Saturday, September 24, 2016

1933: Top 10 List and Year in Review

For those unfamiliar with my Top 10 Movie Project, the idea came about a couple years ago as a means to catch up on classic cinema on a year by year basis. Each year I pick 20-30 films, including the major ones that are available and other films that pique my interest. At the end of the year, I do an annual wrapup, with reviews of each of the films I watched, come up with a top 10 list and my own version of the Oscars. Then I move on to the next year. I started with 1927, so this will be the 7th year I've completed.

Capsule reviews of each of the films I saw for 1933 can be found here.

1933 proved to be an interesting year because the Hays Code had yet to be enforced, meaning there were some daring roles for women where they completely upended traditional sexual dynamics, such as Design for Living, Baby Face, She Done Him Wrong, and Female (until the ending). The Hays Code would come along the next year and heavily censor films over the next decade based on both sexual and political content. It was in effect until 1968, but stopped being heavily enforced in the late 1940s.

A year earlier, the Quigley Publishing company began compiling lists of the top 10 box office stars in Hollywood based on the polling of theater owners. This sets the stage for one of my favorite old Hollywood stories. Marie Dressler, a popular actress in the silent era, was so close to committing suicide that she was in a diner one night planning how she would do it. By a wonderful twist of fate, director Allan Dwan happened to be in that same diner and recognized her. He immediately cast her in his next film. That was in 1928 and after several years of great success, Dressler had become the biggest box office star in Hollywood, winning the Quigley poll in its first two years of existence. It's a fantastic comeback story and Dressler deserved it as she was a wonderful actress.

The return of John Gilbert is another interesting story from the year. Gilbert was a silent film star and his films with Greta Garbo made them the most popular romantic screen duo of their era. His career floundered with the onset of talkes and the reasons are controversial. Conventional wisdom for a while stipulated that his voice was too high pitched for the sound era, especially for someone who was supposed to be a romantic lead. That theory is strongly contradicted by many film buffs, including a passionate Leonard Maltin, who argue Gilbert's decline had more to do with studio politics. Having seen his reunion with Garbo in this year's Queen Christina, the latter opinion seems most definitely correct as his voice sounds perfect for a male romantic lead.

Some of my favorite directors that have been a staple of this project since the very beginning return this year with more great entries. The great Ernst Lubitsch makes his 6th appearance on my top 10 lists with Design for Living, while Fritz Lang makes his 4th appearance (and 2nd #1) with the wonderful Testament of Dr. Mabuse. The master of romantic melodrama Frank Borzage and future legend Frank Capra (still one year removed from his first notable classic) also make their 4th appearances. It was a pretty good year for films overall, but Hollywood still has not caught up to the quality of the late silent era.

Below is my top 10 list, in reverse order. Instead of including stills like I did in previous years, I've included Youtube links to the trailers of these films. When a trailer wasn't available, I included individual scenes.

10. King Kong (Merian C. Cooper, Ernest P. Shoedsack)

The original hasn't aged well, but still remains a compelling story.

9. Lady For a Day (Frank Capra)

May Robson's Apple Annie is an incredibly endearing character.

8. Counsellor at Law (William Wyler)

John Barrymore in another great character performance.

7. Queen Cristina (Rouben Mamoulian)

Garbo lights up the screen as the legendary Swedish queen.

6. A Man's Castle (Frank Borzage)

Spencer Tracy and Loretta Young in a compelling romance.

5. Little Women (George Cukor)

Katharine Hepburn leads a great ensemble cast in this exquisite adaptation.
4. The Private Life of Henry VIII (Alexander Korda)

Charles Laughton in an unforgettable performance as the famous king.

3. Design For Living (Ernst Lubitsch)

Miriam Hopkins, Fredric March, and Gary Cooper in a complicated relationship.

2. Duck Soup (Leo McCarey)

Political satire brings out the best in the Marx Bros.

1. The Testament of Dr. Mabuse (Fritz Lang)

Mabuse's rein of terror continues in this brilliantly suspenseful thriller.

Awards (winners noted with an *)


Frank Borzage, A Man's Castle
George Cukor, Little Women
Alexander Korda, The Private Life of Henry VIII
*Fritz Lang, The Testament of Dr. Mabuse
Ernst Lubitsch, Design for Living

Lead Actor

John Barrymore, Counsellor at Law
*Charles Laughton, The Private Life of Henry VIII
Fredric March, Design for Living
Spencer Tracy, A Man's Castle
Otto Wernicke, The Testament of Dr. Mabuse

Lead Actress

Greta Garbo, Queen Christina
Katharine Hepburn, Morning Glory
Miriam Hopkins, Design for Living
May Robson, Lady for a Day
*Mae West, She Done Him Wrong

Supporting Actor

Wallace Beery, Dinner at Eight
Oscar Beregi, The Testament of Dr. Mabuse
Gustav Diessl, The Testament of Dr. Mabuse
*Edward Everett Horton, Design for Living
Rudolf Klein-Rogge, The Testament of Dr. Mabuse

Supporting Actress

Binnie Barnes, The Private Life of Henry VIII
*Marie Dressler, Dinner at Eight
Glenda Farrell, Lady for a Day
Jean Harlow, Dinner at Eight
Elsa Lanchester, The Private Life of Henry VIII

Original Screenplay

*Duck Soup (Bert Kalmar, Harry Ruby)
King Kong (James Ashmore Creelman, Ruth Rose)
Lady for a Day (Robert Riskin, Damon Runyan)
The Private Life of Henry VIII (Lajos Biro, Arthur Wimperis)
Queen Christina (H.M. Harwood, Salka Viertel)

Adapted Screenplay

Counsellor at Law (Elmer Rice)
*Design for Living (Ben Hecht)
Little Women (Sarah Y. Mason, Victor Heerman)
A Man's Castle (Jo Swerling)
The Testament of Dr. Mabuse (Fritz Lang, Thea Von Harbou)


Counsellor at Law
Design for Living
The Private Life of Henry VIII
*The Testament of Dr. Mabuse
Queen Christina


The Bitter Tea of General Yen
King Kong
A Man's Castle
The Private Life of Henry VIII
*The Testament of Dr. Mabuse

Art Direction

King Kong
A Man's Castle
The Private Life of Henry VIII
Queen Christina
*The Testament of Dr. Mabuse


Footlight Parade
Little Women
*The Private Life of Henry VIII
Queen Christina

Visual Effects

The Invisible Man
*King Kong
The Testament of Dr. Mabuse

Movies Seen - 1933

Here are the movies I saw from 1933 with capsule reviews and ratings (out of 4).

