Stagecoach from themoviewizard.com
I’ve heard the argument made many times that 1939 is the greatest year in cinema history. This is often based on the strength of two classic movies coming out that year: The Wizard of Oz and Gone With the Wind. I think that Oz is a wonderful and enchanting movie, but I think it speaks to the deep well of great movies that I wouldn’t consider it for this year’s entry (personally, I don’t like Gone With the Wind, so I guess you should watch it if you want, but I don’t care for it). I really thought about this one a lot, and any of the movies that I mention in the section below (“Why this was a hard decision”) are well worth seeing, but in the end I really wanted to take this chance to highlight one of my favorite westerns of all time, Stagecoach.
Stagecoach is more than just the star-making vehicle for John Wayne. It is more than just the first in many collaborations between the star and director John Ford. It is more that just the first of Ford’s movies to be filled on location in the famous Monument Valley. To me, it is a flash point for the beginning of the modern western. Many of the conventions that we associate with the genre are present and might seem tired and worn, but they were very fresh at the time. I have seen westerns from the silent era and they feel so much older than Stagecoach, even though it was only made a decade after the conversion to sound.
The plot is fairly simple. There is a group of very different people forced together by circumstance into the tight confines of a stagecoach. The stagecoach must travel through dangerous territory, as Geronimo’s band of Apache are in the area. Each character has a reason that they NEED to be on the stagecoach and must face this potential danger. The story features a wide variety of characters placed in dangerous situations and being forced to rely on people they do not necessarily like. Everyone from a prostitute and a drunken doctor, both run out of town by the keepers of local civic virtue, to a pregnant army wife trying to meet up with her husband and a gambler of questionable character who feels that he needs to protect her. Wayne plays the Ringo Kid, escaped from prison and sworn to ride to Lordsburg to kill the men who shot his brother and father. Seeing Wayne so young is jarring, but his combination of youth and swagger really work. Wayne was so young he wasn’t even the top-billed star of the film. Claire Trevor, playing the woman run out of town, was a bigger star than him at the time. After a decade of making low budget movies (with plenty of westerns among them) John Wayne really broke through as a full-fledged movie star with this film. He is the focal point of all his movies after this, but seeing him as part of an ensemble (and a talented one at that) really works.
Much of the action in the movie takes place in restricted areas (a few rooms in a house, the stagecoach) and the characters are able to develop in ways that draw in the viewer and create a sense of empathy for highly flawed people. The performances are great across the board, especially Thomas Mitchell as Doc Boone and John Carradine as Hatfield, the gambler.
Beyond the acting, the pacing is perfect, the dialogue is spot on, and Ford’s direction and editing allow the story to flow with vigor when necessary and to slow down when necessary. Ford’s ability to work with editing, pacing, and music, is never more on display than during a chase scene near the end of the movie. The stagecoach rides furiously through the dessert while all the men on board fire what little ammo they have at approaching Apaches. The entire scene is genuinely exciting and tense, especially with the way Ford closes it out. Hatfield realizes that there is no chance they will survive. He solemnly decides to shoot Lucy, the young lady he has sworn to protect, rather than allow her to be taken prisoner. She has no idea he has a gun to the back of her head and, at the last moment, he is mortally wounded. The group inside the stagecoach are saved and she does not know how close she came to death. The entire scene is beautifully (and wordlessly) acted and is an emotional and exciting conclusion of this central scene.
Stagecoach may seem very similar to other westerns you have seen, but the truth is that other westerns are similar to it. I would recommend it for anyone, whether you like the genre or not. It is a distillation of everything that is great about western movies and features a perfect storm or location, script, direction, and acting.
Why this was a hard decision (other movies from 1939 worth seeing):
The third Frankenstein movie, Son of Frankenstein, features a great cast, including Boris Karloff, Bela Lugosi, Lionell Atwill, and Basil Rathbone. I think that it’s a criminally overlooked movie and that it completes one of the great trilogies in cinema.
James Cagney appeared in two great social dramas in 1939, Each Dawn I Die, co-starring George Raft and The Roaring Twenties, co-starring Priscilla Lane and Humphrey Bogart. Both are worth checking out. The former features Cagney as a crusading journalist framed and sent to prison and the latter features him as a WWI vet and bootlegger. It was directed by the great Raoul Walsh.
The Rules of the Game, directed by Jean Renoir, is a true classic and deserves all of the praise it has received. It is a biting satire about the indulgences of the idle rich and is a wonderfully crafted and acted film.
Greta Garbo appeared in her second to last movie and first full comedy, Ninotchka, which is a fun and interesting watch. She plays an icy Soviet agent who is sent to Paris on a mission. She slowly thaws and falls for a suave European man and the decadent ways of capitalist society. The movie was banned in the Soviet Union.
Dodge City is one of the earliest technicolor westerns and is a great vehicle for Errol Flynn and Olivia de Havilland. It was directed by Michael Curtiz, one of the greatest directors in movie history, and was one of eight movies that the two stars made together.
Did you know? (1939 Trivial knowledge)
“I guess you can’t break out of prison and into society in the same week.” The Ringo Kid.
Anyone who knows my taste in movies will tell you that any gangster movie from the thirties is probably going to be something I love. Add James Cagney, Ann Sheridan, and Humphrey Bogart, and it’s a cinch that “Angels with Dirty Faces” will be one of my favorite movies of all time.
