Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger’s The Red Shoes, made just a year after their elegant and impeccable masterpiece Black Narcissus, reaches heights that are untouched elsewhere in cinema; as a film about art and artists, it fully justifies itself as a paean to the pure commitment and passion of artists themselves, the rest of the world be damned. Its air of the fantastic, the identification it all but forces with a well-crafted character, and the sensation we get that it’s a bodily experience of movement place us, indeed, into the shoes that send us dancing off into the unknown. In summary, it is explosive, sumptuous, magnificently absorbing entertainment. As in their other Technicolor classics, Powell & Pressburger fire passionately into their story with incredible precision, utilizing every tool at their disposal, infusing their work with an obviously virtuosic command of the form. With its intimate sets that feel somehow enormous and the eye-gouging lights and colors of Jack Cardiff’s camera, the whole production — in any context — has an identical effect to what it’s ostensibly supposed to feel like to see a movie in IMAX, except The Red Shoes needs no technical boost to achieve this. Whatever the negative aspects of their productions are, Powell & Pressburger’s greatest works are unmistakably complete and vast nights out at the movies, and nothing can be faulted about the directorial and visual choices made here.
Having said that, it should be mentioned — particularly in light of the relative seamlessness of Black Narcissus — that The Red Shoes is essentially three movies stacked together, two long character-driven sequences bisected by a stunning interlude. In the first third of the film, the elegance of a politely restrained but increasingly volatile three-way relationship between composer (Marius Goring), dancer (Moira Shearer) and impresario (Anton Walbrook) is explored with implicit tension, emphasizing how their craft and professionalism erodes (or enhances?) their individual identities. The ballet we see in progress is deceptively staged as if spontaneous or without design, and always with a sense of the camaraderie inherent to performing in a group. Early scenes gracefully provide each character’s differing interpretation of a single moment, but without any overbearing tricks of cutting or camera movement. The trickery in these early, human moments all comes from the human bodies inhabiting the film, the way everything falls together into its casual beauty, the camerawork merely contributing its small (but impressive) share to the rhythm. Certainly there is visual glory to nearly every shot, but it’s restrained and perfect, much like the characters, three disparate people brought together in the mission of bringing a ballet to fruition. The beauty of the music, the power of the dancing, all tantalizingly massive, but everything tangible and striking a balance that shuts out all layers of obvious fantasy.
And then comes the ballet sequence.
A few years later, Gene Kelly and Stanley Donen interrupted the story of Singin’ in the Rain to delve into an introspective character portrait created through dance, abstractly presented, the illusion of a dream. For the duration of the scene, the directors removed all cinematic barriers between the audience and a kind of surreal but unbridled erotic joy. In The Red Shoes, Powell and Pressburger do something similar in execution to that stunning feat but actually rather closer to the powerful transportation Walt Disney was driving at in Fantasia. For twenty minutes, The Red Shoes is so cinematic that it essentially ceases to be cinema. Prior to this screen-tearing, absolutely jaw-dropping sequence, The Red Shoes instills in its audience a respect for dance and for its characters that aids immensely in selling the artful but perfectly rational (in a storytelling fashion) ballet as both a performance and as a fiery, gut-splitting examination of the mind of the central performer, played brilliantly by Shearer.
It’s ironic in a way how much the directors are able to wow the crowd with dancing in the first half, because dancing is nearly beside the point in this midsection. The triumph this time is the way the audience and the film dance along with the character into something altogether more startling than a simple exotic ballet sequence. The scene is set apart from most of its ilk easily not just because of its dreamlike seduction but because it is so subjective. The ballet as imagined here is an elucidation of what’s in the head of the character of Victoria Page, her sense of life, her dreams and perceptions of motion all coalescing magnificently; she’s told that the music is the only thing that matters, and the envisioning of her head as she delivers a star-making performance somehow approximates the abstract experiences and associations of anyone’s relationship to music. There is also, of course, concrete expression of the subtle paranoia that lingers from Vicky’s integration into the company: the puppeteering of her by two men of dueling natures; yet simultaneously, the entire sequence — in its indescribable parade of indelible images — marks the rare instance of a movie briefly touching a sensation of pure freedom. It doesn’t linger or cut to impress, it cuts specifically, to every tiny detail, to the emotion of Shearer’s character. It is that character. The effect is astounding. No matter how many times one may see it, one remains transported and awed by it; no musical or dance sequence I have ever seen has been so visceral and so awash in storytelling as served by the performers rather than a detour simply to present their virtuosity, like an extended guitar solo. Hyperbolic as it sounds, it’s difficult not to classify it as one of the most brilliant and fully realized moments of any feature film.
That’s what makes it so crushing that the movie collapses on itself — with disheartening speed — in the second half. The Red Shoes unfortunately is fatally overlong; the ballet should be something like the climax of the film, not the wedge that divides it into two distinct parts, one of them great thanks to its exciting buildup to a sublime cinematic moment, the other an incredibly harsh comedown from the prior scene. The dance scene slid in and out of fantasy, forcing the viewer to participate in a dream that blurred reality; it was dangerous, rocky, ragged, impassioned. Perversely, the character-driven heartache of the film’s last half feels hollow and fake compared to the raw emotion of that fantasy full of trickery (with almost painfully overwhelming set design and effects work). This is at least partially because the first act of The Red Shoes is so emphatically about lives driven completely by art, times three, so that when we’re expected to believe that a cordial, professional relationship between Shearer’s Vicky and Goring’s Julian has blossomed into romance offscreen, it seems at best like forced parable and at worst like lazy dramatics. (The heartbreak Anton Walbrook displays at “losing” Vicky is no less incongruous to the character we’ve come to know up to this point.) The narrative purpose in forcing Vicky to choose between her love and her inner life has obvious merit, but it doesn’t grow naturally from the prior body of the work.
After this fatal error, not only does the movie spend too much time wandering down uninteresting detours, seemingly lingering and never giving much reason for its extrapolations, it fails to effectively reestablish the characters after their abstract presentation in the ballet. The ending is swell, revealing that the movie that pretended to be about people making an adaptation of the H.C. Anderson story is actually itself an adaptation of the H.C. Anderson story, but getting to it is too much of a sacrifice, the story having laboriously deconstructed in a surprisingly boring and uncinematic fashion without telling us much of anything that the ballet already hadn’t: about commitment to artistry, about the manipulation of a woman by two men, about the whiff of unreality that comes from fully losing oneself in creative work. Moreover, the first act is admirable in its shunning of any shoehorning of romance between the characters; it’s as though Powell and Pressburger are so embarrassed by (what they perceive as) the narrative or commercial necessity of doing this with the people they’ve invented that they minimize the onscreen manifestations of it until the very fact of it lacks any sort of credibility to us. The marriage of Vicky and Julian feels fictitious — maybe because their biggest love scene together takes place inside the impresario Lermontov’s head, twin beds and late-night composing. everything.
The flaws in The Red Shoes — which is still an overwhelming, haunting experience — can be pinned down to the very scene that makes the movie so memorable. The reason the second half is so difficult to get through is that its slowed-down, low-key characterization is such a harsh contrast with the delirious pacing and articulate passion of the dance. After you’ve witnessed something like that, something that makes Tales of Hoffmann look like From Justin to Kelly, how can you learn to care about a conventional telling of the story of these lives, after seeing how powerful another angle could be? Powell and Pressburger had to choose between telling a story and creating one of the best scenes in film history. For the movie’s sake, they made the wrong decision; for ours, except for the discomfort in that last hour, which is merely a minor inconvenience, thank heavens for this mistake.
[Expanded and altered version of a review first posted in 2007.]
SIGHT & SOUND TOP TEN (CRITICS POLL)
1. Bicycle Thieves (1948, Vittorio De Sica)
2. City Lights (1931, Charles Chaplin)
2. The Gold Rush (1925, Charles Chaplin)
4. Battleship Potemkin (1925, Sergei Eisenstein) [cap]
5. Intolerance (1916, D.W. Griffith)
5. Louisiana Story (1948, Robert J. Flaherty) [cap]
7. Greed (1924, Erich von Stroheim) [cap]
7. Le Jour se Leve (1939, Marcel Carné) [cap]
7. The Passion of Joan of Arc (1928, Carl Theodor Dreyer)
10. Brief Encounter (1945, David Lean) [cap]
10. The Rules of the Game (1939, Jean Renoir)
10. Le Million (1931, René Clair) [cap]
1. Citizen Kane (1941, Orson Welles)
2. L’avventura (1960, Michelangelo Antonioni) [cap]
3. The Rules of the Game (1939, Jean Renoir)
4. Greed (1924, Erich von Stroheim) [cap]
4. Ugetsu (1953, Kenji Mizoguchi) [cap]
6. Battleship Potemkin (1925, Sergei Eisenstein) [cap]
7. Bicycle Thieves (1948, Vittorio De Sica)
7. Ivan the Terrible, Part I (1945, Sergei Eisenstein) [cap]
7. Ivan the Terrible, Part II (1958, Sergei Eisenstein) [cap]
7. La Terra Trema (1948, Luchino Visconti) [cap]
10. L’Atalante (1934, Jean Vigo) [cap]
1. Citizen Kane (1941, Orson Welles)
2. The Rules of the Game (1939, Jean Renoir)
3. Battleship Potemkin (1925, Sergei Eisenstein) [cap]
4. 8½ (1963, Federico Fellini) [cap]
5. L’avventura (1960, Michelangelo Antonioni) [cap]
5. Persona (1966, Ingmar Bergman) [cap]
7. The Passion of Joan of Arc (1928, Carl Theodor Dreyer)
8. The General (1926, Buster Keaton & Clyde Bruckman)
8. The Magnificent Ambersons (1942, Orson Welles)
10. Ugetsu (1953, Kenji Mizoguchi) [cap]
10. Wild Strawberries (1957, Ingmar Bergman)
1. Citizen Kane (1941, Orson Welles)
2. The Rules of the Game (1939, Jean Renoir)
3. Seven Samurai (1954, Akira Kurosawa)
4. Singin’ in the Rain (1952, Stanley Donen & Gene Kelly)
5. 8½ (1963, Federico Fellini) [cap]
6. Battleship Potemkin (1925, Sergei Eisenstein) [cap]
7. L’avventura (1960, Michelangelo Antonioni) [cap]
7. The Magnificent Ambersons (1942, Orson Welles) [cap]
7. Vertigo (1958, Alfred Hitchcock)
10. The General (1926, Buster Keaton & Clyde Bruckman)
10. The Searchers (1956, John Ford)
1. Citizen Kane (1941, Orson Welles)
2. The Rules of the Game (1939, Jean Renoir)
3. Tokyo Story (1953, Yasujiro Ozu) [cap]
4. Vertigo (1958, Alfred Hitchcock)
5. The Searchers (1956, John Ford)
6. L’Atalante (1934, Jean Vigo) [cap]
6. The Passion of Joan of Arc (1928, Carl Theodor Dreyer)
6. Pather Panchali (1955, Satyajit Ray) [cap]
6. Battleship Potemkin (1925, Sergei Eisenstein) [cap]
10. 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968, Stanley Kubrick)
1. Citizen Kane (1941, Orson Welles)
2. Vertigo (1958, Alfred Hitchcock)
3. The Rules of the Game (1939, Jean Renoir)
4. The Godfather (1972, Francis Ford Coppola)
4. The Godfather Part II (1974, Francis Ford Coppola)
5. Tokyo Story (1953, Yasujiro Ozu) [cap]
6. 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968, Stanley Kubrick)
7. Battleship Potemkin (1925, Sergei Eisenstein) [cap]
7. Sunrise (1927, F.W. Murnau)
9. 8½ (1963, Federico Fellini) [cap]
10. Singin’ in the Rain (1952, Stanley Donen & Gene Kelly)
1. Vertigo (1958, Alfred Hitchcock)
2. Citizen Kane (1941, Orson Welles)
3. Tokyo Story (1953, Yasujiro Ozu) [cap]
4. The Rules of the Game (1939, Jean Renoir)
5. Sunrise (1927, F.W. Murnau)
6. 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968, Stanley Kubrick)
7. The Searchers (1956, John Ford)
8. Man with a Movie Camera (1929, Dziga Vertov) [cap]
9. The Passion of Joan of Arc (1928, Carl Theodor Dreyer)
10. 8½ (1963, Federico Fellini) [cap]
This was the first “mini-project” at Slices of Cake, a short interlude intended only to fill in a couple of blanks and to last just a few weeks. The idea was quickly to make sure we had reviews on file of all of the movies that had appeared on that most prestigious of critics’ polls, the once-per-decade Sight & Sound top ten. Sight & Sound is the regular print publication of the British Film Institute and has been published regularly since the early 1930s. The first instance, in 1952, was one of the first broad attempts to compress the entire history of cinema into such a list; it’s become an ever-growing tradition — with 846 critics participating in 2012, compared to 63 in 1952 — that has now lasted long enough that the latest iteration was announced in a series of tweets (with very silly people, myself included, waiting in suspense).
You’re under no obligation to share the taste of those polled by the BFI, a point they sort of make themselves by also collecting a directors’ poll which generally ends up with slightly more populist results. The films lean heavily European, especially on the earlier lists. It should be noted that in the 2012 list, every film that made the Top Ten is either good or great, and several of them probably are among the ten greatest films ever made. In other words, I suppose I take the list seriously because the taste exhibited on it in what constitutes the greatest, most vital works of film history does align somewhat closely with my own. The lists evolve through the years but many things stay consistent; Citizen Kane had a lock on the top space until being dramatically toppled by Vertigo on the most recent list, a development I both welcomed (because Vertigo is close to being my favorite film of all time and I champion it wholeheartedly) and lamented (because the Kane-is-overrated army is full of shit, and I don’t like them getting further ammunition).
Because of the number of repetitions on the list as I’ve formatted it above, I’ll offer a more simplified alphabetical version that shows every film that’s made the Top Ten, also identifying the years in which each of them placed.
Battleship Potemkin (1925, Sergei Eisenstein) [1952/1962/1972/1982/1992/2002]
Bicycle Thieves (1948, Vittorio De Sica) [1952/1962]
Brief Encounter (1945, David Lean) 
Citizen Kane (1941, Orson Welles) [1962/1972/1982/1992/2002/2012]
City Lights (1931, Charles Chaplin) 
8½ (1963, Federico Fellini) [1972/1982/2002/2012]
The General (1926, Buster Keaton & Clyde Bruckman) [1972/1982]
The Godfather [I & II] (1972/1974, Francis Ford Coppola) 
The Gold Rush (1925, Charles Chaplin) 
Greed (1924, Erich von Stroheim) [1952/1962]
Intolerance (1916, D.W. Griffith) 
Ivan the Terrible (1945/1958, Sergei Eisenstein) 
L’Atalante (1934, Jean Vigo) [1962/1992]
La Terra Trema (1948, Luchino Visconti) 
L’avventura (1960, Michelangelo Antonioni) [1962/1972/1982]
Le Jour se Leve (1939, Marcel Carné) 
Le Million (1931, René Clair) 
Louisiana Story (1948, Robert J. Flaherty) 
The Magnificent Ambersons (1942, Orson Welles) [1972/1982]
Man with a Movie Camera (1929, Dziga Vertov) 
The Passion of Joan of Arc (1928, Carl Theodor Dreyer) [1952/1972/1992/2012]
Pather Panchali (1955, Satyajit Ray) 
Persona (1966, Ingmar Bergman) 
The Rules of the Game (1939, Jean Renoir) [1952/1962/1972/1982/1992/2002/2012]
The Searchers (1956, John Ford) [1982/1992/2012]
Seven Samurai (1954, Akira Kurosawa) 
Singin’ in the Rain (1952, Stanley Donen & Gene Kelly) [1982/2002]
Sunrise (1927, F.W. Murnau) [2002/2012]
Tokyo Story (1953, Yasujiro Ozu) [1992/2002/2012]
2001: A Space Odyssey (1968, Stanley Kubrick) [1992/2002/2012]
Ugetsu (1953, Kenji Mizoguchi) [1962/1972]
Vertigo (1958, Alfred Hitchcock) [1982/1992/2002/2012]
Wild Strawberries (1957, Ingmar Bergman) 
A solid list of 35 movies, most of them quite beautiful; I’m no great fan of a few of them (especially Intolerance, blecch) but still understand their inclusion, especially taking into account how disproportionately available and well-studied certain national cinemas (particularly Italy and America) were during some of the polling years. There are only two complete head-scratchers for me. One is Louisiana Story; I have a hard time believing any viewer could see it and come away thinking of it as one of the ten greatest films ever made. The other I’d rather not identify, but in that case it’s me scratching my head at the whole world, not just the Sight & Sound voters.
At the start of this project, there were seven films that had made the list at some point that I’d never seen. They were the two parts of Ivan the Terrible, La Terra Trema, L’avventura, Louisiana Story, Pather Panchali and Ugetsu. In addition, two films I’d seen long ago (Brief Encounter and The Magnificent Ambersons) needed to be capsuled and reviewed here. All other films listed had been covered here at some point. So this quick runthrough opened with a revisit of Brief Encounter on December 22 and wrapped up January 12 with The Magnificent Ambersons.
NOTES ON AVAILABILITY
Should you want to duplicate this process, a Filmstruck subscription is a godsend; nearly all of the films that have at some point made their way to the Sight & Sound list are streaming there as of this writing, and those that aren’t are generally the bigger Hollywood titles that are easy to grab elsewhere. That said, all of the films can be rented at any of the usual places (Amazon, Google Play, iTunes, Vudu, etc.) except the following, none of which are difficult to locate:
– The General, which you shouldn’t have trouble finding on disc from your library or at Amazon; Kino’s various editions are recommended.
– The Gold Rush, in print on disc from Criterion and streaming at Filmstruck.
– Intolerance, in print on disc from Kino and streaming at Amazon Prime.
– Ivan the Terrible, parts one and two, both stream at Filmstruck and are in print as part of a Criterion boxed set with Alexander Nevsky called Eisenstein: The Sound Years. This has been out for ages and will probably be upgraded to Bluray at some point.
– Le Million, in print on disc from Criterion and streaming at Filmstruck.
– Louisiana Story streams in abysmal quality via Amazon Prime. The Alpha Video DVD is most likely in about the same condition. It appears to be in the public domain; inevitably, archive.org’s copy looks no better.
– The Passion of Joan of Arc, recently re-pressed by Criterion and streaming at Filmstruck.
This post will be updated, assuming we’re all still alive, in 2022; I intend to keep up with the lists as they continue and I suspect it will be one of the easier promises I’ve made. In 2002 and 2012 Sight & Sound published longer versions of the lists, and I will investigate those eventually, and perhaps also the director polls. For now, back in 2018, I’m off to embark on the 1940s canon.
!!! A+ FILM !!!
In all its strangeness and irrationality, L’Atalante is one of the best movies about romantic love ever made, and one of the best examples in cinema of numerous unresolved contradictions refined into inexplicable perfection: it’s a surrealist piece that never breaks from settings and people that are basically ordinary, a drama that places deep, conflicted human emotions on their deserved pedestal that’s nonetheless funnier and more spontaneous than many comedies, and it’s unmistakably a product of youth and of another time that’s nevertheless startling in its wisdom and prescience.
By default, it seems inefficient to try to place one’s response to this film verbally, and it’s best to initially experience it without those chains attached. But in essence, it’s a lyrical romance set aboard a dodgy shipping vessel about the strikes made by circumstance, jealousy and lust against a new marriage — and love is illustrated in the language of nearly uncontrollable physical need (as opposed to the practicality, irrationality and forgiveness of F.W. Murnau’s Sunrise or the verbal sparring of so many Hollywood pictures). It is pure, drunken cinema, with more stunningly beautiful shots and eerily believable moments of undiluted life than can be reasonably counted out — the death of 29 year-old director Jean Vigo prior to its completion, his permanent unawareness of the entire language that would eventually appear in the wake of this film’s rediscovery, only underlines its mysterious, inscrutable sensuality, because it’s a final statement never to be elucidated, almost a missive from the dead. The final cut was not his and the film as it exists is clearly incomplete, full of jump cuts and strange edits and continuity gaffes; but the scrappy context only makes its consistently beguiling nature and frequently jaw-dropping majesty that much more striking, as though it comes about this beauty almost incidentally.
The clearest comparison in terms of the film’s effect on the viewer is Sunrise, another film that defies verbal explanation, another fable about the staggering power of even a conflicted, troubled marriage when feelings bubble to the surface. Whereas Sunrise was a mature work about an experienced couple coping with immature actions, L’Atalante makes no apology for its naivete; its conscience, in the form of a ragged, macho but sexually ambiguous first mate called Père Jules (the dependably versatile Michel Simon, so different here than in La Chienne or Boudu Saved from Drowning), is a man who’s lived a hundred lives in one and has never surrendered to the demoralizing ravages of age, whereas the groom and captain portrayed by Jean Dasté already seems half-dead. Vigo, who didn’t even originate the film’s story (it was foisted upon him after his only other feature, Zéro de conduite, generated controversy), seems to want us to view in Jules what Murnau probably wanted us to view in the mere act, far more slickly depicted, of going into the city and having fun: the radicalism of opening one’s heart to the vastness of the world.
The “story,” such as it is, mostly whisks us through the uncomfortable adjustment of Dita Parlo’s Juliette to the less-than-ideal conditions of married life aboard the barge upon which her husband Jean serves as skipper. Jean is a stodgy bore who barely lives outside of his dull work routine and seems to expect the same of his wife, and flies into a jealous rage when she makes gestures toward living a life of their own; all their relationship really boasts is an obviously mutual level of physical need, manifested beautifully by Vigo in a gorgeous non-sex scene that has them yearning for one another while apart. It’s two people who are too young playing at the lives of the settled, while Jules dramatizes the power in a resistance to settling at all. There’s little reason to expect that the abrupt finale is the prelude to anything but further nastiness and probably an annulment, but that doesn’t make the couple’s closed-off world any less enrapturing; even the moments of disconnection and disappointment, like Juliette’s late nights wishing to be literally anywhere else, have a feeling of importance and ethereal power to them, a “you will remember this” sensation that suggests youth itself. The film senses, even if Juliette doesn’t, how much these growing pains will live strongly and palpably in her dreams and memories. My impulse is to wish that she ran off with the sprightly goofball on the bike we see peddling his wares and trying to persuade her to go to Paris with him (even a fling with the rough and unpredictable but gregarious Père Jules, whose cabin of wonders could inspire affinity in anyone, is preferable to the the uptight, abusive cad Jean), but what can you say? We all know that love puts us on slowly sinking ships and that even those disasters have their moments.
Vigo and cinematographer Boris Kaufman find indelible images everywhere, and toss and discard them unceremoniously, but they are so numerous that repeated encounters with the film are like grabbing at the air for falling meteors. The famous shots of Juliette in her gown aboard the barge at night are only the beginning; the wedding party marching down to the water quite literally so; and on a boat overrun with cats — everywhere, even in the Victrola — the grime is as intoxicating as the beauty and sex hanging over everything. A great deal of the film’s indescribable mood comes from the presence of the cat-adoring Père Jules character, doing tricks with a cigarette in his navel, wrestling with himself, boasting about his past affairs and his dead friend’s hands kept in a jar, playing the accordion and demonstrating a general eagerness and curiosity about everything that demonstrates sensitivity and empathy, for all his drunken outrageousness at times. He’s masculine without becoming toxic or exclusionary, and one of the most memorable characters in any film. The naturalism of Simon’s performance matches well with the unique eroticism of Parlo’s, her facial expressions enough to inspire a book of essays all on their own.
L’Atalante cannot be experienced fully in one viewing, because is so much like a dream and the complete appreciation of it requires a recognition of, for instance, how the curio cabinet lives on in memory after the barge itself seems to fade. You can recognize immediately the unspoken sexuality uncovering itself when Jules and Juliette visit in his cabin, but you cannot completely surrender to your trust in him and to the pure goodness of this moment until you have seen the selfless way he behaves to help the young couple in the final act, even probably (well, definitely) knowing what a mortal fuckup their union is. This dreamlike nature is wholly unforced; everything we see seems like a true event observed closely, but when we recall it later it’s all somehow unreal in a manner separate from its being part of a movie we watched. It’s the sort of film that looks very different after it ends than while it’s in progress. Like day-to-day life, it’s an accumulation of small moments, but it never feels inconsequential, especially on reflection; so much that is unnoticed initially later becomes telling, something to carry with you. It’s billed as the first true work of French poetic realism, but it doesn’t seem to truly fit with the other pictures in the movement, too much of a living work to pin down so carefully. Certainly, however, in its feeling of individualism without forced quirk, of lyricism without pretension, of magic without magic, it achieves so much that we yearn for in movies and in life, and does it deftly, inimitably.
20 movies seen in December. Counts:
– 15 new to the database (previously unseen). New total: 2,270 (count was off by one last month, no clue why).
– 5 revisits, including two (45 Years and The Lady Vanishes) already capsuled or reviewed here. 45 Years, which moved upward even more in my estimation when seen with Amber on our projector, deserves a full review but I decided to wait until next time, and I think I will be able to do a better job now that I’ve seen Weekend and once I’ve gone through the supplements on the Criterion edition of the film.
– 2 new full reviews, one I sort of planned as a nice break after the huge ’30s essay (Bugs Bunny Superstar; someday I will write a lot more about Looney Tunes, and animation in general, as it really is a thrill) and one that I didn’t plan to write at all but a friend sort of talked me into it (The Beguiled). Unusually, I have another full review finished and ready to post but since we watched the movie after midnight last night, it seems only proper to get the monthly post going first!
– 16 new capsules at the bottom of this post. I hoped for more but I was excited about the prospect of finishing my year-end music blog stuff on time for a change and concentrated on that for the past week.
– That knocked out my plans to have a short mini-project all finished in time for the end of the year, but that will be coming up very soon nevertheless, and I’ve already got everything prepared for the 1940s canon to begin within the next week to ten days. A quick plead with anyone reading this: if you have access to good copies of Cluny Brown (Lubitsch), Prison (Bergman), or The Reckless Moment (Ophuls), please point me in their direction, please and thank you.
