The 1930s List: Discussion and Suggestions (Decade Project Vol. 4)

An ongoing survey of the Criterion Forum membership to create lists of the best films of each decade and genre.
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knives
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Re: The 1930s List: Discussion and Suggestions

#101 Post by knives » Wed Aug 29, 2018 5:41 pm

Sounds interesting and it's been awhile since I saw a Mizoguchi.

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Re: The 1930s List: Discussion and Suggestions

#102 Post by Michael Kerpan » Wed Aug 29, 2018 9:24 pm

knives wrote:
Wed Aug 29, 2018 5:41 pm
Sounds interesting and it's been awhile since I saw a Mizoguchi.
The first time I watched Oyuki, I progressively kept feeling more and more deja vu.... (never have compared this and Stagecoach side by side, however).

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Re: The 1930s List: Discussion and Suggestions

#103 Post by domino harvey » Thu Aug 30, 2018 9:37 pm

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Next Time We Love (Edward H Griffith 1936)

Margaret Sullavan and James Stewart get married and find their career paths diverging in this weepie that gets credit for not pulling its punches (at least til the very end). Sullavan finds fame on the stage, but Stewart acts impulsively and loses his journo job, leading to each following an arrow going in a different direction. I thought Stewart’s character was being set up to rebel against Sullavan’s emasculation early on in the film, but instead he does what is far more likely in this scenario: he takes a job to regain his self-respect and lets her keep working, and as a result of the distance the two fall out of love. This isn’t a great film or anything, but I liked how adult the movie was about acknowledging this, and how Stewart doesn’t act like an idiot when the two finally reconnect after many years. Of course the film cops out in the very last minute, so it's still Hollywood for ya &c. Though this was one of Stewart’s first leading roles, I thought Ray(mond) Milland came off far more promisingly in the thankless role of family friend. It’s not hard to see he’d soon be leading these kind of movies too.

Night Key (Lloyd Corrigan 1937)
Boris Karloff gets revenge on the security company that stole his idea (twice— “Fool me once,” &c) by going around and breaking into all of their protected businesses. Soon the underworld hears about it and a gang led by Alan Baxter (as “the Kid” — the Adventures of Young Little Boy?) and Ward Bond kidnap Karloff and make him do their bidding. This one doesn’t quite work, but I liked the friendship between Karloff and a low-level thug named “Petty Louie,” which seems like an unnecessarily stifling nickname for a criminal. I also enjoyed a moment late in the film when Petty Louie’s clever heroic act is completely discarded by a busy waitress who has no time to get involved with calls for help! [P]

Tower of London (Rowland V Lee 1939)

Basil Rathbone is Richard III, working his way through the lineage til he’s crowned in this lively historical drama that likewise to Night Key didn’t quite work for me. I thought Boris Karloff was amusing in his small role as the Nosferatu-looking executioner, but he and Vincent Price as a hard-drinking dandy are the only ones who leave an impression. Rathbone, so skillful at over the top villainy elsewhere this decade, is here rather placid and the filmmakers went out of their way to hide his hump for some reason. Other than that, the individual parts work fairly well, but I just couldn’t engage with the movie as a whole, in part due to there being so much stuffed into only an hour and a half. That the film rather offhandedly discards the two main antagonists says a lot about where its priorities are (or aren't).

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Re: The 1930s List: Discussion and Suggestions

#104 Post by Shrew » Fri Aug 31, 2018 12:23 am

The Kid from Spain (McCarey, 1932)
This is the first Eddie Cantor I’ve seen, and he’s… okay. But it’s hard not to judge him against later better variations of the nebbish working with far better material, which is where this really fails. There are some funny bits, but there’s an awful lot of sweating through dead spots I don’t normally associate with a McCarey picture (like Cantor’s overreaction to whistles). The main reason to watch this is the Berkeley numbers. The opening co-ed number involves girls sliding down into an olympic-sized bathing pool and doesn’t bring enough of his geometric wonder to cover up the skeeviness. There’s also a blackface number (which I guess Cantor favored as the dark makeup makes his already buggy eyes pop like crazy) that features a clever use of racist hats. Also, Robert Young plays Cantor’s “Mexican” friend, who’s mainly there to unconvincingly laugh at Cantor, which makes you really appreciate the Margaret Dumont’s of the world.