42nd Street (Lloyd Bacon) **

I find it interesting that much maligned 1930 Best Picture winner The Broadway Melody is always held up as an example of the problems with early talkies, while 42nd Street is considered one of the classic early musicals. I'll take the former over the latter any day. The Broadway Melody actually featured solid performances from the spunky Bessie Love and the fetching Anita Page, while 42nd Street features an incredibly stilted and monotone performance by Bebe Daniels and much of the supporting cast. There are certainly some memorable musical numbers here, but not enough to overcome the nearly unwatchable non-musical scenes.

Baby Face (Alfred E. Green) ***

1933 was the year of women in roles that reversed gender stereotypes and Baby Face is yet another in that long list. Barbara Stanwyck plays a deceitful woman who works her way up the corporate ladder by sleeping with men (one of them being a young John Wayne) and then completely ruining their lives. Stanwyck is terrific in this role, perfectly capturing the deceptive, persuasive nature of her character while finding some added depth that still allows you to care about her. The ending is overly melodramatic, but it is appropriate for the character.

The Bitter Tea of General Yen (Frank Capra) ***

This is a highly regarded film, but for me it doesn't live up to Capra's other early work. It stars Barbara Stanwyck as an engaged missionary in China during the Chinese Civil War. When she and her fiance are attacked, they get split up and she is captured by General Yen (Nils Asther). He begins to fall for her and a weird captor/hostage relationship begins to develop between the two as they start to fall for each other. It doesn't play out as fascinatingly as it should. The extremely slow pace and lack of interesting supporting characters really hamper things from the outset and Stanwyck's performance isn't quite up to her usual standards. Still, the overall chemistry is pretty strong and Nils Asther, a white actor, does an admirable job playing a Chinese character without resorting to caricature.

Cavalcade (Frank Lloyd) **

Cavalcade won the Best Picture Oscar for this year and is often considered one of the worst Best Picture winners. There is some merit to that, although I still feel Wings is by far the worst among the winners I’ve seen. This film follows a wealthy British family from 1899 to 1932, hitting the high and low points of British history during that period. It’s an impressive attempt to create an expansive story covering a great period of time, but the individual scenes are played way too dry and the story never builds any real emotional momentum.

Counsellor at Law (William Wyler) ****

John Barrymore is fantastic in this riveting character study of a top notch lawyer dealing with a heavy caseload and personal problems at home. Wyler can be hit or miss, but is generally reliable and this is one of his best directorial efforts. Everything moves at a very fast pace, with a rapid, witty dialogue style that bears similarities to the screwball comedies that would dominate Hollywood in a few years, but definitely with a more serious tone. Bebe Daniels, as the loyal secretary in love with Barrymore, is infinitely better here than in 42nd Street.

Design For Living (Ernst Lubitsch) ****

While doing this project, I will one day eventually come to a point where there will be no more Lubitsch films to see. That will be a sad day. This is another one of his delightful gems. Design for Living is based on a Noel Coward play about a woman (Miriam Hopkins) being pursued by two men (Gary Cooper, Fredric March) who turn out to be roommates. She can't decide between them so they come to a "Gentleman's Agreement" but that eventually gets complicated. The wit and decliate touch of Lubitsch is evident throughout this film. Hopkins is always a delight and Edwart Everett Horton has a terrific turn as her longtime stuck up suitor.

Dinner at Eight (George Cukor) ***1/2

Very entertaining character piece about a high society woman throwing a dinner party. It's based on a stage play that debuted in 1932 and features a grand ensemble cast including Marie Dressler, John Barrymore, Lionel Barrymore, Jean Harlow, Jean Hersholt, and Wallace Beery. The dinner party leads to some funny dynamics between the main players and the chief pleasure of this film is watching the great cast work together. Cukor understands this well and thus utilizes a hands off directing style that doesn't get in the way.

Duck Soup (Leo McCarey) ****

I haven't actually been the biggest Marx Brothers fan to date. I found both Animal Crackers and Monkey Business to be funny, but lacking in several areas. In fact, their funniest film had been the underrated The Coconauts, their debut which had a creative and hilarious hotel room sequence. Duck Soup is finally the classic that lives up to its billing. Groucho plays Rufus T. Firefly, who is appointed ruler of the nation of Freedonia The mix of political satire with the Marx Bros. usual brand of witty silliness works perfectly and leads to some of their best jokes.  Ex. “You're a brave man. Go and break through the lines. And remember, while you're out there risking your life and limb through shot and shell, we'll be in be in here thinking what a sucker you are.” Picked by the AFI as the 5th best comedy and 60th best film of all time.

Emperor Jones (Dudley Murphy) ***

Based on a Eugene O’ Neil play, this is a very odd tale of a blue collar worker who gets caught up in various illegal activities. He escapes prison and swims to a small Caribbean island, where he eventually becomes the ruler. The film is notable for having an African-American main character, especially one who is not portrayed as a stuttering fool as in most films of this era. Paul Robeson plays the title role and he gives a charismatic, forceful performance. The film is a bit too melodramatic at times and the story probably plays better on the stage, but it is never boring and Robeson’s performance makes it worthwhile.

Female (Michael Curtiz) **

Few films have built up as much goodwill as this one only to completely throw it away with an ending that completely tosses aside everything that came before it. A very good Ruth Chatterton stars as one of the few female executives that has attained success in a male dominated field. It’s a very fascinating character that is allowed to be strong and independent. She uses the male employees at the company for sex and then tosses them aside. However, the ending completely reverses the entire film and makes the overall message appear to be a warning to women that they have their place and it isn’t as an executive.