– Sight & Sound Top Tens: 4 films (3 new). Holiday stuff and music blog duties kept me from wrapping this up and it’s such a relatively small undertaking that I didn’t think y’all would care. Louisiana Story and L’Avventura both had moments but didn’t quite sing out to me; Ugetsu did, though so far I prefer Mizoguchi’s earlier work. Lastly I tried Brief Encounter again and, while I’m puzzled as to how harsh my opinion was when I first saw it, it still does less for me than for seemingly almost anyone else who writes about this era of movies. Remaining: 5 films (4 new).
– Best Picture Oscar nominees: 1 film (1 new). Still on hold till January, but Stage Door was incidentally crossed off due to its placement as the last movie I watched for the ’30s project. Excited to resume this shortly, as Prime has a number of titles I’ve wanted to catch for years. Remaining: 161 films (129 new).
– 1930s canon: 4 films (4 new). Finished this month, as described in this post! The final stragglers, in order from best to worst, were Blonde Venus, Morocco, Stage Door and the tremendously shitty Mad Love. I also had to last-minute a couple of shorts for this, those being the classic Looney Tune Porky in Wackyland by Bob Clampett (A+ all the way) and the fascinatingly bizarre Buñuel sort-of-documentary Land Without Bread (B+), a strange mixture of tragedy and weirdly deadpan humor in the context of a Flaherty-style ethnofiction. It really should be seen at least once.
– 2010s catchup: Andrew Haigh’s Weekend expired from Netflix and I should have watched it years ago. Sarah Polley’s Take This Waltz expired from Netflix before I could catch it so I got it through their mail service and ditto. Lore just happened to show up in the mail and it is what it is.
– New movies: Relented on my no-local-cinema-screenings stance born of the shitty time we had at Moonlight earlier in 2017; at Regal we saw Lady Bird but I’m not a fan of the assigned seating at all. The recliners are nice, but because they take up more space you always end up next to someone and can’t squeeze your way to somewhere else in the room like you can at a civilized theater. Our Carmike is now an AMC, where we saw Coco, oddly because they are very hands-off (they let us sit down before the previous screening was done, like an old movie house), which might have held ominous suggestions for the projection quality but in this case everything was fine.
– Other: This was really a month for putting off projects and catching up on fun stuff and the many, many DVDs I still need to make time for. Finally watched Robert Wiene’s Genuine from my Caligari DVD, a nice brief foray back into silent cinema; then, at long last, D.A. Pennebaker’s Monterey Pop feature (that set, by the way, is a great chance to feel really steeped in another time, which can be helpful right now to keep you functioning the rest of the time, though books are really as good or better); Bugs Bunny Superstar, a childhood favorite, is included on the enormous Looney Tunes set I got in October and I was thrilled to revisit it; and as a Christmas gift I got the big Magical Mystery Tour set, which for all the film’s problems was really a lot of fun.
On to capsules, now.
Mad Love (1935, Karl Freund) [c]
Given the pedigree — conservative MGM when Irving Thalberg was still breathing, master cinematographer and Mummy director Karl Freund behind the camera, and the inimitable Peter Lorre in his Hollywood debut — it’s startling how spectacularly dumb this film is, a frankly incoherent horror story about Lorre’s master surgeon and his sexual obsession with a stage actress, whose husband’s hands get crushed in a train accident and replaced by the hands of a murderer and knife-thrower. The script adapts and pointlessly complicates The Hands of Orlac, constantly introduces further baffling complications and never succeeds in making any sense.
Blonde Venus (1932, Josef von Sternberg) [hr]
In this festival of shadows and dread and sexual torment, Dietrich is a cabaret singer who marries and has a child with an American suitor of hers in Germany, who then falls ill, forcing her to find a way to scrounge up some extra cash. In time Dietrich and her husband (Herbert Marshall) will be at odds, with a surprisingly sympathetic politician played by Cary Grant coming between them, and that’s only the beginning; the story wanders down so many unexpected pathways you can either see it as schlocky or just unnervingly dark and realistic.
Morocco (1930, Josef von Sternberg) [r]
Sternberg’s third sound film is crucial for two moments alone: Marlene Dietrich’s astonishing androgynous cabaret sequence early on; and the chillingly gorgeous finale, a slow, masterfully shot solo trudge into the unknown. The story itself, based on a Benno Vigny novel, is hackneyed and over-familiar — love triangulations between Dietrich, a member of the French Foreign Legion played by a lazily gum-chewing Gary Cooper, and a millionaire played by Adolphe Menjou — but Sternberg knows just how to film it to make it burst with longing and off-kilter beauty.
Lady Bird (2017, Greta Gerwig) [hr]
Writer-director Gerwig is masterful at generating empathy for a disparate array of characters in a setting that feels truly complete and lived-in, a Catholic school in Sacramento, which allows a coming-of-age tale that could seem overly familiar to become robust and moving. Her feel for the offbeat, unbalanced rhythms of reality makes her work miraculously vivid; and it’s refreshing to see a film about a family whose economic stability isn’t at all assured from one week to the next, and to illuminate some of the class envy and embarrassment that results. Saiorse Ronan is phenomenal, feeling the title character inside out and enhancing it perfectly.
Stage Door (1937, Gregory La Cava) [r]
Despite layers and layers of verbal barbs, this is a believable and insightful slice-of-life about a group of actresses in a boarding house — neither comedy nor drama, just funny and straightforward — lit up by a refreshing number of realistic interactions between women who are treated as fully realized people. The only disruption comes from an interjection of plot, about a disputed role and a depressed actress who’s desperate for it. Despite some barriers of attitude and convention, the same film could essentially be made now, only presumably without the likes of Ginger Rogers, Eve Arden, Katharine Hepburn, Lucille Ball and Constance Collier.
Genuine (1920, Robert Wiene) [hr]
The copy in circulation is incomplete, but this excursion into a Wiene expressionist dream world is just as breathtaking as The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari, and with a better, more clever framing device and the clear influence of Louis Feuillade’s Les Vampires to boot. It spins a bizarre tale of a temptress sold to an eccentric doctor as a slave, who then incites murder and mayhem. Bears down on the inexplicable with impressive force; the sets and costumes are among the most eye-popping of the Ufa period, which is saying a lot.
Lore (2012, Cate Shortland)
A journey across the tatters of Germany during the dying throes of World War II with a similar structure to films like Come and See and Grave of the Fireflies, only these wanderers are the children of a Nazi officer, eventually joined by an erstwhile Jewish kid who starts a strangely paternal but also volatile relationship with them. A short film full of so much dread and horror that it seems to stretch out into infinity, with the unpredictable rhythms and expanses of real life; it’s a difficult watch, and it will be tough for some audiences to see past the expectation that we empathize at least partially with these specific characters.
Louisiana Story (1948, Robert J. Flaherty) [r]
Despite lyrical shots of the bayous in southern Louisiana, this (like all of Flaherty’s docufictions) can’t live up to its visuals or the real places and lives it tries to capture; its story is truly ludicrous, about a Cajun boy’s love affair with the Standard Oil Company, who are seeking black gold on his family’s property and are the kindest, bravest, warmest, most wonderful corporation they’ve ever met in their entire lives. It’s a Centron industrial film with accidental artistry injected; as narrative it feels both goofy and — in its drab implications about the future of both the environment and American arts and entertainment — deeply ominous.
Monterey Pop (1968, D.A. Pennebaker) [r]
Pennebaker’s gang of cameras capture the Monterey Pop Festival, one of the key moments of the Summer of Love, in the process documenting an entire culture, and some of the most astounding performance footage of Jimi Hendrix, Janis Joplin, Ravi Shankar and particularly Otis Redding in existence; the other performers (the Mamas and the Papas, Country Joe & the Fish, Simon & Garfunkel, Jefferson Airplane, Canned Heat, Eric Burdon, the Who and Hugh Maskela) vary wildly from sublime to despicable, but the film is a vital, indispensable piece of rock & roll history regardless, especially when joined by the outtakes and supplements on Criterion’s DVD set.
Weekend (2011, Andrew Haigh) [hr]
A whirlwind fling between two complex people, nothing more or less, with much that is almost imperceptibly soft or unstated altogether — and a level of knowing detail about love and sex in general, and specifically the lives of young gay men in a place like northern England, that renders it one of the best modern romance films without attempting to transform its distinctive characters into blank slates or to represent some broad generational or demographic experience. It all adds up to a work of stunning intimacy, and it’s like focusing on a specific part of a starry sky as your eyes adjust: the closer you look, the more there is to see.
Take This Waltz (2011, Sarah Polley) [hr]
Michelle Williams is a married writer in a rut, coping with a mutual awkwardness in her affable, slightly chilly relationship with her incessantly cooking husband while nursing a growing erotic attraction to a neighbor; it’s not a new story, but it is a well-observed one despite some occasional tone-deaf dialogue. The script continually trips you up with scenes so that are horrendously cringey in the most admirable way, and Polley’s directorial choices throughout her documentation of the sickeningly inevitable fissure that ensues are audacious and abrasive, full of risks, without being gimmicky or overly artificial.
Brief Encounter (1945, David Lean) [r]
(Revisit; major upgrade.) More emotionally bracing than any of Lean’s later films and just as pretty, this documents a housewife’s unexpected tryst with a doctor she happens to meet with keen observational power, helped tremendously by Celia Johnston’s stunning performance. But the characterization of her paramour (Trevor Howard) is wafer-thin, and Noel Coward’s script suffers from his usual priggishness about class, seemingly casting the storm in his heroine’s heart as some sort of morally reprehensible thing, love as “violence” and all that, and heavily implying that the cozy boredom of her day-to-day life is the right and proper thing.
L’Avventura (1960, Michelangelo Antonioni) [r]
A group of well-off friends take a small cruise along the Mediterranean and anchor by one of the Aeolian Islands, where a mild argument between lovers escalates with potentially tragic results. For a time we’re gripped and engrossed in the aftermath, but as the film transforms into an extremely bougie and banal love story between two rather dull people, the engagement falters even if the gobsmacking beauty, all impeccable compositions and dead-perfect horizons and locations, doesn’t. “Structure” cops suck, but it’s still hard to engage with a film that goes off on such a tangent as to become an unedited ramble free of any real story at its center.
Ugetsu (1953, Kenji Mizoguchi) [hr]
Ravishing, dreamlike monument from Mizoguchi about a man’s greedy abandonment of his wife and son during a time of war and his subsequent cavorting in the spirit world, sourced from fable-like stories by Ueda Akinari, has the deeply rooted, elemental feel of folklore being passed down directly to us. The film is pulled in many directions simultaneously, ironically given its schematic structure. Every part of it is sensorially arresting, however, and the feeling of redemption and grace at the finale, as bleak as the actual events depicted really are, is so persuasive in its maturity about love and death that it could save your life.
Magical Mystery Tour (1967, The Beatles)
(Revisit; no change. I kept my old capsule but wrote a whole bunch of new stuff at the link; resisted stretching to a full-length review but maybe I should.) Scary, funny sixty-minute thingamajig was a big flop (the Beatles’ first) when it premiered on British TV, eventually gained a huge following as a midnight movie in the United States. Like so many surreal hat tricks, this displays novel imagination for the first twenty minutes or so then grows stale aside from some knockout music video-style performances by the band (who wrote and directed this curio themselves). For Beatles fans and druggies, this is essential; others needn’t bother, as its ’60s kitsch is imbued with too much dread to appeal to campaholics.
Coco (2017, Lee Unkrich) [hr]
Exuberant tale of a guitar-lugging boy’s journey into the Land of the Dead is the best original Pixar film since Up easily: despite a few formulaic moments and some story threads that strain credibility, a wonderfully emotional and eye-popping experience, which makes so much of its environment and — in a major break with the studio’s earliest efforts — musicality. Despite the grab-bag liberties being taken at times with the Mexican culture depicted, it’s refreshing that a mainstream American movie is so casually willing to be this purely, unapologetically strange.
No, genius, that’s not a still from The Beguiled up above — and it really should be, because it’s one of the most painterly and unforgettably gorgeous movies of the current century, the rare film that makes you actually glad they started making movies in color — it’s a work by surrealist Southern Gothic photographer Clarence John Laughlin, whose work is about the uncomfortable conflict between the past and present, and every terrifying thing entailed by their coexistence. Of course, his photographs are also just simply beautiful, a pleasure to see, despite being a scope into a truly ugly world, that of the Antebellum South and the ruins of its plantations, its onetime centers of tyranny. I was quite surprised to find that no one involved with the film seems to have mentioned Laughlin’s work in any interviews given during its press cycle, though it could just be that no one bothered asking, because it seems difficult for me to believe that pieces like this did not have some sort of impact on this film’s cinematography and production design. I bring this up because maybe the reason I’m so out of tune with an awful lot of people on this movie is that making a minimalist narrative of repressed sexuality with thriller elements that feels inspired by Clarence John Laughlin photographs is exactly what I think I would probably want to do with my time if I had the power to create movies; that my favorite working director is the one who decided to do this might help a bit, but all the same, it certainly seems to me that almost no creative decision being made here is anything but absolutely the correct one. I’m not going to bother laying out the basic mechanics of the story; I’ll assume you’ve seen it, and just do my best to state my case.
One Letterboxd reviewer described the setting of The Beguiled as “an ecosystem”; Jonathan Rosenbaum called it “a PhD thesis.” I find these comments to be basically accurate to how the film works, and a testament to a clarity and closed-off structure that hasn’t been seen in its director’s work in well over a decade, though they don’t really challenge the more general interpretation of Sofia Coppola’s sixth feature as beautiful but empty, a criticism that frustrates me for the same reason it frustrates me when Truffaut’s Fahrenheit 451 is cast off for being flat and emotionless — Coppola’s filmography to date consists wholly of films that have been widely interpreted, Mars Attacks!-style, as precisely whatever it is they’re critiquing. In The Beguiled, war is an inconvenience — a suggestion of an outside world of strife, fighting, tragedy, racism, evil, and also sex, sensuality, worldliness — injecting itself into a bubble, an aberration that forces a basically privileged faction to contend with something human, wild, unpredictable, completely at odds with their own prior experiences. Coppola isn’t interested in telling the kind of story in which such a schism has immediate long-term consequences; she’s interested in the sweeping under the rug, the going on as if nothing ever happened… the disturbance in the ecosystem is to be eliminated, and then all knitting and learning seems to press on as before, with only darted glances and a corpse outside the gate suggesting otherwise. It’s a “PhD thesis” because it’s a formally strict, though sometimes humorous, examination of how the sudden chaos (Colin Farrell, a wounded Union soldier being taken care of by a group of women and girls at a desolate school in Virginia) establishes itself, encroaches, develops, explodes, and is finally destroyed.
Of course, even beyond the fact that this is a remake of a Don Siegel film that was itself an adaptation of a novel, that isn’t a new idea. (In fact it’s the second half of Barry Lyndon, more or less, which fits superficially with candlelit rooms and the 1.66 aspect ratio.) It’s not even really a new idea for this director, at least structurally. Lost in Translation ends with blissed-out romantic catharsis, even if it’s a disappointed kind, but every one of her films since then has deliberately denied us any similar relief — Marie Antoinette shows us only the prelude to its characters’ doom where MGM wrung every drop of sentimentality from it in 1938; Somewhere closes, after a long buildup, on a facial expression and small chuckle that engaged viewers spent as much time debating and arguing over as rockabilly heads might over the tail end of an Elvis laugh caught on tape; and The Bling Ring invited all sorts of ire by simply acknowledging the world it came into as ridiculous and trivial, closing with an intentional whimper. The Beguiled is more dramatic and disturbing by default because someone is dead, but conceptually Coppola’s reticence to offer meaning or heavy drama, to in fact locate the creepily mundane in wildly bizarre situations, is now essentially a theme. That’s why it doesn’t bother me that Farrell’s death scene has no real tension or buildup within it, that indeed it seems almost mechanical in its inevitability, like an especially drab ballet. To me the film’s argument is its lack of an argument; like The Bling Ring it refuses to give into obvious temptations to become didactic and judgmental, while quietly suggesting something especially dim and troubling about human nature, a kind of bland resilience in response to trauma that almost anyone else’s movie would find a reason to celebrate.
In some ways this feels like a career summation, if we look at all of Coppola’s previous films as being really about women at different stages of their lives, childhood or adolescence or young adulthood, here all gathered together at once to react to the stimulus of a man whose ambiguity of character and whose physical beauty manages to throttle each of them quite differently. The performances are all magnificent displays of careful restraint, oozing with indirect intensity like the characters in Polanski’s Knife in the Water, another film in which you keep waiting for something to happen that doesn’t, and what finally does happen is maddening and frustrating; Coppola’s treatment of these sometimes painfully stilted and consistently confused, tentative interactions is so compelling that one may be slightly disappointed when she briefly allows fear and loudness to overtake, but it’s fascinating to see her approach the mechanics of a thriller in one of her films, and this short-lived twist attains a power from the contrast. (The unseen but clearly heard raids on Versailles at the climax of Marie Antoinette had a similarly jarring, genuinely horrifying effect.)
It doesn’t seem like a negative to me that The Beguiled is completely of a piece with Coppola’s other movies; her career demonstrates how strong and probing American movies might well be if more directors had the level of freedom and immunity from critical and financial burdening that she almost exclusively enjoys, due to her family’s legacy and to the idiotic resistance to public funding for the arts in this country. Is it fair that she’s the one who benefits from a situation like this? Probably not, but it’s lucky for us; you know perfectly well she anticipated how The Beguiled would be received if she made it the way she wanted to, and she did it anyway. Not sure I’d call it gutsy since it’s so low-risk for her… but then again, isn’t that exactly what this movie is about? The ability of certain people to inflict something on the world that the rest of us never could? That she would even try to wrestle with this part of her identity says a lot about who she is, and why we’re all made richer by her being in this position.
Usually I try not to grade movies at this blog on a “nostalgia” curve, or out of any kind of reverence that may speak to a personal bias because of childhood exposure to something. You could argue, of course, that a lot of things I’m passionate about are part of my life as a direct result to my environment when I was a kid, but there’s also plenty of stuff I loved then that hasn’t endured at all for me, and I think I can make a reasonably strong “objective” case for the Beatles, for Edgar Allan Poe, and for that matter, for Warner Bros. cartoons; but occasionally, I come across something I find almost suspiciously endearing, as much for the vague memories it sparks as for any of its content, and Larry Jackson’s Bugs Bunny Superstar is such an example. Even though I would unheasitatingly cast many Looney Tunes cartoons as Great Art, I would probably not be able to find my footing making such an argument for this hodgepodge of documentary and compilation film, yet it was such an important stepping stone in what I think of as my development that I can hardly help seeing it as a movie that deserves a place in my personal canon if not anyplace else.
(Additionally, perhaps it seems pathetic in some way that I have as many positive associations with media I liked when I was a kid as I do with any specific events in my childhood, but thoughts of watching television in my room are honestly some of my happiest memories of growing up, despite all the beach days and bike rides and friends, and played a big role in what fixations I retained as time went on; there are reasons for this that require me to be long-winded, and this isn’t really the right place.)
Superstar is the first feature-length film comprised of cartoon material from the Warner studio, a low-budget exploration of the early years of character designs, production and in-studio goofing off at Termite Terrace, the building on the Warner lot in which the Leon Schlesinger animated unit was situated at one point. Looney Tunes and Merrie Melodies were produced from 1933 to 1963, with a brief return in the last three years of the ’60s, but this film concentrates on cartoons and events from the 1940s and prior, for the simple reason that when it was made in 1975, distributor United Artists owned the rights to all of the pre-1948 Warner Bros. cartoons but none subsequent. (This allows for a lot of “golden age” material but it does shut out some of the studio’s most iconic films, many of which date from the ’50s, while also skirting its sad declining years.) As that inconvenience implies, this is quite the low-budget affair, its slightly campy behind-the-scenes material heavily reliant on stock footage and on grainy interviews, as well as a voiceover narration by Orson Welles so muffled it seems to add to the strange allure of all this the way an old classroom filmstrip fascinates.
The film is affably hosted by Bob Clampett, almost indisputably tied with Chuck Jones as the greatest director of the Looney Tunes and maybe of American animation in general, responsible for a number of cartoons so ingenious they can still leave a viewer who’s seen them numerous times staggered. Animation historian Michael Barrier has described Clampett as “very rewarding as an interview subject, because he was extraordinarily accurate on most matters of fact; but he was very difficult, too, because he was so often unreliable as a guide to interpeting those facts.” In other words there may be some (possibly unintended) darkness underneath his cheerful remembrances of happy times at the studios. Larry Jackson claimed that Clampett made his own approval of the final cut a stipulation of his involvement in the film, and other Looney Tunes directors — specifically and most loudly Jones — objected to Clampett’s (and therefore the documentary’s) favoritism of himself over other figures who were just as important, if not more so, to the studio’s development. In particular his courting for credit for having played a large role in the creation of Bugs Bunny and Porky Pig appears to be specious, and this really shouldn’t be necessary because of how much Clampett did accomplish at the studio. Friz Freleng and Tex Avery were both interviewed for the project and appear briefly, but only in short talking-head snippets compared to all of Clampett’s (clearly scripted) contributions, and Jones is not present apart from two of his films and some positive words from Clampett, which feels like a kind gesture since the two had an extreme falling out in the late 1930s and were on bad terms for the rest of their lives.
Jones’ criticisms of the film and with other interviews of Clampett are understandable to some extent. The Warner Bros. cartoon studio hadn’t been permanently closed for much more than five years when this film was released, and apart from publications like Barrier’s Funnyworld, it marked the first time that its output had been approached with any degree of dedication and seriousness; the artistry of the cartoons themselves speaks for itself, and it’s acknowledged, for example, that they were really made for adults going out to the movies rather than children who by this point (1975) would know the films from Saturday morning TV showings. By mere virtue of giving a platform to the cartoons’ directors and the history of the studio division that originated them, not to mention the presence of an important figure like Welles, Superstar invites treatment of the Warner canon as a vital, rich entity even if the tone focuses on fun ‘n’ games on the Warner lot, Tex Avery acting out poses for a scarecrow and such. And Clampett would not claim to have created seemingly every Looney Tunes character if those characters were not being positioned for the first time as legacies.
As a kid, of course, I knew none of this and just enjoyed Clampett’s naive friendliness, and what I’ve been able to glean about his real life eccentricity suggests that it’s a fairly accurate representation of his personality. Having come to admire his work with quite intense fervor as an adult, I appreciate the chance to see him and his office. Moreover, the home movies and private drawings littered throughout the film and provided by Clampett are genuinely wonderful to see, and collected here in a manner so as to be accessible and enjoyable to even a general audience of non-devotees — and truthfully, even to a six or seven year-old kid fascinated by the glimpses inside such hallowed ground as this. Looking back as well over the movie’s yearning celebration of studio-era Hollywood, it’s hard for me not to wonder if the imagery it contains had a large effect on my subsequent interests even beyond how deeply I would dive into cartoons and animation history when I grew up.
Two thirds of the running time of Bugs Bunny Superstar are occupied by rather shoddy-looking prints of cartoons, and for the most part they are well chosen. The opening Clampett piece What’s Cookin’ Doc? is one of the studio’s more haphazard Hollywood parodies, with a surprising amount of live action footage interspersed with Bugs’ response to an Academy Award ceremony and a very brief Bugs mini-episode that feels almost like a parody of the conventions of the character’s films (which means that the cartoon’s placement first in the sequence doesn’t make much sense). This is followed by the very first Bugs Bunny short, Tex Avery’s magnificent Wild Hare, which introduces all of the touchstone characteristics of Bugs Bunny and the Elmer-Bugs conflict with remarkable completeness and speed while remaining fresh and witty. Next up: Clampett’s Fantasia parody A Corny Concerto is, curiously, the only one of his included contributions that suggests what a monumental director and animator he was, and its brilliance can scarcely be overstated. The first half, set to Strauss’ “Tales from the Vienna Woods,” places Bugs, Porky and a hunting dog in a murderous ballet some years ahead of the similarly themed What’s Opera, Doc?; the second, an impressively thorough satire of Disney’s Silly Symphonies series in general and especially the 1939 Oscar winner The Ugly Duckling, tracks a group of rhythmic swans swimming in time to the Blue Danube waltz, whereupon they are followed by an annoyingly loud duck. This second sequence in particular is a phenomenal example of impeccable timing and flawless gag writing — not to be too hyperbolic but every subtlety, every sound, every expression and frankly every second is wonderful. If someone came to this feature unaware of the existence of Looney Tunes or their cultural prominence, this would be the moment that would likely persuade them that the film’s eulogy for these animators’ efforts was necessary.
Friz Freleng is represented rather strangely, first by an archetypal but very funny Sylvester & Tweety cartoon, I Taw a Puddy Tat (which reused some elements of Frank Tashlin’s Puss ‘n’ Booty due to the rush to follow up a previous entry with the two characters that won an Oscar); then by the somewhat troubled Rhapsody Rabbit, inexplicably featuring Bugs as a concert pianist and bizarrely similar to a Tom & Jerry cartoon made in the same year. It’s well-timed and funny but nowhere close to being Freleng’s best work, in large part because its characterization of Bugs is so strangely aggressive. Lesser-tier Warner director Robert McKimson, whose association with Looney Tunes would linger even in the years when the series was licensed to the DePatie-Freleng studio in the ’60s, is represented by one of his many Foghorn Leghorn cartoons Walky Talky Hawky; these are funny but mostly because of Mel Blanc’s voice for Leghorn, and the placement of one of them here seems odd. (McKimson’s Bugs cartoons were mostly rather weak.) Happily, we then reach the good stuff with two Chuck Jones entries, the hysterical pairing of Porky and early “wacky” Daffy, who terrorizes the former as he tries to set up camp, My Favorite Duck; and better yet, one of the best Bugs Bunny cartoons of all, Hair-Raising Hare, in which he encounters a monster after being lured to a sinister castle. The film closes out with Clampett’s enjoyably apocalyptic The Old Grey Hare, featuring Bugs and Elmer as old men in the year 2000 (!); it wasn’t the last Looney Tune, as it’s seemingly positioned here, but it could have been.