Evergreen (Saville, 1934)
The biggest (or at least only one I’ve seen mentioned) British musical of the 30s is a convoluted backstage plot in which Jessie Matthews pretends to be her mother, who is also her, former star of the London stage, and her would-be lover pretends to her son. The Oedipal implications are brushed aside but linger anyway. There’s a big number in the middle that flashes through different decades, somehow deciding that the 1910s and not the 20s are the best decade for a bizarre Metropolis-themed number about mass producing Jessie Matthewses (I think it’s meant to be about WWI mechanization, but it’s basically a robo-Maria factory). The best moment in the film is the “Dancing on the Ceiling” number, which puts Matthews in a flowy gown that perfectly complements the kick-heavy choreography and has the catchiest song too. However, Matthews’s singing voice leans heavily on vibrato, and my tolerance for that is limited. So, while it’s likable enough fluff, I see why Criterion hasn’t been in any hurry to release it.
(I also realized I’d seen the Dancing on the Ceiling number before. When I lived in New Orleans, the local PBS/public access station would play it as late night filler, together with other clips seemingly lifted from laserdiscs. This particular number would often play before the arriving at the castle sequence of Nosferatu, which made for some weird dreams.)

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Re: The 1930s List: Discussion and Suggestions

#105 Post by domino harvey » Fri Aug 31, 2018 12:32 am

Really want to see the Kid From Spain now just to find out what a racist hat is

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Re: The 1930s List: Discussion and Suggestions

#106 Post by Shrew » Fri Aug 31, 2018 12:16 pm

I mean...
SpoilerShow
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TCM has a clip of the sequence and the film's also available on Filmstruck as part of their Berkeley theme. Blackface aside, the sequence has a catchy song and solid Berkeley choreography and visual ideas (girls rising out of tables, black/white costuming, layered tiers). Also lots of weird printed tights.

Like I said above, this and especially the opening Goldwyn Girls number from the film feel particularly skeevy (like the moment in the sequence where the girls bend over hands on knees, then spin around so the audience gets both the T and the A). There're plenty of legs and objectification in Berkeley's more famous WB films, but somehow they just feel far classier.

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Re: The 1930s List: Discussion and Suggestions

#107 Post by Rayon Vert » Sat Sep 01, 2018 11:52 pm

I'll be doing revisits of contenders for a while, with hopefully enough time to get a fair amount of new films in.

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Scarface (Hawks 1932). Still holds up. The acting isn’t always stellar but this thing is so kinetic and stylish (those calendar pages ripping off to the cadence of the machine gun bullets). Incredibly violent too. The filmmakers play up the ethnic background of the gangsters, and then we have that scene with the newspaper publisher saying some of these people aren’t even citizens and should be deported. The sister is memorable, and it feels like her part was reduced significantly in the Stone-DePalma remake.


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Top Hat (Sandrich 1935). This should be secure as my no. 2 Astaire-Rogers musical but the film does fairly seriously climb down the heights it reached following the Cheek to Cheek sequence, where the gags around the mistaken identity plot start to run a bit thin, and especially the way the film fizzles out with the Berkeleyesque “spectacular” Piccolino ending, which really has nothing romantic about it, whereas up until then every number was quite fitting with the plot and romantic dynamics. The film was so good up until then, though, that that relative let-down is largely forgivable.


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Alice Adams (Stevens 1935). Made in RKO in the same year, Tarkington’s social realism is quite a world away from the Astaire-Rogers upper class fantasy world, even if a Hollywood ending is tacked on at the end. This has charm in a lot of scenes and Hepburn is memorable, for all her affectations. Sometimes though Stevens’ direction can be a bit too slow and ponderous in the comedy sequences, like the dinner scene.


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Mr. Smith Goes to Washington (Capra 1939). I’m not the biggest Capra fan, especially when it comes to his political message films, but for my money this film is heads and shoulders above the other ones. It’s not only still and always relevant but it’s masterfully realized (acting, direction, photography, etc. etc.). Really enjoyable.


