Thursday, September 9, 2010

Year in Review: 1935

There are a lot of great films from 1935 - serious films by truly masterful filmmakers. But for me, I like the fun films from 1935 the most - the top two films represent the horror and musical genres - two that I very rarely have at the top of my list. As you can see, I do have a number of notable films missed this year, but I’m happy with my list.

10. Peter Ibbetson (Henry Hathaway)
Peter Ibbetson is a strange film – a film whose plot would be ridiculous if it wasn’t handled so brilliantly. The film is about two young lovers (Gary Cooper and Ann Harding) who are separated again and again through the years, but are constantly drawn to each other. Even after one dies, they continue to “visit” each other through their dreams. Henry Hathaway does a brilliant job making this film – he gives the film a surrealist look and feel, quite daring for a studio movie of its time. Cooper and Harding do really seem to share some deep connection to each other here. The film is so well made and acted, and includes a truly great score by Ernst Toch, that we forget the absurdity of the plot, and simply drift along with the movie. An underrated little gem.

9. Mutiny on the Bounty (Frank Lloyd)
Personally, I think that it is possible that an even greater version of the famed Mutiny on the Bounty story can be made. They’ve had three cracks at it already, and this one clearly is the best of the lot. Mainly I think because of Charles Laughton, who is larger than life and brilliant as the evil, egocentric Captain Bligh. Clark Gable is in full hero mode as Fletcher Christain, and Franchot Tone is also excellent as the crew member who tries to put a stop to the mutiny (it is rumored that people thought that Tone was so good in the film, that his performance was the reason the Academy introduced the supporting acting categories the following year). Frank Lloyd has never been my favorite director – but he has made an entertaining, seafaring epic out of this movie that if nothing else is entertaining from beginning to end. Until we get a better film, this is the definitive version of this infamous story.

8. Triumph of the Will (Leni Riefenstahl)
Leni Riefensthal’s Triumph of the Will presents a never ending problem for film critics. It is inarguably the most visually stunning and influential film made in 1935. But it is also an evil film, serving an evil purpose. Can you throw away all that artistry because of the evil, or can you ignore the evil and focus solely on the skill in which the film was made. Alas, I can do both, and neither, and if that sounds like a contradiction, it’s because it is. The film is about the Nuremberg rally of 1934 – where hundreds of thousands of people gathered to celebrate Nazi Germany, and its leader Hitler. Riefenstahl was there, and captured it all in a sanitized form. The film is about Nazi perfection, and Riefrnstahl captures that with the thousands of marching soldiers in perfect unison. Towering stages are built, Nazi flags hang everywhere, and Hitler’s presence hangs over every frame of the film, even the ones he is not in. The film is pure propaganda from beginning to end. It’s value today is to see how to make a great propaganda film, because Riefenstahl made the best here. Will it sway anyone to Hitler’s belief system? I doubt it highly – the film is, as Roger Ebert claimed, rather dull in places, and it never really does give you any indication of what Hitler’s belief system is. It’s just there, and we watch it, and once you have, you most likely will never forget it.

7. Captain Blood (Michael Curtiz)
Michael Curtiz’s Captain Blood is a wonderfully entertaining, swashbuckling epic starring Errol Flynn at his best. He plays a doctor in 17th Century England convicted of treason for helping a friend. Instead of carrying out his death sentence, the King sells Blood, and everyone else convicted, into slavery which is where he meets the beautiful Olivia de Havilland. But soon Blood and his fellow slaves escape, and begin their lives as pirates. Michael Curtiz is one of those Hollywood directors from the studio era who could seemingly direct anything. In this movie, he makes a rousing, romantic, fun epic pirate movie. He is, of course, aided by Flynn’s charm and style in the lead, along with De Havilland, who had wonderful chemistry with Flynn, and the wonderful Basil Rathborne, as Blood’s somewhat treacherous partner. The movie is fairly meaningless, but as good, old fashioned Hollywood entertainment, it’s tough to beat.

