Wednesday, October 20, 2010

Year in Review: 1932

1932 was a very good year for movies. For one thing, one of my all time favorite filmmakers made the best film of his career. For another, filmmakers seemed to playing a little bit more with sound and visuals than many had in previous years. It isn’t one of the greatest years in movie history, but there is a wealth of films that should be seen.

10. Vampyr (Carl Theodor Dreyer)
Carl Theodor Dreyer certainly made better films than Vampyr – which is often considered a low point for the famed Danish director – but that doesn’t mean the film is without merit. Quite the contrary in fact. Vampyr has a wonderful, hazy look and feel to it. Shot on location, the film is shrouded in fog and is more dependent on atmosphere than anything else. Strange for a vampire movie, the film has a spiritual side as well (which should be no surprise considering the director). The film is certainly melodramatic, and really is impossible to take all that seriously, yet if you get on its wavelength and let the film wash over you, it becomes a rather spellbinding film. Vampyr is certainly minor Dreyer – there really is no denying that – but even minor Dreyer is more visually stunning than most directors can do at their best.

9. Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde (Rouben Mamoulian)
This screen version of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde is memorable for several reasons. One is that explicit sexuality that the film embodies – particularly in the performance of Miriam Hopkins as a prostitute, who saw her role slashed away when the production code came into effect and the film was re-released in 1936. Another is for Frederic March’s excellent, Oscar winning performance as the good Jekyll, and the evil Hyde – two distinct characters that March embodies wonderfully well. But perhaps the best reason to see the movie today is to watch director Mamouulian experiment visually – not just in the transition sequences, which must have been stunning to audiences back then, but in all the sequences. There is a strange look and feel to the story. It isn’t a complete triumph, but it’s probably the best screen version we are likely to see of this story.

8. Horse Feathers (Norman Z. McLeod)
As with pretty much all Marx brothers movies, Horse Feathers has the barest of plots that the brothers use to string together a series of hilarious routines. This time, the movie is about college football, and an upcoming game between rival colleges Darwin and Huxley. Groucho is the President of Huxley, and is convinced to hire pros to play for his team (the constant jokes about the “amateur status” of college athletes still remains relevant today). Poor Zeppo (who was always unnecessary in the films he made with his brothers) is Groucho’s son, and Chico and Harpo are two icemen who mistakenly get drafted onto the team. There are a number of great one liners in the film (“Why don’t you bore a hole a in yourself and let the sap run out”), and as always Groucho is the star, but Chico and Harpo get quite a few laughes as well. Like all great Marx brothers movies, Horse Feathers is a piece of inspired lunacy.

7. The Most Dangerous Game (Merian C. Cooper & Ernest R. Schoesack)
The year before they would forever change American movies with King Kong, Merian C. Cooper and Ernest R. Schoesack made this film from the famed Richard Connell story. Joel McCrea plays a big game hunter, and sole survivor of a shipwreck who swims to a nearby island, owned by the strange Count Zaroff (Leslie Banks). Apparently, shipwrecks in the area are all too common, and there are still four people from the last one staying with Zaroff. By now, I think that everyone knows what happens next – the madman Zaroff means to hunt and kill each one of his guests on his island – but he has never encountered someone like McCrea before. The film has become one of the most influential of the 1930s – the basic premise has been borrowed by countless films over the years. And yet, this original version remains the best of the bunch – a haunting, exciting film that is pretty much all you could want from a movie of this sort.

6. Grand Hotel (Edmund Goulding)
Grand Hotel is big, glossy entertainment from a time when Hollywood still knew how to make such movies. The film was essentially an excuse to get some of the biggest stars in the world together for the same movie. The film stars Greta Garbo as a famed Russian ballerina, staying at the Grand Hotel in Berlin. Also staying there is former rich boy (John Barrymore), know a con man and thief, a dying accountant (Lionel Barrymore), his former boss (Wallace Beery) and a stenographer (Joan Crawford). Their lives intersect in interesting ways throughout the whole movie even though, as the old man who is a constant guest observes “Nothing ever happens”. This film has certainly become influential – it’s possible to see the large tapestries that Robert Altman often worked on in the film, and can also been seen as a precursor to things like the Ocean’s 11 movies with its large cast of stars. The film itself remains sublimely entertaining throughout – especially when Joan Crawford is on screen, who completely steals the movie with her sly sexuality (apparently she was even better in the original cut, but Garbo wanted her part trimmed down so Crawford wouldn’t upstage her, and since Garbo was the big star, and Crawford the relative newcomer they did it). A fine example of its kind.