Footlight Parade (Lloyd Bacon)

Cagney plays a producer of stage musicals whose business starts to get squeezed out due to the invention of sound films. He comes up with the idea to stage prologues that would take place before the movies. However, his ideas are threatened by rivals who are spying and his new ideas and threatening to steal them. The plot is all in the first half of the film as the second half is one of the longest, most exhausting musical sequences I’ve ever seen in a film. It’s an impressive sequence, but it doesn’t necessarily make for the best story, although Cagney, Joan Blondell, and Ruby Keeler are all very good.

Gabriel Over the White House (Gregory La Cava) **

Now here is a bizarre and at times frightening film about a man’s (Walter Huston) political rise to President of the United States during the Great Depression and how a near fatal accident completely changed the way he handled things. At first he is a hack, completely following whatever the party asked him to do. That changes after the accident and he institutes sweeping changes to turn things around. What’s both fascinating and frightening about this film is the way in which the main character solves problems is with a heavy dose of fascism. He gets rid of his cabinet, ignores Congress, takes on gangsters by himself, threatens nations to repay their debts. None of this is played as satire, but as a real prescription for what America needed in 1933. It’s very well made, with Huston giving a typically charismatic lead performance, but it’s hard to get past the film’s central theme.

Gold Diggers of 1933 (Mervyn LeRoy) ***

Another musical with some fantastic music sequences, but thankfully the non-musical sequences are much better here than in 42nd Street, thanks to a great cast that includes Joan Blondell, Aline McMahon, and Ruby Keeler as chorus girls whose play just got cancelled. Out of work, they try to find a backer for a new musical that can make them stars. There’s some really good material in here, but overall it’s a bit too slight for it to work really well. It’s still recommended due to some funny moments and an engaging cast.

Heroes For Sale (William Wellman) ***1/2

Very dark and interesting tale of a man’s rise and fall after returning from WW1. Tom Holmes (Richard Barthelmess) returns from the war a hero, but his addiction to morphine makes it hard for him to find a job. He then leaves town for a fresh start and finds a mixture of great success and horrible tragedy along the way. There is some really compelling stuff right here, with a standout performance from Barthelmess. I also love the beautifully ironic juxtaposition of the final line.

Invisible Man (James Whale) ***

James Whale fashions another predictably good thriller from a popular novel. Like many other horror/thriller films of the era, much of The Invisible Man suffers from too much exposition and a slow pace. However, the lead performance from Claude Rains is very strong, capably showing the main character’s descent into insanity. Coupled with the solid suspense set pieces, this makes for good, old-fashioned horror viewing.

King Kong (Merian Cooper, Ernest Shoedsack) ***1/2

Here’s a classic film that has perhaps aged a bit too much. Oddly, it hasn’t aged as badly in the way you’d think (special effects) as it does in other areas (acting). It’s easy to see the effects are incredibly solid for the era and there are some very exciting moments created by this throughout the film. Kong’s climb to the top of the Empire State Building is still a fascinating and deservedly iconic film moment. However, so much of the film surrounding that just does not work very well simply because it suffers from the wooden acting that was so prevalent during the early sound era, keeping it from the status of a true classic.

Lady For a Day (Frank Capra) ***1/2

Early Capra has been one of my favorite discoveries while doing this project. Films like Miracle Woman and American Madness deserve to be placed alongside his classics. This one isn’t quite that good, but it is another example of strong early work from the director. It’s about a homeless woman known as Apple Annie (May Robson) whose daughter is about to return from overseas. Annie doesn’t want to be seen in her current state, so the local community (including mobster Dave the Dude, who views her as a good luck charm) help her by fixing her up, including giving her a fake husband and a place to stay, so her daughter will think she’s been successful. It’s a classic Capraesque story of people helping out a fundamentally decent person and May Robson is terrific in the lead role.

Lady Killer (Roy Del Ruth) ***

The second James Cagney film this year features the great actor as a theater usher who gets fired and becomes a successful professional criminal. He later finds success in the movie business, but his old profession quickly comes back to cause problems for his newfound success. Cagney gives another one of his memorably gritty performances, but the entire film is left up to him as the supporting characters are not interesting at all.

Little Women (George Cukor) ****

I had previously seen Lillian Armstrong’s wonderful 1994 version, but this is my first time seeing the original adaptation of Louisa May Alcott’s novel and it was a wonderful experience. Katharine Hepburn, just as good here as in her Oscar winning role from the same year (Morning Glory), stars as Jo and is ably supported by a wonderful ensemble cast, including Joan Bennet as Amy, Frances Dee as Meg, and Jean Parker in the heartbreaking role of Beth. Cukor plays this up like a less exaggerated Borzage melodrama, which really is the perfect tone. The story plays out beautifully and finishes with a nicely understated ending.

A Man's Castle (Frank Borzage) ****

Borzage is the master of the romantic melodrama. I haven’t liked all of his films, but when he’s on, he produces something very memorable and this film is another example. It’s about people deeply affected by the depression and forced to live in squatter settlements. Bill (Spencer Tracy) helps poor young Trina (Loretta Young) by giving her a place to stay in his settlement. Things get complicated when she begins to fall for him, as Bill is used to travelling from place to place and doesn’t like being tied down. Tracy and Young are marvelous in the leads, there’s memorable supporting turns from Marjorie Rambeau and Glenda Farrell, and Borzage creates a dark, fascinating visual backdrop.

Morning Glory (Lowell Sherman) ***

This was Katharine Hepburn's first really famous role and the one that led to her first Oscar for Best Actress. The role is much better than the movie. I previously liked Lowell Sherman's movies as his relaxed directing style was a nice compliment to his own relaxed acting style. But that has worked less in films like She Done Him Wrong and this one, which have a darker tone than his usual stuff and he doesn't even appear as an actor. Still, Katharine Hepburn's performance as a theater newcomer who talks her way into getting her big shot, is very impressive and she has a long monologue in the middle of the film that is completely dazzling.