James Cagney and Pat O’Brien play childhood friends, Rocky and Jerry, respectively. As youngsters, they are being chased by the police and Rocky is caught while Jerry escapes. This sets up the direction of their lives as Rocky learns a life of crime in the prison system and becomes a gangster (as an aside, the actor who plays Cagney’s character as a kid is brilliant, he sounds and moves just like Cagney, but transcends mimicry. When I watch him, I don’t feel like I’m watching someone doing a Cagney impression, I feel like I’m watching a young performer inhabiting Cagney’s personality). Jerry goes on to a college football career and then the priesthood. When Rocky gets out of jail and returns to the old neighborhood, he and Jerry renew their friendship and Jerry hopes for the best from his old friend. Unfortunately, it is not meant to be. Rocky returns to his old ways, sometimes feuding with and sometimes working with organized crime (including his former lawyer, played by Humphrey Bogart). Cagney’s performance is absolutely great. You can tell that he feels a great friendship with Jerry, but he has been a criminal far too long to meaningfully reform. When he interacts with the neighborhood kids (played by “The Dead End Kids,” a group of young scofflaws who appeared in several movies from the thirties to the fifties) he can easily transition from a friendly mentor to a frightening gangster, and their admiration of him, and Jerry’s concern over their direction, drives much of the plot.
I make no secret of my love for Ann Sheridan. She does not get the chance to do too much in this film, although some of her earliest interactions with Cagney show off her strong personality and easy charm on screen. She really is a delight to watch in anything she is in. Michael Curtiz is sadly overlooked in many discussions of great directors. He directed many classics, including “Casablanca” and “Yankee Doodle Dandy,” and, because of the studio system, he directed in various genres, all with great success. Angels With Dirty Faces owes much of it’s impact to him.
The movie’s greatest moment is the ending, which I consider to be one of the great endings in movie history. Cagney is going to be executed and Jerry has gone to the prison to see him. The kids in the neighborhood have grown to respect Rocky so much that Jerry is afraid they will end up just like him. In order to avoid this, he asks Rocky to beg for his life before going to the chair. If he goes to his death defiant, he will still have their respect, but if he turns out to be a coward, he will not. Rocky emphatically rejects Jerry’s request, all he has is his tough-guy reputation and he will not let go of that. In the end, when faced with his death, Rocky breaks down and begs for his life, it is never resolved if he did this for the kids in the neighborhood or if he really was a coward at the end. It is one of the finest pieces of acting I’ve seen and Cagney’s performance is light years ahead of his contemporaries.
Angels with Dirty Faces is a wonderfully acted genre piece which treads the fine line between gangster movie and social commentary successfully. I would recommend this movie to everyone. Also, I don’t know if I’ve mentioned this, but I love Ann Sheridan.
Why this was a hard decision (other movies from 1938 worth seeing):
The Adventures of Robin Hood, starring Errol Flynn and Olivia de Havilland, is a genuine classic. I prefer the silent version starring Douglas Fairbanks, but the Flynn version does feature his signature jauntiness and has a great cast, including Claude Raines and Basil Rathbone.
Sergei Eisenstein’s Alexander Nevsky is a beautifully directed historical drama that includes some pretty obvious allusions to the conflict between Nazi Germany and Soviet Russia.
Although it is not my favorite of the great screwball comedies released in this era, Bringing up Baby is a charming vehicle for Katherine Hepburn and Cary Grant that is definitely worth checking out.
A Slight Case of Murder is a great option for someone who hopes to see a variation on the gangster theme. It stars Edward G. Robinson, but instead of a serious drama, it is a comedic send up of the genre.
The Marx Brothers film, Room Service, is certainly not their best work, but it is interesting as the only film not written specifically for them (it was adapted from a stage play).
Did you know? (1938 Trivial knowledge)
“Whaddya Hear, Whaddya Say?” Rocky’s catchphrase/greeting throughout the film
I have to be honest, I looked over a list of movies from 1937 and I really haven’t seen too many from that year (I suppose this was bound to happen with certain years). Of course, that doesn’t mean that The Awful Truth isn’t great and it’s definitely worth seeing.
Cary Grant could have made a very good career playing blandly heroic leading men. He certainly had the look for it and it’s not like the studio system was challenging actors to change their images, particularly actors as handsome as Cary Grant. The Awful Truth is the first film that cast him in a light-hearted, screwball, comedic role. The number of movies he made in that type of role after this is an indication of just how successful he was.
Grant and Irene Dunne shine together as a couple (Jerry and Lucy) on the outs and soon to be divorced. Each is suspicious that the other has not been faithful and they separate. Lucy begins to date her aunt’s neighbor, played Ralph Bellamy, but he is so earnest and naïve (so unlike Cary Grant) that you can’t help but know that the relationship will not work out. This is quintessential Bellamy, the handsome and friendly guy who is ultimately wrong for the female lead. He played almost the exact same character in His Girl Friday, which (spoiler alert) you’ll be hearing about when I do my post for 1940.
Both Jerry and Lucy go back and forth between wanting a divorce and wanting to reconcile. Unfortunately each of them never wants the same thing at the same time. When Jerry wants to mend the relationship or vice versa, a series of comic misunderstandings take place which drive them further apart. They both have poor luck and poor timing, but of course we know that ultimately love will overcome.
