Wednesday, June 9, 2010

Year in Review: 1930

1930 was not the best year for movies - while they had pretty much perfected the silent film by 1928, in 1930, sound was in its infancy, and was still shaky at best. While there were several masterpieces made this year, and I really do think that every film of this list is deserving of praise, I have to admit that the bottom three films on this list probably would not have made it in most years. To make matters worse, I’m not sure what films from this year I missed that may make the list stronger – certainly the two “Notable Films Missed” that I have listed below, using my normal standards (a Best Picture Oscar nominee, an acting Oscar winner or a position on They Shoot Pictures Don’t They top 1,000 list) didn’t inspire me to run out an see them, as they seem to be all but forgotten for a reason. So if anyone has suggestions, please let me know so I can make this list stronger.

10. Murder (Alfred Hitchcock)
This early talkie from Alfred Hitchcock may not rank among his best films, but is a fascinating little thriller nonetheless. A woman is found standing over the body of her rival, and says she has no memory of what happened. She is put on trail, where they have to decide if she is guilty or schizophrenic. But even after the trail, one juror is unconvinced of her guilt, and decides to do some digging of her own. The movie is well made by Hitchcock, who keeps the action moving along briskly, and delves into some of his favorite themes – innocent people being accused of crimes, mental illness, etc. No, this isn’t one of the great Hitchcock films – but it is a fine little thriller.

9. Morocco (Josef von Sternberg)
After they teamed up for The Blue Angel earlier this year (keep reading to see where that one ranked), director Josef von Sternberg and Marlene Dietrich made this fun little film which garnered more attention for the Academy, but hasn’t aged quite as well. Having said that, I do love Dietrich in this role as a sexy seductress who makes Gary Cooper fall in love with her. The fact that Dietrich spoke virtually no English and had to deliver her lines phonetically only adds to her mysterious charm in the film. Like all the films on von Sternberg, Morocco is visually stunning and the movie is oozing with pre-code sexuality. No, this is not one of the best teamings of von Sternberg and Dietrich, but it is a hell of an entertaining little film anyway.

8. Earth (Alexander Dovzhenko)
Alexander Dovhenko’s Earth is one of the most influential films to come out of the Soviet Union during the 1930s. The film deals with the uprising of a group of peasant farmers after their land is taken away from them by greedy Kulak landowners. The film was both praised and criticized by the Soviet government – some loving its depiction of the farmers as simple folk close to the earth, while others thought the film remained too ambigious about its intentions. This silent film is a visual marvel by Dovzhenko, who proved that while he may not be in the same league as Eisenstein, he did deserve to be compared alongside of him. One’s tolerance for the film will undoubtedly hinge on whether or not they can except the message of the movie – or at the very least, see it through the eyes it was intended to be seen with. No matter what, the historical significance of the movie cannot be overlooked.

7. The Blood of a Poet (Jean Cocteau)
Jean Cocteau’s Blood of a Poet is a surrealist nightmare of a film. Split into four parts, the movie is about an artist who draws a picture where the mouth starts to move. The mouth is then transferred to his hand, and then to a statue, who tells him to go through a mirror and peep at people in a hotel. The third part is about a snowball fight that ends when a boy is killed when a chunk of marble is thrown at him, and the final segment is about con man that uses the body of the dead boy in his card trick, which ends in a suicide to an applauding audience. As with many of these surrealist movies (see my number 5 on this list as well), I have no fucking idea what the hell any of this is supposed to mean. However, I think that is somewhat the point. The film uses it imagery to both shock and delight. The movie weaves it spell over you in a strange way – and it contains such brilliant imagery that it is impossible to get out of your head. The Blood of a Poet does not satisfy in a traditional way, but on a different level. Whether it works for you or not is a matter of taste. For me, I was fascinated by it.

6. Animal Crackers (Victor Heerman)
Like all of the great Marx brother’s movies, there is essentially no real plot to Animal Crackers. Yes, it is about a valuable painting that goes missing and Groucho (as Captain Geoffrey T. Spaulding) in his search for it. But essentially, Animal Crackers is an excuse for the brothers to bring their own brand of hilarious slapstick humor, great one liners (this is the film that contains the famous “I once shot an elephant in my pajamas. How he got in my pajamas, I don’t know” line). The film’s comedy is not all silly and stupid fun though – there is a brilliant satire on the work of Eugene O’Neal, as well as commentary on the stock market crash the year before. Yet, Animal Cracker is essentially just more zany Marx Brothers madness – and they are at their hilarious best in the film.

5. L’Age D’Or (Luis Bunuel)
Much like the short film, Un Chien Andalou, that director Luis Bunuel made with Salvador Dali, this film is a surrealistic masterwork by the two artistic giants. The film was hugely controversial at the times of its released, effectively being banned for years everywhere. Looking back at the film now, it is no longer as “shocking” as it must have seemed back in 1930, but it still a delightful film. The movie is a series of vignettes that are interlinked – but the longest and most sustained one involves a young couple in love who want to have sex, but are thwarted at every attempt – by their families, the church, society itself. The final images appear to have Christ emerge for an orgy, and then take a young woman back inside, cutting away to a shot of women’s scalps flapping in the wind on a crucifix. Unlike Un Chien Andalou, this one apparently does have a message – sexual repression, no matter who it is performed by breed’s violence. Anyone with the slightest interest in surrealistic film needs to see this one.