5. I Am a Fugitive from the Chain Gang (Mervyn LeRoy)
Most of the time, when Hollywood makes an “issue” movie the result is preachy and unconvincing. But that isn’t the case with I Am a Fugitive from a Chain Gang, a movie that effectively helped to change the American legal system, and outlaw chain gangs. Paul Muni gives one of his best performances as a man wrongfully convicted of a robbery, and sentenced to 10 years on a Southern chain gang. He escapes, flees to Chicago and makes a success of himself, only to be betrayed and end up where he started. When he escapes again, the system has succeeded in turning him into a criminal. The film is an indictment of the American legal system, but it works remarkably well as a drama as well, with Muni carrying the film in pretty much every frame – right down to iconic last scene where he fades into the shadows after delivering a killer closing line (“I steal”). I Am a Fugitive for a Chain Gang is perfect example of the fact that just because your film is a “message” movie, that doesn’t mean it cannot be entertaining as well.

4. Boudu Saved from Drowning (Jean Renoir)
Jean Renoir’s Boudu Saved from Drowning is a strange little film. On one level, it is a comedy about a bum (Michel Simon) who is saved by a middle class man (Charles Granval) when he jumps into the river Seine trying to kill himself. Granval brings him home, and tries to “rehabilitate” Simon into a regular middle class citizen. Simon is perhaps the most ungrateful houseguest in history – exposing secrets, seducing the family with his charm, and essentially getting them to see the hollowness of their own existence. Perhaps the film was meant as an attack on the complacency of the middle class, but Simon is hardly a sympathetic, truth seer either – he really is kind of an asshole, which serves to complicate the story even more. The film is filled with Renoir’s humanist touches, and really is brilliantly well structured – both as a story and as a visual experience. One of Renoir’s best films.

3. Scarface (Howard Hawks)
Along with The Public Enemy and Little Caesar, Howard Hawks’ Scarface has to be considered one of the best gangster movies from the early 1930s. Very loosely based on Al Capone, Scarface is a violent movie about a prohibition era gangster who shoots his way to the top. He is merciless in his killing, not caring if innocent bystanders get in his way or not. Of course, we know that he will be brought down by the end of the film, but until then he remains completely unrepenent and evil. Paul Muni gives what could be his best performance as Scarface, and the direction by Howard Hawks is crisp, swift and absolutely brutal. While the film may have lost its power to shock audiences the way it did in 1932 (in part because of all the violence in movies since), it remains a key film of the gangster genre, a riveting portrait of an amoral man who will do anything to win.

2. Freaks (Tod Browning)
Unfortunately, we will never get to see the original version of Freaks – the one that Tod Browning intended us to see. That is because after test screenings of his original 90 minute cut of the film went horrible (including one woman who threaten to sue saying the film gave her a miscarriage), the studio cut nearly half an hour of the film out, and spliced on a “happy ending”. But while what remains is certainly a bastardized film, it is still a remarkable one. Browning’s story of circus “freaks” is remarkable for several reasons – the biggest one being that he decided to cast real people who suffered from the deformities we see on the screen, instead of using makeup. The “freaks” in the film are the sympathetic figures, while the “normal” people are cruel, using them merely as their playthings. The main thrust of the story involves a trapeze artist who marries a rich, sideshow little person for his money, and then tries to slowly poison him to death. When his friends find out about the plot, they extract a shocking revenge. Freaks remains disturbing and surprisingly modern for a film made in 1932. The original version, which has been lost forever, may have been better, or may not have – we will never know. But what remains is still Browning’s best film – even if it did essentially end his career.

