Tuesday, June 15, 2010

Year in Review: 1934

1934 is a mixed bag of a movie year. Like seemingly many of my recent top 10 lists, this is a year where I am torn on what the number 1 film should be. The top three films on this list are, in my mind anyway, all masterpieces, although very different ones. The rest of the list is made up of excellent films as well – but I have to admit had this been a stronger overall year a few probably would not have made it.

10. The Merry Widow (Ernst Lubitsch)
Ernst Lubitsch was one of the best directors of comedies in cinema history, and he will always be known for his “Lubitsch touch”. The Merry Widow is somewhat different than most of his famous films, as the film is a musical – and a delightful one at that. Maurice Chevalier gives a wonderful performance as a womanizing Count order by his King to seduce and marry the wealthy widow Jeanette McDonald, before she marries a foreigner and takes most of the small kingdom’s tax dollars with her. The songs are a delight, as both Chevalier and McDonald have wonderful singing voices. While the film is mainly a musical, there are some wonderful comic moments – most provided by the wonderful Edward Everett Sloan as the ambassador. The film has a keen idea for period detail, and is a marvel of production design. All these ingredients go into making The Merry Widow a wonderful little film – not Lubitsch’s best, but great just the same.

9. The Gay Divorcee (Mark Sandrich)
Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers were teamed up for the first time in supporting roles in the 1933 film Flying Down to Rio. But audiences loved them together, so the following year, they got their own movie – this delightful, funny screwball comedy/musical/dance film. While it doesn’t reach the heights of Top Hat or Swing Time, it’s marvelous entertainment just the same. Ginger Rogers come to London to have a “fake” affair in order to get a divorce from her estranged husband. Fred Astaire sees her at the airport, and falls immediately in love, and through the course of a series of hilarious misunderstandings, the pair end up falling in love. As always, Astaire and Rogers are magical together – playing off each other with such marvelous comic timing and making the dance numbers appear effortless. They are ably supporting by Edward Everett Horton and Alice Brady, providing even more comic relief. Yes, the film is meaningless, yet so delightful you don’t care in the least.

8. Our Daily Bread (King Vidor)
King Vidor was a major director in 1934 when he read an article about the back to land movement at the height of the great depression and decided he wanted to make a movie about it. The studios didn’t want to make the movie, but rather than give up, Vidor mortgaged his home and borrowed money and produced the film himself. He didn’t make a lot of money on the film, but that wasn’t his point – and besides, he didn’t lose money either. The only knock against Our Daily Bread is the acting – the cast are all no names that we wouldn’t hear from again and with good reason – they really cannot act. But this movie isn’t about acting – it’s about an idea, and Vidor was such a talented director that he pulled it off brilliantly, without the movie ever seeming like a sermon. A man and wife down on their luck is given a farm by an uncle of theirs. He doesn’t want it, and neither does the bank, so although they are city folk, they head out anyway. They meet a nice Swedish immigrant driving by – he used to have a farm in Minnesota, but the bank took it away. The city boy gets an idea – why does the Swede and his family stay with them and help them work the farm? It works out so well, that he decides to let more and more families stay. Each person contributes to the group what they can, and they share what they have. If this sounds like Communism, well it sort of is, but an idealized form of it. Besides, where else were all of these people supposed to go? The entire film is magnificently directed by Vidor, but the highlight is the now infamous irrigation sequence that ends the film, which stands as one of the best set pieces that Vidor, a master at them, has ever composed. Yes, the acting is weak. But you barely notice that in this wonderful, one of a kind film.

7. Twentieth Century (Howard Hawks)
One of the first screwball comedies is also one of the funniest. John Barrymore plays a once successful Broadway producer now in a desperate situation, and trying to convince his former star, and lover Carole Lombard, to come back to him. They are stuck on a long train ride together where he desperately tries to get her to sign a contract – trying everything imaginable to do so. The films two stars are wonderful – especially Lombard who is dynamic and hilarious in the film, but there is great supporting work by Walter Connelly, Roscoe Karns and especially Etienne Girardot as an escaped mental patient, who everyone mistakes for a rich man. Hawks was one of those studio era directors who could pretty much direct anything – and did – but for me, his screwball comedies have always been the best of his career. And Twentieth Century is one of his best.

6. It’s a Gift (Norman Z. McLeod)
W.C. Fields was ahead of his time. Although I have to admit, I may not be his biggest fan, his films are about man’s entrapment by the weight of family and kids, and he always plays a character that we know we shouldn’t like, but cannot help falling for anyway. It’s a Gift is perhaps the best film of Fields’ career – an hilarious comedy about a man who comes into some money and decides to sell the family store and move to California to start an Orange Grove – just like the one he has seen in a brochure he carries with him everywhere. Much to his chagrin, he has to bring along his nagging wife and ungrateful children. Yet the plot is secondary to all the marvelous sight gags in the movie – the sharing of the bathroom mirror, Baby Leroy trying to destroy his store and the centerpiece sequence of Fields trying to get some sleep on his front porch, away from his nagging wife. Fields and the film are a delight to behold.

