Thursday, September 23, 2010

Year in Review: 1936

It has long been a complaint among film fans that comedies are not taken as seriously as dramas. And I have to admit that I think most of the films that get my number 1 spot on these lists are dramas - but not this year! The top four are comedies, and there are a number below them as well. The 1930s were a great time for comedy as this year proves in spades - even if there are some great non-comedies as well.

10. Libeled Lady (Jack Conway)
Some movies work amazingly well pretty much only because of their cast. Libeled Lady is an hilarious screwball comedy, which is well directed by Jack Conway, and has some great one liners. But the real reason to see the movie is for the performances – particularly by William Powell and Myrna Loy, one of my favorite screen couples in history. Powell plays a disgraced newspaper man hired back by his old boss (Spencer Tracy) when the paper publishes a libelous story about socialite Loy. In order to get out of a lawsuit Loy filed, they essentially have to prove she really is a slut, so they hire Powell to seduce her so they can prove that she actually was with a married man (to make matters more complicated, Powell has to marry Tracy’s fiancée, Jean Harlow). The plot is, of course, utterly ridiculous, but the movie is a pleasure to watch from beginning to end. All four of the leads are good, but Powell and Loy bring the film to an entirely new level by themselves. Not often counted among the best screwball comedies of the era, Libeled Lady nonetheless still deserves your attention.

9. The Petrified Forest (Archie Mayo)
Leslie Howard and Bette Davis are both excellent as the stars of The Petrified Forest, but it was newcomer Humphrey Bogart who really steals the show. Howard is a failed writer and artist hitchhiking his way across America when he comes across a small diner run by Davis and her family. Davis dreams of being able to travel to France to see the mother who abandoned her as a child. But plans are weigh laid when Bogart, as ruthless gangster Duke Mantee (they had such great character names back then) and his gang shows up and holds everyone hostage. Based on the famed stage play, The Petrified Forest is a talky movie – especially for one about gangster – but it works well. Howard and Davis have good chemistry together, their byplay wonderful. But Bogart is truly great as Mantee – completely unsympathetic and cold and cruel, yet you somehow can’t help but like the guy – Bogart did that in most of his roles. The Petrified Forest is a well written, well directed and extremely well acted little movie.

8. Fury (Fritz Lang)
Fury is an excellent movie about mob violence and the futility of revenge by the great German filmmaker Fritz Lang. Spencer Tracy gives one of his best performances as an innocent man who is arrested for a murder he did not commit. While sitting in jail, the news of his arrest leaks out, and the townspeople start howling for his blood – eventually burning down the jail, and supposedly killing him. But things are quite as they seem. Tracy is not really dead – but he wants vengeance on the people who tried to kill him. If he can just lie low until they are found guilty and executed, he can see it carried out. Tracy is excellent as the kind man turned bitter and vengeful. I think Sylvia Sidney is also quite good as his innocent fiancée – but like many of Sidney’s performances, I think she lays the innocent girl act a little too thick at points. Although I doubt they ever would have allowed it under the production code, I do wish the film had a harsher ending – instead of the climatic courtroom scene with a dramatic entrance, but overall I think this is one of Lang’s best early American films.

7. Sabotage (Alfred Hitchcock)
To some, Alfred Hitchcock’s Sabotage is his finest movie of his British period. While I may not go that far, it is certainly among his most tightly wound and tense thrillers – not just of his British period, but of his entire career. A movie theater owner is part of a group of saboteurs planning multiple attacks on London (they are assumed to be Nazis by many people, although their origin is never named in the movie). The man’s beautiful young wife (Syliva Sidney again) thinks that she has married a good man – one who is kind to her and her little brother. But the cops are onto him, and have assigned someone to go undercover and monitor his activities. By far the most suspenseful scene in the film comes when the little brother is sent to deliver what he thinks is nothing more than a film canister, but is really a time bomb. He goes through the streets, onto buses, etc and the entire time we know what he is carrying – but he has no idea. This is among the masterful set pieces of Hitchcock’s career. Overall the movie is excellent as well – although Sidney is once again a little too naïve and waifish for my tastes. Still, this is certainly one of Hitchcock’s best early films.