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Camille (Cukor 1936). I like this more than knives does, even if like him I have my reservations. But the treatment is exceptionally adult, Garbo’s sensitivity is fully engaged, and I do think Taylor generally holds his own. There are moments here (like the final scenes or some of the ones) where the film is an emotionally engaging, near Ophulsian encounter.


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Jezebel (Wyler 1938). For me one of Wyler’s best, a winning picture at WB with quality at every level. The narrative isn’t the most thrilling, but I love the tone of the film, the look, the rendering of the historical setting and circumstances, and the acting of all involved. Most of the time I'm just enjoying every scene, and not so much caring about what the "story" is.


(edited for post reformatting)
Last edited by Rayon Vert on Sun Sep 23, 2018 2:24 pm, edited 1 time in total.

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Re: The 1930s List: Discussion and Suggestions

#108 Post by knives » Sun Sep 02, 2018 9:39 am

Rayon Vert wrote:
Sat Sep 01, 2018 11:52 pm
Mr. Smith Goes to Washington (Capra 1939). I’m not the biggest Capra fan, especially when it comes to his political message films, but for my money this film is heads and shoulders above the other ones. It’s not only still and always relevant but it’s masterfully realized (acting, direction, photography, etc. etc.). Really enjoyable.
That the New Deal is evil and only child murderers would support it?

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Re: The 1930s List: Discussion and Suggestions

#109 Post by knives » Sun Sep 02, 2018 9:57 am

Old English (dir. Green)
I went into this wondering why as major in his day a star as George Arliss is such an obscurity now. After 80 minutes I think I know: He's a terrible actor somehow hamming it up and underplaying to the level of a sleepwalker instantaneously and stuck in such an anemic comedy the first twenty minutes feel like it is just a close-up of him incoherently muttering.

Stanley and Livingstone (dir. King)
Here is a film that blows a lot of good will as it activates it's plot. Some Saiidian exoticism should be expected from any African adventure film from the era and this almost true tale of newspaperman Stanley's famous search Dr. Livingstone avoids that instead dealing with the problems of the whole adventuring persona. It's an excellent bit of fun with a meaty role for Spencer Tracy as Stanley. Tracy plays this role like his Libeled Lady character on a path to reform from nature. That even makes the bitterness from the love that could never be feel unique in the sea of shoe horned love interests. Likewise the safari footage is the best integrated I've seen in this sort of film with a real of the majestic being integrated in what is largely an intimate tale. Had the movie ended with the final meeting of Stanley and Livingstone I might even call this great, but woof. Instead we get a forty minute lesson in the importance of imperialism. The straw that broke this camel's back is when Livingstone argues for his work by citing the first settlers of America because apparently genocide is what this humanitarian would want for Africa.

Road to Life (dir. Ekk)
It's amazing what a could of years would do. I've been watching a few post '35 films and it wasn't until this jump back to the Soviet's first sound film that the aesthetic distinction really jumped out. The cinematography is much darker with more close-ups and in general a quicker sense of editing. There's a number of shots meant to wow that do. For example, near the end the boys are watching a toy train whizz around a track. There are a couple of closeups of the train with this massive wall of heads behind that look completely unreal. The boys are dressed in a uniform pitch black which makes their bodies indistinguishable. As a visual representation of the community as hero that the Soviets had been working on since Strike it is probably the best.

This tale of a boy's reformation school ala Angels with Dirty Faces doesn't entirely work, though I like a great deal more than the following words suggest, with the lead teacher being horrible at his job and a solution to badly behaved kids that is simply horrifying. Yet the stamina with which it is told like so many other Soviet films from the era makes it easy to forget that and enjoy the throttle that is being delivered. Unlike the best though it only lasted so long as I was watching the movie. The film even offers up an easy solution to this problem with the character of Kolka who comes off as a real child whose turn to crime we can be empathetic about. His story is classically tragic where a hoodlum stealing results in his mother's death and ultimately him becoming a hoodlum in kind. Easing into the reformation school through him like an optimistic Scum would have been a great film on all fronts as it wouldn't give thought to bad and good kids for reform nor would the alien decisions by the adults be so offputting ironically because we could see them from a distance.

