About a month ago I asked followers on Tumblr to submit years in film they’d like to see me make a top ten from. The result was a somewhat addicting process where groups of ten films were semi-haphazardly gathered and posted, mostly for my own amusement/indulgence. It helps that I have a chronological list of every film I’ve seen to conveniently work off of. Then I realized that this would be the perfect project for Cinema Enthusiast! Because as much as I loved posting the top tens on Tumblr, I generally dislike posting lists without taking a relative plunge both in research and posting. Because isn’t that the point? There’s been a lot of discussion about lists within the film-going community over the years questioning their purpose, reductivism, and superficiality. All of those drawbacks are present to be sure. But I’ve been a list-maker my whole life and I view mine as a space for discussion and for personal record; there’s no playing ‘best of’ here. I see lists as a really fun way of representing personal taste as well as charting how that taste changes over time.
The rapid fire boom-boom-boom of the tumblr year posts were satisfying but ultimately brushed off. They were lists as shot-out bursts, circumventing a lot of what I get out of making lists in the first place. First off, a lot of list-making is an excuse to see more films. An opportunity to fine-tune. I don’t like posting lists on this blog without accompanying write-ups because A. that’s half the purpose and B. without them lists arguably maintain their purported problematic nature. All of this is to say that this is a new ongoing project of mine. Preferably, I hope to complete roughly a year per month or so during which I will dive into some first-time viewings, blind spots and re-watches to prep for the year at hand. I plan on concentrating on years that are particularly weak for me as my motivating factor is the excuse to, as I said before, see more films.
So that brings me to my first year; 1935. Out of all the years in the 1930’s, 1935 was my weakest number-wise. Before I started this project I had seen 13 films; now I’ve seen 25. I watched 12 new-to-me films and re-watched 7 of the original 13 I had seen. I never got around to checking out most of the international films I wanted to, so you’ll notice almost everything in this group is from Hollywood.
For each year I’ll have a list of Blind Spots; films from said year that I haven’t seen which I feel are worth mentioning. At the bottom of the post is a list of all the 1935 films I’ve seen so readers will know everything that was considered. Because yeah, there are some biggies that did not make my cut.
Toni (Renoir), An Inn in Tokyo (Yasujiro Ozu), Sylvia Scarlett (Cukor), The Lives of a Bengal Lancer (Hathaway), David Copperfield (Cukor), Carnival in Flanders (Feyder), Crime and Punishment (von Sternberg), A Tale of Two Cities (Conway), Les Miserables (Boleslawski), The Million Ryo Pot (Sadao Yamanaka), Hands Across the Table (Leisen), Dangerous (Green)
10. The Whole Town’s Talking (John Ford, USA)
This, not The Informer, is my 1935 John Ford film of choice. It’s an unsung slice of comedy that fuses Capra with Little Caesar. This is in no large part due to the screenplay by Robert Riskin (co-written by Jo Swerling), who also wrote a great number of Capra classics. In fact, this script was sandwiched between his work on It Happened One Night and Mr. Deeds Goes to Town! This is a must for Edward G. Robinson connoisseurs, myself included. He plays dual roles; the solitary and prompt bank teller Jones and Public Enemy #1 Killer Mannion. He puts inspired and subtle spins on each part with standout moments on both sides. Furthering the Capra connections, this is the film that established Jean Arthur’s archetypal no-nonsense dame. She is so natural here that it feels like the folks at Colombia found her on the street, put her in front of the camera, and told her to react to her surroundings. The film suffers from some tonal dissonance when it shifts to its second half. The first half has a lighter touch where the second seems to give way to the more criminal elements of the story, which by the way becomes quite convoluted by the end. Arthur also disappears at the hour mark, and with her goes a lot of the comedy. But this was such a welcome find and it’s got a killer Edward G. Robinson drunk scene; “Goodbye, slaves!”