6. A Day in the Country (Jean Renoir)
Jean Renoir was never able to finish A Day in the Country. He had to abandon it halfway through shooting because the weather caused too many delays, and he had to move onto other projects. What was shot was edited together to make this magnificent 40 minute film, which deserves to be placed right alongside Renoir’s other masterpieces. It is a simple story. A rich man brings his wife, daughter and his daughter’s fiancée from Paris for a day in the country. Once there, they meet two young men, who seem kind, but have dirty minds. They offer to take the women on a boat ride, and they accept. Soon the young daughter finds herself alone with one of the young men along the banks of the shore. Although they have known each other for just a short time, they are in love. But she will leave with her family, marry her doltish fiancée anyway. A few years later, she returns, and he is still there – neither of them have been able to forget that one day when they were blissfully happy. Perhaps, in the end, it was better than Renoir never finished. Somehow this 40 minute version of the film feels complete – and perfect. Some stories don’t need long to tell. Of course, Renoir’s filmmaking is impeccable capturing the lazy day perfectly, with a camera that glides effortlessly. The performances are simple, yet tremendously effective. A Day in the Country is complete – because it is perfect just as it is.

5. Dodsworth (William Wyler)
Dodsworth is an uncommonly intelligent, perceptive Hollywood film about marriage – especially for one made in the 1930s. Walter Huston plays a middle aged, successful car manufacturer who is convinced by his wife (Ruth Chatterton) to sell his company so that they can travel to Europe and enjoy their lives. Soon though Chatterton starts to see everyone in Europe as exciting and sophisticated, and grows bored of her stogy, down to earth husband, and decides to leave him to marry someone of higher social standing. Huston lets her go, and then meets Mary Astor, and falls in love. But Chatterton’s plans fall through, and she comes running back. The movie is intelligent and sensitive, quite daring for its time in its depiction of adultery and divorce. Huston is given perhaps the best lead role of his career as Dodsworth, who is more comfortable in America and working, and sees the Europe social class as hollow and empty. Chatterton is also great as his social climbing wife, who wants everything, and expects it to be handed to her. These two performances carry the movie. Wyler was always a great director, and in Dodsworth he does some of the best work of his career, the screenplay Sidney Howard, based on the novel by Sinclair Lewis is top notch. All in all a wonderful 1930s movie that is a little deeper than most of the films of its time.

4. Swing Time (George Stevens)
Along with 1935’s Top Hat, Swing Time is the best movie that Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers ever made together. Once again, the plot of the movie – which involves Astaire’s attempts to make $25,000 to impress his future father in law, only to abandon that when he meets and falls in love with Rogers – is secondary, and somewhat ridiculous when you stop to think about it. What matters is the dancing and the music – and there have been few movies in history that can compete with Swing Time on that score. The dance numbers to Pick Yourself Up, The Way You Look Tonight, Waltz in Swingtime, A Fine Romance and Never Gonna Dance show Astaire and Rogers at their best – none are the same, yet all are breathtaking. And the Bojangles of Harlem is mesmerizing, and somehow avoids being racist even though Astaire is in blackface during the number. George Stevens brings an almost poignant feel to the movie, which shows these two are stars at the top of their game. One of the best musicals ever made.