6. The Informer (John Ford)
John Ford’s The Informer is one of the director’s more dramatic pictures. It stars Victor McLaglen, who in 1922 Ireland informs on his friend, a member of the IRA, in order to collect the reward money. But McLaglen is racked with guilt over his decision, and his that guilt will eventually give himself away to the people who want to kill whoever informs. Ford’s sympathies are clearly with the IRA here, and McLaglen is portrayed as a coward. But he is also portrayed sympathetically by Ford – he makes a difficult choice, and regrets it, and he slowly degenerates into the mess we see near the end of the movie. McLaglen is excellent in the lead role, and would continue to work with Ford for years – mainly as a character actor, as he was one of the most valued of Ford’s stock company of supporting players. In The Informer, he is given the role of his lifetime, and he makes the most of it. A great performance in a great movie.

5. A Night at the Opera (Sam Wood)
The Marx Brothers are among the finest film comedians of all time. Never mind that this film is nearly 80 years old, it is still a film that I can watch today and laugh pretty much from start to finish – the brothers never fail to bring me out of a funk when I’m in one. A Night at the Opera is perhaps the best film they ever made next to the wonderful Duck Soup. The movie starts in Italy, where the brothers decide to help two young opera singers find fame and love, moves onto a ship when they stowaway to follow everyone in New York, and ends in a riotous scene at the opening night opera in New York, where they throw the entire performance into chaos. True, some of the scenes involving Kitty Carlisle, or all the singing, can be skipped, and I kind of prefer their old style when they would just out and out attack anyone in their way, whether they deserved it or not (that has been softened in this film, as they only attack the villains). And yet, there is more great work here than in most of the Brothers movie – an hilarious comedy by perhaps the finest comedy team in cinema history.

4. Toni (Jean Renoir)
Jean Renoir did a lot of his best work in the 1930s. Toni is a masterful film that is ripe for rediscovery, as I do not think it is as widely known as it deserves to be. This film was one of the key films that inspired the Italian neo-realist movement of the 1940s. It is about an immigrant quarry worker (Charles Blavette) who is in love with the beautiful Josefa (Celia Montalvan), but lives with the clingy, pathetic Marie (Jenny Helia). When Josefa is taken advantage of by Toni’s brute of a boss, she ends up marrying him instead, and Toni is stuck marrying Marie. No one is happy in their relationships, and as the years pass, things turn violent. Renoir used non-professional actors here, but they deliver great performances – raw and realistic. The narrative is simply, yet Renoir finds beauty in this simplicity. It is a shame that Toni seems to have been largely forgotten, while the neo-realist Italian films have become some of the most celebrated in cinema history. It is time for Toni to get some credit.

3. The 39 Steps (Alfred Hitchcock)
Alfred Hitchcock’s The 39 Steps is the second of many films the master made about an innocent man wrongly accused going on the run. In this film, Robert Donat is the innocent man in question – who meets a young woman at magician’s act, who meets a young woman who says that she is a British spy, and has uncovered a conspiracy called the 39 steps. When she is murdered, Donat goes on the run to try and bring the conspiracy to light, but is pursued by police and the conspirers themselves to try and silence him. This is widely regarded as perhaps the best of Hitchcock’s British films, and while I think there maybe a couple of others I like more, it is damned close. By this point in his career, Hitchcock had pretty much already become the master of suspense, and is filmmaking is, as always, impeccable and he draws a great performance from Robert Donat in the lead. Hitchcock loved to play the audience, and he does so wonderfully here – a great thriller by a great filmmaker.

2. Bride of Frankenstein (James Whale)
Out of all the Universal Horror films of the 1930s, I think The Bride of Frankenstein is my favorite. It is just as emotional as the original Frankenstein film by Whale in 1931 – perhaps even more so – and much more subversive. Watching the film today, you understand precisely what Whale, a homosexual, was doing in this movie. Its themes are clearly about homosexuality, and necrophilia for that matter, but Whale buried his themes in plain sight. Audiences, and censors, then thought that were watching a shocking, frightening horror movie, seemingly unaware of what Whale was really up to. Karloff has never been better than he was here – buried under all that makeup, and speaking halting, he finds subtle notes to play in the monster. His “parents” are more in overdrive camp – delightfully fun to watch, but Karloff’s monster is the tragic center of the film. Whale has made a film that is a masterpiece of production design and cinematography, and while the film probably wouldn’t scare modern audiences, it has an intelligence and style that is missing for recent horror films. Few sequels live up to the original – Bride of Frankenstein surpasses its first film, which was a masterpiece in its own right.