The Private Life of Henry VIII (Alexander Korda) ****

Charles Laughton’s incredible performance powers this memorable story of King Henry VIII and his relationship with his many wives. Henry is played by Laughton as a very charismatic, but often childish man who cannot make up his mind, thus his constant need to either kill or divorce his wives. Most of the film revolves around his relationship with his 4th wife Anne of Cleves (Elsa Lanchester) and 5th wife Katherine Howard (Binnie Barnes), with very contrasting portraits between these two relationships. Korda has a terrific visual sense and the story moves through Henry’s life at a confident pace. It’s an entertaining and fascinating look into a very bizarre and mixed up individual who happened to rule an entire country.

Queen Cristina (Rouben Mamoulian) ****

Greta Garbo’s best sound role to date. Here she plays Queen Christina, a 17th century ruler of Sweden. Christina took the throne at age 6 and is depicted as a very patriotic and benevolent ruler that favored peace over continuing the Thirty Years War. She was completely devoted to her country and avoided romantic entanglements, but one day she escapes the palace secretly dressed as a man. Staying at an inn, she strikes up a strong friendship with a Spanish traveller (John Gilbert) which turns to romantic once he finds out her true identity. However, this romance is not approved by her advisors or the Swedish public, forcing her to choose between devotion to her country and true love. Even in 1933, this plot was nothing new, but few couples have lit up the screen together like Greta Garbo and John Gilbert. This would be their third and final picture together (Love, A Woman of Affairs) as Gilbert died the following year. As in their other films, they have an incredible chemistry here that makes this a completely winning romantic story.

She Done Him Wrong (Lowell Sherman) ***

A delightfully sexy performance from Mae West powers this slick tale of a nightclub singer Lady Lou who spends much of her time in the company of different men. However, one of her acquaintances is a dangerous criminal who warns that he'll kill her if she cheats on him. When he escapes from prison and comes to see her, all hell breaks loose. Despite a young Cary Grant in a supporting role as a missionary, this film completely belongs to Mae West and her wisecracking cynicism mixed with stunning sex appeal completely carries the day. Film is notable for the memorable line - “Why don’t you come up sometime and see me?” which was listed by the AFI as the 26th best movie quote of all time.

State Fair (Henry King) **1/2

This one is a bit of a disappointment. There are many versions of this musical, but this first version is one of the least known and hardest to find. I sought it out on Ebay, mainly because it starred Janet Gaynor, one of my favorite actresses since I started this project. Unfortunately, the story is nothing but pure fluff about a family’s adventures at a local state fair. It’s not a complete misfire, as Gaynor is really good and her romance with Lew Ayres is very charming, but the slight story really goes nowhere.

The Testament of Dr. Mabuse (Fritz Lang) ****

Another astonishing Fritz Lang film that gets started right away with a terrific extended, mostly silent suspense sequence. The story is a sort of sequel to his 1922 silent film Dr. Mabuse: The Gambler. The always memorably sinister Rudolf Klein-Rogge returns as Mabuse, who is now silently confined to a mental institution, yet somehow still seems to have powerful control over a crime syndicate. Several story threads going on at once here including police inspector Lohmann trying to put the puzzle together, a member of the syndicate and his girlfriend who try to get away, and the doctor who took Mabuse on as a patient. This is an incredibly exciting film from beginning to end, with some truly memorable set pieces, including a moment where two people have to try and figure out how to escape from a flooded room and the frenetic chase sequence at the end. This is the perfect movie for anyone who thinks classic movies are boring. Fritz Lang is a legendary director that was a true master of his craft.

Wednesday, September 21, 2016

1932 Year in Review and Top 10

Another year is now complete, the sixth since I started this project. 1932 turned out to be a very good year at the movies, as filmmakers finally got comfortable with the new sound format and the staginess of the early talkies began to disappear. This was also the pre-code area, so directors were allowed to be a little more risque', which I think is evident byt he films that populate my top 10 list.

The changing of the guard had taken full effect by now, as only a few of the successful silent directors were still making quality films, the most notable being Josef Von Sternberg and Ernst Lubitsch. Harold Lloyd is the only silent comedy star that I saw in 1932, albeit his entry was a pretty good one that suggests his talkie ventures were better than they've been remembered. There was another hidden gem from Frank Capra, who was still two years away from making his first well known classic (It Happened One Night).

Reviews of all films I saw from 1932 can be found here. Without further ado, here are my choices for the top 10 films from 1932...

10. Shanghai Express (Josef Von Sternberg)

9. I Was Born, But.... (Yasujiro Ozu)

8. One Hour With You (Ernst Lubitsch)

7. The Old Dark House (James Whale)

6. One Way Passage (Tay Garnett)

5. Me and My Gal (Raoul Walsh)

4. Freaks (Tod Browning)

3. American Madness (Frank Capra)

2. I Am a Fugitive From a Chain Gang (Mervyn LeRoy)

1. Trouble in Paradise (Ernst Lubitsch)

Best Director

Tod Browning, Freaks
Frank Capra, American Madness
Mervyn LeRoy, I Am a Fugitive From a Chain Gang
*Ernst Lubitsch, Trouble in Paradise
James Whale, The Old Dark House

Best Lead Actor

*Walter Huston, American Madness
Herbert Marshall, Trouble in Paradise
Paul Muni, I Am a Fugitive From a Chain Gang
Edward G. Robinson, Two Seconds
Spencer Tracy, Me and My Gal

Best Lead Actress

Joan Bennett, Me and My Gal
Marlene Dietrich, Shanghai Express
*Miriam Hopkins, Trouble in Paradise
Jeanette McDonald, One Hour With You
Barbara Stanwyck, Forbidden

Best Supporting Actor

Edward Ellis, I Am a Fugitive From a Chain Gang
Preston Foster, Two Seconds
*Jean Hersholt, Grand Hotel
Frank McHugh, One Way Passage
Pat O'Brien, American Madness