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Re: The 1930s List: Discussion and Suggestions

#110 Post by knives » Tue Sep 04, 2018 10:35 am

A Successful Calamity & The King's Vacation (dir. Adolfi)
A Successful Calamity, which would be done better by Bunuel in a couple of decades, is a massive improvement on Old English. Still, it is completely unfunny and Arliss continues to be an awful actor. By this point my feeling were that Arliss was best preserved by the dustbin of history, but the final film in this set has me returning to a hope as this set ends with a big bang. The King's Vacation makes sense of Arliss' star while being a sincerely great movie. In just an hour with a simple narrative Arliss and his team manages to unpack every class issue of the day from proletariat to king with a stunning intelligence. The structure is bifurcated with the first half showing his falling out of love with royal clothes and the second half his love of being a civilian. The film is ostensibly a comedy, but it works as a drama that uses a lightness of tone to prevent the material from being didactic. This comedy tone placed on drama is absolutely essential to the film's life and what puts it ahead of decades of serious stories.

The first half is interesting not just because of its Lubitsch use of visuals to show how dehumanizing the office is (there's a great use of servants sending messages on this front), but because of a willingness to engage with politics that in a few months would be banned. The core plot deals with a revolution to overthrow the crown that Arliss is actually sympathetic with. His fear though is preventing violence so he tries his best in his limited ability to do his will to make for a peaceful revolution. The Romanov's hang heavily on this part of the movie as any major event a mere 15 years old would. This is obviously an idealized version of things, but that works well to Arliss' main point which isn't about the assassins and political machinations he so well develops. Rather, like Rossellini in his film of the sun king, Arliss concerns himself with the interior desire and how that works with responsibility to preserve the government.That responsibility wears heavily and ravages the mind. Wouldn't you want to be kicked out of office too.

The second half, predating Wallis Simpson, concerns Arliss returning to a woman he had to divorce himself from to take up the crown. Again the theme of personal freedom comes up. It's actually been a theme across all three films now that I think of it. Here it turns out his beloved is a whole different woman obsessed with social success and social climbing. It could have been easy to make her a villain from this point as her goals are in clear opposition to Arliss' and she comes to be against their daughter getting married on these grounds despite boytoy Dick Powell being a smart and cool kid. Instead though the film treats this as a pathology brought on by the earlier divorce. Rather than villain she is another sympathetic character whose life has been hurt by the utter stupidity of this absurd notion of royalty. This lets the film have a giving heart wherein everyone gets what they want, with one major exception, as represented by love.

I've been down on Arliss as performer up till now, but his underplayed mugging works well here as the text of the film is all about acting and the wry need to go through the motions just barely. I doubt this is a sign of versatility or necessarily intelligence as an actor (though it does give me hope), but it at least shows a context in which Arliss works and how his star could matter.

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Re: The 1930s List: Discussion and Suggestions

#111 Post by knives » Wed Sep 05, 2018 12:12 pm

A Damsel in Distress (dir. Stevens)
PG Wodehouse helped write this script and though likely his contributions were chopped up to nothing there is enough of his DNA in the film to make it a pure joy distinct from the other Fred Astaire movies of the era. Though what makes this a real delight and one of Stevens' best films is the supporting performances by Burns and Allen doing what they do best. That's good because the central romance is a bowl of nothing with Fontaine being nonexistent through much of the film. Allen's little romance has more time spent on it.

LLoyd's of London (dir. King)
Despite the title bringing the dread of other company biographies of the era this overcomes the squeaky clean image it makes for Lloyd's by being just a fun, little, Napoleonic romance. The 1st act with Bartholomew is cute and fun as he plays out an idealized hobo version of his usual character. The bank takes to the background in Tyrone Power's section of the film as he plays spy and romantic sweetheart. Even with the bizarre eyebrows it's easy to see how he became a star after this as he plays up his character's naivety to make him markedly different from other adventure heroes. I won't be arguing this as a great film, but if you're in tune with King's sense of fun it's an enjoyable lark.

As an aside Barbara McLean's nomination here has highlighted for me a real recipe for King's success. She's clearly a major success on her own terms, but it is incredible how significant a figure she is for King's. From this point forward she worked on nearly every one of King's films and her smart hand in the job unquestionably is a major part of what turned him from the okay director he was up to this point to the one of major interest he became after.