Why does Bugs Bunny Superstar deserve to be remembered or valorized? When I saw that it was included as a special feature on one of the DVD collections of the cartoons, I rushed to revisit it. There are better ways to see these cartoons; Warner Bros. has been erratic about releasing a complete collection of Looney Tunes to home video but there are a great number out there and readily available on disc. And as we’ve demonstrated, the film isn’t the most reliable source for learning the history of the Schlesinger cartoon studio. It is, however, a compilation that seems to reflect real love and affection and, while the faces of Avery and Freleng and Clampett have aged thirty to forty years beyond their glory days captured in their cartoons here, it’s genuinely moving to see Freleng speak wistfully of the artistic freedom he enjoyed at the studio, and quite haunting to watch Avery wax about how young they all were, how they had nothing to worry about then. Through the haze of poor print quality and primitive editing, the beauty and vitality of their work still zooms out at you, and with still forty more years gone since they looked back in this footage, it feels like a more generalized monument to the permanence of the greatest, most inventive art. Welles is joking in the opening sequence that has him comparing Termite Terrace to the Taj Mahal, but maybe he shouldn’t be. It’s somehow more moving because Jackson doesn’t dwell on the fact that it’s all over, apart from an offhand Welles remark about it being impossible to duplicate those years and those films; Welles ends it all by promising he’ll see us next time, but “that’s all, folks.” It all seems to linger in the air, like it was something that was still happening. In a way it is; there probably won’t be a time in my life when Carl Stalling’s music isn’t periodically blaring from my television — I wouldn’t want there to be — and I hope my six year-old self would be pleased with that.
THE 1930s CANON 1.0
(Chronological list, constructed using the lists project threads at the Criterion Forum.)
All Quiet on the Western Front (1930, Lewis Milestone)
The Blue Angel (1930, Josef von Sternberg) [cap]
Earth (1930, Alexander Dovzhenko) [cap]
L’Age D’Or (1930, Luis Buñuel)
Morocco (1930, Josef von Sternberg) [cap]
Under the Roofs of Paris (1930, René Clair) [cap]
À nous la liberté (1931, René Clair) [cap]
City Lights (1931, Charles Chaplin)
Dracula (1931, Tod Browning)
Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde (1931, Rouben Mamoulian) [cap]
Frankenstein (1931, James Whale)
La Chienne (1931, Jean Renoir) [cap]
Le Million (1931, René Clair) [cap]
M (1931, Fritz Lang)
Rich and Strange (1931, Alfred Hitchcock)
The Smiling Lieutenant (1931, Ernst Lubitsch) [cap]
Tabu (1931, F.W. Murnau) [cap]
Blonde Venus (1932, Josef von Sternberg) [cap]
The Blood of a Poet (1932, Jean Cocteau) [cap]
Boudu Saved From Drowning (1932, Jean Renoir) [cap]
Doctor X (1932, Michael Curtiz) [cap]
Freaks (1932, Tod Browning)
I Was Born, But… (1932, Yasujiro Ozu) [cap]
Love Me Tonight (1932, Rouben Mamoulian) [cap]
The Most Dangerous Game (1932, Ernest B. Schoedsack & Irving Pichel) [cap]
One Hour with You (1932, Ernst Lubitsch) [cap]
Scarface (1932, Howard Hawks) [cap]
Shanghai Express (1932, Josef von Sternberg) [cap]
Trouble in Paradise (1932, Ernst Lubitsch)
Vampyr (1932, Carl Theodor Dreyer) [cap]
Design for Living (1933, Ernst Lubitsch) [cap]
Duck Soup (1933, Leo McCarey)
Gold Diggers of 1933 (1933, Mervyn LeRoy & Busby Berkeley) [cap]
The Invisible Man (1933, James Whale) [cap]
King Kong (1933, Merian C. Cooper & Ernest B. Schoedsack)
Land Without Bread (SHORT 1933, Luis Buñuel) [short discussed below]
Queen Christina (1933, Rouben Mamoulian) [cap]
She Done Him Wrong (1933, Lowell Sherman) [cap]
The Testament of Dr. Mabuse (1933, Fritz Lang) [cap]
Zéro de conduite (1933, Jean Vigo) [cap]
The Black Cat (1934, Edgar G. Ulmer) [cap]
Happiness (1934, Aleksandr Medvedkin) [cap]
It Happened One Night (1934, Frank Capra)
L’Atalante (1934, Jean Vigo)
Man of Aran (1934, Robert J. Flaherty) [cap]
The Man Who Knew Too Much (1934, Alfred Hitchcock)
The Scarlet Empress (1934, Josef von Sternberg)
A Story of Floating Weeds (1934, Yasujiro Ozu) [cap]
The Thin Man (1934, W.S. Van Dyke) [cap]
Twentieth Century (1934, Howard Hawks) [cap]
Bride of Frankenstein (1935, James Whale)
Mad Love (1935, Karl Freund) [cap]
A Night at the Opera (1935, Sam Wood)
Ruggles of Red Gap (1935, Leo McCarey) [cap]
The 39 Steps (1935, Alfred Hitchcock)
Top Hat (1935, Mark Sandrich) [cap]
Triumph of the Will (1935, Leni Riefenstahl) [cap]
The Crime of Monsieur Lange (1936, Jean Renoir) [cap]
A Day in the Country (1936, Jean Renoir) [cap]
Dodsworth (1936, William Wyler)
Fury (1936, Fritz Lang) [cap]
Modern Times (1936, Charles Chaplin)
Mr. Deeds Goes to Town (1936, Frank Capra)
My Man Godfrey (1936, Gregory La Cava) [cap]
The Only Son (1936, Yasujiro Ozu) [cap]
Osaka Elegy (1936, Kenji Mizoguchi) [cap]
Rose Hobart (SHORT 1936, Joseph Cornell) [short discussed here]
Secret Agent (1936, Alfred Hitchcock)
Sabotage (1936, Alfred Hitchcock)
Sisters of the Gion (1936, Kenji Mizoguchi)
Swing Time (1936, George Stevens)
The Awful Truth (1937, Leo McCarey)
Grand Illusion (1937, Jean Renoir)
Lost Horizon (1937, Frank Capra) [cap]
Make Way for Tomorrow (1937, Leo McCarey)
Pépé le Moko (1937, Julien Duvivier) [cap]
Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs (1937, David Hand)
Stage Door (1937, Gregory La Cava) [cap]
Young and Innocent (1937, Alfred Hitchcock)
You Only Live Once (1937, Fritz Lang) [cap]
The Adventures of Robin Hood (1938, Michael Curtiz & William Keighley) [cap]
Alexander Nevsky (1938, Sergei M. Eisenstein) [cap]
Bringing Up Baby (1938, Howard Hawks)
Holiday (1938, George Cukor) [cap]
La Bête Humaine (1938, Jean Renoir) [cap]
The Lady Vanishes (1938, Alfred Hitchcock)
Olympia (1938, Leni Riefenstahl) [cap]
Porky in Wackyland (SHORT 1938, Bob Clampett) [short discussed below]
Gone with the Wind (1939, Victor Fleming)
Le Jour Se Lève (1939, Marcel Carné) [cap]
Mr. Smith Goes to Washington (1939, Frank Capra)
Ninotchka (1939, Ernst Lubitsch)
Only Angels Have Wings (1939, Howard Hawks) [cap]
The Rules of the Game (1939, Jean Renoir)
Stagecoach (1939, John Ford)
The Story of the Last Chrysanthemum (1939, Kenji Mizoguchi) [cap]
The Wizard of Oz (1939, Victor Fleming)
The Women (1939, George Cukor) [cap]
Wuthering Heights (1939, William Wyler)
Young Mr. Lincoln (1939, John Ford) [cap]
This fun and fascinating project, gathering and reviewing 100 films of disparate origins from the 1930s, was the second installment in this blog’s very long-term “canon project,” as I’ve termed it, which uses lists voted on by cinephiles at an internet forum to help me fill out my knowledge of the classics in American and world cinema. (You can read more about the concept and its origins here.) As it happened, this first stab at the ’30s canon — which spanned from February 7 (The Black Cat) to December 10 (Stage Door) of this year — resulted in me adding 73 feature films to this blog’s database, only 14 of which I’d previously seen, giving a perfect opportunity to familiarize myself with movies I wish I’d known by heart long ago and finally writing at length about some long-cherished items. I’ve long named the ’30s as my favorite decade of film — both the most historically interesting because of the tumult inherent to the medium and the most artistically adventurous because of the imagination that was exhibited as a result — and the numerous wonderful new discoveries I made this year have served to reinforce that feeling. What follows is an attempt to summarize the essence of what I saw in these hundred films, not just the 73 I newly reviewed but all those that we previously discussed here as well, to try and draw a few lines, compress a few ideas, understand a few trends, and hopefully induce you to see as many of the most brilliant and rewarding of these films (which, frankly, describes a whole lot of them) as possible.
PART ONE: 1930-31
Broadly speaking, early talkies (this descriptor usually covers sound films made from about 1929 to 1932) are marked by a certain creakiness, a result of the awkward change of tack forced upon actors and crews by the introduction of sound and the complete upheaval of their medium. These problems are not particularly visible on the films chosen for this list, as of course the work from this era that has endured tended to be that which innovated and pointed the way forward, being the work of true visionaries who saw inventive ways past and through these problems. You can see the roots of these accomplishments in the 1929 works of two such innovators, Ernst Lubitsch and Alfred Hitchcock, whose The Love Parade and Blackmail respectively don’t seem even to miss a beat with the so often clunkily added dimension, and this with major production problems and compromises on the latter film. Studio resources undoubtedly played some role in Love Parade‘s seamlessness, though Lubitsch’s agility — shooting two dance sequences simultaneously so the soundtrack would be synchronized — is undeniable, while in Hitchcock’s case, pure ingenuity was the great cover. There are still those who allege that Blackmail‘s silent version — shot and released at the same time — is superior to the talkie, supposedly Britain’s first and certainly its first success in the field, but looking at it today, especially if you know its history and you’ve seen other 1920s sound films such as The Broadway Melody and They Had to See Paris, one’s major response is to wonder what right it has to look and sound as amazing as it does. (That doesn’t mean Hitchcock was immune to the wilderness that trapped many of his American peers, both because of the limits of the British film industry and because of a few of his own questionable choices, straightforwardly filming a couple of stage plays that now look quite antiquated, even though his fabulous, and fabulously weird, whodunit Murder! and — included on this list — the wry comic anti-romance Rich and Strange demonstrate that his penchant to harness every tool available to craft pure cinema was never far away.)
But before taking a deep dive into the early sound films that we as modern viewers can’t quite believe are quite so early, it’s worth noting the filmmakers who — out of necessity or stubbornness — had not left silent cinema behind at the dawn of the ’30s at all, and in some cases wouldn’t for some time. Our ’30s canon list includes five films that are, for every practical purpose, silent films, though one is more “pantomime” than silent. Because these films belong to what amounts to a wholly separate medium, I’ll break chronology and cover them first. Alexander Dovzhenko’s Soviet film about collectivization, Earth, is visually beautiful, impenetrable to most audiences, and what could sound add except to make it somehow vulgar? Like so many iconic Soviet propaganda or semi-propaganda films, it inherits subtlety from its own silence. Meanwhile, sound reached Japan considerably later than many other countries, so Yasujiro Ozu’s utterly delightful comedy I Was Born, But…, about two boys’ relationship with their conformist father, is silent by necessity — and it’s a case in which this status neither enhances nor detracts from it. Its naturalism would lend itself easily to spoken dialogue, but the title cards are no distraction and one adapts quickly even amidst Ozu’s typically realistic setting.
The dreamlike and expressionistic elements of silent cinema would undoubtedly have found their greatest champion well into the 1930s in F.W. Murnau, the artist most capable of holding steadfast to the visual essence of the medium, had he not died in a car accident tragically young. The German master, whose Faust and Sunrise are still among the most overwhelming works of art on film, completed two films in the ’30s. City Girl is a flawed, compromised but finally worthy followup to Sunrise, but it somewhat understandably did not make this list; his final film Tabu, however, holds a deserved place of honor. A nearly indescribable hybrid of Robert Flaherty-like ethnofiction and the familiar hazy and drunken romance of Murnau’s other American films, the picture also stands as an early indicator of how its distributor, Paramount, would ultimately prove the most director-friendly Hollywood outlet of the Depression era, at least from all outward appearances; it boasts an uncompromised, pessimistic but obliquely beautiful finale that one is hard pressed to imagine making it to the screen just a few short years later. Seeing Tabu today, after being familiar with the progression of Murnau’s previous work, is akin to feeling as if we are losing him anew; apart from Jean Vigo, of whom more very shortly, it’s hard to name a filmmaker whose loss seems to have hurt cinema more.
Of course, when one talks of the continued threads of silent film lurking in ’30s cinema, the most inescapable name of all is Charlie Chaplin; he alone among silent filmmakers absolutely refused, until 1940, to take part in the industry’s “revolution,” surely as much out of commercial consideration — how would audiences think of a Tramp who could talk? — as out of artistic integrity, but with some share of both. City Lights, like all of Chaplin’s features, had a long gestation period and had been in production before sound even became available, but its wildly successful theatrical run must have seemed some sort of miracle in light of how quickly silent film came to be seen by the public as a quaint memory. Then again, no one who has seen City Lights — and today, it’s perhaps the most widely seen and beloved of all silent movies — would likely see fit to find its success any kind of miracle, given that it’s among the most foolproof and wistful of all great screen romances, and surely one of the most durable of comedies. Its largeness as an institution transcends even the rest of Chaplin’s work; as wonderful as Modern Times is, its greatest failing is that it cannot begin to match the elegance of its predecessor. Still, Modern Times is of course its own triumph in numerous ways, though Chaplin’s insistence on shooting it without spoken dialogue can occasionally seem arbitrary, since he fills the picture with sound effects, disembodied voices and eventually a masterful song sequence — the bittersweet conclusion of the Tramp’s entire onscreen saga. Unlike City Lights, the film also traffics in a good bit of sentimentality, always a weakness of Chaplin’s to which he surrenders here like never before; yet one comes to love the film’s two major characters, portrayed by Chaplin and his then-lover Paulette Goddard, so much that their emotional arcs do finally seem fully earned if far less organic than one might prefer. Both of Chaplin’s 1930s film are magnificent entertainment all the same, a master at the peak of his powers — assured, pleasurable, smart, and frankly, invigorating. It’s almost indisputable, though, that Chaplin himself has realized by the close of Modern Times that it will not be possible for him to make another movie like this, and not simply because of changes in the medium and the industry, also as a symptom of the way he as a director had exhausted the possibilities of silent filmed comedy.
One of the most obvious influences on Modern Times, with its clever and visually sumptuous parodies of factory work and industrial progress, was René Clair’s remarkable socialist comedy À Nous la Liberté, made in France five years before Chaplin’s film was completed. As wry and knowing as Chaplin’s treatment of the foibles of the working man were, Clair — an underrated innovator whose silent work had ranged from playful farce to ebullient avant garde — tackles the same subject in a more acerbic, pointed manner with a deliciously anarchic message, plus traces of musical comedy and a general visual chutzpah that seems remarkably forward-looking for the time. By the end of 1931, Clair had already explored the collision of silent and sound cinemas with (along with Carl Theodor Dreyer’s Vampyr) one of the few 1930s films that can justifiably be called a hybrid or fusion of the two mediums, Under the Roofs of Paris. One can recognize that film’s impressive qualities, as well as those of Vampyr, without being able to fully buy into it as a narrative; despite some periodic moments of unforced beauty, from a modern perspective it’s one of the least successful films on the list, largely because its technical craftiness isn’t matched by the storytelling acumen Clair exhibits in Liberté or in his tremendous and marvelously simple semi-musical Le Million, a French comedy that feels like a Lubitsch picture, though the void left by the blatant sensuality of the earliest Lubitsch film on the list, The Smiling Lieutenant, is filled by a human if unseemly lust for money that also fills out portions of Under the Roofs of Paris, and seems to contradict the utopian message at the core of À Nous la Liberté. No one in Lubitsch ever seems to be struggling for any reason, yet somehow the audience resents his characters less than they may resent the untoward behaviors of some of Clair’s people; we’ll speculate a little on the psychology behind this in the next part of this history.
If Under the Roofs of Paris, Vampyr and — to a much lesser extent — Hitchcock’s Rich and Strange embody the last nods in sound cinema toward its increasingly unrecognizable roots, Luis Buñuel and Salvador Dali’s L’Age d’Or — a feature-length follow-up and reaction against Un Chien Andalou, perhaps the most artistically accomplished of all silent films in terms of its purity and poetry — is arguably the first work of cinema to directly rebuke sound, utilizing it mostly to deliberately distort its own fragmented story, really just an illogical, sexual, violent dream, and to tease the impulses and short-term memories of its spectators. If there’s an argument at its core, it may be simply that the addition of our ears to our eyes in the cinematic experience can do little to illuminate its imagery, if the artist does not wish it to hold such power. The Blood of a Poet, Jean Cocteau’s similar foray into the tormented mind of the artist, seems to hold a similar message, though it’s somewhat less confrontational. As in Hitchcock’s Blackmail, the soundtrack in the Buñuel film is a kind of work of art in itself, delaying and obscuring and transferring the inferred experience of the visuals to something that we can faintly sense is related but that we cannot fully rationalize. It’s as if Buñuel transforms us into Anny Ondra’s disoriented assault victim in the Hitchcock film, trudging dazed through a universe that doesn’t make sense to us, as our relationship to reality gradually slips away; nothing that we see or hear, finally, can be trusted.
L’Age d’Or is quite likely the first masterpiece of the 1930s, one that proudly harnesses the fact that its primitive mode of communication is at its beginnings. When we watch the second masterpiece of the decade, a decidedly mainstream American feature from the ordinarily low-rent Universal studio (soon to be most widely known for its horror pictures, which ranged from startling elegance to cheap exploitation), we can scarcely believe it’s as old as it is, so seldom does it show any sign of dating from the first years of widespread sound and from that age of desperation and clamor in the Hollywood film industry. All Quiet on the Western Front exists above and apart from technological advancement or even storytelling innovation; director Lewis Milestone follows his own instincts and the drift of Erich Maria Remarque’s novel to simply relate a story that unfortunately knows no age and, to date, no barrier to permanent immediacy, despite its specific setting in the trenches of Europe during World War I. Milestone’s film, an episodic narrative of a group of boys taking the harrowing first and (in most cases) final steps toward a misplaced sense of glory, is astounding in its bluntness, its potency as a screed against war, its alarmingly realistic but straightforward — unsentimental — dramatization of lives being systematically ruined. Here again, Milestone takes advantage of the increased sensory input at his disposal. Sound is a source of horror: enemies frequently cannot be seen, bombs cannot be seen approaching, all of this can only be heard, and therefore it is felt, by us, in all its sickening unpredictability. All Quiet marks one of the few times a Hollywood film used its platform to advance a coherent political argument, one that we still often find ourselves expected to defend today, despite its obviousness — that war, far from being some sort of fleeting glory for young graduates, is an abomination.
Fear was not always so close to home, though audiences that flocked to see the films of Tod Browning, Rouben Mamoulian and James Whale in the early 1930s may have disagreed; we can scarcely imagine the effectiveness of Dracula (starring Bela Lugosi and slightly predating the potential for a full music score, which gives it an eerie stillness) and Frankenstein (starring Boris Karloff and brilliantly, wittily directed by James Whale with both a thrilling sense of fun — in sharp contrast to Browning’s sleazy dread — and a gleeful taste for schlock and seemingly built-in iconography) as modern audiences, but they remain sufficiently captivating that the only obstacle to tapping into those strong responses is the films’ own cultural dominance, their imagery still as embedded in the culture as ever. Rouben Mamoulian’s tormentingly twisted Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, with Fredric March hamming it splendidly in the title role, all but guarantees a more feverish reaction, though even this trades on our familiarity with our own impressions of early ’30s horror cinema, since so much of a viewer’s shock is generated from our trust that a movie of this vintage won’t really go to this or that place, do this or that thing.
Outside of America, movies don’t really get that kind of a benefit of the doubt, so neither the amorality of Jean Renoir’s La Chienne nor the quite strict moral code of Fritz Lang’s M throw us quite as much, but that doesn’t make them any less engrossing; the Lang film is of course a masterpiece, another stark use of early sound and the absence thereof, as it tracks several cases pointing to a child killer terrorizing Berlin, and the investigation and underground vigilante justice system that springs up as a result. The imagery that covers Lang’s work here — some of it obviously an outgrowth of Ufa and of the unnerving climate of Weimar Germany — is as much the stuff of nightmares as anything in Dracula, but the greatest jolt of all comes from the unapologetic compassion of the film’s ending. La Chienne provides no such respite, expected or otherwise, and in fact the extremity of its nastiness — covering the miseries of a love triangle that ensues when a mild-mannered cashier (Michel Simon) finds out he is being used by his paramour — is off-putting even today, but that’s really the director’s point, and his treatment of this ugly subject is devotedly realistic while carrying the faintest hint of grinning irony. The viewer unprepared for the film’s violence and pessimism, as well as its lead character’s cavalier consideration of his own crimes, a long way from Dostoyefsky, is experiencing something strongly comparable, presumably, to the experience of Renoir as a new voice in the 1930s.
The other director whose films truly wallow in the same sort of human decadence and misery is Josef von Sternberg, who left behind the realism of The Docks of New York to produce a series of collaborations with the unmistakable singer-actress Marlene Dietrich that are nothing short of head-spinning in their flamboyance and artifice, without the distancing homogeny of so many high-budget Hollywood productions of that time or any. In Germany the pair made The Blue Angel, which finds Dietrich tormenting Emil Jannings; back in Hollywood they began in earnest with Morocco, a film that’s a little too reliant on an absurd resistance to communication on the part of the characters potrayed by Dietrich and her latest victim, Gary Cooper. Sternberg fills both these films with lively, unforgettable imagery that seems to pop from the screen, even on a TV set; yet his, and Dietrich’s, and Renoir’s, and Michel Simon’s, best work still lay ahead. But already they had fed the dreams of millions.
PART TWO: 1932-34
The 1930s are the first full decade of the familiar Studio System in Hollywood — the “Golden Age” is regarded as opening its curtain on The Jazz Singer in 1927 — and by this point we see the characters of and differences between these powerful institutions falling into place. Prior to 1948, the studios wielded even more awesome influence than they do now because the assembly line was generally theirs from start to finish, before the Supreme Court forced them to divest themselves of the movie theaters they owned. Theater ownership was the primary feature that separated the so-called Big Five from the three “lesser” majors. The Five were 20th Century Fox, Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer, Paramount, RKO Radio Pictures and Warner Bros.; with the exception of Fox, you can get a fair glimpse of the “house style” of each of these outlets from this list, though Paramount — which had the best directors and many of the best stars under contract — is understandably represented more than the others. MGM carried the greatest air of “legitimacy” and class, and wielded the strictest control over its artists; Warner Bros. was the most populist and gritty; while RKO, despite never forging a clear identity, seemed to have the most artistic ambition (they hadn’t been known for their musicals, but the Astaire-Rogers musicals they made are the most stylish and modern ever shot in Hollywood; they hadn’t been known for comedies, but they made Bringing Up Baby, the most manic and irresistible screwball of all; and their idea of a monster movie was, well, King Kong); and Paramount, with Ernst Lubitsch and Josef von Sternberg among its charges, reveled in the freedom and lack of strong censorship in the pre-Hays era. Paramount’s pre-Code films are those that, along with errant titles like All Quiet, give the strongest indication of how stunning a classic Hollywood without Hays might well have been.
The three smaller studios, which had no ownership of large theater chains but were far above Poverty Row status, had distinctive identities as well. Universal began the decade with considerable prestige that it rapidly lost, despite some commercial success with its horror films, and was struggling badly by the end of the ’30s, subsisting on B-grade productions. Columbia tended to be synonymous with cheap pictures until one of its staff directors, Frank Capra, came to prominence; the story of Columbia over the rest of the decade is nearly exclusively the story of Capra, and It Happened One Night is specifically the film that allowed the studio to be mentioned in the same breath with the other sub-majors. The last of these is United Artists, a collective founded by celebrities with a goal of complete artistic control. UA had a slow pace of output and always served, in modern parlance, more as a distributor than as a production company, even if technically it was both, and was the primary unit of communication with the masses for a good number of independent producers such as Samuel Goldwyn and Walter Wanger. (For example, Charlie Chaplin had his own studio and answered to no one, which is why he was able to take multiple years to make films.)
The Great Depression manifested very differently in cinema in the United States than abroad; with the encroaching dread that enveloped Europe throughout the ’30s, even the most entertaining films from that continent were imbued with foreboding and fear, whereas in the U.S. escapism and a kind of flaunting of conspicuous consumption, particularly at MGM and Paramount, were the order of the day. One might wonder if such behaviors were tone-deaf, but there seems no use denying that this particular brand of wealthy fantasy is something that nets a large audience in the leanest of times. At any rate, the pregnancy in the mood of films from the UK, France and Germany is an intriguing mirror image of the glee and hedonism of many of the best Hollywood pictures from the same span of years. It can only be described as jarring to look at Luis Buñuel’s strange, deadpan short documentary about Las Hurdes, Land Without Bread, which uses monumental misery and tragedy — some of it staged — to almost force one’s disenchantment and disinterest and need to turn away from deepest strife, or Robert Flaherty’s equally fanciful but also hardened ethnofiction Man of Aran, about the hard life of the Irish islanders, and then to look at, say, Design for Living, which agreeably reduces human problems to which man a woman should sleep with and whether she can have both. What’s even more remarkable is that Design for Living today feels like the most progressive of these three films, free of judgment and finger-wagging, whereas Buñuel and Flaherty both look irresponsible in their use of staged scenarios to moralize effectively.