It’s sharp, it’s fun, and it’s the kind of movie I could watch again and again. Cary Grant is one of my favorite actors and although he had made dozens of movies before this, The Awful Truth marks his ascension into the upper echelon of Hollywood. In many ways, this movie is the beginning of his career as one of the biggest stars in the world (a position he maintained for decades). Check it out, I don’t think you’ll be disappointed.
Why this was a hard decision (other movies from 1937 worth seeing):
The biggest competitor to The Awful Truth for this year’s entry was San Quentin. I’m a sucker for a prison film starring Pat O’Brian, Humphrey Bogart, Barton MacLane and the absolutely wonderful Ann Sheridan (it’s very fortunate for my wife that the famous actress I’d be most likely to leave her for died in 1967).
Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs was the first full-length animated film and is still a fun and exciting watch.
As you’ve probably noticed, I’m a huge Marx Brothers fan. A Day at the Races is not their best, but it’s definitely worth a look. I think anything by them is worth a look.
Paul Muni was one of the great American film actors and he is, unfortunately, not as well remembered today as some of his contemporaries. He was nominated for an Oscar for his lead role in The Life of Emile Zola. The movie itself won best picture.
Did you know? (1937 Trivial knowledge)
“Do you know what rebound is, that business of trying to get over one love by bouncing into love with somebody else. It’s fine, except the rebound is rarely the real thing. As a matter of fact, it’s the bunk. There’s the first bounce, the second, and, well look at me. You wind up like an old tennis ball.” Aunt Patsy
From a purely historical standpoint, The Petrified Forest would be worth watching. By 1936, Humphrey Bogart had worked in films and theater for years, with little success. He co-starred as Duke Mantee, the gangster and main antagonist, in the stage version of The Petrified Forest. When it was made into a movie he was cast in the same role. This proved to be the breakthrough he needed in Hollywood and would get him a contract with Warner Brothers (he was typecast and appeared in some less-than-awesome movies during this period, and would not become a star until 5 years later, with The Maltese Falcon and High Sierra). It is exceedingly interesting to see Bogart, seething as the gangster hemmed in by the police and trying to escape from the law, interact with a roomful of regular people trying to go about their lives.
That said, I don’t want you to see it just because of its effect on Bogart’s career. It is an intriguing and captivating movie. Clearly adapted from a play, most of the action takes place inside a diner in the American southwest. Bette Davis plays Gabrielle, a young woman whose father owns the diner. She wants to move to Paris to become a painter and feels trapped in her small world. Leslie Howard’s character, Alan, is a drunkard and a drifter. He’s erudite and intriguing (as all Leslie Howard characters must be) and she is immediately taken with his worldliness. Howard and Davis were both fairly big stars at this point and their on-screen flirtation is wonderful to watch, partially because she is so smitten with him and he is, initially, so world-weary that he can’t seem to muster the interest to be smitten with anything.
When the diner’s patrons find that the criminal Duke Mantee is nearby and on the run from the police, they immediately begin to discuss his case. They are frightened when Mantee arrives in the diner and holds them hostage, with the exception of Alan, who feels he has nothing to live for. Alan and Mantee engage in conversation throughout the movie, as Alan is the only man unafraid of the famous gangster and the only person who is genuinely interested in the sociological meaning of crime and criminals in a depressed society. Their interaction is especially captivating and both men give excellent performances.
Although the ending is a little melodramatic, the entire film is definitely worth a watch, particularly for the performances of Bogart and Howard. Even though all the interaction is contained in a small space and there is relatively little action, it is a tense and exciting movie.
Why this was a hard decision (other movies from 1936 worth seeing):
Modern Times might be the last of Charlie Chaplin’s masterpieces and is a wonderful look at life during the depression through a humorous lens (I’d argue that The Great Dictator, which was release a few years later, was a very good film and a great piece of commentary and propaganda, but I don’t believe that it is as good as some of his earlier work). Modern Times is a must see for anyone interested in the depression-era or in comedy in general.
The Devil Doll is a deliciously strange horror film starring Lionel Barrymore and directed by blog-favorite Tod Browning. Barrymore plays a cross-dressing prison escapee in hiding who uses people, shrunk down to six inches tall, to extract his revenge. The delightful Maureen O’Sullivan also appears.
There are tons of reasons why Dracula’s Daughter is interesting. There are, I think, undertones of fears over same sex attraction between women and questions about femininity and what is an acceptable resolution to a story that focuses on an innocent girl who might be a vampire. It’s really an interesting horror movie.
Gosta Ekman (who readers will remember from my post on Faust) and Ingrid Bergman both appeared in the Swedish version of Intermezzo, which caught the eye of producers in the U.S. and led to Bergman’s career in Hollywood.
Your stoner friends probably think Reefer Madness is hilarious.
Bullets or Ballots, starring Edward G. Robinson and Joan Blondell and featuring Humphrey Bogart, is a great demonstration of the effect of the Hays Code and the ways studios worked around it. In this entry into the Gangster genre, Robinson plays an agent of the law who must infiltrate a gang, a far cry from his appearances in Little Caesar, when he was allowed to star in the film as a criminal.
