Wednesday, March 24, 2010

Year in Review: 1933

1933 was not the best year of the 1930s for filmmaking, but it does contain at least three masterpieces, so that isn’t bad at all. The ten films on this list represent many different styles of filmmaking. This was however, one of those disappointing years when so of the best reviewed films were unavailable to me on DVD – specifically Luis Bunuel’s Land Without Bread and Jean Vigo’s Zero for Conduct. Otherwise, the key films I missed – according to They Shoot Pictures Don’t They top 1000 list included two Busby Berkely musicals (I have never been a huge fan of those types of musicals). I’m sure I’ll get some who criticize me for missing some of the best picture nominees (see below), but honestly they didn’t interest me much for various reasons. Anyway, here are the top 10.

10. Morning Glory (Lowell Sherman)
Katherine Hepburn’s first Oscar winning performance is a delight in this movie about a small town girl from Vermont who comes to New York to become a famous actress. She certainly already has the theatrical diva attitude down cold. Her good looks and raw talent attract all the men she meets, but she is devastated by the desertion of the man she says she loves after they spend a drunken, passionate night together. Nevertheless, Hepburn goes on to wow stage audiences in her debut, but the movie leaves us with a kind of strange, sad feeling even though Hepburn is euphoric. She doesn’t seem to have learned anything by what happened, and we get the sense that she is going to flame out. Hepburn’s performance anchors the movie, which is at times rather stagy (of course, it was adapted from a play), but the rest of the cast is quite good as well. As an acting showcase for Hepburn, Morning Glory is certainly a wonderful little film.

9. Outskirts (Boris Barnett)
Boris Barnett’s Outskirts is an odd little film. Set in 1914 as WWI is just breaking out, and the grumblings of the Russian revolution are starting, Barnett’s film takes place in a small town where the inhabits don’t seem to care too much about the serious things happening all around them. The film is episodic in nature, starting off as a comedy and slowly becoming darker and more tragic as the film moves along. The scenes at the front during the war are rough and brutal, and are offset against the more serene scenes in the town. Barnett favors long shots, and uses sound very interestingly here. This is not quite the masterpiece some of its more adamant followers claim it is, but it a fascinating little movie by a Soviet director who has never quite garnered the attention he deserves.

8. The Private Life of Henry VIII (Alexander Korda)
Charles Laughton was never a very subtle actor, but he was always a riot to watch. In his Oscar winning performance as King Henry VIII, Laughton is wonderful. He spends the movie gorging himself on food, and chasing after one woman after another – each of whom will become his wife, and eventually drive him crazy so that he either kills them or divorces them (my favorite is Laughton’s real life wife Elsa Lanchester as the fabulously annoying Anne of Cleves). So what if the movie isn’t historically accurate, it still has wonderful period detail, and is an absolute joy to watch – thanks to Laughton who would continue his career of larger than life characters for decades after.

7. Dinner at Eight (George Cukor)
George Cukor’s Dinner at Eight contains an all star cast and is a comedy of manners set during the Great Depression. All the action concerns an upcoming dinner party being thrown by Millicent (Billie Burke) and her husband Oliver (Lionel Barrymore), a shipping magnate whose company has fallen on hard times. He reaches out to a supposed friend, Dan (Wallace Beery), hoping he can help keep the shares off the market by buying them himself – unaware that Beery wants to devour the company himself. Beery’s crash, social climbing wife (Jean Harlow) agrees to go to the dinner to try and raise their social profile. The rest of the cast includes a former stage star (Marie Dressler), a washed up drunken silent movie star (John Barrymore), and various other people. And it seems that everyone in the film is having secret affairs with at least one other dinner guest. Movies like this were somewhat common in the 1930s (the previous year’s Grand Hotel is an example). But Dinner at Eight wears its all star cast well – giving each of them an opportunity to shine in a movie that is at times hilarious, and at times a little more real and tragic. A few years later, a movie like this couldn’t have been made, but I am certainly glad that it was.

6. The Invisible Man (James Whale)
James Whale is always going to be remembered best for Frankenstein and The Bride of Frankenstein, but between those two masterpieces, he made this other film about a bad scientist. Claude Rains gives a typically wonderful performance as a scientist who discovers the secret to invisibility in the form of a new drug. The problem is, he cannot reverse the process, and the drug also drives him insane. Whale’s direction of the movie is top notch – creating a wonderfully creepy, tense atmosphere, made better by the wonderful Rains whose evil laugh is haunting. Gloria Stuart (yes, the old lady in Titanic) is wonderful as the naïve girl who loves the mad scientist, and Una O’Connor can shriek with the best of them as his landlady. The groundbreaking special effects were brilliant for their time, and help the make the film a creepy experience even today. This Universal Horror film doesn’t get quite the same attention that the Frankenstein, Dracula or The Wolfman features do, but it certainly deserves to.

5. Baby Face (Alfred E. Green)
Alfred E. Green’s Baby Face is the type of film that when the code came in the following year wouldn’t have been able to get made. In it, Barabara Stanwyck delivers an excellent performance as an ambitious young business woman who quite literally sleeps her way to the top (the wonderful repeated shots shows her flirting with a man, then cuts to the exterior of the building as the camera rises up another floor, and then cuts to her inside at her new job). Stanwyck was always an actress who oozed sexuality in her films, but ironically this early film was one of the most explicit ones she would make. Even in the pre-code era, Baby Face was controversial, and they had to shoot an alternate ending to the film. The film remained in that state until 2004 when the original version was finally found and released. That is reason to celebrate as Baby Face is one of the great films of the pre code era.

