Friday, July 23, 2010

Year in Review: 1931

I think 1931 is one of the best years for movies of the 1930s. Just looking at the filmmakers who made films – great films – this year is enough to make your head spin. In other years, you could argue that any of the top 5 films deserved the top spot. This year though, I think the top 2 stand head and shoulder above the rest – and picking which one was the best was damn near impossible.

10. Monkey Business (Norman Z. McLeod)
There are some things that never grow old, never seem to age or become dated. The Marx Brothers are like that for me. Monkey Business is not as good as say Duck Soup, A Day at the Races or A Night at the Opera – but that doesn’t mean it isn’t a wonderful, hilarious comedy in its own right. The brothers play stowaways on a ship, who are discovered and forced to become tough guys in a war between two gangs – eventually meaning they have to track down a baby that has been kidnapped. As with all the Marx Brothers movies, the plot is secondary to the comic gags – and this one has a lot of them – Harpo posing as a Punch and Judy puppet in an attempt to hide, Groucho pretending to be Maurice Chevalier to get through customs, and of course all the great one liners (“If this is the Captain, I'm gonna have a few words with him. My hot water's been cold for three days. And I haven't got room enough in here to swing a cat. In fact, I haven't even got a cat.”). The Marx brothers were comic geniuses, and it is on full display in Monkey Business.

9. Le Million (Rene Clair)
Rene Clair’s Le Million is a wonderful, funny, musical comedy about a man who wins the lottery – but then cannot find the ticket to cash it in. He put the ticket in his jacket pocket, which he left at his girlfriend’s house, who gave to a man running from the police to disguise him, who sold it to a opera singer who wants to use it as a stage prop. Soon, the man is running all over Paris – pursued also by his friend, his creditors, his girlfriend, his mistress and lots of other people. The film has many wonderful moments, and Clair is not afraid to mix musical comedy, dialogue and silent cinema style slapstick together to come up with a wonderful mixture of a comedy that is funny from beginning to end. Unlike his other film from this year (see #8), Le Million doesn’t seem to have any greater meaning, any greater purpose in mind other than to be a madcap comedy – at which it succeeds brilliantly. You can see the films impact in the work of the Marx brothers in particular, but also in many other films. A wonderful comedy.

8. A Nous La Liberte (Rene Clair)
The second film in a row on this list from the great Rene Clair, A Nous La Liberte is perhaps the best film of Clair’s career. It is about two men who start out the movie in prison as best friends, but are separated when one escapes. The escapee ends up owning a factory, and when his friend gets out, he gets a job at the factory – although neither know the other one is there. As gangsters come to try and extort money from the factory owner, things become more and more complicated. Clair’s film is really a criticism of the industrial age – the work that the prisoners are forced to do is almost exactly the same as the work the factory workers are doing outside of prison. Both of them are not truly free. The movie portrays French politicians of being truly clueless to what is going on in the world around them, as well as what is happening right in their own country. You can understand why there was controversy when Chaplin’s Modern Times came out a few years later, as many of the sight gags are similar – although Chaplin claims he never saw the film, and Clair wasn’t angry at him no matter what the truth was. A Nous La Liberte is a great comedy, but it is one with something more on its mind that just laughs.

7. Dracula (Tod Browning)
Watching Tod Browning’s Dracula today, it is hard to see what shocked initial audiences so much that they apparently fainted due to the horror on the screen. The film today is positively tame compared to almost any horror movie you can think of. But what doesn’t fade is the ingenious way Browning shot the film – covering it in darkness, fog and gloom. The performance by Bela Legosi has become iconic – inarguably the most famous of the many actors who would eventually play Dracula – even though his speech pattern is strange, but only adds to the portrayal’s eeriness and foreboding. The film was daringly sexual for a 1931 film. Even if the film is not as shocking as it once was, you cannot deny its cultural impact or importance – or the magnificently creepy vibe the film gives off.

6. Street Scene (King Vidor)
I’m not sure why King Vidor’s wonderful Street Scene has pretty much been forgotten by cinema history. In my mind, it’s one of the master filmmakers best films. The action pretty much all happens on the stoop outside a New York apartment building – and yet despite this, and the fact the movie is based on a play – this movie is one of the most inventively shot movies of the era. Vidor utilizes strange camera angles to portray the action, making this a pure joy to watch. The story starts off slowly as the people in the apartment sit around and gossip about their neighbors – until they show up, and they switch to gossiping about someone else. The talk of the heat, possible affairs, foreigners, mixed marriages eventually gives way to murder and a fugitive chase, all while never leaving that stoop. The ensemble cast are wonderful – Sylvia Sidney gives one of her trademark doe eyed innocent performances, and Beluah Bondi steals the movie as the most vicious gossip of them all. Street Scene deserves to be mentioned right alongside Vidor’s acknowledged masterpieces like The Crowd.