None of this is to say that Hollywood ignored the plight of its customers during the worst years of the Depression. It’s everywhere, if anything. Class conflict manages to permeate Rouben Mamoulian’s ecstatic, Lubitsch-like musical comedy Love Me Tonight and indeed provides it with its climax (“the son of a gun [Maurice Chevalier] is nothing but a tailor!”) while the robbery of the rich is celebrated in Lubitsch’s stunning Trouble in Paradise, a film that — like his other pre-Hays features, including The Smiling Lieutenant and One Hour with You — flaunts its sexuality in a marvelously shameless manner that would stand out even today. Frank Capra’s It Happened One Night, cited at times as the first screwball comedy but difficult to reconcile with the subgenre’s usual tone, is essentially a covert celebration of the ordinary people its two leads, Clark Gable and Claudette Colbert, encounter on a chaotic cross-country journey, suffused like all of Capra’s best work with a genuine affection toward and attraction to the everyday. The Warner Bros. musical Gold Diggers of 1933 (which sags a bit, aside from its excellent Busby Berkeley musical sequences) spends considerable early sceen time on the difficulties faced by young women trying to make a living as dancers, as does Stage Door (from 1937, so a few years down the line) re: actresses. But none of these films are humorless explorations of poverty, they simply face up to reality while doing their job of giving their audience what it’s perceived (correctly, for the most part) to want.
The studio system carried major virtues and distractions, obviously among them being the relative economic freedom — in the worst of times, movies were at their most profitable — that allowed a film as early as Morocco to look so much slicker than one, like Hitchcock’s Rich and Strange, made in England some years later. But bemoaning its loss, as is common and frankly tempting, ignores the individualism and beauty that was more freely in evidence in other filmmaking countries during this period. No matter how much one adores Lubitsch or James Whale or Josef von Sternberg — none of whom, remember, were born in the United States — you can knock yourself out picturing what they might have done under the same conditions as a Renoir or an Ozu. To stick to comedy for a moment, Boudu Saved from Drowning is a difficult and sometimes obnoxious film, but watching its title character completely thumb his nose at and freely rebuke the wealthy suitors who attempt to lift him up and change his life as a do-gooder tactic is a more alarming rejection of bourgeois values than one would ever see in a Hollywood picture. (Among the Hollywood comedies examined from the first half of the decade, only the early Hawks screwball Twentieth Century has a similar disregard for decorum.) Fritz Lang and Alfred Hitchcock would soon come and make outstanding features in Hollywood, but Lang would never concoct anything as completely nuts as The Testament of Dr. Mabuse again; and Hitchcock’s many beleaguered young marrieds would never again have the vitality and lived-in realism of the central couple, Leslie Banks and Edna Best, in The Man Who Knew Too Much, the thriller that began to turn its director into an international star. (There is, incidentally, an American analogue here as well in the form of Nick and Nora (William Powell and Myrna Loy) in the first Thin Man, their banter delightful and affection unmistakable, but even in this case, there is no interest in the grit and frankness of the Hitchcock film.) And would any Hollywood studio ever encourage the honesty and ethereal beauty of coming-of-age stories as poetic as Jean Vigo’s Zero de Conduite and Yasujiro Ozu’s I Was Born, But…? The former is adolescent chaos, the latter quiet and moody, but both feel more like life than anything made in Hollywood, as does Vigo’s final film before he died of TB at age 29, L’Atalante, one of the rawest and most undiluted pieces of romance on celluloid; you can argue that American films are, for the most part, about something entirely different and equally human and honest, and you’d be largely correct, but it’s fair even now to question the value of commodifying an art form if an absence of work like this is the inevitable outgrowth.
Paramount was the studio whose output most resembled the uncompromised work of the European directors; this is borne out even by the most famous of their Marx Brothers films, Duck Soup, which is essentially an avant garde picture with big comedy stars in it. Sternberg’s Shanghai Express, another of his Marlene Dietrich vehicles, is a flawed film but one of the few to communicate the same urgency and fear as the best European thrillers of the ’30s. The fear of sexuality that would come to permeate all of the studios after the Hays Code set in isn’t even remotely in evidence in the Mae West classic She Done Him Wrong, a period piece (set in the 1890s) whose liberated attitude is akin to that of the Lubitsch pictures, but with a woman as its prime creative force.
Of course, in one respect Hollywood never had to be persuaded to take things to an uncomfortable extreme; violence on camera had been the great driving force of American filmmaking since at least The Great Train Robbery, and the absence of enforcement of the Production Code, which had been drafted in 1930, allowed for the creation of gangster films like Howard Hawks’ terrifically lurid Scarface as well as the flourishing of horror as an American genre. The horror pictures of the early part of the 1930s are almost invariably the finest ever made in the United States; the tendency of Hollywood in the early sound era to push up against its technical limitations with a sense of genuine excitement lends itself particularly well to the desires of directors like Tod Browning, James Whale, Rouben Mamoulian and Edgar G. Ulmer to entice and exercise control over their audiences. Beyond the obvious, still-impressive King Kong and aforementioned Frankenstein and Dracula, some of the great horror treasures of this era are the immortal Freaks, which presents a strong case for the lax “standards” of Hollywood pre-Hays actually allowing for more nuanced and compassionate narratives, Michael Curtiz’s two-strip Technicolor Doctor X, an extremely fun foray into production design mastery that looks like it was an absolute blast to create, the alarmingly seamless special effects exercise The Invisible Man, led by a splendidly demented Claude Rains, and the admirably convicted, tense and hopelessly vile The Most Dangerous Game, explicitly the type of unforgivingly macabre tale the Hays office meant to circumvent. I found myself less high on The Black Cat, an in-name-only Poe adaptation, but who can resist the chance to see Lugosi and Karloff share the screen?
The game was up in June 1934, when the Production Code Administration was established to police the wide distribution of films, preventing release for any studio pictures that did not comply with Hays office regulations. This not only impacted the ability to present dialogue, events and visuals that could be deemed remotely offensive, it seriously cut back on the potential stories that Hollywood films could tell — particularly because of rules like that which instructed that murderers couldn’t get away with their crimes, that consummation of adultery was completely forbidden, that all actors would be forever chaste and fully clothed. Arguments can and have been made that this strict adherence would force directors to get more creative, but there’s no question that this veered American directors and performers from a course that was becoming quite fascinating, and transformed Hollywood as a whole into what MGM, to an extent, already was: a kind of surreal ivory tower in which life and human behavior as depicted onscreen were transformed and carictured into something that barely even resembled their real-world counterparts. Hollywood would recover, great films would be made, but they would never again be the same kind of great films we had prior to 1934.
PART THREE: 1935-39
Horror was, rather predictably, cut at the knees by the Code, perhaps even more so than comedy; even though the damage to both genres was obvious, comedy directors could at least fake their way through with innuendo and continue to tell adult stories, though the lone Code-enforced Lubitsch film seen here, the strangely well-loved Ninotchka, certainly doesn’t give cause for optimism given its irksome bourgeois conservatism. No longer positioning itself as an entertaining voice and cathartic outlet for its audience, the Lubitsch “touch” here has mostly an alienating effect. But horror has nowhere to go at all under the Code; Mad Love, in production before the change, tries to fake it with sheer over-the-top outrageousness, and it has some scattered moments of ingenuity, but its story is so confused and dumb — seemingly by necessity, a dilution of The Hands of Orlac that forces a pat conclusion — that any pleasure one gets from it is fleeting, despite presenting Peter Lorre with his first Hollywood role. Bride of Frankenstein is the sole miracle, somehow superior to its predecessor despite the limitations, mostly because Whale precisely locates the remaining avenues he has to real, joyous perversion. It’s one of the horror films that transcends everything and just functions as grand art and entertainment, unlimited by genre convention.
Thrillers struggled to cope as well; Fritz Lang’s Fury and You Only Live Once both carry marks of compromise from Hays, but he goes farther in pushing boundaries than most of his peers, having just emigrated from Germany to flee the Nazi threat, and he wrings unexpected drama and romance and even political outrage from the convoluted, engaging stories of both films, and indicates that undiluted harshness and social criticism remains possible even under the Code. Still, compare these films to the loose, freewheeling qualities of Alfred Hitchcock’s British thrillers — collected by scholars as the Gaumont Six, or Thriller Sextet — and you’ll find dread and ambiguity unencumbered by such commercial considerations, which had the effect of fully transforming Hitchcock into the first true celebrity director of the sound era. Among these six films, only Young and Innocent seems to escape the doom of the impending war, but even it, a sort of British variant on the American travelogue in It Happened One Night except with a murder at its center, has a tension and excitement unknown in Hollywood. The 39 Steps is largely comic but places us in the shoes of someone in actual danger, and its sense of journey is like nothing else in cinematic history; while Secret Agent and the chilling Sabotage cast an eye on the messiness of war and espionage on a painfully human scale. All three films have aged impeccably and still carry the same urgency as ever, as does The Man Who Knew Too Much (based on a Bulldog Drummond story, and therefore more conventional, but still holding scattered Nazi allusions and capable of unnerving even a modern viewer), but it’s The Lady Vanishes that sets the stage for Hitchcock’s future career in multiple respects. With a different writing team than the other films, it’s a successful fusion of crowd-pleasing caper and — after a gradual transformation — a dark, violent thriller with elements of perspicacious political warning, just a year before the breakout of the war. Because it’s consistently witty and enjoyable and also genuinely capable of striking us with fear and nervousness, without copping out on either element or compromising at the finale, it conclusively demonstrates that Hitchcock was perhaps the filmmaker most capable of transcending the limits wrought upon him in his pending Hollywood career, and after a somewhat bumpy start this would prove correct.
Hitchcock had no peer in Europe or anywhere, but there were occasionally films, like Lang’s in America but especially during the poetic realism movement in France, that seemed to further the same conversation about storytelling and mood that he was initiating. Two outstanding examples were Jean Renoir’s La Bête Humaine and Julien Duvivier’s Pépé le Moko, remarkable films that — like Hitchcock’s Sabotage — forecast, with in some ways a greater seriousness and realism, the American Film Noir of the 1940s. Renoir’s atmospheric feel-bad railroad story upholds his famous proclamation that everyone has their reasons, but posits that such reasons may indeed be dreadfully self-serving and even violent, without even the mild redemption he offered his lead character in La Chienne; but Moko will probably ring truest for American viewers familiar with not only Noir but the more widely beloved likes of Casablanca, a specific film that Moko — set in Algiers and with a sense of place and stagnation similar to the Warner Bros. film — seems to proactively turn on its head, exposing the winding miserable alleyways under its sheen of foggy, dream-factory perfection. (Marcel Carné’s Le Jour Se Lève has a similar impact, but it didn’t affect me quite as deeply.)
The late ’30s, as represented on this list, are full of similar studies in contrast: the war film as interpreted in France by Jean Renoir as a pacifist-leading document of absurdity and interpersonal complexity, Grand Illusion, which evokes and builds upon the intimacy and ideological conviction of All Quiet on the Western Front without feeling nearly so (intentionally) didactic; versus the war film as interpreted in America by David O. Selznick and MGM as a simultaneous nostalgic celebration, glamorous glorification and colorful nightmare. Gone with the Wind seems to both revel in the naiveté of its characters and to softly critique it. Few films have earned a more permanent place in popular culture, and by force of will alone it deserves it, feeling today as if it’s the synthesis of everything considered possible in Hollywood in the 1930s, even as it reinterprets American tragedy on the cusp of further tragedy yet, all of it still stinging now in all its senselessness, necesitty or no; Renoir’s view of this seneslessness is if anything less judgmental than the Americans’. Any temptation, however, to draw a line from peace advocacy to sheer isolationism finds a handy challenge in Germany; after most of the filmmakers whose work concerns us had fled, Leni Riefenstahl stayed and collaborated. Triumph of the Will is the crucial filmed document of the 1934 Nuremberg Rally, while the two-part Olympia celebrates the Berlin Olympics of two years later. Triumph is an exceptionally difficult film to watch today for the same reasons that Birth of a Nation is; it has insufficient art to counterbalance one’s discomfort, whereas Olympia — despite its blatant valentine to the glories of the Aryan flesh — is as bravura and striking as ever. The vitality in both of Riefenstahl’s films is troubling because, like so many of the other films named here, they seem to dissolve the distance between us and these past historical events that have come to seem almost abstract to us. With a fascist now in the White House, the films made an especially distressing impression this year.
Hollywood would not start to directly rebuke Hitler until 1940, when two British directors would lead the artistic charge against the spread of Nazi power in Europe. One of them, Charlie Chaplin, did make gestures toward political consciousness in 1936’s Modern Times, but for the most part the Code circumvented the potential for such forceful commentary in comedy. Frank Capra works hardest to overcome this; despite the politeness of Mr. Deeds Goes to Town, it does demonstrate the director’s empathy toward the poor, arguably its most commendable element; Gary Cooper is too uninspiring and lethargic to make as strong an impression as James Stewart does in the highly similar and equally idealistic, yet often scathing, Mr. Smith Goes to Washington. Compared to the Lubitsch and Rouben Mamoulian works earlier in the decade, though, the comedies from the last half of the ’30s that make this list are rather feeble indeed. Even the Marx Brothers lose something in A Night at the Opera, compared to their natural kinetic state; the freewheeling surrealism of Duck Soup only survives into 1935 here via the Russian surrealist satire Happiness by Aleksandr Medvedkin.
The exception is obviously the screwball comedy, a brief movement that peaked in the ’30s but lingered for a few years after, the nuts and bolts of which are contingent enough upon fantasies unaffected by the Code — so often centered on wild, unhinged behavior and goofy, mixed-up relationships — that as the decade rolls on the relevant films become loonier, more ambitious. My Man Godfrey becomes far less innocuous than its script suggests thanks to the complete work of art that is Carole Lombard’s performance, so massively demanding and strange she makes the leading man, William Powell (so much more at home in a very different kind of movie), look like he’s glued to a highway facing oncoming cars. Bringing Up Baby, though unrelated, synthesizes the inspired looseness of that performance into an entire innuendo-filled film, a live action cartoon that only seems more surreal and beautiful as one grows more familiar with its mechanics, though my kingdom for another experience like the first time I saw it. And The Awful Truth is an outlier in the sense that, in the midst of a delightful comedy-of-remarriage plot, it manages to incorporate some of the most erotic non-Lubitsch moments in classic Hollywood, mostly thanks to Irene Dunne, who — with Lombard and Hepburn — demonstrates that the individualism freely afforded the actresses, if not always the female characters, in these films has given them a permanence that domestic comedies of the era would otherwise have lacked entirely. (See Woman of the Year, a very funny movie, for an indication of just how much Hollywood writers and producers did not wish women to have careers and lives of their own; the women in these screwball comedies may be falling over themselves in pursuit of men, but at least they are true forces that resist any kind of outside control and are never shamed for doing so.)
The Depression rears its head in various narratives of working class people making good — Ruggles of Red Gap, My Man Godfrey, Mr. Deeds Goes to Town — but these have nothing on the socialist parables and sharp cultural critiques of Renoir, in 1936’s The Crime of Monsieur Lange, which excuses a murder on grounds of its providing the possibility of a utopian share-and-share-alike collective on the part of the employees of a publishing company (a message perhaps even more radical than the cheerfully anti-work À Nous la Liberté some years earlier), and 1939’s The Rules of the Game, which retains a charge even if Renoir can’t quite hate the people he’s targeting. Oddly, the one Hollywood comedy we examined here that did seem to share something like the humanity and warmth of Renoir was one in which nearly all the characters are wealthy: George Cukor’s film of the Philip Barry play Holiday, which celebrates eccentricity and what now feels like real love — familial and romantic — in a way rare in Hollywood productions then or now. (There are shades of this in another Capra film not part of this project, You Can’t Take It with You, but Holiday is more resistant to taking its kooky occupants over the top, and thus it has aged better, certainly with a more generous amount of agency for its characters.) It can’t be stressed enough, at any rate, that a key feature of the comedies that make this list is that they are actually funny — and funny in a way that doesn’t limit the audience to those whose sense of humor has failed to advance since the third grade. When I grew up comedy was my favorite genre, but the comedies I loved then failed to grow up with me (aside, perversely, from the cartoons), and that goes doubly for the ones that made their way to the local multiplex. If we want to talk about longing for the past, I have to admit that the general caliber and unforced liveliness and humor of even the Hays-compromised comedies here really makes me wonder.
And what of more serious films for adults? It was the best of times, it was the worst of times; I’ve never fully warmed to William Wyler’s Wuthering Heights despite growing affection for the director, cinematographer and parts of the cast, though it has its eye-poppingly gorgeous moments. I was extremely excited to see Howard Hawks’ celebrated Only Angels Have Wings, about a dangerous commercial air freight company’s messy day-to-day existence but failed to find it as resonant as I hoped despite its admirable toughness. George Cukor’s MGM curio The Women, notable for its complete absence of onscreen males, comes off as priggish and class-conscious, especially in light of movies like Stage Door that more compassionately investigate the lives of struggling women, and feels like what would happen to All About Eve if Joseph Mankiewicz hated his characters as much as he seemed to hate the women in his real life. Make Way for Tomorrow, a film Leo McCarey directed the same year he won an Oscar for The Awful Truth, was the inspiration for Ozu’s magnificent Tokyo Story and is frequently viewed as one of the saddest movies ever made. It does indeed have moments of palpable emotional pain, especially the sequence in which the aging couple at the film’s center — about to be sent to separate retirement homes by their children — reenact their own honeymoon in New York, and the aching final shot, which carries a feeling of bleak, solemn finality calling back to the earlier Paramount film Morocco. (Has any logo come to signify a loss of breath more than that mountain springing up at the end of movies like these and Vertigo?) It certainly has the feel of a movie that couldn’t be made by a studio at any subsequent time.
The same could be said, getting back to Wyler, of Dodsworth, one of the greatest films on this or any list of classics. Like Holiday, it’s a human drama about the very wealthy, but their wealth becomes incidental as the human problem of a crumbling marriage — explored and illuminated with stunning sympathy and realism — is built to invade and make a mess of our hearts, thanks as much to the impeccable performance of Walter Huston as a retired auto magnate taking a retirement cruise with his wife as to any help provided by the filmmakers and story. Huston knows this character down to his soul, and luckily for us, Wyler is right there with him. Every progressive change, conversation, character transition in the film has an air of truth that we tend to associate more with European or Asian cinema from this time (additionally, the transformation of an acerbic Sinclar Lewis novel to something with more humane dramatics specifically calls to mind the conflict that seems to drive Renoir’s treatment of The Rules of the Game), though Wyler’s strong feeling for family life would come through with equal brilliance and emotion in The Best Years of Our Lives a decade hence. When all is said and done, this could be the film that best represents Hollywood in the ’30s, even after the Hays interference, for me; I have a hard time naming more than a handful of other movies that moves me at such a base level. This has been true since I was around 23, and that such is even possible to a young audience member seems to disrupt so much conventional wisdom about “old art” and how we relate to it. You have to make your way to Japan to find other films on this list that cut so deeply; four remarkable examples are here: Ozu’s sober confused-parentage drama A Story of Floating Weeds and three stunning documents by Kenji Mizoguchi of women struggling with societal expectation: the unsatisfying but still painful Osaka Elgy, The Story of the Last Chrysanthemum and the masterpiece Sisters of the Gion. These are of course directors whose cumulative bodies of work deserve more attention and examination than I can offer here, and I am anxious to continue that quest.
As I noted last year during the silent canon project, there are fundamental flaws in the technique I’m using during this very slapdash chronological leap through movie history, namely that many important films and entire genres are insufficiently examined. I realize this, and I want to stress that we’ll come back to the ’30s again and will go deeper, but for now I’d like to mention some specific areas in which I still feel pathetically uninformed. The Hollywood musical hit its first peak in the ’30s, and while we only looked at four American musicals for this project, the pair of magical Astaire-Rogers features (Swing Time and the hilarious Top Hat) that did make it really tell you plenty about the caliber of artistry in the field at the time, but I regret there was no chance to delve into the famous MGM musicals of the same timeframe (Warners did get a mention earlier with Gold Diggers of 1933) outside of The Wizard of Oz, an incomparable and inescapable film that’s really a genre unto itself but is of course unceasingly delightful in every way, and probably the only film on this list that I would argue is perfect. Oz also serves as one of only two forays here into live action fantasy, along with Frank Capra’s unorthodox and fascinatingly passionate Lost Horizon, which carries a yearning for peace not incomparable to Renoir’s, though it could only have existed in Hollywood. Going further into the genre films, the action-adventure and the western were sorely undervalued here, especially because The Adventures of Robin Hood is not in my view an especially grand example of the former, not compared to silents like The Thief of Bagdad and The Black Pirate anyway, and while Stagecoach is a splendid and endlessly revealing monument to a turning point in film history, it’s really just the tip of the iceberg for both John Ford (we did also watch Young Mr. Lincoln, agreeable schmaltz but not a revelation) and for westerns in general in the ’30s.
Three other subjects that I hope to take on separately at a later date: propaganda, which will become even more relevant in the ’40s but is present here via Dovzhenko, Riefenstahl, and Eisenstein’s terrific Alexander Nevsky; surrealism, which apart from Buñuel finds us through the unorthodox sources of Joseph Cornell’s privately conceived cut-and-paste film Rose Hobart and Bob Clampett’s outstandingly unfettered short cartoon Porky in Wackyland, one of the first masterworks by one of the greatest cartoon directors of all. Speaking of which, animation is a subject of particular interest to me and American cartoons were at their peak in the 1930s; I can and will write all day long about it, but only covered here were the aforementioned errant Looney Tune and of course Walt Disney’s Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs… but then again, at the end of the day do you really need much besides Snow White to prove a more general point about animation in the ’30s, or for that matter about cinema in the ’30s? I certainly don’t. I enjoyed the hell out of this project, and I needed it this year, so thanks from the living to the dead for everything they did for us.
NOTES ON AVAILABILITY (FEATURES)
This is here in case you have any interest in following along with this project in any capacity yourself.
With the exception of Olympia, of which more below, I had little trouble getting ahold of any of the feature films included in this canon project. My typical sources are Netflix (streaming and DVD), Filmstruck, Amazon Prime video, and various libraries, but for the purposes of this guide I’m going to assume one’s pathway to a given film is just via iTunes, Amazon video, Youtube/Google Video and Vudu. Therefore, the following films are not available to rent online at those usual places:
– Morocco and Blonde Venus are both available individually as part of Universal’s MOD program but are more cheaply included in Universal’s two-disc “franchise” set Marlene Dietrich: The Glamour Collection, which has been discontinued but is still at Amazon and Ebay for next to nothing at this writing.
– À Nous la Liberté, Le Million, Boudu Saved from Drowning, I Was Born, But…, The Testament of Dr. Mabuse, Zero de Conduite, Man of Aran, The Man Who Knew Too Much, A Story of Floating Weeds, The 39 Steps, The Only Son, Osaka Elegy, Sabotage, Sisters of the Gion, Pépé le Moko, Young and Innocent, Alexander Nevsky and La Bête Humaine are on Filmstruck as part of the Criterion Channel and I cannot recommend a subscription to both highly enough.
– Rich and Strange is around and about all sorts of places, but to see a print that won’t make you want to claw your eyes out I advise you to seek out Lionsgate’s Hitchcock Early Years box.
– If you don’t subscribe to Netflix’s DVD by mail service and no libraries near you hold them, the easiest, cheapest way to see The Smiling Lieutenant and One Hour with You (even though Universal offers them via MOD) is by getting Criterion’s terrific boxed set Eclipse Series 8: Lubitsch Musicals, which has two other films (including the Best Picture-nominated The Love Parade) and is generally superb.
– Tabu is on Filmstruck at this writing, though not as part of their permanent collection; Kino’s DVD and Blu are in print as of 2017.
– The Blood of a Poet shows up on streaming subscripton services at times but not reliably, and the Criterion boxed set that held it is out of print, but Amazon does offer an imported region-free edition somewhat affordably. (I can’t speak to its quality as I checked the film out from a university library.)
– Love Me Tonight is in print from Universal’s MOD service; Kino’s pressed disc is out of print except as part of a box, though Netflix still had it last I checked.
– Shanghai Express is also offered as an MOD from Universal and I was unable to find any other way of getting it.
– Trouble in Paradise and The Scarlet Empress are in print on disc from Criterion; I got them from Netflix and then bought them and I can almost guarantee you’ll want to do the same, unless you’re some weirdo who hates life. Design for Living and Make Way for Tomorrow are also Criterion disc exclusives at the moment, not rentable online anywhere.
– Happiness is out on DVD from Icarus Films, packaged with The Last Bolshevik. Again, for the moment, this is offered by Netflix via mail.
– The Crime of Monsieur Lange briefly showed up on Filmstruck and has recently had a restored theatrical run, but the only way I can see to actually watch it right now is by picking up the shitty PD disc offered by Amazon. Hopefully this situation changes soon, as I want a copy of this pretty badly myself; to date the film has never received a satisfactory home media release.
– Dodsworth is on Filmstruck right this minute but not as part of their permanent collection. HBO and MGM released it on DVD in 1998 and 2001 respectively but both discs are out of print and they’re not cheap. Surely some third party picks this up before long, as it truly fits the profile of a neglected masterpiece.
– Wuthering Heights is in essentially the same situation as Dodsworth, except that Warner’s DVD of Heights is apparently still in print. Both films are from the Samuel Goldwyn library, and there have been rumors for a number of years about Criterion or some other third party having big plans for those titles.
– You can buy a digital copy of Disney’s Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs right now, you just can’t rent it, or you can pick up the latest iteration of the DVD and Blu, in print since early 2016 but probably not forever.
– You Only Live Once was just this year rereleased on DVD and Blu by the boutique label ClassicFlix. It’s worth buying.
– The hardest time I had tracking a film for this project was with both parts of Riefenstahl’s Olympia; happily, it’s not only included on Criterion’s gigantic new boxed set of Olympic films, it’s also now available to rent on iTunes!
