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.