Also this is the third film for this '30s run I've encountered where the hero dances with his love interest and refuses to continue until she answers a question. What a weird thing to be so common.

Kentucky (dir. Butler)
This movie is jaw dropping in its hagiography of slavery and jim crow. It makes you wish for the nuanced understanding of history Gone with the Wind comparatively offers. Unfortunately that's the only point of interest in this whole affair that somehow won Walter Brennan an oscar. The idea of implanting the complicated personality and history of the titled state onto a pair of fighting families is a brilliant one that in the hands of creative people would have lead to an amazing movie. Instead this technicolor bore rests on its laurels to ensure nothing engaging ever happens.

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Re: The 1930s List: Discussion and Suggestions

#112 Post by Michael Kerpan » Wed Sep 05, 2018 6:50 pm

There's also some truly wonderful music in Damsels in Distress (even if there is also some fluff -- still Gershwinian fluff is of at least some interest).

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Re: The 1930s List: Discussion and Suggestions

#113 Post by Rayon Vert » Wed Sep 05, 2018 7:41 pm

Not really a fan of Damsel. The Fontaine-Astaire match doesn’t work, especially when Fontaine awkwardly tries to dance a little in one sequence, but I also thought the musical numbers weren't all that memorable (can't remember the music itself), and Burns and Allen on the sidelines were making relatively bad jokes throughout. That last sequence with Astaire doing a drum solo while dancing was impressive, though.

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Re: The 1930s List: Discussion and Suggestions

#114 Post by domino harvey » Wed Sep 05, 2018 7:49 pm

Other than the Women, the only other Joan Fontaine movie worth watching from this decade is Blonde Cheat, a disposable programmer that 100% coasts by solely on Fontaine being adorable

EDIT: Google Searching this movie returns many suggestions that, uh, are not this movie

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Re: The 1930s List: Discussion and Suggestions

#115 Post by knives » Wed Sep 05, 2018 8:08 pm

That's probably true of both titles!

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Re: The 1930s List: Discussion and Suggestions

#116 Post by Michael Kerpan » Wed Sep 05, 2018 9:32 pm

Fontaine was no Ginger, that's for sure....

Lot's of very good Gershwin in this (Foggy Day in London, Things are Looking Up, I Can't Be Bothered Now, Put Me to the Test, Nice Work If You Can Get It) -- as well as giving Gracie a chance to do numbers that evoke Adele Astaire.

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Re: The 1930s List: Discussion and Suggestions

#117 Post by domino harvey » Wed Sep 05, 2018 9:38 pm

Fontaine's strong suit is not comedy, but that's what they were casting her in before Rebecca. She didn't appear in too many after that, though, with the Emperor Waltz being probably her most successful non-drama film post-Rebecca (and even there her hair carried 90% of her performance)

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Re: The 1930s List: Discussion and Suggestions

#118 Post by Shrew » Wed Sep 05, 2018 9:47 pm

Re: Arliss, Rick Altman's Film/Genre uses Disraeli and Arliss's career to examine the development of the Biopic as a genre, mainly how WB didn't initially realize how Disraeli's appeal came from being about a historical figure and tried to laterally reverse engineer the hit. I imagine Old English being the result of studio execs huddling around chalkboard with the equation Arliss + Englishness + financial dealing + funny? + ??? = profit.

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Re: The 1930s List: Discussion and Suggestions

#119 Post by domino harvey » Wed Sep 05, 2018 9:48 pm

Well, and also Arliss was like the male Bernhardt and studios thought he'd bring prestige to talking cinema, which he apparently did for audiences at the time

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Re: The 1930s List: Discussion and Suggestions

#120 Post by knives » Wed Sep 05, 2018 10:04 pm

My further understanding is that it was a role he did on stage and really cherished. He really could claim authorship of his films as he could choose and rewrite their scripts, cast them, and choose their crew. A lot of their success and failures lay on him.