Did you know? (1936 Trivial knowledge)
“You’re the last great apostle of rugged individualism.” Alan to Duke
It is exceedingly rare for a sequel to be as good as, if not better than, the original. Although I could never choose between the two (and Frankenstein is one of my favorite movies), Bride of Frankenstein is just as good and a wonderful experience in its own right.
The movie posters screamed to the public: “The Monster Demands a Mate!” Karloff’s character, realizing that he is seen as a monster and that humanity will ultimately reject him, forces his creator’s hand into making him a companion. Dr. Frankenstein is resistant to this at first but circumstances beyond his control, coupled with his own curiosity eventually lead him to attempt it. He is assisted and prodded on by a former colleague and teacher, Dr. Pretorious. Pretorious is delightfully macabre and over-the-top. He dines in crypts and plays God by creating life from scientific experiments. He is, in many ways, driven by the same impulses that drove Dr. Frankenstein in the first movie. Unlike Dr. Frankenstein, however, he is unconcerned with the moral dilemmas of his experiments.
James Whale returns to the director’s chair and stars Colin Clive and Boris Karloff reprise their roles as Dr. Frankenstein and his monster, respectively. Clive is stunning as the frantic and tormented Doctor and Karloff brings pathos to the monster, who is able to show a wider range of emotion than in the previous film. The monster speaks and interacts more with the outside world in this movie. He wants to make friends, he wants to be accepted, but ultimately he is rejected by humanity. Being able to better understand where he stands with the masses and the ways in which he will always be an outsider leads the character to force Dr. Frankenstein into creating him a mate. It never crosses his mind that she might reject him just as humanity has. Whale was not subtle in his use of religious imagery and the treatment of the “monster” by the crowd is meant to be reminiscent of the crucifixion (you can see the crucifiction scene in the bottom right of the poster atop this post). The creature suffers throughout the movie because of humanity’s stunning inhumanity.
Visually, of course, it is Elsa Lanchester who steals the show. When someone mentions the Bride of Frankenstein, they usually imagine her as the monster’s mate, hair sticking straight up with shocks of white on black. She is stunned and child-like upon awakening and her rejection of Karloff’s character leads to the chaotic and tragic ending. Even though her image is inextricably tied to the film, she only appears as the “bride” for a few minutes on screen.
This is a genuine classic of the horror genre and of cinema. If you have seen Frankenstein but have never seen Bride of Frankenstein, I cannot recommend it highly enough (I should add that the third Frankenstein movie, Son of Frankenstein, while not as good as the first two, is still worth a look and is a decent movie in its own right. It is the last of the series to feature Karloff as the monster). The performances are strong, the direction is spot-on, and the entire production is one of the strongest from the Universal Studios Monster canon (which is really saying something).
Why this was a hard decision (other movies from 1935 worth seeing):
G-Men is an interesting film. After the Hays Code went into effect, studios could no longer cast their actors as gangsters, despite the popularity of the genre. This is an example of how they circumvented the censors and still released gangster movies. They cast Jimmy Cagney as a kid from the same neighborhood as the gangsters who works for the FBI. Speaking of Jimmy Cagney, A Midsummer Night’s Dream is his only appearance in a Shakespeare production.
The Marx Brothers return in A Night at the Opera, which is wonderfully funny and a little more restrained (as restrained as they could be) than the anarchical Duck Soup. Wunderkind producer Irving Thalberg was, famously, one of the few people in Hollywood who knew how to play to their strengths, corral their talent, and market them to a broader audience. Thalberg’s death the following year at 37 was a huge blow to cinema and to the Marx Brothers’ careers.
Captain Blood was Errol Flynn’s first starring role and his first on-screen pairing with the delightful Olivia de Havilland. It’s a good, swashbuckling time.
If you like Nazis, you’ll love Triumph of the Will. Also, if you like Nazis, I don’t want you reading my blog.
Mad Love is SO interesting. It stars Peter Lorre as a Doctor obsessed with an actress, portrayed by Frances Drake. When her pianist husband, played by Colin Clive, is in an accident, the brilliant Doctor replaces his hands with those of a knife-throwing murderer.
Mark of the Vampire, by Dracula and Freaks director Tod Browning has a wonderful cast including Bela Lugosi, Lionel Barrymore, and Lionel Atwill. It has a twist ending that you will not see coming.
Werewolf of London is different from the werewolf movies that followed it, particularly the visual representation of the wolf-man, but it is a really interesting film that I recommend everyone see. Many of the themes are the same, but as the first werewolf film in Hollywood, there are many interesting elements.
Did you know? (1935 Trivial knowledge)
“To a new world of Gods and Monsters…”
Dr. Pretorious raising a glass to Dr. Frankenstein
I was listening to a comic book podcast recently (because that’s another thing that I love) and I heard someone describe a particular series as “the Thin Man with robots and telekinesis.” Once I heard that, I knew that I would love the series (in case you’re wondering, it was the iFanboy podcast, my second favorite comics podcast after “Ben and Josh’s Near Mint Comic Show,” and the book was Mystery Society and it was quite good).
I can’t describe to you how much I love The Thin Man. Like every other series of movies, there are mis-steps and entries that are significantly worse than others, but all in all it is a wonderful time. William Powell and Myrna Loy clearly enjoy playing Nick and Nora Charles and they enjoy working with one another. Theirs is one of the truly legendary screen pairings and their chemistry is as good as any.
