Previous 1930 posts:
Capsule Reviews: 1930 Watchlist (Films #1-4): Let Us Be Gay, Ladies of Leisure, Murder!, Anybody’s Woman
Capsule Reviews: 1930 Watchlist (Films #5-8): Liliom, King of Jazz, The Bat Whispers, Paid
Capsule Reviews: 1930 Watchlist (Films #9-12): Follow Thru, Fast and Loose, Romance, The Big Trail
Top Ten By Year: 1930 – Poll Results
Movie Poster Highlights: 1930
Monte Carlo (US / Paramount / Lubitsch)
Ernst Lubitsch is accurately credited as a pioneer of what we’ve come to recognize as the movie musical. 1929’s The Love Parade is often credited as the first narrative musical, and his follow-up, Monte Carlo, continues building on the accomplishments of the former. The first Hollywood musicals were an infamously rushed and immediate fad within the larger game-changing development of sound. For each Sunny Side Up or Rio Rita, there were countless embarrassingly slipshod spawns that quickly grew tedious, not to mention laughable, to the average filmgoer. The motto was More More More of the Same, and Quickly Too, which meant song as performance or non-sequitur, film as empty imitator or lazily transparent retread. The Love Parade and Monte Carlo were anomalous and groundbreaking for helping to establish what we take for granted as vital traits of the musical film; weaving narrative and music together, establishing character and story through song, seamless transitions, creative musical interplay, and sound as omnipresent asset.
Monte Carlo is a fabulous film–if only star Jack Buchanan could be erased from it. The necessity of coping with the early 1930’s Dull-As-Fuck Leading Man give-in is something I’ve rambled about a few times during the 1930 watchlist write-ups thus far. So this might look like a cue-my-hypocrisy moment, but I beg to differ. The DAFLM syndrome applies mainly to films about women, films where the boor is the male romantic lead, but not seen as, critically, a co-lead (examples: Romance, The Divorcee, etc). Thus, these snafus are easy to overlook. But Jack Buchanan is playing what would normally be the Maurice Chevalier part, a part that deems much of the story to him. You expect Chevalier’s sly visage, somehow fumbling and smooth, to be the one masquerading as Jeanette MacDonald’s hairdresser. Instead we get Buchanan, whose presence is one of reedy anti-charm. A light touch is needed for this part, and unfortunately his skeevy lingering suggests that he is, in fact, a serial trench coat flasher in his spare time.
I ran cold on Jeanette MacDonald for years. Her soprano, which isn’t exactly aided by the technology of the time, had long been my initial association with her. But over the past couple of years I’ve come around, big time (at least her Pre-Code work; the latter part of the 30’s seems to wash out her more tangible traits). She has such a glow, such a natural sensuality that you don’t expect (I’m also obsessed with her hair). It’s also impossible to ignore that Lubitsch seems intent on making sure the audience sees and knows her body. I’d thought her inaccessible to audiences, and to me. She frequently plays royalty, and her characters lean towards the unapologetically spoiled. I associate her Pre-Code work with being surrounded by servants doing every conceivable thing for her. Her characters live in an unreality even within the unreality of the movies. Yet somehow actresses like MacDonald and Miriam Hopkins get away with playing the kinds of shallow characters they so often did. Their careers took off during a precise moment in film history that relished the bratty princess type, and the Lubitsch touch provides the perfect frivolous environment for a MacDonald heroine to thrive. Selfishness has no weight or recourse here; it just adds to the fun.
Monte Carlo is cheeky right from the get-go. We see a wedding. Everyone sings of happiness and sunshine, but the reality is miserable rain and a missing bride. An early song’s lyrics lampoon its singer without him even realizing. Music is put to gestures. Another song, “Trimmin’ the Women” is so sketchy, but so delightful. I’ve only heard it once but it’s in my head as I type this. The songs are short and spiffy, mirroring the film’s overall snappy pacing. Then there’s the meta-finale where Buchanan and MacDonald watch, in suspense, as an uncannily familiar opera unfolds below them. They await their cues, anxious to learn how their own melodrama will conclude. “It’s a silly story, only possible with music”; art wittily interacting with art. Monte Carlo is packed with what we expect of Lubitsch; sophistication, loaded innuendos, Jeanette MacDonald in lingerie, and the temperament of the most divine cream puff ever baked.
“Beyond the Blue Horizon” number showcases innovation (not to mention that the song itself was a huge hit). There’s an introductory segue; shots of trains, blowing whistles, chug chug chug. The sights and sounds of trains are incorporated into the song’s identity. Then we see Jeanette MacDonald’s Countess Helene on the train; singing, daydreaming, and looking out into her unknown future, when suddenly the song expands its reach. The camera looks out into the fields where dots of village people take part in a unison chorus. In Monte Carlo, music reaches farther than a stage and a room. Music goes beyond performance and its immediate characters. This is a new and boundless filmic world, where anyone can be brought into its musicality.