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Re: The 1930s List: Discussion and Suggestions

#121 Post by movielocke » Thu Sep 06, 2018 10:49 am

knives wrote:A Damsel in Distress (dir. Stevens)
PG Wodehouse helped write this script and though likely his contributions were chopped up to nothing there is enough of his DNA in the film to make it a pure joy distinct from the other Fred Astaire movies of the era. Though what makes this a real delight and one of Stevens' best films is the supporting performances by Burns and Allen doing what they do best. That's good because the central romance is a bowl of nothing with Fontaine being nonexistent through much of the film. Allen's little romance has more time spent on it.

LLoyd's of London (dir. King)
Despite the title bringing the dread of other company biographies of the era this overcomes the squeaky clean image it makes for Lloyd's by being just a fun, little, Napoleonic romance. The 1st act with Bartholomew is cute and fun as he plays out an idealized hobo version of his usual character. The bank takes to the background in Tyrone Power's section of the film as he plays spy and romantic sweetheart. Even with the bizarre eyebrows it's easy to see how he became a star after this as he plays up his character's naivety to make him markedly different from other adventure heroes. I won't be arguing this as a great film, but if you're in tune with King's sense of fun it's an enjoyable lark.

As an aside Barbara McLean's nomination here has highlighted for me a real recipe for King's success. She's clearly a major success on her own terms, but it is incredible how significant a figure she is for King's. From this point forward she worked on nearly every one of King's films and her smart hand in the job unquestionably is a major part of what turned him from the okay director he was up to this point to the one of major interest he became after.

Also this is the third film for this '30s run I've encountered where the hero dances with his love interest and refuses to continue until she answers a question. What a weird thing to be so common.

Kentucky (dir. Butler)
This movie is jaw dropping in its hagiography of slavery and jim crow. It makes you wish for the nuanced understanding of history Gone with the Wind comparatively offers. Unfortunately that's the only point of interest in this whole affair that somehow won Walter Brennan an oscar. The idea of implanting the complicated personality and history of the titled state onto a pair of fighting families is a brilliant one that in the hands of creative people would have lead to an amazing movie. Instead this technicolor bore rests on its laurels to ensure nothing engaging ever happens.
Agreed. Barbara McLean is a criminally underrated and forgotten major talent, and she definitely elevated many of the films she works on. Her montages are particularly good, the two that jump to mind are northwest mounted police (I think that is king as well) and Wilson, the latter relies heavily on McLean to handle both campaigns via elaborate montages and are the high point of the film.

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Re: The 1930s List: Discussion and Suggestions

#122 Post by knives » Thu Sep 06, 2018 12:15 pm

DeMille actually. The montages are a plenty here and really give the movie an extra kick. It frankly would be a bore without her work.

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Re: The 1930s List: Discussion and Suggestions

#123 Post by Rayon Vert » Sun Sep 09, 2018 1:11 am

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The Hunchback of Notre Dame (Dieterle 1939). It possibly won't make my list but it’s still a fun and largely winning, grand Hollywood production, with great-looking sets and an ensemble of very fine characters. Some nice directorial touches too, like the shots of Quasimodo between the gargoyles, or when he swings to save Esmeralda from the gallows in complete silence, followed by an explosion of choral music.


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Mississippi (Sutherland 1935). This rewatch validates my idea of doing them because it appears my first impression was much too favorable. I guess I was initially taken aback by some of the unexpected charm in this piece, by the cute young Joan Bennett as Crosby’s love interest, and a few laugh out loud moments supplied by W. C. Fields. But I’ll still take this over the following year’s Show Boat.


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Each Dawn I Die (Keighley 1939). Prison drama meets gangster pic. I’d say a contender for the best of the WB 30s crime films. An extremely solid and entertaining piece, with a knockout script (plenty of twists and turns) executed with sufficient panache most of the time, and both Cagney and Raft at their best.


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The Dawn Patrol (Hawks 1930). It mines similar terrain to Only Angels Have Wings later on, with the theme of facing the daily risk of death front and center, although death is awful because it means losing friends and kin. It’s more purely dramatic, though, without all the richness of the later film, the acting is somewhat uneven, and the film shows signs of awkwardly crawling out of the silent era. But it showcases the horror of war and it really comes alive during the terrific air battle and bombing sequences.