3. Mr. Deeds Goes to Town (Frank Capra)
I know that to many high minded film critics, it is not “cool” to like the films of Frank Capra – but when they are at their best, and Mr. Deeds Goes to Town certainly qualifies as that, they are among the most heart warming, inspirational films ever made. Gary Cooper gives one of his most likable performances as Longfellow Deeds, a seemingly simple man from the town of Mandrake Falls, Vermont, who ends up inheriting $20 million dollars from a rich uncle. He has to come to the big city, and he doesn’t really know what to do – and ends up befriending the wrong girl (Jean Arthur), who is really a reporter, who writes a series of articles essentially calling Deeds a hick. A lawyer, who worked for his uncle, wants to keep his hands on the entire fortune, and thinks he can easily manipulate Deeds – but when Deeds decides to give his entire fortune away, he tries to have him declared incompetent, so he can keep the money himself. Capra has a way of making stories like this work – he would go onto make Mr. Smith Goes to Washington and It’s a Wonderful Life, which is their way resemble this film a great deal. The film is sweet and innocent, and while it is not blind to the Great Depression that was ravaging the country at the time, it wraps its politics in a shiny, happy message. Even viewed today, all these years later, Mr. Deeds Goes to Town retains the power to make you laugh and cry at the same time. One of Capra’s best.

2. My Man Godfrey (Gregory LaCava)
I think William Powell is one of the best comedic actors of all time – and his work in My Man Godfrey may just be the best of his career. He plays a man down on his luck, living in the dump during the Great Depression. A scatter brained, but essentially good hearted young woman (Carole Lombard) offers him a job as the family butler – and he gratefully accepts. What he doesn’t realize is just how crazy a family he is now employed by – the father (Eugene Pallette) seems resigned to the crazy, his wife (Alice Brady) is a world class ditz, with a “protégé” (Misha Auger) who is really just a freeloader and the other sister (Gail Patrick) is completed spoiled and mean. But Godfrey has a way with people, and he has secrets as well. The movie moves effortlessly along, buoyed by the great comedic work by the entire cast. There are great one liners scattered throughout – Powell delivering most of them with his sense of sardonic wit. My Man Godrey ranks among the very best screwball comedies of all time.

1. Modern Times (Charles Chaplin)
Pretty much every other filmmaker in the world moved onto talkies in the late 1920s, or at the latest the early 1930s. But Charles Chaplin persisted right up until this film – his final silent masterpiece this year – although it should be noted that Chaplin does use sound effects in the film, he just felt that his Little Tramp character should never speak. Modern Times was daring in 1936 – while most comedies of its era pretended the Great Depression was not going on, trying to offer escapism instead, Chaplin’s films dives headlong into it. His Little Tramp suffers a nervous breakdown while trying to work on an assembly line – being fed through a giant machine, and trying desperately to keep up screwing nuts. Unemployed, he gets arrested for being a communist instigator (he makes the mistake of waving a red flaw), and in jail accidentally eats cocaine, which causes him to go crazy, but somehow he manages to stop a prison break and is released. But when he cannot find a job, he tries to get arrested again – at least in jail he had food and shelter. Chaplin’s movie is full of inspired sigh gags, but more than that, like all of Chaplin’s great movies, it addresses some serious issues in a comedic way. Long after his fellow silent screen stars had vanished from the public eye, Chaplin continued to make great movies. Modern Times certainly marked an end of an era for Chaplin – everything he did after were talkies, but Modern Times was a fitting way to say goodbye. It is one of his best films, and an absolute masterpiece.

Just Missed The Top 10: Come and Get It (Howard Hawks and William Wyler), The Great Ziegfield (Robert Z. Leonard), The Lower Depths (Jean Renoir).

Notable Films Missed: Anthony Adverse (Mervyn LeRoy),By the Bluest of Seas (Boris Barnett), Camille (George Cukor), The Crime of Monsieur Lange (Jean Renoir), Romeo and Juliet (George Cukor), Rose Hobart (Joseph Cornell), San Francisco (W.S. Van Dyke),The Story of a Cheat (Sacha Guitry), The Story of Louis Pasteur (Willaim Dieterle), A Tale of Two Cities (Jack Conway), Three Smart Girls (Henry Koster).