Best Supporting Actress

Joan Crawford, Grand Hotel
Constance Cummings, American Madness
*Kay Francis, Trouble in Paradise
Aline McMahon, One Way Passage
Genevieve Tobin, One Hour With You

Best Screenplay

American Madness
Me and My Gal
Two Seconds
*Trouble in Paradise

Best Editing

American Madness
*I Am A Fugitive From a Chain Gang
One Way Passage
Two Seconds
Trouble in Paradise

Best Cinematoraphy

*A Farewell to Arms
I Am a Fugitive From a Chain Gang
The Old Dark House
One Way Passage
Trouble in Paradise

Best Costume Design

Grand Hotel
Movie Crazy
One Hour With You
*Shanghai Express
Trouble in Paradise

Best Art Direction

Grand Hotel
Movie Crazy
*The Old Dark House
Trouble in Paradise

Movie Reviews - 1932

Here are all the movies I saw from the year 1932. This was for my Top 10 Movie Project, in which I watch the best movies of each year (starting with 1927) and at the end doing a year end write up with a top 10 list. The original format was doing individual reviews of each film, but that proved to be too time consuming, so I've switched a single page for all reviews from the year. In a separate post, I will do the yearly write up and top 10 list. Movies are rated on the classic **** scale.

American Madness (Frank Capra) ****

Starting to get boring to say, but this is yet another early Frank Capra film that is a hidden classic. The plot, about a bank owner who strongly believes in earning the trust of the people and works feverishly to keep that trust, has a compelling relevance to modern events. Walter Huston (ridiculously bad in DW Griffith's Abe Lincoln biopic) is absolutely terrific here as one of the most fundamentally decent men in movie history (he almost makes Forrest Gump look like an asshole). Any lesser performance and it would come off as pure cheese. Capra populates the film with interesting subplots that work together wonderfully and builds to an exciting climax.

Arsene Lupin (Jack Conway) ***

Definitely a fun crime caper with Lionel and John Barrymore making for very entertaining adversaries. Lionel plays the noted Detective Guerchard, who is now on the trail of Arsene Lupin (played by John). Conway kleeps things light throughout and lets the two leads shine. One of the few problems I had with the film was the story making Guerchard an idiot too often, allowing Lupin to constantly escape. If he's a great detective, we don't get to see much of that. However, the constant failures do provide some good character moments for Lionel to play. Good solid fun.

Beast of the City (Charles Brabin) **1/2

Shockingly violent (for the era) tale of a police chief who's had enough of organized crime terrorizing his city and decides to fight fire with fire. Walter Huston tackles the lead role with his usual charisma, but Brabin does a terrible job staging many of the key scenes. The climactic moment is so poorly done that it became comical and much of the dramatic momentum is completely ruined. With all the risks they took in pushing the envelope for a more realistic portrait of organized crime, it's a shame they didn't get the basics right.

Blonde Venus (Josef Von Sternberg) **

Marlene Dietrich has a magnificent screen presence, but even that can't overcrome a character is intensely unlikeable. Von Sternberg's films are always skillfully crafted, but this story about a woman who essentially kidnaps her son so she can live the lifestyle she wants is so ridiculous that no amount of talent can overcome it. Look for an early Cary Grant performance as a sleazy socialite.

Emma (Clarence Brown) **1/2

An above average little melodrama with some good performances that elevate it above the general hokiness of the story. The wonderful Marie Dressler is a housekeeper well loved by the children she's raised, but that all changes when she marries their father (Jean Hersholt, always a pleasure). Dressler creates a memorable character, but the story gets too ridiculous to take seriously.

A Farewell to Arms (Frank Borzage) **

I've been a big fan of Borzage's romantic melodramas. Films like Seventh Heaven, Lucky Star, and even Liliom have combined serious romantic stories with memorable visual backdrops and fantastic lead performances. Borzage's adaptation of the Hemingway novel A Farewell to Arms contains much of what made his previous films so good, but there is a very serious flaw that derails the entire film and that is the performance of Helen Hayes. This is the third film I've seen her in now and she's been awful in every one. She has a great reputation, so maybe later films will sowcase her talent, but in this one she fails miserably at creating an interesting character or even convincing us that she's in love with Gary Cooper (shouldn't be a difficult task!). A major disappointment.

Faithless (Harry Beaumont) **

Not much to say here. This is a soap opera about wealthy people during the depression, but this is a story that is flat from minute one. Talulah Bankhead's presence certainly commands your attention, but her line delivery is extremely wooden. She actually seems bored here and I can't say I blame her.

Forbidden (Frank Capra) ***1/2

Lonely woman (Barbara Stanwyck) takes her life savings and goes on a glamorous vacation, where she ends up falling for a sophisticated man (Adolph Menjou) who just happens to be married. Despite this, their romance blossoms into a long term affair. This is not quite as good as other early Capra pictures, but it is a good solid soap opera that features another sublime performance from Stanwyck, who at this point was probably the best actress of her generation.

Freaks (Tod Browning) ****

Freed from the constraints of adapting a popular novel that doomed him in Dracula, Browning puts together another classic cinematic tale, this one about a group of odd circus performers and what happens when one of them falls in love with the beautiful Trapeze Artist. Like with The Unknown, Freaks takes you in so many unexpected directions and is one of the few films that will really shock you. It's quite an adventure. The final shot in the film is one I'll never forget.

Grand Hotel (Edmund Goulding) ***

This film is an early Oscar winner that, like Broadway Melody, is often held up as one of the worst Best Picture choices ever. While it certainly isn't even close to the best film of the year, it is much, much better than many other films that have attained that honor. In fact, it accomplishes pretty much exactly what it set out to do, which is give audiences a chance to see a bunch of big name, legendary stars (Greta Garbo, John and Lionel Barrymore, Wallace Beery, Joan Crawford) in one film and throw them together in melodramatic storylines to see the fireworks fly. And on that level, the film works pretty well. Everyone in the big name cast does very well, but Joan Crawford simply steals the movie with a surprisingly sensitive and undeniably winning performance. Jean Hersholt also shows up with another one of his memorable supporting roles.