The basic premise is this: Powell plays Nick Charles. He used to be a Private Investigator but he retired after he married a wealthy heiress played by Myrna Loy. Now they spend their time getting drunk and taking their dog for walks. They are back on the east coast after having spent years on the west. A young lady, Dorothy Wynant, asks him to help find her missing father, Clyde Wynant, who Nick had done some work for in the past (an interesting side note: Nick Charles is not “the thin man” and is never referred to as such in the movie. Wynant, the man he is trying to find, is referred to as “a thin man” at one point and this is, presumably, where the title came from).
He is initially reluctant to take the case, but ends up helping. Nora encourages him as she is interested in the life of a Private Investigator. He is forced to deal with the missing man’s ex-wife (who is always after his money), her new husband (who refuses to work), her son (who seems a little too obsessed with abnormal psychology) and various other wacky characters.
Nick and Nora interact with high society just as easily as with criminals (some of the people they invite to their parties are criminals that Nick had put in jail years ago) and they get themselves into and out of all sorts of sticky situations. They almost always have a drink in hand and their faithful dog “Asta” at the end of a leash. There are many twists and turns and they are eventually able to piece together the killer’s identity and, at a dinner party with all the suspects gathered, he reveals the identity of the killer.
Like many successful movies, The Thin Man became a successful franchise. There were a total of six Thin Man movies and I’ve seen four of them. The original is still my favorite. I feel that the best word to describe this movie and its performances is “charming.” Nick and Nora are charming together, the movie is light and fun and, although there is danger and detection, there is comedy throughout. If you’ve never seen The Thin Man, I cannot recommend it highly enough.
Why this was a hard decision (other movies from 1934 worth seeing):
Many critics regard It Happened One Night as one of the greatest movies of all time and won a bunch of Oscars, so I feel like I should put it on this list. Personally, I don’t think it’s as good as people make it out to be and for a slapstick comedy I don’t see too much “slapstick” or “comedy” going on. It certainly isn’t a bad film, but I don’t think it belongs in conversations as one of the greatest ever.
The Black Cat is a wonderful horror film featuring Lugosi and Karloff, two giants of the genre. It is definitely worth a watch.
Cleopatra has beautiful sets and is capably directed by Demille, but it certainly isn’t a perfect film. Warren William, one of my favorite pre-code actors and an extremely charming screen presence, is woefully miscast as Julius Cesar.
I haven’t seen Jimmy the Gent in years, but I remember loving it and, looking back on it, any film directed by Michael Curtiz and starring Jimmy Cagney and Bette Davis would have to be good.
The Man Who Knew Too Much is one of my favorite films from Hitchcock’s British years. He would remake it in the ‘50s with Jimmy Stewart and Doris Day. If you’ve already seen that version, this one is different enough that it is still worth checking out.
Did you know? (1934 Trivial knowledge)
Nick Charles walking though their party, asking if the guests would like more drinks.
Even today Babyface is still a fairly racy film and I imagine that most modern viewers would be shocked at some of the content. To me, this may be the quintessential pre-code movie. The plot revolves around a young woman named Lily (played by Barbara Stanwyck) who works at her father’s speakeasy. There are no pretensions to happiness or affection in her life. Her father leaves her alone with a politically connected man who wants to take advantage of her (her father does this knowing what will happen and it is implied that it isn’t the first time he has done so). She rebuffs his advances and, because of the man’s connections to city hall, damages her father’s business (you can see this scene in the photo above. She’s threatening to hit him with a bottle). Her father dies soon after and she decides to move on to another city.
Lily begins work at a bank and uses sex to move her way up the corporate ladder. She finds a man to take care of her until she can find someone with more wealth and position, leaving a trail of broken men in her wake. Of course (since this is Hollywood we’re dealing with) she meets a man with good character and falls for him. The ultimate fate of this relationship at end of the movie points out the greatness of the script and Stanwyck’s portrayal. She must choose between her money and the man who loves her. She initially chooses the money but eventually reconsiders. I would not have been surprised if she did not reconsider at all and simply moved on to another man. This is the great strength of the movie, it does things so outside of our expectations that any ending that the screenwriters came up with would not have surprised me.
Stanwyck is brilliant as the unscrupulous and world-weary Lily. Changing from a frowning woman who is fed up with life to whatever mood her current beau requires quickly and seamlessly. The supporting cast is also quite good and features many character actors that appear in other great movies from the era.
Lily’s relationship with her compatriot Chico is interesting for a film from this time period. Chico was an employee at her father’s speakeasy. Lily cares for almost no one in the film except Chico, who is African-American. They have, especially for the era, a surprisingly equal relationship (although it is clear that Lily is calling the shots) until Lily becomes wealthy. When they were both poor, Lily cared for her and treated her as a friend. When Lily becomes rich, she hires Chico and treats her more like a maid. It is an interesting look at race and class relations during the depression.
All in all, Babyface, is a great watch and definitely worth checking out. Make sure that you get a fairly recent version (I watched the version from the TCM Forbidden Hollywood collection) because, as you can imagine, certain prints were heavily censored for release and you may not be getting the whole film.
Why this was a hard decision (other movies from 1933 worth seeing):
Some critics believe that Duck Soup is the greatest Marx Brothers movie and it is a ton of fun. It might be little too anarchical if you are not used to the brothers sense of humor, so I usually recommend starting with another film if you aren’t sold on them, but Duck Soup is an awesome film.