Oscar Winner – Best Picture: The Great Ziegfeld
I have praised the great William Powell twice already on this list – for his performances in Libeled Lady and especially My Man Godfrey. He has the title role in this musical biopic of Broadway producer The Great Ziegfeld, and he tries his best to make the most of it. Unfortunately the movie itself is only average – a film that is WAY too long at nearly three hours, that grinds to a screeching halt several times for huge musical numbers that have nothing to do with the plot, and only serve to stop the story for 15 minutes at a time. Powell has some nice moments with Myrna Loy as his wife, but Louise Rainer is the best of the bunch. Really not a horrible movie, but one that had no business winning the Oscars it did.

Oscar Winner – Best Director: Frank Capra, Mr. Deeds Goes to Town
1936 is an unique year in Oscar history for a very specific reason: for the first, and only, time the Academy did not open voting in the nominating round to the entire membership, but instead to an executive committee of about 12 people – who then went ahead and nominated themselves. Capra was the head of this committee. Having said that, the entire Academy did get to vote for the win, and so I guess Capra earned his second Oscar for Best Director. Obviously, I think the Oscar went to a worthy candidate (the film is very high on my top 10 list), but that whole executive committee thing leaves a sour taste in my mouth when I think about this year – this win in particular.

Oscar Winner – Best Actor: Paul Muni, The Story of Louis Pasteur
I am a Paul Muni fan – his work in Scarface and I Am A Fugitive of a Chain Gang in particular – but for the life of me I have never been able to see The Story of Louis Pasteur. It has never been released on DVD for some reason (one of the very rare Best Actor winners that hasn’t), I haven’t been able to track down a VHS copy, and for some reason I always miss it when it plays on TCM. I haven’t heard that the film is a masterpiece by any means, but right now the only best actor performances I have missed are this one, George Arliss’ in Disraeli (1929) and The Way of All Flesh, where star Emil Jannings won the first Oscar for alongside his work in The Last Command, and is a film that has subsequently been lost to history. Out of the nominees, I would have easily picked William Powell for My Man Godfrey, although Gary Cooper is excellent as well.

Oscar Winner – Best Actress: Louise Rainer, The Great Ziegfield
This was the first year the Academy had supporting categories, so I guess you have to forgive the Academy for putting Rainer in the wrong category. It would be generous to say that she has an hour of screen time in this three hour epic musical – she shows up late, and is gone well before the end of the movie. But Rainer certainly does make an impression on you when she is on screen – as The Great Ziegfeld’s other woman. She is young and beautiful, and her telephone scene, which is what probably won her the Oscar, is the single best in the movie. No, I don’t think she really deserved to win (especially since Carole Lombard was nominated for My Man Godfrey), but it’s a fine performance. In the proper category, I wouldn’t have a problem with it at all.

Oscar Winner – Best Supporting Actor: Walter Brennan, Come and Get It
You have to love Walter Brennan, who along with Katherine Hepburn and Jack Nicholson is the only actor to win more than 2 Oscars (the reason being he won three of the first five Supporting Actor Oscars, in years when the Academy let the huge contingent of extras vote and the extras loved Brennan who worked his way up from one of them to become a valuable supporting player in the movies). His performance in Come and Get It is strange, funny and enjoyable – he effects a wonderfully horrid Swedish accent in the film, but his work as the ever loyal best friend is still quite effective and emotional. The film itself is quite good as well – co-directed by William Wyler and Howard Hawks (I think Wyler left for some reason), it’s a decent film, but one that had it none won the Oscar would most likely have been forgotten by now.

Oscar Winner – Best Supporting Actress: Gale Soderrgaard, Anthony Adverse
Mervyn LeRoy’s sprawling epic, based on a behemoth novel, is a film that I have never gotten around to seeing. I hear it is good – not great by any means but quite good just the same. Sonderrgaard plays the wife of the man that killed the title characters father in a duel after learning that he had impregnanted his wife (who then died in childbirth, leaving him an orphan). Other than that, I don’t know very much about her role – strangely she is barely mentioned in most reviews of the film. When I see it, I’ll know if she deserved it or not – but I’m not running out to see it any time too soon.

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