4. Under the Roofs of Paris (Rene Clair)
Under the Roofs of Paris is very strange for a musical comedy, in that is quite dark – both in terms of visuals and themes. Albert is in love with Pola – but so is his best friend Louis, and the dangerous gangster Fred. Pola falls for Albert, but when he is put in jail – for a crime he didn’t commit - she turns to Louis for support, and falls for him as well. When Albert gets out of jail, all hell breaks loose. Like the twin films that Clair would make the following year – Le Million and A Nous a Libertie – Under the Roofs of Paris is wonderfully funny at times, and contains some great musical numbers. But this is the darkest of Clair’s films from the period, a movie where not everything works out, and there is a melancholy mood hanging over the entire film. It is a strange little film, but one that holds you in its great, and is quite daring for its time period. A great little film.

3. Little Caesar (Mervyn LeRoy)
Edward G. Robinson became a star because of his wonderful performance in this gangster movie. Robinson plays Rico, a small time gangster who eventually works his way up the ranks becoming a mafia kingpin, before, like all gangsters since, it all comes crashing down around him. Robinson’s performance is larger than life, making Rico into one of the best villains in screen history, and yet oddly sympathetic at times as well. He tries desperately to hold onto his friendship with Douglas Fairbanks, but Fairbanks wants to be a dancer, and chase girls. It is Rico’s paranoia about what Fairbanks will do that is his eventual undoing. Directed with great visual flair by Mervyn LeRoy, Little Caesar is one of the first sound era gangster movies, and set the standard that everything after it was going to have to try and match.

2. The Blue Angel (Josef von Sternberg)
Josef von Sternberg’s The Blue Angel is considered the first German sound film. It also brought to prominence Marlene Dietrich, and proved that unlike many silent film directors, Von Sternberg would have no problem working in the sound era. The film stars Emil Jannings in a wonderful performance as an esteemed professor who falls in love with a cabaret singer (Dietrich) – or more accurately falls in lust with her. Eventually, he is reduced to playing a clown in her show, and he is destroyed by his jealously. The Blue Angel is a brilliant film about sexual obsession, and how it can destroy you. Jannings was happy in his life – although it was rather dull – before meeting Dietrich, but he gives up everything for her, and it eventually destroys him. Von Sternberg would go onto make several films with Dietrich – all of them worthwhile – but none as good as The Blue Angel, which may just be his masterpiece.

1. All Quiet on the Western Front (Lewis Milestone)
All Quiet on the Western Front is one of the all time great WWI movies ever made – and also one of the greatest anti-war movies ever made. I remember a few years ago, people remarked how daring it was for Clint Eastwood to present the Japanese in WWII as sympathetic, real people, not just the evil enemy in Letters from Iwo Jima – I guess that means that Lewis Milestone’s film was even more so. The film is about Germans in the trench during the First World War It opens with the young men being recruited right out of their high school classrooms with talk of glory and patriotism, follows them through training, and finally onto the battlefield. Lew Ayres gives a truly great performance in the lead role as a man who starts out being a true believer, but ends up becoming disillusioned and disgusted by the war itself. This is powerful filmmaking by Milestone – it has great battle sequences, but he is able to drain them of romanticism. This is a movie about the hopelessness and futility of war – and is one of the great early sound movies.

Notable Films Missed: The Big House (George W. Hill), Min and Bill (George W. Hill).

Oscar Winner – Best Picture: All Quiet on the Western Front (Lewis Milestone).
The Academy clearly made the right call on this one. All Quiet on the Western front was the first great war movie of the sound era – and 80 years later, it stands the test of time and continues to be one of the all time best. In this, the third year of the Oscars, they also made the decision for the first time to give the best director award to the same film as best picture – and that was the only obvious choice, especially since for some reason the Academy did not feel the need to give the film an acting nominations, nor single out any technical awards for the film – even though it deserved them.

Oscar Winner – Best Actor: George Arliss, Disraeli (actually a 1929 movie).
One of the only best actor winners not available on DVD, so unfortunately I cannot comment on Arliss’ performance in this film. However, considering they overlooked Edward G. Robinson’s great work in Little Caesar (which I believe was not eligible until the following year), and Lew Ayres work in the best picture winner, perhaps they made a mistake. Until I see this, I won’t know. I cannot even comment on whether as an actor, I think Arliss’ career deserved recognition, because out of the 25 films listed at the IMDB for him, I have not seen a single one of them. He certainly thought he was as he was claimed that he was the greatest living actor. An interesting side note, Arliss was the first actor to win an Oscar for portraying a real person – something that has happened 20 times since in the Best Actor category alone.

Oscar Winner – Best Actress: Norma Sherar, The Divorcee
The Divorcee is one of those pre-code era movies that tried to be risqué in its depiction of sexuality, but appears rather lame to modern audiences. Norma Shearer is fine in the roll of a wife who wants to get even after her husband has an affair, but the film is rather dull and lifeless when viewed today. Considering they did nominate Marlene Dietrich for Morocco (instead of The Blue Angel, where she is infinitely better), they did have someone oozing sex appeal in a better movie to give the award to.

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