The Island of Lost Souls is a movie adaptation of The Island of Dr. Moreau starring Charles Laughton and Bela Lugosi. It is a well-acted and interesting movie about the nature of humanity. The Invisible Man was the first American movie appearance of Claude Rains. Directed by James Whale, it is a meditation on the corrupting influence of power and the dangers of human experimentation.
Queen Christina is a period piece that is good for all you Garbo fans out there. I find her fascinating onscreen, but cannot really tell you why. King Kong is a genuine classic that everyone should see. I don’t think that I need to write too much about it. Fay Wray, the female lead of King Kong and the lead of last year’s entry, Dr. X, is joined by her Dr. X co-star, Lionel Atwill in The Vampire Bat. It’s a fun horror film that features one of my favorite character actors of all time, Dwight Frye.
The Testament of Dr. Mabuse is the last film collaboration between husband and wife team Fritz Lang and Thea Von Harbou. Lang left Germany with Hitler’s rise to power and his wife joined the Nazi Party. The movie was banned by the Nazis and was not shown in Germany (anything the Nazis banned is worth a look, in my opinion).
Did you know? (1933 Trivial knowledge)
“You don’t know your out until they stop counting. Wake up kid, Baby Face is moving outta your class.” One of Babyface’s co-workers to one of her former suitors.
I assume that most readers have not seen Dr. X. Most of you have probably not even heard of it. It is well-made mystery/thriller with some humor thrown in for good measure. The story revolves around a series of cannibalistic murders, with the trail leading to a science academy (it is pretty racy stuff for 1932). The students are away for the holidays, so the murderer has to be one of the teachers still in residence. This leads to the wonderful experience of having a thriller with multiple mad scientists. Lionel Atwill plays the eponymous doctor. Throw in Fay Wray as his daughter (her characters first line is a scream, something that she was justifiably famous for) and add Lee Tracy as an intrepid reporter after a story (not because he is fearless and dedicated to truth, but because his boss threatens his job) and you have the makings of a fun time at the movies.
Directed by Michael Curtiz (who directed classics like Casablanca, and Yankee Doodle Dandy) this is also the first color film to be highlighted as the choice for this blog. Curtiz uses and light and shadow well. Characters are introduced in silhouette, we see very little of the killer, appearing onscreen only occasionally before the climax. Tracy provides the comic relief (such as it is) and the grounding in reality (such as it is). Tracy, it occurs to me, is probably an acquired taste and not for everyone. Personally, I love quick-talking newspaper reporters from the early depression era. But that’s just me I guess.
Dr. X is a wonderful little picture. It isn’t going to change your life, but you are going to have a fun watching it. One of the reasons I’ve highlighted it, however, is that Dr. X and a follow-up released in 1939, The Return of Dr. X, are great examples to illustrate ways the Hayes Code (often also called the Production Code) neutered Hollywood and stifled creativity. Dr. X is a fairly racy picture. The themes include cannibalism and murder, Tracy’s character visits a whorehouse early in the movie (only to use the phone, but being Lee Tracy, he does have other things on his mind). For all its faults, it is a fun and interesting time at the moves.
In 1934, the Hayes Code began to be enforced. This set out guidelines of what was acceptable in the motion pictures industry and seriously hampered what could and could not be viewed on screen (I can’t get into too much detail here, because of my “no research” policy, but if you are interested in seeing some of the particulars, I’m sure looking the code up on wikipedia would provide some insight). Moviemakers were no longer able to portray criminals in any kind of sympathetic light, sexuality was unacceptable, and anything even remotely offensive to the stodgiest of people was considered off limits.
From the advent of sound through the middle of the 1930s, around a half a decade, studios made movies that pushed boundaries and challenged social mores. It isn’t a coincidence that some of the greatest horror, gangster, and social commentary movies of all time were filmed during this brief era. This all stopped rather abruptly and we can see the result in The Return of Dr. X, a film hampered by the limitations of censorship that couldn’t even be saved by the fact that it was Bogart’s only turn in a horror movie. Dr. X’s return (I say this loosely, because clearly they are not connected story-wide in any way but title) lacks the sizzle of the original. Even though it is a more recent film, The Return of Dr. X feels older than Dr. X.
I’m not arguing that great movies weren’t made during the censorship era (which lasted for 30 years). Some of the greatest movies ever were produced during this time and the argument can be made that they ways they circumvented the censors (coded references to sex, off-screen deaths that were even more chilling because they were not seen) made for even better movies. But can you imagine if some of the actors and directors working during this period had more creative control over their work?
I do love Dr. X and it is definitely worth a look, but it is also important to understand the background of censorship in Hollywood that made The Return of Dr. X so different from it predecessor. The Pre-Code era in Hollywood is one of the most exiting and interesting times in the history of cinema and I encourage you to watch as many of these wonderful films as you can.
If you’re interested in this subject, there are two books Dangerous Men and Complicated Women about actors in the pre-code era that are worth checking out of your local library. There’s also a series of DVD sets that feature pre-code movies called Forbidden Hollywood. If you’re interested in seeing Dr. X and The Return of Dr. X you can get both of them in the Hollywood Legends of Horror DVD box set.