NOTES ON AVAILABILITY (SHORTS)
There were only three shorts on this list, so this is a bit simpler than in our Silent Canon project.
– Porky in Wackyland was compiled on Warner Bros.’ Looney Tunes Golden Collection Vol. 2; all six Golden Collections are now readily available in a very affordable boxed set. More recently, the cartoon was included with the rest of the black and white Porkys on Warner Archive’s MOD title Porky Pig 101.
– Rose Hobart is on Youtube and the NFPF’s website, but if you’d like a disc source, it’s included on Treasures from American Film Archives, which most good university libraries should have, though it’s out of print.
– Land Without Bread was recently reissued on DVD by Transfilm with a good number of extras; there are various online sources, most of them lower quality.
APPENDIX: BY COUNTRY
U.S.: All Quiet on the Western Front; Morocco; City Lights; Dracula; Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde; Frankenstein; The Smiling Lieutenant; Tabu; Blonde Venus; Doctor X; Freaks; Love Me Tonight; The Most Dangerous Game; One Hour with You; Scarface; Shanghai Express; Trouble in Paradise; Design for Living; Duck Soup; Gold Diggers of 1933; The Invisible Man; King Kong; Queen Christina; She Done Him Wrong; The Black Cat; It Happened One Night; The Scarlet Empress; The Thin Man; Twentieth Century; Bride of Frankenstein; Mad Love; A Night at the Opera; Ruggles of Red Gap; Top Hat; Dodsworth; Fury; Modern Times; Mr. Deeds Goes to Town; My Man Godfrey; Rose Hobart; Swing Time; The Awful Truth; Lost Horizon; Make Way for Tomorrow; Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs; Stage Door; You Only Live Once; The Adventures of Robin Hood; Bringing Up Baby; Holiday; Porky in Wackyland; Gone with the Wind; Mr. Smith Goes to Washington; Ninotchka; Only Angels Have Wings; Stagecoach; The Wizard of Oz; The Women; Wuthering Heights; Young Mr. Lincoln
Germany: The Blue Angel; M; Vampyr; The Testament of Dr. Mabuse; Triumph of the Will; Olympia
USSR: Earth; Happiness; Alexander Nevsky
France: L’Age d’Or; Under the Roofs of Paris; À Nous la Liberté; La Chienne; Le Million; The Blood of a Poet; Boudu Saved from Drowning; Zero de Conduite; L’Atalante; The Crime of Monsieur Lange; A Day in the Country; Grand Illusion; Pépé le Moko; La Bête Humaine; Le Jour Se Lève; The Rules of the Game
United Kingdom: Rich and Strange; Man of Aran; The Man Who Knew Too Much; The 39 Steps; Secret Agent; Sabotage; Young and Innocent; The Lady Vanishes
Japan: I Was Born, But…; The Only Son; Osaka Elegy; Sisters of the Gion; A Story of Floating Weeds; The Story of the Last Chrysanthemum
Spain: Land Without Bread
APPENDIX: U.S. BY STUDIO
20th Century Fox: Young Mr. Lincoln
MGM: Freaks; Queen Christina; The Thin Man; A Night at the Opera; Mad Love; Fury; The Wizard of Oz; Gone with the Wind; Ninotchka; The Women
Paramount: Morocco; Tabu; The Smiling Lieutenant; Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde; Trouble in Paradise; Love Me Tonight; Shanghai Express; Blonde Venus; One Hour with You; Duck Soup; She Done Him Wrong; Design for Living; The Scarlet Empress; Ruggles of Red Gap; Make Way for Tomorrow
RKO: The Most Dangerous Game; King Kong; Top Hat; Swing Time; Stage Door; Bringing Up Baby
Warner Bros.: Doctor X; Gold Diggers of 1933; The Adventures of Robin Hood; Porky in Wackyland
Columbia: It Happened One Night; Twentieth Century; Mr. Deeds Goes to Town; The Awful Truth; Lost Horizon; Holiday; Only Angels Have Wings; Mr. Smith Goes to Washington
United Artists: City Lights; Scarface; Modern Times; Dodsworth; You Only Live Once; Stagecoach; Wuthering Heights
Universal: All Quiet on the Western Front; Dracula; Frankenstein; The Invisible Man; The Black Cat; Bride of Frankenstein; My Man Godfrey
APPENDIX: SIGNIFICANT GAPS
Nobody’s perfect, and these are some of the films (among many others) that will need to be addressed in future versions of this project.
Au bonheur des dames (1930, Julien Duvivier)
La Petite Lise (1930, Jean Grémillon)
People on Sunday (1930, Robert Siodmak & Edgar G. Ulmer)
Salt for Svanetia (1930, Mikhail Kalatozov)
The Congress Dances (1931, Erik Charell)
Limite (1931, Mario Peixoto)
Little Caesar (1931, Mervyn LeRoy)
Monkey Business (1931, Norman Z. McLeod)
The Public Enemy (1931, William A. Wellman)
The 3 Penny Opera (1931, Georg Wilhelm Pabst)
Horse Feathers (1932, Norman Z. McLeod)
I by Day, You by Night (1932, Ludwig Berger)
The Red Head (1932, Julien Duvivier)
Apart from You (1933, Mikio Naruse)
The Bitter Tea of General Yen (1933, Frank Capra)
The Deserter (1933, Vsevolod Pudovkin)
Dinner at Eight (1933, George Cukor)
42nd Street (1933, Lloyd Bacon)
Japanese Girls at the Harbor (1933, Hiroshi Shimizu)
Liebeli (1933, Max Ophuls)
Life Begins Tomorrow (1933, Werner Hochbaum)
Sons of the Desert (1933, William A. Seiter)
The Gay Divorcee (1934, Mark Sandrich)
The Goddess (1934, Yonggang Wu)
It’s a Gift (1934, Norman Z. McLeod)
La signora di tutti (1934, Max Ophuls)
Maskerade (1934, Willi Frost)
Rapt (1934, Dimitri Kirsanoff)
David Copperfield (1935, George Cukor)
The Devil Is a Woman (1935, Josef von Sternberg)
An Inn in Tokyo (1935, Yasujiro Ozu)
The Little Colonel (1935, David Butler)
The Million Ryo Pot (1935, Sadao Yamanaka)
The Student of Prague (1935, Arthur Robison)
Toni (1935, Jean Renoir)
After the Thin Man (1936, W.S. Van Dyke)
Camille (1936, George Cukor)
FÃ¤hrmann Maria (1936, Frank Wisbar)
Morning’s Tree-Lined Street (1936, Mikio Naruse)
Mr. Thank You (1936, Hiroshi Shimizu)
A Day at the Races (1937, Sam Wood)
Bizarre, Bizarre (1937, Marcel Carné)
The Edge of the World (1937, Michael Powell)
Humanity and Paper Balloons (1937, Sadao Yamanaka)
Lady Killer (1937, Jean Grémillon)
Topper (1937, Norman Z. McLeod)
Angels with Dirty Faces (1938, Michael Curtiz)
Port of Shadows (1938, Marcel Carné)
Beau Geste (1939, William A. Wellman)
Babes in Arms (1939, Busby Berkeley)
Destry Rides Again (1939, George Marshall)
Gunga Din (1939, George Stevens)
History Is Made at Night (1939, Frank Borzage)
Love Affair (1939, Leo McCarey)
Midnight (1939, Mitchell Leisen)
The Roaring Twenties (1939, Raoul Walsh)
APPENDIX: LUMINARIES (1930-39)
The 1930s filmographies of every filmmaker or actor — as far as I could find — with two or more credits on this list. Not everyone important is represented here but it’s hopefully handy for adding context. Films included in this version of the canon are underlined. These filmographies only include features and (generally) credited work.
Robert Armstrong (actor, 1890-1973): Be Yourself!; Dumbbells in Ermine; Danger Lights; Big Money; Paid (1930); Iron Man; Ex-Bad Boy; The Tip-Off; Suicide Fleet (1931); Panama Flo; The Lost Squadron; Radio Patrol; Is My Face Red?; The Most Dangerous Game; Hold ‘Em Jail; The Penguin Pool Murder (1932); The Billion Dollar Scandal; King Kong; Fast Workers; I Love That Man; Blind Adventure; Above the Clouds; The Son of Kong (1933); Palooka; Search for Beauty; She Made Her Bad; Manhattan Love Song; The Hell Cat; Kansas City Princess; Flirting with Danger (1934); The Mystery Man; Gigolette; Sweet Music; ‘G’ Men; Little Big Shot; Remember Last Night? (1935); Dangerous Waters; The Ex-Mrs. Bradford; Public Enemy’s Wife; All-American Chump; Without Orders (1936); Nobody’s Baby; Three Legionnaires; It Can’t Last Forever; The Girl Said No; She Loved a Fireman (1937); The Night Hawk; There Goes My Heart (1938); The Flying Irishman; Man of Conquest; Unmarried; Winter Carnival; Flight at Midnight; Call a Messenger (1939).
Jean Arthur (actor, 1900-1991): Street of Chance; Young Eagles; Paramount on Parade; The Return of Dr. Fu Manchu; Danger Lights; The Silver Horde (1930); The Gang Buster; The Virtuous Husband; The Lawyer’s Secret; Ex-Bad Boy (1931); The Past of Mary Holmes; Get That Venus (1933); Whirlpool; Most Precious Things in Life; The Defense Rests (1934); The Whole Town’s Talking; Party Wire; Public Hero Number 1; Diamond Jim; The Public Menace; If You Could Only Cook (1935); Mr. Deeds Goes to Town; The Ex-Mrs. Bradford; Adventure in Manhattan; The Plainsman; More Than a Secretary (1936); History Is Made at Night; Easy Living (1937); You Can’t Take It with You (1938); Only Angels Have Wings; Mr. Smith Goes to Washington (1939).
Frank Astaire (actor, 1899-1987): Dancing Lady; Flying Down to Rio (1933); The Gay Divorcee (1934); Roberta; Top Hat (1935); Follow the Fleet; Swing Time (1936); Shall We Dance; A Damsel in Distress (1937); Carefree (1938); The Story of Vernon and Irene Castle (1939).
Lew Ayres (actor, 1908-1996): All Quiet on the Western Front; Common Clay; The Doorway to Hell; East Is West (1930); Many a Slip; Iron Man; Up for Murder; The Spirit of Notre Dame; Heaven on Earth (1931); The Impatient Maiden; The Cohens and Kellys in Hollywood; Night World; Okay America! (1932); State Fair; Don’t Bet on Love; My Weakness (1933); Cross Country Cruise; Let’s Be Ritzy; She Learned About Sailors; Servants’ Entrance (1934); The Lottery Lover; Spring Tonic; Silk Hat Kid (1935); The Leathernecks Have Landed; Panic on the Air; Shakedown; Lady Be Careful; Murder with Pictures (1936); The Crime Nobody Saw; The Last Train from Madrid; Hold ‘Em Navy (1937); Scandal Street; King of the Newsboys; Holiday; Rich Man, Poor Girl; Young Dr. Kildare; Spring Madness (1938); The Ice Follies of 1939; Broadway Serenade; Calling Dr. Kildare; These Glamour Girls; The Secret of Dr. Kildare; Remember? (1939).
Leslie Banks (actor, 1890-1952): The Most Dangerous Game (1932); Strange Evidence; I Am Suzanne! (1933); The Fire Raisers; Strike!; The Man Who Knew Too Much (1934); Sanders of the River; The Murder Party; Transatlantic Tunnel (1935); Debt of Honour; The Show Goes On (1936); Wings of the Morning; Fire Over England; Troopship (1937); Jamaica Inn; The Arsenal Stadium Mystery; Sons of the Sea (1939).
Jules Berry (actor, 1883-1951): Mon coeur et ses millions (1931); Quick; King of Hotels (1932); Un petit trou pas cher; Arlette et ses papas; Une femme chipée (1934); Jeunes filles à marier; Et moi, j’te dis qu’elle t’a fait de l’oeil; Touche-à-Tout; Baccara (1935); The Crime of Monsieur Lange; Une poule sur un mur; Disk 413; Les loups entre eux; Rigolboche; 27 rue de la Paix; Le mort en fuite; Adventure in Paris; Monsieur Personne (1936); Traffic in Souls; A Man to Kill; La Bête aux sept manteaux; Champs-Elysees; Arsene Lupin, Detective; Le club des aristocrates; Les rois du sport; L’habit vert; A Picnic on the Grass; Balthazar (1937); Les deux combinards; The West; My Father and My Daddy; Hercule; The Woman Thief; Clodoche; L’avion de minuit; Café de Paris; Carrefour; Accord final; The Woman of Monte Carlo (1938); Eusèbe député; Derrière la façade; Cas de conscience; Son oncle de Normandie; Le Jour se Leve; La famille Duraton (1939).
Mary Boland (actor, 1882-1965): Secrets of a Secretary; Personal Maid (1931); The Night of June 13; Evenings for Sale; If I Had a Million (1932); Mama Loves Papa; Three Cornered Moon; The Solitaire Man (1933); Four Frightened People; Six of a Kind; Melody in Spring; Stingaree; Here Comes the Groom; Down to Their Last Yacht; The Pursuit of Happiness (1934); Ruggles of Red Gap; People Will Talk; Two for Tonight; The Big Broadcast of 1936 (1935); Early to Bed; A Son Comes Home; Wives Never Know; College Holiday (1936); Marry the Girl; Danger – Love at Work; There Goes the Groom; Mama Runs Wild (1937); Little Tough Guys in Society; Artists and Models Abroad (1938); Boy Trouble; The Magnificent Fraud; Night Work; The Women (1939).
Alice Brady (actor, 1892-1939): When Ladies Meet; Broadway to Hollywood; Beauty for Sale; Stage Mother; Should Ladies Behave (1933); Miss Fane’s Baby is Stolen; The Gay Divorcee (1934); Gold Diggers of 1935; Let ‘Em Have It; Lady Tubbs; Metropolitan (1935); The Harvester; My Man Godfrey; Go West Young Man; Mind Your Own Business; Three Smart Girls (1936); Mama Steps Out; Call It a Day; Mr. Dodd Takes the Air; One Hundred Men and a Girl; Merry-Go-Round of 1938; In Old Chicago (1937); Goodbye Broadway; Joy of Living (1938); Zenobia; Young Mr. Lincoln (1939).
Tod Browning (director, 1880-1962): Outside the Law; (1930); Dracula; Iron Man (1931); Freaks (1932); Fast Workers (1933); Mark of the Vampire (1935); The Devil-Doll (1936); Miracles for Sale (1939).
Luis Buñuel (director, 1900-1983): L’Age d’Or (1930); [Land without Bread (short, 1933)]. (Two other films as co-director.)
Bruce Cabot (actor, 1904-1972): The Roadhouse Murder (1932); Lucky Devils; The Great Jasper; King Kong; Disgraced; Flying Devils; Midshipman Jack; Ann Vickers; Shadows of Sing Sing (1933); Finishing School; Murder on the Blackboard; His Greatest Gamble; Their Big Moment; Redhead; Men of the Night; Night Alarm (1934); Without Children; Let ‘Em Have It; Show Them No Mercy! (1935); Don’t Gamble with Love; Robin Hood of El Dorado; The 3 Wise Guys; Fury; The Last of the Mohicans; Don’t Turn ‘Em Loose; The Big Game; Legion of Terror; Sinner Take All (1936); Bad Guy; Love Takes Flight; The Bad Man of Brimstone (1937); Sinners in Paradise; Smashing the Rackets; 10th Ave Kid (1938); Homicide Bureau; Mystery of the White Room; Dodge City; Mickey the Kid; The Torso Murder Mystery; My Son Is Guilty (1939).
Frank Capra (director, 1897-1991): Ladies of Leisure; Rain or Shine (1930); Dirigible; The Miracle Woman; Platinum Blonde (1931); Forbidden; American Madness; The Bitter Tea of General Yen (1932); Lady for a Day (1933); It Happened One Night; Broadway Bill (1934); Mr. Deeds Goes to Town (1936); Lost Horizon (1937); You Can’t Take It with You (1938); Mr. Smith Goes to Washington (1939).
Madeleine Carroll (actor, 1906-1987): The W Plan; L’instinct; Young Woodley; French Leave; Escape!; School for Scandal; Kissing Cup’s Race (1930); Madame Guillotine; Fascination; The Written Law (1931); Sleeping Car; I Was a Spy (1933); The World Moves On (1934); Loves of a Dictator; The 39 Steps (1935); Secret Agent; The Case Against Mrs. Ames; The General Died at Dawn; Lloyd’s of London (1936); On the Avenue; It’s All Yours; The Prisoner of Zenda (1937); Blockade (1938); Cafe Society; Honeymoon in Bali (1939).
Charles Chaplin (director/actor, 1889-1977): City Lights (1931); Modern Times (1936).
Maurice Chevalier (actor, 1888-1972): Paramount on Parade; The Big Pond; Playboy of Paris (1930); The Smiling Lieutenant (1931); One Hour with You; Love Me Tonight (1932); A Bedtime Story; The Way to Love (1933); The Merry Widow (1934); Folies Bergère de Paris (1935); The Beloved Vagabond; With a Smile (1936); The Man of the Hour (1937); Break the News (1938); Personal Column (1939).
René Clair (director, 1898-1981): Under the Roofs of Paris (1930); Le Million; À Nous la Liberté (1931); July 14 (1933); The Last Billionaire (1934); The Ghost Goes West (1935); Break the News (1938).
Colin Clive (actor, 1900-1937): Journey’s End (1930); Frankenstein; The Stronger Sex (1931); Lily Christine (1932); Christopher Strong; Looking Forward (1933); The Key; One More River; Jane Eyre (1934); Clive of India; The Right to Live; Bride of Frankenstein; The Girl from 10th Avenue; Mad Love; The Man Who Broke the Bank at Monte Carlo; The Widow from Monte Carlo (1935); History is Made at Night; The Woman I Love (1937).
Claudette Colbert (actor, 1903-1996): Young Man of Manhattan; The Big Pond; Manslaughter; L’énigmatique Monsieur Parkes (1930); Honor Among Lovers; The Smiling Lieutenant; Secrets of a Secretary; His Woman (1931); The Wiser Sex; The Misleading Lady; The Man from Yesterday; The Phantom President; The Sign of the Cross (1932); Tonight Is Ours; I Cover the Waterfront; Three Cornered Moon; Torch Singer (1933); Four Frightened People; It Happened One Night; Imitation of Life; Cleopatra (1934); The Gilded Lily; Private Worlds; She Married Her Boss; The Bride Comes Home (1935); Under Two Flags (1936); Maid of Salem; I Met Him in Paris; Tovarich (1937); Bluebeard’s Eighth Wife; Zaza (1938); Midnight; It’s a Wonderful World; Drums Along the Mohawk (1939).
Walter Connolly (actor, 1887-1940): Washington Merry-Go-Round; Man Against Woman; No More Orchids; The Bitter Tea of General Yen; Plainsclothes Man (1932); Paddy the Next Big Thing; Lady for a Day; Man’s Castle; Master of Men; East of Fifth Avenue (1933); It Happened One Night; Once to Every Woman; Twentieth Century; Whom the Gods Destroy; Servants’ Entrance; Lady by Choice; The Captain Hates the Sea; Broadway Bill; Father Brown, Detective (1934); So Red the Rose; She Couldn’t Take It; One-Way Ticket; White Lies (1935); Soak the Rich; The Music Goes ‘Round; The King Steps Out; Libeled Lady (1936); The Good Earth; Nancy Steele Is Missing!; Let’s Get Married; The League of Frightened Men; Nothing Sacred; First Lady (1937); Penitentiary; Start Cheering; Four’s a Crowd; Too Hot to Handle; The Girl Downstairs (1938); The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn; Bridal Suite; Good Girls Go to Paris; Coast Guard; 5th Ave Girl; Those High Gray Walls; The Great Victor Herbert (1939).
Gary Cooper (actor, 1901-1961): Seven Days Leave; Only the Brave; Paramount on Parade; The Texan; A Man from Wyoming; The Spoilers; Morocco (1930); Fighting Caravans; City Streets; I Take This Woman; His Woman (1931); Devil and the Deep; If I Had a Million; A Farewell to Arms (1932); Today We Live; One Sunday Afternoon; Design for Living; Alice in Wonderland (1933); Operator 13; Now and Forever (1934); The Lives of a Bengal Lancer; The Wedding Night; Peter Ibbetson (1935); Desire; Mr. Deeds Goes to Town; The General Died at Dawn; The Plainsman (1936); Souls at Sea (1937); Bluebeard’s Eighth Wife; The Adventures of Marco Polo; The Cowboy and the Lady (1938); Beau Geste; The Real Glory (1939).
George Cukor (director, 1899-1983): Grumpy; The Virtuous Sin; The Royal Family of Broadway (1930); Tarnished Lady; Girls About Town (1931); What Price Hollywood?; A Bill of Divorcement; Rockabye (1932); Our Betters; Dinner at Eight; Little Women (1933); David Copperfield; Sylvia Scarlett (1935); Romeo and Juliet; Camille (1936); Holiday; Zaza (1938); The Women (1939). (Note: Cukor also did uncredited work on Gone with the Wind and The Wizard of Oz, responsible for a good deal of the former’s most iconic imagery; and he was the original director of Lubitsch’s One Hour with You before being fired from the project.)
Michael Curtiz (director, 1888-1962): Mammy; Under a Texas Moon; The Matrimonial Bed; Bright Lights; River’s End; A Soldier’s Plaything (1930); DÃ¤mon des Meeres; God’s Gift to Women; The Mad Genius (1931); The Woman from Monte Carlo; Alias the Doctor; The Strange Love of Molly Louvain; Doctor X; The Cabin in the Cotton; 20,000 Years in Sing Sing (1932); Mystery of the Wax Museum; The Keyhole; Private Detective 62; Goodbye Again; The Kennel Murder Case; Female (1933); Mandalay; Jimmy the Gent; The Key; British Agent (1934); Black Fury; The Case of the Curious Bride; Front Page Woman; Little Big Shot; Captain Blood (1935); The Walking Dead; The Charge of the Light Brigade (1936); Stolen Holiday; Mountain Justice; Kid Galahad; The Perfect Specimen (1937); Gold Is Where You Find It; The Adventures of Robin Hood; Four’s a Crowd; Four Daughters; Angels with Dirty Faces (1938); Dodge City; Daughters Courageous; The Private Lives of Elizabeth and Essex; Four Wives (1939).
Marcel Dalio (actor, 1899-1983): Olive passager clandestin (1931); The Night at the Hotel (1932); Turandot, princesse de Chine; Return to Paradise (1935); Quand minuit sonnera; The Life and Loves of Beethoven (1936); Pépé le Moko; Traffic in Souls; A Man to Kill; Marthe Richard; The Pearls of the Crown; Grand Illusion; Sarati the Terrible; The Kiss of Fire; Miarka (1937); Les pirates du rail; Hatred; Chéri-Bibi; Sirocco; The Curtain Rises; Conflit (1938); Pasha’s Wives; Midnight Tradition; The Rules of the Game; Sacred Woods (1939).
Olivia de Havilland (actor, 1916-): Alibi Ike; The Irish in Us; A Midsummer Night’s Dream; Captain Blood (1935); Anthony Adverse; The Charge of the Light Brigade (1936); Call It a Day; It’s Love I’m After; The Great Garrick (1937); Gold Is Where You Find It; The Adventures of Robin Hood; Four’s a Crowd; Hard to Get (1938); Wings of the Navy; Dodge City; The Private Lives of Elizabeth and Essex; Raffles; Gone with the Wind (1939).
Marlene Dietrich (actor, 1901-1992): Dangers of the Engagement; The Blue Angel; Morocco (1930); Dishonored (1931); Shanghai Express; Blonde Venus (1932); The Song of Songs (1933); The Scarlet Empress (1934); The Devil Is a Woman (1935); Desire; The Garden of Allah; I Loved a Soldier (1936); Knight Without Armor; Angel (1937); Destry Rides Again (1939).
Victor Fleming (director, 1889-1949): Common Clay; Renegades (1930); Around the World with Douglas Fairbanks (1931); The Wet Parade; Red Dust (1932); The White Sister; Bombshell (1933); Treasure Island (1934); Reckless; The Farmer Takes a Wife (1935); Captains Courageous (1937); Test Pilot (1938); The Wizard of Oz; Gone with the Wind (1939).
Henry Fonda (actor, 1905-1982): The Farmer Takes a Wife; Way Down East; I Dream Too Much (1935); The Trail of the Lonesome Pine; The Moon’s Our Home; Spendthrift (1936); Wings of the Morning; You Only Live Once; Slim; That Certain Woman (1937); I Met My Love Again; Jezebel; Blockade; Spawn of the North; The Mad Miss Manton (1938); Jesse James; Let Us Live; The Story of Alexander Graham Bell; Young Mr. Lincoln; Drums Along the Mohawk (1939).
John Ford (director, 1894-1973): Men Without Women; Born Reckless; Up the River (1930); Seas Beneath; The Brat; Arrowsmith (1931); Air Mail; Flesh (1932); Pilgrimage; Doctor Bull (1933); The Lost Patrol; The World Moves On; Judge Priest (1934); The Whole Town’s Talking; The Informer; Steamboat Round the Bend (1935); The Prisoner of Shark Island; Mary of Scotland; The Plough and the Stars (1936); Wee Willie Winkie; The Hurricane (1937); Four Men and a Prayer; Submarine Patrol (1938); Stagecoach; Young Mr. Lincoln; Drums Along the Mohawk (1939).
Dwight Frye (actor, 1899-1943): The Doorway to Hell; Man to Man (1930); Dracula; The Maltese Falcon; Frankenstein (1931); Attorney for the Defense; By Whose Hand?; The Western Code; A Strange Adventure (1932); The Vampire Bat; The Circus Queen Murder (1933); Bride of Frankenstein; Atlantic Adventure; The Crime of Doctor Crespi (1935); Florida Special; Alibi for Murder; Beware of Ladies (1936); The Man Who Found Himself; Something to Sing About; The Shadow (1937); Who Killed Gail Preston?; Invisible Enemy; Fast Company; The Night Hawk; Adventure in Sahara (1938).
