seconds of escape. When the first of that group’s military deserter rolls into town, accompanied by a dog that has adopted him for sparing its life, he might wind up with a romantic moment that will be projected on the beaches of Dunkirk for James MacAvoy to envy in the longest take of his life, but the “poetic” part of “poetic realism” is not built to last in a movie universe where Marcel Carne translates that as meaning “let’s destroy everything these four love, and the dog to boot.” Simon’s final monologue about how he loves like Romeo and looks like Bluebeard may seem sweet on paper, but it really just recalls the rape scene in Boudu in practice, and with much more awareness of how to use that particular bombshell in order to make it clear what levels of the deep black ocean we are sinking to. Ships in bottles and transparent raincoats serve nicely as walls that both tempt and will keep the characters apart when all is said and done, but not before the inevitability of fate casually wrecks everyone from the drunkard who cannot save up the money for a hotel room because of his addiction, to the suicidal artist who leaves his clothes in front of the ocean. It’s a chorus of the damned that is playing on that radio, and the one moment of mercy occurs within the opening scene on the road and is ironically called back to in a climax where this is a confrontation this time, and it is completely implied and completely ugly. You can’t escape your past if the fog looms over your realm and your mind this thickly, and it gets even worse if new people get involved with your demons.
Favorite Moment: Michel Simon’s rant.
10. You and Me
You and Me doesn’t receive much credit or attention in the long and splendid career of Fritz Lang despite being one of the most delightfully offbeat works in his filmography, and featuring Sylvia Sidney and George Raft in typically enjoyable performances as a couple of reformed convicts who have been given a job at a department store by a generous owner who helps them out (Lang’s fondness for Sidney in his pictures shows good taste on his end). But we do not get that right away. Instead…we get a musical number in sing-talk style (no dancing or performing while singing, just voiceover). Yes, that’s right, the pessimistic German who almost never went for a happy ending is doing a musical, albeit one stripped down quite a bit and saying that you have to buy EVERYTHING from material goods to good health. Sidney’s scene where she basically lets off a shoplifter with a warning is sad and sincere, but another man from the system threatening to assault a child who doesn’t want a toy he is trying to sell is comedic. Yet all the emotions are appropriately heightened, and that fits into the world of a sometimes-musical populated by a small number of inmates on probation. Witness the scene where the owner’s wife gives the broadest performance possible to express horror over being served by a safe cracker, and it fits in neatly into this over the top world (there’s a Jewish mother in law who practically yells “YOU CAN MAKE AS MUCH NOISE AS YOU LIKE!” upon hearing the wedding announcement from the two characters while the father makes stereotypical Jewish noises, during a slightly bloated second act that feels a bit too hangout movie in its rhythms at times despite having some delirious eroticism in the form of love letters and a puckish sense of humor). There are only a few songs scattered in, but considering crime dramas and musicals are polar opposites, you can take this as a tinkering with the drama, the darkness of Lang’s criminals and vagabonds overpowering the frothiness of the singing comedies. Yet the best moments are a braid of the genres, like when Raft’s character nearly gets involved in the criminal life again before Sylvia saves the day with an explanation of how crime literally does not pay. The only time Economics and English, my two majors, have ever been combined for practical purposes!
Favorite Moment: Economics lecture.