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Ladies of Leisure (Capra 1930). A beautiful and very vulnerable young Stanwyck shines in this class-crossed love affair melodrama that has romcom bits, including a memorable meet cute start. The story content is conventional and Ralph Graves’ acting is really stiff (a Jimmy Stewart or a Fred MacMurray would have fit the role quite well, but they weren’t Hollywood actors yet) but the film has a lot of atmosphere and beauty in addition to the charm. There’s a particularly memorable rainy night sequence when Kay stays the night over. A very different side of Capra than the mature style that became his trademark, but his directing chops were obviously well developed already.


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La Bandera (Duvivier 1935). Gabin is Pierre Gilieth, who is on the lam, and down and out, and who joins the Spanish Foreign Legion (pre-Spanish Civil War) in Morocco. The somewhat loose narrative is not the most elegantly constructed, but there’s a lot to appreciate and enjoy in the different phases of the film: Gabin’s early misadventures, setting up with the other men in the legion, the encounter with Aisha, the desperate battle. Duvivier is still using wildly using Expressionist shots in many early sequences in the film, as artifice and realism clash sometimes awkwardly. A typical “poetic realism” film where gloom and cynicism battle with vitality and heart. Definitely ranking among the director’s best.


(Edited for reformatting purposes)
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Re: The 1930s List: Discussion and Suggestions

#124 Post by Cold Bishop » Fri Sep 14, 2018 11:58 pm

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Sylvia Scarlett (George Cukor, 1935)
Katherine Hepburn refuses to abandon her crook father, becomes a boy to evade authorities, and then falls under the sway (or is it the other way around?) of cockney grifter Cary Grant. This is a film that I find more dazzling and enchanting every time I see it, even as I become less convinced it adds up to a cohesive whole. Yet, I don't know if cohesion is important here: this is a film that, in its premise and structure, makes a study of "amorphousness". Much is made of the film's queer premise, but the film doesn't get credit for just how weird it is overall. Even the cross-dressing doesn't play the way you'd expect, unseen, just hearing the film's logline. A film like Viktor und Viktoria places that premise front and center, a farce built on comic misunderstanding; Sylvia Scarlett makes it just one piece of the shape-shifting whole. It's also a more modernly queer film because of it. What's striking is the sheer guiltlessness that everyone approaches their attraction to Sylvie/Sylvester. There's none of the comic cycle of sexual panic and relief these films often rely on. They may not understand their attraction to this strange boy, but they don't question it. When the ruse is revealed, they continue their attraction in an unbroken stride. If anything, some are slightly annoyed by the shattering of the illusion (Fane), others seemingly excited by its art (Monkley). This permissive atmosphere of gender fluidity also lends an air of polyamory to the proceedings: even beyond the central triangle, people are changing affections and exchanging partners with an equal amount of enthusiasm. When jealously finally enters and darkens the picture, it's interesting the tragedy quickly gives way to wistfulness not sorrow: even romance's catastrophes are just one piece of life's great parade.

That phrase - "life's great parade" - is one that always comes to mind when thinking of this movie. The amorphousness of its sexuality expands outward to its structure: Sylvia Scarlett is a movie the refuses to stay pigeonholed to one type of movie. Dickensian drama... madcap con-man film... backstage comedy... Bergman-eqsue theater tragedy... cross-country chase film... pastoral road film... It's a picaresque, bounding from one scenario to another, all shot through with a romantic whimsy that's not quite Lubitsch sophistication, not quite screwball mania. Here lies the strangeness and folly of Sylvia Scarlett: this isn't a film just interested in gender naughtiness. This is a film that, in the form of a modest studio comedy, is trying to encompass and celebrate an entire lifestyle and milieu, a bridge between what they use to call "the sporting life" in the 19th century, and which turned into the counterculture decades later. The film's epigraph makes that clear (“To the adventurer, to all who stray from the beaten track...") and I'll concede it's an outsized ambition for Cukor and company. Yet if this isn't quite a screwball comedy, it understands the genre's most important lesson: every good screwball is secretly a "hangout film" with a cast of characters so appealing, so filled with charisma and chemistry, you want to climb into the picture and spend more time with them. This film is generally considered the beginning of the Cary Grant, the breakthrough, but he's never been more mischievously roguish as he is here, freed from leading man status. Brian Aherne, too, is expertly balanced between foppishness and aloofness, both unthinkingly callous and lovably so.