Jean Gabin (actor, 1904-1976): Chacun sa chance (1930); Méphisto; The Darling of Paris; Tout ça ne vaut pas l’amour; Gloria; Pour un soir..! (1931); Lilac; Les gaîtés de l’escadron; La foule hurle; La belle marinière; Coeurs joyeux (1932); L’étoile de Valencia; Adieu les beaux jours; High and Low; Le tunnel (1933); Maria Chapdelaine; Zouzou (1934); Behold the Man; La bandera; Variétés (1935); They Were Five; The Lower Depths (1936); Pépé le Moko; Grand Illusion; The Messenger; Lady Killer (1937); Port of Shadows; La Bête humaine (1938); Coral Reefs; Le Jour se Leve (1939).
Clark Gable (actor, 1901-1960): The Painted Desert; The Easiest Way; Dance, Fools, Dance; The Finger Points; The Secret 6; Laughing Sinners; A Free Soul; Night Nurse; Sporting Blood; Susan Lenox; Hell Divers; Possessed (1931); Polly of the Circus; Strange Interlude; Red Dust; No Man of Her Own (1932); The White Sister; Hold Your Man; Night Flight; Dancing Lady (1933); It Happened One Night; Men in White; Manhattan Melodrama; Chained; Forsaking All Others (1934); After Office Hours; China Seas; Call of the Wild; Mutiny on the Bounty (1935); Wife vs. Secretary; San Francisco; Cain and Mabel; Love on the Run (1936); Parnell; Saratoga (1937); Test Pilot; Too Hot to Handle (1938); Idiot’s Delight; Gone with the Wind (1939).
Greta Garbo (actor, 1905-1990): Anna Christie; Romance (1930); Inspiration; Susan Lenox; Mata Hari (1931); Grand Hotel; As You Desire Me (1932); Queen Christina (1933); The Painted Veil (1934); Anna Karenina (1935); Camille (1936); Conquest (1937); Ninotchka (1939).
Paulette Goddard (actor, 1910-1990): The Girl Habit (1931); Modern Times (1936); The Young in Heart; Dramatic School (1938); The Women; The Cat and the Canary (1939).
Cary Grant (actor, 1904-1986): This Is the Night; Sinners in the Sun; Merrily We Go to Hell; Devil and the Deep; Blonde Venus; Hot Saturday; Madame Butterfly (1932); She Done Him Wrong; The Woman Accused; The Eagle and the Hawk; Gambling Ship; I’m No Angel; Alice in Wonderland (1933); Thirty Day Princess; Born to Be Bad; Kiss and Make-Up; Ladies Should Listen (1934); Enter Madame!; Wings in the Dark; The Last Outpost; Sylvia Scarlett (1935); Big Brown Eyes; Suzy; The Amazing Adventure; Wedding Present (1936); When You’re in Love; Topper; The Toast of New York; The Awful Truth (1937); Bringing Up Baby; Holiday (1938); Gunga Din; Only Angels Have Wings; In Name Only (1939).
Porter Hall (actor, 1888-1953): The Thin Man; Murder in the Private Car (1934); The Case of the Lucky Legs (1935); The Petrified Forest; The Story of Louis Pasteur; Too Many Parents; Snowed Under; The Princess Comes Across; And Sudden Death; Satan Met a Lady; The General Died at Dawn; The Plainsman; Let’s Make a Million (1936); Bulldog Drummond Escapes; King of Gamblers; Make Way for Tomorrow; Hotel Haywire; Wild Money; Souls at Sea; This Way Please; True Confession; Wells Fargo (1937); Scandal Street; Dangerous to Know; Bulldog Drummond’s Peril; Stolen Heaven; Prison Farm; Men with Wings; King of Alcatraz; The Arkansas Traveler; Tom Sawyer, Detective (1938); Grand Jury Secrets; They Shall Have Music; Mr. Smith Goes to Washington (1939).
Margaret Hamilton (actor, 1902-1985): Another Language (1933); Hat, Coat, and Glove; There’s Always Tomorrow; By Your Leave; Broadway Bill (1934); The Farmer Takes a Wife; Way Down East (1935); Chatterbox; These Three; The Moon’s Our Home; The Witness Chair; Laughing at Trouble (1936); You Only Live Once; When’s Your Birthday?; Good Old Soak; Mountain Justice; I’ll Take Romance; Nothing Sacred (1937); The Adventures of Tom Sawyer; A Slight Case of Murder; Mother Carey’s Chickens; Four’s a Crowd; Breaking the Ice; Stablemates (1938); The Wizard of Oz; Angels Wash Their Faces; Babes in Arms; Main Street Lawyer (1939).
Howard Hawks (director, 1896-1977): The Dawn Patrol (1930); The Criminal Code (1931); Scarface; The Crowd Roars; Tiger Shark (1932); Today We Live (1933); Twentieth Century (1934); Barbary Coast (1935); Ceiling Zero; The Road to Glory; Come and Get It (1936); Bringing Up Baby (1938); Only Angels Have Wings (1939).
Katharine Hepburn (actor, 1907-2003): A Bill of Divorcement (1932); Christopher Strong; Morning Glory; Little Women (1933); Spitfire; The Little Minister (1934); Break of Hearts; Alice Adams; Sylvia Scarlett (1935); Mary of Scotland; A Woman Rebels (1936); Quality Street; Stage Door (1937); Bringing Up Baby; Holiday (1938).
Alfred Hitchcock (director, 1899-1980): Juno and the Paycock; Murder! (1930); The Skin Game; Rich and Strange (1931); Number Seventeen (1932); Waltzes from Vienna; The Man Who Knew Too Much (1934); The 39 Steps (1935); Secret Agent; Sabotage (1936); Young and Innocent (1937); The Lady Vanishes (1938); Jamaica Inn (1939).
Miriam Hopkins (actor, 1902-1972): Fast and Loose (1930); The Smiling Lieutenant; 24 Hours; Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde (1931); Two Kinds of Women; Dancers in the Dark; World and the Flesh; Trouble in Paradise (1932); The Story of Temple Drake; The Stranger’s Return; Design for Living (1933); All of Me; She Loves Me Not; The Richest Girl in the World (1934); Becky Sharp; Barbary Coast; Splendor (1935); These Three; Men Are Not Gods (1936); The Woman I Love; Woman Chases Man; Wise Girl (1937); The Old Maid (1939).
Edward Everett Horton (actor, 1886-1970): Take the Heir; Wide Open; Holiday; Once a Gentleman; Reaching for the Moon (1930); Kiss Me Again; Lonely Wives; The Front Page; 6 Cylinder Love; Smart Woman; The Age for Love (1931); -But the Flesh Is Weak; Roar of the Dragon; Trouble in Paradise (1932); The Woman in Command; A Bedtime Story; It’s a Boy; The Way to Love; Design for Living; Alice in Wonderland (1933); Easy to Love; The Poor Rich; Success at Any Price; Uncertain Lady; Sing and Like It; Smarty; Kiss and Make-Up; Ladies Should Listen; The Merry Widow; The Gay Divorcee (1934); Biography of a Bachelor Girl; The Night Is Young; All the King’s Horses; The Devil Is a Woman; $10 Raise; In Caliente; Going Highbrow; Top Hat; The Private Secretary; Little Big Shot; His Night Out; Your Uncle Dudley (1935); Her Master’s Voice; The Singing Kid; Nobody’s Fool; Hearts Divided; The Man in the Mirror; Let’s Make a Million (1936); Lost Horizon; The King and the Chorus Girl; Oh, Doctor; Shall We Dance; Wild Money; Danger – Love at Work; Angel; The Perfect Specimen; The Great Garrick; Hitting a New High (1937); Bluebeard’s Eighth Wife; College Swing; Holiday; Little Tough Guys in Society (1938); Paris Honeymoon; The Amazing Mr. Forrest; That’s Right – You’re Wrong (1939).
Sam Jaffe (actor, 1891-1984): The Scarlet Empress; We Live Again (1934); Lost Horizon (1937); Gunga Din (1939).
Boris Karloff (actor, 1887-1969): The Bad One; The Sea Bat; The Utah Kid (1930); The Criminal Code; King of the Wild; Cracked Nuts; Young Donovan’s Kid; The Public Defender; Five Star Final; I Like Your Nerve; Graft; The Guilty Generation; Frankenstein; Tonight or Never (1931); Behind the Mask; The Cohens and Kellys in Hollywood; Scarface; The Miracle Man; Night World; The Old Dark House; The Mask of Fu Manchu; The Mummy (1932); The Ghoul (1933); The Lost Patrol; The House of Rothschild; The Black Cat; Gift of Gab (1934); Bride of Frankenstein; The Raven; The Black Room (1935); The Invisible Ray; The Walking Dead; Juggernaut; The Man Who Lived Again; Charlie Chan at the Opera (1936); Night Key; West of Shanghai (1937); The Invisible Menace; Mr. Wong, Detective (1938); Devil’s Island; Son of Frankenstein; The Mystery of Mr. Wong; Mr. Wong in Chinatown; The Man They Could Not Hang; Tower of London (1939).
Gregory La Cava (director, 1892-1952): Laugh and Get Rich; Smart Woman (1931); Symphony of Six Million; The Age of Consent; The Half Naked Truth (1932); Gabriel Over the White House; Bed of Roses; Gallant Lady (1933); The Affairs of Cellini; What Every Woman Knows (1934); Private Worlds; She Married Her Boss (1935); My Man Godfrey (1936); Stage Door (1937); 5th Ave Girl (1939).
Fritz Lang (director, 1890-1976): M (1931); The Testament of Dr. Mabuse (1933); Liliom (1934); Fury (1936); You Only Live Once (1937); You and Me (1938).
René Lefèvre (actor, 1898-1991): Rapacité; The Stream; The Road to Paradise; Les deux mondes (1930); Mon ami Victor; Le Million; Jean de la Lune; Moon Over Morocco; On opère sans douleur (1931); Un chien qui rapporte; Seul; Monsieur, Madame et Bibi; Orange Blossom; Sa meilleure cliente; L’âne de Buridan (1932); Paprika (1933); An Ideal Woman; Les deux canards; L’amour en cage (1934); Les époux scandaleux; Vogue, mon coeur (1935); The Crime of Monsieur Lange; Le coup de trois (1936); Trois… six… neuf; Mes tantes et moi; Le choc en retour; Lady Killer (1937); Nuits de princes; La piste du sud; Sommes-nous défendus? (1938); Place de la Concorde; Feux de joie; Petite peste (1939).
Carole Lombard (actor, 1908-1942): The Arizona Kid; Safety in Numbers; Fast and Loose (1930); It Pays to Advertise; Man of the World; Ladies’ Man; Up Pops the Devil; I Take This Woman (1931); No One Man; Sinners in the Sun; Virtue; No More Orchids; No Man of Her Own (1932); From Hell to Heaven; Supernatural; The Eagle and the Hawk; Brief Moment; White Woman (1933); Bolero; We’re Not Dressing; Twentieth Century; Now and Forever; Lady by Choice; The Gay Bride (1934); Rumba; Hands Across the Table (1935); Love Before Breakfast; The Princess Comes Across; My Man Godfrey (1936); Swing High, Swing Low; Nothing Sacred; True Confession (1937); Fools for Scandal (1938); Made for Each Other; In Name Only (1939).
Peter Lorre (actor, 1904-1964): The White Devil (1930); M; Bombs Over Monte Carlo; Die Koffer des Herrn O.F.; A Man’s a Man (1931); Fünf von der Jazzband; SchuÃŸ im Morgengrauen; Dope; Stupéfiants; F.P.1 Doesn’t Answer (1932); Was Frauen trÃ¤umen; Les requins du pétrole; Unsichtbare Gegner; High and Low (1933); The Man Who Knew Too Much (1934); Mad Love; Crime and Punishment (1935); Secret Agent; Crack-Up (1936); Nancy Steele Is Missing!; Think Fast, Mr. Moto; Lancer Spy; Thank You, Mr. Moto (1937); Mr. Moto’s Gamble; Mr. Moto Takes a Chance; I’ll Give a Million; Mysterious Mr. Moto (1938); Mr. Moto’s Last Warning; Mr. Moto in Danger Island; Mr. Moto Takes a Vacation (1939).
Myrna Loy (actor, 1905-1993): Cameo Kirby; Isle of Escape; Under a Texas Moon; Cock o’ the Walk; Bride of the Regiment; The Last of the Duanes; The Jazz Cinderella; The Bad Man; Renegades; The Truth About Youth; Rogue of the Rio Grande; The Devil to Pay! (1930); The Naughty Flirt; Body and Soul; A Connecticut Yankee; Hush Money; Rebound; Transatlantic; Skyline; Consolation Marriage; Arrowsmith (1931); Emma; Vanity Fair; The Wet Parade; The Woman in Room 13; New Morals for Old; Love Me Tonight; Thirteen Women; The Mask of Fu Manchu; The Animal Kingdom (1932); Topaze; The Barbarian; When Ladies Meet; Penthouse; Night Flight; The Prizefighter and the Lady (1933); Men in White; Manhattan Melodrama; The Thin Man; Stamboul Quest; Evelyn Prentice; Broadway Bill (1934); Wings in the Dark; Whipshaw (1935); Wife vs. Secretary; Petticoat Fever; The Great Ziegfeld; To Mary – With Love; Libeled Lady; After the Thin Man (1936); Parnell; Double Wedding (1937); Man-Proof; Test Pilot; Too Hot to Handle (1938); Lucky Night; The Rains Came; Another Thin Man (1939).
Ernst Lubitsch (director, 1892-1947): Monte Carlo (1930); The Smiling Lieutenant (1931); Broken Lullaby; One Hour with You; Trouble in Paradise (1932); Design for Living (1933); The Merry Widow (1934); Angel (1937); Bluebeard’s Eighth Wife (1938); Ninotchka (1939).
Bela Lugosi (actor, 1882-1956): Such Men Are Dangerous; Wild Company; Renegades; Oh, for a Man! (1930); Dracula; The Black Camel; Broadminded (1931); Murders in the Rue Morgue; White Zombie; Chandu the Magician; Island of Lost Souls; The Death Kiss (1932); The Whispering Shadow; Night of Terror; International House (1933); The Black Cat; Gift of Gab; The Return of Chandu; The Mysterious Mr. Wong (1934); The Best Man Wins; Mark of the Vampire; The Raven; Chandu on the Magic Island; Murder by Television; Phantom Ship (1935); The Invisible Ray; Postal Inspector; Shadow of Chinatown (1936); SOS Coast Guard (1937); Son of Frankenstein; The Gorilla; The Phantom Creeps; The Human Monster; Ninotchka (1939).
Paul Lukas (actor, 1894-1971): Behind the Make-Up; Slightly Scarlet; Young Eagles; The Benson Murder Case; The Devil’s Holiday; Grumpy; Anybody’s Woman; The Right to Love (1930); Unfaithful; City Streets; The Vice Squad; Women Love Once; Beloved Bachelor; Working Girls; Strictly Dishonorable (1931); No One Man; Tomorrow and Tomorrow; Thunder Below; Downstairs; A Passport to Hell; Rockabye (1932); Grand Slam; The Kiss Before the Mirror; Secret of the Blue Room; Sing Sinner Sing; Captured!; Little Women; By Candlelight (1933); The Countess of Monte Cristo; Glamour; Affairs of a Gentleman; I Give My Love; The Fountain; Gift of Gab; Father Brown, Detective (1934); The Casino Murder Case; Age of Indiscretion; The Three Musketeers; I Found Stella Parish (1935); Dodsworth; Ladies in Love (1936); Espionage; Dangerous Secrets; Mutiny on the Elsinore; Dinner at the Ritz (1937); The Lady Vanishes (1938); Confessions of a Nazi Spy; Captain Fury (1939).
Jeanette MacDonald (actor, 1903-1965): The Vagabond King; Let’s Go Native; Monte Carlo; The Lottery Bride; Oh, for a Man! (1930); Don’t Bet on Women; Annabelle’s Affairs (1931); One Hour with You; Love Me Tonight (1932); The Cat and the Fiddle; The Merry Widow (1934); Naughty Marietta (1935); Rose-Marie; San Francisco (1936); Maytime; The Firefly (1937); The Girl of the Golden West; Sweethearts (1938); Broadway Serenade (1939).
Rouben Mamoulian (director, 1897-1987): City Streets; Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde (1931); Love Me Tonight (1932); The Song of Songs; Queen Christina (1933); We Live Again (1934); Becky Sharp (1935); The Gay Desperado (1936); High, Wide and Handsome (1937); Golden Boy (1939).
Fredric March (actor, 1897-1975): Sarah and Son; Paramount on Parade; Ladies Love Brutes; True to the Navy; Manslaughter; Laughter; The Royal Family of Broadway (1930); Honor Among Lovers; Night Angel; My Sin; Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde (1931); Strangers in Love; Merrily We Go to Hell; Smilin’ Through; The Sign of the Cross (1932); Tonight Is Ours; The Eagle and the Hawk; Design for Living (1933); All of Me; Good Dame; Death Takes a Holiday; The Affairs of Cellini; The Barretts of Wimpole Street; We Live Again (1934); Les Misérables; Anna Karenina; The Dark Angel (1935); The Road to Glory; Mary of Scotland; Anthony Adverse (1936); A Star Is Born; Nothing Sacred (1937); The Buccaneer; There Goes My Heart; Trade Winds (1938).
Percy Marmont (actor, 1883-1977): The Squeaker; Cross Roads (1930); The Loves of Ariane; The Written Law; East of Shanghai (1931); The Silver Greyhound; Blind Spot; Say It with Music (1932); Her Imaginary Lover (1933); The White Lilac; Vanity (1935); Secret Agent; The Captain’s Table; David Livingstone (1936); Action for Slander; Young and Innocent (1937).
Herbert Marshall (actor, 1890-1966): Murder! (1930); Secrets of a Secretary; Bachelor’s Folly; Michael and Mary (1931); Faithful Hearts; Blonde Venus; Trouble in Paradise; Evenings for Sale (1932); I Was a Spy; The Solitaire Man (1933); Four Frightened People; Riptide; Outcast Lady; The Painted Veil (1934); The Good Fairy; The Flame Within; Accent on Youth; The Dark Angel; If You Could Only Cook (1935); The Lady Consents; Till We Meet Again; Forgotten Faces; Girls’ Dormitory; A Woman Rebels; Make Way for a Lady (1936); Angel; Breakfast for Two (1937); Mad About Music; Woman Against Woman; Always Goodbye; Zaza (1938).
Groucho Marx (actor, 1890-1977) / Harpo Marx (actor, 1888-1964) / Chico Marx (actor, 1887-1961): Animal Crackers (1930); Monkey Business (1931); Horse Feathers (1932); Duck Soup (1933); A Night at the Opera (1935); A Day at the Races (1937); Room Service (1938); At the Circus (1939).
Leo McCarey (director, 1898-1969): Wild Company; Let’s Go Native; Part Time Wife (1930); Indiscreet (1931); The Kid from Spain (1932); Duck Soup (1933); Six of a Kind; Belle of the Nineties (1934); Ruggles of Red Gap (1935); The Milky Way (1936); Make Way for Tomorrow; The Awful Truth (1937); Love Affair (1939).
Adolphe Menjou (actor, 1890-1963): Soyons gais; Mon gosse de père; Amor audaz; L’énigmatique Monsieur Parkes; Morocco; New Moon (1930); The Easiest Way; Men Call It Love; The Front Page; The Great Lover; The Parisian; Friends and Lovers (1931); Forbidden; Prestige; Wives Beware; Bachelor’s Affairs; Blame the Woman; The Night Club Lady; A Farewell to Arms (1932); The Circus Queen Murder; Morning Glory; The Worst Woman in Paris?; Convention City (1933); Easy to Love; Journal of a Crime; The Trumpet Blows; Little Miss Marker; The Great Flirtation; The Human Side; The Mighty Barnum (1934); Gold Diggers of 1935; Broadway Gondolier (1935); The Milky Way; Sing, Baby, Sing; Wives Never Know; One in a Million (1936); A Star Is Born; Café Metropole; One Hundred Men and a Girl; Stage Door (1937); The Goldwyn Follies; Letter of Introduction; Thanks for Everything (1938); King of the Turf; Golden Boy; The Housekeeper’s Daughter; That’s Right – You’re Wrong (1939).
Thomas Mitchell (actor, 1892-1962): Craig’s Wife; Adventure in Manhattan; Theodora Goes Wild (1936); Man of the People; When You’re in Love; Lost Horizon; I Promise to Pay; Make Way for Tomorrow; The Hurricane (1937); Love, Honor and Behave; Trade Winds (1938); Stagecoach; Only Angels Have Wings; Mr. Smith Goes to Washington; Gone with the Wind; The Hunchback of Notre Dame (1939).
Kenji Mizoguchi (director, 1898-1956): Fujiwara Yoshie no furusato; Tôjin Okichi (1930); Shikamo karera wa yuku (1931); Toki no ujigami; The Dawn of Mongolia (1932); Taki no shiraito; Gion matsuri (1933); Jinpu-ren; Aizô tôge (1934); The Downfall; Maria no Oyuki; Poppy (1935); Osaka Elegy; Sisters of the Gion (1936); The Straits of Love and Hate (1937); Roei no uta; Aa kokyo (1938); The Story of the Last Chrysanthemum (1939).
Gaston Modot (actor, 1887-1970): Phantome des Glücks; Der Erzieher meiner Tochter; Freiheit in Fesseln; Under the Roofs of Paris; L’Age d’Or; Conte cruel (1930); Autour d’une enquête; L’opéra de quat’sous; L’ensorcellement de Séville (1931); Under the Leather Helmet; Fantômas; Coup de feu à l’aube (1932); The 1002nd Night; Colomba; Plein aux as; Quelqu’un a tué… (1933); Crainquebille; L’auberge du Petit-Dragon; Les chaînes (1934); Le billet de mille; Le clown Bux; Le mystère Imberger; La bandera; Lucrezia Borgia (1935); Les gaîtés de la finance (1936); Pépé le Moko; Traffic in Souls; Les réprouvés; Street of Shadows; Grand Illusion (1937); The Time of the Cherries; La Marseillaise; Ceux de demain; Sirocco (1938); Coral Reefs; La fin du jour; The Rules of the Game (1939).
Victor Moore (actor, 1876-1962): Dangerous Nan McGrew; Heads Up (1930); Romance in the Rain; Gift of Gab (1934); Swing Time; Gold Diggers of 1937 (1936); We’re on the Jury; Make Way for Tomorrow; Meet the Missus; The Life of the Party; She’s Got Everything (1937); Radio City Revels; This Marriage Business (1938).
David Niven (actor, 1910-1983): Without Regret; A Feather in Her Hat; Splendor (1935); Rose-Marie; Palm Springs; Dodsworth; Thank You, Jeeves!; The Charge of the Light Brigade; Beloved Enemy (1936); We Have Our Moments; The Prisoner of Zenda; Dinner at the Ritz (1937); Bluebeard’s Eighth Wife; Four Men and a Prayer; Three Blind Mice; The Dawn Patrol (1938); Wuthering Heights; Bachelor Mother; The Real Glory; Eternally Yours; Raffles (1939).
Yasujirô Ozu (director, 1903-1963): Kekkongaku nyûmon; Walk Cheerfully; I Flunked, But…; That Night’s Wife; The Luck Which Touched the Leg; Ojôsan (1930); The Lady and the Beard; The Sorrow of the Beautiful Woman; Tokyo Chorus (1931); Spring Comes from the Ladies; I Was Born, But…; Where Now Are the Dreams of Youth; Until the Day We Meet Again (1932); Woman of Tokyp; Dragnet Girl; Dekigokoro (1933); A Mother Should Be Loved; A Story of Floating Weeds (1934); Tokyo yoitoko; Hakoiri musume; An Inn in Tokyo (1935); Daigaku yoitoko; The Only Son (1936); What Did the Lady Forget? (1937).
Nova Pilbeam (actor, 1919-2015): Little Friend; The Man Who Knew Too Much (1934); Nine Days a Queen (1936); Young and Innocent (1937); Cheer Boys Cheer (1939).
William Powell (actor, 1892-1984): Behind the Make-Up; Street of Chance; The Benson Murder Case; Paramount on Parade; Shadow of the Law; For the Defense (1930); Man of the World; Ladies’ Man; The Road to Singapore (1931); High Pressure; Jewel Robbery; One Way Passage; Lawyer Man (1932); Private Detective 62; Double Harness; The Kennel Murder Case (1933); Fashions of 1934; Manhattan Melodrama; The Thin Man; The Key; Evelyn Prentice (1934); Star of Midnight; Reckless; Escapade; Rendezvous (1935); The Great Ziegfeld; The Ex-Mrs. Bradford; My Man Godfrey; Libeled Lady; After the Thin Man (1936); The Last of Mrs. Cheyney; The Emperor’s Candlesticks; Double Wedding (1937); The Baroness and the Butler (1938); Another Thin Man (1939).
Basil Radford (actor, 1897-1952): Seven Days Leave (1930); Leave It to Smith (1933); A Southern Maid (1934); Foreign Affaires (1935); Broken Blossoms; Dishonour Bright (1936); When Thief Meets Thief; Young and Innocent; Captain’s Orders (1937); Convict 99; The Lady Vanishes; Climbing High (1938); Let’s Be Famous; Jamaica Inn; Among Human Wolves (1939).
Claude Rains (actor, 1889-1967): The Invisible Man (1933); Crime Without Passion; The Man Who Reclaimed His Head (1934); The Mystery of Edwin Drood; The Clairvoyant; The Last Outpost (1935); Hearts Divided; Anthony Adverse (1936); Stolen Holiday; The Prince and the Pauper; They Won’t Forget (1937); White Banners; Gold Is Where You Find It; The Adventures of Robin Hood; Four Daughters (1938); They Made Me a Criminal; Juarez; Daughters Courageous; Mr. Smith Goes to Washington; Four Wives (1939).