1. Trouble in Paradise (Ernst Lubitsch)
Trouble in Paradise glides so seemingly effortlessly that it had to be next to impossible to actually make the film. Here is a movie about a love triangle between a thief (Herbert Marshall), a pickpocket (Miriam Hopkins) and a rich woman (Kay Francis) that in lesser hands could have been a screwball comedy – and probably a damn fine one. But director Ernst Lubitsch tones it down, and makes the movie surprisingly subdued. Yes, the dialogue is witty and playful, but it is delivered with wry wit and an undertone of sadness instead of turned up to 11. Marshall and Hopkins seem tailor made for each other, but then Francis shows up. I think she knows right from the beginning what Marshall really is, but continues on with him anyway. She is not just another spoiled, na├»ve princess, but it something much more real. And perhaps that’s why Trouble in Paradise rises to such levels of excellence – it is a film about these people in an almost impossible situation, and yet it feels real from the first moment of the film to the last. The acting is brilliant, the screenplay ranks among the best ever written, and the Lubitsch’s camera simply glides. Trouble in Paradise is one of the very best films of the 1930s – on some days I may even say the best.

Just Missed The Top 10: Number 17 (Alfred Hitchcock)

Notable Films Missed: A Farewell to Arms (Frank Borzage), I Was Born, But (Yashjiro Ozu), Love Me Tonight (Rouben Moullimen), One Hour With You (Ernst Lubitch), Que Viva Mexico (Sergei Eisenstein), Shanghai Express (Josef von Sternberg), Smilin’ Through (Sidney Franklin), State Fair (Henry King).

Oscar Winner – Best Picture: Grand Hotel
Grand Hotel holds an odd Oscar distinction – it is the only film ever to win the Best Picture Oscar without even being nominated for any other awards. That’s right despite its huge cast, none of them were nominated. Despite its fine direction, that wasn’t nominated either, nor its screenplay. Such a thing would seem impossible nowadays (the closest I can recall happening is Four Weddings and a Funeral who in 1994 was nominated only for Best Picture and Original Screenplay). Although strange, that doesn’t mean the film is undeserving in any way. I think there was too many big stars for any of them to be nominated, but also for the Academy to completely overlook the film. It isn’t the best winner ever, but it is a great film, so I have no complaints.

Oscar Winner – Best Director: Frank Borzage, Bad Girl (actually a 1931 Film)
Frank Borzage is a highly respected director who I have to admit I am wholly unfamiliar with. I have never been able to track down any of his films – most notably Seventh Heaven for which he also won an Oscar or, this film, Bad Girl. It is said to be a realist film about ordinary people living ordinary lives, and also won the screenplay Oscar this year. When this becomes available – or if it is available when I can track it down – I will certainly watch it, as I am very interested in this director, who right now remains an unknown to me.

Oscar Winner – Best Actor: Wallace Beery, The Champ (actually a 1931 film)/Frederic March, Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde
The first ever tie at the Oscars was between these two actors – although unlike the tie that occurred in 1968 between Barbara Striesand and Katherine Hepburn, this one is somewhat controversial since apparently Beery actually lost to March by five votes, but someone thought that was close enough, and announced late in the ceremony (after March had accepted his award) that it was actually a tie, and the Academy didn’t have to guts to take the Oscar back from Beery. As for the quality of the performances, I think March was wonderful in the dual title role – although it isn’t the best work of his career. As for Beery, despite my love of director King Vidor, I have to say that I found The Champ to be WAY overly sentimental, and I wasn’t overly impressed with the film, nor his performance.

Oscar Winner – Best Actress: Helen Hayes, The Sin of Madelon Claudette (actually a 1931 film)
Helen Hayes would go on to set a record when she won her second Oscar for Airport in 1970 – the 38 years between her first and second win are the longest between victors in Oscar history (although it should be noted that Katherine Hepburn’s four Oscar wins spans 48 years between first and last, although there were two in between). You hear next to nothing about this film anymore – a melodrama in which Hayes plays a wrongly convicted woman who gets out of jail and turns to prostitution and theft to send her son to med school. I have to admit I don’t know much about Hayes, or this movie which remains unseen by me – but since I don’t know anything about her fellow nominees performances either, I really can’t complain.

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