4. The Testament of Dr. Mabuse (Fritz Lang)
The second sound film of Lang’s career (and the last film he made in Germany), The Testament of Dr. Mabuse is a wonderfully atmospheric crime film. The legendary Dr. Mabuse (who was seen in Lang’s 1922 silent film Dr. Mabuse: The Gambler) in confined to a mental hospital when the film begins scribbling out his complicated criminal plots. Strangely however, the plans are being carried out by a gang in the streets even while Mabuse cannot leave his cell. Lang’s visual style is as wonderful as always – dark, foggy streets, towering sky scrappers. The climatic action sequence and car chase are a marvel to behold even all these years later. Intially banned by Joseph Goebbels, who thought its negative portrayal of the government would hurt the new Nazi regime, the film remains one of Lang’s best films.

3. Design for Living (Ernst Lubitsch)
A year after Lubitsch made his best film, Trouble in Paradise, he made this other masterpiece based on a Noel Coward play. Like Dinner for Eight and Baby Face, it was one of the last gasps of the pre code era, its controversial story about a ménage a trios relationship would have made it unfilmable just a year later. Lucky for us, it wasn’t. Miriam Hopkins gives a marvelous performance as Gilda, a young, beautiful commercial artist who meets two best friends (played by Frederic March and Gary Cooper) on the train to Paris, and has soon moved in with the two of them. The film is full of wonderful one liners, that the excellent cast delivers to perfection. When they talk about the Lubitsch touch, they are referring to his wonderful way of making comedies – and Design for Living is among his best films.

2. Duck Soup (Leo McCarey)
How can anyone not love the Marx brothers? Their films were among my first exposure to classic cinema, and all these years later, I cannot help but laugh every time I see one of their films. Duck Soup is generally considered to be their best film, and I tend to agree with that. It is a ludrcious, hilarious comedy where Groucho, as the wonderfully named Rufus T. Firefly, becomes the President of the bankrupt nation of Freedonia. Their neighbours do not like the new President, and send in spies Chico and Harpo. But the plot is merely an excuse to string together a series of wonderful sight gags (none more famous than the often imitated, but never duplicated mirror scene), and of course the final war frenzy, that involves a wonderfully comic dance sequence, and eventual fruit fight. Duck Soup is utterly unique and one of a kind – the Marx brothers at their most political, and yet most silly and anarchic. One of the best comedies in history.

1. King Kong (Merian C. Cooper & Ernest B. Schoesack)
I really do love Peter Jackson’s remake of this film – the only version of the story that every made me cry – but even that one doesn’t come close to the original version – one of the great adventure movies of all time. The special effects are primitive, and yet they are still effective all these years later. By making Kong look like a cross between a man and an ape, director Cooper and Schoesack were able to make a comment about the slave trade, and fear of the “black man”. But more than its poltical content, King Kong will always be remembered a wonderful adventure – a tragedy about a monster who was King where he was, and because of foolish humans had his life destroyed. Although Kong is a monster in this film, he one of the most sympathetic monsters in movie history. And King Kong remains one of my favorite films.

Notable Films Missed: Land without Bread (Luis Bunuel), Zero for Conduct (Jean Vigo), 42nd Street (Lloyd Bacon), Gold Diggers of 1933 (Mervyn LeRoy), Lady for a Day (Frank Capra), Little Women (George Cukor), She Done Him Wrong (Lowell Sherman),

Oscar Winner – Best Picture & Director: Cavlacade (Frank Lloyd)
Next time someone tells you Crash is the worst best picture winner of all time, tell them to watch Cavalcade. I’m not sure it’s the worst (there are some doozies that won this prize), but this seemingly endless, annoying movie is certainly one you couldn’t pay me to sit through again. The film plays like a “greatest hits” package of tragedies from the late 1800s until 1932, with one damn thing after another happening to the central family. It’s episodic nature never gels, and the performance are quite bad. In short, this not just a terrible best picture winner – it’s a terrible movie.

Oscar Winner – Best Actor: Charles Laughton, The Private Life of Henry VIII
Laughton is certainly a worthy best actor winner, although out of the nominees, I probably would have given the award to Paul Muni for I Am a Fugitive of the Chain Gang (a 1932 film that will be covered there), and think that Groucho Marx, Gary Cooper and Frederic March gave the best performance in 1933. But, still, it’s hard to complain about Laughton, so I won’t.

Oscar Winner – Best Actress: Katherine Hepburn, Morning Glory
Katherine Hepburn is excellent in Morning Glory, although its one of the ironies of the Oscars that I don’t think any of her record four winning performances rank as her best performance. I would have given the award to Stanwyck or Hopkins or even Fay Wray who screams with the best of them. But Hepburn is excellent in her role, and it is a fine film, so no real complaints from me (especially since one of the other two nominees was Diana Wynyard for Cavalcade, so this could have much, much, much worse)..

1 comment:

  1. "Charles Laughton was never a very subtle actor..."

    Well, that's a very extended view, but never trust topics: I'd suggest to see him in Ruggles of Red Gap, Rembrandt, This Land Is Mine or The suspect, to name some. He was very capable of subtlety and he was subtle more often than commonly assumed.

    I agree that he's always a riot/joy to watch... But them I'm hopelessly biased towards him ;)