9. The Baker’s Wife
The Baker’s Wife’s rating is hugely provisional at this point, as it’s still notoriously difficult to find good English subtitles for Marcel Pagnol’s films and this has an incredibly long stretch at one point where an entire conversation passes by without a single word being uttered that a non-French speaker could understand. It also needs a restoration in the worst way, with the black and white looking rather purple and pink at some points, and blurry to boot. Such a shame, because all the babbling and lovingly layered shots in this film seem to indicate that this was a misunderstood piece of brilliant comedy that is as poignant and sad as any tragedy, as we follow the poor baker (played with just the right brand of hamminess by the singularly named Raimu) as his wife runs off with a shepherd and he refuses to bake proper bread for the townspeople after they mock him for being cuckolded. In this day and age of “cuck” getting used as an insult by the worst kind of right wing lunatics, it feels a little like Pagnol’s work predicted the future by rooting it in the past, yet with much more humanism as the village tries to unite to bring him back to work by getting the wife back. In between, you have enough scenes to feel like you know everyone in the village, ranging from a rather nasty priest who goes from sermonizing over how shameful the whole situation is to the baker’s face to joining the expedition to get the common good into the town again, to the wives who wish there was not such a to do over someone who they regard as worthless, to Raimu himself as he practically goes through the five stages of grief and uses his clowning to mask the tragedy. An argument about shady trees appears in the opening minutes, then returns with half an hour left to go as the men prepare to head off with guns. Where the movie really earned this spot despite the distributors hacking the words up, however, is the ending, a moment that still knocked me out even with so much context missing yet totally in the realm of this film’s quiet forgiveness and love for the villagers as they all band together for a few happy moments. The titular character may be absent for most of the story, but the twists on the typical roles are what intrigue.
Favorite Moment: Final speech.
8. Angels With Dirty Faces
For most of its running time, Angels With Dirty Faces offers up exceptionally well crafted pleasures courtesy of Michael Curtiz in his most calm and crafty mood. It lacks the sweep and squalor of Dead End, but the kids have been transferred to a place that is slightly better off thanks to Pat O’Brien managing to outrun the cops at a critical juncture and becoming a priest, helping to improve the lives of the children via basketball games and housing at the parish. His childhood friend, Rocky, was much less fortunate and wound up becoming a product of the prison system once he got out, with James Cagney giving arguably his finest performance (haven’t seen White Heat yet). It seems so simple for the director to take us from montages of the life of crime paying off for Rocky, to rejoining the boys at the church and leading them slightly astray by impressing them when they try and take his wallet, to the complications of O’Brien and Humphrey Bogart as the crime boss (this is alternate universe Dead End) that tear him apart in how he handles conflicting desires. The cast is great all around (Ann Sheridan as the childhood bullying victim turned love interest adds some spice in a role that seems pretty thankless on paper), but where the movie becomes the best kind of distilled gangster picture is in the magnificent ending that frankly could have justified a whole lot of running times. The dilemma is simple but poignant. Rocky is on death row after surrendering thanks to his friends pleas. His friend comes to visit and asks him to go out pleading like a coward and acting yellow in order to prevent the children from following his influence. He initially declines, not wanting to destroy his image, but on his way out the door he goes out screaming, clutching a radiator, and making maximum use of body language despite the fact that we do not get to see Cagney’s face. The papers report it as him dying yellow, and the priest leads a prayer for a boy who could not run fast enough in one of the most curdled bits of irony you could imagine. It practically feels like a universe to another, entirely different movie about a preacher going insane with guilt over what he did, and it makes this all the more startling in how blank an ending it is.
Favorite Moment: Cagney may or may not turn yellow.
7. Stolen Death
You have almost certainly never heard of Nyrki Tapiovaara, and his output of five films, four of which have been near forgotten entirely, does not make him a prime candidate for a reassessment. In the same tragic sphere as Sadao Yamanaka dying and nearly his entire catalogue being lost, he died in the Winter War of Russia and Finland before he had even turned 30, and we were left with only one film that seems to have much of a reputation today in Stolen Death, his second. Yet it is a fairly astonishing piece of work, like a gloomy take on M that uses its allegory to both comment on the past and the present, in a time when Finland’s oppression and lack of independence was hitting a boiling point and appropriately affecting the culture, with people desperately trying to fight back against fascism (seems to be required viewing in this election season if you ask me). Tapiovaara’s approach is multi-pronged, going from the present to the past when the country was being affected by the Russo-Japanese War and focuses on a group of weapon smugglers hoping to fight for the independence. Slippery enough in its politics to make it seem like these men are vacillating between politics and profit, with a great lead performance from Tuulikki Paananen as the leader’s prior lover as she desperately tries to hustle the bourgeoisie into taking a risk while evading the police forces. While the plots and schemes recall the labyrinths of Fritz Lang in shooting style, it is the final moments that really wow. The final words spoken feel fairly irrelevant, with Paananen’s closing crime to help out her comrades turning into a throwback to the days of the silents, with plenty of men riding on horizons and evocative closeups of the dead man’s fingers. “Learn from history” is what the movie appears to be saying. Return to your roots, and you will find freedom. Such a shame that within two years, this talent would be snuffed out, even if this film makes it quite clear that he went out doing what he believed with all the entertainment you could ask for to push away the morbid thoughts of his death. Between this and Song of the Scarlet Flower, Finland’s cinema was having quite the boom in 1938, and it is a shame that only Aki Kaurismaki would reliven things for them.