Horse Feathers (Norman McLeod) ***1/2

One of the better Marx Bros. films and a definite improvement on the overrated Animal Crackers. The college setting is perfect for creating some hilarious scenarios for the cast to interact. I still think the early sound film Cocoanuts is actually the best Marx Bros. film I've seen to date, but this one ranks right up with it because they waste less time with a pointless story and simply set up funny situations.

I Am A Fugitive From a Chain Gang (Mervyn LeRoy) ****

An uncompromising and brutal film that exposes life in a southern chain gang prison. The film was so effective for its time that the filmmakers were sued by the state of Georgia, which is where the real life incident that inspired the film took place, although no specific state is named. Paul Muni is terrific in the lead role, delivering a nuanced performance of a man who goes through many changes throughout the events in the story. LeRoy pulls off a piece of cinematic history with a brilliant editing choice in the film's closing moments

I Was Born, But... (Yasujiro Ozu) ***1/2

Another film that showcases Ozu's wonderful gift for light comedy. This one follows two boys who have moved to a new city and have difficulties fitting in at their new school. Major embarassment ensues when they see their father sucking up to his boss, who is the father of one of the other students. This is a wonderful story where characters react naturally to situations and the drama unfolds in a fluid manner. I've got a long way to go before I get to Ozu's most recognized classic Tokyo Story, but it sure feels like it'll be a great journey to get there.

Love Me Tonight (Rouben Mamoulian) ***1/2

Maurice Chevalier and Jeanette Mcdonald made a name for themselves with their splendid turns in Ernst Lubitsch's late 20s/early 30s musicals, two of which they appeared in together and showcased their remarkable chemistry. Director Rouben Mamoulian, working with a very thin plot, recognizes what he has and simply focuses on highlighting McDonald and Chevalier as much as possible. So yeah, the story isn't worth anything, but so what? Watching these two greats work together is a wonderful treat.

Me and My Gal (Raoul Walsh) ****

One of the best discoveries of the year. Me and My Gal is simply a terific film that does a brilliant job of mixing genres and working on multiple levels. Spencer Tracy is a young policeman that falls in love with a wisecracking waitress played by Joan Bennett. The sarcastic banter between them is hilarious and creates a wonderful romantic chemistry. On the other hand, the film also features a strong side story about gangsters and corruption. The film is filled with wonderful dialogue and a large cast of well drawn characters. This is terrific entertainment.

Movie Crazy (Clyde Bruckman) ***1/2

The second Harold Lloyd talkie I've seen and yet again I'm wondering why his sound films are given so little attention. Maybe this doesn't quite approach the level of Safety Last! or Speedy, but it is still a very funny film that executes a fun premise very well. This time, Harold has adventures trying to make it as an actor in Hollywood and falls for a woman (the lovely Constance Cummings), not knowing this exotic beauty is the same person as his actress friend. There are many good jokes involving this deception and Harold's voice is a perfect match for his plucky on screen persona.

The Mummy (Karl Freund) *1/2

Much like many other early 30s horror films, The Mummy falters with a leisurely paced story that doesn't pick up at all until about the last 15 minutes. Now I'm not to one to criticize a horror film for attempting to develop characters and create an interesting backdrop, but the attempt at doing both of these things is absolutely dreadful here. This is a really boring movie.

The Old Dark House (James Whale) ***1/2

This one is a nice surprise and much better than Whale's unimaginative and weakly paced "classic" Frankenstein (not to mention many other horror films of the era, many of which I've reviewed on this very page). Whale takes the classic haunted mansion concept and breathes life into it with wonderfully staged suspense moments and invests time in developing an interesting group of character we care about. Some of the work Whale does with the camera here is very advanced for the early sound era and helps create a vivid atmosphere. If you're looking for classic horror, skip many of the better known classics and start here instead.

One Hour With You (Ernst Lubitsch) ***1/2

Maurice Chevalier and Jeanette McDonald team up with Lubitsch for the last time. Watching these two together under the direction of such a master is just pure movie magic. There's a really fun story here. The two stars play a married couple whose bliss is interrupted by the wife's flirtatious friend Mitzi (a wonderful Genevieve Tobin). The story is told with the typical Lubitsch flair for light comedy and fanciful songs. Having now seen 9 Lubitsch films, I can safely say he is one of my favorite all time directors.

One Way Passage (Tay Garnett) ****

This little known gem was a nice surprise. Tay Garnett's shipboard romance plays very much like the best Frank Borzage melodrama that Borzage never made. The story follows two doom travelers: Dan (William Powell) is a criminal who has been taken into custody and awaits his fate when the journey is over; Joan (Kay Francis), who is suffering from a terminal illness. What's really special about the film is that despite such an overwhelmingly depressing setup, Garnett is able to setup a whimsical tone and keep the film from becoming unbearable. The two leads are incredible together and the screenplay is populated with memorable supporting characters.

Prosperity (Sam Wood) **1/2

It's always a pleasure to see Marie Dressler and she gives another fun performance as the owner of a small town bank struggling to stay afloat. The story suffers from unflattering comparisons to the more substantial Frank Capra film American Madness, but Dressler's lead performance is strong enough to carry the film.

Red Headed Woman (Jack Conway) **1/2

Wish I could recommend this stronger, because watching Jean Harlow in this film is so much fun. She completely dominates the film with a fiery performance as a scheming, manipulative woman that destroys a marriage. The plot here would fit right in on Melrose Place. Harlow acts circles around the rest of the cast. However, there is not one other positive thing to say about this trashy enterprise, particularly the awful performance of Chester Morris, an actor that was very good in the early talkie Alibi, but has been disappointing in everything else since then.

Scarface (Howard Hawks) **1/2

This is a gangster film that certainly took some major steps forward in the depiction of violent mobster lifestyle. However, the film lacks the depth that the better gangster film of the era include, such as Underworld, Public Enemy, or Little Caeser. This film mainly exists just to showcase the action and seedy lifestyle, albeit this is very well executed by Hawks. Unfortunately, Paul Muni's performance is incredibly hammy. He seems to be acting out in every possible shot and it is incredibly distracting.