5. La Chienne (Jean Renoir)
Jean Renoir’s La Chienne is a about a simple man (Michel Simon) who gets in way over his head. Simon plays a mild mannered guy who for years has worked as a cashier at a local store – where the rest of the employees mock him good naturedly because of seemingly dull life. He is married to a woman who hates him, mocks his paintings and is always comparing him to her first husband who died in the war and was a “real man”. Then Simon’s life changes when he meets Lulu (Janie Marese), a beautiful young woman who he saves from being beaten by her boyfriend/pimp Dede (Georges Flamant). But no matter what he does to her, Lulu will always love Dede – and do whatever he asks. Mistaking him for a rich artist, they decide to take advantage of him for all his money – not realizing that he has none. La Chienne is in many ways a precursor to film noir – in fact Fritz Lang remade this film with Edward G. Robinson, Joan Bennett and Dan Dureya as Scarlett Street in 1945. Simon is a nice guy, a quiet guy a guy used to his life no matter how dull his job is, or how angry his wife is. But he allows himself to be seduced away from it, and when it all comes crashing down on him, he snaps. La Chienne is the earliest film of Renoir’s career that I have seen – and while it doesn’t quite match films like Grand Illusion or The Rules of the Game (and in reality, how could it), it shows a great director early in his career doing wonderful work.

4. The Public Enemy (William A. Wellman)
William A. Wellman’s The Public Enemy was the first major film of James Cagney’s career – and forever marked him in the public eye as a gangster. That’s because his performance as Tom Powers, a low level criminal who gradually gains more power during Prohibition by selling booze and killing people is so wonderful and authentic. Powers rises in the ranks because he is more ruthless, more unfeeling than the rest of the crew – he is willing to do anything to anyone. The film’s most controversial moment comes when Cagney shoves a grapefruit into Mae Clarke’s face – a scene that has given rise to the ludicrous assumption that the film is somehow misogynistic (just because it shows that scene, that doesn’t mean it agrees with it, anymore than the film agrees with Powers’ numerous murders). The Public Enemy is a tough gangster film – well made, well shot, well written and well acted. There is a reason why while many gangster films of the era are forgotten, The Public Enemy never will be. It is a timeless film, that doesn’t seem to have aged a bit in that last 80 years.

3. Frankenstein (James Whale)
James Whale’s Frankenstein is perhaps the best of all the Universal Horror films of the 1930s – and if it’s not, then its sequel, Bride of Frankenstein, also directed by Whale is. Boris Karloff is the definitive Frankenstein monster – a gentle giant who does not know his own strength and ends up killing without meaning to. The birth sequence of the monster is justly one of the famous in screen history – highlighted by the terrific performance by Colin Clive as Dr. Frankenstein, and innovative special effects – the huge clash of thunder and lightning. The film, which like Dracula also this year, was controversial upon its initial release for being so terrifying. The horror has faded from the movie – it is hard to imagine anyone but the smallest children being frightened by the movie – but what Whale did with the movie is turn it into a tragedy. The Frankenstein here is not merely lashing out at society for the perceived injustices he has suffered, but often doesn’t even mean to do what he does. He is a sad, tragic figure. He never asked to be born, and now he is simply doing what he comes naturally to him. That is why Frankenstein is still a masterpiece.

2. M (Fritz Lang)
M was Fritz Lang’s first sound film – and perhaps the best film of his entire career. The film is about a child murderer (Peter Lorre, in the role that would dominate his career) whose murders are bad for the underworld – the cops are so determined to stop him, they continually interrupt their operations. Thus begins a two pronged manhunt for Lorre – one by the police, and the other by the criminals. Lang’s use of sound in the film is remarkable – the first abduction we see for example has Lorre, whose face we do not see, whistling his trademark song as we see shots of him, and a group of children. Just as the whistling stops, we see a ball roll away, and the intent is clear – the murderer has struck again. The film, which is a technical masterwork by one of the great directors in history, is also notable for being one of the few films of the era to get the mentality of a serial killer pretty much accurate. Lorre, brought before a kangaroo court of criminals, gives an impassioned plea about the voices and compulsions inside his head that make him do what he does. Yet the film is about more than just the manhunt for this child murderer – it is also a portrait of a corrupt society, run by ugly, fat men who sit in smoky rooms and plot the future. Lang, who would flee Nazi Germany just a few years after making this film, saw society crumbling down around him at this early juncture, and made a film that criticized this. I, for one, don’t think the final denouement to “watch your children” is really necessary – but everything up until then is masterful. A truly remarkable film.