Favorite Moment: Final horse ride.
6. Bluebeard’s Eighth Wife
Bluebeard’s Eighth Wife’s typically Lubitschian notes begin ringing out from the minute Gary Cooper demands nothing more than a pajama shirt without the pants after being harangued by obnoxious French salesmen. Good thing Claudette Colbert is shopping and just wants the bottoms, then, even with disagreements with regards to fabric (“You can’t get a laugh out of me before breakfast” will be getting stolen by yours truly) and agreements on how to properly get to sleep (Czechoslovakia provokes a whole lot of orgasming noises as Cooper’s character tries to sleep in his hotel room on the Riviera). They are married in typical movie fashion, but that’s only the first act, with the change in relationship pivoting on the realization thanks to a poorly timed handkerchief removal that he’s a six time divorcee (with one more wife dying, giving him a one up on Henry VIII). Thankfully, the natural smarts of Colbert’s characters comes into play when she wrangles a better pre-nupital agreement in case of divorce, before working her charms to make sure he stays and settles down when the initial state of affairs looks to be sexless and distant, with Taming of the Shrew backfiring as a plot to keep things calmed down (and it’s the film’s most weirdly sexist bit, yet just subversive enough so that if you squint you can see where it passes). Really, Cooper’s character is a pretty disgusting individual if you take all his horrible behaviors and tendencies towards his wife seriously, but she prevents it by doing something as simple as eating some onions and breathing in his face, as weak as a baby that has been told to eat its vegetables and whose eyes tear up. Perhaps the cynicism and extremely complicated relationship with women is an import from Billy Wilder? He usually never came up with a creation so clever she could fool a first class and very expensive private detective. Best of all, with a running time of about eighty minutes, it blitzes through the jokes and heartbreak to keep the mood light and frothy, culminating in an insane and hilarious turn from Warren Hymer as a fighter who plays his boxer like someone who has escaped from an institution and successfully reintegrated into society, to some deliciously weird facial expressions and a punch that sets the stage for a nicely neat curtain call for the pair of squabbling lovers.
Favorite Moment: The boxer’s contract.
5. The Lady Vanishes
The Lady Vanishes is Hitchcock knowing full well that the second World War is coming and commenting on it with such dry humor that it could easily slip past any unsuspecting viewer, especially with a MacGuffin in the same vein as The 39 Steps and the information that Robert Donat is trying to pass on. May Whitty, that most British of institutions, initially seems like nothing more than an old dear who has the convenience to leave evidence behind when she vanishes by writing on the window, but she is really the greatest patriot of the lot. Margaret Lockwood as the lead who goes looking for her on the train, meanwhile, vaunts from playing it like she’s in a psychological thriller about her own delusions to an (attempted) murder mystery with ease despite her chemistry with Michael Redgrave being decidedly unromantic due to her sincerity in the early stages over her desire for marriage. The two men who avoided becoming involved due to wanting to carry on with their lives will find that a struggle is inevitable, and the pacifist is the first to die on the front lines for his country, followed by a false nun getting shot. Grim jokes in the form of commentary, but it all has teeth, especially in a post-Brexit age where the message of avoiding isolationism feels a bit as if Hitchcock were saying “I warned you” from beyond the grave. If the audience plays any role in this story, it is because of the scene with the magic equipment getting smashed up as various animals either fly around or cute little rabbits give reaction shots. Funny, and perhaps a tongue in cheek joke about the master letting us in on his tricks before he advances their difficulty in the years to come? Certainly, the first half hour is what it must have felt for those passengers worrying on board the train when they were being shot at, a slow tourist trip through the land of Bandrika that is mostly good for silly accent humor. The best kind, of course, but it certainly feels that this vanishing lady story is just a lesser version of 39 Steps’ “climb out of this moving window and risk dying” setpieces. Thankfully, this is still so sublimely enjoyable that even a movie that probably only ranks in the tens of Hitchcock’s filmography can make him look better for it.