5. The Man Who Knew Too Much (Alfred Hitchcock)
The Man Who Knew Too Much is one Hitchcock’s best movies from his British period – an intricately plot spy yarn. A British couple and their daughter (Nova Pilbeam) are vacationing in Switzerland, when Pilbeam witnesses an assassination of a French spy, who then passes along vital information to her as he lies dying. In order to try and get the information, the assassins, led by an evil Peter Lorre (is there any other kind?) kidnap her, forcing her parents to give chase. The film is expertly plot and shot by Hitchcock – including a wonderful shootout climax. All the performances are fine, but Peter Lorre is the best as the spy – which is all the more impressive since he didn’t speak English at the time the film was made and had to learn his lines phonetically (Lorre was a German Jew who had just fled Nazi Germany). Forget the 1956 remake with James Stewart and Doris Day, and directed by Hitchcock himself – this is the better version of the story, and a great thriller by the master.

4. The Scarlet Empress (Josef von Sternberg)
Josef von Sternberg’s The Scarlet Empress is a film almost drowning in style. The huge palaces, the massive costume designs, the brilliant dark cinematography seem a danger to drown out the story and the performances of the movie, but somehow never does. Marlene Dietrich gives one of her best performances as the daughter of a lowly German prince, brought to Russia by John Lodge, to marry the dimwitted heir to the throne Sam Jaffe. She also has to contend with his mother, Louise Dresser. Dietrich hates her husband, but finds one lover after another to meet her needs, and when he mother in law dies, she ascends to the throne, wary of her husband who now despises her. Yes, the style of the movie is great – as it always is in a von Sternberg film – but there is more here that just that style. This is a magnificent film.

3. It Happened One Night (Frank Capra)
It Happened One Night is one of those happy accidents of a film. No one wanted to play the lead roles, the script was constantly rewritten and director Frank Capra was coming off a humiliation at the Academy Awards, where he thought he had won the Oscar for Best Director, only to get on stage and realize that he had lost. Yet somehow, everything worked out and It Happened One Night became one of the best comedies of the 1930s. Claudette Colbert is wonderful as spoiled heiress running away from her overbearing father to get back together with her husband who her father “saved” her from before their marriage could be consummated. On the bus to New York, she meets out of work newspaper man Clark Gable, who blackmails her into giving him an exclusive on her story. Throughout the course of the movie, through a series of hilarious mishaps, the two of course, end up falling in love. Gable was known mainly for his rugged masculinity in his performance, but here he proves he can do comedy with the best of them – and Colbert gives the best, wittiest performance of her great comedic career. Capra keeps the energy up all the way through, and the screenplay that was eventually filmed is a delight. Just pure comedic gold.

2. L’Atlante (Jean Vigo)
Jean Vigo’s L’Atalante is a beautiful, yet simple film. It is about a newly married couple, Jean Daste and Dita Parlo, who barely know each other who go straight from the church to his barge, to head up the river to Paris on a makeshift honeymoon and delivery trip for his business. On the trip, Parlo discovers that her new husband is capable of flying in jealous rages – first when he discovers her talking to his first mate, the great Michel Simon, and later when a vendor in Paris flirts with her. She gets sick of his behavior and runs off, sending him into even more of a rage. The film is beautifully shot by Vigo in his poetic realist style. While I don’t think it is quite the best film of the year, but it is surely the most influential – inspiring the French New Wave, and countless other filmmakers in the decades since its release. It is pure movie magic.

1. The Thin Man (W.S. Van Dyke)
The Thin Man is one of the most delightful, funny films that I have ever seen. William Powell and Myra Loy were perfectly cast as Nick and Nora Charles a drunken married couple who solve murders when they aren’t drinking. He is supposed to be retired, but is drawn back in when his friends disappears and is implicated in a murder. Powell and Loy are the reason to see the film – they have tremendous chemistry together, and play off each other brilliantly in this comedic film based on the Dashiell Hammett novel. The film is hilarious, with too many one liners to keep track of, and a mystery that involves you while the movie is playing, but it isn’t what you remember about the film. Miraculously, the film was shot in just 12 days, as director W.S. Van Dyke like to get everything on the first shot – this adds to the films spontaneous appeal. The Thin Man is pure cinematic joy.

Just Missed The Top 10: Man of Aran (Robert Flaherty).

Notable Films Missed: The Barretts of Wimpole Street (Sidney Franklin), Cleopatra (Cecil B. DeMille), Flirtation Walk (Frank Borzage), Happiness (Aleksander Madevkin), Here Comes the Navy (Lloyd Bacon), The House of Rothschild (Alfred E. Werker), Imitation of Life (John M. Stahl), One Night of Love (Victor Schertzinger), Song of Ceylon (Basil Wright), Viva Villa! (Jack Conway).

Oscar Winner – Best Picture, Director, Actor & Actress: It Happened One Night (Frank Capra, Clark Gable, Claudette Colbert)
The Academy so rarely gives its top awards to a comedy, and even rarer a great comedy, that even if I would have preferred them giving all these awards to another comedy this year – The Thin Man – I cannot complain about any of these awards in the least. The roots of screwball comedy – a genre that would flourish for years to come – can be found in this film, that it wonderfully directed by Capra, without ever becoming heavy handed like some of his films (although, I will admit, that I am a big fan of his work in general). Gable and Colbert are perfectly suited for their roles, and play off each other brilliantly throughout the movie. Yes, I liked The Thin Man better, but I’m not about to complain about these awards.

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