Why this was a hard decision (other movies from 1932 worth seeing):
1932 was another very strong year for movies. Grand Hotel is a truly grand piece that features one of the first “all-star” casts that I can think of. I’m a Fugitive from a Chain Gang stars the incomparable Paul Muni in a wonderful work of social commentary that sheds a light on the troubles of the Great Depression. Muni also starred in the original version of Scarface, as an Italian gangster who made his money with booze rather than a Cuban gangster who made his money with drugs (I would bet that most of my loyal readers didn’t know that the version of Scarface starring Al Pacino was a remake).
Once again, the Marx Brothers are in top form with Horse Feathers, a great place to get starting watching their movies if you haven’t seen any of them yet. It’s all about the laughable farce that big-time college football is amateur football. The Most Dangerous Game, starring Joel McCrea and Fay Wray is well-paced and fun take on the famous short story.
The Mummy, starring Boris Karloff and Murders in the Rue Morgue starring Bela Lugosi, are two great horror films from the era. Rue Morgue is particularly jarring and is a great example of some of the possibilities in horror before the enforcement of the Hayes Code. Tod Browning made Freaks fresh off his success as director of Dracula . The movie stars real carnival performers and demonstrates that goodness is not necessarily tied to physical beauty. It is still a strange movie decades later. Carl Theodor Dreyer’s Vampyr is an endlessly interesting take on the vampire movie and feels like an ongoing dream sequence.
Three on a Match features Warren William, Joan Blondell, Ann Dvorak, Bette Davis, and one of Humphrey Bogart’s earliest gangster/tough guy roles. I know that this makes me a little strange, but that cast is enough to make me swoon.
Did you know? (1932 Trivial knowledge)
“What’s the matter with me? Nothin’ at all. Only I spent all last night laying next to a bunch of stiffs, looking at a lot of goofy guys. I let a dame poke a gun in my stomach, and then I let a dumb policeman slip me a trick cigar.”
“Say you want to draw another paycheck don’t you?”
“Certainly, that’s my aim in life, but I’d like to keep our of the bughouse to enjoy it.”
Lee Taylor, Lee Tracy’s character in the movie, talking to his editor.
This will be the most difficult entry into the blog. I consider 1931 to be the greatest year in the history of cinema, and that isn’t a statement that I make lightly. This year saw the release of two of the greatest horror movies of all time, two of the greatest gangster movies of all time and a movie that many critics believe to be Charlie Chaplin’s greatest. I encourage everyone to look at the “Why this was a hard decision” section and feel free to check out any of those movies (there’s a reason this is the longest entry for that section so far).
The movie that I’m highlighting for this year is M. Directed by Fritz Lang and starring Peter Lorre (who looks so young that he hasn’t lost his baby fat), M is an amazing work. The dramatic story of the search for a child-killer in Germany, the movie manages the difficult task of maintaining tension even though we know his identity from the very beginning.
Because the police search to find the killer is so determined, the city’s criminals also decide they must find him in order to keep the law off their backs. What follows is a tale of cops and criminals both hoping to find Lorre’s character before the other and the killer unknowingly being followed by both. He is eventually caught by the crooks and tried in a kangaroo court, making an impassioned speech in his own defense before the “jury.” This scene is amazing and Lorre’s performance is one of the most powerful I have ever seen.
This was Lorre’s first major starring role in film. I think that most Americans have a tendency to immediately think of a him as a caricature. The bad impressions that we all do of him (mine might be the worst) and the supporting roles of un-trustworthy foreigners that he played for decades in Hollywood have created an image of him in our collective consciousness that is not altogether positive. He is a revelation in this movie. Peter Lorre was a great actor and his performance in M is absolutely stunning. The final scene of his trial is full of drama, tension, and genuine torment as he struggles to describe what it is like being a monster and not being able to help it.
This is Lang’s first sound film and he uses the new technology better than any of his competition at the time. I don’t know if it is because of the newness of sound, but there is an economy to it that contributes to the tension that builds throughout the piece. You hear nothing but the sound of footsteps on the streets and you know that something bad will happen soon. There are long moments of quiet followed by yelling, which jars the viewer and adds to the tension. Most importantly, the killer whistles “In the Hall of the Mountain King” seemingly every time he is on screen. This not only serves to let the audience know when he is around, but also makes the viewer concerned for the characters on screen every time it is heard. It makes a fairly innocuous song a source of anxiety. Lang used sound perfectly in this movie and should be recognized for his ingenious application of the cutting edge technology.
Ultimately, M is a stunningly moving inquiry into justice, paranoia, and our relationships in society. It is beautifully shot and acted and is definitely worth a look if you haven’t seen it yet.
Why this was a hard decision (other movies from 1931 worth seeing):
Many believe that City Lights is Chaplin’s greatest movie and the AFI recently rated it the greatest romantic comedy of all time. The final scene is considered by many critics to be one of the greatest movie endings. That’s a lot of greatness.
Dracula starring Bela Lugosi and Frankenstein starring Boris Karloff were two of my earliest movie obsessions and began my lifelong love for the Universal Studios horror movies of the thirties and forties. Karloff’s performance is particularly moving and I can’t say enough about Edward Van Sloan as Van Helsing in Dracula and Dr. Waldman in Frankenstein.