Shanghai Express (Josef Von Sternberg) ***1/2

You can never have too much Marlene Dietrich, especially when paired up with her favorite director Josef Von Sternberg. Thankfully this one didn't suffer from the same problematic story issues that doomed Blonde Venus. Shanghai Express follows a group of passengers on a train who are stopped by Chinese guerrillas that take British Army Doctor Donald Harvey (Clive Brook) hostage. The notorious Shangra Lil (Dietrich), who broke his heart many years earlier, is the only person that can save him. Intricate story and great romantic pairing between Dietrich and Brook make up for some uncomfortable racial stereotypes.

Smilin Through (Sidney Franklin) ***

Clever structure helps make this mawkish story go over alot better than it really deserves. Norma Shearer and Fredric March play dual roles. In the first pairing,  Fredric March plays the jealous Joseph Wayne, who kills Moonyeen (Norma Shearer) on her wedding day. Many years later, Moonyeen's daughter Kathleen (Shearer) has fallen in love with Kenneth Wayne (March), who happens to be Joseph's son. Kathleen wants the blessing of her caretaker uncle (Leslie Howard), who happened to be Moonyeen's fiance and isn't exactly forgiving. Lots of melodrama to be had here, but it mostly works due to the strong work of the cast. Especially strong is the wonderful Norma Shearer, one of the classiest actresses I've ever seen.

Tarzan the Ape Man (WS Van Dyke) **1/2

The most notable film version of the classic story and I'm probably being a bit too harsh on it. Weismuller is certainly well suited to the lead role and Van Dyke stages some memorable action sequences. However, the film runs way too long and many of the jungle sequences felt very repetitive, which dragged down the pacing. It was fun and exciting in spurts, but incredibly dull in others (especially anything involving the civilized world).

Two Seconds (Mervyn LeRoy) ****

Probably the best performance I've seen from Edward G. Robinson yet. This film has a story with an interesting flashback structure. Robinson plays a man condemned to the electric chair. As he is about to be electrocuted, he ponders that events that led to him to this situation. It becomes quite fascinating to see this man's downward spiral caused by his unfortunate love for a manipulative woman. It also contains one of the more memorably shocking sequences of the era.

Trouble in Paradise (Ernst Lubitsch) ****

Quite simply, this is one of the best films ever made. The master Ernst Lubitsch tells a story about thief Gaston Monescu (Herbert Marshall) who falls for pickpocket Lily (Miriam Hopkins at her best). The two join forces and pull a con on socialite Mme. Colet (Kay Francis). The delicate way Lubitsch weaves his way through a plot is on full display here, aided by some of the wittiest dialogue that has ever been found in the movies. It's hard to really explain what made Lubitsch so great. He seemed to have a unique gift for coming up with special little moments in his films. These soon would become known as "Lubitsch Touches". Defining that term is a near impossible task, one that Lubitsch disciple Billy Wilder couldn't even accomplish himself. But you know it when you see it, and in Trouble in Paradise it is evident in every single scene of the film.

Thursday, March 25, 2010

1931: Top 10 and Year in Review

1931 was a definite improvement on the previous year.The two major classics were as good as advertised (City Lights, M) and there were some nice surprises (Miracle Woman, Platinum Blonde, Five Star Final, The Royal Bed). We also had some iconic stars make their mark (James Cagney, Edward G. Robinson, and Barbara Stanwyck).

Favorite directors like Fritz Lang, Ernst Lubitsch, and Josef von Sternberg that populated prior top 10 lists make reappearances this year. Legendary director Frank Capra surprised with two great early films that both appear on the list.

The biggest disappointments were the mostly weak horror entries. Several of them are regarded as classics, but for the most part they were excruciatingly dry films with no life and spent an interminable amount of time on dull exposition. None matched the intensity and excitement of earlir horror entries I loved like The Cat and the Canary or The Unknown.

Very good films that didn't make this year's list include Mervyn LeRoy's scathing media indictment Five Star Final, Rene Clair's political comedy Freedom For Us, Norman Z. McLeod's Marc Bros. entry Monkey Business, and Yasujiro Ozu's delicate workplace dramedy Tokyo Chorus.

Click here for a full list of films I saw in 1931, including capsule reviews.

And now, the top 10 films of 1931...

10. The Royal Bed (Lowell Sherman)

9. Little Caesar (Mervyn LeRoy)

8. Platinum Blonde (Frank Capra)

7. The Public Enemy (William Wellman)

6. Dishonored (Josef von Sternberg)

5. An American Tragedy (Josef Von Sternberg)

4. Miracle Woman (Frank Capra)

3. The Smiling Lieutenant (Ernst Lubitsch)

2. City Lights (Charles Chaplin)

1. M (Fritz Lang)

Awards for 1931:


Frank Capra, Miracle Woman
Charles Chaplin, City Lights
*Fritz Lang, M
Ernst Lubitsch, The Smiling Lieutenant
Josef von Sternberg, An American Tragedy


James Cagney, Public Enemy
Charles Chaplin, City Lights
Maurice Chevalier, The Smiling Lieutenant
*Peter Lorre, M
Edward G. Robinson, Little Caesar


Claudette Colbert, The Smiling Lieutenant
Marlene Dietrich, Dishonored
Sylvia Sidney, An American Tragedy
*Barbara Stanwyck, Miracle Woman
Loretta Young, Platinum Blonde

Supporting Actor

George Barbier, The Smiling Lieutenant
Rudolf Blumner, M
*Dwight Frye, Dracula
Boris Karloff, Five Star Final
David Manners, Miracle Woman

Supporting Actress

Virginia Cherrill, City Lights
Jean Harlow, Platinum Blonde
Jean Harlow, Public Enemy
*Miriam Hopkins, The Smiling Lieutenant
Aline McMahon, Five Star Final

Adapted Screenplay

An American Tragedy (Samuel Hoffenstein)
Miracle Woman (Jo Swerling)
Platinum Blonde (Jo Swerling)
The Public Enemy (Harvey Thew)
*The Smiling Lieutenant (Ernest Vajda, Sam Raphaelson)