9. ‘G’ Men (William Keighley, USA)
‘G’ Men holds a fond place in my heart. It was one of the first films I watched on TCM as a teenager. It was probably the first classic film I watched that wasn’t largely hoisted up as a ‘canon’ work. And it was the film that made me fall for James Cagney. That boundless energy, nimble physicality, those ever-darting eyes. I immediately became smitten and fully engaged with him as a performer. There’s nothing much about ‘G’ Men that stands out as a film, as it lives and dies on Cagney’s presence, but it’s surprisingly fun, easily re-watchable and a perfect vehicle for the star. It takes him away from the hard-edged gangsters of Pre-Code crime and sticks him on the other side while wisely keeping his trademark spunk. I can’t talk about ‘G’ Men without mentioning an all-time favorite classic actress of mine, a woman who doesn’t get her due today; Ann Dvorak. It’s a supporting part but seeing her and Cagney onscreen together feels oh-so natural and right.
8. The Bride of Frankenstein (James Whale, USA)
Bookended with unforgettable appearances by Elsa Lanchester, first as Mary Shelley and last as the eponymous ‘Bride’, her presence locks in the near-episodic structure and progressive genre-play of The Bride of Frankenstein into place. Because ‘Bride’ is completely mental, let me make that clear. It toys with emphasizing an anything-goes feel, taking everything from the 1931 original and sprinting off with it in another direction. Ernest Thesinger’s delectable performance as Dr. Pretorious makes Colin Clive’s Dr. Frankenstein look like a fairly well-adjusted fellow. This film takes chances. That opening scene. The combination of camp and tragedy. All that Christian imagery. It even dares to use the original as a jumping-off point for humor! ‘Bride’ still never quite comes together for me as a masterpiece the way it has for many, but I enjoy the hell out of it. It’s the individual parts, rather than the sum of said parts, that interest me most. While Thesinger is beyond entertaining as the gleefully psychotic doctor, the aligning camp performance of Una O’Connor plays too much with my wearying tolerance for shrieking meddlesome creatures. I also cannot decide whether or not Karloff gets to speak too much. It’s a loaded and welcome next-level step for the character, but sometimes it feels like an overused addition. Somehow through it all, The Bride of Frankenstein continues to ripen with age as a has-it-all horror film. I mean my God, the sheer insanity of those final ten minutes alone.
7. The Devil is a Woman (Josef von Sternberg, USA)
Speaking of throwing caution to the wind and going full throttle, the final collaboration between Josef von Sternbrg and Marlene Dietrich is a logical endpoint for what was a brilliant pairing of unmatched mutual self-indulgence. I saw this for the first time last year and liked it, though I found its static repetition a mite exhausting. Lionel Atwill falls for Dietrich’s Concha Perez. She fucks him over. Wash, rinse, repeat. But what I was able to have a lot more fun with, and appreciation for, this time around is the way von Sternberg/Dietrich knowingly play with said structure, pushing it to such a well-calculated extreme that it occupies its own wink-wink space amongst other films of its kind. You ask yourself ‘how can Atwill not see that she is using him, that she feels nothing for him?’ That’s precisely the point; Atwill, and the other men that get sucked into Dietrich’s path, are fully exposed as fools. Other films with scheming females contain performances that straddle ambiguity, or at least have women who convince the audience as well as the male characters. At the very least, we can usually fathom how the men get wrapped into doing anything by these screen goddesses. And Dietrich is certainly a goddess, but her performance is so knowingly transparent, her Concha so hilariously uncaring and uncommitted (her eyes are incapable of resting on anything for a second), that the film becomes an experiment in exposing the artificiality of all players involved in plots of obsession and desire.
The Devil is a Woman also has a pretty uncommon-for-its-time flashback structure where straight cuts are used to travel between past and present. There’s also lot of room for interpretation within the transparency; for me, Dietrich feels more authentically involved in the Cesar Romero character, but then there’s her decision in the final scene. And Atwill’s Don Pasqual sure does feel like the most blatant Von Sternberg surrogate of them all. There’s lots to think about. The director also gets to indulge in the kinds of celebratory chaotic carnival settings that so fascinate him, where every frame revels in the clutter and the overcrowded. Josef von Sternberg and Marlene Dietrich are one of my favorite director/actor collaborations, and this last film of theirs is a caustic and cold film, a logical collaborative conclusion of absurdity and all-in creative stakes.