But it's Katherine Hepburn who carries the film, and yet who often bears the most criticism (despite her initial personal investment, both financially and artistically, she herself thought the film a failure). It's an outlandishly theatrical performance, but why shouldn't it be when we're dealing with gender as performance? She may not be convincing as a boy, but I don't think authenticity is as important as the zeal with which her characters runs through her various ideas of "masculinity". There's some much zest of life in he(r) throwing a hat in the air and shouting "hurrah", or purring "No, I can't" to an entreating man, I don't know how anyone else isn't won over. She also may have never been more attractive than in her androgyny here. Some say the film loses steam in its last act, once Sylvie is revealed and heteronormativity is restored. However, the entire last act is built to draw us, by his absence, longingly back to Sylvester. Hepburn and her sweetly subversive exuberance guides the film in its openness of heart.

It is an interesting testament to that openess that it's Cary Grant, below the title and at the lowest ebb of his Hollywood career, who gets the last laugh. The irredemable rogue briefly melts away, for one moment of tender recognition and touching sentimentality, before snapping back, howling at the sweet absurdity of life. "...Life is an extravaganza in which laughter and luck and love come in odd ways, unexpectedly — but they are none the less sweet for that.”

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knives
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Re: The 1930s List: Discussion and Suggestions

#125 Post by knives » Sun Sep 16, 2018 9:29 pm

Souls at Sea (dir. Hathaway)
This is a Hathaway film through and through. It's pleasant enough in its masculinity and character asides to be worth a watch, but has no staying power even as it goes through. Cooper with sidekick George Raft muck about the sea in that cool studio sort of way that makes everything seem like a wry joke. This works really well outside of the plot especially as Frances Dee runs through a romantic plot. It amusingly clashes with the main plot though. Cooper is on trial for murder after all as we flashback to his days as a slave trader. The tertiary stuff like a scene where the slaves to be attack a sailor who is whipping them is powerful and makes me wish Hathaway had gone whole hog as these dark scenes still have the power to shock. Unfortunately this plot is just historical window dressing for the trial as Cooper is a standin for the sailor who was tried in the sinking of the William Brown. It's an amazing case handled by the film in a shocking way. As the movie sticks close to reality it remains powerful, as it tries to be a generic Hollywood adventure it lowers itself to its expected mediocrity

The Walking Dead (dir. Curtiz)
This is a fairly familiar wrong man film made great by Karloff's performance and how the sci-fi conceit allows the film to go far further than the code would ordinarily allow. the first half of the movie is perhaps the darkest, saddest, and grimiest film made during the code until after the war. It's also surprisingly stylist with Curtiz really pushing himself further than I've otherwise seen. The sequence of Karloff walking to the electric chair in an impossibly spacious prison as a lone cellist plays is a site for the ages. Though for all that beauty Karloff's long face and sad eyes are the thing that makes this worth all the while. The film is structured more as a social picture having a stronger fidelity to I Was a Fugitive From a Chain Gang than the Frankenstein films Karloff's presence suggests. The Universal style horror doesn't come until the absolute close of the film and instead Karloff presents a broken drama of someone being reformed from the underground. Even when it does break out it is framed in an accidental manner so as to keep Karloff defined by sadness and naivety rather than violence.

Raffles (dir. Fitzmaurice)
This is a fairly generic proto-Batman crime film not unlike Conway's Arsene Lupin adaptation. It would be completely without note if not for the amazing cinematographic work at least partially done by a young Gregg Toland. The film truly did earn its oscar nomination as the camera floats around in long shot, plays with its distance from the action, and even off of audiences' relationship to silent cinema. Much of the difficulties in sound are covered up with some brilliant proto-noir lighting which makes this as delightful a film for the eyes as possible. The sound even sounds better, most likely an effect of good preservation as anything else, than a lot of its peers playing with the camera on topics of space that still seemed difficult for some films a year or two after this. The disc contains an eligible remake staring David Niven. The film is very interesting for how the code forced changes are developed and dealt with. Otherwise the movie isn't as exciting as the original with the performance of the detective in particular being weaker.

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