1. Top Hat (Mark Sandrich)
There is something to be said about movies that just flat out entertain you. I know most of my top films during this exercise have been serious, auteur films, but this year I have to say that out everything I have seen, Top Hat – a Fred Astaire/Ginger Rogers musical is far and away my favorite. It is better not to think about the plot – which logically doesn’t make any sense. It involves Rogers falling in love with Astaire, but then thinking that she is her best friend’s womanizing husband. True, you would think that she would at least know who her best friend’s husband is, but that doesn’t really matter, does it? What matters is the chemistry between Astaire and Rogers, who are one of the best in screen history. In their comedic scenes together, they are perfection, throwing witty barbs at each other with effortless humor and grace. But it is in the dance numbers where the movie truly comes alive. The numbers for Isn’t This a Lovely Day and Cheek to Cheek may be the two best dance numbers in cinema history – a perfect blend of song and dance, performed in incredibly long takes that should have exhausted the dancers beyond all realistic means, but they come through them smiling. The other dance numbers are great as well, but those two are transcendent. Yes, the movie is a fantasy, baring no real resemblance to reality – but when fantasy looks this great, who the hell needs reality?

Just Missed The Top 10: G-Men (William Keighley), Roberta (William A. Seiter).

Notable Films Missed: Alice Adams (George Stevens), Broadway Melody of 1936 (Roy Del Ruth), Carnival in Flanders (Jacques Feyder), David Copperfield (George Cukor), The Devil is a Woman (Josef von Sternberg), Les Misérables (Richard Boleslawski), The Lives of a Bengal Lancer (Henry Hathaway), A Midsummer Night's Dream (Max Reinhardt & William Dieterle), Naughty Marietta (W.S. Van Dyke), Ruggles of Red Gap (Leo McCarey).

Oscar Winner – Best Picture: Mutiny on the Bounty
Mutiny on the Bounty holds a strange distinction in Oscar history – it is the last best picture winner to win no other Oscars. True, they had much fewer categories in 1935 than they have today (and as mentioned above, had there been a supporting actor category Franchot Tone would have almost certainly have won), but it is odd that it happened at all (not only that, but this was the third film to pull off that feat). But perhaps it makes sense – the Academy had already given Frank Lloyd two directing Oscars at this point, and his two stars – Clark Gable and Charles Laughton – had also won Oscars by this point as well. As to whether or not the film is deserving of a win – you can tell I think there were better films this year than this one, but this was an audience friendly hit, and unlike Top Hat or Captain Blood (fellow nominees both) felt like it actually had something to say. It is a fine choice, but this time, I do wish they had looked elsewhere.

Oscar Winner – Best Director: John Ford, The Informer
John Ford has won more best director Oscars – four – than anyone else in history, and this was his first one. Obviously, the Academy loved the movie, but I think it’s dark subject matter and lack of stars prevented it from winning the big prize. It’s probably well enough, because I think had it won, many observers would point it out as an example of the Academy giving it to “serious, message movies” and while this certainly was one, I can’t say it is the worst example of one. Ford does a great job at capturing the humanity of his characters. It is a fine choice, but I almost wish that Michael Curtiz had won for Captain Blood – not because he truly deserved it (that would be James Whale), but because had he been able to pull it off, he would be the only Best Director winner to win on a write in ballot – alas, he only placed second.

Oscar Winner – Best Actor: Victor McLaglen, The Informer
I think the Academy gives their top acting prize too seldom to great character actors who have found a great role for themselves. So I am happy that they gave this one to McLaglen, who had a long, great career mainly as a character actor working for director John Ford. Ford gave him his best role in this dark little film, and despite the fact it wasn’t a huge success at the time, the Academy gave him the prize – and he probably deserved it out of the nominees.

Oscar Winner – Best Actress: Bette Davis, Dangerous
Dangerous has, to my knowledge anyway, never been released on DVD. The reason seems to be that no one actually thinks that highly of the film anymore – and evidence suggests that they never really did. Davis was a young star at the time, and she was desperate to win an Oscar, so she campaigned her ass off to win this, and low and behold she did. If the film does come out on DVD, or if it airs of TCM as it has in the past, I will probably watch it. But I’m not exactly chomping at the bit to do so.

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