Favorite Moment: Froy on the window.
4. Adventures of Robin Hood
After watching an abundance of movies from 1938, I was relieved when The Adventures of Robin Hood came up near the end of the run. Some of these movies were bad and some were good. For every comedy, a tragedy. Men were usually the main characters, but women were occasionally the leads too. But they were all in black and white, whereas this Errol Flynn and Olivia de Havilland adventure is in beautiful Technicolor, and utilized within an inch of its life to boot. Despite a troubled production and the usual tensions between Michael Curtiz and Flynn, it barely shows, and seems both breezy and seamless in the same vein as Captain Blood, but with added gorgeously green tights and insane realism only in the fighting style (not so much anywhere else). Indeed, these adventures can be read as a very nice sort of propaganda, with the fight against a cruel leader (even if his only crime is excessive taxation and a merciless coup). Really, though, the entire production is pure cinematic junk food, but with drugs laced into it. Technicolor is an addictive opiate and its leading man is a good old fashioned Movie Star, Bette Davis’ reasonable critiques of his acting be damned. The episodic structure tells a bunch of little anecdotes that you have all already heard a million times thanks to either pop culture saturation or just the Disney work, but there’s something much more satisfying in seeing a real arrow split another one in the target’s center during a gorgeous medieval fair that does not remotely resemble history, but it looks like a stunning scroll or stained glass brought to life, and that is infinitely better. Flynn’s the star, of course, but de Havilland’s bland role is still fun to watch, and Claude Rains was never more of a delghtfully creepy lecher. The Merry Men each receive a brief showcase moment, and that is precisely enough to make us love them. The studio system ensured that the greatest artists put forth their best efforts into making something perfectly pristine that holds up nearly 100 years later, and arguably no greater array of talent could be found behind or in front of the camera for a long time (well…ignoring 1939’s twin Fleming epics) in such a big, glossy postcard work that still has the “every frame a painting” effect. This and Andrei Rublev make a compelling argument for living in the middle ages for the wrong reasons.
Favorite Moment: The archery competition.
3. Bringing Up Baby
It is a true tragedy that Katharine Hepburn’s two comedies with Cary Grant from 1938 both turned out to be so quickly dismissed, with both delivering so much heart and humor that the audiences that ran away and labeled her box office poison, and the critics that tore Hawks’ film to pieces, look just as stupid and ridiculous as modern Hollywood followers and the Devin Faracis who herd them to Marvel garbage. But why pollute our lovely minds with such things? In the debate of which one is better, I must confess to preferring the movie with the musical leopard by the tiniest of hairs. But why quibble when they really aim for different goals? Holiday’s drama may make you laugh, but it is really aggressively sad stuff no matter how charming and witty the new family is. This one, on the other hand, arrives at “touching” almost entirely by accident, centered around demented anal sex jokes from the first frame and then throwing Hepburn’s dotty heiress into the mix, a feat of car crashes, clothes ripping, and accidental purse stealing as Grant’s straight man gets increasingly befuddled by the world and resembles the most handsome version possible of Harold Lloyd, even if he looks better without the glasses. The hijinks refuse to stop coming, and it resembles the perfect ideal of a screwball comedy in that the stakes continue to get higher, eventually reaching to the levels of that final scene with Katharine Hepburn on a very tall and rickety ladder that is ready to result in the past crumbling down all around our heroes of sorts. No couple has ever been so well matched in the movies precisely because of how horribly suited they are to another, eah possessing amazing physical control that they use fall down with maximum appeal. It is a bit of a tragedy that the print has never made its way over to Blu-ray, but at the same time, that might mean the truly impressive visual effects (near seamless since you can barely tell that the leopards are puppets and the split screens are keeping Hepburn away from the mean leopard) would have some holes poked into them. I only wish to see that in the sense of Mr. Bone and Ms. Swallow. My personal favorite line of the bunch is the aunt screaming that George is a perfect little beast, and The Thin Man’s Asta certainly was never so badly behaved.