Jean Renoir (director, 1894-1979): Baby’s Laxative; La Chienne (1931); Night at the Crossroads; Boudu Saved from Drowning (1932); Chotard and Company (1933); Madame Bovary (1934); Toni (1935); The Crime of Monsieur Lange; The Lower Depths; A Day in the Country (1936); Grand Illusion (1937); La Marseillaise; La Bête humaine (1938); The Rules of the Game (1939).
Leni Riefenstahl (director, 1902-2003): The Blue Light (1932); Victory of the Faith (1933); Triumph of the Will (1935); Olympia Part One: Festival of the Nations; Olympia Part Two: Festival of Beauty (1938).
Ginger Rogers (actor, 1911-1995): Young Man of Manhattan; The Sap from Syracuse; Queen High; Follow the Leader (1930); Honor Among Lovers; The Tip-Off; Suicide Fleet (1931); Carnival Boat; The Tenderfoot; The Thirteenth Guest; Hat Check Girl; You Said a Mouthful (1932); 42nd Street; Broadway Bad; Gold Diggers of 1933; Professional Sweetheart; Don’t Bet on Love; A Shriek in the Night; Rafter Romance; Chance at Heaven; Sitting Pretty; Flying Down to Rio (1933); Upper World; Twenty Million Sweethearts; Finishing School; Change of Heart; The Gay Divorcee (1934); Romance in Manhattan; Roberta; Star of Midnight; Top Hat; In Person (1935); Follow the Fleet; Swing Time (1936); Shall We Dance; Stage Door (1937); Vivacious Lady; Having Wonderful Time; Carefree (1938); The Story of Vernon and Irene Castle; Bachelor Mother; 5th Ave Girl (1939).
Charlie Ruggles (actor, 1886-1970): Roadhouse Nights; Young Man of Manhattan; Queen High; Her Wedding Night; Charley’s Aunt (1930); Honor Among Lovers; The Smiling Lieutenant; The Girl Habit; Beloved Bachelor; Husband’s Holiday (1931); This Reckless Age; One Hour with You; This Is the Night; Love Me Tonight; 70,000 Witnesses; The Night of June 13; Trouble in Paradise; Evenings for Sale; If I Had a Million; Madame Butterfly (1932); Murders in the Zoo; Terror Aboard; Melody Cruise; Mama Loves Papa; Goodbye Love; Girl Without a Room; Alice in Wonderland (1933); Six of a Kind; Melody in Spring; Murder in the Private Car; Friends of Mr. Sweeney; The Pursuit of Happiness (1934); Ruggles of Red Gap; People Will Talk; No More Ladies; The Big Broadcast of 1936 (1935); Anything Goes; Early to Bed; Hearts Divided; Wives Never Know; Mind Your Own Business (1936); Turn Off the Moon; Exclusive (1937); Bringing Up Baby; Breaking the Ice; Service de Luxe; His Exciting Night (1938); Boy Trouble; Sudden Money; Invitation to Happiness; Night Work; Balalaika (1939).
Ernest B. Schoedsack (director, 1893-1979): Rango (1931); The Most Dangerous Game (1932); King Kong; Blind Adventure; The Son of Kong (1933); Long Lost Father (1934); The Last Days of Pompeii (1935); Trouble in Morocco; Outlaws of the Orient (1937).
David O. Selznick (producer, 1902-1965): Street of Chance (1930); The Lost Squadron; Girl Crazy; Young Bride; Symphony of Six Million; The Roadhouse Murder; State’s Attorney; Westward Passage; Is My Face Red?; What Price Hollywood?; Roar of the Dragon; Beyond the Rockies; Bird of Paradise; The Age of Consent; The Most Dangerous Game; Thirteen Women; Hold ‘Em Jail; Hell’s Highway; A Bill of Divorcement; The Phantom of Crestwood; Little Orphan Annie; The Sport Parade; The Conquerors; Rockabye; Renegades of the West; Men of America; Secrets of the French Police; The Penguin Pool Murder; The Half Naked Truth; The Animal Kingdom (1932); No Other Woman; The Past of Mary Holmes; The Cheyenne Kid; Lucky Devils; Topaze; The Great Jasper; Our Betters; King Kong; Christopher Strong; Scarlet River; Sweepings; Cross Fire; Dinner at Eight; Night Flight; Meet the Baron; Dancing Lady (1933); Viva Villa!; Manhattan Melodrama (1934); David Copperfield; Vanessa, Her Love Story; Reckless; Anna Karenina; A Tale of Two Cities (1935); Little Lord Fauntleroy; The Garden of Allah (1936); A Star Is Born; The Prisoner of Zenda; Nothing Sacred (1937); The Adventures of Tom Sawyer; The Young in Heart (1938); Made for Each Other; Intermezzo; Gone with the Wind (1939).
Sylvia Sidney (actor, 1910-1999): City Streets; Confessions of a Co-Ed; An American Tragedy; Street Scene; Ladies of the Big House (1931); The Miracle Man; Merrily We Go to Hell; Madame Butterfly (1932); Pick-up; Jennie Gerhardt (1933); Good Dame; Thirty Day Princess; Behold My Wife! (1934); Accent on Youth; Mary Burns, Fugitive (1935); The Trail of the Lonesome Pine; Fury; Sabotage (1936); You Only Live Once; Dead End (1937); You and Me (1938); …One Third of a Nation… (1939).
Michel Simon (actor, 1895-1975): Illegitimate Child (1930); Jean de la Lune; Baby’s Laxative; La Chienne (1931); Baleydier; Boudu Saved from Drowning (1932); High and Low (1933); Léopold le bien-aimé; Miquette et sa mère; Ladies Lake; L’Atalante; Le bonheur (1934); Adémaï au moyen âge; Amants et voleurs; Le bébé de l’escadron (1935); Under Western Eyes; Moutonnet; Les jumeaux de Brighton; Jeunes filles de Paris; Le mort en fuite; Faisons un rêve… (1936); Le choc en retour; Boulot aviateur; La bataille silencieuse; Drôle de drame; The Kiss of Fire (1937); Mirages; Boys’ School; Port of Shadows; Les nouveaux riches; Belle étoile; The Stream; Mother Love; Le règne de l’esprit malin (1938); Cocoanut; Eusèbe député; Derrière la façade; La fin du jour; Le dernier tournant; Fric-Frac; Circonstances atténuantes; Cavalcade of Love (1939).
C. Aubrey Smith (actor, 1863-1948): Such Is the Law; The Perfect Alibi (1930); The Bachelor Father; Contraband Love; Daybreak; Never the Twain Shall Meet; Just a Gigolo; The Man in Possession; Son of India; Guilty Hands; The Phantom of Paris; Surrender (1931); Polly of the Circus; Tarzan the Ape Man; -But the Flesh Is Weak; Love Me Tonight; Trouble in Paradise; No More Orchids; They Just Had to Get Married (1932); The Monkey’s Paw; Luxury Liner; Secrets; The Barbarian; Adorable; Morning Glory; Curtain at Eight; Bombshell; Queen Christina (1933); Caravan; Gambling Lady; The House of Rothschild; The Scarlet Empress; One More River; Bulldog Drummond Strikes Back; Cleopatra; We Live Again; The Firebird (1934); The Lives of a Bengal Lancer; Clive of India; The Gilded Lily; The Right to Live; The Florentine Dagger; Jalna; China Seas; The Crusades; Transatlantic Tunnel (1935); Little Lord Fauntleroy; Romeo and Juliet; The Garden of Allah; Lloyd’s of London (1936); Wee Willie Winkie; The Prisoner of Zenda; The Hurricane; Thoroughbreds Don’t Cry (1937); Four Men and a Prayer; Kidnapped; Queen of Destiny (1938); East Side of Heaven; The Four Feathers; The Sun Never Sets; Five Came Back; The Under-Pup; Eternally Yours; Another Thin Man; Balalaika (1939).
Josef von Sternberg (director, 1894-1969): The Blue Angel; Morocco (1930); Dishonored; An American Tragedy (1931); Shanghai Express; Blonde Venus (1932); The Scarlet Empress (1934); The Devil Is a Woman; Crime and Punishment (1935); The King Steps Out (1936); Sergeant Madden (1939).
Yôko Umemura (actor, 1903-1944): Umon torimonochô – Samban tegara; Zoku ôoka seidan mazohe daiichi; Tôjin Okichi (1930); Zuku ôoka seidan mazo kaiketsu-hen; Shikamo karera wa yuku (1931); Shanghai (1932); Maria no Oyuki; Ojô Okichi; Poppy; Megumi no kenka (1935); Osaka Elegy; Sisters of the Gion; Akanishi Kakita (1936); Yoshida Palace (1937); Kaibyô gojûsan-tsugi; Oshare kyôjo; Kaibyô nazo no shamisen (1938); The Story of the Last Chrysanthemum (1939).
Edward Van Sloan (actor, 1882-1964): Dracula; Frankenstein (1931); Behind the Mask; Play Girl; Man Wanted; The Last Mile; The Death Kiss; The Mummy (1932); The Billion Dollar Scandal; Infernal Machine; The Working Man; Trick for Trick; It’s Great to Be Alive; Deluge; Murder on the Campus; Goodbye Love (1933); The Crosby Case; The Life of Vergie Winters; I’ll Fix It; Mills of the Gods (1934); Grand Old Girl; A Shot in the Dark; The Woman in Red; Air Hawks; The Last Days of Pompeii; Three Kids and a Queen (1935); Road Gang; Dracula’s Daughter; Sins of Man (1936); Danger on the Air; Storm Over Bengal (1938); The Phantom Creeps (1939).
Jean Vigo (director, 1905-1934): Zero de Conduite (1933); L’Atalante (1934).
James Whale (director, 1889-1957): Journey’s End (1930); Waterloo Bridge; Frankenstein (1931); The Impatient Maiden; The Old Dark House (1932); The Kiss Before the Mirror; The Invisible Man; By Candlelight (1933); One More River (1934); Bride of Frankenstein; Remember Last Night? (1935); Show Boat (1936); The Road Back; The Great Garrick (1937); Sinners in Paradise; Wives Under Suspicion; Port of Seven Seas (1938); The Man in the Iron Mask (1939).
Fay Wray (actor, 1907-2004): Behind the Make-Up; Paramount on Parade; The Texan; The Border Legion; The Sea God; The Honeymoon; Captain Thunder (1930); Dirigible; The Conquering Horde; Not Exactly Gentlemen; The Finger Points; The Lawyer’s Secret; The Unholy Garden (1931); Stowaway; Doctor X; The Most Dangerous Game (1932); The Vampire Bat; Mystery of the Wax Museum; King Kong; Below the Sea; Ann Carver’s Profession; The Woman I Stole; Shanghai Madness; The Big Brain; One Sunday Afternoon; The Bowery; Master of Men (1933); Madame Spy; The Countess of Monte Crisco; Once to Every Woman; Viva Villa!; Black Moon; The Affairs of Cellini; The Richest Girl in the World; Cheating Cheaters; Woman in the Dark; Mills of the Gods (1934); The Clairvoyant; Alias Bulldog Drummond; Come Out of the Pantry; White Lies (1935); When Knights Were Bold; Roaming Lady; They Met in a Taxi (1936); It Happened in Hollywood; Murder in Greenwich Village (1937); The Jury’s Secret; Smashing the Spy Ring (1938); Navy Secrets (1939).
William Wyler (director, 1902-1981): The Storm (1930); A House Divided (1931); Tom Brown of Culver (1932); Her First Mate; Counsellor-at-Law (1933); Glamour (1934); The Good Fairy; The Gay Deception (1935); These Three; Dodsworth; Come and Get It (1936); Dead End (1937); Jezebel (1938); Wuthering Heights (1939).
Isuzu Yamada (actor, 1917-2012): Tsurugi wo koete (1930); Junkyo kesshi nihon nijuroku seijin; Adauchi senshu (1931); Byakuya no Kyoen; The Greatest Man in the World; Yamiuchi tosei (1932); Shinju fujin; Kôya no hate: zenpen; Bangaku no issho; Konjiki yasha; Kôya no hate – Kanketsu-hen (1933); Budo taikan; Furyû katsujinken; Tange Sazen: Kengeki no maki; Ureshii musume; Chûshingura – Ninjô-hen; Fukushû-hen; Aizô tôge; Kensetsu no hitobito (1934); The Downfall; Oroku-gushi; Maria no Oyuki; Ojô Okichi (1935); Osaka Elegy; Shijû-hachi-nin me; Sisters of the Gion (1936); Yoshida Palace (1937); Tsuruhachi Tsurujirô (1938); Shinpen Tange Sazen: Hayate-hen; Chushingura (Zen); Chushingura (Go); Higuchi Ichiyo; Kenka tobi – Kôhen; Kenka tobi: Zenpen; Sono zen’ya; Shinpen Tange Sazen: Sekigan no maki (1939).
For the rest of December I will be playing catchup with some new films and running quickly through all of the movies that have made Sight & Sound’s critically voted top ten lists, which appear once per decade since the ’50s; this only constitutes seven films I’ve never seen, plus two more I haven’t yet reviewed here, so it will not be a long-term project. After that, I will begin the 1940s canon (and resume the Best Picture Oscar nominees project) in January. I hope you’ve enjoyed this exercise and reading my interpretation of what I learned, and I’ll see you soon. Again, I can’t thank you enough for reading all this.
22 movies seen in November. Counts:
– 16 new to the database (previously unseen). New total: 2,254.
– 6 revisits, including two (Some Like It Hot and The Scarlet Empress) already reviewed here. Thrilled to tell you that, after telling everyone for months to watch the latter, I don’t feel I overhyped it at all.
– 3 new full reviews, two of them (Ninotchka and Sabotage) partial rewrites of pre-SOC pieces, one (Young and Innocent) all-new.
– 17 new capsules, on the roll call below the housekeeping.
– You’ll be pleased to know I don’t have any long-ass editorial for you this month. I’m not quite finished with the 1930s canon; got four movies to go (if you’re curious they are: Mad Love, Blonde Venus, Morocco and Stage Door, and I’m looking forward to all of them). Just ran out of time, plus I had to get two of them mailed in. (Consumer advisory: a used, factory-pressed copy of Universal’s Marlene Dietrich box costs less than getting Blonde Venus on its own as a DVDR. Makes no sense, but there you go.) The delay shouldn’t have any real effect on anything, as December was always going to be dedicated to catching up on contemporary stuff and a quick mini-project I’ll explain in a couple of weeks. I don’t think the summary post for the 1930s project will be quite as involved as the one from the silent era, though I won’t know for sure till I start actually writing it!
– The roll through all the Best Picture nominees will resume in January along with the 1940s canon, for which I’m operating from a much shorter list so it should only take through July or so, but you know me.
– Our two Hitchcock essays this month complete the year-long sub-project of writing up the Gaumont Six, or Thriller Sextent. It also takes us further into a nice large collection of long reviews of the films of my favorite director, and the source of this blog’s title. Hitchcock movies you can read about here, in chronological order: The Pleasure Garden (1925), The Lodger (1926), Downhill (1927), Blackmail (1929), Murder! (1930), Rich and Strange (1932), Waltzes from Vienna (1933), The Man Who Knew Too Much (1934), The 39 Steps (1935), Secret Agent (1936), Sabotage (1936), Young and Innocent (1937), The Lady Vanishes (1938), Rebecca (1940), Foreign Correspondent (1940), Suspicion (1941), Saboteur (1942), Shadow of a Doubt (1943), Notorious (1946), Strangers on a Train (1951), Dial M for Murder (1954), Rear Window (1954), Vertigo (1958), North by Northwest (1959), Psycho (1960).
– Coming very soon: Lifeboat, Spellbound, Rope, The Man Who Knew Too Much (’56), The Wrong Man, The Birds, Marnie. Others later. The only ones I don’t expect I’ll be able to write up at length are The Farmer’s Wife, Champagne, Juno and the Paycock, The Skin Game and Number Seventeen, though I could change my mind on you.
– 1930s canon: 16 films (12 new). Taking on these specific lists was such a great idea. Fell in love with The Most Dangerous Game, Pepe Le Moko, Doctor X (huge surprise, Maltin gave this two stars!), One Hour with You, Holiday (yes, I dug a Cukor film!), The Blood of a Poet and Tabu. Renewed affections for Sabotage and Young and Innocent. Found it in my heart to appreciate Twentieth Century. Felt validated on Ninotchka, which is highly overrated and not worthy of Lubitsch’s best work, despite the brilliant Garbo performance at its center. Was somewhat disappointed with She Done Him Wrong, Queen Christina and Le Jour Se Leve but still enjoyed them; enjoyed Shanghai Express a good deal less but did admire it somewhat. Highly disappointed with Ruggles of Red Gap, having wanted to see it for years and years, but it’s still all right and also has a great performance in it, Laughton’s. The only relative dud was The Women, and even it isn’t outright bad, though if I hadn’t seen Holiday immediately afterward I’d tell you I think Cukor had no clue how to film comedy. (He was, in fact, fired from One Hour with You for this reason.) I tried to rush through this, since I meant to dedicate November to completing it, but I was having too much damn fun. Remaining: 4 films (4 new).
– Through the four-disc DVD set Treasures from American Film Archives, which contains a wonderful cross section of shorts and features preserved by the skin of their teeth and which I recommend unreservedly, I watched Joseph Cornell’s Rose Hobart, one of three shorts on the ’30s canon project. Sorry to say that while I appreciate the ironic cut-and-paste style, which is very modern and amusingly obsessive in a manner almost suggestive of Youtube, I find the film repetitive and tedious, which is a problem I often run into with avant garde films unfortunately. I of course don’t deny its importance as a piece of independent, surrealist art.
– Best Picture Oscar nominees: 5 films (4 new). On hold this month, but still managed to watch four titles that overlapped with the above: Shanghai Express, She Done Him Wrong, One Hour with You, Ruggles of Red Gap and the previously seen Ninotchka. Remaining: 162 films (130 new).
– 2010s catchup: I watched In a World…, which I didn’t care for, because Netflix sent it in the mail before I quarantined myself from all non-1930s content.
– New movies: Went to see Murder on the Orient Express with some friends; I liked it about as much as I expected, but the point was really sociailizing for that one.
– Other: Finished my Treasures from American Film Archives box, the last disc of which contained the 1916 version of Snow White, the one Walt Disney saw that legendarily inspired him to later make his own take on the story. It’s less creaky than you might expect, and quite enchanting in parts.
In a World… (2013, Lake Bell)
Charming but excessively familiar romantic comedy with writer-director-star Bell as a voiceover artist whose accidental venture into trailer work leads to a sea change and a rift with her father, legendary for his trailer narrations. What might be a clever glimpse into a typically unheralded branch of the film industry is instead a clone of a million other movies, with all the meet-cutes and labored “snappy” dialogue thereby implied. The cast is willing and able, and Bell deserves credit for not staging her very conventional script at all conventionally, but it’s a pity that the film ignores the opportunity to explore its premise in a more cinematic manner.
The Most Dangerous Game (1932, Ernest B. Schoedsack & Irving Pichel) [hr]
At breakneck speed, this demented adaptation of Richard Connell’s classic short story — about an isolated maniac who hunts humans for sport — constructs and revels in an absolute nightmare with impressive focus and completeness in just 63 minutes. Joel McCrea and Fay Wray make an irresistible team, the ever-versatile Leslie Banks perfect as their adversary Count Zaroff, so expert at making his psychotic, bloodthirsty machinations sound like gentlemen’s sport. For all its melodramatic flair, this is a film that really does communicate an actual sense of danger and fear, and its wild directorial decisions make it the most engagingly bonkers ’30s horror this side of Rouben Mamoulian.
Snow White (1916, J. Searle Dawley) [r]
Not quite restored due to a few climactic scenes missing, this is the version of the Grimm tale that Walt Disney is said to have seen as a teenager and that he remembered when he began work on his first feature; you can draw a line from many of the dramatic beats and tropes of his masterpiece back to this film and presumably the 1912 play that inspired it. Despite the usual static camera, the early Paramount production boasts solid production values and rather good performances, especially by lovely Marguerite Clark in the title role, and some wonderful animal action. This story has been filmed so many times that it can be hard for any less iconic interpretation to stand out, but for historical significance alone this is worth seeing, and its bare, homespun nature is quite engaging.
Pépé le Moko (1937, Julien Duvivier) [hr]
Pépé le Moko is a bastard, a nihilistic flipside of Rick from Casablanca hiding out from constant police attention in the labyrinthine Casbah of French-occupied Algiers; Jean Gabin opens the film fully in ownership of the role, robbing and dealing and womanizing, but he quickly begins to lose control and it becomes clear that despite not yet being arrested, he is already caged. The sophisticated, tormentingly believable world swallowing him, adolescent and fearless in its maxed-out alertness and emotional energy suggest Renoir at his best, but with such a strong suggestion of New Wave and film noir you feel as if you can draw a map from every subsequent film you love about a lost soul with a criminal heart right back to it.
Twentieth Century (1934, Howard Hawks) [r]
(Revisit; major upgrade.) Stagier than Hawks’ other work, and certainly more than screwball comedies should be, but John Barrymore and Carole Lombard illustrate — as counterparts All About Eve and Bullets Over Broadway later would — the idea of theater people being thoroughly invaded and redefined by their occupation. The physicality of all of the actors here is something to behold, but Lombard’s control is sublime even when the character or the material is beneath her, and it usually is. The over-the-top goofiness of Barrymore is a lot to take, but admirable in its extremity; the major drawback is that the film’s sheer loudness — and its theatrical tendency to rely on transformations and character beats unseen to us — overwhelms what’s often an extremely clever and witty script.
Shanghai Express (1932, Josef von Sternberg) [r]
Fitfully engaging romantic melodrama aboard a train in which the sparks never quite fly, perhaps because Marlene Dietrich’s chemistry with her costar Clive Brook is mostly nonexistent, or at least it’s a very one-sided relationship in which she does all of the work. They are former lovers, she now an infamous courtesan, he a decorated military hero, and their renewed affections are tested when the train they’re on careens into the middle of a hostage situation during the Chinese Civil War. There’s intrigue, there’s a bit of action, there’s a dynamic, unforgettable and all too brief performance by Anna May Wong, but it all seems familiar and rote despite its very 1930s air of scrappy urgency.
Doctor X (1932, Michael Curtiz) [hr]
One of the most unfettered and delightful of the 1930s horror pictures. Theoretically a museum piece thanks to its use of typically hideous two-strip Technicolor, it actually harnesses every criticism you might throw at it — leading man Lee Tracy’s incongruous affability, Fay Wray’s constant screaming and sexy outfits, and of course the unabashed, illogical silliness of the bizarre, sick plot (a scientist takes his coworkers on a retreat to find out which of them is a notorious serial killer) — and fuses it all with genuinely brilliant direction and photography, makeup and set designs. It’s all weird, engaging, and frequently hilarious — true pre-Code bliss.
She Done Him Wrong (1933, Lowell Sherman) [r]
Mae West’s dynamic, unforgettable breakthrough performance — in a film based on her own 1928 play Diamond Lil — is accompanied by the star-making turn of one Cary Grant, but West dominates everything else that’s laid in front of us, hackneyed story included, during this brief crime-ridden comedy about the downfall of a corrupt barroom in 1890s New York and the many liaisons and conquests of West’s Lady Lou, from the dance hall to the prison cells. All of the best moments here hinge completely on the suggestive jokes West delivers; Grant, for all his handsomeness, makes no comparable impression here. The plot is rote and obvious, but Paramount recognizes why you’re here; even in comparison to other pre-Code Hollywood material, this is surprisingly amoral and sexy.
The Women (1939, George Cukor)
With its all-star all-female cast, its silly air of MGM prestige, and its priggish, conservative messaging about love and marriage, this is a feminist victory only on a superficial level, since — as the tagline puts it — “it’s all about men.” The movie unabashedly reveres money and glamour and while there’s a certain camp appeal to all that, it wholly drowns out the humane and appealing story at the center (about Norma Shearer’s marital woes), and Cukor has no idea how to deal with the comic aspects of the script.
One Hour with You (1932, Ernst Lubitsch) [hr]
The final Paramount Lubitsch-Chevalier musical is as delectable as the rest, a remake of Lubitsch’s silent comedy The Marriage Circle that improves upon it immeasurably, mostly by making both the lead characters less innocent, and being less pathological about the destruction of their relationship. The film’s liberated attitude toward infidelity is charming because it feels hard-won and (somewhat) realistic, with Lubitsch’s usual ebullience, charm, great jokes and general naughtiness.
Holiday (1938, George Cukor) [hr]
Erudite but warm comedy about an outsider (Cary Grant) infringing upon the day-to-day decadence of a house full of dysfunctional rich folks led by black sheep Katharine Hepburn, whose sister he’s about to marry. The relationship between the three siblings has a lived-in honesty, likely inherited from Philip Barry’s play, that rings out and grabs you along with the scattered moments of atypically unguarded emotion that peek through, especially in Hepburn’s performance. The characters’ affluence is finally irrelevant because the film as a whole is such a strong and surprisingly brutal attack on bourgeois ideals of work ethic and social standing, and it’s also on the very short list of Hollywood movies that seem to actually “get” real-world romantic love, even as it only portrays it on the sidelines.
The Blood of a Poet (1932, Jean Cocteau) [hr]
Not dissimilar in intimacy and impact to L’Age d’Or, released by the same producer in the same year, but Cocteau — whose first feature this was — is a bit too much of a wordsmith, and too gregarious, to really fall down a rabbit hole of completely uncompromised, or confrontational, surrealism. Instead, this witty and unnerving work covers an artist’s ambivalent relationship with his own creation — ranging from lust to apprehension to disgust — and jumps off from there to a series of bizarre setpieces interrogating inspiration, art, poetry, youth, and cinema. It also has a relatively coherent message to impart, which is something many surrealists would probably rebuke, but it helps make the film feel human and clever while maintaining its darkened, disorienting edge.