Little Caesar, starring Edward G. Robinson, really kicked off the gangster film genre and his final line is one of the most iconic in movie history. The Public Enemy is one of my favorite movies and James Cagney’s performance practically jumps off screen its so full of energy. It is one of the great performances from a genuine legend.
Waterloo Bridge and Night Nurse (which features a pre-mustache Clark Gable) are two wonderful examples of the frank inquiries into sexuality, violence, and criminal behavior that flourished in Hollywood between the advent of sound and the enforcement of the Hayes Code, which neutered studios’ ability to create without interference from morals clauses. This era is known as the “pre-code” era and many great and forgotten films were made during these few years. Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, starring Fredric March, is another pre-code film that was considered controversial because of the sexuality of some of its characters. I’ll talk more about the Hayes Code in a future post, but all these movies are available of DVD now and are worth a watch.
Monkey Business is another high note in the Marx Brothers’ career, featuring the group making a trans-Atlantic journey and being forced into the service of mobsters. Tabu was the last film by F.W. Murnau before he died in a car accident. Filmed on location in Tahiti with a Tahitian cast, it is an interesting work, although ultimately not as powerful as his earlier films.
Did you know? (1931 Trivial knowledge)
“Don’t I have this cursed thing inside me? This fire, this voice, this agony?” The killer in M, Hans Beckert, when trying to describe why he kills.
Which DVD did I watch?
The Criterion edition
I think it’s telling that people who make comedies love the Marx Brothers. There is something about them that I find irresistible. They have such distinct personalities on film and everyone has a favorite. Harpo (the silent clown), Groucho (the caustic, verbal sparring artist), Chico (the sly Italian con artist), Zeppo (the straight man), and Gummo (Gummo was a part of their stage act in the teens, but he was drafted during the First World War and never appeared in their movies. He, apparently, was the straight man before Zeppo but I could be wrong about this). They were all practically raised in the theater.
The Marx Brothers careers together can be divided into distinct stages. They made their way up through vaudeville, reaching the heights of success on the stage in the 1920s. They transitioned to film at the very end of the decade and the very beginning of sound. Their first few movies were originally stage shows that they perfected in front of audiences for months. These movies were chaotic, almost anarchical comedy that featured musical interludes intended to entertain the Broadway audiences. I could watch Chico play the piano for hours and love how Harpo’s seriousness behind the harp is in such stark contrast to his child-like screen persona.
Animal Crackers is the second of their movies. The plot is as inconsequential as the plot in all Marx Brothers’ movies seem. Groucho plays an explorer just returned from Africa (which leads to some moments that may seem racially insensitive to modern viewers), Zeppo plays his assistant, Harpo plays a professor who never speaks and Chico plays an Italian con man. They are at a party thrown by a wealthy society woman and a painting is stolen. Shenanigans ensue. Margaret Dumont, who appeared in many of their movies, plays the stuffy heiress. Her interactions with Groucho are always worth watching and I consider them to be one of the greatest onscreen duos in history. She never seems aware that he is making fun of her. Chico and Harpo both have piano numbers and Groucho sings “Hello, I must be going,” one of my favorites of his songs.
After their fifth movie, Duck Soup (which was a financial disappointment at the time but is considered now to be one of the greatest comedies ever), Paramount dropped the brothers and Zeppo left the act, transitioning into a career as an inventor, industrialist, and agent for other actors. The remaining three brothers began their careers anew with MGM under the direction of wunderkind producer Irving Thalberg.
Thalberg knew what audiences wanted and reined in the notoriously riotous brothers (it was, apparently, almost impossible to get them together in one place at one time and absolutely impossible to control them). The two movies that they made before Thalberg died at the tender age of thirty-seven were critical and box-office hits. They involved the three Marx brothers trying to help out a young man who was in love with a woman that he could not have, but who loved him back. There was a bad guy, a romance, and musical numbers (the young man was often a singer). Thalberg gave their movies some direction and lead characters that the audience could feel for. This was an element lacking around the zany antics of their early work. After Thalberg died, their movies continued to follow the general outline that he had proscribed, but the quality declined steadily.
I recommend seeing all of the Marx Brothers movies, especially through A Day at the Races. You could really see any of them and have a great time. They had a wonderful gift and are still able to make audiences laugh. If you only know the Marx Brothers as historical Hollywood figures, you should definitely check them out on film, and Animal Crackers would be a fine place to start.
Why this was a hard decision (other movies from 1930 worth seeing):
Most people forget that the early thiries, in stark contrast to America after Pearl Harbor, was filled with anti-war films, which reflected the isolationist feeling in the country. All Quiet on the Western Front was one of the great anti-war films of this period. Anna Christie is an interesting film, which features Garbo’s transition to sound. She and Chaplin were two of the last major holdouts. Howard Hughes’ Hell’s Angels has some wonderful aerial film work and is an expansive (if sometimes over-acted) production. The Blue Angel was the star-making vehicle for Marlene Dietrich and features another great performance by Emil Jannings. If your tastes are slightly more esoteric, you might like the surrealist movie, L’Age d’Or, by Luis Bunuel and Salvador Dali.
Did you know? (1930 Trivial knowledge)
I’m sick of these conventional marriages. One woman and one man was good enough for your grandmother, but then again who wants to marry your grandmother? Nobody, not even your grandfather. -Groucho