1. City Lights (Charles Chaplin)
City Lights is not only the greatest Chaplin movie ever made – in my mind, it is the greatest silent comedy of all time. Yes, I do identify myself more of a Keaton fan than a Chaplin fan – but that’s based on the body of work as a whole, and Keaton never created something this hilarious, yet touching. Chaplin plays his typical Little Tramp character, broke and homeless as usual, and the two people he meets. First there is the Millionaire, who gets drunk frequently, and when drunk, he takes Chaplin on as his best friend, showering him with presents, food, drink and a good time, until he sobers up and has no idea who Chaplin is. The more important relationship though is with the poor blind girl Chaplin meets selling flowers on the street. The blind girl mistakes Chaplin for a millionaire, and he doesn’t have the heart to correct her. The film is hilarious at times – particularly the drunken escapades – but is also so touching in its emotional portrayal of the Little Tramp and the Flower Girl, that you have to be made of stone not to cry at the last, iconic image of the film. A true masterpiece.

Just Missed the Top 10: The Champ (King Vidor), A Free Soul (Clarence Brown), The Front Page (Lewis Milestone), Tabu (F.W. Murnau).

Notable Films Missed: Arrowsmith (John Ford),Bad Girl (Frank Borzage), Five Star Final (Mervyn LeRoy), Kameradschaft (GW Pabst), Limite (Mario Piexito), Mädchen in Uniform (Leotine Sagan), The Sin of Madeline Claudet (Edgar Selwyn), Skippy (Norman Taurog), The Smiling Lieutenant (Ernst Lubitsch), The Threepenny Opera (GW Pabst).

Oscar Winner – Best Picture: Cimarron
Good God is Cimarron a horrible movie – one of the absolute worst films to ever win the Best Picture Oscar. While the Academy ignored such great American films as City Lights, The Public Enemy, Frankenstein and Street Scene, they rewarded this bloated, somewhat racist epic with its biggest prize this year. Directed by Wesley Ruggles, Cimarron was one of the biggest movies of its era – a huge movie about the plight of one family over the course of many decades. There are some good moments – the land rush scene from example – but mostly the film gets bogged down in endless scenes of the characters talking about nothing. While Irene Dunne is decent in her role as the matriarch – to be fair to her, she probably does the best she can with what was a horribly written movie – Richard Dix, who portrays her husband, is absolutely awful. Dix was a star in the silent era, and never toned down his performance in the movie, which is so grandiose it borders on the ridiculous and unwatchable at times. An awful film that is only remembered today because it won this prize.

Oscar Winner – Best Director: Norman Taurog, Skippy
As far as I know, Skippy is not available on DVD, so I have never even had a chance to watch it – not that the story – about Jackie Cooper, as Skippy, trying to help his new friend Sooky out – appeals to me all that much anyway. The film was based on a popular comic strip of the time, and was apparently a rather heartwarming movie. If the film ever becomes available, I may give it a shot. But considering that Taurog did not exactly have the best career (I cannot say that any of his films that I have seen were very good – and after all this is a man who directed 9 Elvis movies), I’m not going to be holding my breath.

Oscar Winner – Best Actor: Lionel Barrymore, A Free Soul
Lionel Barrymore’s win for A Free Soul fulfilled two of the Academy’s main requirements for an Oscar winning performance – he was a drunk, and he was a lawyer who gets a big courtroom scene in the film. Directed by Clarence Brown, the movie is a typical melodrama about Barrymore’s lawyer who has to defend his daughter’s (Norma Shearer) boyfriend (Leslie Howard) on a murder charge when he killed a gangster (Clark Gable), who Shearer had started dating, and who Barrymore had previously defended successfully. Barrymore is missing for much of the movie – which centers on the other three characters, but when he does arrive, he makes a good impression. His impassioned 14 minute speech to the jury is the reason he won the Oscar that year. He didn’t deserve it really, but considered who they nominated, you cannot complain too much. It is a fine performance – although had this been a few years later, he undoubtedly would have been placed in the Supporting Actor category.

Oscar Winner – Best Actress: Marie Dressler, Min & Bill (actually a 1930 film).
I believe Min and Bill has become available on DVD in recent years – I’m not sure though, since I have yet to see it – and to be honest, don’t hold out that much desire to. Dressler plays a inn keeper who tries to keep her daughter innocent – and to do so needs to keep Wallace Beery’s drunken Bill away from her. Other than that, I don’t know much about the film itself – which is said to be an average melodrama – but Dressler is said to be good in it. Considering that once again, like every category this year, they ignored the best work, who knows if they picked the best of the nominees. The two I have seen – Dunne in Cimarron and Shearer in A Free Soul – weren’t exactly brilliant.

No comments:

Post a Comment