Murder on the Orient Express (2017, Kenneth Branagh)
Slightly less compelling than the Sidney Lumet film, which was also an outlier among mainstream Hollywood hits of the time, though Branagh’s Hercule Poirot is marginally superior to Albert Finney’s. The romantic back story given to Poirot is incredibly dumb, as is the inflated climax. The rest is what you’d expect, and your warmth toward it will probably go back to your feelings about Agatha Christie — which isn’t a terrible thing, and was also true of the 1974 version.
Tabu (1931, F.W. Murnau) [hr]
Made in semi-collaboration with Robert Flaherty, Murnau’s triumphant last film — possibly his most poetic and elegant apart from Sunrise — is an “ethnofiction” setting a sort of dreamlike variant on Romeo and Juliet among the occupants of the South Pacific island of Bora Bora. The intensity of their love is put to the test when the young girl Reri is marked as a chosen one who must be untouched to appease the gods. Their escape, romantic and impassioned and urgent, and its many complications become our harrowing, finally bleak story about a cruel world determined to crush the abhorrent youth and lust of its central couple. By the conclusion, Murnau has fully secured his title as cinema’s greatest lyricist of images.
Queen Christina (1933, Rouben Mamoulian) [r]
Pre-code costume drama and showcase for Greta Garbo’s formidable androgynous image is more artistically pedestrian than Mamoulian’s other works of the period, despite the resources at his disposal under MGM. It is hugely entertaining hokum, at least if you can look past the total mess it makes of a fascinating individual, the Queen of Sweden who reigned from 1632 (at age six) to 1654. Her ambiguous sexuality is very fitting for Garbo as an actress, but the script spins this into Hollywood goo that has the inaccessible monarch turning to putty at the hands of an envoy and makes her sophistication and eccentricity into a big joke. There isn’t much separating this from other MGM fantasies of wealth, and it looks trite compared to the likes of The Scarlet Empress and The Private Life of Henry VIII.
Le Jour se Lève (1939, Marcel Carné) [r]
Marcel Carné’s landmark of France’s poetic-realism cinema announces itself at the outset as the story of a murderer (Jean Gabin, who else?) sitting in a room and contemplating the chain of events that led to his crime. The context we receive is almost disappointing in its straightforwardness, though there is occasion for a bizarre, flamboyant performance by Jules Berry (the two men are juggling the same two women, and neither shows human regard for their lovers even though it’s clear we’re meant to see Gabin as the less flawed, more kindhearted character) who breaks through the convention a bit.
Ruggles of Red Gap (1935, Leo McCarey) [r]
The classic 1930s rags-to-riches comedy formula gets one of its most refined workouts here, one that’s more wry than funny (its more cathartic moments suggest a class-reversal of Boudu Saved from Drowning), in a film about a British manservant gambled away to a couple of ragtag new-money Americans during a drunken game of cards. As the disputed Ruggles, Laughton’s facial expressions and restraint throughout the first act are marvelous, but the screenplay by Walter DeLeon and Harlan Thompson forces his transition too quickly and, while it has some fun with the weird contrast of a butler having more regard for social mores and classes than his down-to-earth boss, its situations never attain the kind of levity you hope for in a film like this.
Up to this point in Alfred Hitchcock’s Gaumont “thriller sextet” cycle, spanning from 1934 to ’38, the films have grown progressively darker in both story and tone, seemingly synchronized to the deteriorating political situation in Europe. Conventional wisdom is that Young and Innocent, by far the warmest and nearly the wittiest of the six films, coasts on lightness and charm in a way that the rest of Hitchcock’s 1930s thrillers do not; the storyline alone, despite the grim event (a woman is strangled with the belt from a raincoat, her body found on the beach) that sets it into motion, fully illustrates its brisk, freewheeling nature in stark contrast to the dread and misery of Secret Agent and Sabotage. It’s about a freshfaced young man attempting to prove his innocence of a murder with no help from incompetent lawyers and cops but plenty from a constable’s daughter, whose affection for him increases as their adventures across the countryside grow wilder and more purposeful.
Indeed, this is the film that most visibly harnesses Hitchcock’s uncanny ability to capture the occupants of rural England with good humor but without condescension, and it can be seen freely as a comedy, albeit a comedy (like North by Northwest) that’s positively filled with high-stakes thriller setpieces. It does not convey the weight of darkness, nor the corruptibility, of the later, similar Hitchcock exploration of family life Shadow of a Doubt, but it shows the same basic affection for, and painful acceptance of, humankind as that film and his black comic masterpiece The Trouble with Harry. What these and most other Hitchcock films — or, more often, just moments in his films — that touch on everyday family life and the lives of the working classes suggest is the same populism that lit such a fire under Frank Capra and lent such joy to his narratives. In quite many ways, Young and Innocent is a sort of British variant upon Capra’s It Happened One Night, not only because it revolves around a male-female not-yet-couple on the run but also because it so lovingly explores the people and places on their periphery as they travel. So much of the value of these two films comes from the odd little moments on the sidelines, in this case for instance the boy at the petrol station who has to stand on a stoop to do his job; or the pig farmer with a cart full of pigs who’s commandeered to give a ride to a couple of police officers, with no intention of making them comfortable; or a bespectacled young boy very into his Latin lessons; or a china mender with tattered clothes helping to track down a man who “blinks”; or even a cruddy public defender with no clear interest in his client’s case who can’t keep track of names, events, paperwork, spectacles. These are moments that feel snatched from lived experience, but they’re also caricatured and funny without being reflective of stereotypes so much as a general appreciation for the weirdness and endless human intrigue of day-to-day life. It’s all such great fun, and the constantly evolving story is just as effortlessly fun, and enjoyably tense to boot.
All that said, it seems to me that declaring Young and Innocent to be a breezy work of pure escapism does it a disservice, as does the widespread belief that it’s a sort of kiddie variant on The 39 Steps, much as it may share that film’s basic structure of a wrongly accused party giving chase across a wide geographical expanse. Donald Spoto spoke of the foreboding illustrated by the encroachment of tree limbs all around our characters, a bit of poetry suggestive of Vertigo; that energy extends to a couple of shadowy sets Hitchcock built — an abandoned mill, a collapsed mine — and the paranoia and accusation on various adults’ faces when they run across our hero and heroine. But more to the point, and less abstract, is the film’s profound sophistication as a character study and as an exploration of a relationship; though it can’t be considered a masterpiece on the same level as The 39 Steps, in these specific senses it actually betters than film and demonstrates that, by the time of this final collaboration, Hitchcock and screenwriter Charles Bennett had honed their craft completely and were now capable of bringing us characters that felt real, knowable, and fully formed without the mystery and harrowing moral emptiness of Sabotage.
Erica and Robert, the girl and boy wonderfully played by Nova Pilbeam and Derrick De Marney respectively, are not really kids, not quite adults, but as they get swept up in something so much larger than them, our sense of being taken along with them is completely convincing because the performances are understated and nuanced, and because Bennett has — with the help of two other writers adapting a novel by Josephine Tey — so effectively defined them as naive, kind-hearted and relatable. This is clearest when one compares them to Hannay and Pamela in The 39 Steps. Donat’s Hannay was an everyman but he was suave, handsome, extremely gifted at gaining control of a situation; and Pamela (Madeleine Carroll) was the typical thriller foil, initially reluctant and wisecracking, eventually fully enraptured with her accidental partner in crime. The development of Erica in particular is vastly more organic; she’s a well-controlled, caring, ambitious late teen who’s serving as a de facto head of household over her brothers in the unexplained absence of their mother. Her compassion gets her caught up in what initially seems an ill-advised mixup with Robert, who was arrested for the murder of the woman in the sea (he had worked with her, a famous actress, previously in his capacity as a writer of stories and scripts) and has since escaped. De Marney, for his part, is a very good-looking actor who nevertheless doesn’t look like a glamorous movie star (the same goes for Pilbeam, really as attractive as Carroll but not at all interested in communicating the same specific kind of artificial Hollywood-like sensuality) and Robert’s wits match his appearance. He’s clever, but slightly bumbling and gracelessly direct in a way Hannay never was. The development of the pair’s relationship — they never become a couple, though they stand on the precipice at the film’s conclusion — is also much less of a cinematic conceit than the blossoming romance in The 39 Steps. For one thing, Robert repeatedly gives Erica an out — telling her she’s already done enough to help him and can call it a day — and his gratefulness and eventual affection for her feel actually believable in a manner that film partnerships, especially of this era, seldom do. As in The 39 Steps, the couple never kiss or have a “moment” — first of all, these films are too breathless for that, but also, the subtlety of the characters’ romance renders it more striking, and earthier.
Erica is driven by a determination to prove her new friend’s innocence — once she spends enough time with him to come to believe in it herself, after an initial Great Expectations-like reluctant offering of food and cash while he’s hiding out — but there’s more to it than that. We know her to be thoroughly steeped, and happily so, in life with her father and brothers, and the coworkers of her father whom — it’s strongly suggested — helped very much to raise her. (The script makes an interesting point of implying that Erica sees these men as her equals, not her superiors, when she refers to one cop who taught her drive not as her dad’s friend but as her friend.) Gradually, though, Robert comes to represent a new world, the same world that the forest, the cottage and Prince Charming represent in a certain notable film released a few months later; in other words, Young and Innocent is less about dramatizing the clearing of a wrongfully accused man’s name than about a girl’s induction into adulthood. Early on we watch her easy rapport with, and command of, her brothers at the dinner table, and one marvelous later sequence mirrors that after she and Robert have been caught together and she’s forced to contend with a staged return to normalcy, with everything suddenly seeming to her very small and awkward, all played impeccably on Pilbeam’s face. (She is brilliant throughout the film, as in her more limited role in The Man Who Knew Too Much, and it’s little wonder that Hitchcock and David O. Selznick both tried to talk her into moving to Hollywood at various times.) We’re made to understand that her move away from her roots toward this independent discovery, of justice or romantic love or just a life outside, is an important evolutionary step in her life, a push outward that had to happen, regardless of whether this eventful week was the specific catalyst. At the finale, nonetheless, Erica is able to introduce Robert to her father without shame and without a sense of betrayal to either of them — she is able to keep both men in her life, and there’s something inordinately touching, not to mention atypically optimistic for Hitchcock, about that.
She’s the protagonist of the film through and through, as Sylvia Sidney’s Mrs. Verloc is the protagonist of Sabotage despite its story hinging upon her husband’s activities; but Robert’s dual redemption narratives, one buried and one obvious, are also sorely important and intriguing. It’s never stated outright that he’d engaged at some point in an affair with the dead actress Christine; he denies it more than once, but we’re certainly made to wonder who her ex-husband is referring to in the first scene when he’s yelling at Christine about having “boys” come around. Speaking of said ex-husband, it’s a fundamental flaw in the narrative that he isn’t the very first suspect investigated by Scotland Yard when Christine’s body is found, especially since he remains in the area and is clearly terrified of being discovered. (And conversely, it’s probably a testament to Hitchcock’s brilliance as a storyteller that most of us won’t think to question this until we’ve seen the movie half a dozen times.) He has a twitch that is unceremoniously put on display in that first scene and becomes a major plot point later; the same, more plausibly, for Erica’s instinct to help people, elements that indicate that Hitchcock and the screenwriters knew that their story would feel right, emotionally, even if it had logical impurities.
Over and above all this, the big story of Young and Innocent — when compared, in a technical sense, to the films Hitchcock was making just three years earlier — is that it shows us a fully matured and absolutely confident director hitting the height of his powers, just two years before he would leave for Hollywood. That so many of this film’s scenes are remarkable in a way impossible to replicate in still photos — made artful specifically through movement — is indicative of his increasing deftness with the camera. The suspense setpieces are expertly mounted, and better melded than ever with the story and with the comedic elements of the film; as in all of the Gaumont Six, there are almost too many wonderfully strange and fascinating sequences to count effectively, set at times against some of the most beautiful location work the director had employed up to this point. In contrast to The 39 Steps, you really are out in the world this time, and you can feel it. In and outdoors, bravura moments pass by almost unceremoniously: a car sinks into a mine, a Blind Man’s Buff game at a child’s nervous birthday party becomes a minefield for our heroes, a messy bar fight is occasion for a perfect sight gag, and eventually, we get the most astounding shot of Hitchcock’s British career, which he would nearly replicate in Hollywood in Notorious — his camera, in one of several magnificent crane shots he and Bernard Knowles execute in the film, travels from a wide shot of a rather drab but well-populated party at a place generically known as Grand Hotel (to which Erica, Robert and their new accomplice Old Will have traced the probable murderer) to a slow zoom into the blackfaced “jazz” band on stage, to the suspicious-looking drummer, to his body, to his face, to his eyes, to finally his twitch.
You tend to wonder at this point what might have happened if Hitchcock had stayed in England, had continued to work with Charles Bennett, Bernard Knowles, et al. Would we have been blessed with another dozen or two dozen movies like this, thrillers that knock you out with their speed, realism, excitement while still remaining as varied in structure and tone as this and Sabotage? As varied in emotional depth as this and The 39 Steps, for all their similarities? The thriller sextet stands apart from the rest of Hitchcock’s filmography, and certainly from the American work that was enabled to exist by it; they are sharp films, full of secrets, made bolder by their ostensible scrappiness and modesty. But moments like that Grand Hotel crane shot, as well as the murder in Sabotage, the farm scene in The 39 Steps, and a great deal of the content of what would be the last and most popular film (and nearly the most extraordinary) in the series, The Lady Vanishes, indicate conclusively that Hitchcock was too great a talent, and still a growing and developing one at that, to remain ensconced in something so modest as the British film industry, no matter how much affection he might have had for it. In 1937, there was so much to the legend that still lay ahead, so many myths to be made, but surveying everything the great man ever directed, you cannot help but occasionally feel your heart being pulled toward that eerie morning on the beach with the seagulls cawing up above, and toward that perpetually discombobulated old car being driven by Nova Pilbeam, heading off into some other abyss of validation and love, so long ago but feeling so impeccably present whenever we choose to have it acted out for us once again.
!!! A+ FILM !!!
The fourth film in Alfred Hitchcock’s so-called “thriller sextet,” the six fast-moving, reputation-making suspense pictures he made for the Gaumont studio in the middle to late 1930s, is unquestionably the darkest of all, and the most quintessentially British. It depicts a London already teeming with chaos and on the precipice — though Hitchcock couldn’t possibly know how correct this was — of some kind of doom. Taken from Joseph Conrad’s ruthless and difficult 1907 novel The Secret Agent (which, confusingly, shares its title with Hitchcock’s previous film, actually based on some of Somerset Maugham’s personal experiences), it tells the story of a mild-mannered terrorist hiding in plain sight as the proprietor of a small movie house. He is Mr. Verloc, played by the superficially sinister but kindly Austrian actor Oskar Homolka, and there is so much more to him — and to the film — besides what we initially suspect. Despite Hitchcock’s usual tactic of stripping and simplifying his source material, this is one of the most novelistic films he ever made, with nearly every scene rife with remarkable detail to generate sufficient lingering consternation for a full week’s worth of nightmares.
Sabotage is a dark, draining film because of its surrender to chaos. Well before his more studied American era, he presents an unforgiving, shadowy world with few elaborate effects and comparatively little stunt editing to distract us from the sheer horror, a horror generated wholly by people and their misplaced motives. Apart from Vertigo and perhaps Shadow of a Doubt, it’s probably his most unsettling creation — even when compared to the often arresting bleakness glimpsed in other films of the Sextet, particularly Secret Agent, it stands out for its unsentimental realism and its reluctance to temper its despair with humor (in fact, in one sequence, its direct rebuttal to such practices).
Homolka’s Verloc is, like John Gielgud in Hitchcock’s previous film, a reluctant killer, whose secret life in a spy ring bent on the destruction of London has origins never made totally clear to us, which is all the better for the sense of mystery and inevitability it adds to the story. (The great weakness of Conrad’s novel is frankly its tendency to over-explain.) The cinema, called the Bijou and situated on a phony London street you’d swear wasn’t a constructed set (it was built in the middle of an empty field, exposed to the elements, but artificial all the same) for how beautifully it evokes the bustling, unforgiving London later visible in Frenzy, serves as a front and occasionally as the group’s meeting place. Verloc is unaware that one of the employees of the greengrocer next door is a government official with his eyes peeled.
But there’s a personal element: Verloc and his wife Winnie, a sweet and tough Sylvia Sidney, and her younger brother Stevie, both unaware of Mr. Verloc’s secret life, live together above the theater. After a blackout orchestrated by Verloc fails to generate much fear in the city and after many of his associates bow out for fear of their activities being detected, the uneasy situation culminates in Stevie being unknowingly tasked with the delivery of a bomb (hidden next to a couple of film cans in a bit of cruel, self-referential irony) all the way across town in precious little time. Hitchcock establishes the boy’s clumsiness from his first frame on the screen, and his awkward fumbling in crowds leads to his brutal death, still stuck on a bus, an accidental suicide bomber.
When the news finally floods back to Winnie, she is beyond shaken, stumbling into the theater in which the Silly Symphony cartoon Who Killed Cock Robin? is playing, distant from the proceedings as awareness sinks in, laughing hysterically, her mind reeling with grief and revelation. When one bird in the cartoon violently kills another, she is sent over the edge. This is the picture of the impact of war and its disregard for life upon innocence, upon common sense, upon real people. Her trauma becomes ours. At the dinner table — in a truly remarkable series of shots and cuts — Verloc vainly attempts to justify the accident; he has the audacity to try and comfort her by assuring her that they could “have a kid” of their own. Several point-of-view shots find her taking an almost robotic revenge (when someone later asks her what happened, she is nonchalant and broken: “He killed Stevie”). In one psychologically monstrous shot, she is followed by a stationary camera after his death, stumbling back toward a chair to cope with her new madness, with the bottom portion of his corpse still in the foreground. The evidence of her own guilt is destroyed when the building goes down in a fire and she, the one survivor of the three residents, leaves with the “grocer”…. but as in Blackmail, she will always remember where instincts led her, and the complete justification of it will not provide any comfort, perversely because she is alone in her anguish; no one knows, except the very nice cop who seems like something of a cipher. In this context the chilling final frames of both Blackmail and John Boorman’s Deliverance — the surfacing body bringing a nightmare back into daylight — feel almost merciful.
The motivation for this film’s unforgiving nature is obvious given the time and place of its production release — 1936 Britain — but Hitchcock’s impassioned, complex glare into the eyes of the enemy retains its resonance today precisely because it was so vital in its period. Staring into the abyss, what Hitchcock and his audience see is not a simplistic, elementary version of what we call evil; there are no clear-cut morals here, or at least not enough for them for us to thoroughly rebuke Verloc until his absence of shame (as Leonard Leff put it) becomes known to us. Hitchcock himself later doubted the necessity of the picture’s harsh impact, as did many moviegoers, particularly in the scene involving the death of the young Stevie. But without the boy’s death, Sabotage would lose its soul. It is only through such radical loss that the message, and the unspeakably moving experience of being so completely in the shoes and the heart of a woman who must take revenge, can be delivered. (The film’s American title, The Woman Alone, eloquently evokes one of the director’s most consistent themes and conflicts.)
But if the message seems mixed, that’s because of the intricacies of the people and their story. Most curious is the nature of Verloc’s relationship with his wife, much younger than him and hardly affectionate. Whole avenues of speculation and enigma are opened up; why does her brother live with them? Why does he have a different accent? And why does the couple’s relationship seem so cordial, and cold? They never call one another by their names, and there’s an oppressive formality to their interactions. Winnie comments upon how unfailingly kind her husband is almost with a sense of exasperation. So many questions persist. This movie — full of cinematic references, making full use of its setting — brings us a glimpse at the pregnancy of every moment, of the mysteries and secrets in this tiny world in which people make their time (as claustrophobic as Blackmail, despite again all of London at its disposal), and it’s so crucially an urban middle class setting and an impressionistic portrait of what seems like a real and tragic human story. The people and places are so evocative, the story is almost simply an excuse for us to be engrossed within them.
To be fair, nothing works without Hitchcock’s powerful flair with the camera; his photography is more a fly on the wall here than usual, capturing the delicate, at times beautifully ugly intensity of individual moments — an uncomfortable meeting between Verloc and an informer in front of an aquarium, and in particular the infamously terrifying Disney sequence, which Pauline Kael correctly argued as one of the most upsetting and brilliant scenes in Hitchcock. (Sabotage contains many moments that would belong in any list of the director’s signature moments if it were better known.) It seems as though he lives inside this film and has examined every possible connotation for his characters; that’s always true to an extent, but it’s a skill not used in service of so achingly real and tragic a story since Blackmail.
Perhaps Hitchcock’s foremost fascination in Sabotage, as in Secret Agent and destined to recur many times hence, is the inevitable clash between duty and everyday life, a clash which in this case becomes deadly — Verloc’s indecision balancing his impulse against loss of human life and his need for money, to say nothing of his disgust at the seamy London in which he’s engulfed, epitomized by a chilling scene involving a bird shop owner, actually a bomb maker, played by William Dewhurst, whose grown daughter looks on at him with open contempt, another broken home left unexplained to us but with its dynamic nevertheless painfully clear. The theme manifests as well in Winnie’s tormented moments forcing her essentially to choose between her dear brother and her husband, to say nothing of Stevie’s easily-distracted tendencies that lead to the massacre of numerous people (and at least one dog) on a bus.
It’s often stated that the major flaw of Sabotage, assuming one does not adopt the silly fiction that Stevie’s death is superfluous, is the character of Sgt. Spencer, the Scotland Yard investigator posing as a greengrocer (not insignificantly, Hitchcock’s father’s occupation), and consequently the performance of John Loder in that role — initially intended for Robert Donat. Loder is a clean-cut heroic “perfect” type who seems like a compromise and does perform the part more blandly than Donat would’ve, as Hitchcock would argue. Yet the performance’s relative anonymity — compared to Sidney and Homolka, both of whom are outstanding — strikes this viewer as to some extent quite appropriate. Loder can’t fully be blamed in the first place; Homolka, playing a rough draft of Claude Rains’ unforgettable Sebastian in Notorious, is given so much to work with — Verloc is intimidating by his sheer form but is a mouse when confronted by secretive associates, married to a much younger woman with whom he seems to share little if any affection, and he lives with her teenage brother, for whom he seems to hold a certain amount of quiet disdain. In the end, perhaps the point is that a simplistic hero with seemingly little inner life can do nothing to stop a complicated villain.
As a result, Sgt. Spencer — for all his derring-do and his impressive ability to ingratiate himself with Winnie and Stevie if not Mr. Verloc — accomplishes basically nothing in his attempts to put a wringer in the terrorist’s plans. He joins the film’s list of cinematic meta-references. It almost feels like a deliberate invasion of Hollywood stereotype in a story that is all too real. This is supported by the centering of the action around the theater. Two conclusions, then: 1) Because the “hero” is so idealized, he is a cardboard do-gooder who makes attempt after attempt to “save the day,” and even seems to think he has done something at the close of the film by just contributing half-hearted consolation to a widow, when a busload of people including at least one young boy are dead and the movie theater is engulfed in fire. 2) If he were a more realistic or interesting character, the movie would make far less sense; perversely, by enhancing the character, it would be taking the easy way out because it would support the notion that for the “woman alone,” there is always some hunk nearby to take care of everything.
And despite the fact that the director moved his operations to the U.S. just four years after making Sabotage, there is a possibility of some anti-Hollywood commentary in the piece, with what might be construed as (at the height of the Depression, with war in Europe three years away) the Dream Factory’s ignorance of and distance from the real world. Escape from reality can be sweet and welcome, but simple dreams personified — like the next-door nice guy in the movie — are more hollow than we want to imagine, and become just another part of the swirling nightmare. This is more eloquently, subtly stated here than in Woody Allen’s The Purple Rose of Cairo, which uses all this as its thesis.
Beyond that, the same idea of Hollywood “romantic heroism” and its lack of contact with reality is repeated more explicitly in the thematically similar Shadow of a Doubt (almost immediately after meeting Teresa Wright, a detective tells her he is in love with her, a notion she finds rather laughable) and, later, in both The Birds and Marnie. It’s probably not a coincidence that these four movies that comment directly on a certain emptiness of fantasy are among the director’s darkest works.
Sabotage is too involving and realistic — so much so that it’s frightening, because it can’t be trusted to comfort us — to wrap things up tidily. Winnie walks away with Sgt. Spencer into the throngs of people in London, but her emotional state is left unresolved. She is reeling as the film fades suddenly, and there is no sense of relief or closure whatsoever, especially with the knowledge that Verloc’s death will not mark the end of the deadly plans he was carrying out; there’s a kind of fatalism in a Scotland Yard official’s early comment that those actually responsible for terrorism in London are permanently out of the reach of law enforcement. We’re also left struggling on a smaller scale with the ambiguity of Sabotage‘s messages, with the relative calm and kindly nature of its villain and the arrogance of its hero, the leading lady’s status as a murderer and the dead child’s deeply ironic sealing of his own fate. The bleakness of it all haunts permanently, because in contrast to the usual Hitchcock tale, it’s all too believable.
The following year, Hitchcock would attempt to integrate the lessons he learned in Sabotage, as well as some traces of its unrelenting blackness and its fixation upon ordinary people, into a more crowd-pleasing narrative without such broad political implications. Like the rest of the Sextet, this juxtaposition speaks to the versatility of both the director himself and to his chief collaborator during this time, Charles Bennett, who scripted all but one of the films in the series. Indeed, across the annals of Hitchcock’s filmography, this is one of the least “fun” of his works, but it’s also among the most fascinating, and the invitation it extends to a brief, nasty bird’s eye view of a decrepit city in an ominous time that could finally be most any terrible city at any terrible time instills a kind of dread and fear that the director would seldom attempt to match.
[Expansion and cleanup of a review of the film from 2004 as well as an additional essay about John Loder’s character from 2006.]