6. The Good Fairy (William Wyler, USA)
Certain films carry with them a magical thrill, the thrill of long-existing but new-found discovery. I can’t quite say I felt this about all of The Good Fairy, but I certainly had this feeling more often than not.
This is a fractured fairy tale of sorts, built around the well-meaning naivete of an orphanage-bred young woman. Margaret Sullavan is ethereally soft and sensual, newly sprung but bursting with life. Her romance with Herbert Marshall doesn’t come until late in the story, and it’s one of the most wonderful sections of any film I’ve seen in ages. Both players are unconventional romancers in their way; their interaction, which starts with the sexually suggestive and impossibly enthusiastic testing of a pencil sharpener, is impossible not to get lost in. The screenplay (an adaptation of a 1930 play) by Preston Sturges ensures that laughs come in the most unexpected and jovial of places with underlying purpose laid beneath. The film-within-a-film, played for parodic laughs, doubles as an insight into the childishness of Luisa’s worldview. Its drawbacks, mainly an unreachable aloofness and Sullavan’s do-gooder sainthood, cannot stamp out the immediate connection and unchecked joy I felt during much of The Good Fairy. It’s a glorious film that uses its outlandish screwball story for spontaneous charm and refreshing energy all around.
5. Peter Ibbetson (Henry Hathaway, USA)
I normally don’t go in for metaphysical love or anything resembling those kinds of sentimental ideas on film. Or really anywhere for that matter. But Peter Ibbetson is so relentlessly ethereal, so distinct within its era in Hollywood filmmaking that it had me swooning from the first. I felt a rare level of investment in the couple in question played by Gary Cooper and Ann Harding, largely in thanks to a tear-inducing first act depicting the pair’s inseparable connection as children. This is a vastly underrated film that I implore you to see if you ever get the chance. The final act loses itself a bit but the fact that it even dares to depict two people who live out their time with each other in a mutually shared dream space is commendable. Did I mention Peter Ibbetson is also gorgeous? Heavenly shafts of light are often used to connect our characters through the magic of film.
4. A Night at the Opera (Wood, USA)
The Marx Brothers at MGM was a prospect that could have potentially washed out and overwhelmed the defining anarchic sensibilities of their well-established schtick. At first glance their zippy whiplash doesn’t match up with the glossy spectacle of the studio, and there are certainly times during A Night at the Opera where those concerns are in danger of becoming realities. But the Marx Brothers stay loyal to themselves in an upscale setting, justifying A Night at the Opera as the classic it is. This was the most rewarding re-watch of the bunch for me. I first saw it a good ten years ago and was admittedly disappointed by it. Apparently I thought the Marx Brothers material was hilarious, but was troubled by the way they revolved around a plot about bland opera singers. This time around, the opera singers aren’t nearly as disruptive as I remember. I also understand enough to now know that these kinds of subplots are par for the course. That intermission-like musical set-piece outstays its welcome (I could have done without the musical number before heading into Harpo and Chico’s respective joyful solo bits) and the big-scale of the end does indeed threaten to swallow them whole. A Night at the Opera is endlessly watchable and contains some of their best bits, including a musical beds sequence that deserves to be on the same level of fame as the iconic Stateroom scene.
3. Ruggles of Red Gap (Leo McCarey, USA)
A beautifully wry, moving, and patriotic cross-cultural comedy that wears its gentle earnestness on its sleeve even as it pokes fun at the very thing it promotes. What surprised me about Ruggles of Red Gap is the way in which the changes within Ruggles sneak up on both him and us. It’s so subtle and so genuinely affecting almost 80 years later. It is about the realization of opportunity and potential within oneself. It all shines through a remarkable performance by Charles Laughton in his first onscreen comedic role. One of my favorite performers, he was an actor known for playing in extremes. This is a deceptively subtle performance; indeed, extreme in its very subtlety. And this in the same year he played Captain Bligh! It’s a consistently surprising bit of acting too; the mileage you can get out of interpreting and dissecting his tics are considerable. This is also an uproariously funny film. Ruggles has everything, including a divine everyone-stops-in-their-tracks reading of the Gettysburg Address and an uplifting ending that demands the use of a hankie. This is a new favorite and though it’s relatively well-known amongst film buffs, this really should be a household title, as well known as the most iconic of films from the 1930’s.