Die drei von der Tankstelle (aka The Three from the Filling Station or Three Good Friends) (Germany / UFA / Thiele)
Though I liked it considerably less (the three men really grated on me), Die drei von der Tankstelle, even more than Monte Carlo, is the truly innovative musical of 1930 (this puts aside the groundbreaking Under the Roofs of Paris, which I’m not re-watching for this project). This film was huge in Germany. The biggest film of the year. Bigger than The Blue Angel even, Germany’s first talking picture. It was also banned by the Nazis in 1937. The self-assured expertise shown by director William Thiele is startling. Rhythms and songs repeat throughout in cyclical fashion. The first minute features montage editing, a declaration that this will not fall in line with the often static storytelling of its time. Another song links two separate spaces together, a feat that 1932’s sublime Love Me Tonight is often credited with. Lilian Harvey’s character has a signature sound, her car horn, announcing her entrances and exits. And at the end it even breaks the fourth wall, with a “Why are they still here?” (the audience) inquiry prompting a last-minute finale.
I’ll focus on the Bailiff’s song to close out this write-up. The film starts with the introduction of the three happy-go-lucky friends (Willy Fritsch, Heinz Rühmann, Oskar Karlweis) returning home after a trip abroad. Immediately upon their return, the Bailiff (Felix Bressart) arrives with some movers to inform the friends of their bankruptcy and to confiscate their belongings. The song takes place in the midst of this. The Bailiff sings, the friends react, the movers take their stuff away; all through music. As I’ve said in other capsule reviews for 1930, this all sounds simple, but for the state of musicals in 1930, this is insightful and forward-thinking stuff. Its got a rare multi-dimensional quality. During the song, the camera is not presentational, but at an angle that focuses inward, not outward. The song is not shot like a performance; it doesn’t feel projected out into the audience, existing for our benefit. How can I explain it? During the song, everybody and everything is interacting with someone or something else onscreen. There’s even miniature flying furniture!
Street of Chance and For the Defense (US / Paramount / Cromwell)
William Powell and Kay Francis appeared onscreen together six times (I’m not counting Paramount on Parade, since they don’t appear in it together) from 1930-1932. Films #3 & 4, Street of Chance and For the Defense, establish their first complete iteration as co-stars. What I mean is that these are two William Powell films with Kay Francis in important supporting parts (she plays a long-suffering wife and a long-hopeful girlfriend). Their last two films together, Jewel Robbery and One Way Passage, reflect Francis’s 1932 stardom by putting Powell and Francis on equal footing. 1930 was a huge year for Kay Francis. Starting in film just the year before, she was all over screens in 1930, appearing in ten films total. Within these films she moved from second fiddle vamp to flexible female lead. New Movie Magazine’s “1930 Screen Review” singled out Francis as one of the two “Most Promising Feminine Personalities”.
I’m reviewing these together because they are two of a kind, 65-minute films directed by John Cromwell. Both take a while to get going. First, the films environment is too-thoroughly established. Then we’re introduced to Powell’s seemingly all-powerful place within said environment. In Street of Chance he’s a gambler on top. Everyone respects him, trusts him; what he says goes. Without question. His Achilles heel? He desperately wants to keep his brother (Regis Toomey) from falling into the gambling racket. In For the Defense he’s a defense lawyer on top. Not respected by his peers, he uses outlandish means to win cases in the courtroom. His Achilles heel? Kay Francis. In both films, he does something bad to do something good. He makes a sacrifice that leads to his downfall. One ends in death, the other in jail.
These films helped confirm William Powell’s newfound fame in the era of talkies. His delicious quick-rhythmed baritone is exactly the kind of voice that succeeded during sound’s key early days. While many actors fell from grace during 1929-1932, William Powell’s career reached maturation. His voice exudes confidence and ultra-competence. His roles moved from dastardly villainy to men who are a step ahead. Men whose occupations require keen smarts and persuasion. Men who, whether detective, attorney, or gambler, are unmistakably great at what they do. It’s a voice that pulls off the tough combination of seedy altruism needed for both these films.
Of the two I prefer Street of Chance. For one thing it features a young Jean Arthur. It also pulls no punches by the end. The stacking of cards against Powell is delicate and filled with a far more palpable and investing doom. And there’s an unseen level of implied violence that looks ahead to the ending of a much more famous film that would be released just a year later; The Public Enemy.