Original Screenplay

*City Lights (Charles Chaplin)
Dishonored (Daniel Nathan Rubin, Josef Von Sternberg)
Freedom For Us (Rene Clair)
M (Thea von Harbou, Fritz Lang)
Monkey Business (SJ Perelman, Will B. Johnstone)


An American Tragedy
City Lights
Miracle Woman
The Smiling Lieutenant


City Lights
Miracle Woman
Tabu: A Story of the South Seas
Woman in the Moon

Art Direction

*City Lights
Miracle Woman
Woman in the Moon

Costume Design

Mata Hari
Miracle Woman
Platinum Blonde
The Smiling Lieutenant



Wednesday, March 3, 2010

The Academy Awards - 1929

The very first Academy Awards took place in 1929 and were hosted by Douglas Fairbanks and William C. de Mille. The time period for qualification was August 1, 1927-August 1, 1928. This odd release period makes it difficult to have a side by side comparison of what I would've nominated, but that is something I plan to do once the Oscar years match calendar years.

The actual Academy winners are in bold:

Best Picture, Production

7th Heaven
The Racket

Thoughts: The Best Picture categories were split up this year, but this is the one that generally gets credit for the official recognition of Best Picture. That's a shame, because Wings is really an awful movie with a terrible script and even worse performances. It does prove the Academy was just as stupid back then as it is now. I have not had the chance to see The Racket yet, but 7th Heaven is a terrific melodrama from Frank Borzage and a more deserving winner than Wings.

Best Picture, Unique and Artistic Production

Chang: A Drama in the Wilderness
The Crowd
Sunrise: A Song of Two Humans

Thoughts: Not sure what the Oscars intended with this award or why it doesn't get full recognition, but this is a much, much better collection of films. The Crowd and Sunrise are the top two films of their individual years and Chang is a much better thrill pic than Wings. Sunrise is a fine choice, but it's annoying that it doesn't get proper recognition as a Best Picture winner.

Best Actor in a Leading Role

Emil Jannings, The Last Command
Richard Barthelmess, The Noose and The Patent Leather Kid

Thoughts: Neither of the Barthelmess films is available, but I have seen The Last Command and Jannings does give a terrific performance in it. It is a showy performance, the kind the Academy would come to love over the years. I would have preferred Lon Chaney to be nominated and win for either The Unknown or Laugh, Clown, Laugh. He is amazing in both films. It should be noted that Charlie Chaplin was originally nominated here for The Circus, but was taken out of the running and given a special award instead. He also would have been a better choice than Jannings.

Best Actress in a Leading Role

Louise Dresser, A Ship Comes In
Janet Gaynor, 7th Heaven, Sunrise: A song of Two Humans, and Street Angel
Gloria Swanson, Sadie Thompson

Thoughts: Once again I have only seen the films from the winner, but Gaynor is a brilliant dramatic actress that was working several steps ahead of her contemporaries at the time. She is particularly amazing in Sunrise. Maria Falconetti's performance for The Passion of Joan of Arc would have also been a great choice.

Best Director, Comedy Picture

Lewis Milestone, Two Arabian Knights
Ted Wilde, Speedy

Thoughts: This year the Oscars split up the directing awards for Drama and Comedy. I have not seen the Milestone film, but Speedy is one of my favorite silent films so I wish Wilde had won. Chaplin was also taken out of this category and would've been the best choice.

Best Director, Dramatic Picture

Frank Borzage, 7th Heaven
Herbert Brenon, Sorrell and Son
King Vidor, The Crowd

Thoughts: I have not seen Sorrell and Son, but I'll note that Brenon did a great job with the Lon Chaney drama Laugh, Clown, Laugh. 7th Heaven is probably Borzage's best film, but King Vidor's The Crowd is an outright masterpiece and he should have been the winner. The most glaring omission among nominees is FW Murnau for Sunrise (and Fritz Lang for Metropolis, but I doubt they wanted to honor foreign films at this point).

Best Writing, Original Story

Underworld - Ben Hecht
The Last Command - Lajos Biro

Thoughts: Wow, they really got this one right. Underworld is a fantastic screenplay with vivid characters and a fascinating moral dilemma. It is amusing that Hecht was originally unhappy with the film and wanted his name removed from it. The Last Command is also a good script, probably getting attention here for the dual narrative structure it employed.

Best Writing, Adaptation

7th Heaven - Benjamin Glazer
Glorious Betsy - Anthony Coldeway
The Jazz Singer - Aldred A. Cohn

Thoughts: Did not see Glorious Betsy, but I'm glad 7th Heaven won if this was the competition it faced. There is nothing remarkable about The Jazz Singer's screenplay. Sunrise ro The Student Prince in Old Heidelberg would have been my picks here.

Other Awards...

Cinematography: Sunrise: A Song of Two Humans
Art Direction: The Tempest
Honorary Award: Charlie Chaplin, The Circus
Honorary Award: Warner Brothers, The Jazz Singer for technical excellenge

Thoughts: Sunrise is the obvious choice for Cinematography, so it's good they didn't screw that one up. I would have gone with 7th Heaven for Art Direction. If The Jazz Signer had to win an award, I'm glad that's the only one it won. It's nice for Chaplin to receive a special award, but he deserved to win one in a competitive category.

Conclusions: They got many of these categories perfect, but made a huge blunder with Best Picture. In fact, of all the Best Picture winners I have seen, Wings is clearly the worst. Sunrise (now in the AFI 100) should be duly recognized as a Best Picture winner.

Sunday, February 28, 2010

Change of Plans

Unfortunately, I'll have to change this project up a bit if it is to continue. The original format of doing full recaps for each film I see was a little unrealistic given time constraints. Therefore, I'll just be posting the yearly wrapups, and maybe some occassional comments on certain films or actresses as I go through each year.

i also plan to start expanding my commentary on the Academy Awards as I'm now seeing pretty much every nominee and will have some posts up regarding that shortly.

1931 year in review will be coming up soon.