2. Mad Love (Freund, USA)
Fantastic as The Bride of Frankenstein is, this truly perverse gem is my 1935 horror of choice. There are few actors I love more than Peter Lorre (Laughton may be one of those few; yeah I’ve got a thing for the weird ones). And there are few film folk more underrated than the great cinematographer/director Karl Freund. Put the two together for an adaptation of “The Hands of Orlac” and you have not just one of my favorite horror films, but one of my favorite films period. Also notable as Peter Lorre’s Hollywood debut, Mad Love is one of the most elegantly demented films ever made, mounting its warped sadism in explicitly frank terms. We start out at the “Théâtre des Horreurs” in Paris where we quickly learn that accomplished surgeon Dr. Gogol (Lorre) never misses seeing (or an opportunity to creepily send lots of flowers) actress Yvonne Orlac (Frances Drake), whose nightly performance seems to consist of being violently tortured. And it just gets more nightmarish and operatic from there.
Peter Lorre is priceless as Dr. Gogol, unmatched in his level of bulgy-eyed egghead menace. His work here is unsettling, exposed, and profoundly skeevy. An early scene where he involuntarily finagles a kiss out of Drake is deeply uncomfortable, a comparably chaste scene by today’s standards that manages to feel like a much larger transgression. Freund, and fellow legend of cinematography Gregg Toland, litter this film with stylistic flourish, where every torrid emotion of Gogol’s feels almost too up-close-and-personal within its over-the-top construction.
Mad Love contains indelible images in horror cinema, most prominently that unforgettable disguise Lorre uses to mess with Colin Clive. I cannot stress enough Lorre’s disguise is one of the most frightening things you will ever see. Scariest of all is the moment when Drake, hiding in Gogol’s home, sees him bounding up the stairs in his disguise with unchecked mania and a harnessing get-up that makes his relentless cackle all the more spine-chilling. I’ve seen Mad Love on multiple occasions and that moment, that realization that Gogol has returned home with her still in the house, gets me Every. Single. Time.
1. The 39 Steps (Hitchcock, UK)
I can never seem to settle on a favorite Hitchcock film, but there are days when I’d give that distinction to The 39 Steps, in many ways the quintessential film from the Master of Suspense. ‘Steps’ has it all; mistaken identity, dapper leading man, icy blonde, chase sequences, MacGuffin, and sexual innuendo and interplay through latent kinkiness and suggestive visuals. Perhaps what I love most about this film is how episodic it is with its precise structure. The segment with the farmer couple is a particular stand-out (a scene that is sort of a blueprint for using basic editing skills to maximum effect) . As is Donat’s impromptu speech. Or anything with Donat/Carroll. And so it goes. That apex-to-apex consistency is a rarity. Robert Donat is defiantly attractive here; flippant, amused, perfect. The dynamic between Donat and Carroll (though not one of my favorite Hitch women) may be my favorite Hitchcock romance; its remarkably sexy stuff.
It has been stated that Hitchcock films exist on the ‘borders of the possible’ and this film pushes that to its escapist limits as well as maintaining a light-heartedness. Its Scotland setting is an artificial space of pastoral fog, lots of sheep, grassy hills, and waterfalls, evoking a memorably fantastical sense of place. Starting and ending with the mysterious and fateful Mr. Memory, Hitchcock uses this adaptation to set up a world where plot is just a means to an end, an excuse for intrigue and adventure to rule the day.
Full List of 1935 Films Seen:
The 39 Steps, Alice Adams, Anna Karenina, The Black Room, Bride of Frankenstein, Captain Blood, The Devil is a Woman, ‘G’ Men, The Ghost Goes West, The Gold Diggers of 1935, The Good Fairy, The Informer, Mad Love, A Midsummer Night’s Dream, Mutiny on the Bounty, A Night at the Opera, Peter Ibbetson, The Raven, Roberta, Ruggles of Red Gap, She, Symphony in Black, Top Hat, Triumph of the Will, The Whole Town’s Talking