Favorite Moment: Dinner time.
Holiday really should not work as well as it does. A remake of a film that had been made pretty recently and pulled up a few Oscar nominations sounds like something that would be a minor improvement at best, but those films did not have George Cukor at the helm, and he was the best at capitalizing on the strengths of existing material. A Star is Born had a better starting line to work with and is thus unsurprisingly turned from something great into something masterful, but Holiday comes awfully close in matching it, and perhaps that is the more impressive accomplishment, especially since it owed a lot more to the older work in recasting Edward Everett Horton as the father. So what makes the new Holiday so much more impressive than the old? It still takes the same ideas of a man (in this case Cary Grant) who wants to take a holiday after marrying a woman he loves (Doris Nolan), but his fiancee wants him to work in her father’s bank, and the only person who sympathizes is her sister (Katharine Hepburn). Perhaps it’s the performances, with Grant’s role having a bit more bite in it. He seems genuinely angered or upset when people are dismissive of his romantic urges, and the bigger budget also means his surprise at the wealth of the family, along with all their idiosyncrasies, reads genuine. Who wouldn’t be shocked at an elevator in one’s house? And, more importantly, who wouldn’t have some concerns over one’s marriage being stifling after seeing Lew Ayres’ tragic brother, burnt out forever by his father’s controlling demands? The reasons for the eventual transfer of affections within the siblings’ relationships do not become apparent for a very long time even after that playroom scene early on, but don’t we all just want to get away from our lives and have a little bit of life for ourselves while we’re young? As an allegory of sorts, Holiday falls into the same vein of A Star is Born. It does not really age, and seems all the more lively and fresh as the time goes by and helicopter parents become more of an issue in contrast to the vaguely mercenary spirit of the age when you are younger. Everything about Holiday feels like an extension of that shot where Grant and Hepburn have fun in the playroom in white tie party outfits, and that is perfect for it.
Favorite Moment: Hepburn tells her father off and runs.
1. Grand Illusion
I know that “best Jean Renoir film” is a topic designed to start arguments, but for me, it’s all about Grand Illusion (which could just as well switch its title with the other consensus choice in Rules of the Game). Everything just works, and despite being about two hours, it has the feel and scope of a great epic novel, with an ensemble for the ages simply by having Jean Gabin and Erich von Stroheim, with Dita Parlo, Pierre Fresnay, and all the others being the icing on the cake. I’m sort of in awe of how this entire affair is structured, with the entire first act at the original POW camp serving purely to let us know the characters, some of whom will not even be relevant after the transfer to the fortress, and the tunnel they dig does not really wind up serving a purpose except to nearly suffocate the man who keeps them laughing despite not having a particularly amusing sense of humor, even if his singing and performance skills in the revue are top notch and the interruption of his performance feels like a small travesty for half a second. But it winds up meaning nothing in the end, and so we wind up in the castle of the neck-braced German aristocrat, someone who is very much a human but a slave to the past that put him at the top of the heap and in the position to make the tough choices. The only other person who understands him kills himself, and in the process destroys the one flower to grow in a Gothic palace where books are burned and privacy is a joke. The camera roves, through artfully arranged humans staring at the closest thing to a woman until Dita Parlo enters the frame and arguably outclasses the guys. The war that was to come looms over the one that was in the past, and so does the delusion that the fighting over what the Germans are perpetrating will avoid certain parts of Europe. Still, while the future may be uncertain and very cold, at least Marechal and Rosenthal have made it across the border of a land, ready to be thrown into whatever may come their way to get it done with so they can return to the places they love. Renoir truly believed the world was beautiful, and no matter the bleakness, life blooms.
Favorite Moment: The geranium is clipped.